Fortunetellers are out. Wizards and crystal balls are verboten. Dabbling in the occult is a no-go. In this week’s portion, Shoftim, the Torah instructs us not to follow pagan sorcerers but to rather seek out the advice of our own bona fide Jewish prophets, who will guide us through the quandaries and dilemmas of life.
How are we to distinguish between genuine prophets and false prophets? As the text puts it, “And should you say to yourself, ‘How can we know if (the prophet’s) declaration was not actually spoken by God?’” (Deuteronomy 18:21).
The Torah answers the question by distinguishing between good prophecies and bad ones: “If the prophet will speak in the name of God, and that thing will not occur and does not happen, then the prophet has spoken deceitfully, and you should not fear him” (Deuteronomy 18:22).
The simple meaning is that, should the prophet foretell of good things to come and they do not come about, then he is a false prophet. If, however, he predicts that bad things will transpire and they do not, then one cannot prove he is a false prophet because the people may have repented and thus averted the evil decree.
Torah is eternal. It never fails to amaze me how our ancient tome still speaks to us and is forever relevant. Indeed, there are false prophets in every country and in every age. And I believe that in these words of the Bible lies the secret of determining who is a genuine spiritual leader worthy of our respect and following, and who is a deceitful pretender who must be rejected.
We can interpret these Torah verses homiletically.
“If the prophet will speak in the name of God, but that thing shall not occur”—meaning he will speak well, he will talk a good game, but it won’t happen. If it remains only words, empty verbiage, then you know that this is a false prophet. One who preaches but doesn’t practice is not the kind of leader we are looking for. You must reject him outright.
Many preach, few practice. Fewer still practice what they preach. Like the fellow who left law school to go to rabbinical college. When asked why, he said, “I’d rather preach than practice.” One who talks but does not follow through with action is not genuine; he’s not real. He may be a great speaker, a most eloquent orator, but if he doesn’t follow through in his own daily living, I’m afraid he is a fraud.
Who are the false prophets of today?
We know of gurus who speak beautifully, who come across sweet and serene, wise and spiritual. They evoke poetic imagery of love and peace. But if the love-talking guru is manipulating his own dedicated disciples, or exploiting female devotees, then he is a gangster and a dangerous charlatan.
Western psychologists can be equally charming and controlling. Is the marriage counsellor who dispenses advice to couples herself happily married, or does she speak empty words? Are the people we consult to save our marriages themselves committed to marriage, or are they too quickly and flippantly recommending divorce?
Is the flamboyant minister preaching to thousands in a stadium or on television himself living by the teachings of God, or is he just a successful entrepreneur coining it from gullible flocks of innocent believers?
Much to my dismay, I must also ask whether the charismatic rabbi is living up to our godly values or is also unworthy of his title. Sadly, more than one has fallen from grace over inappropriate, even scandalous, behavior.
The acid test of authenticity is not our speaking prowess but an honorable, virtuous lifestyle. The criterion for credibility is not charisma but character, not popularity but principles. Too many false prophets had the gift of gab and little else. The world has suffered far too much from maniacal despots whose Hitlerian bombastics attracted the masses into blindly following their tyrannical politics. Charisma can be very dangerous in the wrong person.
At the end of the day, it’s not what we say but what we do that makes all the difference. Please God, we will find the right rabbis, spiritual mentors, leaders and counsellors to guide us in life. May we know who to choose as our role models and never be disappointed or disillusioned. May they be authentic and genuine and leave us enriched and inspired.