There is no knowledge without comparison.
Better or worse are the keys to intelligence.
The principle applies to how we judge our health, bank account, personal relationships, the actions of a politician or an entire country.
We compare one event to another, or one time period to another.
Is X more desirable than Y? Are things getting better or worse?
What about principles, or absolute standards?
Here we must be careful. We all decide if something is "good enough," but this depends on what we have learned by years of comparison.
Some dress their comments in fancy words sound great while conveying personal preference. The casual use of "justice," "rights," or "international law" may be no more than a belief that others must accept. The Biblical Prophets provided an extreme standard. They heard the word of the Lord.
You may find wisdom in the Books of the Prophets, but you needn't say Amen to everything you read there, or what an interpreter says it means for the here and now. A Jewish view is that prophets spoke to their time, as severe critics, and were not predicting the future. The word "prophet" is tricky. Christians see in Isaiah the foretelling of Jesus.
If it is folly to accept the word of someone claiming to be a prophet, how much riskier to rely on a politician or commentator, especially one promoting the view of Allah.
The lesson for this sermon comes from responses to Israel's efforts to maintain a blockade on Gaza, and especially the seizure of the Turkish ship by the IDF.
Prophets of the modern world have derived from some higher source the Israel absolute. What this country does is unacceptable, no matter how it compares to the activities of others.
The Biblical penalty for false prophecy was death.
The rabbis who contributed to the Talmud pretty much neutralized death penalties and lesser corporal punishments. They transformed "an eye for an eye" into financial compensation.
They dealt with false prophecy by asserting that Malachi was the last prophet. If there were no more prophets, there could be no death penalty for false prophecy.
The same gimmick also protects the community from Jesus, Mohammad, Joseph Smith and a few others who have claimed to hear God.
The world is sanest, and safest, without prophets.
Judgments not backed up by comparison are suitable only in one's Paradise, or madhouse, where those who are certain claim that the voice in their head comes from God.
To our great misfortune, however, connection to the internet amounts to a prophetic license. There is no barrier to spreading madness.
The problem is intensified by the ease and speed of communication, but an episode from the Book of Jeremiah illustrates the timeless puzzle of judgement.
The Prophet said that it was God's word that the people of Jerusalem should accommodate themselves to Babylon's power. He urged soldiers not to resist their invasion. Officials wanted to kill Jeremiah as a traitor, but King Zedekiah gave him refuge in the palace, and listened to his arguments. The king vacillated between the direction demanded by Jeremiah, and his officials. He asked the prophet not to reveal the details of their conversation. The king told Jeremiah that the silence was to save the prophet, but the king may have feared for his own life against the possibility of a coup d'יtat (Jeremiah 37, 38).
On who to rely? Close advisors, friends, journalists who have been reliable, or someone claiming to hear the word of the Lord?
If nothing else provides a standard of judgement, there is always politics. Go along with what moves others. Join one of those mobs demanding the end to the Jewish state.
One might also go along with the demand made by A, in exchange for A's compliance with something that you favor. The United States wants Turkey to support sanctions against Iran, and Turkey is demanding that the United States insist on an international commission to investigate Israel. If President Obama engages in this, we can expect another Goldstone.
Israel's leadership, meanwhile, feels pressed to accept some kind of commission. Among the options is an Israeli committee of international lawyers, with an outside expert as observer.
And who will believe what such a commission concludes, beside those who accept Israel's word without a commission?
Posted by Ira Sharkansky at June 09, 2010 03:55 AM
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem