Prophecy Is Not Policy

Right Angles

By Noam Neusner

Published July 15, 2009, issue of July 24, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Liberal Jewish activists profess a great regard for the prophetic tradition and its message to the modern world. In these weeks leading up to our traditional day of mourning, Tisha B’Av, our weekly haftarot are peppered with messages of disapproval for a society deaf to God’s word. And it is hard to read those messages — delivered by Jeremiah, Isaiah and Ezekiel — and not feel a chill of recognition.

But should we therefore approach all matters of public policy — health care, taxes, crime and punishment, the environment and so on — by asking WWJD (What Would Jeremiah Do)? From reading through the reams of policy statements and speeches issued by the Jewish community’s most reliably liberal organizations, it’s clear that the thundering words of the prophets count for a lot.

When a flock of religious leaders, including several rabbis, called for a major expansion of public health insurance recently, they cited Isaiah 1:17. Other calls for health reform are supported, supposedly, in Ezekiel 34:4. Environmentalists heed the words of Hosea 4:1-3 or Micah 4:1-4. Reducing the jail sentences of drug offenders is evidently the theme of Ezekiel 33:1. And no call for “social justice” is complete without a tip of the hat to Isaiah 58.

Justifying modern positions with a few sound bites from ancient texts is one of the oldest tricks in the book, used liberally by both right and left and by adherents of all faiths. Borrowing a few phrases from the prophets is a surefire way to connect the faithful to an issue they would not otherwise understand, and give to it the poetry lacking in floor speeches on C-Span.

But that doesn’t mean it’s wise. The prophets are a little thin on the details. Isaiah talks of “buying food without money, wine and milk without cost.” Tell that to the grocer.

Prophets were by definition lousy leaders: Nobody listened to them, and their predictions of doom fell on deaf ears. They railed against things like vanity and pride, lust and greed, idol-makers and the uncircumcised. Their calls for fealty to God were straight from the “do this or die” school of scare mongering. And on balance, they were a dreary, anti-social lot. I doubt seriously that Jeremiah or Amos could have gotten elected to city council, let alone Congress.

Good thing, too. The world inhabited by the prophets was one of dark and light, good versus evil. If we ever need a prophet to guide us, it would probably signal that something truly terrible had happened in our own time — a massive plague, a reign of terror imposed by an enemy, the exiling of our people to distant lands.

And so perhaps the prophets are not quite up to the task of informing our health care reform debate. Yes, our health care system is an expensive and messy jumble of state and federal mandates, private insurance rules and practices and a remarkable level of specialization — so we could use all the help we can get. But do we really want a few phrases uttered more than 2,500 years ago to determine the course of reforming our health system?

Those few phrases — and trust me, the lines cited by policy advocates are very few among screeds that run for several pages at a time — don’t really deal with the thorny issue of, say, providing publicly paid health insurance to well-off people who don’t want to pay for private insurance themselves. Amos didn’t deal with drug re-imports from Canada, and Hosea didn’t address the right income cutoff level for public health subsidies. If God had wanted us to have the answer to that one, it would probably be found in Leviticus anyway — and last I checked, social-justice types typically don’t want much to do with Leviticus, because that’s where God gets into what we eat, and with whom we sleep.

God, through his prophets, commands us to care for the sick and the needy. He says choose life. The rest is up to us. If He wanted the prophets to actually implement a health care reform agenda, we would know it by now. After all, God is very specific about so many other things in our life, you’d think He would care to send a message through one of his minions about whether He prefers a public co-op health insurance exchange to a public health insurance option.

It’s fine to argue, as liberal Jewish organizations often do, that Jewish texts place great value on care for the sick. But it’s not as if opponents of taxpayer-funded universal health insurance are agents of evil. Rather, many simply recognize that private medicine is superior to socialized medicine in more than a few important respects.

People around the world now survive heart attacks largely because of the innovations created by America’s health marketplace. New medical procedures, new knowledge, new drugs — all have been made possible by our current health care system. True, health care is still expensive, and not everyone enjoys its benefits equally, but in many respects it’s better in America than anywhere else — and if that’s not a way of honoring the prophetic call, what is?

So let’s leave the cloaks of the prophets in our closets and set aside the dog-eared pages of our biblical concordances. The serious work of policy-making involves difficult choices and competing claims — all morally grounded. The prophets did their work. Now let us do ours.

Noam Neusner is the principal of Neusner Communications, LLC. He served as a speech writer and Jewish liaison for President George W. Bush.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.