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October 4, 2016

Catching Up to Prophets (Rosh HaShanah 5777)

Peter J. Rubinstein

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Jewish history contains a tableau of both genuine and false prophets.

Swept as he was into the vortex of political upheaval in the seventh century BCE, the great prophet Jeremiah, from whom we read the Haftarah today, vehemently railed against those he considered false prophets. He proclaimed: “They speak of the delusions of their own minds.” Jeremiah was intuitively wary of self-promoters.

For Jeremiah, these reckless oracles of the future were both perverse and dangerous.

Fifteen hundred years later, despite his passionate commitment to the belief that the Messiah would come one day, the great thinker Maimonides pointed out that the Messiah was by nature reticent. Maimonides urged us to keep our faith in the Messiah though the Messiah would tarry, even procrastinate before revealing him- or herself.

We Jews are a people that love the idea of solving problems, of bringing on a messianic era. But we are innately suspicious of anyone who proclaims themselves to be the indispensable savior of a nation, the redeemer of humanity.  Our Rosh Hashanah liturgy attests: “Ayn lanu melech eleh Atah – We have no ruler but You, O God.”

The history of humankind is littered with broken hearts and shattered hopes of people who sadly placed their confidence in a trusted savior, someone who promised that they alone held the key to our redemption and salvation, that they were the one, whether in the financial or political or religious world, who without nuance would lead us to unfettered peace, prosperity, and power.

Not surprisingly, we Jews have our own history of false messiahs and delusionary prophets.

Typically, they appear in unsettled times.

The best known of a false messiah began in the second half of the seventeenth century.  His history is very instructive. It began with Bogdan Chmielnicki, the demonic leader of the brutal Cossacks, who stoked the fury of the Polish peasantry by telling them that they had been sold as slaves “into the hands of the accursed Jews.” The brutality with which the Jewish community was attacked, tortured, butchered, and slaughtered was a forerunner, akin to the carnage that took place in the Holocaust. It is estimated that during the five years beginning in 1648, some three hundred thousand Jews were killed, one-third of the total Jewish population of the world at that time.

Into this context Shabbetai Tzvi arose. Born in Turkey, he was described as charismatic from the time of childhood. Ordained at the age of twenty by the leading rabbis of his hometown Smyrna, he gained regional acclaim throughout his native land.

Along with his reputed intellectual acumen, he was also typically described as charmingly impressive at some times and illogically flamboyant and curiously bizarre at others. He chronicled his own fantastic success and unverified acts of courage.

When news of the massacres in Eastern Europe pervaded Turkey, and in light of the messianic fervor rampant among Jews at the time, Shabbetai Tzvi proclaimed that he was the Messiah. He promised to save the Jews, to lead them to rebuild Jerusalem even though it was in Turkish control, and to restore the Holy Temple on Mount Zion even though it was under Muslim oversight.  In a public assertion of his messianic role, Shabbetai Tzvi strangely took a Torah scroll as his wife in a public ceremony under a chuppah.

The outraged rabbinic establishment expelled and banned Shabbetai Tzvi, but no amount of public indictment dissuaded him. Shabbetai Tzvi magnetically attracted followers as he continued to proclaim his incomparable messianic abilities. Every bit of his inane behavior was justified by his aide Nathan of Gaza, who confirmed Shabbetai Tzvi’s messianic claims and forecast that this was the Messiah who would wrest authority and the crown away from the ruling Ottoman sultan.

Finally, even the sultan had enough of him. He arrested Shabbetai Tzvi and offered him a simple binary choice: convert to Islam or die.

Under that threat, Shabbetai Tzvi recanted all messianic pretensions, threw off his Jewish garb, donned a turban and robe, and effectively and publically converted to Islam together with his wife Sarah and three hundred families of his followers. But despite his conversion, and without a hint of shame, Shabbetai Tzvi continued to nonsensically reassure his followers that his public apostasy was nothing more than a ruse to convert Muslims to Judaism. No matter how outrageous, his self-defense evolved as was necessary, and he was believed.

According to the classic book When Prophesy Fails, when people have emotionally and by action committed themselves to a prophetic and messianic figure whose prophesy has failed, those followers, rather than give up, become even more fervent and passionate in their missionary zeal.

As proof of that theory, there are still, by some estimates, one hundred thousand people in Turkey today who continue to practice Islam in public while still believing that Shabbetai Tzvi is the Messiah.

Facts are irrelevant to some believers.

Throughout our history, we have witnessed self-proclaimed prophets tainted by self-aggrandizing delusion.

But fortunately, and on the other hand, there is a very different kind of prophet who is blessedly cast in the biblical mode of prophets who speak truth, seek justice, and radiate decency.

These are prophets who throughout their lives sublimely blaze paths of righteousness, patching the brokenness of our world while waiting for the rest of us to catch up.

This past year, I have been thinking a great deal about inspiring people: prophets with whom it sometimes took me far too long to catch up. In this regard, I use these holidays for my personal reckoning.

For instance, I was far too late in accepting the power of the modern feminist movement and their prophetic leaders that prompted our society, kicking and screaming, to the yet unattained goal of complete gender equality in the workplace, politics, and in personal lives.

I at that time was not convinced about the agendas of Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, and Letty Pogrebin for the need for the publication of Ms. Magazine, for the campaign for a yet-unratified Equal Rights Amendment, for the formation of the National Organization for Women, and for even something as seemingly mundane as the use of “Ms.” as appropriate “non-sexist language.”  I believed that women of merit would always make their way, but I was too slow to recognize how resistant our culture and sexism is to essential gender equality.

I was also too slow in accepting the need for religious celebration of marriage for all Jews, independent of the individuals’ sexual orientation and gender preference. 

Legal rights were never a problem for me. But I was too long within the fortress of keeping religious language for straight couples and not for LGBTQ couples. It was actually during my teaching of the Creation epic to my Melton classes that I was finally compelled to affirm that we are all somewhere on a wide arc of sexuality, each one of us in God’s image deserving of the full benefits of legitimate religious ritual. It took me too long, and for that I’m abundantly sorry. I now celebrate all people who choose to be married in a Jewish religious ceremony.

I am still too slow catching up to the “farm to table” movement.

I remember taking issue with a child of this congregation, Rabbi Joe Skloot, who gave his senior sermon in rabbinic school on the matter. I argued passionately against what he was saying. Along with Michael Pollan, who received the Shofar Award on this pulpit, Joe was ahead of the wave. I still am vigorously trying to swim as fast as I can to catch up.

But in addition to prophetic movements, there are genuine prophetic individual heroes who stood very much alone in their crusades, and for whom it took me too much time to comprehend the precious souls that they were.

I think of Muhammad Ali for example. Put off by his braggadocio as a young man, I was puzzled by his conversion to Islam and loathed his declaration of conscientious objection.

It took the world time – for some, until his death – to comprehend the wholeness of Muhammad Ali, who, though certainly not without his faults, was filled with respect for all people, love of others, and good deeds that underlined a level of innate decency. He spoke out against the war in Vietnam when it was unpopular to do so, and about racism in our country. And though his language was confrontational and sometimes crude and severe, in the end it was nakedly penetrating.

When backed against the wall by a group of white students furious with his decisions, he had no hesitation to speak his mind: “You want me to go somewhere and fight but you won’t stand up for my religious beliefs and for me here at home.”

In the framing of the recent riots in Charlotte, the entrenched poverty in this country, the aim taken at Islam grouping all Muslims as enemies of this nation, Muhammad Ali’s indictment still rings true. He was prophetic in many of his positions and he was prophetic in his disposition. It took me too long to understand him. Today I publically admire the wisdom and prophetic vision of the man.

I believe Elie Wiesel, who also died this past year, was a prophet with whom the world had to catch up.

Reticence to write about the Holocaust was not Wiesel’s alone.  Before he wrote Night, it was shameful for survivors to tell their stories, even to their own children. Survivors felt alone in their memory of the hideous degradation they had suffered and the murderous scenes they had witnessed. They wanted to lock away the horror of it all. It was as if Wiesel said to his generation, “We can’t rob ourselves of memory and rob our children of truth.”

Elie Wiesel gave permission to speak about the unspeakable. He imparted dignity and enhanced the strength of those survivors who finally had the courage to tell their stories. And once he began, he never faltered.

Elie Wiesel was an elegist for the millions annihilated in the Holocaust and a psalmist who called all of us to embody the best of humankind. We will hold on to his optimism and we will passionately strive for courage, decency, and valor to honor his memory.

Another quiet and less known but amazing prophet with whom the world is still trying to catch up takes us, for those of you who are old enough to remember, back to 1968.

