Friday, August 29, 2003

Dvar torah for Shoftim #4: Was the Lubavitcher Rebbe a Navi Sheker?

Parshat Re`e addressed the issue of Navi Sheker, the false prophet, and I wrote some divrei Torah about Navi Sheker here and here.

In Re`eh, in Dvarim 13:2-3 the main identifying characteristic of the false prophet is that he tells you to worship other gods besides Hashem:

כִּי-יָקוּם בְּקִרְבְּךָ נָבִיא, אוֹ חֹלֵם חֲלוֹם; וְנָתַן אֵלֶיךָ אוֹת, אוֹ מוֹפֵת.
וּבָא הָאוֹת וְהַמּוֹפֵת, אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר אֵלֶיךָ לֵאמֹר: נֵלְכָה אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יְדַעְתָּם--וְנָעָבְדֵם.
לֹא תִשְׁמַע, אֶל-דִּבְרֵי הַנָּבִיא הַהוּא, אוֹ אֶל-חוֹלֵם הַחֲלוֹם, הַהוּא: כִּי מְנַסֶּה ה אֱלֹקֵיכֶם, אֶתְכֶם, לָדַעַת הֲיִשְׁכֶם אֹהֲבִים אֶת-ה אֱלֹקֵיכֶם, בְּכָל-לְבַבְכֶם וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁכֶם.

"If there arise in the midst of thee a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams--and he give thee a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spoke unto thee--saying: 'Let us go after other gods, which thou hast not known, and let us serve them'; thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet, or unto that dreamer of dreams; for the LORD your God putteth you to proof, to know whether ye do love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul."

Parshat Shoftim also addresses Navi Sheker, but here there are two types of false prophet. One who speaks in the name of other gods, and one who speaks falsely in the name of Hashem. The identifying characteristic of a false prophet of Hashem is that he declares as prophecy that something will come to pass and it does not.

Dvarim 18:18-22 states:

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.

"I will raise them up a prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee; and I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him.

And it shall come to pass, that whosoever will not hearken unto My words which he shall speak in My name, I will require it of him.

But the prophet, that shall speak a word presumptuously in My name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or that shall speak in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.

And if thou say in thy heart: 'How shall we know the word which the LORD hath not spoken?'

When a prophet speaketh in the name of the LORD, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD hath not spoken; the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously, thou shalt not be afraid of him."

As I wrote here, in an earlier dvar Torah, this is only if the prophet prophesies weal and not woe, and prophesies to the public, and is labelled as a false prophet even if he was a true prophet on past occurrences. In fact, the Sifrei on Re`ei records an opinion that the prophet who is said to have performed miracles ("and the sign or the wonder come to pass") in fact performed them in the past in his role as a true prophet of Hashem. Indeed, Chazal say that Chanania the false prophet who clashed with Yirmiyahu in Yirmiyahu 28 was in fact a navi emes, as true prophet, who this time decided to give false prophecy.

Now, what does this have to do with the Rebbe? Well, many of his chassidim say he was a prophet and that he spoke prophecy. They cite instances in which he knew details about situations which were to come to pass and were reflected or hinted at in the advice that he gave people. How they distinguish this from a good intuition or ruach hakodesh (which is a very different level than nevuah), I do not know.

This is not enough on a halachic level to establish someone as a navi emet, though. (Note: To get a good understanding of navi emet/sheker, look in the Rambam's pticha to his perush hamishnayot. If you have a gemara brachot, read the first whole page, both columns, including some important comments by others on the bottom or the page.) For, there is on a halachic level a status of having o chazaka of being a true prophet. Such a navi can speak in the name of Hashem and tell the people to do something without having to provide a miracle to prove his authenticity, since his words came to pass in the past and he is well known as being a tzaddik.

