THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Shoftim – פרשת שפטים
August 18, 2018 – ח אלול תשעח
This essay is sponsored by Cynthia Ozick in memory of Bernard Hallote; and by Eugeny Rubashevsky & Tatyana Tchaikovskaya in memory of Leib Rubashevsky.
Dreading the False Prophet
For the commission of most capital crimes, Scripture baldly mandates the death penalty. The Biblical pericope about false prophecy states that one who, despite not being so commanded, speaks in the Name of God shall die (Deuteronomy 18:20). This is understood to refer to judicial execution, not merely an early demise orchestrated from Above. But Scripture here also adds an unusual exhortation: “You shall have no dread of him (18:22).” The Midrash quite reasonably interprets this to mean “Do not hold yourself back from finding the false prophet guilty (Sifre Deuteronomy 178).”
Why might Israelite society dread the false prophet and, more so than in other cases, be reluctant to impose the death penalty upon him?
The most obvious reason why the authorities might hesitate to convict a seemingly false prophet is the inability of fallible humans to know with certainty who among us has or has not received a communication from God. Scripture states that the sign of a false prophet is the failure of his predictions to come true. Yet that standard could not have been consistently applied. The real prophet who implores the people to mend their ways and return unto God is not to be punished if his rebukes are efficacious and his doomsday scenario fails to materialize. According to Maimonides, only someone who prophesies of favorable developments that prove illusory is necessarily a false prophet (Introduction to Commentary on Mishnah).
Given the uncertainty of the purported prophet’s status, judges might instinctively try to avoid passing judgment, preferring to wait and see whether his predictions will come to pass – even if not in line with his original timetable – lest they take the tragically irreversible step of ordering the execution of an innocent man.
The Midrash suggests that one might hesitate to act against a false prophet if he is a “great one of Israel” גדול שבישראל (Midrash Tannaim Deuteronomy 18). Maimonides noted that those who held themselves out as members of the prophetic guild were highly esteemed by the public (Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 5:9). It is no small matter to accuse a national hero or cultural icon of the most severe theological misdeed. The Bible had already warned the judiciary not to fear intimidating litigants even in petty financial cases. “You shall not be partial in judgment; you shall hear out the small person like the great one. You shall have no terror of any man, for judgment is God’s (Deuteronomy 1:17).” All the more so was it necessary to warn against the adverse impact on the proper dispensation of justice of a defendant’s prophetic aura. As John Gill (18th century British Bible scholar) commented, the court must “show no regard to the high character he assumes, nor to the great pretensions he makes to sanctity, knowledge, and familiarity with God.”
Abarbanel commented that those encountering a false prophet might be tempted to judge him favorably and assume that he did not willfully lie about receiving messages from God. They might rationalize that, just as a temporal leader can make an unintended policy plunder, so too a spiritual leader can inadvertently err by subjectively believing that a message came to him directly from God. Moreover, noted Torah Temimah, the false prophet might be a moralizer preaching adherence to the Torah’s precepts. Jews committed to the furtherance of Judaism might be reluctant to end the career (and life) of someone espousing such worthy aims.
Jeffrey Tigay theorized that the clause “you shall have no dread of him” was intended as a corrective to the assumption that authentic prophets are able to harm their enemies. An unnamed prophet who wished to appear before King Ahab as an injured combat veteran, and to chastise the king for sparing Ben-hadad, asked one of his fellow prophets to strike him. When the latter refused, the first prophet invoked God’s assistance; the second prophet was eaten by a lion (I Kings 20:36). Elijah invoked God’s help; two sets of fifty messengers per group sent by King Ahaziah were consumed by fire (II Kings 1:10). The little boys of Bethel mocked Elisha’s baldness. He invoked the name of God; two bears emerged from the woods and mangled forty-two of the children (II Kings 2:24). Popular belief that a prophet is capable of viciously striking down all opposition might neutralize those inclined to challenge the veracity of his words. Deuteronomy 18:22, then, emphasizes that the false prophet is a fraud and is incapable of acting against his prosecutors.
Pinchas Horowitz (18th century author of Panim Yafot on the Pentateuch) explained that false prophets involved themselves with demonic spirits. Those nearly ready to condemn and execute the false prophet might hesitate from fear of stirring the wrath of the demons, who would then seek to avenge the death of their human ally. With this trepidation in mind, Scripture warns Israel not to have dread because the Almighty will protect them from any harm emanating from the underworld.
It would be a misreading of Deuteronomy 18:22 to think that the ancient Israelites never acted against their prophets. King Joash’s henchmen killed Zechariah ben Jehoiada in the Temple Courtyard (II Chronicles 24:21). King Zedekiah heeded the advice of his courtiers and allowed Jeremiah to be thrown into a muddy pit, where he nearly drowned (Jeremiah 38:6). But those were examples of prophets’ having castigated the national leadership for religious or moral malfeasance, and having warned of the potential removal of God’s favor and the downfall of the state. It was easy for a nationalist to see treason in such utterances. In contrast, false prophecy of the apolitical (or politically expedient) kind was less likely to elicit a violent response.
The Mishnah teaches that a false prophet is judged by the High Court of seventy-one justices (Mishnah Sanhedrin 1:5). His sin rises to the level of national concern and hence is adjudicated by the national tribunal. The local and tribal lower courts, constitutionally fearful of tackling the weightiest issues, were certainly no place to address a matter regarding which the fifth book of the Torah had seen fit to emphasize that “you shall have no dread.”
The lesson of Deuteronomy 18:22 remains valid today. The religion industry has more than its fair share of charlatans proclaiming supposed truths in name of a Higher Authority. Such people -- supposed “men of God” – are often afforded the honor and perquisites of ecclesiastical office. True believers are loath to challenge a figure revered as a saintly being by thousands or millions of parishioners. When a cleric makes an outlandish theological assertion, the tendency is to dismiss the comment as an outlier or to forgave it as an unintentional error. Even those who know better, and are fully cognizant of the cleric’s mendacity, are hesitant to challenge someone with the power to exact painful retribution.
In the Orthodox world, especially in its kiruv wing, the problem is especially acute. Impostors peddling in “Divine Information” exert pernicious influence on the minds of those seeking spiritual solace in their ancestral heritage. Some people, who are aware of the problem, consciously choose not to intervene because, after all, the outreach guru is wildly successful at “bringing people close to Torah.” This is a flawed attitude. Those in a position to remedy the contemporary social ill should stand up to such chicanery. Dreading the false prophets of today only exacerbates and perpetuates the Hillul Hashem that their conduct represents.