Isaiah may have been a great prophet, but in this week’s Haftarah, he seems ambivalent about his own profession. At first, he proclaims:
The Lord God gave me a skilled tongue;
To know how to speak timely words to the weary.
Morning by morning. He rouses,
He rouses my ear
To give heed like disciples.
So we should learn from Isaiah, right? Not so fast. Only two verses after boasting of his rhetorical prowess, the prophet concedes:
I offered my back to the floggers,
And my cheeks to those who tore out my hair.
I did not hide my face
From insult and spittle.
Maybe he was less successful than he originally thought. And this was quite a good thing, for the contrast between the two passages reveals an important aspect of Jewish spirituality: a deep ambivalence about rhetoric and oratory.
It starts, of course, with Moshe, who explicitly lacked oratorical power (Exodus 4:10), but became Israel’s greatest prophet nonetheless. He was such a terrible speaker that his great oration at the edge of the Promised Land – otherwise known as the Book of Deuteronomy – was completely forgotten until it was “discovered” several hundred years later in the Temple – in the form of a scroll (2 Kings 22:8-20).
The focus on the printed word remained in the development of the Jewish liturgy: we read the Torah and the Haftarah in shul, with gabbaim taking care that the reader is getting the text right. Contrast this with Muslim practice, where children memorize the Qu’ran, in part so that they can recite it dramatically. In the Qu’ran, the arch-angel Gabriel appears to the prophet Muhammad and commands him to “recite!” (Qu’ran 53:4-9). Indeed, according to Princeton’s Michael Cook, many Muslims think that Jews are overly text-obsessive because we insist on reading rather than memorizing.
In contemporary practice, we often hear of the rabbi giving a “sermon”, but of course that is a Protestant term, not a Jewish one. The greatest rabbis give drashes, explanations, and they are usually not speeches but informal table talks not known for rhetorical power. In any event, if the image of a chapel is the minister giving a sermon, the image of Jewish practice is that of the yeshiva, i.e. students hunched over printed books and discoursing with each other. It is an interactive process focused on a text, not an audience listening to a speaker.
It continues to this day. Consider that at the Yale Divinity School, there are several named professorships in “homiletics and preaching.” And Yale represents relatively subdued mainline Protestantism. Evangelical Christianity fairly specializes in preaching, with some churches unabashedly referring to themselves as “charismatic.” That’s the whole point: go out, and preach, and get souls.
Compare this view with the Jewish Theological Seminary, where the lion’s share of the professional skills curriculum consists of pastoral counseling, “pedagogic skills,” and “Leading and Managing Jewish Nonprofit Organizations” (ahem). There is a single “Communications Seminar,” which is not required and appears to be taught by an adjunct.
Why would Jewish tradition have such a skeptical attitude toward preaching? One might suspect that dynamic or “inspired” preaching represents the spiritual equivalent of fast food. Preaching at its best is actually not quite prepared, formal oratory: it resembles something more like a political stump speech. The great historian Eric McKitrick, when discussing President Andrew Johnson’s attempt to sell the public on his vision of Reconstruction, commented that stump speaking
is a special art with very special requirements…there must be an extra degree of rapport with the audience; there is an immediacy about it which is not demanded in the case of a prepared address. The speaker’s power must function at top vitality throughout and must be renewed continuously through this very sense of communion with the audience. Stump speaking is essentially a spellbinding and conjuring operation, and the element of extemporaneity is what carries it. Most speakers have had occasion…to recognize the ‘all or nothing’ quality that seems to inhere in extemporaneous or semiextemporaneous talk. A man either has all his powers, which can mean great clarity and agility – he is possessed of the spirit—or else the vital something is simply not there.
“Spellbinding and conjuring…possessed of the spirit.” Perhaps in another life Isaiah would be on the stump, running for Congress.
Spellbinding and conjuring, however, damage our souls. If the preacher is indeed “possessed of the spirit”, then perhaps she can take her listeners with her. But “skilled tongues” that can spellbind and conjure can also unleash the Evil Inclination. No wonder the rabbis “closed” prophecy as soon as they got the chance. Isaiah was a great speaker, but so was Mussolini. These dangers led Plato in the Gorgias to contend that there is a war between rhetoric and philosophy, because the former art sickens the soul.
Descending into normal politics also shows the corrosive effect of rhetoric on our moral judgments. Consider Justice Benjamin Cardozo’s attack on the “exclusionary rule”, which forbids the use of illegally-obtained evidence: “The criminal is to go free because the constable has blundered.” Judge Richard Posner, the nation’s most distinguished contemporary jurist, has referred to this phrase as an almost-perfect example of judicial rhetoric. But look how misleading it is: Cardozo’s law enforcement officer is a bumbling “constable” rather than, say, the essentially military force of Ferguson, Missouri. Do the police commit injustice and brutalize people based on their race? No, says Cardozo, they merely “blunder.” The defendant is a “criminal”, not even a potentially innocent citizen; he is completely “otherized” and lawbreaking is inherent in his nature, unredeemable.
This hardly means that exclusionary rule is preferable; rather, it simply points to how language elegantly packed into a few words does not so much “persuade” us as arrest our reasoning powers.
If rhetoric causes so much political danger, it presents even greater spiritual dangers. Spirituality is more subtle than politics, for it requires deep listening to the still, small voice of God, sustained concentration on practice, and for Jews, long hours of study. Rhetoric offers a seductive distraction from all that. And that is perilous.
Rhetoric’s danger, then, should actually make us happy that the Israelites rejected Isaiah’s “skilled tongue” even if they did so for the worst of reasons, and that the rabbis closed prophecy. But it also presents contemporary Jews with a challenge. My teacher Rabbi Marcia Prager has noted that Jews talk about “observing” holy days, as if we were just bystanders. How can we break out of this? If we reject rhetoric, then what will replace it? (R’Marcia herself and others have important answers to these questions).
Somehow we must bring oratory into ourselves and develop our own rhetoric as part of Jewish practice. As the founder of Quakerism, George Fox, challenged his listeners: “You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this, but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light and hast walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?”
Joseph Schumpeter coined the term “creative destruction” to refer to the disruptive transformation of capitalist development. At least in Haftarat Eikev, we can see a touch of a prophecy’s similar disruptiveness. Isaiah points to the divine inspiration that prophecy requires, but he also points to its failure to produce a response. In so doing, his prophecy points to its own destruction. It is now up to the rest of us to provide the “creative” part. What can we say?