“Identifying a True Prophet”
(updated and revised from Re’eh 5764-2004)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Re’eh, the Torah warns the Jewish people not to follow false prophets. The difficulty with this admonition is that it is not at all easy to identify who truly speaks in the name of G-d, and who is a charlatan.

In Deuteronomy 13:2, the Torah declares: כִּי יָקוּם בְּקִרְבְּךָ נָבִיא אוֹ חֹלֵם חֲלוֹם, וְנָתַן אֵלֶיךָ אוֹת אוֹ מוֹפֵת, If a prophet or a dreamer of a dream arises in your midst and produces a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder comes true. And the prophet then says: “Let us follow other gods” that you did not know, and attempts to persuade you to worship them. The Torah boldly proclaims, Deuteronomy 13:4-6: It is forbidden to listen to the words of this prophet or dreamer, for G-d is testing the Jewish people to know whether they love G-d with all their hearts and with all their souls. That prophet or dreamer, the Torah pronounces, shall be put to death, for he has spoken perversion against G-d.

The Torah, later in parashat Shoftim, Deuteronomy 18:21, actually anticipates how difficult it is to identify a true prophet: וְכִי תֹאמַר בִּלְבָבֶךָ, אֵיכָה נֵדַע אֶת הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר לֹא דִבְּרוֹ השׁם, And, should you ask yourselves, how shall we know that the prophecy was not spoken by G-d? The way to know, says the Torah, is to see whether the future bears out the prophet’s own words. If the prophecy comes true, he is an authentic prophet (provided, of course, that he does not prophecy anything directly contrary to any of the rules of the Torah). If the prophecy does not come true, then the prophet is false.

Of course, in reality, identifying a true or a false prophet is not nearly so clear. After all, the Torah warns, that even false prophets can make predictions that come true and, that occasionally, even the message of a true prophet is not fulfilled (especially when circumstances change). Because of this ambiguity, at times, the good sense of the people and their leaders must be relied on to verify the truthfulness of the prophet.

Jewish tradition suggests a number of reasons to explain how false prophets could perform signs and render prophecy at all.

1. The false prophet may have originally been a true prophet who has defected, like Hananiah ben Azzur (Jeremiah 28, Sanhedrin 90a).
2. The false prophet may merely be imitating the true prophet and “misappropriating” his words. (R. Abraham Ibn Ezra, Deuteronomy 13:2)
3. There are people who are capable, on the basis of natural observation, of making accurate predictions. In ancient times predicting an eclipse of the sun could have an immense impact on the people.
4. Tradition acknowledges that there may be some people who have clairvoyant powers, and yet do not qualify as prophets. (Rashbam, Deuteronomy 13:2)

The challenge of identifying true prophecy, is one that the Jewish people have faced for the past 2000 years of Christian history, and has resulted in much hatred and Jewish bloodshed. The “loaded” question, from the Jewish perspective, is whether Jesus qualifies as a true prophet.

Trude Weiss-Rosmarin addresses this question brilliantly in her seminal book Judaism and Christianity: The Differences (Jonathan David, 1943). She maintains that Jesus definitely does not qualify as a true prophet for many reasons, among them, the following:

1. Jewish prophets are not the “mouthpiece of G-d.” True prophets of Israel never taught in their own name, they always taught in the name of G-d. Jesus, however, taught on his own authority, frequently in opposition to the rabbinic teachings of the time. Maimonides summarizes this requirement by saying “a prophet must not add or diminish any of the Torah commandments.”

2. Jesus arrogated for himself the power of forgiving sins which Judaism reserves for G-d alone.

3. Jesus declares miracles on his own authority, declaring them to be a sign of his own power and his own strength. The gospels record that Jesus once turned five loaves of bread and two fish into food sufficient for 5,000 men and what was left over filled twelve baskets (Luke 9:13-17). When performing this miracle, Jesus made no reference whatsoever to G-d, using it simply as a proof of his own powers.

4. Jesus performed miracles to make the people believe in him. Traditional Jewish prophets perform miracles to strengthen the people’s belief in G-d.

5. Jesus’ teachings do not measure up to the prophetic standards. He dismissed many important points of Jewish law, once again, violating the prohibition of adding or diminishing from the Torah.

6. While Judaism is essentially moderate and accepting, Jesus was a profound ascetic. Consequently, his teachings were principally concerned with the World to Come. This is powerfully indicated by Jesus’ hostile attitude toward marriage and family.

7. Judaism encourages the pious to assume prominent places in society, as good sons, husbands, brothers and neighbors. Jesus demanded of his followers to hate their nearest and dearest. So, they may be better and more loyal disciples.

8. Jesus taught that if a person is assaulted on his right cheek, he should turn the other, too. Judaism teaches that if someone comes to kill you, you may preempt and kill the would-be murderer. Jewish law does not command that one love his adversary, for this would be unnatural. It does however command to refrain from exacting vengeance upon an enemy and to assist the enemy in an emergency, for this is to be expected of an ethical human being.

9. The bible regards all humans as brothers because of their common Father in Heaven. The messages of the Hebrew prophets were universal messages that G-d intended for all of humankind, not merely the Jews. Jesus emphasizes that he was sent only to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24).

10. Although Jesus pledged that not one dot of an “i” or crossing of a “t” should be dropped from the law, he himself disregarded and violated a number of important laws, including instructing his disciples to collect wheat on Shabbat because they were hungry.

11. While Jewish law recommends divorce as a means of terminating an unhappy and untenable marriage, Jesus, in clear opposition to the Bible and the Talmud prohibited divorce, except in the instance of adultery.

12. Contrary to hallowed Jewish tradition, Jesus decries the religious value of communal prayer and idealizes solitary devotion.

We see from this analysis that the question of identifying a true prophet is not merely a theoretical construct. Even in the 21st century, this question has vital implications for our people. So, it is with many of the precepts of the Torah that seem to be purely hypothetical and without any practical implications.

Perhaps we should learn from parashat Re’eh and the issue of identifying a true prophet, that all moral and theological issues require intensive study and investigation, and that none of the Torah principles should be treated lightly or summarily dismissed.

May you be blessed.