Beware the False Novi

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Just imagine the following scenario. Peter Popoff, a well known evangelist, announces on his weekly radio and television show which is heard by thousands nationwide, that he had a vision in which J. told him that there would be a devastating earthquake in Los Angeles the following day. He warned all his listeners to evacuate the city at once in order to avoid disaster. His warning was rebroadcast on CNN as well as many other news channels. At first there were very few people that took his warning seriously. ‑That’s because the governor, the mayor as well as leading scientists calmed the population and even mocked his forecast. Leading scientists said that there was absolutely no scientific evidence that an earthquake was in the making.

Yet to the great astonishment and surprise of everyone, his prediction was right on target. The very next morning a powerful earthquake measuring 5.0 on the Richter scale hit the Los Angeles area. In full view of millions who watched it all on their television screens, one could see skyscrapers tumbling down and highways shattered into pieces of rubble. Popoff’s previous prediction was now flashed around the world and his fame suddenly spread far and wide. He became an instant celebrity and was featured on nearly every TV talk show.

A few weeks go by and once again Popoff make the headlines with his prophetic prediction that severe thunderstorms would hit the state of Texas and cause great damage. While the weatherman scoffed at his prediction, reassuring the people that the forecast for the next day was nice and sunny weather with absolutely no storms expected, Peter Popoff once again scored a direct hit as devastating tornadoes ripped through the city causing billions of dollars in damage and killing more than a hundred people.

Now Peter Popoff’s fame spread around the world as his miraculous predictions become the talk of every newspaper, radio and TV program. He, of course, uses this opportunity to spread the words of the gospel, spreading his idolatrous beliefs to all his millions of admirers and followers. His fame spreads to every corner of the world converting millions to his faith. He preaches fire and brimstone against those who dare live an immoral life and warns of divine retribution. He warns the world that a deadly virus will kill anyone not heeding god’s word. A few months’ later scientists discover a deadly virus that they name the HIV virus that destroys the body’s immune system and kills millions of people around the world.

By now most people proclaim Popoff a modern day prophet and every word he utters is flashed around the world.

A few months later, as Popoff is being interviewed on CNN, he makes another one of his prophetic predictions. This time he warns the people of New York City that exactly at 12 noon the very next day, a devastating earthquake will hit the city and advises everyone to flee for their lives.  Just imagine the great panic this would create as millions of New Yorker’s flee by any means possible. There is a mass exodus causing traffic jams of enormous proportions. Even the skeptics who do not believe in his religious message and are not of his faith are not willing to take any chances. While the mayor and other politicians as well as leading scientists, try to calm people’s fears, their plea falls on deaf ears. There is total bedlam as people use every means to leave the city as quickly as possible. Even atheists that don’t believe in any god whatsoever, hasten to pack their most valuable belongings and get out of New York as fast as their feet will take them. That’s because there are no atheists in a foxhole.

Now let me ask my readers an interesting question. What would you do? What do you think most Jews would do? While I’m sure that a religious Jew would certainly not believe his claims to prophesy and may explain his powers as coming from something referred to as the kochos ha’tuma – powers coming from some evil source, is it permitted to get into the car and leave the city? After all, he’s already scored three direct hits.

For those that believe that the above scenario is an impossibility I would advise them to have a look in parshas Ki Sovo that warns us not to listen to any prophet that speaks in the name of avoda zara no matter what great signs and wonders he may perform. And so our question is; while we aren’t permitted to believe in him, are we at least permitted to leave town based on his past correct predictions?

In order to answer this question, let’s take a look into the Rambam hilchos avoda zara (chapter 5 halacha 9.) in which he writes that “anyone who fears the words of a false prophet transgresses the prohibition of the Torah that says “do not fear him.” (Note that in halacha 6 the Rambam describes a false prophet as one that prophesises in the name of an avodah zarah, telling one to do or not to do something, even if what he says conforms with halacha. We are not permitted to debate him nor ask him for a sign or miracle. And even if he performs a miracle it is meaningless and one should not even give it any thought. One who gives it any thought thinking that perhaps it is true or perhaps not, transgresses the lav of “you must not listen to this prophet.”