by Danya Lagos
The first two chapters of the Book of Amos warn its reader that the Gaza and Jerusalem of that time might ultimately end up sharing the same shitty, terrible, catastrophic fate under the same sky that they uncomfortably share with each other. Because of certain injustices that have been allowed to continue, or be unatoned for, it is said that fire will be sent down from the sky and destroy them both (Amos 1:7, Amos 2:5). The wording in the original curses is exactly the same for both places – all you need to do is switch the names, and it becomes clear that the standards and are quite parallel: “I will send a fire upon (INSERT HERE) and it shall devour the palaces of (INSERT HERE).” There are other cities also cursed in these chapters for whom the same formula is applied (Damascus, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Basra, etc.), but the point that Amos is making is that when it comes to practical matters of justice and oppression, the Jewish people are not judged any differently or given any lesser punishment for non-compliance than their neighbors.
At a time where one could say that fire is quite literally raining down on both Gaza and Jerusalem from the sky, however mediated by extreme disparities in contemporary military and political power, this text is extremely troubling to grapple with, but it is perhaps one we ought to be grappling with the most. The picture painted in this book runs afoul of a major set of prior assumptions that have defined much of how many of us as contemporary Jews engage with the implications of divine justice during times of conflict:
1. When bad things happen to us, a time of crisis is not a time for us to search for and conduct full repentance and restitution here on the earth, in our cities, in our countries, for some sort of wrongdoing in the hopes that God will take this earnest attempt to change and influence the ultimate outcome of our crises to land in our favor.
2. When bad things happen to us, any call for this sort of process at a time of crisis would be callous and insensitive form of victim blaming, and potentially, that those who do this are at best, fools – at worst, acting as our enemies by seeking to justify our suffering.
3. When bad things happen to us, we should nevertheless appeal to God during this time of crisis in what is more or less the typical way we normally appeal to God – asking God to give us favor prior to any major action on our part, but perhaps even invoking our helplessness and confusion in the face of it all and asking God to intervene nonetheless.
However ultimately at odds these prior assumptions are with the paradigm portrayed in the Book of Amos and in other parts of the prophetic tradition, to engage in this way has many good rationales. For the majority of our existence after the age of the Prophets, our theology has only intersected with our collective morality in conditions of relative powerlessness. During this time of
powerlessness, we came to articulate our theology in a context during which we lacked any major political power or any military might in comparison to countless host nations that seemed to have been given a free pass to exile us, slaughter us, and threaten us existentially at every conceivable chance. Yet now, after two thousand years, we find ourselves dealing with a Jerusalem that really is under our political and military control without any question (just ask its non-Jewish residents), and thus, we find ourselves once again in a Jerusalem that really places us in a position of responsibility and accountability before divine justice that was present during the time of Amos.
But why, then, are we still praying and conducting ourselves with an outdated theology of justice?
Over the past few weeks, as the skies over Gaza and Jerusalem are brightly reddened with the blazes of rockets and bombs and hundreds of people die needlessly for reasons that could have been completely prevented – not by divine intervention, but by human action – it has been very difficult for me to concentrate while praying even the basic prayers. All the more so, it has been very difficult for me to take seriously any attempt to make additions to the liturgy for several reasons. The first, is that while the loss of life is particularly bad at this very moment, to be truthful, there has been a stark and horrendous humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the rest of Palestine for years now, to the point where we maybe should have already changed the liturgy some time ago to include permanent mourning if we really have no earnest intention to change the status quo within our days. Yet, it was not until some of our own came to lose their lives that we began expressing liturgical concern. To indicate that there is a crisis now that demands our attention speaks a lot to the erasure of the crisis that has been continuing for quite some time for people right across the fence.
However, the difficulty which I think raises an even more serious concern for me, is that maybe this is a time when we should not be seeking any form of solace in prayer at all. In the very same situation during which the Book of Amos describes the threat of destruction, God is not asking us to turn our eyes to the heavens, to offer up sacrifices or to sing out some psalms in even the saddest and most compelling of tunes. In fact, quite the opposite: the Holy One tells us to take them away, since they will not be accepted (Amos 5:21-23). They will not be accepted, it becomes apparent in the verse that follows, because we have not done the work that we are actually being asked to do at this time, which is to seek to rectify the very real injustice and oppression in the places over which we have control. We are to instead “let justice rise up as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream (Amos 5:23). While the verse sounds beautiful and romantic, in this context it quite clearly means to stop everything we are doing and engage in the ugly work of locating what we are doing wrong and fixing it or granting restitution to those harmed by it. This goes against every impulse we have to cast the present tense commands of God back in God’s direction by means of a future tense request.
Perhaps God’s anger here in Amos stems from the idea that to focus one’s response on prayer during times of crisis when one has urgent and outstanding humanitarian responsibilities yet to take care of on earth is the ultimate form of theological cynicism and ingratitude – cheapening both the call for action and the meaning of prayer. Every time a school shooting occurs in the United States, one hears many people saying that “this is not the time to get into politics,” and what happens is that we allow time for people to wring their hands and with some sort of higher “meaning” of it all, consider that to have fulfilled our obligation to respond, do nothing, and wait for the next school shooting. In the same way, many of the prayer “rallies” held in the States or even the more quiet additions to the liturgy in recent weeks direct our energies into a format of engaging with the world in which the end goal is not to arrive at and implement practical solution, but is instead to appeal to and engage a power that has a far higher sense of order in the absence of our own understanding and capacity to affect the world. While this approach makes sense in the context of the regular obligation of daily prayer that has a more timeless focus, when prayer is modified and contextualized to mystify and create a sense of wonder about situations that we are perfectly able to control on earth through our own actions, what does such prayer become but the true “opiate of the masses” that we turn to instead of pursuing direct action with the full force of the communal structures many of us have found to devote to building meaningful lives of prayer?
Do not misunderstand me – I find meaning in prayer. It is a way for me to engage with the Divine in a way that transcends earthly limitations in which I find great meaning. However, as I have started to pray more often and really grapple with what I am actually hoping to do by means of prayer in the past few weeks above the meeting of a certain halakhic requirement, I find that no amount of tefilah has stopped hundreds from dying at a simple “yes” or “no” of earthly human beings with earthly choices before them, and that though I do face quite a lot of earthly limitations to do anything meaningful to stop this from happening, I have not done all that I can. I feel sickened that I have spent hours praying this summer but have not done nearly all I can to act within my means to intervene through activism and political action. In a situation that many seek to portray as clouded by the ambiguity of crisis, I feel quite a lot of clarity about the rootedness of the crisis in Gaza in an unjust and inhumane siege lasting nearly a decade that has broken an entire people, and that must come to an end. The only prayer I have left in good faith is that we can find a way to repent and bring an end to this massive injustice.
Danya Lagos is an incoming PhD student in Sociology at the University of Chicago and a current student at Yeshivat Hadar.