Wednesday, 16 Aug 2017

Written by Nathan Godleman

He considered the thing he must say, chose the words with which to say it, tried them on his tongue, and fashioned them tentatively on his lips. Revulsion welled up in him, raised the gorge in his throat, and without assent or awareness on his part set his feet in motion.’

There is something about the prophets of Israel and Judah which is compelling. It is no wonder that the founders of Liberal Judaism wrote so extensively on them. The social ethic they proclaim and the empty behaviourism they condemn were once the twin pillars of our movement. Yet, the apocryphal story of the Prophets being placed alongside the Torah scroll in the ark belongs to another age. While the social ethic remains, ritual and tradition have reassumed something of their former position, and it is a rare sermon that looks beyond the Five Books of Moses, in a scriptural sense. Talmudic, Chassidic or mystical texts are the new secondary resources of choice. The prophetic reading is left only as a bridge between one part of the service and another, the Haftarah the poor relation of the parashah. We are easily distracted by the re-dressing of the scroll during a reading, accomplished well or less well, always in English, and often without comment. And we are missing out.

We are missing out in the mode of delivery and in the selection of material, as occurred to me recently in relation to a specific text, which forms the basis of an extended scene in The Prophet’s Wife by Milton Steinberg. In the Tanakh, it only amounts to eight verses.[1] Extraordinary, firstly because the biblical writer is able to convey so much in so few words. Secondly, because the narrative contains within it almost a job specification for a prophet, namely the courage to speak truth unto power, whatever the cost. Here, the Judean prophet, Amos, is the one at odds with the establishment, not Milton Steinberg’s eponymous hero, Hosea, whom he has witness events. He was obviously struck by the drama of the scene, and presents it as a pivotal moment in Hosea’s life, serving to inspire the would-be prophet.

Eight verses, and at least six aspects of the prophetic vocation: feeling impelled to speak, issuing warnings, sounding retribution, antagonising those in power, personal sacrifice, fleeing danger and so on. In terms of our own religious lives, or our social consciences, Amos could easily stand as a model of ethical behaviour.

If the Prophets are superhuman, they are of limited use. They cannot serve as role models if they are totally beyond reach. They become religious curiosities, more or less irrelevant. If they were inspired, by God or by some innate sense of right and wrong, can’t we too be inspired? In a recent edition of the BBC History Magazine, a writer quotes a medical expert and his ‘bank account of courage’ analogy. The idea is that one’s personal account is either ‘re-charged, or depleted, depending on circumstances.’ In other words, one day we may be a hero, the next a coward, thus preventing anyone from being labelled in any permanent sense, and once helping to explain ‘shell shock’ or ‘battle fatigue.’

A crowded school hall and an unusual start to the week. All the children were to be biometrically fingerprinted for the new ‘cashless catering’ system being installed. The business manager had announced the move before the weekend, and assured us that the data would be stored securely and there was no need for the administrative inconvenience of seeking parental permission. I was one of several who felt very uneasy and decided to act. We mobilised the union membership. The head teacher arrived and was quite angry, unable to understand our concerns and with the contractors already on site. When I interrupted him and spoke out twice in quick succession, it was unprecedented for me, and as others joined in, he knew something was very wrong. The fingerprinting was postponed, parents were contacted, a scandal averted – one which soon struck a neighbouring school, and a personal apology made by the head teacher at the next briefing, which said a lot about him. He had got it wrong, we had acted as a staff and something had compelled me to speak out in that meeting, unpremeditated, borne of emotion, regardless of any consequences. ‘He’s had his last promotion,’ I heard someone say later. The closest I’ve come to understanding the prophetic voice.

A board of governors meeting. A senior teacher, awkward, diffident, reporting on the success of his new behavioural improvement plan. Yes, the number of students being sent to the curriculum referral room, a kind of temporary exclusion, was down. However, it was because he had made it nigh on impossible to refer someone. As a tutor, I knew, and I kept quiet. The prophetic voice was silent, no withdrawal was made from the account that evening. Why? Partly because it would have been so easy to undermine the report, and I felt a little sorry for him. Partly, because I was compromised, as a teacher governor with a degree of loyalty towards the administration and my day-to-day job to consider. Neither of these reasons would have satisfied Amos, who would have spoken out in the interests of truth, of the governing body as a whole and, ultimately, of the children. I failed, where he would have succeeded.

The Prophets are occasionally complex characters, like Jeremiah. Others seem less conflicted, which may have prompted Milton Steinberg to explore Hosea’s background and motivations in the novel. All the Prophets act with clarity and their worldview could be considered too black and white for modern sensibilities. How do we proceed without all the information we need? Are indirect approaches better on occasion to achieve our aims? How do things appear from the point of view of ‘power’? Indeed, how do we react when someone speaks the truth unto us, especially when we occupy positions in a hierarchy? Of course, there are no easy answers here, only challenging questions. All we can hope for is the discernment to know when something has to be said. A sensitivity to the still, small voice, which sometimes bellows at us and sometimes doesn’t articulate itself at all, simply causing us to act. We can acknowledge the revulsion that welled up in Hosea and set his feet in motion, knowing that he soon found the strength to return to the market place, climb upon the podium and declare to the people, ‘The word of the Lord thou shalt know.’ And we can seek to emulate him.

Nathan Godleman,  LBC rabbinic student



[1] Amos 7:10-17

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.