Judaism: False Prophets
Following the mitzvah-count of the Rambam, the Sefer ha-Chinuch, and Minyan ha-Mitzvot of Mahara”m Hagiz, write that Parashat Re’eh contains 55 mitzvot, 17 positive and 38 negative.
Of these, seven concern idolatry. They are:
-Not to listen to anyone who prophesies in the name of an idol, not to believe him, and not to ask him for any sign or wonder, as it says “do not listen to the words of that prophet” (Deuteronomy 13:4);
-Not to defend any enticer to idolatry in any way, as it says “you shall not give him your consent…” (13:9);
-Not to listen to such an enticer and to hate him, as it says “…and neither shall you listen to him…” (ibid.);
-One who has been enticed is forbidden to rescue the enticer if he sees him in danger of death, as it says “…and your eye shall not pity him…” (ibid.);
-One who has been enticed is forbidden to say anything in the enticer’s defence even his he knows of good things he has done, as it says “…and neither shall you be compassionate…” (ibid.);
-Not to conceal any of his sins, as it says “…and neither shall you cover for him” (ibid.);
-Not to entice any other Jew to idolatry, as it says “…and they shall never do such an evil thing again in your midst” (13:12).
The Torah introduces this whole section with its stern warnings against idolatry and idolaters with the words, “Should there arise in your midst a prophet or a dreamer of dreams and he gives you a sign or wonder, and this sign and wonder comes about, as he spoke to you, saying: Let us go after other gods whom you have not known and worship them – you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams…” (Deuteronomy 13:2-4).
The Torah says something remarkable here – or rather, what is remarkable is what the Torah does not say: “Should there arise in your midst a prophet…saying: Let us go after other gods…you shall not listen to the words of that prophet…”. A prophet, says the Torah, not a false prophet!
True, the Targum Yonatan translates this into Aramaic as “Should there arise in your midst a false prophet…”. But other commentators give us a very different explanation.
The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain and Israel, 1195-c.1270) writes: “The Torah calls him a ‘prophet’ because that is how he refers to himself by saying, ‘Hashem spoke with me while I was awake, and I am His prophet, sent to you so that you should do this [worship idols, in the next verse]. But it could also be that the Torah is indicating something true, because indeed some people have a spiritual prophetic power whereby they can know what will be in the future.
"The person himself does not know from where this comes to him, but he isolates himself and then the spirit comes upon him saying ‘Such-and-such will happen in the future concerning such-and-such’. Philosophers call this ‘kahin’ [in Arabic], and though they do not know the reason for it, it has been verified by witnesses… This person is called ‘a prophet’ because he indeed prophesies, and the ‘sign or wonder’ which he told you of therefore happens”.
The Ohr ha-Chayim (Rabbi Chayim ben Atar, Morocco and Israel, 1696-1743) develops this idea further: “‘Should there arise in your midst a prophet’ – the Torah says ‘a prophet’ meaning that if he is already established as a prophet, then even though you should believe him if he tells you to transgress a specific mitzvah on a specific occasion, as Elijah did on Mount Carmel, nevertheless if he tells you to worship idols, he incurs the death penalty”.
The Ohr ha-Chayim refers to when Elijah, the true prophet of G-d, publicly challenged 850 false prophets (450 of the Baal and 400 of the Asherah-tree). To demonstrate how G-d would accept his sacrifice, he built an altar on Mount Carmel (in present-day Haifa) on which he bound a bull as a burnt-offering, and in response to his prayer G-d sent fire from heaven that consumed it (1 Kings 18:16-40). This was a once-only transgression of the prohibition against building an altar and offering a sacrifice anywhere outside of the Holy Temple.
The Rambam cites this as halakhah in practice: “If a prophet, who is known to us as being a prophet, tells us to transgress any one of the mitzvot in the Torah or several mitzvot, whether light or severe, just one time, it is a mitzvah to listen to him. And this is what we learnt form the earliest Sages by tradition: If the prophet will tell you, ‘Transgress the words of the Torah!’ – as Elijah did on Mount Carmel – listen to him in everything except for idolatry. But this only applies when his instruction is for that one time only, such as Elijah on Mount Carmel who brought a sacrifice outside [of the Holy Temple]; Jerusalem was the place chosen [for sacrifice], and anyone who sacrifices outside of Jerusalem incurs karet [spiritual excision]” (Hilkhot Yesodey ha-Torah/Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 9:3).
What we learn from this is that the Torah is warning us not against a totally false prophet, but against a true prophet who distorts his message; a prophet who can perform a genuine miracle, but who then, after establishing himself as a genuine prophet who truly speaks in the Name of G-d, then uses his proven credentials to entice Jews away from the path of Torah.
Indeed the Talmud (Sanhedrin 90a) and the Midrash (Lekach Tov and Yalkut Shimoni, Deuteronomy 886) say that “even if he stops the sun in the heavens as your sign – you shall not listen to him”.
So now a new warning emerges – a clear warning against the cult of personality. To understand this better it might help us here to consider the tragic case of Yochanan Kohen Gadol (High Priest): “Yochanan served in the High Priesthood for eighty years, and eventually became a Sadducee” (Brachot 29a).
We will return to Yochanan Kohen Gadol at the end, but in the meantime we continue with the commentary of the Ohr ha-Chayim on Deuteronomy 13:5. He paraphrases and condenses Sifrei Deuteronomy, Re’eh 86: “Because he [the prophet] spoke rebelliously by coming to falsify the Words of G-d”; and then the Ohr ha-Chayim summarises and concludes, “and because of his falsification, he dies”.
Let us return to the Rambam: “Among the foundations of religion is to know that G-d bestows prophesy on humans. And prophecy is infused only on a sage who is great in wisdom, mighty in his personal attributes, whose natural inclination never overpowers him” (Hilchot Yesodey ha-Torah 7:1). And the Torah comes to teach us that even so great a man is fallible, even a man who has merited to become a true prophet can eventually become corrupt.
This is maybe a disturbing and uncomfortable message, but one that the Torah requires us to absorb. No man, not even the greatest, not even a prophet, is infallible. Based on Yochanan Kohen Gadol’s downfall, the Sages cautioned: “Do not trust in yourself until the day of your death!” (Pirkei Avot 2:4, Brachot 29a, Yerushalmi Shabbat 1:3 et. al.).
“Yochanan served in the High Priesthood for eighty years”, which means that eighty times Yochanan entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur and eighty times he emerged unhurt – meaning that for eighty years he had no sin! The High Priest who entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur was literally risking his life for the Nation of Israel. He entered to gain atonement for the nation, knowing that if he had any unforgiven sin since the previous Yom Kippur, he would die.
By serving in his office on Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol demonstrated tremendous self-sacrifice for and dedication to Israel. Yet after such a lifetime, Yochanan was ultimately seduced into the heresy of Sadduceeism.
The tragic end of Yochanan Kohen Gadol, the warning against a genuine prophet who ultimately falsifies G-d’s charge – these are the tocsins which resound loud and clear, warning against the cult of any supposedly infallible leader.