Sunday, September 07, 2008

From Among Your Brethren

Notes reconstructing an impromptu devar Torah from Parashat Shoftim.

The Torah stresses that a King of Israel must be "from among your brethren." There are halakhic ramifications of this — the Mishna tells us, and the Gemara expands on the story, that King Agrippas of the Second Commonwealth would cry as he read this passage, because he wasn't אחיך 'enough', being descended from Edomite converts.

The Torah also seems to stress that a Prophet of God must be "from among your brethren." Interestingly enough, however, Rambam goes out of his way in his Letter to Yemen to hammer home the message that prophets don't need to be Jewish. When evaluating a prophet to see whether they are True or False, their identity doesn't matter. All that matters is their message. If their message is one that reinforces Torah, we can move to the next step of asking for miraculous signs. If their message contradicts Torah, on the other hand, they are by definition false — and just as there can be Israelite false prophets, such as Hhananya ben ‘Azur, there can also be Non-Jewish true prophets.

So why, when the Torah seems to say that both need to be "from among your brethren", do we only accept a King who is unimpeachably "one of us", but potentially accept Prophets no matter where they come from?

A king is a political leader. He needs to be able to identify fully with his constituents, and they need to be able to identify fully with him. A prophet, on the other hand, represents God. God is the ultimate Other. God makes the rules. So as long as you can verify — based on message and miracle — that the prophet is True, it doesn't matter whether they're related to you or not, and you can "accept the truth from whoever says it."

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