A rabbinic teaching has it that when the Temple was destroyed, the gift of prophecy was given to the wise (not to fools, as has also been suggested). This gift was given to the sages of the Talmud, who were deemed to have taken the place of the biblical prophets. History knows many women and men whose prophetic gifts have bestowed meaning and purpose to humanity throughout the ages. Amos Oz, the celebrated Israeli writer who died last month, was one of them.
Some of Oz’s many obituaries used the term “prophetic” to describe him. He was aptly named at birth after Amos, one of the great biblical prophets. Like his namesake, Amos Oz didn’t tell us what will happen, but what ought to happen. He urged us to always act justly and ethically. His was a voice of morality and integrity.
The biblical prophets were radical insiders. They went to the root of things. They wept for Jerusalem as they proclaimed its doom. So did Oz. “I love Israel,” he often declared, “even when I can’t stand it.” In addition to his novels, he also wrote thoughtful articles and books about the political and moral situation in his country, for which he himself fought in several wars.
Oz was critical of many of Israel’s current policies. As a result, like the prophets of long ago, he was vilified by his contemporaries. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, Oz’s high school classmate, said in his eulogy: “Not only were you not afraid to be in the minority and hold a minority opinion, but you weren’t even afraid to be called a traitor. On the contrary, you saw the word as a title with honour.”
Like several kings in biblical times who consulted contemporary prophets – but, alas, almost invariably ignored their sage counsel – Israeli prime ministers often consulted Oz. For example, he and the late Shimon Peres, one of the most influential Israeli statesmen, had a weekly telephone conversation about current affairs. Ehud Barak, a former chief of staff who later served both as prime minister and minister of defence, came to pay tribute at a gathering around Oz’s coffin in Tel Aviv. So did many other public figures, regardless of whether they shared Oz’s political views.
Oz’s politics centred around the conviction, as he’s reported to have put it in a speech in 1994 and repeated often thereafter, that the Israeli-Palestinian issue is “a clash between one very powerful claim and another no less powerful.” The passionate Zionist that he was, he believed that only a Jewish and a Palestinian state existing side by side could do justice to Zionism. Yes, this meant compromise, because, as he wrote, “the opposite of compromise is fanaticism and death.” Till his last breath, he urged us to choose life by fighting extremism.
Prof. Gerald Steinberg, writing in this paper shortly after the death of Amos Oz and admitting that Oz’s politics “was never my cup of tea, to put it mildly,” admitted that “his political voice was anchored on persuasion, increasingly insistent, but not to the point of haranguing and debasing those who reached different conclusions.” In this, Oz may have been milder than the prophets, but no less passionate and no less persuasive.
The world knew him first and foremost as Israel’s great novelist, having been translated into 45 languages and the recipient of numerous national and international prizes. I got to know him when he came to lecture at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto. Like others, I was deeply touched by his humanity. Though not a religious person – even Kaddish wasn’t said at his funeral – he had a deep appreciation of religion, its role in history and many of its exponents.
Perhaps prophets don’t have to be conventionally religious to heed the call of God and show us the way.