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False Prophets

Today, there is no shortage of predictions and prophecies. There are competitions to celebrate the formation and articulation of future circumstances, with rewards going to those who are ‘close enough.’ One can even study to become a ‘Futurist.’ With so many purveyors of information today, prophecy seems to be an avocation and not a divinely inspired gift. It is increasingly more complicated than ever before to sift through the barrage of knowledge, to balance the commentary and insight of pundits and experts, and to ultimately choose which paths to follow.

The Torah was keen to identify who might be a prophet, and how might we address the heretical nature of falsely speaking in the name of God. By framing the concern in a question, Moshe asks, “How shall we know the word was not spoken by YHVH?" to underlie a deeper concern. It’s not for lack of information that a prophet speaks with authority, but it is with an abundance of information that we may find our confusion. The response in the Torah is both honest and unsatisfying, “...if the prophet speaks in the name of YHVH and the oracle does not come true, that oracle was not spoken by YHVH…” In other words, we’ll know if the prophecy is true or not, only after the fact.

This form of ‘Monday morning quarterbacking,’ is not what builds and sustains a healthy society. It reveals a significant weakness in the system of information sharing. While there are metrics and trends to analyze when making a prediction, the future is always uncertain. The challenge with the Torah’s definition of authentic prophecy is the lack of time constraints. It would be easy for a prophet to initiate a prediction, and should it not be true when the people question it, the prophet could simply say, it just hasn’t happened yet.

It seems impossible to truly ascertain what knowledge is effective, until it actually becomes relevant. George Santayana was quoted for famously saying, “Prayer is poetry, believed in.” (as quoted by my teacher, Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis) The notion that there are so many words thrown into common discourse every day, it is only when those words take on a prophetic quality, a quality of belief, that they do indeed become true.

The honesty of the statement in response to the question is helpful. When that which is prophesied does indeed become real, then the person’s insight is validated. If not, then society has a responsibility to stamp out the falsehood and remove it from their midst.

It’s a wonder if such rigorous measurements were applied today, how much information that flows into the world would be lifted up and how much more would be disregarded. Only time will tell.

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