Jeremiah Johnson, who calls himself a “prophetic minister,” recently wrote in Charisma Magazine:
I was in a time of prayer several weeks ago when God began to speak to me concerning the destiny of Donald Trump in America. The Holy Spirit spoke to me and said, "Trump shall become My trumpet to the American people, for he possesses qualities that are even hard to find in My people these days… Many will want to throw him away because he will disturb their sense of peace and tranquility, but you must listen through the bantering to discover the truth that I will speak through him. I will use the wealth that I have given him to expose and launch investigations searching for the truth. Just as I raised up Cyrus to fulfill My purposes and plans, so have I raised up Trump to fulfill my purposes and plans prior to the 2016 election. You must listen to the trumpet very closely for he will sound the alarm and many will be blessed because of his compassion and mercy. Though many see the outward pride and arrogance, I have given him the tender heart of a father that wants to lend a helping hand to the poor and the needy, to the foreigner and the stranger."
Trump. Trumpet. Cute. Johnson’s promotion of Trump does not entail a rational discussion of issues and policies or an attempt to persuade the reader of his views. In fact, Johnson undercuts reason by claiming direct communication from God: prophecy. If Johnson were an isolated case of lunacy, what he wrote might be funny. In fact, there is a broad swath of America that believes that people like him do, in fact, have a direct line to heaven. And there is a long history in this country of prophetic rhetoric and claims to divine insight that avoids rational inquiry and examination: If God said it, who are you to question it? NYU professor George Shulman wrote about the American proclivity to address politics in prophetic terms in American Prophecy: Race and Redemption in American Political Culture (2008: University of Minnesota Press) where, as the title suggests, he focuses on race in America. But as Jade Schiff, a professor at Oberlin, writes in a review, although Shulman’s book is, “a critical analysis of biblical and contemporary prophetic traditions… [the book itself] is a work of prophecy in ways that Shulman does not acknowledge, and it displays the same tensions in and limits of prophetic thinking that he illuminates. Shulman’s prophetic voice is at times uncomfortably close to the ones that he resists. Sometimes he appears to foreclose rather than invite engagement with others, and so occludes the democratic possibilities he wants to open up. I think this occlusion is a symptom of Shulman’s own, tense relationship with prophecy: he is a reluctant prophet.” Apparently the notion of prophecy so infuses American culture that even some anti-prophets unknowingly see themselves as prophets.
Prophecy is dangerous stuff because false prophets—like Jeremiah Johnson—abound in every age, as Torah long ago pointed out. In Parshat Shoftim, which we read this week, Moses assures the Israelites that God will send them prophets to guide them. But how are they to know these prophets are legit? Moses supplies criteria by which to discern if one who claims to be a prophet is the genuine article:
וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, אֵלָי: הֵיטִיבוּ, אֲשֶׁר דִּבֵּרוּ. נָבִיא אָקִים לָהֶם מִקֶּרֶב אֲחֵיהֶם, כָּמוֹךָ; וְנָתַתִּי דְבָרַי, בְּפִיו, וְדִבֶּר אֲלֵיהֶם, אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר אֲצַוֶּנּוּ. וְהָיָה, הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יִשְׁמַע אֶל-דְּבָרַי, אֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר, בִּשְׁמִי--אָנֹכִי, אֶדְרֹשׁ מֵעִמּוֹ. אַךְ הַנָּבִיא אֲשֶׁר יָזִיד לְדַבֵּר דָּבָר בִּשְׁמִי, אֵת אֲשֶׁר לֹא-צִוִּיתִיו לְדַבֵּר, וַאֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר, בְּשֵׁם אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים--וּמֵת, הַנָּבִיא הַהוּא. וְכִי תֹאמַר, בִּלְבָבֶךָ: אֵיכָה נֵדַע אֶת-הַדָּבָר, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-דִבְּרוֹ יְהוָה. אֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר הַנָּבִיא בְּשֵׁם יְהוָה, וְלֹא-יִהְיֶה הַדָּבָר וְלֹא יָבֹא--הוּא הַדָּבָר, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-דִבְּרוֹ יְהוָה: בְּזָדוֹן דִּבְּרוֹ הַנָּבִיא, לֹא תָגוּר מִמֶּנּוּ.Whereupon Adonai said to me, “…I will raise up a prophet for them from among their own people, like yourself: I will put My words in his mouth and he will speak to them all that I command him; and if anybody fails to heed the words he speaks in My name, I Myself will call him to account. But any prophet who presumes to speak in My name an oracle that I did not command him to utter, or who speaks in the name of other gods—that prophet will die.” And should you ask yourselves, “How can we know that the oracle was not spoken by the Lord?”—if the prophet speaks in the name of the Lord and the oracle does not come true, that oracle was not spoken by Adonai; the prophet has uttered it presumptuously; do not stand in dread of him. (Deuteronomy 18:17-22)
Is that all there is to it? An accurate prediction confirms that the speaker is a prophet? Jeremiah, who had serious credibility problems in his own day, said that a message that is painful to deliver—and equally uncomfortable to hear—is more likely to be authentic than a fluffy one that pleases people and confirms what they want to believe about themselves. And then there is Amos. Amos protests to Amaziah, the priest at Beth El, לֹא-נָבִיא אָנֹכִי, וְלֹא בֶן-נָבִיא אָנֹכִי I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet (Amos 7:14). Here Shakespeare's famous apophasis from Hamlet fits: “The [man] doth protest too much, methinks,” for Amos was, indeed, a prophet. He spoke truth to power on behalf of God, trumpeting the Northern Kingdom’s failures of social justice (particularly the growing disparity between the wealthy and the impoverished). What made Amos a prophet, despite his protests to the contrary?
The Rabbis, in masechet Baba Batra, discuss whether prophecy still exists in their time. R. Abdimi claims that there are no longer prophets as of old; rather “wise men” embody God’s prophecy. In other words, prophecy has been transferred from the Isaiahs, Jeremiahs, and Amoses solely to the Rabbis. Others support his claim because, after all, the Sages are engaged in writing “Oral Torah”—it’s very name embodies a claim to divine prophetic inspiration. But R. Yochanan, recognizing the danger in the claim, declares: “Since the Temple was destroyed, prophecy has been taken from prophets and given to fools and children.” (BT Baba Batra 12a,b) Gemara supplies examples of the fool and child that prove his point: Prophecy is a phenomenon of the past. On several occasions, the Rabbis assert that those who claim communication from, and justification by, the Holy Spirit, rather than rational reasoning, need not be given credence. The human intellect is gift enough to tackle the matters of halakhah and interpretation before the Sages. R. Yochanan’s declaration took enormous courage. He was bucking not only a millennium of tradition, but all of Jewish tradition and history to claim that reasoned, rational argument had rightly supplanted the claim to supernatural inspiration. R. Eliezer’s bat kol was no longer welcome in the study house.
I can understand that some people find the give-and-take, rough-and-tumble of intellectual debate, where a position can seem logical and reasonable one day, but far less so when another set of arguments are brought to bear the following day to be unsettling. Prophecy is so much simpler, direct, and definitive—and far less messy. And that’s precisely the problem: Hidden in the folds of its simplicity and “cleanness” hide a host of dangers, and not just those made utterly transparent by the poster children for deranged, mega-narcissistic self proclaimed prophets: Charles Manson, Jim Jones, David Koresh, and Marshall Applewhite.
American historian Paul S. Boyer described many of these in When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (1992: Harvard University Press), which focuses on how the main tenets of dispensational prophetic belief have influenced the policies and actions of the American government since World War II. Prior to the Second World War, dispensational premillennialist thinkers generally imagined that the end of America’s enemies would come about due to earthquakes and comets—God working through nature—or perhaps more directly. With the advent of the atomic bomb, however, many prophetic thinkers began to consider the use of nuclear weapons to be part of a “divine plan.” Boyer notes, for example, that the Reagan administration was stocked with pre-millennialist thinkers—Weinberger, Watt, and Koop—and that this thinking influenced their efforts to limit the arms race, craft environmental policies, and yes, shape an American policy concerning the State of Israel. But human beings control the bombs; claiming that God mans the trigger is beyond disingenuous and irresponsible—it’s very dangerous.
Torah took the first step in warning us about false prophets: If they undermine a moral and value system we cherish as good and legitimate, their message should be condemned for the artifice it is. The Rabbis took the next giant leap, establishing extensive examination, intellectual reasoning, and morality as the criteria for ideas we should adhere to and promote.
As the 2016 Presidential election season proceeds, we will see more and more of and and and . It doesn’t take a prophet to know that we need to proceed with extreme caution.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman