Last week, following years of dedicated work by the Israel Land Fund, a three-generation Palestinian family was evicted from its East Jerusalem home of more than 50 years. Other evictions should follow soon; several families in the neighborhood have already been served with documents.
You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 22:21)
The basis of our obligations towards strangers – which in the Bible means ‘others’ who live among us with limited rights and obligations – lies in our own former status as strangers. This has immense moral and ethical significance, but I want focus on its significance as a reading strategy.
Some texts serve as keys to unlock other texts. The Song of Songs can be read as a key that unlocks the Torah’s hidden, mystical dimension. The prohibition against abusing the stranger is the key that unlocks the Torah’s transcendence. That is, while the Torah tells the story of a certain people in a certain place at a certain time, it is in no sense limited by that story, that people, that place, that time.
The Torah was our story when we were slaves, but it is also our story when we are masters. The first detailed laws after the Sinai revelation tell us we should treat slaves (Exodus 21). Think about that – it’s unbelievable. The Pesach Haggadah requires us to make a big shift in self-perception; we were slaves and now we are free. But Torah demands an even bigger shift; we were slaves and now we are slave masters.
This shift was what made the Bible so empowering for black slaves in the West Indies and the ante-bellum South. They sang songs based on the story of the Exodus that they’d been taught by their Christian masters, but now they were the oppressed Hebrews and their devout masters were the ruthless Pharaoh. Did the slave owners understand what they were hearing?
Listen here to Paul Robeson singing Let My People Go.
The experience of 19th century Jewish slave-owners was different. Christians are not bound by Torah law, but Jews were obliged to extend to their slaves the rights the Torah extends to slaves, most notably, of course, the right to rest on Shabbat: ‘Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy … the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; you shall do no work – you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave … or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt …’ (Deuteronomy 5:12-15). This may explain why – paradoxically, since Judaism is not a proselytizing religion while Christianity is – slaves from the African continent were more likely to convert to Judaism than to Christianity. They wanted to retain the Torah’s life-giving privileges for life, even when they were sold to Christian slave owners.
The Torah is neither a manual for slaves not a handbook for slave owners, but a source of justice that governs all human relations. It’s not easy to take on board that it’s not all about us, exactly as we are today. ‘You were strangers’ helps us to internalize the almost incomprehensible notion that the Torah should not be read from this or that particular angle, but from every possible point of view — from the perspective of a slave to that of a slave owner.
A similar shift in perspective is required when it comes to prophets. From our own contemporary view point, the biblical prophets are grand, authoritative, institutionalized figures. They are the subject of countless commanding paintings and statues.
And they are the authors of books written in high-flown, poetic language that get a lot of air-time in synagogues in the form of haftarah readings, but are little discussed – indeed barely known in detail – in most Jewish circles.
It’s easy to assume that the equivalents of prophets in our own times should likewise be grand, eloquent, authoritative, institutionalized, figures: supreme court judges, great rabbinical leaders, public intellectuals. But the biblical prophets were far from respected, mainstream professionals in their own times. Indeed, for the most part, they were loners, eccentrics, outsiders, people who, even when they moved in powerful circles such as royal courts, challenged them from the periphery. This may account for their difficult turns of phrase. The messages they delivered were often unpopular and even life-threatening. If you were going to criticize a king, it made sense to do it in language he couldn’t easily hold against you.
Here’s an example of diplomatic delivery by a prophet, not in high-flown language, but in the form of a parable. King David, Israel’s most powerful king at the time, had impregnated Batsheva, another man’s wife. The husband was a soldier David’s his own army, and a stranger of sorts – he was called Uriah the Hittite. Unable to convince Uriah to sleep with his wife when he came home on a special, royal-appointed leave, David arranged for him to die in battle. Along came Nathan the Prophet, and told David a story about a rich man with many flocks who took a poor man’s only lamb. David was fast to point the finger: that man deserves to die. Nathan was even faster to point it back at David: You are the man (2 Samuel 12).
