The Prophets and the Moralists

January 1, 2012
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“The moralists discuss, suggest, counsel; the prophets proclaim, demand, insist.”
—Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets

When I first picked up Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s seminal book on the prophets, I read it with a healthy dose of skepticism. As an organizer, I was frustrated with people who fashioned themselves as modern-day prophets — men and women who seemed unwilling to sacrifice an ounce of truth or urgency to make their position more politically palatable. But Heschel convinced me that we need prophecy, too; sometimes, the cry for change is too inadequate without the fervor and fury of prophets.

To me, the “Occupy” movement is an attempt to reclaim an element of prophecy in American politics. It is the manifestation of a growing recognition that the “moralists” have failed — that the people who tried to discuss, suggest, and counsel our way out of an economic catastrophe have brought us no closer to justice. Occupy is an insistence that stimulus and accountability measures alone won’t change a corrupted system. It is emblematic of a collective impatience — a cry against leadership failures, an insistence that waiting for the moralists to get it right is simply no longer an option.

And so, despite its myriad imperfections, I am grateful for the Occupy movement — even for its refusal to temper its actions or to compromise.

—Jaime Rapaport Barry

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Ishare what feels like Jaime Rapaport Barry’s impatience with prophets in our era, especially on the national stage. My understanding of Jewish tradition honors actions above words; the words of prophesy, then, take a back seat to action on behalf of people. In American government today, this often means pragmatism and, yes, sometimes the art of compromise. To modern-day prophets — including the “Occupy” protesters and others — these can be ugly words. But to me, this is how to help the greatest number of people.

But I agree that there must always be room, particularly in our community, for prophets — among other things to lead Jewish organizations — who call us to our higher selves. I do not see this as a recognition of failure; instead, I see it as a communal, American, and global effort to remind us of our ideals. With so many people in pain, our prophets do not let us forget. For the many of us who aren’t prophets, the service they provide is invaluable — even as we keep our heads down and keep working to get things done, imperfect compromises and all.

—Marc R. Stanley

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In tractate Megilah 14a of the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Abba bar Kahana unflinchingly concedes the futility of prophetic insistence: “When Ahashverosh placed his ring on Haman’s finger, [authorizing genocide], it was more powerful than all 55 prophets of Israel. All the prophets together failed to move Jews to righteousness, yet removing the ring moved the Jews.” As a firing squad concentrates a condemned man’s mind, Haman’s credible threat to Jews roused Queen Esther and the Jews of Shushan to solidarity, action, and redemption. But prophecy? Isaiah’s odes and Jeremiah’s jeremiads? Goose eggs.

So, can the prophets’ insistence be effective? Jaime Rapoport Barry suggests that, in its intemperance, the Occupy movement may succeed where well-intentioned but inside-the-box governmental efforts will fail to change the system. I certainly hope so.

The Talmud continues: “Many prophets prophesied to Israel. Yet only those whose message would resonate with future generations were recorded by the Bible. The rest were forgotten.”

The system may yet withstand the prophets of Occupy, as it did the credible threat of financial ruin. If so, perhaps future generations will learn of Occupy and heed its call.

—Joel Alter

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In this narrative, the moralists are the politicians and prophets are “the people.” Please note the obvious irony. However, as a pragmatic idealist, I like to think that morality and prophecy exist in the voices of both our leaders and everyday citizens. Both voices must be heard.

While stimulus and accountability alone will not change a system, neither will chants commonly heard at the Occupy protests, such as, “This is what a police state looks like.”

Our voices — the voices of the American people — have reached a moment of urgency. Nationwide unemployment floats around 9 percent; health-care costs are rising; the farm bill is rife with inequities. All of this and more contribute to inequality between the 99 percent and the 1 percent of Americans. The cry is urgent.

The voices of the moralists must become louder. A complete economic disaster has been averted and some sound change continues to create bright moments: grassroots movements are making an impact; universal health care passed; and there is profitable industry being built around the green movement. For the Occupy movement.

For the Occupy movement to have purpose and forward momentum, we need the politicians to find prophecy. They need to work toward what is good and create a direction forward. Without any direction, our propensity to proclaim, demand, and insist will gradually become an Occupation of suggestion, discussions, and council.

—Sarah Drew Kornhauser

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