Thinking about Bennett Muraskin’s Critique of the Hebrew Prophets
There’s been lots of great discussion about Jewish secularism and politics at this website in the past few weeks, and I’m grateful for it but have been too busy running the ship to put my own thoughts down, even hastily. Let it not be said, however, that my man Bennett Muraskin has had the last word on the Hebrew prophets! (“The Prophetic Tradition: Is It Ours?”)
Bennett writes that
“the Prophets were definitely not revolutionaries. They did not seek to overturn the ruling class of their day, the monarchy or the priesthood. . . . They specialized in exhorting kings and priests and others among the Jewish elite to be ‘righteous,’ but they were not community organizers. They did not preach among the poor or call for social protest. Were they at least reformers? Not that either, because reformers by nature appeal to the public for support to achieve change. The Prophets appealed only to the ruling and upper classes.”
“Unlike revolutionaries and reformers, the Prophets also lacked a coherent program for a better society. They condemned excessive concentration of wealth and the oppression of the poor, to be sure, but it was in the name of a mythical past where every man lived beneath his vine and fig tree as subsistence farmers or shepherds.”
All of these are points well-taken — and, in truth, I have no particular investment in defending the prophets as revolutionary figures. What I am interested in defending, in brief, is the fundamental progressiveness in Judaism’s paradigm of society and social change — and its relevance for us today.
That paradigm was as follows: There is a “Divine” law — a set of reality principles — for individual and social conduct (the Torah). If human beings follow that path, and build a society that reflects those reality principles, they will thrive and, in general, be happy. If they follow an idolatrous path (different gods, different laws), they will bring suffering upon themselves. The folks in power need to know this, to obey it, and to be called to account when they don’t.
That is not a paradigm of revolution — but it is possibly a paradigm of a just society. Putting aside the discussion of whether Torah law itself is progressive or an accurate embodiment of reality, and putting aside the differences between monarchy/priesthood and modern democracy, leftists today still share a sense of what kinds of “laws” define a just and successful society, and we vote and agitate accordingly. We believe in sharing the wealth to a reasonable extent so that the material well-being of society is balanced; we believe in equal opportunity for everyone; we believe in spending resources on helping folks who have been oppressed or have not been privileged, to help them do better and fulfill themselves; we believe in regulating industry so that greed and heedlessness do not get out of hand and the environment and public health are not damaged. These are some of the laws of our “Torah” as modern progressive people. And we try to call to account the folks in power to know this and to obey it.
Many of us were influenced by the Marxist concept of class struggle and see ‘revolution’ as taking place only when the class struggle is in full boil. But the appeal to conscience, not only to class interest, is a valid and crucial part of the social-change struggle, and it is that appeal that the prophets made. We call Martin Luther King, Jr. a modern “prophet” because his words and actions were constantly aimed at transforming the conscience of the nation from racism to solidarity, from hatred to love. Yes, he was, indeed, also preaching “among the poor” and calling “for social protest,” as Bennett writes, but King was testifying, at all times, to affect leaders who were capable of effecting social change through legislation. Was King not a “revolutionary”? Perhaps not, because he wasn’t seeking to overturn the system, but to restore it to what Bennett calls the “mythical past,” when “all men are created equal . . .” But revolutionary or not, King was the most inspiring figure for social change in my lifetime — and he was a prophet.
In today’s world, human beings must be inspired to recognize the reality principles of the interconnection and interdependence of life, and to pay less attention to the far less important reality principle of the individual. We need to cultivate a spirit of sharing rather than competing. The left-right struggle of the post-communist era hinges on that tension, between the reality of interconnection and the idolatry of individualism, and Judaism comes down strongly on our side in its multiple emphases on mercy and on community well-being.
Class struggle is not the only reality principle that must be recognized to save this planet, and I find myself searching the landscape for prophets much more than for revolutionaries.