Ask the Rabbis | What is the Role of the Prophetic Voice in Today’s World?

By | Jan 01, 2024


The legendary civil rights activist Bayard Rustin summed up the kind of prophecy we need today when he said, “The primary social function of a religious society is to speak the truth to power.” Our own tradition is replete with prophets who took that responsibility seriously, sometimes at great risk. Among the most memorable was Amos, a humble 8th-century BCE shepherd who lived at a time of relative prosperity, at least for some. Seeing the poor exploited through social injustices, confiscatory taxes and institutional corruption, he spoke his truth to those in power. His prophetic plea was so timeless that many remember him best from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Like Dr. King, Amos was a thorn in the side of the affluent and powerful. The priest of Bethel denounced Amos to the king, declaring, “The land cannot bear the things he is saying!” The rich and the powerful still find it difficult to bear truths uttered by prophetic voices. As a Humanistic Jew I believe that any of us has the potential to be those voices. Together we can amplify them, embodying the waters of justice and the mighty stream of righteousness.
Rabbi Jeffrey Falick
Congregation for Humanistic Judaism of Metro Detroit
Farmington Hills, MI


The role of the prophetic voice is to awaken those many of us who have fallen into the catatonic woke stupor that we ourselves have invented out of our home-brewn presumptions. The illusory light of our self-made reality has become blinding and has overtaken our mentality. As the prophet Isaiah warned us 2,700 years ago: “Woe unto those who say about that which is bad that it is good, and of that which is good that it is bad; they establish that which is dark as actually light, and that which is light as actually dark; they establish that which is bitter as actually sweet, and that which is sweet as actually bitter” (Isaiah 5:20).

In an era when we had presumed to liberate the self from the definition of others, the pendulum has proven stronger than we are and has swung us back farther than we once were. “Our life seems to be a confused jumble of spasmodic and disconnected events,” Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote more than half a century ago. “The overwhelming desire of yesterday is forgotten today, and the monumental achievement of today will be obliterated tomorrow. Does our soul live in dispersion? Is there nothing but a medley of facts unrelated to one another, chaos camouflaged by civilization?” (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity). We need prophets!
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Golden, CO


What is a prophetic vision? It links the spiritual root of a social malady with its intellectual, emotional and political outgrowths and calls for action to heal the malady. There are three crisis-level maladies in the world today that cry out for a Jewishly rooted prophetic intervention. One is the planetary agony we label the climate crisis—which is really a crisis in the Divine Interbreathing of plants and animals that is being choked by CO2, produced at the physical level by burning fossil fuels, at the spiritual level by greed and at the political level by the activities of corporate carbon pharaohs broiling the earth for profit.

The prophetic voice is one of the great Jewish contributions to world civilization.

The second crisis is the collision between those in America who seek to fulfill democracy by inclusion of all in full democratic rights and powers—including Blacks, Native citizens, immigrants and refugees, women, LGBTQIA communities, Jews, Muslims and the poor—versus those who yearn to restore a white male Christian America. The third is the intense Israeli conflict over the future shape of the State of Israel, both internally and in its relationship to Palestine, and the effects of that conflict on the values and practice of Judaism in the diaspora as well. The basic conflict in all three areas is between greed for money and power, versus love for all human communities and for the Earth.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow
The Shalom Center
Philadelphia, PA


The biblical Abram, a man who left everything he knew and everything his society believed about the world, is called in the Torah a “Hebrew”—Avram ha-ivri. The rabbis explain in the midrash that “Hebrew” literally means someone on “the other side.” The entire world was on one side, the rabbis say, and Abram was on the other. With some things, it is easy for us to stand against the crowd. But all of us also belong to groups that anchor our worldview, groups we really want to affirm and be affirmed by. We are motivated to rationalize our way to harmonization with the group.

False prophets are those who tell a leader or a group what they want or need to hear at the moment. True prophets, however, when they see an injustice or an unpopular truth, feel it so deeply and so clearly that they cannot be silent. They cannot even be diplomatic. They are not prone to the rationalizations that most of us engage in to justify our silence or quiet our inner discomfort. Prophets risk serious consequences in their relationships, reputations, jobs and sometimes their lives because they cannot and will not be silent. Very few of us can be prophets. But all of us can recognize that the prophetic voice that challenges, discomforts or even infuriates us just may be the one that saves us.
Rabbi Caryn Broitman
Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center
Vineyard Haven, MA


Nearly 140 years ago, the founders of American Reform Judaism declared in the Pittsburgh Platform the primacy of the moral mitzvot (commandments) of our tradition over those related to ritual and ceremony. “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, justice, justice shall you pursue,” as written in Deuteronomy 16:20, has been the clarion call of this commitment. This declaration connects Jews to the voices of the prophets, who heard that call and for generations spoke out and acted against injustices.

This commitment is just as relevant to us today. As Jews, we should continue to heed the voice of Isaiah (58:5-7), who spurs us to end insincere fasts and corrupt rituals and turn our attention to the hungry and the poor in our midst. As Jews, we should be like Micah (2:1-5) condemning unjust leaders who use their power for personal gain.

