February 8, 2012
How to Recognize a Prophet
I remember learning in my yeshiva high school that the time of Jewish prophecy is dead. God’s intimate connection with his people had been severed because of their iniquity and never again can we enjoy the prophets of old — the Samuels, Jeremiahs, Isaiahs et al.
I never liked believing Jewish prophecy is dead, especially now, when we need good Jewish prophets more than ever to save history’s third Jewish commonwealth from destruction.
While I’ve since abandoned Orthodoxy, I’ve always enjoyed interpreting Jewish precepts through a secular lens. I was therefore thrilled to get a sneak peak of scholar Yoram Hazony’s brilliant and groundbreaking book, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture: An Introduction, prior to its publication by Cambridge University Press this year. The book dispels stereotypes of the Hebrew Bible as a book of revelation with little philosophical value to the modern world. Hazony teaches that our most famous prophet, Jeremiah, was actually a crusader for truth and reason.
According to Jeremiah, all men not only have the ability, but the responsibility, to seek and find truth—in essence, to become prophets—to “stand on the roadways and see, and inquire of the paths of old which is the good, and walk on it, and find rest for your souls” (6:16). It’s a universal message, but one which Jews rejected. “And they said, ‘We will not walk on it.’” (6:18)
Hazony points out that the Judeans’ refusal to seek and find truth — their stubbornness in clinging to false opinions, misconceptions, corrupted visions of reality — is, for Jeremiah, a cardinal sin, as it says: “See how I bring evil upon this people, the fruit of their thoughts.” He exhorts them to inquire independently after what is good for men, what fosters life on this earth and, ultimately, the longevity of Jews on the land.
Building on that theme, I don’t see prophets as crazy people talking to God, but as sharp observers of reality, the reality dictated by natural laws of a universe the Bible portrays as being created by the single, universal Intelligence. They analyze cause and effect of world events — what people actually think, say, mean and do — not what they want people to think, say, mean, and do — to come to a conceptual understanding of the world that allows them to make accurate predictions of reality. Guiding these prophets are the Biblical moral absolutes that protect life: do not murder, do not steal, do not bear false witness.
But even in Jeremiah’s time, the Jewish elites, the priests and “wise men” led the people astray. Not much has changed.
In political discourse today, rabbis, Jewish intellectuals and politicians continue to lead the people astray — invoking world opinion, popularity, political trends, habituated thoughts and actions or wishful thinking as their moral guides, hence encouraging people to evade reality. Since most people are afraid of changing the way they think and live, it is no wonder that prophets are often ridiculed, shunned, smeared, or even, as in the case of Jeremiah, incarcerated and threatened with death.
I also remember learning in high school about false prophets, described in Deuteronomy as “dreamers” who use “miraculous signs” or “wonders” to predict reality or force it in a certain direction. In Biblical times, these “signs” or “wonders” may refer to supernatural divinations or astrology. I’d like to offer a modern interpretation of “signs”: evocative images that are utilized as proof of a desired, yet improbable outcome.
Let’s give examples of true and false prophecies from recent Israeli history.
The Oslo Accords:
“False prophets” hailed the iconic image of late PLO leader Yasser Arafat shaking late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s hand on the White House lawn as the “sign” of the miraculous peace to come. “Prophets” were smeared as warmongers and racists when they warned that Arafat is a terrorist in disguise. To quote Jeremiah, “And they healed the wounds of my people superficially, saying, ‘Peace, peace.’ But there is no peace” (8:11).
The Withdrawal from Gaza and Lebanon:
“False prophets” argued that the mere absence of IDF troops in disputed territory and a map with clean lines translates into more peaceful borders. “Prophets” warned that territorial withdrawals are a sign of weakness and appeasement which will only embolden Israel enemies, who will continue to besiege Israel, more armed than ever, dragging her into conventional warfare.
“Prophets” cautioned that Arab citizens proclaiming “freedom” in the streets—the “sign”— won’t necessarily translate into free Arab societies. Freedom does not mean the freedom to be ruled by Islamist dictators.
The Trade for Gilad Schalit:
“False prophets” harped on the beautiful, poignant image of a father reuniting with his son as the desired reality that trumps all long-term security and ethical considerations. “Prophets” were dismissed as heartless traitors when they opposed letting over a thousand murderers free to murder again.
Prophets possess a scientific understanding of reality, so their orations often come across as factual, unimaginative and, at times, preachy. Unfortunately, prophets today lack “wonder,” which I define in modern terms as creative, awe-inspiring renderings of reality: literature, art, film, media, and poetry.
Today’s “false prophets” have used “wonder” to engage in revisionist history and to deceive the mind into thinking an unrealistic dream can come true. Hollywood movies, documentaries and the media have been masterful in imagining Palestinians as oppressed, dispossessed victims; “settlers” as squatters, colonialists; and messianic extremists and Islam as an enlightened religion of peace. Even rabbis creatively interpret the Torah to substantiate accusations of Israel as an aggressive nation born in sin.
Still, I take comfort in the knowledge that Jewish prophecy doesn’t have to be dead. And, as prophets arise, I hope they will take inspiration from the great Jewish prophets of the past, whose orations were filled with timeless “wonder”— poetry and storytelling — so that the Jewish people don’t remain dreamers, but instead realize Isaiah’s vision: “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, nor will they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).
If you liked this article, you’ll like ZOA West’s upcoming events: “’Occupation: The Big Lie” with author Eli E. Hertz on Sat, Feb. 11, 7 pm at Stephen S. Wise Temple and “The Book of Esther as the Jewish Fountainhead” with me, Orit Arfa, on Mon, Feb. 13, 7:30 pm at the Luxe Sunset Hotel. For more info or to rsvp contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.zoawest.org.