We have great pragmatic leaders today for whom we should be grateful. We, however, have a dearth of prophetic leaders inspiring the masses to a higher level. Consider how Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann thinks of the role of the prophet:
(One of the prophet's tasks is) to bring to public expression those very fears and terrors that have been denied so long and suppressed so deeply that we do not know they are there...The prophet must speak evocatively to bring to the community the fear and the pain that individual persons want so desperately to share and to own but are not permitted to do so...The prophet does not scold or reprimand. The prophet brings to public expression the dread of endings, the collapse of our self-madness, the barriers and pecking orders that secure us at each other's expense and the fearful practice of eating off the table of a hungry brother or sister. It is the task of the prophet to invite the king to experience what he must experience, what he most needs to experience and most fears to experience, namely, that the end of the royal fantasy is very near. The end of the royal fantasy will permit a glimpse of the true king who is not fantasy, but we cannot see the real king until the fantasy is shown to be a fragile and perishing deception (The Prophetic Imagination, 45-46).
Brueggemann, Columbia Theological Seminary Professor Emeritus of Old Testament, is also an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and a former president of the Society of Biblical Literature. He frequently relates today's political and economic choices to those of Biblical figures such as Solomon or Jeremiah. His writings have a particular value in pinpointing the timeless qualities that true leaders and prophets possess and the shortcomings that lesser leaders and false prophets possess.
The leading Jewish thinker of the 20th century on the topic of the modern prophet was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who wrote a book called The Prophets. He suggests that "A prophet's true greatness is his ability to hold God and man in a single thought." The prophet is both deeply concerned with God's demands and with the human condition. The prophet also serves as a spokesperson for the Divine: "To extricate the people from despondency, to attach meaning to their past and present misery, was the task that the prophet and G-d had in common."
Heschel explains that the prophet experiences the world more deeply (and injustice in particular):
Indeed, the sort of crimes and even the amount of delinquency that fill the prophets of Israel with dismay do not go beyond that which we regard as normal, as typical ingredients of social dynamics. To us a single act of injustice -- cheating in business, exploitation of the poor -- is slight; to the prophets, a disaster. To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence: to us, an episode; to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world... Our standards are modest; our sense of injustice tolerable, timid; our moral indignation impermanent; yet human violence is interminable, unbearable, permanent. To us life is often serene, in the prophet's eye the world reels in confusion. The prophet makes no concession to man's capacity. Exhibiting little understanding for human weakness, he seems unable to extenuate the culpability of man.
Heschel points out here how much more attuned prophets are to injustice. Think about how easy it is to look at another culture or another time period and point out things that are wrong. On the other hand, if we grew up in a society that condoned slavery, or polygamy, or the abuse of women, would we have the vision and courage of a prophet to denounce these practices? Probably not.
Continuing, Heschel notes that to a prophet, this injustice is not only a moral outrage but a completely different epistemic foundation to how meaning is made.
Prophecy, then, may be described as exegesis of existence from a Divine perspective. Understanding prophecy is an understanding of an understanding rather than an understanding of knowledge; it is exegesis of exegesis.
There is deep intellectual and spiritual depth to one who has tapped into their own soul and into the human condition. Yet tragically, the Prophet can never be loved because of her role in society.
The prophet is intent on intensifying responsibility, is impatient of excuse, contemptuous of pretense and self-pity. His tone, rarely sweet or caressing, is frequently consoling and disburdening, his words are often slashing, even horrid--designed to shock rather than to edify.
The Prophet is also not loved, because he or she is an extremist.
The prophet hates the approximate, he shuns the middle of the road. Man must live on the summit to avoid the abyss. There is nothing to hold to except G-d. Carried away by the challenge, the demand to straighten out man's ways, the prophet is strange, one-sided, an unbearable extremist. Others may suffer from the terror of cosmic aloneness, the prophet is overwhelmed by the grandeur of divine presence. He is incapable of isolating the world. There is an interaction between man and G-d which to disregard is an act of insolence. Isolation is a fairy tale.
