Religious : : Thoughts from Our Rabbi

We live in a world full of information. Some of it is reliable and helpful; some is false and detrimental, intentionally or unintentionally. As consumers of that information, what tools do we have to determine its reliability?

Our Torah deals with governing systems: Judicial, enforcement, Levite and Priestly leadership, kingship, army, and the institution of future legal systems unpredictable by the reader. Among the details of all these systems lies the issue of false information and how it can be identified as such. God tells us there will be a system of prophets.

“I will put my word in the mouth of your prophet and he will speak to you my word. But beware: there will also be prophets who will deceitfully speak in my name that which I have not spoken or they will speak in the name of other gods and lead you astray.”

These prophets, says God, are false prophets & are worthy of death. But…how shall we know the difference between true and false prophets? How will you know, asks God? It’s very simple:

When a prophet speaks in the name of God, if the thing does not follow, nor come to pass, that is the thing which God has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You shall not revere him. (Deuteronomy 18:22)

In other words, if her or his prophecy is not realized, you should know that it was uttered by a false prophet. When you think of it, this is a strange instruction. After all, it may be a very long time before we know whether or not the prophecy is realized. Sometimes the prophecy refers to events beyond our lifetime.

And what of prophets such as Jonah, who delivers the word of God then God acts differently? According to this criterion Jonah should be declared a false prophet. The decision whether or not to believe the prophet is a decision of the present, and it cannot depend on futures. Maybe this isn’t really meant to help us determine a true prophet from a false one. Maybe it is designed to develop our sensitivity and alertness to the idea of fake news and how to protect ourselves from it.

Rabbi Chaya Rowen Baker writes: “In a world full of misinformation, we must be willing to constantly re-evaluate. Acknowledging our own wrong judgement must be routine. Along with recognizing new information sometimes must change what it is that we hold to be true. Telling us that determining truth is a matter which required the perspective of time does not help us know the truth at the moment of the “prophecy,” yet it encourages us to keep our eyes open after we make our decision whether or not to trust it and to remain attuned to new developments. It helps us understand that truth is revealed only over time & with every detail that unfolds we must – re-examine reality and adjust our positions.

In that kind of world of critical thought and intense attention, the power of false information and fake news will diminish and a spirit of truth-seeking will flourish. Understanding that any claim to ownership of truth necessarily must stand the test of time makes truth-seeking more important than truth-holding. And that helps us differentiate true prophecy from falsehood.“

L’shana Tovah Tikateivu,
Rabbi Dennis