Arrogance, intellect and prophecy

To dabble in the prophetic arts is a dangerous game.

March 18, 2015 05:21
Benjamin Netanyahu

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks in front of a poster of the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin upon his arrival at the Likud party meeting at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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To dabble in the prophetic arts is a dangerous game. The line between the true prophet and the false prophet as outlined in the Torah is a murky one. Obviously, any prophet whose predictions are fulfilled will be lauded, praised, revered and remembered. Those who predict a future that does not come to pass are forgotten and even despised. The false prophet is deserving of death.

This is a high price to pay for pursuing a vision that does not find fulfillment.

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In many ways, prophecy is an activity and function of the intellect. This is especially so in the thought of Maimonides, one of the greatest Jewish thinkers in history. At the same time, prophecy cannot simply be a result of intellect. The prophet must possess a passion for the truth and must possess empathy with those people he is admonishing or inspiring. This passion is necessary because the role of the prophet is fraught with difficulty and obstacles.

Most prophets say what no one wants to hear.

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Thinking specifically of Jeremiah, the price for telling the truth is often exile and a measure of dishonor. The prophet takes a great chance. If he believes he is following God’s dictate he will be uncompromising.

It is the voice of God that compels the visionary to articulate his vision. Without the divine voice pushing the prophet to speak, the content of the prophecy is empty.

While in the Jewish tradition prophecy was supposed to have ceased in the early years of the building of the Second Temple, the reality is that prophecy never died. It simply found other manifestations and other names. There are two examples of the prophetic impulse that deserve our attention.

The first was the political savvy and realism of Yohanan Ben-Zakkai, one of the first rabbis and a man who possessed the prophetic impulse. Rabbi Yohanan realized that the Great Revolt against Rome would lead to utter disaster – he left Jerusalem covertly, surrendered to the enemy, and was able to negotiate a way to provide for the continuity of Judaism without a Temple in Jerusalem. He accomplished this in the town of Yavneh and succeeded in establishing Jewish identity and faith for the next 1,800 years, until the onset of modernity.

Rabbi Yohanan risked being called a defeatist and a turncoat, but his understanding of the Great Revolt remains prophetic despite the fact that prophecy had ended centuries earlier.

The second example of the prophetic impulse long after visions from God ceased is found in the writing of Moses Hess. Hess was a Communist and obviously did not believe that his understanding of the future of European Jews was divinely inspired. Nevertheless, his classic 1862 work Rome and Jerusalem possesses a great vision that tragically became fact. Hess already realized in the mid-19th century that hatred of Jews would never end in Germany and that the ultimate solution to this crisis was the rebuilding of a Jewish nation in the Land of Israel.

Along with rabbis Judah Alkalai and Zvi Hirsch Kalsicher, Moses Hess possessed great insight into the future of European Jewry. It matters little whether these men heard the word of God or not. Their predictions of the future were fulfilled and their vision has been lauded ever since. While there was no doubt that the rise of European nationalism fueled their vision of the Jewish future and their proto-Zionism, they possessed insight that one could describe as emanating from some form of divine inspiration. One need not hear the voice of God to possess the mantle of prophecy.

The great danger of the prophetic calling harks back to the Bible. Perhaps the prophetic impulse derives not from divine inspiration but from sheer arrogance. How can any prophet be so sure of himself – describing events that have not yet transpired – to be able to be positive that his vision is accurate? Often, prophecy seems so detached from reality that the prophet appears insane. The litmus test for the visionary is that there be some elements of reality that anchor his vision in reality.

Neither Yochanan Ben-Zakkai nor Moses Hess was simply acting in a void. There were sure signs that their actions were grounded in reality. The failure of the Great Revolt could have been predicted, as was the enduring nature of German hatred of Jews. Yohanan Ben-Zakkai and Moses Hess were firmly rooted in a reality that could be predicted. There were signs that their visions would come to fruition.

If prophecy has been a reality of the Jewish past, there is no doubt that today there are people of vision. Let us take for example the cases of American Jewry and Israel. On the surface the Jewish community in America is thriving. American Jewry is blessed with myriad publications, schools and organizations.

It would seem premature to predict the end of such a vibrant Jewry. Indeed, it is much too early to tell what the state of American Jewry will be in 50 years. Yet, at the same time, there are signs of decline, assimilation and marriage out of the faith.

While “negation of the Exile” remains in the realm of theory, one need only look at Europe to understand that there is always the possibility of collapse. It would be arrogant to predict the end of Jewish life in America at this point in time. But there are serious issues regarding the future of our Jewry here that must be tackled. While many Jews in Germany were predicting a golden age of acceptance and acculturation, Moses Hess predicted the opposite. His vision was not the result of arrogance but of great insight. The reality of mid-19th century was one of optimism for many European Jews. Hess took a gamble in contradicting that reality.

And he was right.

As for the State of Israel, there have been many transformations in the Jewish state and there is no doubt this will impact society and ideology.

While post-Zionists are way off the mark in predicting the demise of the ideology of Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky, there is merit in predicting that Zionism will look very different in the next half century. Who could have predicted in 1948 that 30 years into the future Menachem Begin would be the prime minister of the State of Israel? Ben-Gurion’s confidence in the enduring nature of Socialist ideology – and his utter lack of understanding of the enduring nature of Judaism – should make us stop and consider where the State of Israel will be in a generation.

There is hubris in predicting the changing nature of the Zionist vision. No one has a crystal ball. Yet there will always be a need for a Rabbi Yohanan Ben-Zakkai or a Moses Hess to have the courage to look beyond the day after tomorrow.

Yes, the realism of sight is necessary. But sight alone, without vision, is myopic.

The author is a rabbi and teacher in Boca Raton, Florida.

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