...the word of the Lord causes me constant disgrace and contempt. I thought, "I will not mention Him, no more will I speak in His name." But [His word] was like a raging fire in my heart, shut up in my bones; I could not hold it in, I was helpless.
Growing up in a Reform synagogue in the 60s, "prophetic Judaism" was very much alive and meaningful to me. We read the prophets in "Pathways Through the Bible" and were made to understand that were they around today, they would be leading our social action committees. Attending the local Union Institute Camp in the summer of 1963, no one needed to explain to us that the struggle of Afro-Americans for equal rights was our struggle, was Amos' and Isaiah's struggle. Our rabbis flew to camp straight from the Freedom Marches, heroes of prophetic proportions who had participated in the making of history.
Over the years, I developed a special attachment for Jeremiah of all the prophets, partly because of the amazing drama of his life as protrayed in his book - his confrontations with the priests and kings, his media-savvy gestures and powerful poetry, his narrow escapes from lynch mobs and from dank dungeons - and partly because of the painful personal struggle he portrays in his poetry (of which the above passage is just one example). I find him one of the most real people in the Bible.
Last week, I led a study session on Jeremiah, for a group of Israeli adults who are regular participants in one of our Torah study series.
Well-educated, middle-class 40-somethings. We had fun acting out chapter 26, and I tried to convey to them something of the interesting interconnection of religion and politics (and foreign policy) that characterized Jeremiah's context and world-view. It was, I think, a good class. Afterwards, a number of the participants commented that the last time they had even thought about Jeremiah was when they had had to analyze a few verses for high school matriculation (12th grade achievement) exams.
Their memories (if they had any memories at all) were of trying to make sense of abstruse poetry which, after all, was just one more case of God's yelling at us for our sins. They were surprised and rather pleased to encounter a text that is full of human drama and political realism, and that speaks to issues of social justice that are the stuff of today's headlines.
Interesting: in America, prophetic Judaism, to an extent, gave way to peoplehood/solidarity/We Are One, which in turn gave way to spirituality/renewal. In Israel, the socialist Zionist founders of the state, who saw themselves as the successors of the prophets, gave way to technocrats and entrepreneurs.
No one really wanted to hear what Jeremiah had to say in his lifetime, and no one really wants to hear what he has to day today. His book is not at the center of anyone's curriculum or religious discourse - not the Orthodox and not the secular. But I think that that is because we know exactly what he has to say, and we know - whether we are believers or secular humanists
- that he is right:
...if you execute justice between one man and another; if you do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, and the widow; if you do not shed the blood of the innocent in this place; if you do not follow other gods to your own hurt - only then will I let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave your fathers for all time.