Those who followed sports, and were alive at that time, may recall the iconic photograph of John Carlos and Tommie Smith when they won medals for the 200 meters at the Mexico Summer Olympics. But their athletic prowess became a sidebar to what happened when they stood on the pedestal for the medal ceremony.

1968 was a frightening time marked by two assassinations: Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. The Democratic National Convention that year was held in Chicago in an atmosphere of rampant violence, political turbulence, and civil unrest. There had been riots in more than a hundred cities across this nation and there was unrest both inside and outside the International Amphitheater where the convention was held.

In a precursor to the silent protests by professional and high school athletes during the singing of the national anthem reported by the New York Times today, Carlos and Smith decided to use the pedestal spotlight of the Olympics to take a stand for African American civil rights. In a powerful symbolic gesture, they stood with their heads bowed and their black-gloved fists in the air while the national anthem played. And so many of us detested them for it.

All attention was on them, but as attested to by that photograph, there was another man to whom neither history nor most people paid attention.

He was white. He stood motionless on the second step of the medal podium with his eyes straight ahead. His name, most of us will not remember, was Peter Norman, an Australian who was not considered a potential medal winner but that day took second place with a time which, after forty-eight years, still remains the Australian national record.

Apparently, the two American runners had asked Peter Norman if he believed in God and in human rights. “Yes,” he answered to both questions. He believed in human rights, had been in the Salvation Army, and strongly believed in God. Carlos and Smith believed that what they were going to do would be far greater than any athletic feat. Peter Norman affirmed, “I will stand with you.”

But then Norman did something else. He pointed to the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on the others’ chests and said, “I want one of those.”

As we know, the three went out on the field and got up on the podium, two of them shoeless with a black-gloved fist in the air, all three wearing their Human Rights badges. But history has generally overlooked Peter Norman.

In Australia, Norman was treated like a pariah. He wasn’t allowed ever again to be part of the Australian sprinters team, despite having qualifying over a dozen times. He couldn’t find work, only occasionally working as a butcher. His family were treated as outcasts in their community.

Peter Norman refused the one chance he had to save himself. When offered a pardon from the country that ostracized him in exchange, Norman refused to condemn the actions of the two Americans who had stood by his side on the Olympic pedestal.

Without his country ever having apologized for their treatment of him, Peter Norman died suddenly from a heart attack in 2006. At his funeral, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were his pallbearers, sending him off as a hero.

“He paid the price with his choice. It wasn’t just a simple gesture to help us, it was his fight,” explained Tommie Smith.  Peter Norman was a lone soldier who chose sacrifice in the name of human rights.

Even today, when it seems the fight for human rights and equality is never-ending, and innocent lives are being taken, Peter Norman spoke with his life. In the matter of racism, he was true and straight without deviation or vacillation. He was a prophet with whom the world has yet to catch up.

Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Shimon Peres as an enduring prophetic voice who despite all opposition and disappointment never forsook his unalterable belief in peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

In eulogizing Peres, Amos Oz affirmed: “Peace is not only possible, it is necessary, because neither we nor the Palestinians are going anywhere….” Oz asked, “After Peres where are the brave leaders who will stand up and realize this?” Along with Amos Oz, many of us hope Shimon Peres’s dream will not die with him.

Gloria Steinem, Muhammad Ali, Elie Wiesel, Peter Norman, Shimon Peres. These are prophets, though hesitant as they may sometimes be, these are prophets, very alone at times, that carry forward the torch of decency, justice, goodness, and equality.

How can we know these genuine prophets of truth?

Unlike false prophets we will know them when we free ourselves of our unchallenged personal biases and common assumptions that accompany us through the walk of our life.

We will know them because what they say is in keeping with the uninterrupted direction of their lives.

We will know them because the truth they speak touches our soul, courses through our being, and resonates with our truth.

We will know them because their passion is our passion, their inclination is our inclination.

Above all, we will know them because the platform on which they stand has room enough for all humanity without reference to color of skin, country of birth, faith espoused, or gender preferred. We know them because their only hatred is for evil and their greatest love is for the common decency and destiny of humankind.

We know them especially because they speak a truth that is not of the moment but of eternity, a truth born into creation from the very beginning.

And these are the prophets with whom we should courageously march forward with strength and clarity of vision of a better world ahead.

With God’s help, amen.