Jews/Christians and Israel/Palestine: Rediscovering the Prophetic

Here is the sermon that I delivered yesterday at St. James Episcopal Cathedral in Chicago. If you would like a copy of “Steadfast Hope,” the study guide to which I refer in my remarks, click here.

I am so pleased to be here with you this morning – and so very honored to have been invited to preach to you today. I want to especially thank Dean Joy Rogers for the invitation and to St. James for hosting me so graciously.

I’d also like to thank my very dear friend, Father Cotton Fite of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Evanston, who I believe had no small part in making my visit here a reality.  Many members of my congregation have come to know Father Cotton well – in addition to our friendship, he has become something of a mainstay at our Shabbat morning Torah study group.  I value my friendship with Cotton quite deeply – and I’d like to think that our the work might provide a model for a new kind of interfaith action.  Indeed, this very model is at the heart of my message to you this morning.

I’d like to start properly: with this Sunday’s Episcopal lectionary selection from the Hebrew Bible: 1 Samuel, chapter 3:

In an earlier chapter, we’ve already read that Samuel was born under somewhat remarkable circumstances. Before his birth, his mother Hannah had promised to dedicate him to divine service if only God would only bless her with a child.  In chapter 3, the young Samuel is now serving under Eli the priest at the temple in Shiloh.  We’re told that in those days, “the word of the Lord was rare; prophecy was not widespread” – clearly a literary clue that this all about to change.

Samuel is sleeping in the temple, next to the Ark of God. In the middle of the night, God calls out to Samuel, and Samuel, who thinks he hears Eli calling him, runs to the priest, and says “Hineini – Here I am.”  Eli replies, “I didn’t call you – go back to sleep!”  This happens again, and Eli, presumably with even greater exasperation in his voice now, sends Samuel back to bed.

When it happens a third time, Eli finally realizes what is going on. So he instructs Samuel, “If it happens again, say ‘Speak Lord, for Your servant in listening.”  When Samuel is called yet again, he follows Eli’s instructions. God then reveals to Samuel that Eli’s priestly house is about to be punished, due to the corruption of his sons and his unwillingness to rein them in.

The next morning, Eli asks Samuel what God said, adding “please do not hold anything back.”  And so the young Samuel tells Eli everything: “the good, the bad, and the ugly,” if you will.  Painful though it must have been, Eli accepts God’s word as delivered by Samuel.

At the close of the chapter, we learn that Samuel grew up and “the Lord was with him.” As the text puts it, “(God) did not leave any of Samuel’s predictions unfulfilled.” Thus, Samuel quickly gained a reputation through Israel as a trustworthy prophet. He would go on, of course, to be one of the greatest prophets in Israelite history.

Now on the surface of this story, there is sort of a endearing slapstick quality to the young Samuel’s discovery of his prophetic abilities.  Because of this, I think it’s too easy to misunderstand the real source of Samuel’s greatness.  What made Samuel a great prophet?  Was it because he was promised to God by his mother?  Was it because he had the ability to hear God talking to him when no one else could – not even Eli the priest himself?

No, I believe the key to his prophetic greatness lay in what came next. Samuel learned a harsh and painful truth about a very powerful man – a man who also happened to be his spiritual mentor – and he was willing to speak that unvarnished truth to him.  He did not shrink from his prophetic responsibility, although the chances were probably strong that Eli could cast him out for delivering such a message.

This is, after all the essence of being a prophet. A prophet isn’t someone who can tell the future – and a prophet is certainly not special for being chosen to deliver God’s divine message. No, the essence of being a prophet lies in one’s readiness to speak painful, difficult, often public truths to power.

We will soon learn a great deal about the wages of power in the book of Samuel. The Israelites will eventually come to Samuel and tell him they want a king of their own, telling him they want to be “governed like all the other nations.”

Samuel is grieved by this request – like all prophets, he takes it very personally. But God tells him, “Don’t fret. It’s not you they are rejecting, Samuel, it’s me.  They’ve just never understood where the real source of power in the world lies, despite my attempts to demonstrate this to them over and over again.  If they think that putting their faith in military and political power will save them, fine. But they will soon find out where that path will lead them.”

And of course as they come to discover, kingship in Ancient Israel doesn’t go so well for the new nation. It becomes focused on militarism, becomes incorrigibly corrupt, splits in two and eventually gets overrun from within and without. During this period, it is only the prophets who continue to speak the hard truth to power, who rail against the toxic ambitions of Israelite empire, who warn that this path will eventually be their downfall. And so it becomes.

When I asked Dean Joy for some advice on what I should say in my sermon to you today, she advised me to share my own spiritual vision with you, to speak a bit about the values that drive me as a spiritual leader. So I will say that, personally speaking, prophetic religion is my primary spiritual inspiration as a rabbi, as a Jew, and as a human being. I am driven by religion that speaks hard truth to power. By faith that holds unmitigated human power to account.

