In Commanding Us to Become Prophets, the Torah Demands That We Cultivate Our Ethical Sensibilities

Aug. 31 2020

According to the great 20th-century sage Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Judaism considers prophecy a “norm,” such that “each person is obliged to aspire to this rank [of prophet], that every man should make a supreme effort to scale the mountain of the Lord, until he reaches the pinnacle of revelation of the Divine Presence.” Behind this claim is Soloveitchik’s belief that Judaism is “democratic to its very core,” and therefore prophecy must at least potentially be available to every Jew. Alex Ozar delves into this argument, its precedents and parallels in Jewish thought, and its implications:

Soloveitchik argues [that] prophecy must be practical in nature: that is, while prophecy certainly may involve non-normative elements as well, “any encounter with God . . . must be crystallized and objectified in a normative ethico-moral message.” Because anyone can understand concrete moral instruction—and can in principle come to learn it on his own—prophecy is democratic and thus halakhically legitimate insofar as it is realized in the form of concrete moral instruction. “The democratization of the God-man confrontation was made possible by the centrality of the normative element in prophecy.”

But, notes Ozar, there is a problem inherent in this claim: the talmudic doctrine that Moses alone of all the prophets received legislation from God. The Almighty will not issue further laws through subsequent prophets. So how can prophecy be “normative” if it does not involve halakhah?

If prophecy is to take the form of concrete instruction, therefore, it must take some form of concrete instruction other than that of commandments, or statutory rules, per se. . . . In the background here is a distinction between two modes of reality. There is the realm of objective, impersonal, external fact—that part of reality ascertained by a detached observer and describable in terms of mathematical formulas. And there is the realm of the personal, subjective, and spiritual. . . . Think of the experience of a sunset versus an analysis of the wavelengths and refraction dynamics at play, or of building a relationship with someone versus manipulating his behavior through mechanical stimuli.

For Soloveitchik, it is in the subjective, spiritual, and qualitative world, rather than in the quantitative one, where we meet God and hear His word.

As Rabbi Abraham Isaiah Karelitz (a/k/a the Ḥazon Ish) puts it, “The good cannot be known by the root of the intellect alone. Rather, [one must] choose the good until one is fit for the prophetic faculty, and then God will command him as to the prohibited things from which he must desist and the good acts which he is obligated to do.” There is no comprehensive manual of rules for the moral life to which we enjoy access. To be morally responsible, therefore, we must commit to the good in advance of grasping its requirements in full; in doing so, we open ourselves to the divine insight we need in order to progress further.

Read more at Lehrhaus

More about: Jewish ethics, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Judaism, Prophecy

How Israel Can Break the Cycle of Wars in Gaza

Last month saw yet another round of fighting between the Jewish state and Gaza-based terrorist groups. This time, it was Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) that began the conflict; in other cases, it was Hamas, which rules the territory. Such outbreaks have been numerous in the years since 2009, and although the details have varied somewhat, Israel has not yet found a way to stop them, or to save the residents of the southwestern part of the country from the constant threat of rocket fire. Yossi Kuperwasser argues that a combination of military, economic, and diplomatic pressure might present an alternative solution:

In Gaza, Jerusalem plays a key role in developing the rules that determine what the parties can and cannot do. Such rules are designed to give the Israelis the ability to deter attacks, defend territory, maintain intelligence dominance, and win decisively. These rules assure Hamas that its rule over Gaza will not be challenged and that, in between the rounds of escalation, it will be allowed to continue its military buildup, as the Israelis seldom strike first, and the government’s responses to Hamas’s limited attacks are always measured and proportionate.

The flaws in such an approach are clear: it grants Hamas the ability to develop its offensive capabilities, increase its political power, and condemn Israelis—especially those living within range of the Gaza Strip—to persistent threats from Hamas terrorists.

A far more effective [goal] would be to rid Israel of Hamas’s threat by disarming it, prohibiting its rearmament, and demonstrating conclusively that threatening Israel is indisputably against its interests. Achieving this goal will not be easy, but with proper preparation, it may be feasible at the appropriate time.

Revisiting the rule according to which Jerusalem remains tacitly committed to not ending Hamas rule in Gaza is key for changing the dynamics of this conflict. So long as Hamas knows that the Israelis will not attempt to uproot it from Gaza, it can continue arming itself and conducting periodic attacks knowing the price it will pay may be heavy—especially if Jerusalem changes the other rules mentioned—but not existential.

Read more at Middle East Quarterly

More about: Gaza Strip, Hamas, Israeli Security, Palestinian Islamic Jihad