Timely Thoughts

The Prophets Did Not Take Political Stands, and You Should Too

Trnava - The neo-gothic fresco of big prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel by Leopold Bruckner from end of 19. cent. in Saint Nicholas church.
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Alex S. Ozar

Two recent Lehrhaus articles have adverted to, and then rejected, the example of the biblical prophets as precedent in favor of rabbis promoting determinate positions on political questions. As examples they mention questions of public policy with regard to refugees, taxation, civil rights, capital punishment, welfare, and the like. Schematically, the argument seems to be something like this:

(1) The biblical prophets publicly took determinate positions on political questions.

(2) We are not prophets.


(3) The example of the biblical prophets provides no justificatory ground for contemporary rabbis to publicly take determinate positions on political questions.

The idea is that whereas the prophets could be certain of their positions, we cannot. Therefore, whereas prophets were warranted in rejecting any disagreement out of hand, we are not so warranted. We are, rather, fallible through and through, an awareness of which should never fail to come through in our public interventions.

This argument, while broadly salutary in its conclusions, is predicated on a fundamental confusion: With a singular exception, the biblical prophets did not take determinate positions on political questions; that is, they did not demand that the settled policies, rules, and regulations of the state be thus and so. As the rabbis say, once the laws [mitzvot] of the Torah were given through Moses, “From now on, prophets may inaugurate nothing new” (Shabbat 104a).

Moses did not enjoy this unique license simply in virtue of being first. The Torah itself is at great pains to distinguish the mode of Moses’ prophecy from that of all others: Whereas God appears to all other prophets in dreams and visions, “It is not so with my servant Moses… With him I speak mouth to mouth, in clear vision rather than in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of the Lord” (Numbers 12:6-8). Never again would Israel know a prophet “known by God face to face” (Deuteronomy 34:10). Clear vision, mouth to mouth, face to face, and, as the rabbis put it, a “radiant lens” (Yevamot 49b) – these are the credentials required to authorize prophetic lawgiving, and no prophet but Moses can enjoy them. And yet there are prophets beyond Moses.

It is thus not incidental that with respect to Moses alone God stresses that the audience must in some manner participate in the prophetic experience themselves: “And the Lord said to Moses, I will come to you in a thick cloud, so that the people will hear as I speak with you,” this being “so that they will trust in you forever” (Exodus 19:9). As Ramban, Rabbeinu Behaya, Seforno, Ha-Ketav ve-haKabbalah, Ha-Emek Davar, Sefer Ha-Hinnukh, Rambam, and Sefer Ha-Ikarim stress, the procedure was necessary to ensure the Torah’s standing as eternally valid by ensuring that Moses’ prophecy was indubitably as indubitable as prophecy could be. Moses’ prophecy could thus never be reasonably challenged by a competing prophet, no matter how apparently legitimate. As a corollary, it follows that the non-legislative prophecy of all prophets but Moses provides for, but correspondingly requires for its authority, a lesser form of trust than that of Moses.

This distinction between Moses and all other prophets is reified into generalizable categories by Ibn Ezra. Responding to earlier commentators’ out-of-hand rejection of the possibility of the prophet Jacob’s having uttered a falsehood, Ibn Ezra argues that “this is nonsense, as prophets come in two types: the first, an emissary [shaliah] for commandments; the second, prophets of the future, who, if they must say something incorrect, it will do no harm. Only with regard to the emissary is it inconceivable that they would lie at all” (Ibn Ezra to Genesis 27:19). Ibn Ezra reasons that fallibility ought to be problematic for the lawgiving prophet alone, and not all prophets are lawgivers.

The idea is not that prophets need not be or prove themselves credible. There are true and false prophets, and so we require a way to discern which are the true. Jeremiah offers one such method:

Thus said the Lord of Hosts: Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you. They are deluding you, the prophecies they speak are from their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They declare to men who despise Me: The Lord has said: “All shall be well with you”; and to all who follow their willful hearts they say: “No evil shall befall you.” But he who has stood in the council of the Lord, and seen, and heard His word — he who has listened to His word must obey. Lo, the storm of the Lord goes forth in fury, a whirling storm, it shall whirl down upon the heads of the wicked… If they have stood in My council, let them announce My words to My people and make them turn back from their evil ways and wicked acts (Jeremiah 23:16-22).

How do you know when prophets are false, according to Jeremiah? When they tell the powers-that-be what the powers-that-be want to hear, and hence stand to gain – be it power, fame, money, an administration post, simply the soothing pleasures of peer-approval and applause – from their prophecy. In such cases, the merely human quest for gain is liable to be the most plausible explanation for their conduct, and so their claiming prophetic authority provides no evidence that they in fact possess prophetic authority. To the extent that prophets readily absorb suffering and sacrifice, however, an interpretation of their conduct as self-serving manipulation, as “speaking from their own minds,” is correspondingly less likely. It is thus only those who risk the wrath of the people in demanding that they change their ways, who willingly put themselves on the line to proclaim what they say is God’s message, who we, and perhaps even they, have reason to believe are indeed proclaiming God’s message.

That God has spoken to a prophet does not in itself provide others with reason to believe that God has spoken to her. Thus the currency of prophetic credibility, on this view, is nothing other than the manifest conviction of the prophet in her message and its divine origins.