I fervently believe that when religion advocates the cause of the powerless, when it stands with those who are victimized by the powerful, when religion proclaims that God stands with the oppressed and seeks their liberation –  this is historically when religion has been at its very best.  And conversely, when religion is used to promote empire, when it is used as by the powerful to justify their rule, when it is wedded to militarism, nationalism and political power – this is, tragically, when we witness religion at its worst.

I cannot help but read Jewish tradition with prophetic eyes.  As a Jew, I’ve always been enormously proud of the classic rabbinical response to empire. I believe that the Jewish people have been able to survive even under such large and mighty powers because we’ve clung to a singular sacred vision.  That there is a power even greater. Greater than Pharaoh, greater than Babylon, even greater than the Roman empire that exiled us and dispersed our people throughout the diaspora. It is a quintessentially Jewish vision best summed up by the prophetic line from the book of Zechariah: “Lo b’chayil v’lo b’koach” – “Not by might and not by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.”

And as a 21st century American Jew, I cannot help but view the world through prophetic eyes as well. Painful though it is, if I am to be true to my understanding of my spiritual tradition, I cannot simply look away when I see my own country going down the road to empire, when I see our nation enmeshed in a state of permanent war around the world with economic disparity growing ever larger here at home.

To be sure, these are not issues of concern for the American Jewish community alone.  And in my own interfaith activism, I have been deeply inspired by my clergy colleagues and other people of faith who share this prophetic vision.  For me, this is the most critical aspect of the interfaith relations – the movements that are created when faith traditions come together to hold power to account in a time of unacceptably growing gaps between the wealthy and poor, the privileged and the exploited, the powerful and powerless.

However, in order for this coalition to truly thrive, more specifically, in order for Jews and Christians to truly work together, we are going to have to find new ways to talk to each other.  We must not park our prophetic values at the door whenever our conversations grow difficult.  And one of the most difficult conversations has to do with the issue of Israel and Palestine.

In my opinion, the issue of Israel – Palestine is the one area in which true interfaith cooperation tends to break down. However, if we are to use the prophetic model as a guide for Jewish-Christian relations, then our communities cannot shirk from sharing hard truths with one another.

Just as the Jewish community does not hesitate to hold the Christian church to task for its anti-Semitic oppression of Jews and Jewish communities throughout the centuries, I do not expect the Christian community to shrink from fully speaking its mind on the contemporary issue of Israel – Palestine. We cannot and should not dance around this issue. To my mind, there is simply too much at stake.

This is, needless to say a painful issue for Jews to talk about amongst themselves, let alone with others.  But I would like to emphasize that there is by no means a uniformity of opinion on this issue in our community.  While I have strong feelings about this subject, I do not pretend to speak for my congregation or the Jewish community at large – nor should any Jewish leader.

In this regard, I want to your church to know I am profoundly appreciative of the Episcopal publication of “Steadfast Hope: The Palestinian Quest for Just Peace,” the report that originated in the Presbyterian Church.  I’m glad to know that your church has been studying it together these past few weeks and I’m so happy to be able to join your study session here after our service this morning.

More than the content itself, I am truly inspired by this study guide because it represents an authentically prophetic statement. It is faithful, forthright, and unflinching. Rather than paper over the difficult issues, it shines a light on them. And in the end, these are the places where real dialogue must ultimately start.

I have no doubt that “Steadfast Hope” is being attacked angrily by some in the Jewish community and elsewhere. But that is, of course, the nature of prophetic witness. You don’t shy away from speaking your truth because you’re worried about hurting feelings, you can’t dwell on the prospect of being labeled any number of names, and you shouldn’t allow yourself to be bullied or cowed into silence.  On the contrary, acting prophetically means speaking your truth knowing full well that there will be strong opposition, but with the faith that there will also be those on the other side who are ready to hear your message and ready to work alongside you in your struggle.

So I’d like to suggest carving out a new place for interfaith relations between our respective communities.  Not one that seeks dialogue for dialogue’s sake, nor one that engages in political bartering, but one that finds common cause in prophetic witness.

Indeed, I hold on to this hope for my own community as well – and here I’d like to return to our lectionary chapter once more. If we read this story carefully, we may well discover that Samuel is not the only hero here. There is also Eli the priest – who is able to hear powerful rebuke, along with a prophecy of terrible consequences for his family.

What does he do? He has the wisdom, the humility and the strong sense of self to ask Samuel for the whole truth – and when he hears it he is able to accept it. He is able to hear this difficult, harsh, prophecy and not react with anger or defensiveness – for he knows it comes from a place of truth and righteousness.

I believe that Eli’s response to Samuel’s prophecy provides a powerful model for my own community. While I fervently hope that we find the strength to offer prophetic witness, I also pray that we find the courage to accept it as well. To overcome the fears that keep us from finding true partners in the struggle for liberation in our world.

