As a part of my long, slow preparation for a return to Hebrew Bible studies, I am reading The Prophets by Abraham Joshua Heschel.
The first chapter started on an alarming note, depressing me more and more with each word. It was not what I wanted to hear. Heschel described the mindset of the prophet, one so entranced by a vision of God that their view of all the people around them could only be critical, seeing every shortcoming and fault as a withdrawal from the divine holiness.
I have to admit that having spent years in a religious atmosphere that decried evil in man with virtually every breath and which naively looked upon the members of our group as exceptions to the rule of wickedness, I have enjoyed seeing the other side. My focus on humanity has moved more to an appreciation of the positive, seeing the stamp of our Father’s image imprinted in even the least likely places of human existence.
And so from this recently found appreciation for the divine side of humanity, I was not in a mood to read these stark words about the prophetic mindset.
Some stirring quotes from Heschel in this chapter should give an idea of the tone:
The niggardliness of our moral comprehension, the incapacity to sense the depth of misery caused by our own failure, is a fact which no subterfuge can elude. Our eyes are witness to the callousness and cruelty of man, but our heart tries to obliterate the memories, to calm the nerves, and to silence our conscience.
The prophet is a man who feels fiercely. God has thrust a burden upon his soul and he is bowed and stunned at man’s fierce greed. Frightful is the agony of man; no human voice can convey its full terror. 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. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the prophet’s words.
Who could bear living in a state of disgust day and night? The conscience builds its confines, is subject to fatigue, longs for comfort, lulling, soothing. Yet those who are hurt, and He who inhabits eternity, neither slumber nor sleep.
The prophet is sleepless and grave. The frankincense of charity fails to sweeten cruelties. Pomp, the scent of piety, mixed with ruthlessness, is sickening to him who is sleepless and grave.
Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible. If we admit that the individual is in some measure conditioned or affected by the spirit of society, an individual’s crime discloses society’s corruption. In a community not indifferent to suffering, uncompromisingly impatient with cruelty and falsehood, continually concerned for God and every man, crime would be infrequent rather than common.
A reader doesn’t have to search with a candle in the dark to find denunciations of cold-hearted humanity in the prophets. They leap out from nearly every page. As Heschel observes, the fulminations of the prophets seem at times like niggling criticisms. The world will end, says the prophet, because people too much enjoy the comfort of fine houses and turn away the cries of those in need. Is it a crime to be comfortable, isolated? Yes, says the prophet and we wonder how anyone can be righteous.
This is the bad news Bible, no offense to the fine translation known as the Good News Bible. It is the persistent voice which will not go away. It reminds us that we have not achieved the peace and goodness of the World to Come and holds us accountable to work for it despite the seeming impossibility.
It is a nagging voice that never lets us become comfortable with our good intentions and our reasonable expectation of some comfort in this world.
The bad news is not the prophet’s final word. Nearly every prophet includes a vision of the Messianic era, the World to Come. We need them both, the badgering voice of doom and the rousing voice of hope. The teacher reminds us, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to a house of feasting; for that is the end of every man, and a living one should take it to heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:2). We cannot dwell only on the good news all the time, though to view the ugly without a view of the beautiful would be equally untrue.
Excellent word from Heschel – thank you for that.
Thanks again for another great Heschel post (as he is one of my alltime favorite thinkers, and whose work I will be spending much time with in my graduate work).
Reading Heschel is akin to reading the Biblical text itself. Although the prophets serve as a reflection of who we are (and all of our shortcomings), as you pointed out (and Heschel does as well), that is not the whole story. There is also found within the bibilcal text reflections of our ultimate potential, of who we are in reflection to HaShem, and our ability to partner with G-d in bringing redemption into the world.
When reading Heschel’s “The Prophets,” one cannot stop there (as you well know). Like the bibilcal text, the power comes through surveying all of his great works.