Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Why Believe in Prophecy?

Of all of Rambam's 13 Principles of Faith, only one or two can theoretically be empirically verified. These have to do with prophecy, to wit #6 (prophecy in general) and #7 (Moses as the most exalted of prophets.)

[A brief digression is in order regarding Principle #8, the idea that the entire Torah that we now have is that which was given to Moses, although my purpose here is not to argue for or against the various claims made by multiple source document advocates. Leaving aside such quibbles as chasair and yosair (missing and additional vowels that don't change the meaning of a word) as well as the last eight sentences relating to Moses' death (and even then, one tradition says that Moses wrote this with tears), it is highly unlikely that any ancient "J/P/E/D" documents will ever surface to "falsify" the idea of the unity of the Torah. This has nothing to do with whether they once existed and everything to do with such concepts as the longevity of parchment and what documents would be promulgated by professional scribes once a particular textual tradition was officially or unofficially canonized. But even if they were to surface, fundamentalists can always claim that such documents were the product of non-mainstream sects, similar to what some claim for certain Dead Sea Scroll texts or apocryphal and pseudo-epigraphical books. So this is largely an argument between traditionalists and scholars who start off with very different assumptions. The former accepts a priori a God-given cryptic text that requires the oral tradition and various principles of hermeneutics to be properly understood while the latter makes no such assumptions and relies on textual evidence alone. Indeed, the subject of this post - prophecy - is something that scholars simply cannot accept in their study of scripture and which traditionalists often rely upon to understand problematic text.]

Prophecy is - according to Rambam - a principle of faith. However, prophecy is also by its very nature something that can be tested. Indeed, the Torah tells us in Deuteronomy 18:21-22:
וְכִי תֹאמַר, בִּלְבָבֶךָ: אֵיכָה נֵדַע אֶת-הַדָּבָר, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-דִבְּרוֹ יְהוָה. אֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר הַנָּבִיא בְּשֵׁם יְהוָה, וְלֹא-יִהְיֶה הַדָּבָר וְלֹא יָבֹא--הוּא הַדָּבָר, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-דִבְּרוֹ יְהוָה: בְּזָדוֹן דִּבְּרוֹ הַנָּבִיא, לֹא תָגוּר מִמֶּנּוּ.
Now if you say to yourself, "How will we know the word that the Lord did not speak?" If the prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, and the thing does not occur and does not come about, that is the thing the Lord did not speak. The prophet has spoken it wantonly; you shall not be afraid of him.

So a prophecy either comes to pass or doesn't. And even if a prediction does come to fruition, Rambam states that it can't be a one-shot deal. Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 10:1-2:
א כל נביא שיעמוד לנו ויאמר שה' שלחו, אינו צריך לעשות אות כאחד מאותות משה רבנו או כאותות אלייהו ואלישע, שיש בהן שינוי מנהגו של עולם; אלא האות שלו שיאמר דברים העתידין להיות בעולם, וייאמנו דבריו, שנאמר "וכי תאמר, בלבבך: איכה נדע את הדבר . . ." (דברים יח,כא).

ב לפיכך כשיבוא אדם הראוי לנבואה במלאכות ה', ולא יבוא להוסיף ולא לגרוע, אלא לעבוד את ה' במצוות התורה--אין אומרין לו קרע לנו את הים או החיה מת וכיוצא באלו, ואחר כך נאמין בך. אלא אומרין לו, אם נביא אתה, אמור לנו דברים העתידין להיות; והוא אומר, ואנו מחכים לו לראות היבואו דבריו: אם לא יבואו, ואפילו נפל דבר אחד קטן--בידוע שהוא נביא שקר.
Any prophet who arises and tells us that God has sent him does not have to [prove himself by] performing wonders like those performed by Moses, our teacher, or like the wonders of Elijah or Elisha, which altered the natural order. Rather, the sign of [the truth of his prophecy] will be the fulfillment of his prediction of future events, as [implied by Deuteronomy 18:21]: "How shall we recognize that a prophecy was not spoken by God?..."

