I was in shul tonight and frankly I daydream a lot during the parts of the service that are less than inspiring. I got to thinking about the role of prophets in Jewish tradition. But not just any prophet. A specific kind of prophet: one who offers witness to the moral failings of the ruler of the kingdom. Though all Biblical prophets offered moral visions and criticism of the failings of their society, only a small group of prophets were specifically associated with the rulers of their time.
King Saul was anointed to monarchy by the prophet Samuel. Saul looked to Samuel throughout his reign almost as a protegé. The prophet was his moral compass and when the king did wrong, Samuel was the one who told him so.
David, who was Saul’s nemesis and successor, also had a prophet shadowing his rule and acting as a moral conscience. His name was Natan. It was Natan who thundered against David for sending Uriah to his death so that he, the king, could take the officer’s wife, Bathsheba to his own bed. It was Natan who told David when he failed morally. He was virtually the only one who could.
Perhaps lesser known was the role that Elijah played as a prophet during the rule of King Ahab and his wife, Jezebel. Elijah was the king’s bane. In those days, the king worshipped idols and performed all sorts of pagan rituals. The prophet inveighed against this corruption of Jewish traditions and prophesied his downfall. Unlike the earlier two examples, the northern Israelite king did not suffer the prophet’s troubling invective willingly. Elijah fled twice into the wilderness and nearly succumbed. But each time he returned stronger than when he had fled. And finally, his prediction of the doom of Ahab’s dynasty came to past and he was redeemed.
Each of these prophets played an institutional role in their societies. The kings respected them in much the way that rabbis became respected spiritual leaders in a later period of Jewish history. It seems that kings couldn’t fire prophets as the latter’s power derived from a different source, perhaps the divine or something else not subordinate to the monarch.
Unfortunately, in following historic periods we lost this balance between temporal and spiritual. Monarchs and rulers in subsequent generations and especially today, have no checks on them. Yes, there are judges and legislators and voters. But they are generally not individual equals of the ruler. They may combine their power to check or oust a ruler. But the prophet was someone who could do that alone by dint of his own special place and power in society.
This is certainly true in societies like the U.S. Not just our president, but the entire intelligence apparatus rules supreme. Legislators and judges don’t dare rein in the excesses though it’s their job to do so. In fact, the NSA has itself spied on members of Congress and tacitly admitted it. The president, rather than stand up to the spooks, lies on their behalf.
Unlike the U.S., Israel is a national security state. Prime ministers, Knesset members, and judges are servants of the security establishment. There isn’t even the pretence of oversight. To check the power of the security services would be political suicide, unthinkable, inconceivable. Those few legislators who may be willing to do so belong to small political factions with little or no power to bring change.
Which brings me to whistleblowers. Though they’re not the same as prophets, today they perform a role that is in some ways similar. Though they don’t have as strong an institutional base of power as in ancient days, they do have certain protections (at least in law and in theory) in many modern societies. In this category, I also include some journalists and bloggers who are the conduits to the public for the whistleblowers. Journalists too have certain protections and privilege reminiscent of that offered the prophet in ancient days.
Let me be clear about what I’m not claiming: I’m not claiming that the modern whistleblower has the same moral purity and stature as a Samuel, Natan or Elijah. In truth, the whistleblower has many contradictory motivations causing him or her to act. Some moral, some financial, some personal, some psychological. It’s more complicated today than it was way back when.
But a society which has no prophets needs someone to act in a similar capacity. Someone who can expose the corruption, lies and criminality of our leaders and government. Without these truthtellers we would be the blind leading the blind. That’s why we must protect whistleblowers rather than imprison them. We must respect and even cherish the Daniel Ellsbergs, Shamai Leibowitzes, Thomas Drakes, Jeffrey Sterlings, John Kiriakous, Chelsea Mannings, Edward Snowdens and Barrett Browns. They are our canaries in the coal mine. They warn us that our democracy is going off the rails.
They are not traitors, they are patriots. If our leaders were smart, they would do as Kings David and Saul did in the Biblical era: they would understand the important role that our latter-day prophets play and why we need them in order to be a better society.
Israel too has its whistleblowers and they suffer even worse fates than those in the U.S. Anat Kamm, the then-soldier who leaked top-secret IDF documents to Haaretz’ Uri Blau documenting illegal targeted killings of unarmed Palestinians, is serving 4 1/2 years in jail. Blau earned a four-month suspended jail sentence for his courageous reporting on this story. One of the few Israeli journalists ever sentenced for being a journalist.
Mordechai Vanunu is perhaps Israel’s most famous whistleblower. After serving his 18 year sentence for exposing Israel’s nuclear secret, he continues being hounded by the secret police and may not leave the country he detests for the way it treated him.