Prophets and Rabbis

“The prophets have always received a better press than the rabbis, for an obvious reason. They were the first and greatest social critics, fearless in speaking truth to power, unafraid to confront corrupt kings and indolent priests, tireless in their call to integrity and justice. Their success was, however, limited. In fact, with the sole exception of Jonah, the only prophet sent to a Gentile city, we know of none who actually brought about social transformation. The rabbis did succeed. Under their tutelage Jewry became one of the most obstinately faithful of all religious groups. The way of life of rabbinic Judaism was so compelling that Jews survived, their identity intact, in exile and dispersion, for longer and under more adverse circumstances than any other. The reason was that the rabbis were not utopians. Without losing sight of the end of days, they legislated for the here-and-now. Without relinquishing the prophet’s dreams, they translated them into codes of practice, learnable behavioural norms. They put their faith in education. They brought heavenly ideals down to earth, creating a redemption of small steps. They took a realistic view of humanity. They acknowledged human failings and found ways of turning them to good purposes. Even if people initially do good for ulterior motives, said the rabbis, if they do it long enough they will eventually come to do it for its own sake. The prophets spoke poetry, the rabbis prose; but the rabbis succeeded where even the greatest of the prophets failed. When it comes to realising high ideals among ordinary human beings, choose nonutopian solutions. They are more effective, and more humane.”

The Home We Build Together, pp. 177-178