Prophets of idolatry and inducers thereto: Who is worse?

Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

Judaism Right way, wrong way, Torah way
Right way, wrong way, Torah way
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

In our parshah, the Torah addresses several cases of people who attempt to lure others to avodah zarah (idolatry). Let's look at a few of these cases:


“Should there arise in your midst a prophet or a dreamer, who provides a sign or wonder that comes true, and he (the prophet or dreamer) says: ‘Let us go after other gods, which you have not known, and serve them.’ - You shall not listen to that prophet or dreamer, for The Lord your God is testing you, to determine if you love The Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul… And that prophet or dreamer shall be put to death…” (Devarim 13:2-6)


“If your brother… or close friend shall entice you, saying to you in private: ‘Let us go and serve other gods which you and your forefathers have not known.'... - You shall not desire or listen to him… you shall surely kill him.” (Ibid. v. 7-9)


One who attempts to cause others to serve avodah zarah, by reporting that he received a prophecy that the avodah zarah should be served, is punished by the Sanhedrin with Chenek (Strangulation), whereas one who attempts by means of friendly persuasion to cause others to serve avodah zarah is punished by the Sanhedrin with Sekilah (Stoning). The perpetrator in this latter case is called a Maisit (Enticer to Idolatry - v. Rambam in Sefer Ha-Mitzvot: negative mitzvot 16 and 26).


Chenek is the lightest of the Torah’s Arba Mitot/Capital Punishments, and Sekilah is the severest of them. What is so vastly different between one who uses false prophecy in an effort to entice another into avodah zarah, such that he is punished with Chenek, and one who does so by way of friendly persuasion (a Maisit), for which the punishment is Sekilah? One would think that these two sins are pretty much the same, and that if anything, the use of false prophecy would be a graver infraction. What is it about a Maisit that incurs the far harsher punishment?


It would seem that the distinction is predicated upon a fundamental aspect of human nature. Although one would expect the false prophet, who seeks to demonstrate and prove the validity of avodah zarah through signs and wonders, to be more effective and hence more of a danger to Torah belief than a Maisit, who merely “schmoozes” with others in his efforts to lure them into idolatry, the Maisit is actually more of a hazard. This is because people are not as much logical creatures as they are social creatures, and they are thus more prone to sin as a result of warm and friendly words than as a result of deductive logic.

The Maisit, whose congenial “reaching out” and “partnering” with others, trying to get them to be “team players” and go along with his new fad, is far more dangerous than the mock rationality and pseudo-prognostications of a false prophet. Establishing social connections and channels of friendship - the Maisit' tools of trade - is a far more impactful tactic than empirical thinking and cognition, which are the deceptive implements of the false prophet. 


The Rambam (Hil. Yesodei Ha-Torah 8:1-3) explains that the Jewish People’s foundational belief in God is not due to the signs and wonders that Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses) performed, for those signs and wonders were necessities rather than cornerstones of faith. Rather, Ma’amad Har Sinai, the Revelation at Sinai, in which we as a people saw, felt and experienced the truth of The Lord and His Torah firsthand and not through signs - which people are at times prone to dismiss as fraudulent - established our people's unequivocal and bedrock faith. (The Ramban on Devarim 13:2 presents a similar idea.) The Rambam elaborates that this in-person, firsthand Sinai experience is supreme and absolute, and overrides any attempted contradictory proofs.


Although one would think that logic and empirical reasoning are more powerful than personal, emotional appeal, such is not the case. Human nature is not to be extremely logical, but instead to be easily influenced by social dynamics. The Torah therefore meted out the harshest of treatment to the Maisit, who takes advantage of people’s social and emotional weak points in an effort to undermine their service of God and disenfranchise them from their Sinaitic commitment and heritage. False prophecy, with its pseudo-proofs and deceptive reasoning might be impactful, but it pales in comparison with a warm word, a hand on the shoulder, a smile and a pep talk, geared to induce one to sin. 


Such is unparalleled danger of the Maisit.