On Prophecy and Democracy

September 3, 2012
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Aryeh Cohen

The prophets were not democrats. Addressing a gathering of citizens petitioning their elected leaders for the redress of grievances, I have sometimes felt as though I were channeling Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.  Especially if I was “in the zone,” the exact words would flow through me and I would feel a direct and deep connection with the people I was talking to, and, at the same time, I would be able to focus the right amount of anger at the people I was talking about. I suspect that when King and Heschel were “in the zone,” they felt that they were channeling Isaiah or Amos. It is anybody’s guess who Amos and Isaiah thought they were channeling. This, however, is not democracy. The use of words and rhetoric in a manner moving and poetic in order to focus the righteous rage of citizens on the sources of injustice is not democracy. It may, at times, be one aspect of a democratic culture.

Democracy, like prophecy, is not “one.” Bringing democracy back to its basics — the demos, the people —  reminds us that democracy is a gathering together. Democracy is the organizing of residents — both documented citizens and those undocumented who could be construed as citizens by dint of fulfilling the functions of citizenship (as the political
philosopher Jeffrey Stout has taught) — in order to debate, discuss, and inquire after the needs of the society (the polis), and to arrive at an agreed-upon course of action. In our representative democracy, this course of action is then brought to elected representatives, those sworn to perform the will of the people; elected representatives are thus obligated to recognize that the power they wield is power in service to the will of the people. The people convey a course of action to their elected representatives who then bring it to the assembly of representatives who, as the voice of many groups of people, debate, discuss, and decide on a joint course of action. It is this plodding pursuit of solutions that is at the heart of the democratic movement.

The need for a prophetic voice comes when the democratic movement stalls or becomes unhinged — when the representatives of the people no longer wield their power in service, but rather mistake themselves for their agency and wield power for interests that undermine the democratic process. When the poor are ignored, the homeless unsheltered, the sick untended, when power gathers itself in gilded mansions and votes are not distributed evenly — then, the moment for a prophetic voice is ripe: Then it is time to announce for all to hear that “Sodom has reappeared, that Jerusalem, once a city where righteousness dwelt, now houses murderers.” (Isaiah 1)

Prophecy, however, bears its own dangers, for while democracy is, at least theoretically, based in dialogue and therefore self-correcting, prophecy is based in righteous indignation, which is itself grounded in knowledge of “the truth.” This problem extends as far back as the time when there were prophets. The challenge of discerning
whether prophet and prophecy are true or false was known to the people in the age of Isaiah and Jeremiah, and it is known today. The problem was also ignored in the age of Isaiah and Jeremiah, and it is ignored in our age. It is often the prophecies of comfort (whether personal or political) that ring true while the prophets of rancor and rage ring false. And while sometimes the prophets of comfort and convenience are right, usually it is the prophets of rancor and rage who are closer to the truth.

So how is one to decide between the voices? In our day, the prophetic voice declares that the Land of Israel is connected to the people Israel in an unbroken bond; what if the next generation of prophets divine that now is the time to rebuild the Temple? How is one to decide? And how is one to decide when one prophetic voice claims that any god that is mine but not yours is an idol, while another prophetic voice declares that my god is not your god?

This, then, is the crux. While the power of prophets is important — perhaps indispensable — in confronting not only the unbridled power of governments or corporations, but also corruption and its handmaiden, wealth, it must be the responsibility of democracy, basic democracy, to set policy and seek solutions. Vox populi vox dei/the voice of the people is the voice of God — in its plodding complexity and procedural inefficiencies — that is the only path we have from here to justice.

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Aryeh Cohen, a Sh’ma Advisory Board member, lives in Los Angeles with his partner, Andrea Hodos and their children, Shachar and Oryah. He teaches Talmud at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University; davens at the Shtibl Minyan; and writes about Talmud, justice, Shabbat, and gender, among other topics. The author of Justice in the City: Toward a Community of Obligation (Academic Studies Press), Cohen blogs at justice-in-the-city.com.

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