King David must have been sorely tempted to get rid of Nathan the Prophet, or at the very least destroy his reputation, but he didn’t. Prophets functioned as the conscience of the rich and powerful, and David needed a conscience.
Nathan wasn’t the sort of prophet who wrote a book, but the so-called ‘writing’ prophets also functioned, among other things, as the conscience of the powerful, protecting the weak and marginal from their excesses. (Somewhat amazingly, when you think about it, this even applied to God and Israel; Moses, prophet par excellence, intervened again and again to convince the all-powerful Almighty not to let his anger get the better of him and destroy Israel.)
Amos blamed the collapse of the Northern Kingdom on the abuse of the poor and needy by the wealthy elite:
Amos 5:11 Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from him a levy of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted delightful vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. 12 For I have counted how many are your crimes, and how countless your sins— you enemies of the righteous, you takers of bribes, you who push aside the needy in the gate. 13 Assuredly, a prudent man keeps silent at such a time as this; for it is an evil time.
Ezekiel interpreted the Babylonian exile as a punishment for ruthless oppression of the marginal:
Ezekiel 22:6 The princes of Israel in you, everyone according to his power, have been bent on shedding blood. 7 Father and mother are treated with contempt in you; the stranger residing within you suffers extortion; the orphan and the widow are wronged in you. 8 You have despised my holy things, and profaned my Sabbaths.
For Malachi, oppressors of the weak would be among the first to be judged on the day of judgement:
Malachi 5:5 Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the stranger, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.
It’s not surprising that biblical prophets were not popular among their peers. People wanted to shut them up. They were decried as fakes (sound familiar?). In hindsight, we know which biblical prophets were false prophets and which ones were true, but imagine the confusion at the time. You can get a good sense of it from the struggle over a symbolic yoke between Jeremiah and the false prophet Hananiah ben Azur in Jeremiah 27 and 29.
This encounter led Jeremiah to formulate a test to distinguish true from false prophets. The false ones, like Hananiah, wanted to overcome their enemies with force – break the yoke imposed on Israel by the king of Babylon. This kind of prophet, Jeremiah said, should be heeded only when and if his prophecy was fulfilled. True prophets, like Jeremiah himself, saw the Babylonian invasion and exile as a divine punishment for Israel’s wrongdoing. Removing the yoke entailed resisting God’s punishment. Self-correction was the appropriate response.
What would we call Jeremiah today? A self-hating Jew. Unpatriotic. A leftist. An ‘activist’… The prophets of our own day are not the politicians with grandiose predictions of the glorious future Jews and the Jewish homeland will achieve through our own great strength. They are the people at the margins warning us that we are not living up to the required standards, especially when it comes to oppression of the poor and weak.
Where can we hear these prophetic voices? I’m sorry to say this — even committed leftists get tired of hearing the repeated litany of our crimes and faults – but we need to read Haaretz. I’m not claiming that their reporters are divinely inspired, chas v’chalilah (according to Jewish tradition, that aspect of prophecy ended with Malachi), or that everything they print is correct. I’m simply claiming that Haaretz is a good source of criticisms of us that are equivalent to Jeremiah’s criticisms of our ancestors.
Again, I’m sorry to say it, because it’s really depressing, but we also need to listen to the very NGOs our government brands as traitors and tries to strangle by cutting funding and foreign support. We need to read Ir Amim’s website and NIF’s. We need to know what’s removed by the Education Minister from our children’s High School curriculum. We need to watch the plays our Minister of Culture bans from the theaters she wishes she could close. We need to find out what the – mainly secular (I really, really don’t get that!) – protesters are saying about our treatment of our strangers.
We need to listen to all these people not because they are right about Israel’s future. Since that kind of prophecy ended with Malachi, no-one can see the future. And even before that kind of prophecy ended, the picture was blurred. We need to listen to them because they are saying what our biblical prophets said – that power must be tempered by righteous compassion in a just society, and that there’s no other society worth living in.
If 60 is the new 40, and orange is the new black, the new Jeremiah is somewhere in this crowd …