In this painting by Rembrandt van Rijn, Jeremiah laments the destruction of Jerusalem, c. 1630.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
One of my favorite childhood memories is when my mother took me to the local branch of the New York Public Library and registered me, a seven-year-old boy, for access to the library’s “Adult” section. My world was no longer limited to the imaginations of Carolyn Haywood and Judy Blume. Liberated, I could now read anything I wanted, and every Friday afternoon we went to the library and I took out a stack of books.
I was one of those kids who didn’t let school interfere with his education, and every day I sat in the back of the classroom, just devouring books. The teachers knew exactly what was going on and were grateful that I had something to occupy me and keep my mouth closed. In those days before the distractions of the Internet and cable TV, my long school day, coupled with many hours under the covers at night, flashlight in hand, allowed me to finish about a book a day. Nothing high-minded, of course; mostly Stephen King and John Grisham, sprinkled with a little Chaim Potok.
It was during this time that I discovered books on Jewish history. I had always gone to a yeshiva, but never had any grasp of the real story of the Jewish people. I never understood that there was a rich tapestry that defined our people.
Being Orthodox, we spent most of our days studying Talmud and Halacha. We almost never studied the Jewish Bible.
In fact, it wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I actually sat down to read the Bible cover-to-cover in the original Hebrew. I had gotten to the point in my Jewish education where I was thoroughly fluent in the legal nuances of how to “divorce a woman who was blind, deaf and mute in a foreign country through a messenger” but had no idea that there was a difference between the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah. While I had heard the names Yeshayahu and Yirmiyahu echoed somewhere, I thought that Isaiah and Jeremiah were New Testament characters along with Matthew and Luke. In other words, I had no clue.
Only recently, I discovered one of the best books I have ever read on the Bible: Rabbi Benjamin Lau’s Jeremiah: The Fate of a Prophet
. Studying Jeremiah on my own had left me frustrated and completely lost. It is almost impossible to recover any thread of narrative by a straightforward reading of the text. What Lau does is to take your hand and walk you through the rearranged chapters while providing a broad historical context for it all. By placing Jeremiah into a real society of real people and into the geopolitical situation of the time, we are able to enter Jeremiah’s mind and share in his frustrations. And since hindsight is 20/20, we have the privilege of sharing Jeremiah’s vision and yet still hope the people will repent.
The story of Jeremiah is sad and tragic. Condemned to be alone, Jeremiah was a prophet against his will. Even before he was born, God chose him in the womb to be the harbinger of destruction. His mission was doomed from the start. There had never been an instance in Jewish history in which the people ever listened to a prophet. The role of the prophet in Israel was to proclaim a truth that everyone else blinded themselves to. He told the people that if they did not repent, God would destroy the Temple. While Babylon was demanding surrender, he counseled waving the white flag and submitting.
This was blasphemous! The very idea that God would allow His own house to be destroyed was unthinkable. Other false prophets were proudly waving the “blue-and-white flag,” assuring the people that God was with them and that all was well. We often think of false prophets as charlatans, no different than $5 fortune tellers, but Lau’s insight is that these false prophets were honest and good people. Acting with the best of intentions, they thought they were proclaiming the will of God. They were the “frum” ones looking at Jeremiah as a defeatist agitator lacking faith in the power of God.
The people, the government and religious institutions all attacked Jeremiah, mocked him, beat him, imprisoned him and threatened him with death; yet they failed to silence him. Jeremiah didn’t want to speak, but the words of God were “in his heart like a burning fire paralyzing the very marrow of his bones.”
Our sages teach us that there were many prophets who arose among the people but that the only ones that were recorded were the ones who prophesied for all generations. Lau, one of the most prolific rabbis engaging with Israeli society today, often likes to draw parallels between the ancient texts and the modern State of Israel. For him, the Book of Jeremiah is easy prey.
How often do we have religious leaders who are so sure that they know what God wants? How often do we have religious institutions demanding that they alone have the truth, and that everyone else is wrong? How often do we dismiss contrary voices telling us that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” by questioning their patriotism or religiosity? The parallels to our time are just too clear to ignore. The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and currently teaches in many post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot.