Soothsayers, Prophets, and Vegetarianism

 I've decided to post exchanges that I have with one of our congregants, a past President and a close reader of the Torah. I enjoy these exchanges, and I hope that you do, too. The sections in italics are my emails. 


Dear Rabbi,

I could have commented on the concept of "justice" and "righteousness" which apparently come from the same word given for what I do for a living,

and which coincidentally became a part of today's discussion, but the following caught my fancy:

The Fourth Aliyah, in part speaks of prohibitions against divination, fortunetelling and similar occult practices. Instead of probing into the future, we are commanded to put our faith and trust in G‑d.

The Fifth Aliyah then goes on to say the following: We also have no need for these above mentioned abominable practices, because we are blessed with prophets who transmit G‑d’s messages to His people. We are commanded to obey these prophets. This section prescribes the punishments for noncompliance with prophets’ words, as well as for an individual who falsely claims to speak in G‑d’s name.
Well that is a great deal to take in. Fortunetelling and looking into the future are no-nos but there are prophets speaking on behalf of G-d that will tell us what will happen if we don't heed their words and then that is topped off with punishments for those who make false claims of speaking in G-d's name.
For me this is either contradictory or beyond anything that I can comprehend. Further, in my life time I have never met a prophet but there are those that say they speak on G-d's behalf and have made a very good living convincing others that they are "visionaries" of G-d's word. Sun Myung Moon did very well with his "Moonies" and became a political force in this country. There are also those that did meet with a not very nice ending but took innocent people with them when they went. Jim Jones and Jonestown comes to mind. 

Further modern Judaism doesn't escape this belief. What comes to mind is a certain sect of the Orthodox community that believes that the Messiah did walk on this earth not to long ago and that he will return soon. I did not agree with many things that Rabbi Steinhart said from the pulpit, but one day he stated something that struck me as true when he said the following: The Messiah will someday come but he will not rise from a grave in Brooklyn NY.

So my point is how do we obey these two aliyahs and equally important, how do we determine a true prophet.


Dear Menachem

All depends on what a prophet does. The prophet speaks truth and this is his more important function that foretelling the future. Yes, Jeremiah said that Babylonia would come and destroy the Temple, but he also hoped along the way that the Jews would repent and overturn the decree as occurred in Nineveh when Jonah declared that G-d would destroy the city. The soothsayer speaks about the future as if it is known and free will and repentance do not exist. Essentially, the soothsayer affirms fate and destiny; whereas the prophet affirms the future. The future is definitionally unknown. The only reason the prophet correctly predicts what will happen is not because he can see the future but because he sees the present more clearly than others. Prophecy has ceased, but the Jews are descendants of prophets and in slivers some of us can speak prophetically as we grasp a greater totality of the present than others. 

What you describe a charlatans, charismatic figures who establish cults and employ their powers of intuition to overwhelm vulnerable people. 

I am interested in what you have to say about "justice" and "righteousness" especially because these categories are instrumental in your profession. 



Dear Rabbi, 

I have both a question and a comment relating to today's service. As to the question, if the Torah gives us he right to eat meat, why do rabbi's think we will all be vegetarians after the Messiah comes? By the way as someone that has a curiosity as it relates to Holocaust survivors, many of them became vegetarians because the smell of burning flesh in the camps turned them off from meat forever. It is something you can never forget.



Dear Menachem, 

I had not heard of Holocaust survivors becoming vegetarians because they smelled burning human flesh, but hearing that turns my stomach. 

Your question gets at the heart of the debate among the sages about what will occur in the Messianic time. Nahmanides tends to think that human nature will change and supports his contention with verses from Ezekiel and Jeremiah that speak to G-d planting within us a new heart. Maimonides, in contract, sees the Messianic time as continuous with our own time. Another aspect of your question relates to whether the halakha will still be applicable in the Messianic time. Maimonides says yes; others disagree. If the halakha remains intact then kashrut would continue and we would not become vegetarians. In any event, Rabbi Kook is the one who promotes this idea, and I find his explanation compelling. He sees in the Garden of Eden both a past paradise and a future destination. 

Have you ever considered vegetarianism?


Dear Rabbi, 

Your question about becoming a vegetarian brings back my youth. Unlike my sister, I was not a good eater and I was extremely stubborn which carries over to this very day. In desperation, my mother would give me what I wanted to eat. So unless you can feed me a hot dog that tastes as good as the meat variety, it is not in the cards for me. I will say that since I have eaten the new meatless hamburgers, I prefer them to the ones that come from a cow. Maybe there is some hope for me yet. I am totally confused about the Messianic time. Are you saying that we will abandon the teachings of the Torah and revert to the innocence of Adam and Eve, pre tree of knowledge debacle, who by the way were not Jewish. 

I am surprised that you consider that "prophecy has ceased" because isn't it the job of religious leaders to "show us the light" and if we do not heed the words, we are in trouble. I also have trouble with your distinguishing prophets as "speaking the truth" which will "affirm the future", as opposed to "foretelling the future". Assuming there was such a thing as a "soothsayer" are you saying that his "vision" cannot be stopped or can it be said that the "soothsayer" is warning about a future disaster unless one repents. 

As to "justice" and "righteousness", I love the law but I have difficulty with clients. Give me a legal question and I can research it for hours in hopes of finding justice so that there can be a righteous result. It is the client's demands that sometimes get in the way of getting to the absolute truth. The term of "justice" and "righteousness" are ideals and as I understand it, ideals are almost impossible to achieve. As an example, in law school I was taught the concept of "the reasonable man". In other words what would a "reasonable" person have done in any situation as opposed to some wrongdoing that did occur. The bottom line is there would be no legal profession if everyone acted in a "reasonable" fashion. 

                                                                                            Shalom, Menachem

Dear Menachem, 

Your point that righteousness and justice are ideals speaks to me and confirms what the verse itself says, "Justice, justice, you shall pursue"

While prophecy has ceased, the sages - including today's rabbis - are now tasked with bringing the light to others. I don't operate too much in a reward-punishment fashion. I believe virtue is its own reward. The bottom line is that a soothsayer believes in fate; whereas a prophet affirms repentance. The future is an open book but not one that can be read in advance. I seek to shed light on the present so that the future will not shock us when it appears. Sometimes, however, it is intended to shock us. 

Different views of the messianic time can be found among the sages, but the concept of the Garden of Eden - a place in which we were in harmony with G-d and our needs were met - does serve as a template. As for the abrogation of the halacha or whether Jews will continue as Jews, I favor the historical version of the messianic era in which halacha continues and Jews continue to be Jews. In my view, we are close to the messianic time now, but the curve is asymptotic, so we will never arrive there and as we get closer, the little improvements will take great effort. 

                                                                                                Shalom, Rabbi