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.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

My Daughter, the Virgin

Selection from a typical Chassidic wedding invitation:

If you are unacquainted with this phrase, it means "the praise-worthy virgin bride".

I've always found this almost universal custom not only anachronistic (after all, the family is not also parading around the bloody tokens of her deflowering, are they?) but also somewhat offensive. It seems no different from saying (albeit more crudely), "Hey everyone, our wonderful daughter hasn't been shtupped yet!" Yeah, it's implicitly understood, so why do people feel the need to publicize it? (Note also that in these circles it is likely that the chassan is also a virgin, but it isn't so praiseworthy that it needs to be advertised.)

Publicizing their daughter's sexual status - sheesh, haven't these people heard about tznius?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Jesus Prophecy in the Torah

In the post Why specifically the son of your mother?, Parshablog discusses why the pasuk in Deuteronomy 13:7 "seems to suggest that it is specifically your maternal brother who will try to tempt you to serve idols."
ז. כִּי יְסִיתְךָ אָחִיךָ בֶן אִמֶּךָ אוֹ בִנְךָ אוֹ בִתְּךָ אוֹ אֵשֶׁת חֵיקֶךָ אוֹ רֵעֲךָ אֲשֶׁר כְּנַפְשְׁךָ בַּסֵּתֶר לֵאמֹר נֵלְכָה וְנַעַבְדָה אֱ־לֹהִים אֲחֵרִים אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדַעְתָּ אַתָּה וַאֲבֹתֶיךָ: ח. מֵאֱלֹהֵי הָעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר סְבִיבֹתֵיכֶם הַקְּרֹבִים אֵלֶיךָ אוֹ הָרְחֹקִים מִמֶּךָּ מִקְצֵה הָאָרֶץ וְעַד קְצֵה הָאָרֶץ: ט. לֹא תֹאבֶה לוֹ וְלֹא תִשְׁמַע אֵלָיו וְלֹא תָחוֹס עֵינְךָ עָלָיו וְלֹא תַחְמֹל וְלֹא תְכַסֶּה עָלָיו: י. כִּי הָרֹג תַּהַרְגֶנּוּ יָדְךָ תִּהְיֶה בּוֹ בָרִאשׁוֹנָה לַהֲמִיתוֹ וְיַד כָּל הָעָם בָּאַחֲרֹנָה: יא. וּסְקַלְתּוֹ בָאֲבָנִים וָמֵת כִּי בִקֵּשׁ לְהַדִּיחֲךָ מֵעַל יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ הַמּוֹצִיאֲךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים: יב. וְכָל יִשְׂרָאֵל יִשְׁמְעוּ וְיִרָאוּן וְלֹא יוֹסִפוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת כַּדָּבָר הָרָע הַזֶּה בְּקִרְבֶּךָ:7. If your brother, the son of your mother, tempts you in secret or your son, or your daughter, or the wife of your embrace, or your friend, who is as your own soul saying, "Let us go and worship other gods, which neither you, nor your forefathers have known." 8. Of the gods of the peoples around you, [whether] near to you or far from you, from one end of the earth to the other end of the earth; 9. You shall not desire him, and you shall not hearken to him; neither shall you pity him, have mercy upon him, nor shield him. 10. But you shall surely kill him, your hand shall be the first against him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. 11. And you shall stone him with stones so that he dies, because he sought to lead you astray from the Lord, your God, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. 12. And all Israel shall listen and fear, and they shall no longer do any evil such as this in your midst.
Josh Waxman, as usual, does a bang-up scholarly job in his discussion of ibn Ezra's approach (not to mention his far superior formatting of text!) However, I'd like to share an unusual explanation that a Chassidic rav once told us in yeshivah.

The pasukim are actually a prophetic reference to Jesus.
What did Jesus do? He led fellow Jews astray, and for that he was chayiv misah (The fact that the Romans killed him via crucifixion is not really relevant here. But according to John 10, Jews did attempt to stone Jesus.)

But more importantly, Jesus was the "son of your mother" simply because he supposedly had no father!

We laughed at the time at this cute little drasha, and many years later I like to think that he was just having a bit of fun. But in the back of my mind there is still a nagging feeling that he was being perfectly serious and truly believed this explanation.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Warm Kugel

It would have been Hot Kugel, but his book The God of Old: Inside the Lost World of the Bible is a few years old now:

...Neighboring civilizations can, of course, influence one another, sometimes quite unconsciously, and this influence may extend to matters of religion. Indeed, scholars are familiar with the phenomenon known as syncretism, whereby the god of religion X is identified with another god from religion Y; or X’s god is worshiped in some ceremony derived from religion Y. This happened a great deal in the ancient world, and items such as the “Hanukkah bush,” adopted by some American Jews in imitation of the Christmas tree, or the recent espousal of a very Christian-style messianism by a group of Hasidic Jews, show that syncretism is not dead in our own time.


Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Barack Obama is Moshiach!

Pack your bags and get ready to move to the Holy Land! World peace and the building of the Third Temple are close at hand! I can say this in all certainty because it is obvious that President Barack Obama is the messiah!

I understand that I am late to the game here, and that other prophets have also made such a claim (see here and here, the latter being the source from which I ripped off the above image). But for the skeptics among you here is undeniable scientific proof of this assertion.

The gematria of משיח‎ - moshiach - is 40+300+10+8=358.

Barack - ברק - is 2+200+100=302
Obama - אובמה - is 1+6+2+40+5=54
So Barack Obama = 356. Add 1 for each name (a common technique in gematriot) or spell his last name אובאמה as some are wont to do and add 1 for the full name. You get 358.

משיח=ברק אובמה


Can there be any greater proof than this???

Is this any more ridiculous than the moronic drivel promulgated by Dreaming of Moshiach? Or the apocalyptic ravings of Torah code "researchers" Gallis and Wolf"? Or the vitriol spewed by Lazer Brody?

I think not.