Ben Judah

As Israel spirals into perilous tribalism, I finally hear the Prophets

I used to struggle to really hear the Prophets. Now, voices like them are so loud it’s what the Nevi’im mean that troubles me.

February 16, 2023 11:57

It’s a very specific thing: a synagogue morning — sit, stand. The mind wandering. The chants taking you all kinds of places. Into memories, back to the office, or lands thousands of years ago. The familiar unfolding until it’s time to focus for the Amidah.

But I have a confession to make about one bit of the service. I never used to listen to the haftarah. Those readings from the Prophets — the Nevi’im — that are our second part of the Bible. For most of my life I couldn’t even read them. Because, in English at least, whilst each individual verse, made sense — the whole did not.

Kings. Isaiah. Jeremiah. These books turned me off. Or just left me cold. Political lists, laments and exhortations. They felt like they weren’t written for me. That they came from far away. The exact opposite I’ve always felt during the Torah reading — from Bereshit to the end of the scroll. Abraham’s wandering family reminded me of my own. Exodus, for all its miracles, couldn’t not speak to me of the Holocaust or the deliverance of its refugees.

I don’t feel like this anymore. I’ve learnt to hear the Prophets. The way some films didn’t click for me when I was younger. But in this case it’s our times that have changed. They say each generation has its own book of the Bible. Ben Gurion hunched over the Book of Joshua as they conquered the land. The Book of Judges haunting Moshe Dayan and Yigal Yadin in their wars and hilltops.

It’s now the cries of the Nevi’im that fill my mind. Their warnings of a hard-won country, perilously divided — on the brink of being lost — because of tribalism, egotism and blindness to our enemies’ intentions. Those are the parts of the Bible which now speak to me with greatest urgency as the Israeli President warns we are “on the brink of a constitutional and social collapse”.

It’s not only that I’ve finally understood why we read them, now that unity — that singleness of purpose of Exodus and the Jewish world in ’67 — seems dream-like amid our divisions. It’s that I’ve started to hear the Prophetic tone — the one that rang so odd — everywhere.

It’s a voice that’s shrilling louder, because when I can face looking up, it’s become an Israel where everyone sees the others as wicked kings: their Ahaz or Jeroboam. Where the left, like Isaiah, love their country but feel compelled to shout the people have lost their moral way. Where the right, like Jeremiah, long for peace but cannot be silent of the new terrors to come. Where the Charedim, like Malachi, love their fellow Jews but scream that the holiest of rituals have been defiled by them.

Where everyone yells over each other just as the Assyrians and Babylonians of our day build warheads, biding their time. Where everyone expects to be listened to like Moses. But can’t accept that unity is gone for us.

It’s not just what I hear in Israel. It’s our diaspora too. Because when I look around, I know Jews everywhere, like Elijah, that feel they are being spurned by their communities, or being made to suffer by their authorities — for risking to say what is right. And I only have to start listening, to hear the Jews around me, like Elisha, say they fear even their own families are falling for idols — the baals of our day — they call assimilation, extremism or rejection.

Now I can finally understand the chroniclers. Their agony watching the country fail. Their pain watching their communities turn away. Their calls to halt, to stop, to prevent this degeneration, even if they weren’t listened to. And their determination that their descendants remember this — not only the glories, the mysteries and the mighty deeds of the chumash. Which is why, in the thousands of decisions that lurk behind what we do, the rabbis mandated that the Nevi’im have their own haftarah.

I used to struggle to really hear the Prophets. Now, voices like them are so loud it’s what the Nevi’im mean that troubles me. The German-Jewish sage Martin Buber used to write of Judaism as the Prophetic Faith. Not because it 
was arranged around a Prophet, like our sister religions. But because Judaism is the religion not only of the prophetic message but the prophetic encounter.

The Bible, according to Buber, is telling us one great story, where in every generation the people of Israel are faced with a new moral dilemma. And the prophet is the one who confronts it. Not leaving the nation for the monastery. But helping the people react to it — together.

Judaism, in this reading, is not the faith of Vestal Virgins or silent stone statues of Ptah but the one of facing up to that which is impossibly difficult and ethically hard. Never leaving behind those you are tempted 
to despise.

It is the fate of our generation that so many of these have come at once: the occupation, antisemitism, immense dangers or where we swim — or stop — as Jews in these waters of modernity rushing ever faster. It’s not for nothing that Elijah has haunted our culture. Flittering through the Talmud, smiling at travellers who are lost or have come far. Always — if you can hear him — asking far more of us than simply one Passover cup of wine.

February 16, 2023 11:57

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