Tradition Today: Prophetic truths

One only has to glance at such a book as Psalms, for example, to see that ethics were as important to the psalmist as they were to the prophets.

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June 11, 2010 16:24
4 minute read.
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torah 888 . (photo credit: )

Each Shabbat after reading the weekly Torah portion we chant a section from the Prophets. As is well known, with the exception of special Shabbatot, the prophetic portion is chosen because it echoes something in the Torah reading. The section known as Prophets is really made up of two quite different groups of biblical books: Nevi’im Rishonim (Early Prophets), which includes the books that continue the history of Israel from Joshua through Kings, and Nevi’im Aharonim (Later Prophets), the works of the so-called literary prophets such as Amos, Jeremiah and Isaiah whose words were written down and formed into books.

What exactly was the function of these prophets? The prophets were not fortune tellers. Their business was not the prediction of the future but rather judging our actions from the view of the Almighty and teaching what the consequences of our actions would be. They were also the bringers not only of the word that punishment would follow, but that there would also be comfort and rebuilding. Jeremiah warned that the Temple would be destroyed and the people exiled if they continued to rebel against God, but he also taught that God would redeem His people and bring them back from their exile.

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They followed the path of the first and greatest of the prophets, Moses. They spoke to the people of Israel in the name of the God of Israel, conveying God’s messages to them as Moses did. They also spoke to God on behalf of the people, pleading with God on their behalf as Moses had done. With the exception of Ezekiel, they did not convey laws. Moses had already done that, but they did emphasize the importance of the commandments that Israel had received and they were especially, though not exclusively, concerned with the moral and ethical aspects of the commandments. To them, ritual was important in that it led to moral conduct. Otherwise it was only a burden to God.

Some people have mistakenly thought that the prophets added the dimension of morality to Judaism, as if the Torah and the other biblical books were not concerned with those questions. One only has to glance at such a book as Psalms, for example, to see that ethics were as important to the psalmist as they were to the prophets.

What was unique to the prophets was that they spoke directly to the situation in which they found themselves and criticized the kings, the leaders as well as the people, when they felt that they had strayed from God’s ways or had misinterpreted God’s desires, thinking that ritual alone was important or that God would be satisfied with sacrifices when they were not accompanied by ethical living. As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, the prophets of Israel saw things from the perspective of God. To them injustice is intolerable. “Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profaned riches of the world... In the prophet’s message nothing that has bearing upon good and evil is small or trite in the eyes of God” (The Prophets, page 5).


Reading the words of the prophets, one is struck time and time again by the courage they displayed in being willing to speak the truth even when it was unpleasant, even when it could be construed as being traitorous. Remember that Jeremiah was put in prison for his teachings that Babylonia would capture Jerusalem (Jeremiah 37:15) and that Amos was forbidden to prophesy at Beth El because he taught that the sanctuary would be destroyed and the king would be killed because of the injustice that was being perpetrated in that kingdom (Amos 7:7-15).

Certainly treason, yet, as Shalom Spiegel pointed out in his superb essay “Amos versus Amaziah,” “Amos was not burned at the stake, nor liquidated in a political witchcraft trial, nor even condemned to drink the cup of hemlock by an enraged citizenry. He was permitted peaceably to repair to his native Tekoa where he wrote his book.” And Jeremiah, though imprisoned, was not put to death.

We may not have prophets anymore – according to our tradition prophecy ceased during the period of the Second Temple – but the teachings of the prophets remain valid and the fact that governments and rulers may be criticized and are subservient to Jewish morality remains a precious heritage. We may not have attained the moral sensitivity of an Amos or a Jeremiah, but, riding on their coattails, we should look at our society with the same critical eye that they brought to theirs. The plumb line with which Amos measured Israel in his day is still needed today.

Jews should not tolerate injustice, the neglect of the needy, the cry of the convert, the oppression of the stranger or the corruption of governmental officials. The prophets have taught us that justice is the foundation of the world and that the very existence of our society depends upon our pursuit of justice. It is a truth as important today as it was when the prophets first walked in our land.

The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.


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