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Prophecy Then and Now: Eitan Cooper on Haftarat Vayeshev

In this week’s haftarah from the Book of Amos, the King of Judah, Amatziah, pushes back against Amos’ prophecy. This prompts the question, how do we identify real prophets, both in the biblical era and today? Eitan Cooper, Executive Vice President of The Schechter Institutes, discusses diverse perspectives from Abraham Joshua Heschel to Immanuel Kant and asks, can prophecy and ethics save society from itself?

This week’s Haftarah is from the Book of Amos. His prophecy shouts out to us from a faraway time and place. Amos was in his own words a peasant, from a poor village on the edge of the Judean desert. He appeared at the sanctuary of Bet El in the Northern Kingdom of Israel at the peak of its power in the mid-8th century BCE.

Amos’s speech begins benignly enough. All the powerful, wealthy nations that Israel had subdued were actually paying for their sins. Then he issues his shocking warning that neither Israelite “chosenness” by God, nor wealth and power, nor their ritual sacrifices would protect them if they continued to pervert justice, and oppress the widow, the poor and the stranger. Unless they changed, the fate of the Kingdom of Israel would be no different than all the others! Amos issues the warning using a metaphor that translates best into American English as “you have three strikes on you, four strikes and you’re out!”

Amatziah, the high priest of Beth El responds to him dismissively – Go back to your little village and make your living prophesying there. Leave our royal city alone. Amos’ comeback to Amatziah, that he was neither a prophet nor a son of a prophet, but day-worker, “a dresser of sycamore trees” condemns prophets as sophists, employed to satisfy the elites. Amos, on the other hand, was the real thing. So how do we identify the real Biblical prophet?

A central point in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book The Prophets is that Western philosophy, beginning with the Greeks, based ethics on distancing the mind from Pathos – the emotional response to pain. The philosopher Immanuel Kant grounded modern ethics on the use of reason to separate our subjective circumstance from the truth of a situation and discern a “categorical imperative” that guides ethical decision-making. The ability of the individual to make autonomous ethical decisions is the philosophical basis for citizenship in a modern liberal democracy.

The Shoa revealed the limitations of modern ethics, when the most educated and cultured nation in the world fell into the Nazi spell. This blow to ethical philosophy was despairing, opening the door to a “post-modernism” that abandoned ethical reason to the point that nowadays our children are taught in college the “truth” that there are no truths at all, only narratives.

Heschel wanted to preserve the primacy of autonomous ethics, and in doing so to save liberalism using the religious language of prophecy. Central to Heschel is the idea God cares about human beings. He called prophecy “eternity entering the moment”. It is a message that appeared out of nowhere to interrupt the natural course of events, issuing divine demands and warnings in the hope of saving a society from itself. It exposed the stark and painful truths about social rot, challenging conventional wisdom and threatening elites. Despite the many failures of prophecy, God continues to hope that someday, human society might even meet those demands and reach its potential! The ethical and moral messages of prophecy remain as radical, dangerous and true in our technologically advanced society as they were three millennia ago.

Prophecy was the equivalent of a viral social media message, capturing the popular imagination with poignant speech, yet the difference is that viral messages today protect the tweeters and promulgators of “fake news”, while the prophets were out there, in the public square together with their prophecy, risking themselves, usually against overwhelming odds, often against their own will. Follow the Biblical prophets from Moshe to Amos, to Isaiah and Yermiyahu, a common denominator is that their prophecy assumes complete control over them – and their fate.

At the end of the Haftarah, Amos sums up this profound experience with a brief rhetorical question: “a lion roars, who doesn’t fear? God speaks, who doesn’t prophesy?”

Shavua Tov from Schechter!

Eitan Cooper is the former Executive Vice President of The Schechter Institutes. From January 1, 2024, he is a part-time consultant at Schechter. Since coming to Schechter in 2000, he has served in various capacities, including TALI Outreach Coordinator and Vice President for Development. Mr. Cooper holds a BA from the University of Chicago and an MA from the Hebrew University. He is a graduate of the Mandel School for Educational Leadership and a licensed Israeli tour guide.

Eitan and Anita Cooper made Aliya from the United States in 1983, and are proud parents and grandparents to their growing Israeli family.

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