From the Prophetic Age to Rabbinic Tradition: Who Will Call for Justice Now?

Speaking truth to power, crying out against injustice, foreseeing the future and urging people to change their ways—these were all roles of the prophet in Ancient Israel. The prophet was a part of society, yet separate;human, yet in communication with the Divine. The prophet called upon the devout to understand religious practice as inherently linked to the pursuit of justice. As we read in Isaiah 58:6, “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loosen the chains of injustice?”

Able to see and understand what others couldn’t or wouldn’t, the prophet functioned as a moral compass, speaking up for the vulnerable masses, railing against the powerful few, and reminding all who would listen that ultimately what Gd desires from us is the creation of a just and equitable world.

While the words of the prophets continue to weave their way through our lives, the system of prophecy has long since ended. We quote Amos, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” yet if an Amos arose today, claiming direct communication from Gd and prophesizing our imminent destruction, we would likely think him crazy, dangerous, or both.

While the messages of the prophets are still desperately in need today, we no longer accept the prophetic system as legitimate. The call for justice is essential, yet the reality of one or two people claiming direct communication with Gd is threatening. Society as we know it could not function if, at a moment’s notice, a prophet might assert himself with a message from Gd.

Why did we move away from a system of prophecy? What has come to take its place? And who is upholding the call for justice, today?

Many changes caused this shift away from prophecy. Belief in prophecy rested on the understanding of the Temple as the nexus point between Gd and human beings. Without the Temple, the prophet’s connection to Gd became dubious.[1] Further, canonization of the Bible made Gd’s word accessible to all without an intermediary to relay Gd’s message.[2] No longer was the prophet needed to tell people Gd’s desires. Additionally, prior to exile the prophet’s main audience was the king. Post-exile the Jews lost their place of political power and there was therefore no longer an audience for the prophet’s message.[3]

With the destruction of the Temple, the canonization of the Torah, and the beginning of exile, there was no longer a clear place for prophecy. In its stead arose the system of rabbinic authority, claiming the power and legitimacy that prophecy had once enjoyed. As it says in the Mishnah, “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly.” This famous line that begins the book of Pirkei Avot marks the transition from the authority of the prophets to the authority of the rabbis.

On one hand, this rabbinic claim to legitimacy can be seen as a power-grab aimed to give weight to its own authority. However, as Frederick E. Greenspahn claims in his article “Why Prophecy Ceased,”

These figures’ eschatological mission posed a severe threat to the existing social order. To the extent that rabbinic authority was dependent on Roman support, the rabbis were unlikely to grant legitimation to so destabilizing an influence…By rejecting the Holy Spirit’s presence, the rabbis, whose own legitimacy rested on the interpretation of previous revelation, protected themselves from those claiming a more direct link to the divine while undermining the theological basis for such figures’ anti-establishment activities.

The need for social order and stabilization, as Greenspahn describes, in addition to the rabbinic quest for legitimacy, caused the shift from prophecy to tradition. In place of one person acting as a messenger from Gd, we got the rabbinic system—specifically halakhah (Jewish law)—through which scholars strive to interpret Gd’s voice from scripture to direct us in how to live today.

In looking at the historical context, I can understand why it was necessary for prophecy to end. Different eras call for different modes of leadership and new mechanisms for discerning Gd’s voice. On one hand I believe in social order and in a more democratic process like halakhah, which, in its ideal form, would bring us all into the process of attempting to understand Gd’s will. On the other hand, without the prophetic voice we have lost the clear moral compass that holds justice as the highest virtue.

Today, without a prophet to sound the call of justice, each of us must strengthen our internal moral compass. The prophets made it clear that to do Gd’s will is to create a just society where the most vulnerable are protected, where wealth and power are shared by many and not consolidated in the hands of a few, and where religious practice and pursuit of justice are intimately linked. In a post-prophetic age it is incumbent upon each of us to continue to knit together religion and justice and to work towards a time when we truly act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).

Image Benjamin West via Wikimedia Commons

[1] Benjamin D. Sommer Did Prophecy Cease?

[2] J. Wellhausen Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels

[3] Sommer

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