Latest update: December 11th, 2012
During The Three Weeks between 17 Tammuz and Tisha B’Av, as we recall the destruction of the Temples, we read three of the most searing passages in the prophetic literature, the first two from the opening of the book of Jeremiah, the third, next week, from the first chapter of Isaiah.
At perhaps no other time of the year are we so acutely aware of the enduring force of ancient Israel’s great visionaries. The prophets had no power. They were not kings or members of the royal court. They were (usually) not priests or members of the religious establishment. They held no office. They were not elected. Often they were deeply unpopular, none more so than the author of this week’s haftarah, Jeremiah, who was arrested, flogged, abused, put on trial and only narrowly escaped with his life. Only rarely were the prophets heeded in their lifetimes: the one clear exception was Jonah, and he spoke to non-Jews, the citizens of Nineveh. Yet their words were recorded for posterity and became a major feature of Tanach. They were the world’s first social critics, and their message continues through the centuries. As Kierkegaard almost said: when a king dies, his power ends; when a prophet dies, his influence begins.
What was distinctive about the prophet was not that he foretold the future. The ancient world was full of such people: soothsayers, oracles, readers of runes, shamans and other diviners, each of whom claimed the inside track with the forces that govern fate and “shape our ends, rough-hew them how we will.” Judaism has no time for such people. The Torah bans one “who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead” (Deuteronomy 18:10-11). It disbelieves such practices because it believes in human freedom. The future is not pre-scripted. It depends on us, and the choices we make. If a prediction comes true it has succeeded; if a prophecy comes true it has failed. The prophet tells of the future that will happen if we do not heed the danger and mend our ways. He (or she – there were seven biblical prophetesses) does not predict; he warns.
Nor was the prophet distinctive in blessing or cursing the people. That was Bilam’s gift, not Isaiah’s or Jeremiah’s. In Judaism, blessing comes through priests, not prophets.
Several things made the prophets unique. The first was his or her sense of history. The prophets were the first people to see God in history. We tend to take our sense of time for granted. Time happens. Time flows. As the saying goes: time is God’s way of keeping everything from happening at once. But actually there are several ways of relating to time, and different civilizations have perceived it differently.
There is cyclical time: time as the slow turning of the seasons, or the cycle of birth, growth, decline and death. Cyclical time is time as it occurs in nature. Some trees have long lives; most fruit flies have short ones. But all that lives, dies. The species endure; individual members do not. Kohelet contains the most famous expression of cyclical time in Judaism: “The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course … What has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
Then there is linear time: time as an inexorable sequence of cause and effect. The French astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace gave this idea its most famous expression in 1814 when he said that if you “know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed,” together with all the laws of physics and chemistry, then “nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present” before your eyes. When applied to society and history, this is known as historical inevitability.
Finally there is time as a mere sequence of events with no underlying plot or theme. This leads to the kind of historical writing pioneered by the scholars of ancient Greece, Herodotus and Thucydides.
About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.”
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