Rabbi David Hartman felt the conflicting emotions of one deeply wrestling with society but also transcending it. He wrote of the prophet.
The aspiring prophet must transcend this egocentric dependency on society, so that his assumption of political leadership will not be grounded in the longing for power. The disdain for the community, then, is the condition of the prophet during his ascent, i.e., when he is struggling to transcend the political leader's dependency on the community.... Disdain for the community characterized the prophet during his ascent; in exact contrast, love for the community becomes his characteristic quality during his descent.
The Prophet struggles through his paradoxical hyper-connection above and below combined with his radical separation from everything but his truths and ideals. Heschel continues to teach that the Prophet seeks not only to repair the outer world but also the inner world of humanity.
Yet the purpose of prophecy is to conquer callousness, to change the inner man as well as to revolutionize history. It is embarrassing to be a prophet. There are so many pretenders, predicting peace and prosperity, offering cheerful words, adding strength to self-reliance while the prophet predicts disaster, pestilence, agony, and destruction. People need exhortations to courage, endurance, confidence, fighting spirit, but Jeremiah proclaims: You are about to die if you do not have a change of heart and cease being callous to the world of G-d. He sends shudders over the whole city, at a time when the will to fight is most important.
One must be careful not to misunderstand radical passion, misinformed absolutism, or fanaticism with true prophetic leadership. There have been many false prophets in the modern world, ranging from the comic to the deeply tragic. One of the most peculiar and recurrent false prophecies is that the end of the world is near. Among these bizarre predictions are these examples:
• In 1806, some briefly believed that a hen in Leeds, England, laid eggs with a message indicating that the end of the world was near.
• New England farmer William Miller convinced thousands of followers that, through his study of Biblical predictions, the end of the world would occur in 1843.
• The San Diego-based cult Heaven's Gate committed suicide in the belief that the world was nearing its end and that the 1997 Hale-Bopp comet was accompanied by an alien spaceship that would rescue them at the moment of their death.
• Harold Camping, a California evangelist, has made a career with his "end of days" predictions, including claims that the world would end on September 6, 1994 and (after acknowledging that he may have miscalculated the first estimate) May 21, 2011. Sadly, a retired transit worker spent $140,000 for subway and bus ads in New York warning people of the alleged cataclysm, which was supposed to start in Jerusalem.
• Proving that not only Biblical fundamentalists can give in to miscalculation, many people subscribed to the belief that the Mayan calendar predicted that the end of the world would come on December 12, 2012.
There are also false prophets who believe that change, which frequently entails uncertainty, will result in disaster. In 1957, segregationist Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus claimed that "blood will run in the streets" if there was an attempt to implement racial integration in Little Rock schools. In 1965, just before the passage of Medicare, actor (and eventually President) Ronald Reagan made the following prediction if Medicare passed: "one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it was like in American when men were free." Obviously, we have survived.
A true modern prophetic leader may be seen in the life of Rachel Carson (1907-1964). She worked for years for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, and wrote several works about the oceans before she became alarmed by the indiscriminate use of pesticides, such as DDT, which was literally sprayed on people in an effort to eradicate malaria. In her book Silent Spring (1962), she set forth a choice that fulfills the criteria set forth by Heschel:
We stand now where two roads diverge.... The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road -- the one less traveled by -- offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.
For this, she was heavily criticized by many politicians and the powerful chemical companies. When she was struggling with breast cancer, she testified before Congress in 1963 to ask for changes in legislation to protect the environment. She was vindicated after her death when the environmental movement took off. The pesticide DDT was banned in 1972, and in the ensuing 25 years the bald eagle, the nation's symbol, increased its population by 10 times, and many other species have enjoyed a similar increase. Perhaps a new prophet will emerge to finally bring climate change to a similar place in the mind of the world's people.
Today, we have great thinkers, manager, leaders and writers. But we also need prophets: those who can touch the human core and create change on a systemic level because they see the bigger picture and are willing to sacrifice their best interests at times in order to move the world toward progress.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V'Aretz Institute and the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."