Testing for Prophets

Can A Politically-Fanatical Jew Identify a Prophet?

Would we be able to tell an Ezekiel or a Jeremiah from a false prophet today? Judgment and intellectual objectivity are necessary factors in a moral life, as Rabbi Dessler explains so well. Upon further reflection, intellectual integrity is no mere moral tenet or a prerequisite for sitting on beis din. Intellectual honesty is also vital for identifying prophets.

Consider a person claiming to be a Jewish prophet approaching the constant online fray, the dust in which to secure victory many of us have chosen the desired reality and gone on to interpret all words to fit as necessary, processing everything through a Bed of Sodom. The only way to determine a true prophet is, as the Rambam writes in his Introduction to the Mishna, to test their prophecy against the future. If every single word the prophet says (apart from predicted punishments) comes to pass in every detail, we are obligated by the Torah of Moshe to listen to them. If even one particular turns out to be false, we know they are no true prophet, and do unto them as the Torah prescribes.

Once, this test for prophecy may have been reasonable. Today, the president says a sentence on video, and one half of the country decides his words erupt from a wellspring of genius that has never been wrong. At the same time, the other half finds them flowing from a pit of foolishness that has only ever poisoned minds. The actual words he says have no bearing on these conclusions. How could we ever find a prophet with such a mindset? The exact half-and-half split would prevail. We would be stuck.

Of course, the same question applies to the law of Moses itself. If we can reread any of the prospective prophets’ statements, we can reread those of the Greatest of Prophets for the same price. The difference is that Moses enjoys the safety of ancient words with an unbroken interpretive tradition. By definition, we must file any new prophet under ‘current events.’ We set a reminder on our phones to check whether the prediction has come through, and judge it with the same mind that posts novel interpretations of the latest safety briefing on Facebook.


Why The Future Is His Alone

The test for prophets may also reflect a difference between G-d and idols. Prophecy of G-d is unlike deep spiritual intuition, astrology, or other forms of ‘spiritual prognostication’ at a pragmatic level. Per the Rambam, true prophecy is correct in every detail, whereas all other ways of predicting the future are always wrong in some detail. This contrast makes sense in light of the metaphysical difference between G-d and mere gods, between creation ex nihilo and creation from something.

Creation ex nihilo is the result of a single cause. All other “creation” (really, per the Ramban, the term properly applies to creation from nothing) is just the actualization of some preexisting potential, the meeting of formal and material causes that the Alter Rebbe calls the “צורף כלי,” the smithing of a vessel. Furthermore, no form of magic or mystical power can create from nothing; this ability, the Alter Rebbe explains, is in the domain of G-d alone, since He alone is a necessary being.

It follows that prophets whose insights derive from lesser powers or beings and the perception of their natures, as astrologers understand the stars or the spiritual forces that the stars express, only ever have a partial picture of reality. The subject of their insight is necessarily only one of the multiple parties bringing about the future. Their predictions must be imperfect because they stem from mere partial contributions to the reality of tomorrow. The prophet of G-d, by contrast, with a hotline to the Sole Creator of All, can authoritatively say what will happen tomorrow, for only he has insight into a single cause of everything today. (Of course, the Jew believes that since no finite being has any power to bring about any future, and that all of reality is in the hands of the Creator alone, that the astrologer’s predictions are also insights into G-dliness, of a sort.  However, the astrologer may not know this, and their knowledge is limited to G-dliness as it has already concealed itself within the workings of nature.)


Infinite Test

Just as our judgment, even when unrestrained by bribery or preconception, cannot bootstrap morality, it alone can serve as no basis for accepting an individual as a messenger of G-d. The infinite regress of doubt must stop somewhere. We must follow Moses not because we have tested him against an intellectual standard but because of our faith in him and our direct experience of G-d at Sinai. Only this will allow us to check for prophets in our own time with any sense of certainty.

The Torah is no medical text but by dint of faith lends more authority to doctors than doctors could claim even by reason alone, allowing them to abrogate temporarily (by declaring a situation life-threatening) certain commandments of G-d. So, too, is the Torah of Moses no tested prophecy but a faith-reality lending authority to a test of future prophets. And just like doctors, those prophets may, too, abrogate certain commandments of G-d temporarily, as Elijah did when offering sacrifices on Mount Carmel.

