Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Devarim - Shabbat Hazon (Haftarot)

The Shabbat immediately preceding Tisha b’Av is known as Shabbat Hazon, “the Sabbath of Vision,” for the opening words of its haftarah, Isaiah 1:1-27. This haftarah, customarily read in the elegiac, melancholy melody of Lamentations, begins in a manner somewhat similar to Jeremiah 2: God’s bitterness at His children’s abandonment of Him—“I have raised children, and they have rebelled against me,” and the foolishness they betray in doing so—”even the ox knows its master and the ass its trough, but my people know Me not” (vv. 2-3).

But this haftarah has two other striking features. One: it is filled with images of sickness and desolation (vv. 5-9): “the entire head is sick, the whole heart faint… There is nothing sound, from head to foot… it is filled with bruises and sores and open wounds… Your land lies desolate… consumed by strangers.” It is as if the punishment that God will visit upon them for their sin is already in the process of being carried out, is depicted in vivid, present tense: “The daughter of Zion is left like a booth in the vineyard, like a hut in a vegetable patch.”

Second, this chapter uses harsher language of moral criticism: “Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom; listen, O people of Gomorrah” (Compare the opening of Jer 2:1, where for all their sins they are still addressed as “house of Israel”). His strongest words are saved for condemnation of pious hypocrisy. He rejects their preoccupation with sacrifices or, more precisely, the relevance or validity of bringing sacrifices coupled with unrighteousness. “Who asked you to trample My courtyards… I cannot abide iniquity and solemn assembly… I hate your new moons and sabbaths… when you stretch forth your hands I shall hide my eyes” (vv. 12-15).

What he critiques here is the kind of thinking that sees the essence of religion in pomp and ceremony, in solemn ritual gatherings and external gestures of piety. Yet at the same time “your hands are filled with blood”; the people and their leaders neglect the most elementary principles of justice, of ordinary human decency and concern for ones fellowman, oppress the orphan and widow.

The tendency to become preoccupied with rituals and formalities is a persistent problem in human psychology at all times and all cultures—in religion or, for that matter, in any great ideal. It is perhaps a particular problem in Judaism because of the highly detailed nature of the halakhah: but in other systems, which may seemingly give greater emphasis to larger principles, the lofty ideals may waft off on the hot air of preacher’s rhetoric without every becoming anchored in concrete realty! For that reason, in almost all times and places, prophets are lonely and frustrated people, wrestling their entire lives with the stubbornness of the human heart—of others and their own.

In our own country, there are prominent rabbis whose compassion seems most touched when it comes to “religious” criminals, using their influence to further pleas of clemency those who have killed Arabs in cold blood. They are passionate advocates for such “penitents” as Ami Popper, the young man who massacred half-a-dozen Arabs who were sitting by a roadside waiting to go to work, became “religious,” began wearing a long caftan and grew a beard and payot—but never expressed any regret for his actions. And he finds support, as I said, among Rabbinic leaders & religious MK’s. What would Isaiah say about this?

But unlike Jeremiah, who in Chapter 2 essentially describes the unfaithful state of the people, in this chapter of Isaiah there is always the possibility of repentance, of change. Thus vv. 18-20: Let us reason together: if your sins are like scarlet or crimson, they can yet be as white as snow or clean linen, if only you wish it and choose to do so—but otherwise the sword will destroy you.

At this point there appears the key sentence: “How has the faithful city become like a harlot” (v. 21). She who was formerly filled with justice, a model of faithfulness and upright behavior, is now murderous and dishonest; the silver has become dross, the fine wine diluted. Hence, the true purpose of the forthcoming disaster is, not destruction for the sake of destruction, but to ”smelt” you like fine metal (vv. 26-27). Then “Zion will be redeemed with justice, and those who repent with righteousness.”

Unlike the case in Jeremiah, this passage was not uttered close to destruction; not in a historical situation where the threat of destruction was visible on the political horizon, but a prophecy for future, anchored in the firm belief in the operation of Divine justice in the world. Or perhaps, if the message was uttered after the Assyrian invasion of 721 BCE, in wake of the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel, the implied message was: What happened to them may happen to Judah as well.

