Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Benefit of the doubt? (as it applies to Nir ben Arzi)

Regarding 'psychic' tractor driver Nir Ben Arti, Tomer Devorah asserted the following interesting assertion recently:
16 Adar II 5771

If a Jew comes and says he has a God-given ability to predict the future, we are obligated to give him the benefit of the doubt until one of his predictions proves to be wrong.
It reads like a halachic assertion, since "we are obligated" and that she is invoking the idea of "benefit of the doubt" to a fellow "Jew". Sounds like an application of dan lekaf zechut. (See the "indeed" sentence below, though -- she likely intended the laws of navi sheker / navi emet, which I discuss below.)

It is an interesting assertion, but I have to wonder whether it is correct. This is a good excuse to present the Rambam's explanation of that famous Mishnah in Pirkei Avos. That Mishna reads:

"Yehoshua ben Perachya and Nitai HaArbeili received from them. Yehoshua ben Perachya said: Make for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every person to the side of good."

The Rambam explains this in more detail, so that people do not err and overgeneralize:

"And judge every person to the side of good -- its meaning is that when a person, who you do not know about him whether he is a tzadik or a rasha, and you see him do some action or say some thing, which if you interpret it in one way it is good and if you interpret it in another way it is bad, take the good one and don't think about him that he is bad. But, if that person is known as a well-known tzaddik, by his well-known good deeds, and yet it appears that he has done an act which almost certainly seems to be a bad act, such that one cannot explain it is a good act except by a very farfetched and unlikely theory, it is fitting that he take him to be good, since there is some possibility for it to be good, and it is not permitted to suspect him. And this is what they {=Resh Lakish, Shabbat 97a} say, 'anyone who suspects the innnocent is bodily afflicted.' And so when he is a wicked person and his {evil} actions are well-known, and afterwards we see him perform an action which seems to suggest that he is good, and there is a distant possibility that it is evil, upon this it is states {Mishlei 26:25}

כה  כִּי-יְחַנֵּן קוֹלוֹ, אַל-תַּאֲמֶן-בּוֹ:    כִּי שֶׁבַע תּוֹעֵבוֹת בְּלִבּוֹ.25 When he speaketh fair, believe him not; for there are seven abominations in his heart.

And when he is unknown, and the action is not weighing towards one of the two possibilities, the one needs, according to the dictated of chasidut, to judge to the side of favor whichever one it is of the two sides."

Thus ends the Rambam. This goes against many inspirational lectures and books, but what seems to be the case is that, according to Rambam:
(1) Judging favorably even in the extremely far-fetched case is only for known tzaddikim.
(2) Judging unfavorably even in the extremely far-fetched case is only for known reshaim.
(3) Where it is more or less evenly weighted, and the person is unknown as a tzaddik or rasha, then we must judge favorably, it seems as derech chassidut.

This does NOT mean that for a regular beinoni, where it seems rather clear than he is acting incorrectly, we must grant the most extreme and far-fetched charitable interpretation. And it does not mean that we must suspend rational thought and discard any input from our own seichel.

The does not address Nir Ben Artzi specifically, and is in fact rather orthogonal to his case. But it has to do with how people generally overapply dan lekaf zechut. This would not be such a problem -- in fact, it would be a good thing -- if it did not come against other important values, such as e.g. protecting victims.

Now for something more specific to Jewish predictors. Dan lekaf zechut does not mean I must suspend rational judgment and believe any street-prophet to be real rather than a lunatic until he is proved to be false. Rather, it has to do with interpreting a person's actions as a mitzvah or aveira. And Dan lekaf zechut also must be balanced with the public welfare.

I will give a mashal.

There is a Jewish fellow, unlicensed in medicine, who believes that he can cure cancel with energy-healing from his hands, as a God-given gift. Would we say the following?
If a Jew comes and says he has a God-given ability to [heal cancer], we are obligated to give him the benefit of the doubt until one of [his patients dies].
Personally, I would not believe him until he demonstrates this ability. And if others in the public were skipping chemotherapy treatments to go to this likely-quack, I would probably warn others not to trust on him based on shoddy evidence. Do you really think "benefit of the doubt" would mandate otherwise?

