Religious Life

Do Not Heed Conspiracy Theories

“Do not Heed Conspiracy Theories”
7 Elul 5779 | Shoftim | September 7, 2019
Rabbi Alexander Davis


She turned over card after card and laid them out before me.

“Hmm that’s interesting,” she said. “Oh, very interesting. That makes sense.” 

“What do you see,” I asked.

“Very interesting,” she replied.

I hadn’t expected to have my fortune read. But sometimes you never quite know where things will go when someone asks to meet. So, a few weeks ago, this woman came to my office to talk. Along the way, she pulled out Tarot cards and said, “let’s see what we have.”

For me, about the closest I’ve ever come to the occult is fortune cookies after moshu chicken. So, when she pulled out the cards, I figured this would be pretty interesting. But it turned out to be just a whole lot of “hmm that’s interesting” and, “oh, that makes sense.”

Did I mention they were Jewish Tarot cards? According to our parasha, that should be a contradiction in terms. We read in Chapter 18: “Let no one be found among you who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer, one who casts spells or one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits. For anyone who does such things is abhorrent to the Lord koseim k’samim m’onein um’nacheish um’khsheif v’choveir chaver u’shaal ov v’yiduni… ki toavat hashem kol oseh eileh. (18:10-11).

Our parasha, as explained in the JPS Torah commentary, lists eight techniques for invoking occult powers. This is the longest such list in the Torah. The truth is, scholars are not totally sure what all the terms mean. I imagine that to most of us, they are foreign in English let alone in Hebrew.

Just for fun, let’s test your occult vocabulary. (That way, we’ll reveal the witches among us.)

Necromancy? Consulting with dead spirits. It was assumed that the dead knew hidden things and the future and would reveal them to those who know how to contact them.

Belomancy? Interpreting the ways arrows fall when shaken out of a quiver.

Hydromancy? Divination based on the patterns formed when liquids of different density are mixed.

Hepatoscopy? If it sounds like occult for the GI, it kind of is. It is interpreting the configuration of the liver of a sacrificial animal. I am not sure how it worked but it sounds pretty gross. Archaeologists have found clay models of sheep liver in the Upper Galilee that were used to assist diviners in interpreting their configurations. Other archaeological evidence confirms the variety of practices in pre-Israelite Canaan and indicated that in pagan societies of the ancient Near East, diviners were highly influential. They were regularly consulted by commoners and kings who would not make an important move without them.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the charge to the Israelites could not be more clear: “When you enter the land, do not imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations. Ki at ba el haaretz lo tilmad laasot k’toavot hagoiim hahem (18:9).

Notice, the Torah does not dismiss these powers because they are ineffective. Recall that recall the Egyptian magicians who replicated the first three plagues. Instead, the objection was that these powers were predicated on the notion that there were powers independent of and even superior to God. Moreover, they gave the impression that prediction owed more to the diviner’s wisdom than to divine revelation.

Prophets, on the other hand, avoided what seems objectionable in divination. The prophet either quoted God directly or provided information that required no decipherment. And the prophet made it clear he was acting as God’s agent and not relying on his own “science.” Professor Tigay writes in the JPS Commentary, “God has assigned prophets to communicate His will to Israel directly and unambiguously, by means that do not require the esoteric methods of diviners to implement and interpret God’s words.”

Today, we have our Tarot card readers, and mediums and people with crystal balls. But it seems to me, that there is another class of people who are the modern-day equivalent of diviners. It is not a perfect analogy, but they are conspiracy theorists. And we should likewise say, “do not learn from their abhorrent practices.”

By one estimate, half of Americans believe in conspiracy theories. They believe that vaccines cause autism, that 9/11 was an inside job, that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax and more recently, that Jeffery Epstein was murdered.

What is the attraction to conspiracy theories?

We as human beings do not like unanswered questions. We want to know who, how, why. But sometimes, when confronted with that which is complex and coincidental, we seek simplistic answers. This is especially true in times like our own of political polarization and when people who feel disenfranchised seek ways to explain what’s happening in the world.

Conspiracy theories claim to explain what traditional sources cannot. They appear to make sense out of a world that is otherwise confusing. They do so by an appealingly simple “science” that defies logic, that resists falsification and that is reinforced by circular logic.

Like ancient diviners who propagated the belief that there were powers independent of God, conspiracy theorists claim independent, often sinister, powerful forces are behind today’s events. Like diviners who claimed the power to read signs and recognize hidden patterns, conspiracy theorists use secret knowledge, unappreciated by others, to explain events or situations. Like diviners whose practice seemed to undermined God’s authority and power, conspiracy theorists undermine trust in traditional institutions. Not surprisingly, today scientists see a correlation between those who believe conspiracy theories and those who believe in the paranormal

When it comes to the upcoming attempt to storm Nevada’s Area 51 looking for aliens, we might laugh it off. But conspiracy theories are dangerous, even deadly. Recently, the FBI declared that conspiracy theories are “very likely” to inspire domestic terrorists to commit criminal and sometimes violent acts. Given the power of social media to spread them and a president who actively promotes them, we have got to find a way to distinguish fact from fiction.

In the Torah, we are warned, “beware of false prophets that lead you astray.” We are instead to heed the true prophets of God. But how can we tell them apart? We find the beginning of an answer in the Book of Jeremiah.

Jeremiah had been prophesying national disaster. The Israelites, he said, had drifted from God and would soon face destruction and exile. It was a difficult and demoralizing message for people to hear. Wouldn’t you know it, a false prophet arose preaching the opposite. Hananiah ben Azzur said, “Don’t worry. Babylon, Israel’s enemy, would soon be defeated. Within two years the crisis would be over.” Jeremiah knew that it was not so, and that Hananiah was telling the people what they wanted to hear, not what they needed to hear (Jonathan Sacks).

Jeremiah suggests that if a message is difficult to utter and difficult to hear, it is likely authentic. But if the words are easy to say and appealing to hear, we have reason to doubt them. While not fully fleshed out, I think this is a good starting point when considering conspiracy theories. Does their validity stem from proof or popularism? Are they the answers we want to hear or the answers we need to hear?

I believe that this study goes beyond the topic of diviners and conspiracy theories. All of us construct stories. We tell stories about ourselves and about others. How many of those stories are a distortion of reality that we eagerly believe out of convenience because the truth is too hard to bear? How many of those stories are built on assumption and conjecture? Have we personally investigated what really happened?

This season of Elul challenges us to examine those stories we tell and the stories we believe. We are called upon to search for truth, to distinguish fact from fiction, to tell and to listen to the stories we need to hear even, especially, if they are hard.

In the Psalm for Elul we say, “false witness have risen against me, purveyors of malice and lies.” May we heed the warnings against false witnesses rising against us and within us.