Shabbat Hazon: The Sabbath of Vision

The haftarah for the Shabbat preceding Tisha b’Av is the well known opening chapter of Isaiah, beginning with the words Hazon Yesahayahu—“the vision of Isaiah son of Amoz.” I wish to leave aside the contents of this chapter—a powerful admonition against the faithlessness of the Jewish people and exhortation to repentance, and hence a suitable reading for the Shabbat preceding the anniversary of a series of destructions and catastrophes—and focus on the meaning of the opening word, Hazon—“vision.”

There is a certain ongoing tension in Judaism between seeing and hearing. Avivah Zornberg notes in her book on Exodus that, already in the account of the Sinai Revelation, the Torah swings back and forth between the two verbs, “to see” and “to hear.”

Twice, God mentions that which the people have seen: “You have seen what I did in Egypt…. that I spoke with you from the heavens” (Exod 19:4; 20:19), but immediately thereafter says “If you will hearken to My voice” (19:5), or “that the people may listen when I speak with them” (v. 9). There is even a “… mysterious reference to ‘seeing the Voices’ (20:15). And yet, forty years later, Moses will tell his people… ‘The sound of words you hear, but no image do you see—nothing but a voice’ (Deut 4:12). “

Further on, she comments how, on the one hand, the epiphany at Sinai leaves the people with “self-consciousness of an unmediated, personal relation with God” but, on the other hand:

[T]he Revelation contained no visual representation of God. The fire, intense darkness, and other visual experiences are not denied.… [But] the true form of their perception: you heard, you did not see. … in traditional readings, the most direct and transparent moment of Revelation is shot through, made iridescent, by interpretation. This raises questions about the meanings of seeing and hearing, about the relative status of mystical experience and of the world-making activity of the mind..

Her sub-chapter heading summarizes the polarity neatly: “Seeing and Hearing: Mystical Experience and Verbal Interpretation.” Vision is closely related to mystical experience; the mystic seeks a concrete vision of the Godhead, which sooner or later runs up against the stern rule, “No man shall see me and live.” By contrast, speech, the word, is more amenable to conveying, not only single images, but complex sequences of ideas and concepts, and thereby shaping behavior, or even creating an entire world-view. It is, somehow, a more sober kind of sense (see my discussion of the prohibition of imagery and its integral relation to idolatry, in HY I: Yitro).

The phenomenon of prophecy, which is somehow the highest level of religious experience, of closeness to God, is nevertheless related to vision, to sight. In the earliest days of the people, the very first prophet, Samuel, is described as haro’eh, the “seer” or “visionary” (1 Sam 9:9). Isaiah, Ezekiel and Zechariah see elaborate visions, which they describe; Jeremiah and Amos, along with others, couch several of their prophecies in visual terms. But tradition relates that Zechariah, Haggai and Malachi, at the dawn of the Second Temple, were the last prophets; after them, there will be no more prophecy until the time of the Final Redemption. Why was such an important religious institution as prophecy in fact abolished in Israel?

There seems to be a certain distaste, even mistrust, of charismatic or ecstatic forms of experience. Prophecy, as abundantly illustrated by many of the things described in Nevi’im, involved certain psychologically abnormal and even bizarre kinds of behavior, a departure from the normal round of human activity. At times, there seems to be a kind of instinctive repugnance or repulsion from such things; a certain sobriety, a kind of humanism or, better, human-focused attitude within the Judaic religious world-view. It is as if they didn’t know what to do with these “crazy” people who took seriously the wish to know God, not only in a metaphorical sense, or through the reflection of His actions within the world, but in a direct, unmediated sense. This is perhaps coupled with an element of fear—a reluctance to draw too close to the mysterium tremendum, to the confrontation with God.

In Rabbinic teaching we encounter the phrase Hakham adif mi-navi—“The sage is preferable [or: superior] to the prophet.” That is, the learned sage, one who teaches Torah as a way of life based upon a combination of received tradition and his own powers of wisdom and reasoning, is preferable as a religious leader to a prophet, to one who sees himself as a direct conduit from God. Here, again, Zornberg’s formulation about “world-making activity of the mind” is most apt. All this, again, relates to the whole tension between the charismatic, ecstatic, mystical aspects vs. the sober, rational element in Judaism.

