Where Have All the Prophets Gone?

By Aryeh Tepper
Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Writing in 1911, Martin Buber declared that "the nature of the prophets" lives within the Jewish people. A hundred years later, do any Jews still believe this? In today's age of anti-heroes striking ironic poses—"whatever, dude"—the question is practically unintelligible. But for Jewish artists and thinkers at the turn of the 20th century it was a vital issue and for some, both secular and religious, a matter of faith.

One such artist was the German-Jewish painter Jakob Steinhardt (1887–1968), a selection of whose finest works are on display through March 5 at the Israel Museum. Before fleeing to Palestine in 1933, Steinhardt belonged to a circle of Jewish artists who equated art with the prophetic capacity to establish "intimate, ardent contact with the masses." (The Marxist-inflected vocabulary was both common and deliberate.) One of the ways they sought to awaken and transform their audience was by infusing their works with the pathos of the moment, as Steinhardt did in his portrayal of Cain after the murder of Abel, a work reverberating with the anguish of the first homicide in history.  For Steinhardt, this monumental pathos was fueled, as in the case of the biblical prophets, by the fear of impending catastrophe, portrayed by him in apocalyptic, expressionist landscapes in which, to quote the prophet Joel, "the earth shakes, the sky trembles, the sun and moon are darkened, and the stars no longer shine" (2:10).

                                   Steinhardt, Die Flut (The Deluge), 1912

                                                  The Deluge, 1912.

The show draws special attention to Steinhardt's woodcuts, whose severe language makes them an especially fitting medium for his prophetic perspective. In a borderline-grotesque interpretation of the four sons on Passover night, the wise son, à la Plato in Raphael's "School of Athens," points heavenward with his forefinger, but his heavenly wisdom—the wisdom, for Steinhardt, of political Zionism—is no match for the diabolically evil son who takes center stage in Prussian military gear, clutching a sword in one hand and luridly gesturing back at the fools and simpletons with the other.

                              The Four Sons Steinhardt 1923 expressionism

                                                  The Four Sons, 1923.

Even as it makes a strong case for Steinhardt's rediscovery as an artist, the Israel Museum exhibit may also remind us that he was hardly alone among early Zionist thinkers in his obsession with the Hebrew prophets—or his sense of personal identification with them.  Both Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935), one of the fathers of religious Zionism, and Ahad Ha'am (1856–1927), the first spokesman of cultural Zionism, had earlier developed their own monumental interpretations of prophecy and its role in the Jewish historical narrative.

Kook, in his essay "The Way of Renewal," saw Jewish history as oscillating between two radically polar axes: the soul-force of exceptional individuals, and the dictates of religious texts. During the golden age of Jewish life in ancient Israel, "the mighty personality of the prophet was more dominant." But the people, moved by violent passions, were easily drawn away by the temptations of idolatry, and the resulting corruption caused the destruction of the First Temple and exile from the land. Thenceforth, in order to guard against the influence of idolatry, Jewish religious life shifted away from the unmediated encounter with nature and became grounded in texts, a paradigm that remained in force until the present day. Kook himself hoped to revitalize Jewish life by reinstating the vision of the prophetic soul; the bracing streams of consciousness that animate his own writings point in the direction of what he was talking about.

Ahad Ha'am, who agreed that the Jewish people had become paralyzed by an excessive dependence on texts, differed fundamentally from Kook in that he believed exclusively in the people's genius (their genius, not God's).  Whether or not the prophets ever actually existed, he wrote in "Moses," into these ideal figures the nation had breathed "its most intense aspirations." Incapable of compromising with the needs of the hour, continually at war with the here and now, the prophet dreams of what will be at the end of days. For Ahad Ha'am, it is precisely this impractical spirit that makes the prophet into a primal force, driving the current of life. However devastating the troubles that beset the nation of Israel, the "prophetic spirit," which is nothing less than the essence of the Jewish people, "cannot be crushed, except for a time. It comes to life again."

Is this "prophetic spirit" capable of coming to life again? In America, the German-Jewish tradition of prophetic pathos was taken up and extended into the second half of the 20th century by Abraham Joshua Heschel, the impact of whose writings went beyond the Jewish world. Among Heschel's latter-day disciples, however, it has largely dissipated into a form of gestural politics that, in the name of "prophetic ethics," lines up neatly with the tenets of contemporary liberalism. Whatever its merits, this is not the kind of thing that makes the earth shake and the sky tremble.

In Israel, some of Kook's students took the idea of prophecy very seriously indeed, and monumental readings of the prophet-figure, though hardly numerous, are still to be found in scattered pockets of the national-religious world. Among the ultra-Orthodox, meanwhile, the prophets are safely preserved in the museum known as the Bible, placed on a pedestal behind layers of security called "traditional commentaries" where they remain frozen like Greek statues. As for the secular world, in Israel as elsewhere, it has not only largely forgotten Ahad Ha'am's audacious vision but, insofar as it relates to the prophets at all, does so from a highly critical or, worse, highly ironic perspective.  

The fact of the matter is that the prophets and the idea of prophecy have become largely irrelevant in today's Jewish world. But this is also what makes the Steinhardt exhibition, beyond its inherent aesthetic value, both so striking and so germane. Standing before the portrait of Jonah, his favorite prophet, shot through with the tortured complexity of his mission, one sees what a great and powerful thing this monumental vision once was and, in the right hands, might be again.

You can find this online at: http://www.jidaily.com/prophets

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