Parashat Shemot: Prophets, With a Shadow of a Doubt

When God sends Moshe to the Jews, Moshe resists. After some back and forth, God arms Moshe with miracles, to prove himself.  That interaction raises the question, which will one day be relevant to us again, of how prophets prove themselves.

As Rambam pointed out, miracles are a poor way to do that, since they leave us unsure as to whether the person was sent by God or had discovered some way of accomplishing a particular trick (witchcraft, sorcery, an unknown scientific advance).  Rambam prefers another path.

He introduces the idea, accepted by most later authorities, that a person has to fit a certain profile before we would consider their candidacy .  The putative prophet has to be wise, of exceptional character, who lives the kind of life—filled with sanctity and partaking of the world’s pleasures abstemiously—we would expect of prophets.

That is not enough. Rambam is alert to the possibility that such a person might also perform wonders and still not be a true prophet. The best way to prove oneself, for Rambam, is to issue positive predictions, all of which come true, in all their details. This is what separates prophets from soothsayers, political pundits, or Wall Street analysts. In his view, a prophet would spend time building up his or her authenticity, making predictions that came true in all their details.

There’s some debate about details —Sefer haChinuch mentions two or three predictions as good enough, Rambam speaks of many more — but I am more interested here in how that might play out today.

Room for Controversy

The first piece, I believe, would be the fight over whether a certain prophet was worthy, with Jews of various camps certain that a prophet couldn’t come from another camp.  If the prophet’s hat or kippah or skirt or hair covering wasn’t the right size (too big, too small), shape, or material, how quickly might we say—and be sincere as we said it— that the person couldn’t be a prophet, because they don’t meet this prior criterion?

We would find more room to justify our resistance when the prophet started making demands.  It is a simple fact that prophets ask of us what we don’t want to do, bring messages we don’t want to hear. When the people ask Yirmiyahu if they should stay in Israel or go to Egypt after the murder of Gedalyah, I would have thought they would have rejoiced at his telling them that God wanted them to stay– and would keep them safe, and help them rebuild the land.  Instead, they call him a liar and go to Egypt anyway.

Even to Violate the Torah

Counterintuitive is one thing, imagine if the prophet ever told us to diverge from halachah. While it’s well-accepted that this is within a prophet’s rights, the first time he or she did it, I can easily imagine resistance, especially among some Torah scholars—that would be a time when we would again check the prophet’s qualifications, review whatever wonders he or she had performed, make absolutely sure all of his or her predictions had come fully true.

Minchat Chinuch to Mitzvah 516 points out a way this could be even harder. While Rambam seems to require us to listen only where the prophet says Hashem specifically sent that message, Tosafot think we are obligated to listen to a prophet’s ideas, even if those violate the Torah, even when not Divinely inspired.  When Eliyahu offered a sacrifice on Mount Carmel, violating the law that sacrifices are allowed only in the Temple, Tosafot seem to assume that wasn’t the result of a prophecy.

That means a prophet could come to the Jews of x town with some outlandish-sounding demand. The people might say, “Did Hashem say we needed to do that?” and, for Tosafot, the prophet could say no, it’s simply clear to me that that is what needs to happen. For Tosafot, we’d be required, by Torah law, to listen! Now that’s hard.

It’s easy to watch Moshe resist the call to prophecy, because we don’t expect that that’s going to happen to us.  It’s easy to look down on the Jews who became frustrated with Moshe when his prophecies didn’t work out right away, because we know the end of the story.

What’s not easy is preparing ourselves to be the kinds of people who don’t fall for charlatan prophets—who will look very much like regular prophets, be very impressive in many ways, and may even perform acts that seem miraculous—yet do accept those prophets who follow the authorized process for certifying themselves. And, hardest of all, being ready to listen to such a person’s prophecies (or even, for Tosafot, their thoughts on the best course of action even when not prophetic), even when it violates the way we’ve lived our life until now, even when it forces us to abandon our own intuition, logic, and worldview, in submission to the Word of God such a person could bring.

We haven’t seen this challenge in some time, and are probably out of practice at facing it. Seeing Moshe be called to prophecy offers us the chance to scrape off the rust, to remind ourselves of that prophecy happens and when it does, it obligates us to put aside our own views and listen to the prophet’s.

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About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.
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