Interestingly, Moses himself embodies both aspects: he is Avi ha-Nevi’im, “the Father of the Prophets” (especially in Maimonides, who repeatedly describes the Torah as “nevuato shel Moshe Rabbenu, “the prophecy of Moses our Teacher”; cf. HY I: Shavuot) and Moshe Rabbenu—“Moses our Teacher”: that is, Moses as the first rabbi, the judge, legislator, transmitter and interpreter of the tradition.

David Hartman has described the replacement of prophecy by human authority and human reason as the essential difference between Biblical and Rabbinic Judaism. From then on, the relationship of Jews to God is mediated through the vast literature of Oral Torah, and the process of understanding, interpretation, and debate that characterize the Talmud. There is a sense in which the Torah is very imminent, within human hands. Emblematic here is the famous story of the “oven of Akhnai” (Bava Metzia 59b), in which the rabbis reject a series of supernatural miracles invoked by Rabbi Eliezer to prove his point, stating categorically: “It is not in heaven.”

A second problem with prophecy, in the post-revelation reality of the post-biblical age, may be the feeling that it opens the door to religious anarchy. After all, how is one to know whether a prophet is “real” or not? Whether he carries the authentic word of God, or is speaking from his own imagination. The Torah itself already worries about this problem, presenting various laws concerning the false prophet and the true prophet (Deut 13:2-6; 18:15-22). Likewise, in some of the historical books we find accounts of the conflicts between authentic prophets and “lying prophets”—usually, those who preach complacency and cater to royal misdeeds (see. e.g., the confrontation between Ahab’s four hundred prophets and Michaiah ben Yimlah in 1 Kings 22). Interestingly, one of the criticisms brought against Jesus by the Rabbis, as reported in the NT, is that he spoke “in his own name”—that is, he assumed the prerogative of prophecy, even though it had long since passed from the world.

“Neither the kings of the earth nor the inhabitants of the world could believe that a foe or enemy would enter into the gates of Jerusalem” (Lamentations 4:12) There is much more to be said on this subject, which is both deep and broad, but the approaching onset of the fast forces me to stop. At this point, the reader is doubtless asking: what has all this to do with Tisha b’Av?

Another aspect of the question, “Why was prophecy abolished?” involves a certain paradox. Notwithstanding the above arguments about charisma vs. sober, rational authority and “the world-making activity of the mind”: if the primary function of prophecy is to chastise the people, to make them see clearly the error of their ways, to bring them to a clear, unequivocal knowledge of God’s will in a given situation, why deny the people this much-needed and powerful goad to repentance? The traditional answer is that prophecy is dependent upon a high spiritual level, upon the Divine Presence dwelling in Israel. Yet is it not precisely in times of lowness, of distance from the Creator, of doubt and uncertainty, that prophecy is most needed?

In a time of ongoing crisis and fear, such as the one we have been experiencing these two years, it seems that we desperately need a prophet to call the people to awaken and to show them the path on which they must go, to turn them away from the way that will lead to catastrophe and destruction. At times it seems that our streets are filled with false prophets who, like those of olden times, say “the altar of the Lord, the altar of the Lord.” Or I am reminded, perhaps strangely, of William B. Yeats words in “The Second Coming”: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Yet perhaps on balance it is best that there are no true prophets. If there were, their fate would no doubt be like that of Jeremiah when he was thrust into the pit, or of Zechariah ben Yehoiada, whose blood, we are told, still cries out to be avenged (see Gittin 57a). It would be impossible to distinguish true from false, with all the competing claims; perhaps, then, it is best that those blessed with clear sight assume the role of “the admonisher in the gate,” of one who speaks words of rebuke on the basis of the inherent truth in their words, rooted in the teaching of the Torah, and human reason, ethical conscience and common sense. He who has ears will hear.


Blogger elf said...

Like so many of your posts, this is both informative and thought-provoking. I am mainly writing to make a minor correction, however. The phrase in Yirmiyahu is heikhal Hashem, "the temple of the Lord," not "the altar of the Lord."

11:27 AM  

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