Let us consider the case of a navi, whether he be a navi emet or navi sheker. (Indeed, from a clarification in the comment section, it seems that this is what Tomer Devorah meant. But see especially my very last paragraph.) In the Mishneh Torah, sefer HaMada, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah, perek 10:
  לְפִיכָּךְ כְּשֶׁיָּבוֹא אָדָם הָרָאוּי לַנְּבוּאָה בְּמַלְאֲכוּת ה', וְלֹא יָבוֹא לְהוֹסִיף וְלֹא לִגְרֹעַ, אֵלָא לַעֲבֹד אֶת ה' בְּמִצְווֹת הַתּוֹרָה--אֵין אוֹמְרִין לוֹ קְרַע לָנוּ אֶת הַיָּם אוֹ הַחֲיֵה מֵת וְכַיּוֹצֶא בְּאֵלּוּ, וְאַחַר כָּךְ נַאֲמִין בָּךְ.  אֵלָא אוֹמְרִין לוֹ, אִם נָבִיא אַתָּה, אֱמֹר לָנוּ דְּבָרִים הָעֲתִידִין לִהְיוֹת; וְהוּא אוֹמֵר, וְאָנוּ מְחַכִּים לוֹ לִרְאוֹת הֲיָבוֹאוּ דְּבָרָיו:  אִם לֹא יָבוֹאוּ, וְאַפִלּוּ נָפַל דָּבָר אֶחָד קָטָן--בַּיָּדוּעַ שְׁהוּא נְבִיא שֶׁקֶר.ר
"Therefore, when a person comes, who is fit for prophecy in the service of Hashem, and does not come to add or subtract, but rather to serve Hashem in the mitzvot of the Torah, we do not say to him 'split for us the Sea, or resurrect the dead, or the like, and afterwards we will believe you'. Rather, we say to him, 'If you are a prophet, say to us things which will happen in the future', and he will say them, and we will wait upon him to see if his words come true. If they do not come true, and even if a single minor thing fails to pass, it is known that he is a false prophet."

That is, such a prophet, who could well be instructing people in things that are life-changing, we are not "obligated" to automatically the "benefit of the doubt", just because he is a Jewish person. Rather, we do not believe his claims until we put him to the test (and as the Rambam continues, even put him to the test multiple times).

Now, Tomer Devorah, in that same post, put forth a bunch of purportedly true predictions by Ben Artzi, and writes that she has yet to see a false prediction. I don't buy it, because the process of finding true predictions involves selecting vague predictions with no expected date from their context, making them roughly and charitably match later events, and assuming that all the unfulfilled predictions simply have not been fulfilled yet. Bli neder, I'll try to analyze this further in a later post.

But this is all beside the point. In something like 15 years of operating, Nir Ben Artzi has never been challenged and risen to the challenge. Yes, this is because he is (purportedly) claiming not to be a prophet. He just claims he can tell us what Hashem is planning and wants from us, and received this ability from On High. But he is not, chas veshalom, a prophet. Snort. (In fact, I find this, in and of itself, suspicious.)

Regardless, he is still in this unchallenged state. He was never falsifiable -- never put himself on the line. And as such, he certainly should not receive the "benefit of the doubt" until proven false. Rather, why listen to him at all, especially for critically important matters such as whether to upend one's life and move to Israel, because the sky is falling?

Meanwhile, while he has not been proven, he claims to be proven. His followers assert that he foresaw the September 11th attacks, and now are asserting that he predicted the earthquake / tsunami in Japan. Based on the quality of the proof to Japan, based on vague dire generalities, I strongly suspect the same is true for the Sept 11 attacks. And, so long as he and his cultists are putting him forward as a true predictor, others certainly have the right to evaluate whether he has really proven it.

Are we obligated to believe him? Certainly not. Are we obligated to suspend our disbelief until he is proven or disproven, meanwhile saying "perhaps he is real, and perhaps not"? I don't think so. For when the Rambam was talking about waiting to see, this was
  1. waiting for a fixed period of time (rather than 15 years so far with no end in sight); 
  2. after he has agreed to submit to a test (rather than being immune because he is technically not a "prophet" and is anyway only predicting woe, which is untestable because Hashem could theoretically be nicham al haRa);
  3. is not meanwhile falsely claiming to have effectively proven himself, and being believed by a gullible following, possibly to their detriment (unlike Nir Ben Artzi)
  4. it is not immediately apparent to the non-gullible just how he is making his "uncanny" predictions (unlike Nir Ben Artzi)
  5. he is operating as a navi, rather than a magician / psychic like Ben Artzi, which the Rambam almost certainly (based on other of Rambam's comments) would consider clearly a fraud.
  6. he has other qualifications of being a prophet, such as being a great scholar, unlike Ben Artzi. See here.
(See earlier posts about Ben Artzi here, here, here, here, and here.)


Chanokh said...

Dear Josh,
while you always manage to give interesting halachic and hashkafic insights when you speak of Harav Hagaon Hatzaddik Hanavi HaPsychictractordriver NBA, I don't quite get why you feel the need to update us so much on his case. Sure, I too do get some sorrowful laughs from reading all of this nonsense, but is he really such of a phenomenon is Israel? I, for one, had never heard of him until you wrote about him.
In any event it would be interesting if you could give us some sociological insight: who are his followers? What is this shul he gives "shiurim" in? Is he really making headlines more than the dozens of other fire-and-brimstone maggidim? Is the debate about him limited to the JBlogosphere?
In other words, rather than spending so much energy in a debunking that is, in my opinion, really needed neither by the skeptics (because they have enough historical knowledge to know what to think about these would-be prophets) nor by the naive "believers" (because they'll believe no matter what), maybe it would be better for you to explain to us why you think this one in particular is worth a post almost everyday.

joshwaxman said...

you are right in that it probably is a waste, for the reasons you gave. there is an end in sight, though. i still have a few posts (right now, under a dozen), to dispense with. my problem is that i am wordy. but i look forward to the day that all this is out of my queue.


Chanokh said...

So this is all jsut an asmachta to speak about hilchos nevi shaker. Fine by me!


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