Thursday, 20 November 2014

Prophets & False Prophets: Just When You Thought Things Can't Get Worse

I’ve been learning Sefer Yechezkel - Ezekiel - this year, with R’ Menachem Leibtag. A few years ago, I learned the book of Yirmiyah - Jeremiah - with him. These two books of prophecies may never have been so relevant at any time since they were first received. And it makes me feel so sorely the lack of a prophet in our time.

Let me share an overview of the two books. Jeremiah & Ezekiel overlapped as prophets, prophesying shortly before, during and after the destruction of the first Temple. Their messages were similar, but slightly different in focus. Jeremiah prophesied first. His initial message was that if social justice abuses continued (oppression of the widow, the orphan and the stranger, and forms of business fraud), the Temple would be destroyed. He was not believed.

After the ba’al teshuva movement led by the king Josiah (known as the Josian Reformation), the Jewish people believed that they would be forgiven by G-d. Instead, they saw the death of Josiah, the invasion of Babylon, the exile of their political and religious leadership, and the sack of the Holy Temple. They witnessed the end of hundreds of years of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel, to be replaced by Babylonian over-lordship with a puppet king on the throne of David. To their eyes, they had returned to G-d, turned away from their idols, and instead of being rewarded, they had been punished. Jeremiah’s mission was to teach them that G-d was not cruel or absent, but that what He desired was honesty, straight dealing, charity and concern for the vulnerable and disadvantaged, not sacrifices, fast days and prayer. His social justice message went unheeded.

Indeed, the Jewish people at the time believed that the worst was over. There had already been destruction in Israel. The ten tribes had been exiled by the bloodthirsty and terrifying Assyrian empire; the corrupt Jewish aristocracy (who had been responsible for much of the abuse of social justice) had been exiled to Babylon; the most precious vessels of the Temple had been hidden by Hezekiah, and the remaining golden vessels had been stolen by Nebuchadnezzar’s troops. Their leadership was gone. There was no longer Jewish autonomy in the Land of Israel.

However, they had reason to hope. The Temple was still operating, but only on a shoe-string budget. Some of the ten tribes exiled by Assyria had already returned to Israel. Babylon was ruling Israel, true, but they were far less fearsome than the recently-toppled Assyrians. It seemed to the Jews that they were living a post-holocaust era. They had repented, destroyed their idols, fasted and prayed and brought sacrifices. Time was ripe for rebirth, and the political and religious leadership were determined to create one.

The puppet-king Tzidkiyahu - Zedekiyah - wanted to join an alliance with Egypt to rise up against the Babylonians, bring back the exiled Jews, restore the Temple to her former glory and reinstate Jewish rule over the Land of Israel. He and his advisers were sure that this was what G-d wanted. They were doing this for the sake of G-d, so that His Temple would no longer be left shamefully bare and His people would no longer be seen languishing in exile. Zedekiyah and his government decided that the time was right for a popular uprising - but it would have to be a popular one. Without the support of the whole nation, they couldn't succeed, and he was determined that they would. The religious leadership - priests and holy men -  preached false prophecies on every street-corner, telling the people that G-d had broken the yoke of Babylonian rule, and soon, very soon, the people would come home and the glorious golden vessels of the Temple would be brought back in triumph. They supported Zedekiyah almost to a man. Almost.

Jeremiah was the fly in the ointment. He warned the people that while they still committed social justice abuses, G-d would not hear their prayers. He told them that this punishment is a decree from G-d; that decades will pass before Babylon would fall and the exile would end; that G-d was not going to give them 'one more chance' any more. Like recalcitrant toddlers, the Jewish people believed that if only they said sorry, if only they fasted and prayed and brought sacrifices, G-d would forgive them like He had done so many times. They had fallen into a trap of believing that G-d was a cosmic vending machine, and having put in their money – fasts, prayer, sacrifices, repentance – they would be rewarded with good things. They did not believe that their continuing social justice fail could be fatal. Jeremiah's sorry mission was to pass on the divine message: no. No more second chances. Accept your punishment; suffer through 'in-house rehab' (in R' Leibtag's words). You have a Temple, you are in your Land, many of you still are alive. Accept the lack of autonomy and the diminishment of the Temple, because if you rise up, it will get a whole lot worse. 

