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Green Cheese
by Dr. Arnie Gotfryd

To put it plainly, everyone has criteria for what can reliably be considered true. If an idea meets those standards, it is fit to b ebelieved and acted upon. -  The Rebbe, Mind Over Matter, p.8.
 
 

They say that America is a meritocracy. There is nothing to stop you from working your way up from rags to riches or from ignoble origins to the presidency itself. Even after you've earned your way up, staying there is no given, due to various checks and balances to fiscal and political clout. But once you have legitimately climbed the ranks and now rule the roost, your authority is great.
 
Judaism has something similar. For millennia, the best scholar became the Rabbi, and the most scholarly of those became renowned authorities and their rulings were obeyed. Yes, one could always question the basis of a rabbinic ruling, but generally speaking once rendered appropriately, the ruling of a Torah authority is binding.
 
Now I'm no major league player in economics, politics or rabbinics, but in Applied Ecology, I've been up a few rungs and the view from there can be instructive. Let me share a story.
 
The City of Toronto once took a local homeowner to task over his plan to fell a clump of old red oak trees on his property. His yard, like those of his neighbors, backed on to a ravine slope leading to a long, winding City Park enjoyed by many. The City said leveling the oak trees would disturb the park ecosystem and he therefore couldn't chop them down. He of course cried foul. The matter went to hearing before a Tribunal of the Ontario Municipal Board, a judicial court.
 
I was called in as an expert witness for the City, having specialized in urban forest ecosystems. The trial was set for the intermediate days of the holiday of Sukkot, and I attended in traditional Chassidic holiday garb. My double breasted, knee-length kapote (jacket), black fedora and untrimmed beard raised some eyebrows as I was called up to testify and to answer cross-examination.
 
But the vast majority of questions I got were not about nature. They were about credentials. What university did you attend? What degrees did you obtain? In what specialties? How many peer-reviewed articles have you published? How many environmental assessments have you conducted? For which clients?
 
By the time it was established that I was entitled to have an expert opinion, it became almost irrelevant what opinion I had. Of course I had to show drawings and data and speak to the issues, but the reliability of my statements was no longer in question. It felt like if I had told them the moon was made out of green cheese, they would have believed it.
 
*     *     *
 
Judaism has another role prequalified by merit and that is the status of a prophet. On the one hand, since the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, prophecy has rested primarily on imbeciles and children, neither of whom can be relied on for the veracity of their statements.[1] So some silly kid might be telling you divine prophecies all day and you will just never know.
 
On the other hand, if someone is healthy and spirit, mind and body, disciplined in his lifestyle and dignified in his personality, focused on Torah's wisdom and committed to deeds of goodness and kindness, and after all this predicts future events accurately which could not be known in advance, and then repeats the performance on several occasions, then this person has the status of a prophet in Jewish law.
 
In biblical times there were prophetical schools where people would work on themselves to achieve a spiritual level where they would be worthy of prophecy. Many succeeded, probably thousands, but only 55 made it to the "major leagues" and got recorded in the Hebrew scriptures as prophets. Often they would meditate to get in the spirit of things or they would burn incense and listen to music, and that could catalyze a revelation.
 
In any case, when such a person tells you what to do or what not to do, there is a special commandment of listening to him or her, and a special transgression invoked for one who does not heed[2], as this week's Torah portion says, "Aylav tishmeun."[3] Of course there are limits. A kosher prophet can't tell you to add a mitzvah to the Torah or to cancel one. But his merit has earned him authority so we have to listen up.
 
Lest one think this is some arcane fact with no practical relevance these days, we should note that among all the criteria of who can be a kosher prophet and what constitutes a false one, etc., there is no mention in Jewish law (halacha) of any time limitations. In fact someone could get up today with all the criteria and start batting 1000 on the next day's stock prices or election results and you'd have to listen to him just like you have to keep Shabbos or Kosher.
 
I've met one of those. In 1992 there was a NY Times weekend supplement entitled "The Oracle of Brooklyn," all about the Lubavitcher Rebbe and his uncanny ability to foresee outcomes of wars, business deals, marriages, medical treatments, etc., by the tens of thousands with incredibly precision and accuracy.
 
The Rebbe is/was incomparably saintly, wise, disciplined, dignified, good and kind. But was he a prophet? In the same category as those biblical giants? Like Moses? Maimonides, in his Code, goes on to say that we didn't listen to Moses so much because of his wonders and miracles, but rather because the Torah says to do so. And the same applies here.
 
The Rebbe, nearly twenty years ago, said that these laws are relevant now, and relevant to Moshiach whose prophetic abilities are apparent even before the redemption occurs. He says that all mankind needs to know that the Almighty has chosen one individual to be the judge, advisor and prophet of the generation, and that his own personal prophecy is, "Immediately to redemption," "Behold (this) Moshiach coming."[4]
 
The Rebbe is/was an American and he is/was a Jew. It may sound like green cheese to you but however you slice it, the meritocracy applies. In all worldly and Torah matters he has been held in the highest esteem and meets all the criteria for a kosher prophet.
 
The expression goes, "If it looks like a duck, and walks like a duck and quacks like a duck," then you may as well assume that's what it is. The same applies here. We can't know directly if the Creator spoke to someone or didn't, but we can know whether the Creator wants us to believe that He did. That's what the halacha is for.
 
The hard part about all this is the "Aylav tishmeun" part. We like to benefit from the foresight but we don't want to pay the price. Listening means giving up control and letting someone else run my agenda.
 
The good part about it is that we know we are truly in the home stretch and that any moment now, the dream will become the reality and we will celebrate renewed and universal communion with the Creator of the Universe and all mankind together as one with the coming of Moshiach NOW!
 

 
[1] Bava Basra 12b
[2] Rambam Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah, Chapters 7 - 10.
[3] Devarim 18:5
[4] Sicha of Parshas Shoftim 5751
 
Dr. Aryeh (Arnie) Gotfryd, PhD is a chassid, environmental scientist, author and educator living near Toronto, Canada. To contact, read more or to book him for a talk, visit
www.arniegotfryd.com or call 416-858-9868

 

 


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