Parashat Re'eh: The future's not ours to see

What is the Jewish position on fortune-telling rabbis?

parashat reeh 88 (photo credit: )
parashat reeh 88
(photo credit: )
What is the Jewish position on fortune-telling rabbis? From the earliest biblical times, Judaism - a moral and enlightened religion based on an ethical monotheism which taught justice, compassion and peace - was forced to struggle against voodoo and magic. Apparently the more mysterious, uncertain and fragile life appears to be, the greater the attraction of wonder-working "prophets" who claim an "inside line" to God. Fascinatingly enough, the 12th-century commentator Ramban (Nahmanides) admits that gifted individuals may possess what could be considered prophetic powers: "Possibly the biblical text is hinting at a true phenomenon - that souls of several individuals have the power to know the future, and no 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… and the matter proves to be true…" (Ramban, ad loc.). Nevertheless, if such a prophecy is used to turn someone away from the Torah, the soothsayer is considered a malevolent idolater. No one, not even the most gifted oracle, can rise above the authority of our Torah! Furthermore, our Bible insists that "there shall not be found among you… any soothsayer (kosem), astrologer, enchanter or sorcerer" (Deut 18:10). The great Spanish legalist Maimonides, very stringent in defining all forms of idolatry, defines a kosem as "one who seems to free his mind from all distractions so that he can predict future events, and says that something will occur or will not occur" (Mishne Torah, Laws of Idolatry, 11, 6). Indeed, some individuals may have such abilities, but that doesn't necessarily mean they have sound moral judgment or give wise halachic counsel. From this perspective, we can understand the reason given by our sages for declaring that "the Torah is not in heaven" - to ensure that we not fall prey to those who claim to have heard heavenly voices (B.T. Bava Metzia 59b). "The sage is to be preferred over the prophet" (Bava Batra 12b)! Our religio-legal system, albeit based on a law which we believe to be the word of the Living God, is interpreted and developed in each generation predicated upon logically sound principles and analytically sound explications. Reasoned responsa are open to scholarly debate, and no one can claim an edge because he has heard a voice from Heaven. The continuity of our tradition is predicated on the inadmissibility of those who might undermine our sacred texts by claiming a newly revealed addendum or substitute. I believe that there is an even more profound reason for our rejection of fortune tellers - even deeply religious fortune tellers who do not seem to be using their "gifts" to undermine our tradition. The Bible teaches that "secrets are for the Lord our God; only that which is revealed is for us and our descendants" (Deut. 29:28). Our task is not to second-guess God, or to use our religion or religious leaders to make life easier or more certain, to remove human doubt or vulnerability. The commandments are a means by which to serve God, not to facilitate an 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 1:3), but because it is right to serve Him and will ultimately make for a better world - not necessarily an easier individual life. Faith is not a guarantee that if I do what the Torah commands my life will be comfortable and cancer-free; rather, faith demands adherence to God's desired lifestyle no matter how difficult my individual life. As the character Yossele Rakover, supposed victim of the Warsaw Ghetto, poignantly writes in his last will and testament: "You have done everything possible to make me stop believing in You and maintaining Your commandments. But, my wrathful God, it will not avail You in the least. I will never stop believing in You, never stop loving You. Who then shall I believe in, the cruel God (or non-god) of my enemies? Shema Yisrael...." Similar to this must be our attitude to prayer. We believe in a Higher Being who can certainly make the miraculous occur, but who only guaranteed that the Jews would never be completely destroyed, and that eventually the world will accept a God of peace through His message emanating from Jerusalem. Otherwise, the world operates in large measure 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 interprets this as a reference to an individual who expects his prayer to be answered. What is the remedy for such a broken heart, asks the Talmud. Occupy yourself performing the commandments; serve God and try to improve society! Our religious community must close its ears to 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.