Ezekiel's prophecies backed up Jeremiah all the way. His mystical vision of the Merkavah leaving the Temple was a graphic vision of G-d Himself handing over His house to be destroyed by the Babylonians. Ezekiel's message was that Jeremiah was right; that the coming destruction of the Temple wasn't a cruel backslap by a vicious G-d who refused to accept the prayers and sacrifices of a righteous nation, but a deserved punishment to a people who refused to learn their lesson.

I'm sure I don't need to spell out the similarities between the time immediately before the final destruction of the Temple, and our reality today. The story of destruction, escape, the beginnings of rebirth is one that we have lived through in the last 100 years. It would be so easy to say that the right-wingers, like Zedekiyah and his supporters, are bringing more destruction upon us by insisting on autonomy, on the restoration of the Temple, on behaving like post-Messianic conquerors in a messy, pre-Messianic world. But I don't know. I'm not a prophetess.

The part that I identify with the most is the plight of the ordinary Jews of the time of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. They were, of course, still treating each other badly while they professed religious observance by fasting and offering sacrifices. The book of Jeremiah describes hidden idol-worship (which the commentators explain to mean treating G-d like an idol, a vending machine that will pay out what you desire as long as you pay in a sacrifice); jealousy; two-faced behaviour in which a man would pretend friendship to his neighbour and then bad-mouth him behind his back; continued oppression of the widow, orphan and the Other. (Sadly, that is also reminiscent of our time.) But they were also poorly led. 

I wish for a prophet now, to tell us the right path to take, but the Jews of the time suffered from a surfeit of prophets. They were besieged by religious messages, with barely any way of distinguishing who was right from who was wrong. The Jewish religious leadership, in both Babylon and Israel, preached loudly and incessantly that redemption was coming; Babylon would fall; the Jews should rise up against Babylon and they would succeed, for G-d was on their side. And then on the other hand, Jeremiah and Ezekiel prophesied that the people were still sinning, the exile would continue for many more years, and resistance would only make things worse.

The tragedy was that the people didn't know who to believe. All of the prophets who preached in the marketplace were religious. They all were holy men who feared G-d and believed they served Him. When they made up false prophecies and insisted they were the true word of G-d, they had the best of intentions. After all, if the people were not united, they wouldn't succeed in their battle against Babylon. These false prophets knew that they were lying, but they believed it was permitted. They permitted it to themselves. It was for a good cause, a holy cause, the best of all possible causes. Because they knew that they were lying, they thought that Jeremiah and Ezekiel were lying too. But sadly, tragically, they were wrong. How could the people know whom to believe? If they had listened to Jeremiah, if they had acted with justice towards each other, if they had accepted G-d’s punishment, then they would have spent seventy years of exile living in their own land – our own land – with a functioning Temple. Something that is still a dream for us today. Instead, they listened to the political religious leadership, and experienced savage bloodshed, final total exile, and the total destruction of the Temple.

Only after the destruction, Jeremiah and Ezekiel were proved correct. The destruction did happen. Far more Jews were killed, viciously, than had been before. More of the people were exiled. It was in order for later generations to see that there really was a reason for the destruction, says R’ Leibtag, that Jeremiah and Ezekiel were commanded to record that they predicted all of this. And for us to learn from it.

We’re in a similar state of chaos now. Whom do we listen to? We have no prophets and no direct line to G-d. Like the people at that time, we too are besieged by holy men, with holy intentions, who contradict each other with their predictions and solutions and permissions. Only this time, even they don't know who is lying. 

I don’t claim to tell you that we should be listening to the advice of the Jeremiah and Ezekiel figures and give land for peace, relinquish the Temple mount, sacrifice Jewish autonomy in parts of Israel in exchange for Jewish lives. That was the right advice for that time, but I do not know if it is the right advice for our times too. I just know that sometimes, submission is not defeat. I wish for a prophet to come along and tell us who is right and who is wrong, and I wish for us to recognise him when he comes. Because one thing I do learn from the books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel is that just because you think things are bad, it doesn’t mean that man himself can’t make them a whole lot worse through a series of bad decisions, made for the sake of Heaven.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Tell me what you think