Now, the Rebbe never made such public pronouncements that some event would come to pass, with his status of navi emet/sheker in the balance. That would be required to grant him this chazaka. Rather, these were private pieces of advice, and the prophecy, if you could call it that, was cloaked. His did not claim it to be prophecy. It thus was not falsifiable in the sense that someone could claim he gave false prophecy. Further, the stories you hear about true predictions are self-selected. Someone who received good advice which smacked of foreknowledge would excitedly tell others, and people are willing to promolgate such stories. Where the advice, or prediction did not pan out, there was no such urge to share the information. Even if private pieces of advice could count to establish a chazaka, we do not know that the Rebbe was unerring. In fact, I have heard from someone who heard from some people who were close to the action that the Rebbe's advice did not pan out in more than one instance, but naturally those are not the stories that are excitedly told.

There are two current claims which are being put forth showing that the Rebbe was a prophet, and both involve public prophecy.

The first was that the Rebbe wished the American troops success in their mission in Basra. Thus was during the first Gulf War. The American troops never made it to Basra, though at the time they were close to Basra.

The sicha is here:

The relevant text is:

"Our Sages note that even after the Purim miracle, we remained servants of Achashverosh. Similarly, we are also "servants of Achashverosh." Nevertheless, although we are in the midst of exile, the dominant nation in this exile is a generous country, a country who offers assistance to many nations and offers assistance to its Jewish residents. In appreciation, may G-d grant that country success in its war against Basra and may we soon merit the fulfillment of the prophecy, "Who is that coming in soiled garments from Basra?" with the coming of redemption.""

Now, if they claim that this was prophecy (that the Americans would arrive in Basra and have success in their mission there), and yet the prophecy did not come true, then the Rebbe would a navi sheker! For this was a prophecy of good news made in public. Would anyone have declared the Rebbe chayav mita as a navi sheker back then? Highly unlikely, I would say. (I would also point out that the Rebbe did not say that it was prophecy, but rather was just wishing them luck. Further, the Rebbe was playing of the word Botzra, identifying it with Basra, but could have meant success in general in Iraq, as I've actually seen paraphrased in some some web sites.) (Note is is also easy to be confused because the Rebbe does refer to prophecy, but the prophesy in this case is Yeshaya's not his own.)

Enter the recent war in Iraq. One news show interviewed various groups to see how they felt about attacking Iraq. They interviewed some yound chassidim in 770 who were saying how the Rebbe predicted this, in prophecy.

Now, where did the Rebbe predict this? The answer is the above "prophecy." If the Rebbe said American troops would get to Basra and succeed, and they did not, it could not be that a) the Rebbe was not speaking prophecy or b) the Rebbe was a navi sheker. Rather, the Rebbe was a navi emet, speaking truth, and so the prophecy will still be fulfilled. Thus, the Rebbe was predicting that in the future, America would attack Iraq and American troops would reach Basra and succeed.

In fact, after coalition forces captured Basra, I saw the claim made on that this was the fulfillment of the Rebbe's prophecy. This was put forth by the man who was in charge of publishing the Rebbe's sichot.

Now, the Rebbe clearly was talking about the war that was going on just then, not about some future war. And, that "prophecy" did not come true. So, he should be a "navi sheker." (In fact, in the latest Iraq war, American troops were nowhere near Basra. It was British troops.) Only by stretching the meaning of the "prophecy" could you transform it into another "prophecy," and claim that it is true, and you need to be a dedicated chassid to do that.

This goes against the halachot of navi sheker. If a person well-known for being a prophet (like Chanania in Yirmiyahu 28) makes a prediction and it is clear that it did not come true, he is a navi sheker. You do not reinterpret the prophets words so that what actually happens accords with them! Rather, you put the false prophet to death!

However, what I presented above is not nuanced enough of a picture. Read the article I linked to on The author states:

"During that time, I had the privilege of working as one of the oral scribes of the Rebbe, reviewing and transcribing his public talks for publication. That night, I received a telephone call from one of the Rebbe's secretaries, Rabbi Laibel Groner, who instructed me, in the name of the Rebbe, not to publish the segment of the talk that dealt with the U.S. war against Iraq.

The Rebbe had told his secretary at the time, that "these words will be applicable at a future time (10)."

