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False Prophets: Ancient and Modern

Part of this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, from Deuteronomy 13 contains an extensive discussion of false prophets. Determining true and false prophecy is just as much modern as it was an ancient problem. Prophecy, is not just a matter of predicting the future, indeed even from a Biblical perspective, clairvoyance is only one and not necessarily the most important aspect of prophecy. Rather, the real question is distinguishing truth from falsehood and good policy from bad policy. In ancient days, the Israelites were constantly challenged to choose between true prophets like Moses and false prophets like Korach. I suppose it is part of the human tradition to be “caught” in the middle and forced to accept and reject truth propositions on a daily basis.

During the last few weeks, the daily news has been a battleground between true and false prophecy in a number of arenas both here in the States and in Israel. Here are just three cases. First, the “war over ice cream” in Israel. Second, the failure of Israel to provide for secular or non-Orthodox weddings. And, finally, “the mask war” here in the United States. It is impossible for me to be neutral on any of these topics, even where there are nuances and complexities to consider. Here are three brief summaries on each of the issues.

  1. Ice Cream. On July 19, 2021, Ben & Jerry’s announced that it would no longer sell its products in Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) because doing so was “inconsistent” with company policies. On the other hand, B & J’s parent company, Unilever, said it would continue to distribute its products in the West Bank. The situation quickly escalated as proponents of the BDS movement claimed victory, and the Israeli government and its supporters noted that the move was hypocritical and possibly in violation of anti-boycott laws in the United States. From my point of view, the failure of B&J to apply equal moral standards to murderous places like Syria and Iran was indefensible as was the company’s failure to support legitimate pro-peace and Jewish-Arab dialogue. The message was — they intended to punish Israel and no one else, not even terrorist organizations like Hamas. There is nothing new about this uneven treatment of Israel but then again, I have never heard of bitter ice cream. Similarly, two Olympic athletes simply refused to compete with Israelis. So much for peace, reconciliation and sportsmanship.
  2. Marriage equality in Israel. This week, Israeli athlete, Artem Dolgopyat, won the gold medal for artistic gymnastics in Tokyo. Artem was born in the Ukraine, immigrated to Israel at age 12 and has served in the Israeli Army. From an Orthodox-Halachic perspective, Artem is of Jewish descent but is not legally Jewish and therefore cannot marry his long-term girlfriend, Maria Sakovich, in Israel. Israel does not have separation of religion and state and does not sanction either secular or progressive religious weddings. In other words, an Israeli soldier and Olympic gold medal winner is being treated as an outcast by the same country which overwhelming takes pride in his service and accomplishments. Again, not only bad, but also unacceptable policy by so-called prophetic guardians.
  3. Finally, here in the United States we are in the middle of a mask war. We know that Covid infection rates are climbing, that the Delta and Delta Plus variants are responsible for both increased hospitalizations and death and still certain Governors continue to wage war on mask wearing as an assault on the freedom of their constituents. On the other hand, I do not hear any of them complaining that red lights and stop signs, both safety measures, are big brother attempts to curb their absolute right to endanger other people. We have false prophets in this country and their motto is “Give Me Liberty and Give You Death.” In their eyes, one form of government action is evil while other restrictions (mandated mask moratoriums) are advancing freedom. In Biblical terms, this is false prophecy.

Thousands of years ago, the Torah recognized there are true, false and complicated messages. It warned against false prophets. It asked us to always think about how we understand the issues and challenges of our time. We are in an unenviable situation today and have to decide which voices to heed and which voices to reject. It is an everyday battle. The Torah urges us to choose wisely, to choose truth and to choose life.

May we be blessed with wisdom and strength.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D.