Therefore, if a person whose [progress] in the service of God makes him worthy of prophecy arises [and claims to be a prophet] - if he does not intend to add [to] or diminish [the Torah], but rather to serve God through the mitzvot of the Torah - we do not tell him: "Split the sea for us, revive the dead, or the like, and then we will believe in you." Instead, we tell him, "If you are a prophet, tell us what will happen in the future." He makes his statements, and we wait to see whether [his "prophecy"] comes to fruition or not. Should even a minute particular of his "prophecy" not materialize, he is surely a false prophet. If his entire prophecy materializes, we should consider him a true [prophet].

We should test him many times. If all of his statements prove true, he should be considered to be a true prophet, as [I Samuel 3:20] states concerning Samuel, "And all of Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, knew that Samuel had been proven to be a prophet unto God."
Rambam later explains that a prophet arises for the sole purpose of telling us the future events which will transpire in the world, whether there will be plenty or famine, war or peace, and so forth. And after the words of a prophet have been proven true time after time (or if another proven prophet declares the person to be prophet), it is forbidden to doubt him or to question the truth of his prophecy.

Jewish tradition states that there are no longer prophets that would allow us to test the veracity of a prophetic statement in particular and prophecy in general. "R. Yochanan said, since the Temple was destroyed, prophecy has been taken from prophets and given to fools and children" (Bava Basra 12b). Thus we must rely on prophecies that have already been recorded. But herein lies the rub: prophecy is never specific, either in the nature of the prediction or the time period in which it is supposed to occur. A prophecy means whatever the interpreter wants it to mean. Thus we are left with a situation where there is little difference between the prophecies contained in the Bible and those of Nostradamus! A corollary to this is that a Jewish interpreter of prophetic scripture often can make no greater claim to authenticity than a Christian one. Thus, for example, the Christian fundamentalist will "clearly" demonstrate how the seventy weeks of Daniel 9 is a perfect prediction referring to Jesus. The Jewish traditionalist will respond that the Christian is manipulating dates, is erroneously using a 360 day year, is misunderstanding the term 'moshiach', is breaking up the passage incorrectly, and so forth. He may point to Rashi, who says that the 490 years refers to 70 years of exile after the destruction of the First Temple plus 420 years of the Second Temple. The Christian will counter-punch and explain why their way of breaking up the weeks is superior to that of Rashi, will show Biblical references to a 30-day month, and so on.

And let's be honest folks: One clear advantage to many Christian interpretations of Biblical passages - including this one - is that there is a single interpretation that is agreed upon (sometimes with relatively minor variations, such as recalculating Daniel based on a 365-day solar year.) This doesn't mean that a Christian interpretation is a superior one, only that a single voice often allows better refinement of rejoinders. Jewish parshanim frequently vehemently disagree on passages that seem to be fairly unambiguous, all the more so when it comes to cryptic passages such as are found in Daniel! Can one look at the passages carefully and truly say that Rashi's explanation is a satisfying one?

In either case, however, believers are guilty of a tautology: people may argue about the interpretative details of Daniel, but they believe it to be a prophesy about an actual event that came to pass because they believe that Daniel is prophesying!

Of course, the scholar may simply point out that the passage in Daniel is a re-interpretation of Jeremiah (chapters 25 and 29) who promised the restoration of the Temple after 70 years. Jeremiah got it wrong, and so the author of Daniel (dated to the 2nd century BCE, not the traditional date more than 200 years earlier) extended the prophecy to 70 groups of 7 years so that it would refer to Antiochus IV Epiphanes. He'll buttress his claim by pointing to similarities with another 490 year interpretation found in the Prophetic Apocryphon Dead Sea Scroll (4Q387) which uses a 10 groups of 49 years (Jubilee cycles) to describe a reign of apostasy that would eventually give way to the Kingdom of Heaven (see The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation.)

