Was Jeremiah a Failure?
Editor’s note: When as a teenager I became immersed in the writings of the Prophets, I was most excited by the Prophet Jeremiah. My parents, who thought I was making a big mistake to have decided to become a rabbi, told me that I really sounded more like a prophet, and that one could not combine a deep prophetic vision with being a congregational rabbi, because the congregation would fire anyone who would challenge their comfortable life-style. Moreover, they warned me that people would always be offended by the “truth-telling” and “confrontational attitude” of the prophets in general and Jeremiah in particular. But their biggest challenge was this: “What’s the use of being a prophet when the prophets were all such failures? They were scorned in their life-times, and their message was not really heard by those to whom it was spoken or written. If you want to have influence, Michael, become a lawyer and then the first Jewish U.S. Senator from our state, not a rabbi, and certainly not a prophet!” My parents were loving and wonderful people, and their message was given out of love and a concern that I not waste my life. But it was not advice I could follow. I had become by twelve years old a disciple of Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose book on The Prophets remains one of the most important books in my own intellectual and spiritual development. So after reading his book on Jeremiah, I asked Mordecai Schreiber to write an essay for Tikkun on this important question: “Was the prophet Jeremiah a Failure?” I hope you read it.--Rabbi Michael Lerner
Rethinking Jeremiah by Rabbi Mordecai Schreiber
No prophet among the Bible’s literary prophets provides us with more information about himself and about prophecy in general than Jeremiah. We first meet him as a young lad, and we follow his life, his prophetic career, and his thoughts well into old age. Anyone interested in better understanding biblical prophets and prophecies needs to study the book of Jeremiah, which is the subject of my latest book, The Man Who Knew God: Decoding Jeremiah. History, in a sense, has portrayed him as a failure. He failed to convince his contemporaries not to rebel against Babylon; he failed to save Jerusalem from destruction; and he is best remembered as the sorrowing prophet who mourns the destruction. Indeed, in English his name gave rise to the term for a bitter lament, a Jeremiad. Like Job, Jeremiah curses the day he was born. The burden he carries as a prophet who admonishes people who refuse to listen is unbearable. Several attempts are made on his life. He is sentenced to death and barely escapes execution. He is considered a traitor by the king and his counselors, by the priests, by self-styled prophets, as well as by ordinary people. He can count his friends on one hand. Aside from his loyal scribe, Baruch ben Neriah, he only has one constant friend, namely, God. No other prophet in the Hebrew Bible has a more intimate or passionate relationship with God than Jeremiah. It is this relationship that keeps him going and keeps him alive.
Jeremiah’s life is a perfect paradigm for the life of prophets in general, biblical or other. A prophet by definition is someone who is ahead of his or her time. As such, the prophet is bound to be misunderstood by his contemporaries and open to persecution and to ridicule. People are creatures of habit. They are afraid of change and of the unknown. The prophet is dedicated to changing people’s habits, and awakening their better nature. At the same time, the prophet is not afraid of the unknown, because the prophet is endowed with an intuition that helps him penetrate the unknown and see beyond the present moment—not as a future-teller, but as a visionary who can tell truth from falsehood.
Was Jeremiah a failure or a success? By common human standards of success Jeremiah was a failure. Unlike Moses, he did not free his people from slavery and he did not bring them to the Promised Land. Unlike Samuel, he did not crown a King David over them. Unlike Elijah, he did not perform miracles such as reviving a dead child or bringing fire down from heaven. Unlike Isaiah, he did not prophesy the defeat of a foreign enemy, namely, Sennacherib, the Assyrian emperor, which came true. He died without any tangible accomplishments and, as was mentioned before, history remembers him as a broken old man who sits on the ruins of Jerusalem and cries (as depicted by many artists, most notably Rembrandt).
And yet, a more careful study of his life and teachings reveals that Jeremiah, who lived at the most critical moment of his people’s long history, at the time when they were about to disappear from the stage of history, played a central role not only in the survival and development of Judaism, but also in the ethical development of civilization as a whole. The Bible acknowledges his role in history in the opening words of the book of Ezra (1:1), and the closing words of the Bible (II Chronicles 36:22). In both places it refers to him as the one who predicts the return of the exiles from Babylon, an unparalleled event in world history. All throughout time, national, ethnic, religious and other groups, their culture, language and beliefs, have disappeared once they became uprooted and assimilated. Jeremiah, however, had his own understanding of history. He knew that his people were an instrument in the hands of the one true God of the universe, destined to spread the knowledge of that God throughout the world, and for that reason they were not about to disappear. He grasped that the destruction and the exile were necessary for redemption, which was sure to come once the people were purged of their sins (as articulated so beautifully by the Second Isaiah, a disciple of Jeremiah, in his opening poem, “Be comforted, be comforted, my people.”)
Up until the time of Jeremiah, the people of Israel were tribal, territorial and monolatrous. However, when they return from Babylonian exile after his death, they become unified and monotheistic, and Judaism as we know it today begins to evolve. How did this happen? What caused such a profound change?
