On Prophecy

One of my sons was over visiting yesterday. During the conversation he mentioned one way he had of solving problems. He would project possible scenarios of how a situation would look like in the future. He gave as an example a projection for Israel in 2148 on the hundredth anniversary of the state. How would Israel look like and would it have tackled and resolved some or most of the problems that now afflict the state? He would envision different results, the merits and demerits of each and the steps needed to get to each one. In this manner, he could not prophesy an outcome in the sense of a prediction; he could take seriously the small steps needed to produce an outcome that he foresaw as both realistically possible and desirable. He would then focus his energies on those small steps and leave the vision of the future to history.

Is this prophecy? It does not sound like it. However, this is, in fact, the dominant mode in which improvements have been made in human history. Take health. Until two centuries ago, whether you study mortality rates among hunter-gatherers or our ancestors in the classical world, the average person lived only thirty-five years. This started to change in the mid-nineteenth century. Instead of the curve starting to flatten, in Anthony Fauci’s memorable phrase, that flat line on mortality began to curve. More and more directly upward it went until the projections of life expectancy more than doubled.

Why? Not primarily because of eureka moments. Those were rare. But because of the slow and then more rapid introduction of such measures as vaccination. Because of the provision of clean drinking water and the installation of sanitary drainage and sewage systems. These developments over a wide swath of problems and ordinary human activities that resulted in death now produced an extension of our lifespans, particularly in the richer countries of the world.  

Anticipating a future where this could come about by slow steps of amelioration is not how we normally think of prophecy. In the biblical idiom, prophecy is a vision carried through a human about God’s intentions or promised outcomes, provided human behaviour followed one trajectory. That envisioning or prophetic projection was believed to happen because God was capable of addressing us directly or indirectly through signs and portents delivered through His chosen prophets.

There is, however, a naturalistic rather than supernatural explanation for foresight and adumbrating the future. God’s prophets are those who reveal small ameliorate steps that are cumulative and result in better times. Prophecy is naturalized and God’s prophets are grounded.

In this week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotcha, (בְּהַעֲלֹתְךָ ‎ — in Hebrew, literally “when you step up” or “when you ascend”). [Numbers 8:1 – 12:15], we read about how the departure from Egypt is to be memorialized in Passover and the ensuing journey out of Sinai of the Hebrews towards the Promised Land. But the people complain to God about the trip and Aaron and Miriam, for the first time, challenge Moses. This week’s portion is packed with both past history, prophecy and dissent.

Begin with the dominant narrative of the past. For Palestinians, the emerging primary Palestinian narrative of the arrival of Zionism to their shores and land is one of colonizing, conquest, oppression, repression, eviction and replacement; the Palestinians were in place and were invaded. The Zionist narrative, in contrast, is of Jewish return to their ancient homeland, a return that led to a conflict between two peoples seeking self-determination on the same land. There is, however, a Jewish narrative that parallels the emerging Palestinian one; it accepts that the Jews invaded and conquered the land and believes that the task is not yet finished.

The narrative of conquest, the narratives of displacement and replacement, necessarily means vanquishing the enemy no matter which side tells it. The narrative of idealistic settlement and restoring both the land and its ancient people to their former glory is totally open to the land being shared by two peoples who must work out how they will share the land. Currently, religious Islamic zealots are united with “progressives” who have adopted the narrative of conquest, oppression, displacement and apartheid as the dominant story, a narrative supported by religious and right-wing zealots on the Jewish side.

However, though there have been numerous wars, though there has indeed been eviction, the predominant narrative is one of peaceful settlement and of amelioration through small steps that have gradually taught the two competing communities to trust and rely on one another. The narratives of conquest and destruction of the Other are often associated with apocalyptic moments of transition. The narratives of amelioration are more often associated with numerous small steps of improvement.

The ancient narrative as constructed on Sinai is primarily about leaving a place that rejected the people as belonging there, initially through slavery, and then flight. The conflict had turned into a demographic battle with babies being killed on both sides. It is a story of deliverance, not of development.

The past construction of the narrative determined the limits of possible outcomes. From two peoples competing for the same piece of land, the solution envisioned could be a land divided between the two peoples. But when the narrative changed to one people persecuting and oppressing the other, the outcome entailed, on the conquered side, one of vanquishing the enemy, otherwise the people could never be free, combined with one of escape.

