By Rabbi Doug Zelden, Guest Torah Columnist
Torah Portion: Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)
Within a block filled with shuls (synagogues) in Chicago’s Jewish neighborhood in West Rogers Park, there stands out a little store front with the sign “Palm Reading” and “Fortune Teller.” I see people walking by pondering if they should just come in one time and see what the fortune teller has to say. We also see horoscopes each day in the paper, and I even remember when I was growing up, that a Sephardic neighbor offered to read your fortune in the remains in your Turkish coffee cup after you finished drinking it.
What is the Torah’s position when it comes to these fortunetellers? The answer can be found in this week’s Torah portion of Shoftim. In chapter 18 we read the following, “When you come to the land that Hashem your G-d has given to you, do not learn to follow the abominations of the nations. There must not be found amongst you anyone… who uses divination, or soothsayers, or an enchanter, or a witch. For all of these are abominations before Hashem.” – (Deuteronomy 18:9-12)
Our commentaries explain that telling the future is what all these individuals had in common. In very clear terms the Torah informs us that it is forbidden to visit such individuals. In fact the language of the Torah is quite harsh claiming that it is “an abomination to G-d.” I know how tempting it is to want to pull your car over and go into that palm readers office. “What can it hurt?” we all say. I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news telling you that the Torah forbids this outright. But you will argue “it may save my marriage” or “help me get my kids into the right school.” The answer is “too bad” G-d simply doesn’t allow it. Nor can you ask your dead relatives questions with a Ouija board.
But this is the real question. There are two possibilities why the Torah forbids us to visit fortune tellers and star readers. One possibility is that there is no validity in their practices. It is all rubbish and their predictions are all false. It is foolish to visit such people and the Torah doesn’t want us to be foolish.
The second possibility is that there is validity in fortune telling. If done properly, and by the correct individual, then indeed ones fortune can be revealed. Nevertheless in spite of the truth of this practice the Torah forbids it.
Maimonides adopts the former position. In his code of Jewish Law he states the following, “All of these matters are all false and lies. It is in these matters that the idolaters erred and it is not proper for the Jewish nation who are wise to follow in these foolish ways. Nor should they even think there is anything positive in them” (Maimonides Laws of Idolatry 11:16). Maimonides, The Rambam, is quite clear in his opinion. As the great rationalist he claims that these methods are lies at worst and foolish at best. To him the question of whether to visit the palm reader or fortune teller is a closed book. One should not only stay far away from such individuals, but they should not even be tempted by them.
Different are the words of “Nahmanides” – The Ramban. In his opinion there may actually exist individuals who know the art of fortune telling and who can predict the future with accuracy. In his commentary to our Parsha he says the following, “There are many who claim that there is no validity in wizards (and fortune tellers)… but we cannot deny their validity… for even our Rabbis attested to their truth.” (Nahmanides Devarim 18:9)
As you can see according to Nahmanides (the mystic) there may be truth in the words of the accomplished fortuneteller. Through various methods there are individuals who can tell you what the future has in store. Nevertheless the Torah gives us explicit instructions that it is forbidden to visit these individuals in order to find out the future.
The question, according to Nahmanides view, that begs asking is why are fortune tellers forbidden? According to Maimonides the reason is simple; they are liars. But according to Nahmanides why should going to someone who can tell you the truth about the future be forbidden?
Furthermore wouldn’t the information we gathered from such an individual be extremely helpful. I don’t know about all of you but I would be more than happy to know the winning numbers to this week’s Power Ball in advance. Imagine all the problems we could avert if we knew the future. Decision-making would sure be easier. So why, in spite of all the benefits, would the Torah forbid fortune telling? Nahmanides himself answers the question later on in his commentary. He says the following, “We are not allowed to ask of the fortune tellers and we are not allowed to place our trust in them. Rather if we do hear something that they say we must say nevertheless everything is in the hands of heaven. For he is G-d above all others who can do everything including changing that which is determined by the stars according to his wishes… and we must believe that everything that happens to us is in accordance to the closeness of how we serve him. (Nahmanides 18:13)
What Nahmanides is saying is that even though there are individuals who can tell the future, nothing is written in stone. Even if they make a valid prediction, G-d can change it in a moment. Furthermore through our actions we can also cause everything to be changed. If I could just reword what Nahmanides is saying I would say it is that “the future is right now.” Our every action at the present moment has the ability to alter even, that which was pre-determined. The future to Nahmanides is right now.
We can take Nahmanides words even further. Whereas according to Maimonides following fortunetellers is foolish, according to Nahmanides it is outright dangerous. Let me explain. It is true that knowing the future could avert many problems, but it would also create the most crippling and pessimistic philosophy around. Once one knows the future then all possibilities are closed. There is nothing one can do because what is going to happen has to happen. When we do not know the future then the possibilities we can choose from are infinite. When we know the future then there are no possibilities.
We would be paralyzed by complete pessimism knowing that there is nothing we can do to change our lives. A fundamental principle in Judaism is that we can change, that we are dynamic beings able to choose and create a better world for ourselves and for those around us.
By not knowing what the future has in store life becomes exciting and filled with so many decisions and opportunities. Knowing the future may make life easier but it would be less fulfilling. Not knowing the future makes life more challenging. But isn’t it a challenge that we crave?
This message is also an important one during this time of the year. We began blowing the Shofar this week as we build up to the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This is a time of introspection and repentance. It is a time to ask ourselves where have we been and where are we going. It is a time to improve ourselves spiritually, morally, and emotionally. The premise of all repentance is that we can change. The concept of repentance calls out to us saying, we can change our past and make a better future by acting in the present. Indeed the message of this month of “Elul” is that the “future is right now.”
Rabbi Doug Zelden is rabbi of Congregation Or Menorah (Orthodox) in Chicago,
chaplain for Home Bound Hospice, and hosts the weekly TV show
“Taped with Rabbi Doug” (www.tvrabbi.com).