The Sinatic Event made from every Jew a prophet, and so broke the cycle of prophet-tested-by-test-of-another-prophet. We knew Him, at that time, much as we know ourselves, and saw His presence with our own eyes. It is only this that lends a rational test for prophets of G-d any force.

Why the Rebbe Stayed in America

The Lubavitcher Rebbe is a prophet.

Time and again we ask him, respectful and pleading, “Why won’t you visit Israel? Why won’t you move to Israel? How can a leader of world Jewry avoid the Holy Land?”

Then the Rebbe’s response. He smiles, reminds us of the laws that would not permit his return if ever he goes, and speaks of his responsibility to the Jewish community here, here in the diaspora, here in America, here in New York.

We do not fully understand these answers. We accept them, or we don’t, and we leave blessed. Prophets are too rarely understood in their time, and make no mistake: The Rebbe is a prophet.

G-d does not send such men for the comprehension of the masses. To fully understand a prophet is to be a prophet. The world has yet to plumb the mourning of Yirmiyahu or scale the heights of Yeshaya’s futures. No, G-d Almighty sends prophets with instructions. The Rebbe is a prophet, and by the thousands we do as he says.

Across the land we proliferate, the Rebbe’s words clutched like gems in our chapped palms. “America is no different,” opalescent, pure, hard as sharpened diamond. “Words from the heart enter the heart,” a blood-red ruby. “Share the Mitzvot out of love,” a glittering sapphire of ten facets.

Ever faster, word begins to travel. The message operates outside conventional frameworks. We threw clumsier Judaisms, laden with baggage and ablaze with connotations, into the New York harbor. Yet the family wagons and their small, harmless gems seem to slip through, because they refuse to say Judaism is more than it is. “Light this Shabbos Candle. It is Judaism. You are a Jew.” There is nothing else. They do not explain. They are emissaries of a prophet, and there are no explanations.

Always, the Rebbe is here. Here in the diaspora, here in America, here in New York. His very person is an endless source of Judaism, and from across the country and the world, they come to see him, those who light the candles and find it has changed them. Many are members of Reform synagogues, of JCC gyms, or of nothing. They define Judaism ethically, or socially, or they don’t define it at all. It does not matter. There is a prophet in New York, and so they come.

The Jews return to Passaic, Peoria, and Pasadena with gems of their own, souls awake. Many of them devote their lives to the Rebbe’s mission. The ranks begin to swell until people are fighting each other for the right to spread the message. Wherever there are Jews, the Rebbe’s shluchim are there with Judaism, giving it over the only way possible, with love, soul to soul, one on one.

It is not exciting. Soul-to-soul-one-at-a-time is not the stuff history books are made of. Israel, a bona fide biblical miracle, somehow lands in the 20th century and becomes the heart of world Jewry, the theme of our modern story. It represents redemption from the holocaust, salvation from the nations. It is imperiled, courageous, and, some say, the beginning of the Messianic Age. It is, in short, where things are happening. The prophet sends emissaries to her, meets with her politicians and generals, fiercely defends her people. But he does not go to her.

We do not understand the prophet, because we cannot see what he sees. There is a future in which the center cannot hold and world Jewry is in danger of splitting in two. There is a future in which millions of Jews stand in danger of being unable to live with a Judaism millions of others consider essential, of declaring their fate separate from the Jewish people and disappearing into history.

The Jews of the land, focused by unifying threats and the weight of history, will, with the help of G-d, carry Judaism forward. The land of Israel is entwined with Judaism, and that will not be soon forgotten.

But the Jews here in the diaspora, here in America, here in New York, must somehow find hope. Despite America’s Jewish leadership, despite the nature of the land to lend Judaism fragile, compromised definitions, there must never be a split in our people. It must never come to pass that a preponderance of American Jews defines Judaism such that they must choose between their religion and the lives of Jews in Israel.

The predictions of 2018, that the rift between the State of Israel and American Jewry will soon be unbridgeable, must not come true. It must be known from sea to shining sea that the Yiddishkeit of Israel, with its story and manifestations, and the Yiddishkeit of America, are two sides of the same coin, two versions of one thing.

So: Past the border guards, under the radar, sneaks a robust, flexible Judaism. Tied to no politics or country, bound up only with immutable soul, eternal commandment, and Almighty G-d, this iteration of Judaism is the common denominator, the core curriculum of all Jews. It is the thirteenth gate, that which is essential and simple, and no prime minister or army or worldly faction can validate or invalidate it.

