Amos is widely and popularly considered to be the social justice prophet. He unequivocally rejects the sacrificial cult of his day, considering service of God to be about justice, rather than about fulfilling one’s obligations through offering sacrifices.
The haftarah for Parashat Kedoshim (the Torah reading read this week), which is part of the Holiness Code in the Book of Leviticus, is taken from Amos 9:7-15 in the Ashkenazic rite. It is noteworthy that this haftarah is part of the section of the book scholars calls the visions section. Though Amos is known as much for his gloomy oracles and prophecies as he is for his hard-hitting social commentary, the visions section of the book offers a blueprint for a better, messianic future, a future in which Israel will not be uprooted from the soil God gives them. Though Israel has fallen short and, in Amos’ estimation is not a distinctive people vis-à-vis the other nations, Israel can still return to God.
Israel’s lack of distinction in God’s eyes is made readily apparent in verse 7. Though we have repeated mention throughout the Torah of God’s particular relationship with Israel and Israel’s particular fealty to God because God took Israel out of Egypt, here, God is saying to Israel that that redemptive act wasn’t something special—God also redeemed the Philistines and the Arameans. Israel is in no way superior to the other nations; they are as human as everyone else. This is a sobering and interesting juxtaposition, both in terms of its theological relevance separate from its place in the annual Torah reading cycle and also because of its place within that cycle. In the latter instance, the parsha has just instructed the Jewish people on how to be an am kadosh, a people who are holy, who do not do those things that the other nations have done which has caused God to disfavor them. This strident reminder to Israel that they are no better than anyone else is in concert with the overarching theme of Amos’ prophecies.
Though God declares that God will wipe the sinful kingdom off of the face of the earth, the House of Jacob will not be wholly wiped out, only the sinners amongst it. Thus, we have a contradictory message here in a certain sense. On the one hand, the messianic future Amos beautifully describes is only available for the righteous remnant, not the whole. On the other, God’s covenant with the Children of Israel is unbreakable.
Though I find God’s siding with the marginal in this passage deeply theologically, emotionally, even spiritually compelling, there is a violent undertone. Though the beautiful poetic language describing Israel’s rootedness conjures up notions of a future so many of us pray for, God seems not to believe in teshuvah (repentance). In other words, offer all the sacrifices you want, Amos seems to be chiding, but don’t forget that interpersonal mitzvot (deeds) are just as important, if not more important, than ritual acts. This haftarah, then, dovetails nicely with Parashat Kedoshim, whose many laws describe the proper way Israel ought to treat the marginal in its midst. Amos reinforces the message that as important as ritual acts are, righteous, interpersonal conduct and proper treatment of society’s weakest, most vulnerable members is a Divine commandment in the most unambiguous sense.
Nonetheless, God’s wrathful judgement of the wicked amongst the Children of Israel rings theologically hollow. Reading this passage as one who might feel alienated from community on account of social marginality, the revenge, in a sense, that is described here offers some degree of cosmic comfort. Though I suffer now, God sides with me, and those who are uncaring, who remain oblivious to the plight of those in need will get what’s coming to them. Nonetheless, as a people who are quite mindful of the possibility of teshuvah, it is difficult to hold the notion that Amos is putting forward here—that behavior cannot be changed, that the better world dreamed about can only come with part of the people, not all of the people. Indeed, during times of great psycho-spiritual suffering, it is comforting to hear that the ways in which communities treat the vulnerable are a reflection upon them and that God will renew the world in such a way as to remove that wickedness. But that renewed world comes about through the violent removal of those whom God has simply given up on. Wickedness cannot be removed from within the hearts of humanity. This is a sobering thought indeed. And though people are, in Amos’ calculus, ultimately responsible for their actions, there is a point at which their actions are deemed impossible to alter. The idea that Judaism cares about the plight of the oppressed grabs at the heartstrings. The notion that ritual does not alleviate the need to act rightly in the world is very relevant. Nevertheless, Amos’ complete rejection of the sacrificial cult owing to the way in which the ritual was misused to meet the religious needs of the people without involving them wholly in the act of making the world a just place is emblematic of a common pitfall in activism. Without spiritual discipline, without ritual practice of some sort, it is possible to find oneself burning out, despairing of the world ever becoming a sanctuary for the Divine Presence. Though ritual is easily corruptible, easily misused, it is not without its place. Our task, then, is to take Amos’ admonitions to heart, keep his beautiful vision of Israel’s future alive without succumbing to despair about the seeming inability of humans to change. Though Amos is emotionally compelling, I would hate for a world to exist in which the possibility for real, systematic, genuine change is removed because our hearts are too hard and too full. When we are calling out to God from the depths, may we remember that the Divine hears us, and just as we are partners with God in the renewal of creation on a daily basis, our world can become a sanctuary for the Shechinah.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.