So let us come together by facing down the glorification of corrupt power. Let us work together to affirm loudly that it is not by might and not by power but by God’s spirit alone that we will create God’s kingdom here on earth.  And let us find a common worship in the God that stands with the oppressed, the marginalized and the vulnerable.

I look forward to working together with you in this sacred work and, once again, I thank you so very much for inviting me to join you in worship this morning.

12 thoughts on “Jews/Christians and Israel/Palestine: Rediscovering the Prophetic

  1. Thank you Rabbi Brant yet again for your courageous and prophetic vision..that illuminates the importance, even the obligation to speak truth to power even when you fear the reaction of those who have power …and the transforming beauty and grace of non defensively hearing and accepting even very serious critique. I can only hope our Jewish community can do the same.

  2. Thank you for this inspiring, difficult, engaging (I hope!) message!
    Please say HI to Fr Cotton. I met him when I was little and saw him again in Palestine. He had been an assistant in my home church in Richland Michigan! All the best, and thank you for ushering us forward, on common ground to do no harm, but to walk in each others’ shoes. Katie Miller

  3. Thanks and Blessings for the two communities who had the courage to open the doors of their houses of worship for such a frank dialogue. I pray that one day I will attend a series of teachings by Rabbi Brant in a Mosque in Palestine and also in Churches in Palestine. I pray also I will have the honor of assisting in a prayer in a synagogue in Israel as a Palestinian American with my American born children on my side.
    You are a true representative to what a man of faith should carry himself in our tumultuous times .
    a

  4. Brant, thanks so much for this timely message. I am a Presbyterian by faith, and teacher by profession. Lately, I have been able to marry the two
    while facilitating the Steadfast Hope materials in a church in Washington D.C. Our good friend Mark Braverman came two weeks ago and shared
    his views towards a feeling present in the room, that while participants
    in the course were hearing new information about the injustice being hurled down on the Palestinians, and wishing to do something like “speak the truth to power”, they were fearful of the responses by their Jewish friends. Mark alleviated some of that fear. Your courageous and insightful interpretation of the word will be also very helpful. Thank you for speaking prophetically. I wlll share your message with members of the class.

  5. brant
    i have read your “sermon” and have also attended a “dialogue” in my community showing the “steadfast hope” program. by calling this propagandistic, distorting program as truth and suggesting that it is analogous to the situation with navi shmuel, you reveal yourself not as someone who promotes peace, but rather a purveyor of hatred. this program and those that promote with its content of blatant lies and distortions are disruptive of the communities, both jewish and christian. this program actually goes so far as to draw analogies with the shoah.
    what you are doing under the guise for peace is simply promoting the destruction of israel as a jewish state and homeland of the jewish people. peace can only be obtained by honest dialogue between people, not via the untruths that you promote. your personal stance and comparing it to samuel/eli is a chilul hashem.
    daniel n. karsch, md
    p.s. regarding another of your blogs which seem to come from outer space,
    since when and by whom is michael lerner considered a “prominent jewish leader?” he is nothing more than part of a self serving fringe group, not what you describe.. your motives might be positive but your message is both untrue and destructive for the goal of a real peace.
    shalom al yisrael.

  6. Dear Rabbi Rosen,

    I read your article, and I’m concerned that you seem to leave G-d out of the Samuel story. As brave as it was for Samuel to face down Eli, it was G-d who gave Samuel the message (and probably the bravery to deliver it). I think if one wants to consider oneself a prophet, one has to be willing to wait for G-d to give one a message. The point isn’t to take down power just because it is power, but rather to deliver G-d’s Truth to those in power. In addition, I come from a faith tradition that teaches that G-d appoints individuals to power to carry out His purposes that may or may not be clear to us humans. Because of this those in power deserve some respect (if not as a moral person, for their position). I believe that as a citizen in a representative democracy, it is my duty to hold my elected officials to account for their actions through the re-election process. I, and the rest of the electorate in this country, hold ultimate power (again, in this country).
    I am concerned that the view point expressed in this article is overly simplistic in equating power with evil and powerlessness with good. Everyone is powerful in some way and powerless in others. The point of life is to use one’s power to live a moral life. Just some thoughts to ponder.

    Thank-you,
    Sarah

    • Sarah,

      Thank you for your thoughtful reply to my sermon. While I respect your point of view, I think we have some fairly fundamental disagreements about the role of religion.

      According to my understanding of Jewish tradition, prophecy is not about “waiting for God to deliver you a message.” The rabbis of the Talmud made it clear that this form of prophecy “departed from Israel” after the death of Malachi – who they considered to be the final classical/Biblical prophet (see BT Sotah 48b and/or Yoma 9b for the original citation).

