Tzvi Novick

Politics, Prophets, and Polarization

On Shabbat Hanukkah we read in the synagogue Zechariah’s famous vision of the menorah.  “What do those things mean?” says the prophet.  What does the menorah signify?  The angel’s answer: “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, said the Lord of Hosts.” (Zech 4:4-6)  (This and other biblical translations come from the NJPS, unless otherwise indicated.)  These words seem to interpret the tension between the two miracles of Hanukkah: the Hasmoneans’ military victory over the Hellenizing forces of Antiochus, and the persistence of the menorah’s oil.  Enlisted for Shabbat Hanukkah, Zechariah seems to weigh in decisively in favor of the second miracle.  It is God who gives victory, and strength of arms is nothing more than an epiphenomenon.

If this is the intended meaning of the haftarah, it is a radical one indeed, insofar as it subordinates the political realm entirely to the theological.  One struggles to put such a wholesale dismissal of politics to use, other than as a signpost of the utopian future in which, in the words of another prophet, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares” (Isaiah 2:4, NJPS).  But I wish to draw attention to a more narrowly focused critique of politics from another prophet, a critique that seems especially relevant in the current moment, when crudeness and even cruelty have gained a certain cache in a sharply polarized public sphere.

I take us to the book of Kings, and to the figure of the prophet Elisha, Elijah’s student and successor.  Elisha resides in the northern kingdom, Israel, but in chapter 8 of 2 Kings he finds himself in Damascus, the capital city of Aram.  Aram’s king, Ben-hadad, has fallen ill, and he sends his attendant Hazael to Elisha, to inquire whether the king will recover.  Elisha says: Tell the king that he will recover, but know that God has in fact revealed to me that he will die.  This is strange indeed, that the prophet should lie.  Strange, too, is what happens next: Elisha struggles to maintain his composure, and finally breaks down and cries.  Hazael is puzzled: “Why does my lord weep?”  Elisha responds: “Because I know what harm you will do to the Israelite people: you will set their fortresses on fire, put their young men to the sword, dash their little ones in pieces, and rip open their pregnant women.”  Hazael is taken aback: “Could your servant, a mere dog, perform such a mighty deed (davar gadol)?” (2 Kings 8:13, NJPS modified).  I understand—and this claim is crucial for my reading, though it is admittedly uncertain—that Hazael’s astonishment stems not just from the fact that he is a mere royal attendant, lacking the capacity to do “mighty deeds,” but also from the cruelty of the future that Elisha predicts: Would Hazael dash infants to pieces, and pierce pregnant wombs?  Elisha answers: “The Lord has shown me you as king of Aram” (NJPS modified).

Here is what most puzzles about this exchange: Why does Elisha wait until the end to tell Hazael that he will become king over Aram?  Why does he first describe the actions that Hazael will undertake—leaving Hazael befuddled at how he might be in a position to act in this way—and only afterward tell him that he will do so as king?  Should Elisha not have said: I weep because you will become king of Aram, and conquer Israelite cities, and commit acts of cruelty?

Here, I think, is where the critique of politics enters.  Carl Schmitt famously posited that “the specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy.”  “Friend” and “enemy” in the political usage are not personal but public; these terms attach to groups.  It is through the framework of the political that the categories “Israel” and “Aram” arise in Elisha’s exchange with Hazael.  This distinction justifies and thus enables cruelty.  (In a polarized context approaching civil breakdown, this distinction can occur within the state.)  In much the same way that the concept of fiduciary duty redirects the moral discourse of responsibility away from human beings as such, and toward an abstract economic entity, so the political distinction between friend and enemy casts certain people outside the boundary of moral calculation.

It is this transformation that Elisha shines a critical light on by postponing the news that Hazael will be king.  He first tells Hazael what he will do as king, without telling him that he will be king.  And these deeds seem incredible to Hazael.  These are not the sort of things that Hazael thinks himself capable of doing, not in particular because of the sort of person that he is but because he does not act (or at least, does not act on his own agency) in the political realm.  Such acts of destruction, such acts of cruelty, are not conceivable outside the realm of politics: No normal person dashes an infant to pieces, or pierces pregnant wombs.  And yet you will do them, says Elisha, because you will be a king, because you will become a political actor.

But prophecies of disaster are meant to avert or at least mitigate the disaster.  By highlighting the gap between the personal and the political, Elisha hopes to narrow it.  He means to say: Don’t think that when you become king, your royal identity will utterly eclipse your personal one; it will be you, Hazael, the man, who does these terrible deeds.  He means to say: Don’t think that anything becomes defensible when it is done for the good of Aram; your “Israelite” victims are also, at bottom, young men, infants, pregnant women.  Elisha’s is not a radical rejection of politics: He is in fact in the business of making kings.  But he is also in the business of chiding them, of exposing and thus attempting to limit the shift in the moral calculus that comes with politics.

Or perhaps he knows better than to hope that he will make a difference, and aims only to serve as witness.  One need only read the immediate continuation of the story—Hazael’s coldblooded assassination of Ben-hadad—to see that Elisha’s rebuke of Hazael seems to make little difference, or perhaps even has the opposite effect.  But I will stop here, in the hope of a better ending.

About the Author
Tzvi Novick is the Abrams Jewish Thought and Culture Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. His research focuses on law and ethics in early rabbinic literature, and on pre-medieval liturgical poetry.
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