For an answer, we should consider Jeremiah’s crucial contribution to man’s understanding of himself and of God. Jeremiah is the first person in Jewish history to enunciate some key ideas that completely changed the nature of the Jewish faith and of monotheism as a whole.
The first idea is the universality of God. Unlike the Israelites who sing at the crossing of the Red Sea, “Who is like you among the gods, Adonai?” and for centuries during the time of the kings continue practice syncretism and acknowledge the existence of other gods, Jeremiah puts in motion the idea of the exclusivity of the God of Israel and the non-existence of other gods when he sends an epistle to the exiles in Babylon, letting them know that they can worship their God even in exile. This concept of pure monotheism will find its supreme expression in the words of the post-exilic mystery prophet whom we call the Second Isaiah. Once the exiles grasp this idea, their future is ensured.
The second idea is personal responsibility. As a member of a tribal people, the identity of the Hebrew individual was submerged in the tribe, which was the only milieu where the individual could function. Guilt was shared by the entire tribe, and the sins of the fathers were visited on their children. Not so, says Jeremiah. Will the children’s teeth be set on edge if the parents eat sour grapes? he asks. No, he answers his own question. Each shall be accountable for his own actions. This idea will be further perfected by his disciple, Ezekiel, during the exile. Monotheism is the faith of personal responsibility. To repeat the old Hasidic story about Rabbi Zusya, this great Hasidic master said: “When I get to the Heavenly Court they will not fault me for not being Moses. They will not ask me ‘Why weren’t you like Moses?’ Instead they will ask me, ‘Why weren’t you Zusya?’” This was the second lesson the exiles learned in Babylon, which enabled them to enter into a personal relationship with God and assume personal responsibility for their actions.
The third idea is Human action as the way to redeem the world. Jeremiah is the originator of the great rabbinic concept, “One does not rely on miracles.” When a desperate King Zedekiah asks him to perform a miracle and save Jerusalem from the Babylonians, Jeremiah replies that the king’s fate is sealed. Jeremiah is not a miracle worker. He realizes it is up to Zedekiah to acknowledge the military superiority of the Babylonians and not engage in military adventurism. Zedekiah cannot rely on a supernatural force. He must look into his own heart and realize that it is within his own power to do the right thing. Later on, when the Judeans return from Babylonian exile, they attribute the return to the will of God, yet they themselves are the ones who take action and make the return a reality.
One could argue that these ideas have long been common knowledge and that Jeremiah has little to say to us today. Yet the opposite is true. Do we live in a godly world, or do we live in a world of greed and selfishness, of callousness and violence? Do people understand the meaning of personal responsibility, or do they try to shirk responsibility for what is going on around them? Do people take action against all that is wrong in today’s world?
The answer to all three questions is at best mixed. The world is still struggling to become godly and truly humane. The message of Jeremiah is as urgent today as it was twenty-six centuries ago. And as Jeremiah himself would have acknowledged, it is up to people, all people, to effect change. In the book of Deuteronomy, which is massively quoted by Jeremiah, we read:
This commandment I’m giving you today isn’t too hard for you or beyond your reach. It’s not in heaven. You don’t have to ask, “Who will go to heaven to get this command for us so that we can hear it and obey it?” This commandment isn’t on the other side of the sea. You don’t have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it for us so that we can hear it and obey it?” No, these words are very near to you. They’re in your mouth and in your heart so that you may do them.
More than any other prophet, Jeremiah is a prophet for the ages. This may be the reason why he was a failure in his own lifetime. His was not a truth for one time. It was a truth for all time. The more we delve into his remarkable biography the more we find out how relevant he is to our own time and to all people. Jeremiah’s life is an object lesson for all those who oppose the status quo of their place and time and seek a “kinder and more humane society.” More often than not one’s social activism seems futile. Few have the great good fortune of a Mahatma Gandhi or a Nelson Mandela who lived to see their struggle and their dream come true on such a grand scale. Jeremiah certainly didn’t. But the seeds sown by this man who lived so intimately with God changed the fortune not only of his own people but of the entire world. His contribution to monotheistic civilization is enormous.
Personally, he has been a source of inspiration to me since a very young age. Born a Palestinian Jew, I remember as a child the time when the state of Israel was born. I remember the boats of Holocaust survivors arriving in the harbor of my hometown, Haifa. And I remember people constantly quoting the words of Jeremiah:
A voice is heard in Ramah, wailing, bitter crying,
Rachel is crying for her children, refusing to be consoled
for her children, now gone.
And God said: Do not cry, do not shed tears.
For your labor will be rewarded,
for they will return from the enemy’s land.
There is hope in your future,
Your children shall return to their border. (31:14-16)
And somehow I felt then and there that he was walking among us, lifting our spirits, and that he knew me, and he knew all of us. And to this day I consider him my teacher and my guide.
Rabbi Mordecai Schreiber’s book, The Man Who Knew God: Decoding Jeremiah, was reviewed last year in Tikkun. He has recently completed a new book, The Quest for the Prophet: The One Who Can Mend the World.