{Josh's note: The footnote there, very important, states: 10) The Rebbe used the famous biblical expression, "Od Chazon Lemoed."}

As we all remember, the first Persian Gulf war ended only a few weeks after it began. On Thursday, Feb. 28, 1991, Saddam withdrew completely from Kuwait and a cease-fire was declared. The end of the war coincided with Purim, the day in which we celebrate the victory of the Jewish people against another tyrant and mass killer by the name of Haman who lived in that region some 2,400 years ago.

Two days later, on Sabbath, the 16th day of Adar 5751 (March 2, 1991) the Rebbe blessed the American government and its armed forces. He spoke of the U.S. as "a nation of generosity," allowing and encouraging Jews to live Jewishly in full freedom and prosperity. The Rebbe expressed a heartfelt prayer "that the American troops succeed in their mission in Basra."

This last statement at the time was extremely perplexing. Did the Rebbe not know that the war had ended? Was the Rebbe unaware of the fact that the troops had withdrawn from Basra and from the rest of Iraq? After all, the Rebbe himself had predicted that the war would be over by Purim! Why, two days later, was the Rebbe praying for the success of an American campaign in Basra?"

He then claims the fulfillment was 10 years later, and that is what the Rebbe meant by a future time.

However, this is an important thing to note, that may have slipped by some readers. This man, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Jacobson, worked as "as one of the oral scribes of the Rebbe, reviewing and transcribing his public talks for publication." That is, he transcribed them and edited them. In other words, what you see as a sicha is not a pure transcription, but things might have been changed. Indeed, one of the Rebbe's secretaries, Rabbi Laibel Groner, in the name of the Rebbe, instructed him to take out part of the sicha.

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Jacobson was perplexed how the Rebbe could talk about Basra when American troops were withdrawing. Didn't the Rebbe know? The answer should have been that the Rebbe made a mistake, and was correcting it by making sure it did not appear in the printed sicha.

As such, we cannot really rely on any of the sichot where the Rebbe predicted something and it came true. Even though he said things publicly, if they did not come true he could always instruct the editors to take it out! Oy! One has to wonder how many other things were taken out over the years when they were embarrassingly false predictions/statements.

One eerie thing that is left, though, is that "the Rebbe used the famous biblical expression, "Od Chazon Lemoed." This is being taken to mean that that section he was now predicting (privately) would occur in the future. This famous biblical expression is from Chabakuk 2, and means "the vision is yet for an appointed time," or else "there is yet another vision about the appointed time." Presumably, the Rebbe meant the former. The prophecy must be speaking about some event in the future, he meant. Which prophecy? Not his own. Rather, Yeshaya's prophecy. It can be interpreted as a sheepish observation about an attempt to apply a pasuk from Yeshaya incorrectly to contemporary events. Yeshaya must be talking about some event in the future.

Thus, chassidim are interpreting a cover-up of an embarrassing faulty prediction as a cryptic and mystical prophecy of things to come (and which now have passed). Again, oy.

The same type of "proof" is used to show that the Rebbi is alive. The Rebbe predicted as "prophecy" that mashiach would come in our generation:

"May the soul reach the ultimate level of ascent, the level to be
reached at the time of the Resurrection. And may this take place in
the immediate future. For ours is the last generation of the exile
and the first generation of the Redemption.

Together with all the Jews of the present generation who will
proceed to the Holy Land amidst health and joy, they will be joined
by "those who lie in the dust," the souls of the previous
generations, who "will arise and sing.""

Now, the Rebbe said "ours" is the last generation, thus including himself. Thus, mashiach must come while he is still alive. But he's dead!

The answer at this point should be either a) he was not saying this as prophecy, and was wrong, or b)he was saying this as prophecy (even though nowhere in the sicha does he say it is prophecy-check it out), and thus was a navi sheker.

Instead, some chassidim say: The Rebbe said it as prophecy, so it must be true. Thus, even though it looks like he dies, he did not die.


