Yom Shlishi, 16 Iyyar 5779
Tuesday, 21 May 2019
Parashat Re'eh 2012

Re'eh by Cantor Gershon Silins
17th August 2012

This week’s portion, Re’eh, tells us, “If there should arise in your midst a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, and he gives you a sign or a wonder, and the wonder comes to pass, whereof he spoke to you saying, let us go after other gods, which you have not known, and let us serve them; you shall not listen to the words of that prophet, or to that dreamer of dreams; for the Lord your God puts you to the test, to know whether you do indeed love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Deuteronomy 13:2-4) This arresting notion seems intended to simplify the complicated question of what kind of evidence might seem persuasive and how we should respond when presented with it. There is, however, no doubt expressed here as to what one should believe: we are told simply and directly not to follow this prophet’s new gods no matter what signs and wonders we are presented with, but only the God that we already know. But this simplicity is deceptive. Our sages had great difficulty with this passage, and rightly so. Among other questions, they asked, why does God need to put our beliefs to a test when God already knows what we believe?

The text here assumes that we are unthinking believers in the truths of Torah, and when a prophet turns up who shows us signs and wonders that appear miraculous, or tells us of dreams whose predictions come to pass, and would on that basis have us change our beliefs, we would of course go right along with him. How do we know not to do this? The text tells us that whatever is unfamiliar is not to be followed or believed. A simple directive indeed, but the whole history of post-biblical Judaism has developed by ignoring it. Virtually nothing remains unchanged of the beliefs and practices of the generation that received the Torah at Sinai. The God who delighted in sacrifices, commanded the destruction of entire communities, and enforced the holiness of Shabbat through capital punishment, fits none of the characteristics of the God that Jews have envisioned for two millennia. These changes did not come to pass because prophets arose whose dreams came true and who therefore persuaded us to give up the sacrificial cult and to avoid violence and coercion in our national and religious life. They came to pass because the Jewish encounter with world was not one sided. A great many people adhere to or associate with religions that arose out of Judaic roots, and in turn Judaism has been fundamentally transformed by its encounter with the wider world. Rabbinic Judaism developed out of the Hellenistic world in which it was situated. Rabbinic discourse did not always accept Hellenistic values, but it argued things out in a setting that the descendants of Greek philosophers would recognize – discussion and persuasion, and an awareness of conflicting values played out in the context of a belief in upright behavior in a genuine community. And later, as the world turned towards a belief in the value of human life and the glory of the intellect, Judaism accepted this as well. Jews wanted to be Jews, and they also wanted to live full lives in the wider world.

Today’s world is one of increasing fragmentation and tribalism. Poorer nations contend with internecine wars of one tribe or sect against another, and richer ones are returning to political beliefs based on self interest and self centeredness, beliefs that were discredited a century ago as progressive movements fought for universal suffrage, the rights of women and minorities, and the interests of the poor against the power of the wealthy.

Even though miraculous signs no longer persuade us, the question posed by our sages is relevant today. We are faced, not with miracle working prophets, but rather with those who achieve worldly success while ignoring the call of an ethical life. We turn to the answer given by our sages, that whatever success attends the false prophet of our day, we are not to believe that message or subscribe to that teaching, since that is not how truth is established.

Our sages wondered, why would God put our beliefs to a test when God already knows what we believe? Perhaps the answer is that God may know, but we do not, until we test ourselves as to how well we remember what is most crucial. In a world that is concerned largely with personal gain, the primacy of human values is the truth that we know and are not permitted to forget.