Many people are asking this question today and not finding any satisfying answers. To my surprise, Maimonides answered this question concisely 800 years ago.
Kenneth Seeskin’s analysis of Maimonides’ positions on religious fanaticism and false prophets is profound and refreshing:
"… Maimonides had firsthand experience of religious intolerance. He knew that Jewish people are not immune to to ignorance or superstition. His answer is that our prime criterion for deciding who speaks for God is truth (Guide 2.40). If we are presented with a body of law which inculcates true beliefs, which encourages intellectual growth and critical reflection, which makes sound recommendations for personal health and social harmony, then, and only then, do we have a basis for believing that the message may be divinely inspired. So the criteria for deciding who is a prophet are just as rigorous– indeed, more so– than those for evaluating expertise in other walks of life. . . . only the most extraordinary individuals have the right to claim that they speak for God. And the only way they can earn this right is to provide both a vision and a rational defense of it. . . . the more a person asks us to make leaps of faith, the less likely it is that he or she is carrying a divine message."
Maimonides’ approach is so basic that it is novel: Question the messenger. Raise the credibility bar. Ask yourself if the message makes sense and if it is in harmony with moral absolutes.
"God does not want people to starve themselves, torment themselves, take vows of celibacy, or endure physical deprivation. What He wants are honest dealings with our fellow human beings, moderation of the passions, respect for the poor, the sick, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, rest on Sabbath, and in general a life in which we grow to our fullest potential."
Maimonides has been criticized by some as being an elitist, and he is certainly not popular among ultra-Orthodox Jews (or among fanatics of any brand). In my view, these critiques fall far short.
I strongly agree with the view that not everyone can be a prophet, just as not everyone can become a brain surgeon or a semicondutor designer. In Maimonides’ philosophical construct:
"True prophecy is instructive; it teaches us about God and calls us to our highest moral ideals and aspirations. It is founded on a thorough understanding of the universe and human efforts to grasp the principles thatr underlie it. A person ignorant of those principles, whose only claim on our attention is an intuitive feeling or dreamlike image, cannot speak for God. Allow such people to determine our religious practices or beliefs and we are certain to get chaos."
Why does this seem so reasonable and yet sadly true in the context of current global affairs? It is because unscrupulous people continue to manipulate religion to their will for power. Unfortunately, these manipulators are not held to a higher standard of accountability. Why? In my view, these answers have more to do with the weaknesses of man than the weaknesses of religion and the shortcomings of faith.
Kenneth Seeskin’s Maimonides: A Guide for Today’s Perplexed, was first published in 1991.