Kiruv workers and other OrthoFundies are fond of using prophetic texts to prove that the Torah is from heaven. One of the most frequently quoted prophetic passages - Deuteronomy 30 - describes how the Jews will be scattered among the nations only to eventually return to Israel. How could the Torah predict such a thing unless it were divine? This indeed seems to be a very powerful argument. But let's look at the passage more closely.
And it will be, when all these things come upon you the blessing and the curse which I have set before you that you will consider in your heart, among all the nations where the Lord your God has banished you, and you will return to the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, and you will listen to His voice according to all that I am commanding you this day you and your children, hen, the Lord, your God, will bring back your exiles, and He will have mercy upon you. He will once again gather you from all the nations, where the Lord, your God, had dispersed you. Even if your exiles are at the end of the heavens, the Lord, your God, will gather you from there, and He will take you from there. And the Lord, your God, will bring you to the land which your forefathers possessed, and you [too] will take possession of it, and He will do good to you, and He will make you more numerous than your forefathers. And the Lord, your God, will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, [so that you may] love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, for the sake of your life. And the Lord, your God, will place all these curses upon your enemies and upon your adversaries, who pursued you. And you will return and listen to the voice of the Lord, and fulfill all His commandments, which I command you this day. And the Lord, your God, will make you abundant for good in all the work of your hands, in the fruit of your womb, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil. For the Lord will once again rejoice over you for good, as He rejoiced over your forefathers, when you obey the Lord, your God, to observe His commandments and His statutes written in this Torah scroll, [and] when you return to the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul.
Now ask yourself? Has this prophecy come true as described? Did the Jews "hearken to God's voice" - a precondition to the in-gathering? Aish even says that the return to God is a prediction of the "Baal Teshuva Movement" (hmmm, do you think that Aish has a vested interest in making such a claim? Nah, that would be intellectually dishonest!)

Au contraire mon frere, it was largely secular Zionists who led the movement to return to Israel and were responsible for building up the land. And Aish-holes conveniently ignore the simple fact that the Baal Teshuvah movement developed long after the return to Israel.

Have all of the curses been put on the enemies of Jews? Ahmadinejad and his sympathizers around the world laugh at such a suggestion. Remember, that Rambam says that a prophecy has to be true in all of its detail.

No, only by carefully picking and choosing, or by separating the prophecy into two (or more) distinct time periods contrary to what the passage implies, or by taking passages out of order, can this be said to be an "accurate" prophecy. All three of these techniques are exactly what Jewish anti-missionary workers and publications accuse Christian missionaries of doing!! I cringe inside whenever the rabbi at my shul speaks about the incredible prophecies of Deuteronomy having come to pass.

Prophecy is supposedly subject to rational, scientific analysis and individual prophecies are theoretically falsifiable. But the absence of modern-day prophets doesn't allow us to properly test the prophecy hypothesis. And thus all we are left with are flimsy attempts at proving it via creative interpretation of Biblical passages. There simply is no good reason to believe in the historical existence of prophecy and in the end the believer must accept it as a matter of faith.


shmuel said...

Interesting, FH. Thanks.
Please read the essay on prophecy over at www.daatemet.com and then please post your thoughts on it.

Frum Heretic said...

Shmuel - can you provide a direct link for me?

BTW, daatemet is a strange site in many ways. Much of what they say could have been taken from typical anti-Semite works, especially with their selective quoting of Chazal in their attempt to belittle the Talmud. Yet at the same time they seem to have respect for many religious Jewish personalities. And why does an anti-religion site spell God as G-d?

Nevertheless, even though they are often too acrimonious for my taste, I think that daatemet provides some great info on their site. Information which traditionalists either do not confront or brush aside with inadequate apologetics.

J. said...

Get this - the reason God is spelled G-d on daatemet is because the woman who translates the material from hebrew to English is frum and insists on spelling it that way. (Someone actually asks Yaron Yadan that question on his website and this is the answer he gave). That is one of the funniest examples of cognitive dissonance that I have ever come across.

shmuel said...

It's in their "Essays" link and is titled:
"A Clarification on the Issue of Prophets in Israel and How to Recognize a True Prophet From a False Prophet"
They raise some fine questions. Thought you'd like to see it, acrimony and all!
And J, that really is funny.