The prophet gave it most personally to the Americans. It is the light that will drive away the specter of schism some will foresee in 2018, in the unimaginable case that the Moshiach has not come by then.


Image: The Previous Rebbe (seated) takes the oath of US citizenship, 1949. His son-in-law and future successor, the Rebbe, watches on the right.


Originally posted on Hevria.

A Murder At Qumran

“He won. Get over it.”

These were the last words of The Prophet at dinner before he’d slunk off to smoke his Lucky Strikes at the cave entrance, leaving the rest to clean up what was left of the spit-roasted carob. Then they’d all retired to their own chambers with little discussion (if they discussed in any context other than mealtime they quickly ran out of things to say). Or so they thought until they found The Prophet at breakfast time, slumped over the large, flat boulder they used for a table, mouth clotted with dried blood, quite dead.

A brief inspection found he had been shot in the stomach with a silver bullet. The Scholar and The Jester wasted no time rushing to The Sage’s chambers despite his mumbled protest. But a quick search of his possessions, few and esoteric, revealed to be missing the holy man’s six-shooter, which he swore to have last seen beside his sleeping head.

The three eyed each other with suspicion; either the sage was lying or another had stolen the gun. This was quite possible; righteousness sleeps heavy but is furious when roused. The Scholar demanded to search The Jester’s small nook with its fingerpainted walls and he, in turn, demanded to run his knobbly fingers behind each of The Scholar’s bookshelves looking for the murder weapon, and so the sun already touched the common room by the time they shoved Prophecy’s cool corpse to the floor and The Jester began to fry carobs for their breakfast (since it was his turn). He whistled while he worked the pan and The Sage and The Scholar that once they ate his cooking they’d have trouble taking anything seriously for several hours.

The Sage tried to pray as The Scholar paced across the cave entrance, stroking his substantial grey beard where it protruded from his hood. He walked to the left, all the while looking at The Prophet’s corpse, then, once he’d left the sun’s light, would turn on his heel and walk right, staring across the blasted plain to the distant silver glimmer of the sea. He had been doing this every morning for a very long time and had rarely seen the sign of life, though occasionally a very sweaty archeologist would walk by without sparing the spindly old man or the gaping cave the slightest glance. That morning, however, there was only the sun, and the wind, and the sea. Solid and eternal, as all things ought to be. The Scholar paused at this thought and harrumphed. Behind him, the slightest of furrows crossed The Sage’s bald brow. The Scholar thought once more and harrumphed once more.

The Sage’s left eye sprung open, full of fire, though he did not shift from his balance upon the stool. “What,” he asked, full of, of all things, impatience, “is it?”

“It’s just,” said The Scholar, running his sandal along the groove his pacing had worn in the brown rock, “none of us had ever died before.” He looked uneasily between his two remaining companions (The Jester was juggling spoons) and added, “Have we?”

Their memories were notoriously jumbled, or at least, so he recalled, but he knew they had set out together, the four of them, a long time ago to do something terribly important, but then they were in a cave where the only thing that remained consistently true was that it was impossible for any of them to leave. He had been here long enough to wear down the stone (though, oddly, never his sandals) with his pacing, and now The Prophet was no longer.

The Sage and The Jester were never quite as bothered by the inconsistencies, though for different reasons, and even though The Sage shook his head in agreement and The Jester shrugged among his spoons, they hardly seemed moved by the violent turn of events. The Sage said something under his breath about different unfoldings of the One Eternal Truth and went back to his prayer.

Later, when most of the carobs were finished and the day was unbearably hot and flies, somehow able to enter the cave, had begun to swarm The Prophet’s decaying remains, The Scholar said, “How will we know when the flood is coming this year?” He knew many things, but the weather was not knowable, and to survive the sudden waters of winter they had always relied on The Prophet’s warning and spent weeks trying to remember how to breathe water, The Jester always seeming to struggle ’til the last moment before pulling through. Now they would not know, and the waters might catch them by surprise. Even The Sage preferred not to drown.

The Jester belched, but when he did so it wasn’t ugly but rather the very joy of a fine meal. He said in his sing-song voice, “There’s no Prophet, so no rain either. Dry, dry, dry, all the way down to the end of the road!” His words, combined with his cooking, sent his compatriots into fits of giggles, not because anything was funny but because life was grand and they were at the center of it and what could ever happen?

