The Problem with Astrology

Friday, 9 September, 2016 - 3:08 pm

The Problem with Astrology  

The Torah’s position on astrology is clear: while the nations of ancient Canaan would seek the counsel of astrologers that predict the future, astrology should be off limits for the Jew:    

For these nations that you are possessing - they hearken to astrologers and diviners; but as for you - not so has Hashem your G-d given for you. [1]

The Jews may ask: how then will we survive with this disadvantage? While all the nations look to their astrologers to guide them in everything they do, from planning war to picking stocks, the Jews, will be in the dark regarding the future. Moses puts them at ease by telling them that they will have a different source of information:

A prophet from your midst, from your brethren, like me, shall Hashem, your G-d establish for you - to him shall you hearken. [2]

The question, of course, is what is the difference between the prophet and the astrologer? If listening to an astrologer is so terrible, why is the Jew, not only permitted, but in fact commanded, to listen to the prophet? The question is intensified when one realizes that prophets have a far from perfect track record in predicting the future. Perhaps, the most famous prophetic prediction gone wrong was the prophecy of Jonah, which warned that the great city of Nineveh would be destroyed forty days henceforth, when in fact, no such thing happened. The people of Nineveh repented, and G-d averted the terrible decree. The reason the prophecy was not actualized was because only a prophecy predicting something good must materialize, a prophecy predicting a negative event can change, because G-d is compassionate and may change the bad prophecy up until the very last moment.

The astrologers, by contrast, are straightforward. They don’t say that their prediction might change.

Why then would we want to listen to a prophet, whose prophecy might or might not come to fruition? What good was the Nineveh prophecy, if, due to the inherent uncertainty of prophecy, one could not use it to bet against the Nineveh stock market?

The answer is that the prophet and the astrologer are not at all in the same line of business. Their mission statements cannot be further apart.

The astrologer tells a person that based on his or her personality, nature, or spiritual make-up, his destiny is such and such. In some ways, the information is very useful. Why should a person spend a lifetime trying to discover what he is good at and what will cause him to fail, when he can take the shortcut and get this crucial information from the astrologer? The Torah declares it a sin to listen to the astrologer. Because, implied in the message of the astrologer is that a person cannot change. The astrologer is paid to predict the future, to tell the person what his destiny is, based on his nature, and this nature, argues the astrologer, is not subject to change.

The prophet, however, is not in the business of predicting the future. The prophet is here to inspire a person to break out of his nature, to break free of his destiny, and to understand that there is no barrier to spiritual growth that cannot be shattered. In the final analysis, the astrologer limits a person, while the prophet liberates him.

When Nineveh was spared Jonah was terribly angry. His worst fear was realized. Initially he had tried to escape his mission precisely because he was afraid that at the end, G-d would not destroy the city. He was afraid that his reputation as a professional predictor of the future would be severely damaged. No one would ever trust his predictions again. G-d was upset at Jonah’s anger, precisely because Jonah missed the point of prophecy. Jonah did not realize that had his prediction succeeded, his mission would have failed. For the prophet's mission is not to tell a person what his destiny is, but rather it is to tell him that he can change and become a new person anytime he so desires.

Although we are no longer in the era of the prophets, we must nevertheless take the message of the prophets to heart.  We need to ignore our inner astrologer and listen to our inner prophet. The greatest impediment to growth, both spiritual and material, is the voice inside of us which tells us, that, after all these years, we know who we are, we know our strengths and we know our weaknesses. We know where we will succeed and we know where we will fail. We have it all figured out. We know what we allow ourselves to hope for, and we know what we afraid to even attempt to dream for.

The commandment to heed the prophet, in the portion of Shoftim, is read during the month of Elul, the month of introspection and repentance leading up to the New Year, And we read the book of Jonah on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement because at this time of the year, as we prepare for the new year, we must listen to the voice of prophecy. We must understand that whatever our nature is, we can and must not be limited by it. We must understand that G-d gives us the power to break out of our limitations, to change, to become the person we know we should be.        



[1] Deuteronomy 18:14.

[2] Ibid. 18:15.

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