The Schlemiel as Prophet (Take 1)

R. Johanan said: Since the Temple was destroyed, prophecy has been taken from prophets and given to fools and children. How given to fools? — The case of Mar son of R. Ashi will illustrate. He was one day standing in the manor of Mahuza4  when he heard a certain lunatic exclaim: The man who is to be elected head of the Academy in Matha Mehasia5  signs his name Tabiumi. He said to himself: Who among the Rabbis signs his name Tabiumi? I do. This seems to show that my lucky time has come. So he quickly went to Matha Mehasia. When he arrived, he found that the Rabbis had voted to appoint R. Aha of Difti as their head…


How has prophecy been given to children? A case in point is that of the daughter of R. Hisda. She was sitting on her father’s lap, and in front of him were sitting Raba and Rami b. Hama. He said to her: Which of them would you like? She replied: Both. Whereupon Raba said: And let me be the second.9  (Baba Batra 12B)

The Talmud passage cited above says that after the age of the prophets ended prophesy was passed on to children and fools.   Why children and fools?  One way of approaching this, a way which, I think, was taken up by some of the first Hasidic teachers and the first Yiddish writers on the schlemiel, was to see children and fools as being more simple and close to God and/or truth than adults.  Since adults live according to strict laws of custom, logic, and what Jacques Derrida would call “the proper,” they miss a truth or reality that supercedes reason and custom.

Against the claims made by Islamic and Jewish philosophers like Al-Farabi and Moses Maimonides, the Talmud shows that prophesy need not be based solely on reason.  For Maimonides, Moses was the greatest prophet because, he, unlike Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and others before him, didn’t relate to God through dreams or the Imagination.  Rather, Moses spoke to God, face-to-face; that is, in ways that are not mediated by the imagination or dreams.  Maimonides – like Al-Farabi – held that prophesy, for it to be true, must come through a perfected individual.  By that, he meant a person who has perfected his intellect.

Maimonides and Al-Farabi would most likely argue that the words of children and fools have nothing prophetic to them whatsoever because they are tainted by the imagination and dreams.  If anything, it would be the interpreter who has the upper hand since the interpreter can (for both Al-Farabi and Maimonides) discover the rational content of prophetic symbols.

Nonetheless, the Talmud says that children and fools have the keys to prophesy not Rabbis.


Children and fools are more receptive and are able to receive what, in Kabbalah, would be called a shefa (a divine influx).  The problem, however, is that children and fools will have a hard time translating such mystical or prophetic experiences into a shared language.  Perhaps this is why modern writers like Faulkner, Doestoevsky, Appelfeld, Grossman, Rushdie et al were so interested in writing from a child or fool’s perspective.

But they did this for one major reason: namely, they did it for us, for the reader to relive, translate, and perhaps even to mimic (we will return to this in another blog) what these fools are saying into a demand (and not simply a meaning) that impacts us, so to speak, in a mystical and prophetic manner.

But what is the point of this “impact”?   And what is the demand that is issued by a Schlemiel?  To be sure, schlemiels are usually very humble and undemanding characters.  Motl and Gimpel, for instance, don’t make any demands on anyone.

Prophesy, as Martin Buber understood it, has much to do with turning to and responding to God (with Teshuva).  The prophet screams out to his people from the midst of a crisis and draws them into it so that they can feel a “demand of the hour.”

Buber writes:

The prophet addresses persons who hear him, who should hear him.  He knows himself sent to them in order to place before them the stern alternatives of the hour.  Even when he writes his message or has it written, whether it is already spoken or is still to be spoken, it is always intended for particular men, to induce them, as directly as if they were hearers, to recognized their situation’s demand for decision and to act accordingly

(“Prophesy, Apocalyptic, and the Historical Hour”)

I would argue that if children and fools have the keys to prophesy, we should understand this to mean that their words, gestures, and actions are “always intended for particular men, to induce them…to recognize their situation’s demand for decision and to act accordingly.”

