Cassandra Misreads the Book of Samuel: (and other untold tales of the phrophets)
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Profiting from the Prophets Feb 11, 2009
By Val Karan PhD LLC
How refreshing it is to encounter a rabbi with impeccable credentials as a religious and secular scholar who can recast tales from the classic books of the prophets so that his students can gain a more imaginative, invigorating and inspiring perspective of the nature of prophecy. Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has both rabbinical ordination as well as a Ph.D. in Jewish history from Harvard. He first burst on the publishing scene in 2005 with a novel entitled Murderer in the Mikdash. Students in Jewish schools are all taught to believe in the coming of the Messiah or anointed one. Rothstein's first book is set in Jerusalem after the Messiah has arrived, revealing a startling but factually valid portrayal of what life might be like in the post messianic era.
Prophecy is another fundamental belief of Judaism. Maimonides, the medieval Jewish philosopher, has described prophecy as "an emanation sent forth by the Divine Being through the medium of the Active Intellect, in the first instance to man's rational faculty, and then to his imaginative faculty." Jewish philosophers have been less clear about the nature of prophecy. Opinions vary among scholars; some, for example, believe that prophets are individuals of superior character and temperament who, through deliberate preparation and effort, attain a state of heightened clairvoyance. Others believe prophets are ordinary individuals, not necessarily Jews or even humans, who are often unprepared for any such experience.
What is clear to all is that God implants into the prophets extraordinary and suprarational messages, often in dreams or trances. Such prophecy can be literally dangerous to one's health and well-being. Prophets require strong levels of courage in the face of frequent public condemnation and repudiation of their messages.
While there is a tradition that prophecy ended after the deaths of Haggai, Zachariah and Malachi, it seems clear to Maimonides that there is an obligation to listen to a legitimate prophet for all time. By this definition, the prophecy meter is still actively running; hence, as Rothstein believes, study of the prophets is intensely relevant even today. In his preface, Rothstein describes his mission of "getting God's Word heard and heeded" by drawing his reader to "reconsider again the project of prophecy and its legacy."
To do this, he parades before us at close range such luminary prophets of the Bible as Samuel, Obadiah, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Malachi, Zachariah, Haggai, and even Moses. We have a ringside seat to ancient dramas which suddenly have a very contemporary sound. Besides the prophets, Rothstein creates a cast of characters, some real and some imagined, all of whom talk with modern argot. We witness the prophets from the inside out, struggling to deliver their message amidst suspicion, doubt, and enmity.
Rothstein's writing style has definitely improved since his first book. His stories scintillate with irony, and he is concentrating more on descriptions of scenes and characters as well as credible dialogue. There is still some unevenness in the rhetoric; some sentences must be reread to be deciphered, for example, when Rothstein introduces names or events from nowhere into the narrative: "Baruch, son of Neriah, sighed again," is a clause in the very interesting tale of Jeremiah with no previous mention of said Baruch.
Sad to say, the tale that was least satisfying to me was the longest one and the one upon which the entire book is named. The story of Cassandra does deserve some notoriety because it highlights that prophecy was not limited to Jews. However, I would have preferred less attention paid to Cassandra and ancient Troy and more speculation about other Hebrew prophets such as Ezekiel.
Rothstein takes some backhanded swipes at my profession of psychology in several tales. For instance, the first sentence in the first story "You Can't Change Human Nature" which is set at the time of the exodus from Egypt begins with the intriguing statement, "Experts claimed family dinners brought everyone closer." The same story ends with "The experts didn't know squat." In "Doomsday Meteor is Coming" set in modern times, we are introduced to characters who ridicule the notion of studying the brainwaves of religious people to "revolutionize the psychology of religion."
Rather than try to defend the field of psychology against the attacks of Rothstein, I can readily admit that psychologists have little to offer in helping us understand such paranormal experiences as prophecy. To be sure, psychologists from the very beginning have shown interest in Biblical figures; Freud himself penned Moses and Monotheism. Nowadays, psychologists are less speculative and more apt, as I did in my doctoral study, to focus on observable behaviors, To be sure, parapsychology is a recognized discipline in my field that seeks to investigate the existence and causes of psychic abilities using the scientific method. For over a hundred years, researchers have conducted many experiments to test for evidence of precognition and psychokinesis, extrasensory perception, and remote viewing. The results, nonetheless, show no scientific justification for the existence of parapsychological phenomena.
Unless you include the fascinating research by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson which demonstrated the "Pygmalion Effect" with teachers and students, namely, that biased expectancies can essentially affect reality and create self-fulfilling prophecies as a result, we truly don't know squat when it comes to prophecy (and maybe a lot of other things, as well).
That being said, I can safely make one prediction that I'm quite sure will materialize: Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein will continue to produce quality literary works, and the best is yet to come!