Tradition Today: Prophets

Criticism of the government or of the actions of the nation was no more welcome in ancient days than it is today.

second temple 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
second temple 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The prophets of ancient Israel lived precarious lives. True to the teachings of justice and righteousness taught by the Torah, they dared to criticize the king, the nobles, the military and the entire establishment when they saw injustice being committed. To them this was the supreme violation of God’s word. The demands of the Almighty burned within them and they felt impelled to speak out, even at the risk of their own lives.
How did they get away with it? Would such a thing have been possible in any other ancient society? Could someone dare to criticize the kings of Babylon and live to tell the tale? Yet Nathan denounced David for his sin, and David had to bow to his word because the king, too, was subservient to the Torah and to God.
We have two recorded cases in which a prophet was actually persecuted for speaking the truth – first Amos in eighth-century BCE Israel and then Jeremiah in sixth-century BCE Judah – yet each survived and was vindicated. Amos saw a society in which justice was being perverted, where the needy and the poor were being annihilated – “We will buy the poor for silver, the needy for a pair of sandals” (8:6) – and he dared to predict that the shrines and sanctuaries of Israel would be destroyed and that Israel would be exiled from the land (7:9). Their worship of the Lord was nothing but an abomination because it was accompanied by injustice (5:21-25).
No wonder the priest of the temple at Beth El called upon King Jereboam to punish Amos, accusing him of treason (7:10-11). Jereboam’s reaction is not recorded, but Amaziah banished Amos and forbade him to prophesy at Beth El (7:12). At least he was not executed, which is a tribute to the freedom of speech accorded prophets, even if in this instance it may have been curtailed.
In his brilliant essay “Amos versus Amaziah,” originally delivered at a conference at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in the presence of Supreme Court chief justice Earl Warren, Prof. Shalom Speigel imaginatively reconstructed an entire trial in which Amos was accused of heresy, of subverting the army and ruining the economy.
In Speigel’s words, “Amos versus Amaziah makes justice the supreme command, overriding every other consideration or obligation, however important to the life of the community. Justice becomes the categorical imperative, transcending all the other requirements of the law. Other ills of society are remediable, but injustice is a stab at the vital center of the communal whole...Justice is the soil in which all the other virtues can prosper.”
It was a case in which right was proved more important than rite.
Some two centuries later, Jeremiah followed the pattern of Amos and predicted the destruction of Jerusalem and the kingdom of Judah and the exile of the people, a prediction that, unfortunately, came true. For Jeremiah, too, the central evil that would cause this calamity was forsaking God’s demands for justice – “They judge not with justice the cause of the fatherless... they do not defend the rights of the needy...” (5:28).
Jeremiah, like Amos, also dared to predict the destruction of the Temple. He stood at the gate of the Temple court and told the people who had come there to ask for God’s deliverance that they had made the Temple into a “den of thieves” (7:11). He accused them of stealing, of murder, of adultery, swearing falsely as well as worshiping false gods, and said that therefore the Temple would be destroyed and the people exiled (7:9,15).
Yet nothing was done to stop him from speaking in God’s name. Only much later did King Jehoiakim attempt to have Jeremiah imprisoned but did not succeed (36:26). Later, at the very end of the siege, when Jeremiah continued to preach that Babylonia would capture Jerusalem, King Zedekiah imprisoned him in the palace compound but did not dare to execute him. Accused of being a traitor and a defector to the enemy, the prophet was later put into a pit (37:16). He pleaded with the king to release him from the pit and be allowed to remain in the prison compound instead, and this was done (37:20-21).
Yet again, officials said to the king that Jeremiah was disheartening the soldiers and the people – “This man is not seeking the welfare of this people but their harm!” (38:4). The king permitted them to place him in a mud pit, with no water, to die of hunger, but was then persuaded to release him once again. Fortunately, the king had greater sensitivity than the officials around him and saved Jeremiah’s life. He remained in the prison until the capture of Jerusalem (38:28).
From this story, as well as that of Amos, it is quite clear who was a traitor and who was not, who was doing the Lord’s work and who was not.
Criticism of the government or of the actions of the nation was no more welcome in ancient days than it is today. Totalitarian regimes suppress it altogether. The kings of ancient Judah and Israel had a difficult time because the prophets spoke in the name of the Lord and with the authority of the Torah.
A modern democracy glories in freedom of speech and permits criticism even when it hurts.
America and Britain are examples of democracies that take pride in freedom of speech. America under Joseph McCarthy’s influence was in danger of losing its right of dissent until it was saved by courageous men like Edward R. Murrow and Joseph Welch with his famous accusation, “Have you no shame?” Modern Russia is an example of a regime that claims to be democratic but tramples on the rights of critics of the regime.
Which example do we wish to follow? We in Israel take pride in being a democratic and Jewish state, yet there are forces among us that would attempt to silence those who criticize the state and defend civil rights. Like the counselors of King Zedekiah, in the name of the good of the state they would seek out those who think that the state has done wrong. They mistake honest criticism for traitorous action. Yet our tradition is one in which the government and its rulers were never above criticism. It is important that we defend that tradition.
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly and current member of its Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, was the founding director of the Schechter Rabbinical School. A two-time winner of the National Jewish Book Award, his latest book is Entering Torah.