      For my part, I would have grave suspicions about trusting the word of someone who claimed that God had “delivered” him/her a message. And I certainly don’t follow religion that preaches people in power are put there by God to follow “His purposes.” As I wrote in my sermon, I believe that when religion/God is used by mortal power to justify their power, tragedy will inevitably result.

      So where does this leave the concept of prophecy today? I believe its spirit remains in the original prophets’ fierce stand against corrupt human power, and their willingness to call it out. I don’t claim to know God’s word, but I am certain of one thing: I do believe that God stands with the oppressed, the powerless and the exploited. And that whenever we do what we can to stand with them, we are necessarily doing “God’s work.”

      I don’t disagree with you when you say that power is not inherently bad, and that we are all “powerful and powerless” in some fashion. But I would only add that the veneration of human power is sacrilege – and that it is all to easy for the privileged and the powerful to claim the mantle of “powerless victim” while they commit (or assent to) oppression against others.

      • Dear Rabbi Rosen,

        Thank-you for your response, it was certainly thought-provoking for me. I agree that venerating human power is a bad thing and that it necessarily leads to evil being done in the world. (What we venerate is what we pursue regardless of the methods of pursuit). That said, when I said that everyone is powerful and powerless in some fashion, I was defining power as the ability to choose our actions. Our choices are always limited by various factors (hence we are all powerless), yet I believe that we all have the ability to fundamentally choose our actions (we are powerful). I believe that there are very few cases of “true victims” in our world. One case that comes to mind is that of the Sudanese and Somalis whose countries are and have been torn apart by civil war on one hand and drought on the other. Yet even there, some Somalis exercise their power of choice to victimize others by becoming pirates. I feel that once a “victim” exercises his or her choice to victimize others, he or she can no longer be classified as a victim. This applies to the Israel/Palestinian conflict as well. I know there are many Palestinians trying their best to live peaceful lives, to raise their children and to eke out a living. My heart is with them. But it is hard when I see other Palestinians using their power of choice to choose to launch rockets at Israel or to blow themselves and others up in Israel. At that point, in my mind, those Palestinians change categories from victim to “victimizer”. I was disturbed when I attended a Steadfast Hope series, that it made no mention of the terror used against Israel, which seems to me to be a major block on the road to peace.
        Here’s to hoping that we all use what power we do have to choose good.
        Sarah

      • Sarah,

        I find it hard to accept, as you put it, that there are few cases of “true victims” in our world. I think this flies in the face of the myriad of examples of structural oppression that have existed throughout history and continue to exist in our world today. If we use the case of Jim Crow in our own country, I suppose you could say that many individual African-Americans were able to “empower” themselves in any number of ways – not least of which was their refusal to adopt “victim mentalities” – but we must not ignore the fact that they ultimately lived within a larger context of injustice and oppression. And that true, lasting justice did not take place until this structure of oppression was finally dismantled.

        To be sure, every historical situation is different and complex, but when it comes right down to it, oppression is really quite straightfoward. I think we all know it when we see it. And I think it is just all too easy for people of privilege and power to evade responsibility by claiming “complexity” and by saying things like “there are no true victims in the world.”

        In the same way, while I do not condone the use of violence to achieve one’s ends, I believe there is important difference between violence wielded by the powerful (i.e. the state) and violence initiated by the oppressed against their oppressors. Like most Palestinians, I do not support rocket launching and suicide bombing, but I certainly understand the context of oppression within which it is occurring. Quite simply, these are acts of resistance against a brutal and unjust occupation.

        A report such as “Steadfast Hope” is often criticized for “lack of balance.” But these criticisms fail to recognize that there is a decidedly unbalanced “balance of power” in this situation.

  7. Rabbi
    I find it quite interesting how you compare yourself to Samuel, in that you are bringing the word of truth and that includes the “good, bad and the ugly”. I see nothing at all that makes me believe you are anointed by God, nothing at all that says you are not simply someone with a self image of a prophetic vision. I hear nothing you say that is with basis of truth or understanding of the current political situation of the Palestinian and Israeli dilemma. You are a self appointed “prophet” without credence, preaching with the same veracity of Sabbatai Zvi and Jacob Querido, people who claimed to be a Messiah, THE Messiah, and who led the naive Jews who followed them to ruin and death. Your message to both Jews and Christians shows a naivety and failure to recognize, and admit to, the issues that have kept Peace from being implemented in Israel/Palestine.

    To paraphrase a modern day vice presidential debate between Senator Lloyd Bentsen and Senator Dan Qualye and to put it into terms you are trying to purport, “Rabbi, I know the prophet Samuel and you are no Samuel”.

  8. truth is painful.but at the same time quite liberating.it gives us possibilities since the fear is minimal.your sermon as usyal is inspiring and makes ne want to get outand make sure that i will continue the quest for peace.

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