Holy Hyrax said...

>"And all of Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, knew that Samuel had been proven to be a prophet unto God."

The hebrew says וַיֵּדַע, כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל

Easily mean recognize or knew without implying some sort of prophet test administered. There is a reason I dislike Rambam more and more.

Anywho, in the time of Rambam, everyone was close to God yet God did not bring them back to Israel. How did Rambam approach that? Wouldn't his own experiences lead him to say the prophecy was false?

Frum Heretic said...

OK, I went through the daatemet essay. Much of it shows how specific prophecies for good were supposedly false. That's not something that I'm that interested in here, but the conclusion is, and it makes a similar claim as my post, viz. "...first we decide he was a true prophet, and if it becomes clear he erred in his words, we settle all problems in any way possible, our only goal being to keep from calling him a false prophet... From all that said above we have found that there is no way to determine who is a false prophet and who is true."

One idea that I neglected to include in the post is a critical one: "a prophet who foretells doom may not have his prophecy fulfilled". This just compounds the problem of determining the veracity of a prophecy.

shmuel said...

Thanks, once again.
And it looks like Rabbi Yitzchok Blau on WebYeshiva has a blog about prophecy, too. He just posted his second installment.

Happy said...

"There is a reason I dislike Rambam more and more."

Cause he was the last somewhat rational Jew?

"Anywho, in the time of Rambam, everyone was close to God..."

Are you serious!? You need to get your history from somewhere other than Artscroll books.

"Deuteronomy 30 describes how the Jews will be scattered among the nations only to eventually return to Israel. How could the Torah predict such a thing unless it were divine? This indeed seems to be a very powerful argument."

It is!? Look in the dictionary.
See: Self-fulfilling propchecy.

Prophecy is always good for a chuckle or two. Have you actually read Nostradamus or Nach predictions? To call them vague is an insult to the concept of vagueness. And the prophecies that actually have some accuracy (e.g. Yaakov blessing the shevatim) were written after/during the events they're supposed to be predicting. Ever wonder why Jacob or Ezekiel didn't predict the rise of America as a superpower...or any event after the time of Nach?

One last question: If I accepted the prophecies in Deutoronomy as divine, what about the JEP authors? Did they have powers of prophecy too?

Holy Hyrax said...

You know Happy, it gets harder and harder to even speak to you when every single comment of your is just pure cynicism. Thats all you have.

Moshe said...


To the best of my recollection, in the Guide Rambam writes of prophecy as essentially as a level of intellectual perfection,as opposed to the sort of the fortune teller version you cite. The former is almost certainly his true view. He often writes things for the consumption of the masses in opposition to his true view, and freely acknowleges that, as I recall, in the hakdamah to the Guide.

Personally, I think both you and the "fundies" miss the boat here. The essence of the prophetic message is their moral pronouncements, not their predictions.As AJ Heschel wrote in his book "The Prophets",[T]he prophetic speeches are not factual pronouncements...[The Prophet] dwells upon God's inner motives, not only upon His historical decisions...the fundamental experience of the prophet is a fellowship with the feelings of God..... Ibid., pp..29-31.

Frum Heretic said...

Yes, of course the essence of a prophecy is in its message. But what gives the prophet his credentials as a true prophet and not a false one? Rambam explains this in great detail in the Mishneh Torah, and it is the accurate, repeated prediction of the future. No way around that one, Moshe!

Moshe said...


"No way around that one, Moshe!"

Possible way around: As stated, Rambam often takes theological positions for mass consumption that are not his true views. This is particularly true in halachic works like the MT. See Marc B. Shapiro, The Limits of Orthodox Theology, pp. 118-121.

Frum Heretic said...

I'm very acquainted with Pro Shapiro's works. I don't recall him saying anything about Rambam that would suggest he was hiding his true beliefs regarding the criteria for prophecy (after all, this is based on explicit Torah passages, unlike - for example - resurrection of the dead.) But I'll check his and Menachem Keller's books regarding these principles.