There is a problem, however.  Although, the schlemiel speaks to the heart, it is also possible that the message may be unclear and mystical.  As Gershom Scholem points out, the prophet often speaks directly to the heart, the mystic, however, is more complex. The message of the mystic must be interpreted.

Drawing on Scholem, I would suggest that a schlemiel is a mystical/prophetic type whose words and gestures may often speak to the heart yet, at times, they require interpretation.

By interpreting the words of the schlemiel, by mimicking or reliving them, we can be “induced” to “recognize” the “situation’s demand” and not simply their rational content.   The schlemiel gives us a sense of this immanent demand of the hour – of something that must be addressed, now.

Many modern and postmodern writers echo the Talmud’s claims about prophesy since they find the words of fools, children, and schlemiels can teach us about the “demand” of what is and what is to come.  The character’s simple (yet ironic) vision of things, although it misses the way things should “properly” be understood, can, when interpreted, disclose something odd, wonderful, and even horrifying about existence and time.

Many of my favorite novelists who use children or fools’ voices give me a sense of an ominous past, a fragile present, and a pressing future.

It is not for no reason, then, that the first major Hasidic tales by Rabbi Nachman popularized the Schlemiel as a simpleton.  Ruth Wisse, in The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, points out that Rabbi Nachman’s schlemiels were, in fact, the first literary schlemiels and had a major impact on Yiddish writers who took the Schlemiel as their main character in nearly all of their stories, plays, and novels.

But the demands of Rabbi Nachman and the Yiddishist writers differ greatly.

The schlemiel’s prophetic aspect had much to do with simple faith in God and in what is to come.  The demand, in Rabbi Nachaman’s short stories on the Schlemiel, is the demand of faith.  This, of course, is a joke for the majority of people who, as Rabbi Nachman understood, didn’t understand (or care to understand) the meaning of simple faith and love of God.   They had no interest in harkening to its demand or as Buber would say “the demand of the hour.”

For modern man, the demand of the hour is either not felt or it comes from somewhere else (not from God).

The irony of all this talk about demands being issued by a Jewish fool is that such a demand comes through an apprehension of the schlemiel’s absent-mindedness.  It is through a juxtaposition of absent-mindedness to the way things really “are” that we can feel the “impact” and the “demand” of the hour. 


For instance, when I.B. Singer’s Gimpel trusts everyone and they endlessly betray him by lying to him, this demand comes to the fore.

As I will show in future blogs, this demand may be felt in the most jarring ways, but, unlike Buber, I’m not so sure we can say that we will know how to “act accordingly” to the demand after we recognize it.

For instance, in Robert Walser’s stories or in Kafka’s stories, we hear a demand spoken to us through a number of different schlemiels.  But, as readers, as interpreters, we often don’t know what to do in response to these demands.

Moreover, its hard to figure out what exactly is demanded by way of these schlemiels.  If anything, sometimes the mimicking, interpreting, and reliving of a schlemiel’s odd life and observations can lead to a kind of paralysis.  S/he may be wrong, but is, for instance, the society or chorus that laughs at him any better?  Is it they who should change? Or is it we who should change? How about the schlemiel?  Perhaps it the case that we should act like the schlemiel?  But that would be ridiculous and irresponsible.  Right?  Perhaps s/he should remain the same and we should demand justice for this character?

6 thoughts on “The Schlemiel as Prophet (Take 1)

    • It all depends on how we interpret the prophet. I’d say the schlemiel as prophet as opposed to Buber and others, perhaps even Levinas, who might take offence to this. But I need to think through the Levinas case. I’ve written on it before but need to revisit it. Today, I wonder how Marc H. Ellis or say Cornel West would respond to me characterizing them as schlemiel’s of conscience or schlemiel prophets. It’s a great question. The line between schlemiel and prophet seems to be blurring these days