If this were so, no false prophet could ever be found. A prophet could say, "tomorrow at noon there will be a solar eclipse." When it does not occur, the prophet (or his followers) could say that there was a solar eclipse, even though our eyes tell us differently. How would this be an answer to the question how determine a false prophet. To refresh your minds:

"And if thou say in thy heart: 'How shall we know the word which the LORD hath not spoken?'

When a prophet speaketh in the name of the LORD, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD hath not spoken; the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously, thou shalt not be afraid of him."

This is even so of a prophet who has a chazaka of being legit.

This way of proving a false prophet true, by the way, has a history. Specifically, that famous false prophet Chanania, in Yirmiyahu 28. Yirmiyahu tells him that if he is a false prophet he will die that year. Yet, the last pasuk of that perek informs us that he died in the seventh month. The seventh month in understood by Chazal (in the gemara) to be Tishrei, and thus he died in the next year. They answer that he actually dies before the year was up, but, under Chanania's orders, his sons hid the fact of his death and buried him afterwards to make it appear as if he was a navi emet. The chassidim who are claiming the Rebbe is still alive seem to be taking the role of Chanania's sons, but surely not on the command of the Rebbe.

In sum, the Rebbe was not a false prophet, because he never intended his words as prophecy. Only if you falsely claim he meant them as prophecy would the Rebbe be a navi sheker.


Devorah said...

You dare to criticise a tzaddik on the internet. You have your facts wrong, I would retract it if I were you.

joshwaxman said...

This is not a criticism but rather a defense. I am explaining why the Rebbe is *NOT* a navi sheker -- because he was not a navi.

Not being a navi is not a criticism. You and I are not neviim either. And Rav Moshe Feinstein was not a navi either. Nor is my own rebbe. This is not a criticism.

And since I am not you, I will not retract.

However, if you would like to explain how I have my facts wrong instead of merely asserting this is so, please feel free to do so.

Kol Tuv,

joshwaxman said...

That said, let me stress that I understand and appreciate your sentiment, in favor of a tzaddik. However, as you no doubt know from my other posts, I am very much in favor of carefully evaluating claims of prophecy for accuracy, especially in a messianic context or where it leads to major theological divergences.

This is, indeed, the mandate imposed upon us by the Torah in parshas Reeh.

Kol Tuv,

Milhouse said...

The Rebbe may very well have been a navi, but a nevu'ah must be said in the name of Hashem. If Moshe Rabbenu looked up one morning and said "it looks like rain, better get an umbrella", would anyone call that a nevu'ah? Supposing that it didn't rain, would anyone call him a nevi sheker for it? Of course not. Only if he had said "ko amar Hashem, it's going to rain", would it be a nevu'ah, which must come true.

Back in 1992, R Sholom Ber Wolpe, the great champion of the Rebbe's status as a navi, commented on the fact that the big nevu'ah that was being touted had not in fact been said as a nevu'ah, and the idea that it was a nevu'ah had been added in a footnote. He speculated that the reason the Rebbe had chosen to do it this way was so as not to be machshil those who would not believe it. Had he openly said "I am a navi, and ko amar Hashem..." then anyone who disbelieved it would be guilty of a terrible sin; in his great chesed he chose not to say it in this way, so they would be patur. Of course in hindsight we have a different explanation, but the fact remains that he didn't say it as a nevu'ah, and even R Wolpe admitted it.

menachem rephun said...

While it may never have been his intention to proclaim himself as the messiah during his lifetime, the Rebbe is straddling a very fine line towards becoming a moshiach sheker or worse as his thousands of followers revere him alarmingly close to the point of deification. The attitude of chabad towards the rebbe is eerily reminiscent of early christianity, i.e. a cult of personality in which the deceased leader is elevated over time to a higher and higher pedestal until he reaches a super human or godlike status, ultimately supplanting G-d Himself (chalilah). It seems that this is what is transpiring with Chabad to me. I don't believe the Rebbe viewed himself as the messiah but whether or not he really did remains a hauntingly ambiguous question.


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