The sun was well past its zenith when The Sage sobered and, still lying on his cot, began to tinker with his favorite toy, a small pebble that “equaled,” in some mysterious act of interentanglement, anything in the Universe. He knew that the author of this story had read Borges because the pebble had once equaled the author, so he knew not to called it the Aleph for fear of being called unoriginal. The pebble allowed, through its deep window into the unity of all realities, to see how the temporal and the particular reflect the transcendent eternal and at that moment he suddenly remembered the last supper the night before, The Prophet before his betrayal.

The Prophet had been wearing atop his hood a strange red hat with a broad bill he’d produced from his chambers. This itself was ordinary, as The Prophet was always producing odd objects and ideas he had foreseen. But then The Prophet had prophesied, and a great argument ensued, with The Scholar growing louder and louder and The Jester alternating between a cackle and a whimper and eventually he’d blocked them out because he needed to pray and escape the pettiness of their collective presence.

The Prophet had always understood how right and wrong lay under all questions and had never acted with anything other than the utmost rectitude. The Jester, thought The Sage, is mercurial, hard to predict, and an old enemy, but he loves life. No, only The Scholar knows death, and could use his wisdom to conceal a firearm, and hated The Prophet for his stupid hat. The Scholar is the murderer, and that’s that, he thought. Evil will grow even in the desert. The pebble showed him that his conclusion was true in all possible worlds.

The Jester, meanwhile, drew dirty pictures in charcoal on a freshly-washed section of his bedroom wall. The primitive skeletons were particularly crude, and above his goat beard the trickster’s face was twisted in a rare frown. He had quite liked The Prophet, who had smelled so much of the life-scent of the world and always produced the most colorful souvenirs from across the times. The Jester loved the tin soldier and the aquamarine ankh and Stretch Armstrong. It was hard for him to even imagine one of his friends hurting The Prophet who knew so much of life. The very thought warmed his blood. They stole the joy. They stole the love. Sounds like The Sage, he thought to himself. Rules and sanctimony. But, he thought, spinning in circles for emphasis, The Scholar had his rules, too, and not rules about killing, either. The Sage had his limits but knew the ultimate futility of making things fit. The Scholar had no such qualms. “Hm,” he said, sketching an obscene symbol with his finger. “Wherein lies death?”

The Scholar, for his part, was frustrated that he’d written no records of the previous night’s debate, and his memories were slipping from him like an eagle loosing from its perch. There had been an argument, certainly, but he hadn’t murdered The Prophet, for two reasons: (1) He had no reason to disrespect The Prophet, no matter how unreasonable his sight may have been; on the contrary, the prophecy was in some sense the highest form of wisdom. (2) It would be unreasonable to murder any of his friends; this just meant more work for him, and besides, what rational basis was there for such an unprecedented occurence even being possible? Clearly they had lived far beyond the usual years so far…No, it was certainly the others, though they may not realize they don’t even remember it. But which one, and where would they hide they gun? Who could be so foolish?

Supper was a sullen affair and, they slowly came to realize, a contingent one. The Prophet no longer existed to know what would take place in advance, which led them to wonder whether any of it needed to take place at all. The Scholar’s carob soup made them thoughtful and quiescent. The Sage discoursed upon righteousness and the escape of the self through obeisance. The Jester picked his nose and recited a list of his favorite textures to rub against his cheek. The Scholar wondered whether everything could fit together after all and whether he could prevent any future murders, working, as now he must, from uncertainty.

It was only a week later, after The Jester had held a knife wide-eyed to the Scholar’s throat, shouting, “You kill! You kill!” that they thought to check The Prophet’s own room. There, among far fewer possessions than they remembered their friend owning, on the center of an inexplicable plywood desk, sat the gun, pinning under its weight a note to the table. Written in carob oil on goatskin, it said quite simply that he had received word of a great temple’s destruction and the end of an age and that the time of “must be” was giving way to “can be” and that though they could no longer predict the floods, the three of them together would perhaps learn to breathe, and that this cooperation would be good, far better than what is certain in its own right. Somehow, it said, they, too, were supposed to become necessary.

So that night they turned to one another with a newfound humility and respect, aware for the first time that themselves was not all they could be, while outside on the dusty plain with its freshly dug grave, hidden, for the moment, from all the armies of men, the first drops of rain began to fall.


Originally posted on Hevria.