I’ve always had a soft spot for the tough sections of Torah, and Parshat Re’eh does not disappoint. I need look no farther than Deuteronomy 13: 2-19: What do you do if you come upon a false prophet? Answer: Get rid of ‘em!
Some context: Moses is talking to Israelites who either saw, or are the children of those who saw, the Revelation at Sinai. These were the children who grew up on stories of slavery and freedom from parents who were there. These Jews had no excuse not to believe the truth about God. And yet snake oil salesmen somehow infiltrated the people. Or worse, our own folks — people who should know better — turned into charlatans, mountebanks, those who might offer the quick fix of the seductive ease of idolatry.
I’m not surprised. Monotheism is hard. Believing in one God is very challenging. Idolatry offers a visual conduit, some icon or idol I can place in a cute little shrine in my house as a reminder. Call me a heretic, but idolatry is much easier. And that’s why these false prophets arise. Maybe they believe it. Maybe. Or maybe they can make a quick buck with their idol store in the marketplace. Or maybe they just want followers in order to amass power. They pull this off because they know many people can’t handle the complexity and sophistication of an invisible God.
Clearly, the parsha tells us, the lies these false prophets feed us can spread like a virus. Their nonsense is a lie, but is a seductive lie that can easily infect other family members, the folks next door, the whole town if we don’t stop and check the spread. If it spreads, if enough people follow the false prophets, the Israelites will turn into just another small idol worshipping tribe destined to fade from history, never to be heard from again.
And that is why, in very graphic terms, the parsha instructs that these peddlers of lies must be removed. No, not removed — killed, eradicated. And if a whole town bought into it? Destroy the whole town, all of it, even the cattle. Get rid of disinformation completely because it is a clear and present danger to the future of the Jewish people and imperils our goal to follow God in order to make the world a better place and make ourselves better people.
To be clear, I am not advocating killing any modern day snake oil salesmen. I am happy to leave that level of comeuppance to antiquity. But I do believe we can and should do more to stop modern day quackery, to do our very best to eradicate that which leads us astray, away from that which is true and good.
That which makes society better is good. That which sows doubt in order to enrich others, that which threatens to keep us from making the world a better place needs to be dealt with firmly. Not that we shouldn’t keep an open mind. We should. In Deuteronomy 13:15 we are instructed to investigate and interrogate thoroughly. Maybe they aren’t false prophets. Maybe they have an important point of view. Fair enough. Let’s check it out. But after inquiry, if it turns out that indeed the prophets are false, the disinformation is in fact disinformation … well, we know what to do to save our society. PJC
Rabbi Larry Freedman is the director of the Joint Jewish Education Program. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.