For better or worse, such credibility will come in degrees, and may well never be absolute. Yosef Albo, in fact, stresses that even as we are obliged to heed the words of established prophets with regard to local, exigent choices (“hora’at sha’ah”), prophetic credibility is indeed always only provisional, defeasible. This is Rambam’s position as well. This will be true where prophets establish their credentials through manifest conviction, as I’ve suggested in Jeremiah’s name. It will be all the more true where they establish their credentials through the performance of signs and wonders, which are at best only incidentally related to the content of the prophecy and the character of the prophet (Albo, Rambam). In any case, signs and wonders are not a broadly available instrument at present.  

The articles are quite right, therefore, to say that we ought not to conduct ourselves like the prophet Moses – ought not to arrogate to ourselves the authority required for the justified imposition of determinate rules and regulations upon a polity – since we are not prophets like the prophet Moses. But that was true of Amos and Jeremiah as well, and it did not slow them down one bit.

Were we, then, to draw guidance from the examples of Amos and Jeremiah with regard to prophetic political intervention, it would be that prophets, overcome with sympathetic concern for God’s concern for the unjustly suffering, come to share God’s imperatival, world-shaking urgency towards the redress of the injustice under which they suffer. (This is a central thesis of Heschel’s The Prophets). Prophets, in other words, come to care about what God cares about, to see what matters to God as mattering, full stop, and so are moved to action. “A lion has roared, who will not fear? The Lord God has spoken, who will not prophesy?” (Amos 3:8).

Others, wittingly or unwittingly, retrench their inertia behind a professed modesty in rendering judgment, employing what Vaclav Havel calls “metaphysical” or “fetishized” dialectics, dialectics which “degenerate (dialectically) into the pure metaphysics of vacuous verbal balancing acts, expressed in constructions such as ‘on the one hand – but on the other hand,’ ‘in a certain sense yes, but in another sense no,’ ‘we must not, on the one hand, overestimate, nor, on the other hand, should we underestimate,’ ‘though some characteristics, in a certain situation, may – other characteristics, in another situation, may also…,’ and so on and so on” (Havel, “On Evasive Thinking”). But the prophet knows that evil, no matter how convoluted and opaque its workings, must be made known as evil, and so judgment must be rendered.

Judgment, in seeking categories and criteria for the determination of intrinsically messy, concrete particulars, does not enjoy the certainty of logical deduction, and the personal subjectivity of the judger is necessarily implicated in the process. But the prophet knows with perfect conviction that there is a difference between right and wrong, and that we may not, as God does not, abdicate our responsibility to mark that difference, and to put ourselves on the line in making the difference real. Excepting binary choices requiring immediate executive decision – we either surrender to Nebukhadnezar or we do not – fulfilling this responsibility will indeed be compatible with an array of policy options. But it will not be compatible with failing to address the problem at all, and will not be compatible with complacency in searching for satisfactory policy options where none are presently in sight.  

So it is true that prophecy in this sense has little do with the rabbinic role strictly defined, and I should think it a truism that constructing arguments for policy positions out of Talmudic prooftexts is not as such a prophetic activity, much in the same way that tennis is not backgammon.

But we can all discern right from wrong, good from evil, and just from unjust, and we can all put our resources, comfort, our very selves on the line to stand for the former in each pair against the latter. Because we can, we must – rabbis very much included. It is only that for rabbis the stakes are surely higher. And passivity, far from the safest bet, in fact guarantees failure. With but the exception of Moses, prophecy, like life, is an exercise in uncertainty and fallibility, and ultimately we have no security but in God.

I do not wish to be misunderstood. It may well be that in any given case, the best route is indeed silence: conditions may not be ripe, we may not feel equipped or prepared, and we might reasonably worry that the costs outweigh the benefits. But as Rav Soloveitchik argues, we are all bound by a halakhic imperative to realize ourselves as prophets: “The principle of prophecy, as an article of faith…has a twofold aspect: the belief in (1) prophecy as a reality – i.e., that God causes men to prophesy; (2) prophecy as a norm – i.e., that each person is obliged to aspire to this rank, that every man should make a supreme effort to scale the mountain of the Lord” (Halakhic Man, 128). We are to make this supreme effort not for the sake of attaining transcendent information but rather toward the end of cultivating a democratic community of public ethical concern (Lonely Man of Faith, 60-62).

Even where we reasonably calculate that we and our communities are not prepared for the prophetic, therefore, that means only that we have that much more work to do. We are all called to prophecy and its responsibilities, and so we are all called to call each other to prophecy and its responsibilities. We are called to help each other up the mountain of the Lord, whatever the obstacles we encounter along the way. That we are not yet prophets, in other words, is surely no reason not to become prophets.  

Alex Ozar
Rabbi Alex S. Ozar is the co-director of the OU-JLIC program at Yale University, where he is also pursuing a dual PhD in Philosophy and Religious Studies. He holds a BA in philosophy, MA in Jewish philosophy, and rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. His writing has appeared in Tradition, Torah U-Madda Journal, Harvard Theological Review, Journal of Religious Ethics, First Things, and Torah Musings.