Dvar Torah For Parshat Reeh, 5771.
Do you remember the story of chicken little? According to Wikipedia, “There are several Western versions of the story, of which the best-known concerns a chick that believes the sky is falling when an acorn falls on its head. The chick decides to tell the King and on its journey meets other animals which join it in the quest. After this point, there are many endings. In the most familiar, a fox invites them to its lair and there eats them all.” The story is actually listed in one of the folklore indexes in the category of world-wide folktales –in this case a fable- that make fun of paranoia and mass hysteria .
I have been thinking about Chicken Little as I’ve read Parshat Reeh, in particular its warnings about false prophets. Let’s read what Deuteronomy has to say about them, Humash Etz Hayyim, pages 1068-1069:
If there appears among you a prophet or a dream-diviner and he gives you a sign or portent, saying, “Let us follow and worship another god” whom you have not experienced; even if the sign or portent that he named to you comes true, do not heed the words of that prophet or that dream diviner. For the Lord your God is testing you to see whether you really love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul. Follow none but the Lord your God and revere none but Him; observe his commandments alone, and heed only his orders; worship none but him and hold fast to Him.
Far from merely warning us away from disloyalty to God, the Torah is also warning us not to engage in chicken-little style behavior: that state of being instantly smitten with something, some idea or someone we encounter, even something, some idea, or someone whose pronouncements about truth are so impressive as to seem absolutely definitive. We need to guided by what the great Torah commentator, Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra, refers to as shikul ha-daat, the patient, sober use of reason and good, common sense. Even if a prophet calling us to worship another god produces the promised sign or portent as proof of his legitimacy, we should still not be fooled into believing him, because his claim is still at odds with what we know about God and truth.
This prohibition that Moses gives to the Israelites is true to the form and content of Deuteronomy: it emphasizes absolute loyalty to the one, universal God, even when the faithful person is faced with seemingly compelling evidence to the contrary from a charismatic figure who can back up his or her claims with miracles. Deuteronomy spends a great deal of energy appealing to the people’s good sense and reason, constantly reminding them that they personally experienced God’s redemptive power during the Exodus from Egypt, as well as God’s appearance to them to give them the Torah at Mount Sinai. Signs and portents that support the idolatrous claims of a prophet or diviner might be wondrously seductive, but they are merely tests by God to determine the people’s fidelity to God.
This last argument at first glance feels like a bit of circular reasoning: follow God only, not a false prophet; how do I know he’s a false prophet? He tells you to worship gods besides the God of Israel; but he’s given me signs and wonders that prove his point that I should follow other gods; no, his proof is really a test by the one true God to determine your loyalty; but how do I know it’s merely a test from God, and not a real sign from that prophet? Because that prophet is telling you that you should worship other gods, besides the one true God, so he must not be telling the truth, and his signs must be God’s test, not real signs.
However, we should not be fooled by what appears to be mere circular reasoning. What this passage of the Torah is warning us not to do is mistake the bells and whistles of charisma for the not always popular appeal of reason, and loyalty to the sober boundaries of Torah as determined by the ongoing process of interpretation of a living faith community. Dynamic personalities and emotional appeal can make a huge difference in our lives by inspiring us and giving us meaningful narratives by which to live. However, they are no replacement for truth arrived at through the use of reason, the discovery of fact, and the rule of law. It is far too easy for a demagogue to use all kinds of verbal and emotional sleights of hand –what the Torah referred to as signs and portents- to make an impressive point that convinces people to follow him or her, despite the extremism of his or her claims. The balancing of personal faith with personal reason is a very difficult challenge, but it is the only way to keep faith from degenerating into spiritual fascism and self-destruction, and to keep reason from degenerating into soul-deadening, inhumane rigidity.
How do these teachings apply to us? The presidential election is a little over a year away, and already a whole group of prophet-wanna-be’s are crowding the presidential candidate playing field, each of them hawking his or her form of signs and portents. Each will campaign in poetry and govern in prose, a conceit which we are used to, and which we largely accept as the price to be paid for a free electoral process and a complex system of checks and balances. Each will make near-prophetic claims about what ails America and the world, then make sweeping pronouncements about what he or she will do to solve our problems. To paraphrase our Torah portion: warning, America, we are being tested: can we resist the apparatus of America’s false prophecy arsenal-- the prettily packaged promises, the telegenic shots of baby-kissing shape shifters who keep crafting their messages to the latest voting bases, and the shameless use of obscene wealth to crush opponents in elections? Can we see past the false prophecies of jingoistic fear mongering, of race baiting? Can we curb our own idolatrous impulse to set aside the sober search for truth and fact out of a desperate need to be coddled by the soothing words of people who tell us what we want to hear, and not what we need to hear? Can listen past the smoke-and-mirrors to discover the ideas and leaderships qualities that will make a great leader for the future?
These are frightening days for America and the world, and as Chicken Little would have said, it feels at times like the sky is falling. Precisely when things feel this way is when the Torah raises its warning to us about false prophets, reminding us that it will take all of our moral, spiritual, and intellectual courage not be taken in by their impressive signs and portents. We will need to ask tough, thoughtful questions about the claims of those who rise up among us, and who might speak charismatically in the name of truth, yet whose claims turn out to be nothing more than calls to us to worship false gods of hysteria or complacency that cannot save us. The Torah of the one true God reminds us: follow none but the Lord your God. Pursue the truth and the values that make us Jews worthy of being God’s people, and that make us Americans worthy of our nation’s legacy.