Shabbat Re’ey: False Messiahs

August 25, 2022 by Jeremy Rosen
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Amongst the fascinating laws in this week’s Torah is one that is significant in what it says about miracles, signs, and False Messiahs.

This reference to false prophets has had huge ramifications for why we have been persecuted both by Christianity and Islam because we have not recognised either the Divinity or the prophecy of their founders.

If a prophet or a dreamer emerges from amongst the Jewish people and performs miracles and uses these to get the Jews to abandon their God and, or God’s commandments, one must not listen or pay any attention to the miracles. We should see these as tests of our loyalty to  God and the commandments. This is a very clear message to any religion that, as Jews, we cannot fulfil our spiritual destiny by rejecting or abandoning our tradition or by accepting a false prophet.

“If there appears among you a prophet or a dream-diviner, who gives you a sign or a miracle that God had given them and tell you that you should follow another God who you have not encountered and worship Him. Do not listen to that prophet or dreamer because God is just testing you to see if you genuinely love your God with all your hearts and souls. Instead,  you should follow God, respect Him, follow his commandments, and listen to the words He has revealed to you. He alone is who should worship”(Deuteronomy(13:2-6).

Interestingly, the passage does not say that magic might not work. Skills of delusion or attributing miracles to natural events might be very persuasive. We are humans and are eminently suggestible. The Torah just says that we should not pay any attention to them.

On the other hand, the Torah is full of miracles. But our commentators say that the Torah uses miracles to reinforce faith. Miracles function to strengthen a prior commitment for those whose belief is weak and uncertain. The messages, the laws of the Torah, are the medium. Tricks may have their roles, but they are secondary. Indeed, the whole function and nature of miracles are downgraded by this passage. The emphasis is on our actions, how we lead our lives, and whether we are loyal to our tradition. And I would add that even if we do not always adhere to the rules as strictly as we should, it is loyalty to Judaism and ensuring that it survives and thrives that is what we should be committed to.
This does not mean that ours is the only religion and the only way that God communicates with humanity. There were other prophets outside of Judaism. And Israelite prophets also spoke to the nations. The Torah assumes that other nations and traditions will co-exist with ours, from Ishmael onwards. Even before Sinai, in the Torah, Avraham relates positively to Melchizedek of Shalem, a Priest to El Elyon.
There are indeed many paths to God and others may have equally high ethical and spiritual traditions. But our tradition is our heritage and anyone trying to attack that fundamental cannot possibly have anything of value to say to us or to add to what has already been given.

Deuteronomy 11:26-16;17

Rosh Hodesh Ellul

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen lives in New York. He was born in Manchester. His writings are concerned with religion, culture, history and current affairs – anything he finds interesting or relevant. They are designed to entertain and to stimulate. Disagreement is always welcome.

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