  1. The schlemiel as prophet seems related to the more general feature of unexpected characters harboring hidden talents theme in Jewish literature going back at least to early Rabbinic aggadot, but you can certainly find strains of it in Esther, in Yoseph (the archetypal schlemiel?), and also in Yaakov. This past weekend, at my Limmud NY talk on the character of the Magical Jew in medieval and modern fantasy literature, Marisa Harford observed that the character of the suffering messiah is hidden among the poor who change their bandages in the public square, and the figure of Elijah the prophet who mysteriously enters synagogues and stories as a traveler or beggar. Is the mysterious “Ish” who visits you at night, or by the banks of a river, actually an Angel? Or perhaps it is a שד in the guise of a man? The result, I think in Jewish storytelling, is that there are no “extras” — not in the story, and not in life. Every stranger you interact with may be a messenger sent to secretly test you, to fulfill some divine mission. So too, the simpleton and the child, whose innocuous or strange (often ignored) statements may lay hidden prophecies. The function, I imagine, is a cultural reminder, particular to Judaism, to not marginalize anyone — not the voices of our children, nor those of our “fools” or perhaps, in more polite company, our “visionaries.”

    • Unexpected characters harbouring hidden talents! I love your reading. In fact, there is a Hasidic tale cited by Walter Benjamin that hits on this. The gift of the stranger includes the gift of the schlemiel. I love this idea. And I love what you say around the end of the comment regarding care for all, including the fools of the community. They are strangers within the community. Also, The suggestion regarding the messianic figure is worthy of more inquiry and midrashic unfolding. I’ve been thinking about it, too.

  2. What came to mind first upon reading this post was “‘Pesi yaamin b’chol davar’ – zu Moshe.” The verse is from Mishlei (Proverbs) 14:15 – “A fool (simpleton) will believe anything.” I recalled, but didn’t know the source of, the addendum “zu Moshe” – “this refers to Moses.” So I consulted rabbi Google; and in the course of learning that this sentence is a paraphrase of Midrash Rabba (Shmot 3:1) I came across a plethora of tiresome online arguments about the relative merits of a rationalist, philosophical approach to Torah theology (chakirah) and simple faith (often pejoratively and, I might add, ignorantly referred to as ‘blind faith’) – emunah peshutah. Those discussions aside for the moment, the implication of this Medrashic equivalence is, to me, that the greatest prophet of all, who epitomizes Divine consciousness, is so precisely because he is, in the same breath, a simpleton. Your citation of Rabbi Yochanan’s take on prophecy, fools, and children begins with “Since the Temple was destroyed.” In that light I’d suggest that the same folly that is prerequisite to prophetic greatness in a Dor De’ah, an age of enlightenment, renders as a Schlemiel in exile. Considering the map of consciousness as developed in the Chabad Chassidic literature – which serves as metaphor and gateway to the understanding of the Seder Hishtalshelut, the kabbalistic map of reality – I am particularly (chronically) fascinated by the semi-permeable membrane that resides at the junction of the known and the unknowable, between our power of reason, our intellectual chops, and the power of creative imagination that is predicated upon the childlike willingness to not just play the fool, but surrender to inner folly. The avodah of transforming the folly of the sitra achra (call it self-delusion) into “shtut d’kedusha” – the folly of the holy – is what turns a schlemiel into a prophet. There is no dichotomy between reason and faith; they live (can in fact live in peace) just across the border of that aforementioned membrane, and can be mutually nourishing if one is willing to get over oneself. BTW a quick look this morning at this week’s Torah reading suggested to me that the prophetic talisman embedded in the High Priest’s breastplate – the “Urim v’Tumim” – spans that very terrain: Urim (Ohr = light) represents revelation, knowing, and Tumim (tam = simpleton) represents the proto-schlemiel. And of course the holy sanctuary and many of its vessels (including the Ark of the Covenenant) are constructed of “atzei shittim” – acacia wood – which the Chassidic masters point out is etymologically equivalent to “shtut” – folly. (Covered with gold – but that’s another discussion.)

    • Simcha, I find your reading of Mishlei to be fascinating. I really want to pursue this further. I’d also like to see if has any Medieval commentary by Rashi, Abarbanel, et al. I’ll look into it, but a little help is always welcome 😉 I love your descriptions of the permeable state and the transformation of regular into holy foolishness. I want to blog on this or perhaps you can’t do a guest post.

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