The revelation that Moses has on Mount Sinai is most frequently thought of as God transmitting His message through Moses as His spokesperson. But there is another way to view it that depends in large part on the predominant narrative governing the record of the past. If the emphasis is on the conflict with an autocratic leader who regards himself as a god, the transition is sudden, is dramatic, and is marked by departure from Egypt, both physically and metaphorically. It is an external change. But if the focus shifts from the autocracy of the other to the slavish mental way of thinking and behaving of those who flee, a process which turns an enslaved people into a people in quest of their freedom, then leaving slavery is not marked by crossing the Reed Sea, but a gradual transition over four decades of throwing off a slave mentality. The change is primarily internal.

There are two lessons here. The overarching one is that your vision of the future, without distorting the truth, dictates the dominant narrative we must present of the past. The underlying one is that details matter. If amelioration actually results from an accumulation of small changes, then it is the story of the accumulated changes that must get our attention. That means that Maimonides’, the Rambam’s version of what happened at Sinai, as most interpret him, must be rejected.  

In the still predominant interpretation of Maimonides’ version of events, in his eighth priniciple, in his supposedly stenographic interpretation of what happened and the role of Moses in it, revelation has only a heavenly source. The Torah itself is of divine origin and given to Moses by God in its entirety. As Professor Sam Fleischacker summed it up, “every letter of the Torah contains within it wisdom and wonders to whomever the Lord has granted the wisdom to discern it.”

In contrast, and a very different interpretation of Maimonides, the reference to God’s speech is metaphorical. It is equivalent to the saying that “such and such speaks to me.” This is not really a claim about speech, but a claim about identification and understanding. On the other hand, Maimonides still remains an Aristotelian who defines God as perfect and, therefore, as unchanging and, indeed, one incapable of change. For only imperfect things change to realize their potential. God as perfect cannot have potential and cannot change. This is a radically different view than the vision of God immanent in history and revealing Himself through the unfolding of history, including changing in response to the lessons God Himself obtains from that history.

And if we shift from the focus on God to ourselves, what does it mean that we are all akin to Moses on Mount Sinai. It means that we identify with Moses, we empathize with his openness to the Other that is not a projection of human imaginations of the divine as in Egypt. Instead, we are on Sinai because we accept in full the lesson that Moses heard, the lesson about the rule of law displacing the rule of an autocrat.

Second, prophecy is not about Maimonides’ elitism whereby, in order to hear and understand God, we must come as close to perfection as possible in our intellectual development, in our moral standing and in our physical capacity to avoid denigration by a focus on food or sex or the pleasures of the body more generally. One is open to revelation, not by transcending our humanity, but by expressing our humanity, that is, our love and care for others. Humanity is about caring and sharing. It is an affective much more than an intellectual enterprise. And it is one directed at the other rather than the perfection of the self.

God as a God of justice evolves from a dictator of unequivocal moral answers to a judge, an author and originator rather than an authoritative unquestioned source. That judgement must be tempered with mercy, with compassion and understanding. The revelation is the rule of law. Law is not the translation of what is revealed into rules simply that humans can understand. It is through the understanding of the rule of law that one comes closer to God. Moses is not only not a stenographer for God, neither is he a translator. He is a messenger concerning translation, and translation and interpretation as the core of the rule of law.

There is one last point. Unlike the Greeks, and Maimonides bowing before their idea that perception is ultimately knowing the Truth and that the Truth is itself a fixed point that we see, truths are themselves subject to gradual revelation and change. Truths deal with the dynamics of possibility, not the realization of certainty. The human aspiration is not to become an angel, but to struggle on earth to listen to and hear God in our everyday lives.

Torah is then not a presentation of ideal purity and a vision of perfection, but how any vision struggles for acceptance and realization. Rebellion against Moses, dissent even by his brother and sister, may have initially been dealt with by autocratic methods, but the resort to autocracy, the fall back on Egyptian modes of dealing with challenges is, in the end, why Moses cannot enter the Promised Land. He never learned how, ultimately, to extirpate the mentality of master and slave, lordship and bondage, that he had learned in Egypt.

Prophecy in this sense is the encounter with God in the dialectic weaving of our hopes and estimate of possibilities for the future with the narrative we present of the revelations of the past. It does not transcend history but is immanent in it. The issue is not whether God communicates with humans, but how He does so. Prophecy is then about what “can” be and then about how we will it to be. In small steps.

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