Parashat Re'eh: Magical soothsayers

Nahmanides admits the possibility that gifted individuals do exist who have what we would consider prophetic powers.

From the earliest biblical times, Judaism - a moral and enlightened religion based upon an ethical monotheism which taught justice, compassion and peace - was forced to struggle against idolatrous voodoo and magic. Apparently, the more mysterious, uncertain and fragile life appeared to be, the greater the attraction of wonder-working, prophecy-speaking individuals who claimed a "local telephone" relationship to the divine or the various divinities in which they believed. The 12th-century commentator Nahmanides admits the possibility that there do exist gifted individuals with what we would consider to be prophetic powers: "Possibly the biblical text is hinting at a true phenomenon, that souls of several individuals have the prophetic power to know the future, and not one really knows the source of that power an inner spirit comes to that individual saying that such and such will occur in the future to a certain object and the matter proves to be true to those who see it happen ." (Ramban, ad loc). Nevertheless, if such a prophecy is used to turn someone away from the laws of Torah, the soothsayer is considered to be a malevolent idolater. Indeed, the entire introduction to this description of a false prophet is the biblical insistence upon the ultimate truth of our Torah, a judicial code which dare not be compromised, not even by abilities to predict future events on the basis of heavenly voices: "Every word which I have commanded you, you must observe to perform; do not add to it and do not distract from it" (Deut 13:1). Maimonides is likewise very stringent in defining all forms of idolatry. Our Bible insists that "there shall not be found among you any soothsayer (kosem), astrologer, enchanter or sorcerer" (Deut 18:10), and our great Spanish legalist-philosopher explains a kosem as "one who does an act in order to free his mind from all distractions so that he can predict future events, and he says that something will occur or will not occur" (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry, 11,6). Indeed, there may be individuals with such abilities, but that does not necessarily mean that such soothsayers have proper moral judgment or give wise halachic counsel. From this perspective we can readily understand why our tradition insists that "the Torah is no longer in heaven," so we do not listen to heavenly voices (B.T. Bava Metzia 59b) and "the sage is to be preferred over the prophet" (Bava Batra 12b); our religio-legal system, albeit based upon a law which we believe to be the word of the Living God, nevertheless is interpreted and developed in each generation predicated upon logically sound principles and analytically sound explications. I believe that there is an even more profound reason for our rejection of fortune tellers, even deeply religious fortune tellers who do not use their "gifts" to undermine our tradition. The Bible itself teaches "the secrets are for the Lord our God and that which is revealed is for us and our descendants forever to perform all the words of this Torah" (Deut. 29:28). The commandments are here for us to serve God, not in order to attempt to have God serve us. Hence the Mishna teaches that "we are to serve our Master not in order to receive a reward" (Avot 1), but because it is right to serve Him and will ultimately make for a better world - not necessarily an easier individual life. Faith demands faithfulness to God's desired lifestyle no matter how difficult or challenging my individual life may be. As Yossile Rakover of the Warsaw Ghetto poignantly writes in his last will and testament: "You have done everything possible to make me stop believing You and maintaining your commandments. But, my wrathful God, it will not avail You in the least. I will never stop believing you, never stop loving You. Who then shall I believe in, the cruel God (or non-god) of my enemies? Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokenu, Hashem Ehad." Our attitude to prayer must be similar. We believe in a Higher Being who can certainly make the miraculous occur, but who only guaranteed that the Jewish people would never be completely destroyed, and that eventually the world will accept a God of peace through a message emanating from Jerusalem. Otherwise, in large measure, the world operates according to its natural design. Yes, "even if a sword is dangling at your throat, do not despair of God's compassion," but - at that same time - "do not rely on miracles." Pray for the best, but prepare for the worst. The very practical Talmudic passage in Berachot (B.T. 32b.) teaches us that "one who prays too long and intensively will come to a pained heart," and the Tosafot commentary interprets this to apply to an individual who expects his prayer to be answered. What is the repair for such a broken heart?, queries the Talmud. Occupy yourself in the performance of the commandments to serve God and try to improve society. Our religious community must close its ears to future predictions of all sorts, no matter how pious the source. Ultimately we have but one Source, and He teaches us that "the secrets are for the Lord our God alone, and that which is revealed - to perform all the words of this Torah - is for us and our children." The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.
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