As the prophets were God’s emissaries in the world in their days, we too are God’s partners in speaking up, speaking out and acting to fix that which is broken in our world. The words of the prophets can continue to inspire and guide us in that sacred task.
Rabbi Dr. Laura Novak Winer
Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion
Fresno, CA


We are living in a deeply polarized time. So many of us are intolerant of any view that does not align with our own. As a pulpit rabbi, I must manage competing values: On the one hand, speaking out on moral matters can be alienating to some; on the other hand, my role is to nurture and build the community, and taking strong stances may fracture it. On the third hand, remaining silent is irresponsible. Torah has things to teach us about the issues of our day. What is a rabbi to do?

When I do speak on fundamental issues that have inspired the prophetic voice, I do so not by promoting a political party or a partisan position but by teaching Jewish values. I engage my students/congregants in an exploration of sometimes conflicting Jewish texts so that they can uncover important Jewish values and then consider how to incorporate them into their lives and into our society.

If the Torah guides us only in our ritual lives, if it addresses only our internal communal realities and no more, then as a rabbi I have failed to make Torah relevant. But I will also have failed if the Torah is used to teach some partisan position.
Rabbi Amy S. Wallk
Temple Beth El
Springfield, MA


The prophetic voice is one of the great Jewish contributions to world civilization. The prophet—in the name of God—speaks truth to power, to overweening leaders or systems that are sinning against humanity. The true prophet is not attached to the establishment or the ruling elite but only to God. This gives him/her the independence of judgment and/or insight to go against the party line, the conventional consensus, the power structure. The prophet speaks the word of conscience, of justice, for the vulnerable against their oppressors.

When I teach, however, I also try to communicate the limits of the prophetic voice. The prophets set uncompromising standards. Their criticism is often caustic and extreme, because normal behavior falls short of their incredibly high expectations. Isaiah calls for full justice, and his critique is blistering: “From the sole of your foot to the [top of the] head, there is not one whole [moral] limb; only wounds, bruises and putrefying [moral] sores” (Isaiah 6).

The prophet demands 100 percent improvement and denounces bad behavior as 100 percent repugnant. People do not work that way. They act with mixed motives; they improve a little at a time, if at all. No wonder the prophets were not listened to in their own times but were dismissed as purveyors of pie-in-the-sky.

Along came the rabbis. They said: Look, no one is perfect. You can’t transform overnight. How about treating your servant a little more kindly, or being a bit more generous with your workers? The people responded. They improved gradually, continually, for centuries—and suddenly the prophetic demands were within reach. Prophets, in retrospect, became the moral heroes of the Jewish people.

I tell my students: Treasure the prophets, but be a rabbi. They were more influential and more valuable. Their educational approach uplifted the people—and made the failed prophets into the great figures we love and follow.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg
J.J. Greenberg Institute for the Advancement of Jewish Life/Hadar
Riverdale, NY


I much prefer real prophecy, but the Talmud tells us that it disappeared about 2,000 years ago, and the “prophetic voice” has been a disappointing replacement for the real thing. If anything, we’ve suffered too much of the prophetic voice. Contemporary civilization is plagued by those who have wreaked untold harm on society by being modern-day prophets, offering utopian ideals that have been mostly dystopian in practice. Lenin spoke with a prophetic voice. I suppose in a sense Hitler did so to the Germans, Mao Tse-Tung to the Chinese. Between them many tens of millions of people met their end.

Ironically, real prophets did not generally come up with new ideas that stood the past on its head or pointed in a new direction. The prophets of the Bible invited the people back to ideas to which they had long been committed and which suffered from neglect and abuse. But they didn’t invent new systems that were going to usher in messianic redemption. Ironically, the prophetic voice we’re waiting for—that of the Messiah himself—Maimonides teaches will only be accepted if he is faithful to the rich ideas of our shared past. I think what we do sorely need today is a return to the common thrust of all the prophets, which was to exhort the people to return to a genuine commitment to Jewish values.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Los Angeles, CA /Jerusalem


Following the destruction of the Second Temple, the sages lamented the loss of prophecy, but an anonymous scholar cited in the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Batra 12:1) says that the sages never lost that power. Since prophecy is the ability to communicate with the Divine, and wisdom is God’s gift to humanity, this statement makes sense.

Unfortunately, we tend to appreciate prophetic wisdom only in retrospect. There are wise people among us, but our hubris prevents us from hearing the prophetic truths they try to convey. Heinrich Heine warned that where books are burned, people will be burned, scientists warned us about climate change, medical researchers warned us about the global reach of infectious diseases, yet we never learn.

In The World Until Yesterday, the scholar Jared Diamond writes that, for most governments, long-term planning means three months. Governments, organizations, communities and individuals regularly ignore prophecies that cause discomfort and instead choose futuristic visions promising gardens of roses. Even recent events bear this out: Many wise Israelis, following the principle that one must not pay exaggerated ransom (Mishnah Gittin 4:6), felt that signing the Oslo Accords was a fatal mistake because one cannot make peace with terrorists. Others opposed the Gilad Shalit deal in which more than 1,000 terrorists were released. We now know that one of those terrorists was the mastermind of the atrocious attack of October 7. There is video from the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 in which an angry resident being removed from the settlement of Gush Katif predicts the events of October 7 with chilling accuracy. I hope that we will finally learn from experience and be wise in advance, not in hindsight.
Rabbi Haim Ovadia
Torah VeAhava
Potomac, MD

Opening picture: The Prophet Amos. (Photo credit: Gustave Doré)

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