The Schlemiel as Prophet (Take 2)

In yesterday’s blog, we learned from the Talmud Baba Batra that once the last prophet died, prophesy was given over to children, fools, and, as I explained, schlemiels.

To understand what this meant, I cited Martin Buber’s reading of the prophet.

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 recognize their situation’s demand for decision and to act accordingly

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

Following Buber’s lead, I argued that “if children and fools have the keys to prophesy, we should understand this to mean that their words, gestures, and actions – and not just the words, gestures, and actions of Buber’s prophet – are ‘always intended for particular men, to induce them…to recognize their situation’s demand for decision and to act accordingly.’

Even though both the prophetic schlemiel and Buber’s prophet look to “induce” human beings to “recognize their situation’s demand for decision and to act accordingly,” the prophetic schlemiel and Buber’s prophet are far from having much in common.

They are not simply different; they seem to be opposites.

I noted yesterday that one of the major differences between them had to do with the way they communicate with ‘the people’: a schlemiel communicates obliquely, while the prophet communicates directly.

Moreover, for Buber the prophet is filled with a pathos which is focused on “the demand of the hour.” The prophet is focused and vigilant.

In contrast, the schlemiel isn’t filled with such a pathos and lacks such a focus: the schlemiel is innocent, naïve, and often distracted.

To understand the prophetic schlemiel, we must further pronounce this contrast.

By doing so, we will be able to understand that it is we, the readers, viewers, and interpreters of the schlemiel, who, in seeing his comic relationship with a world that is against him/her, apprehend the “demand of the hour.”

The schlemiel’s lack of pathos, focus, and distraction shares prophesy with us. Their absence gives us a sense of astonishment. Now, if the schlemiel is a prophet, we would have to say that if it weren’t for the schlemiel, we wouldn’t be able to, as Buber writes, recognize “our” situation’s demand for decision and to act accordingly.

But how could we recognize the “situations demand for decision” and “act accordingly” through the schlemiel? How can a schlemiel help us to apprehend our demanding situation? That is, how could it help us to apprehend “the demand of the hour?” If the schlemiel makes no direct impassioned plea, how could this be?

Through a schlemiel prophet, as opposed to Buber’s prophet, this demand is heard but oftentimes it is unclear. And since the demand is unclear (or complicated), our “decision” to “act accordingly” is also indefinite. This is the situation we face, after the end of prophesy. If the Talmud is right, then perhaps Buber needs to be reread. Perhaps its time that we revise his definition of prophesy to include the new harbingers of prophesy: children, fools, and schlemiels.

To do this, we need to clearly understand what he means by prophesy.

To my mind, Abraham Joshua Heschel provides us with a way of understanding what Buber means. Moreover, Heschel can help us to figure out what the prophet is and does.

Abraham Joshua Heschel has a lot in common with Buber. He argues that the “nature of man’s response to the divine corresponds to the content apprehension of the divine.” Buber would say that this “content apprehension” is the apprehension of the “demand.”

Heschel calls it the apprehension of divine “pathos.” He also names the prophet’s response: “his response is one of sympathy.”

Divine pathos and prophetic sympathy constitute the alpha and omega of the prophet’s life:

To the prophet the pathos was the predominant and staggering aspect of the divine. Even if in the first place the people’s practical compliance with the divine demand was the purpose of his mission, the inner personal identification with the divine pathos was…the central feature of his life.

Like Walt Whitman or Allan Ginsburg, who, oftentimes repeat things over and over in their poetry so as to create a liturgical or meditative effect, Heschel reiterates pathos and sympathy as if they were the only things that have meaning:

The divine pathos is reflected in his attitude, hopes, and prayers. He was dominated by an intimate concern for the divine concern. Sympathy, then, is the essential mode in which the prophet responds to the divine situation.

And as the passage goes on, Heschel becomes more passionate. He dramatizes the essence of this “overwhelming” encounter with God’s pathos, which should ultimately result in the “courage to act against the world.”

The pathos of God is upon him. It moves him. It breaks out in him like a storm in his soul overwhelming his inner life, his thoughts, his feelings, wishes, and hopes. It takes possession of his heart and mind, giving him the courage to act against the world.

Heschel equates courage with prophetic vigilance. The prophet is awake to suffering and evil while the world is asleep. His words awaken us:

Like a scream in the night is the prophets word. The world is at east and asleep, while the prophet is hit by a blast from heaven. No one seems to hear the distress in the world; no one seems to care when the poor is suppressed.

In the following passage, Heschel dramatizes prophetic hypersensitivity:

A single crime – to us it is slight, but to the prophet – a disaster. The prophet’s scream which sounds hysterical to us is like a subdued sigh to him. Exaggeration to us is understatement to him.

At this point, and in response to these passages, we need to ask some simple questions:

1) Does the schlemiel, like the prophet, need “courage” to act against the world?

2) Or does the schlemiel naturally act against the world unbeknownst to himself?

3) Does the schlemiel respond like the prophet responds to reality?

4) Does the schlemiel have pathos?

5) Or is it the reader who does?

6) Is the Schlemiel Vigilant awake while other people are asleep?

7) Is he traumatized by “a single crime” and see it as a “disaster?”

8) Does the schlemiel scream for justice?

9) Are his words “like a scream”?

Let’s try to answer these questions.

First of all, the schlemiel doesn’t need courage to act against the world. Because if a schlemiel doesn’t, to begin with, understand the world or recognize it’s evil, it doesn’t need courage to “act against it.”

S/he is absent-minded and unbeknownst to him/herself s/he acts against the world simply by misunderstanding it.

In response, the world, in most schlemiel stories, novels, plays, and films, laughs at him.

True, the Jewish fool is driven by a passion – but it is the passion of distraction.

The only way the Schlemiel’s words can prophetically scream at us, because the schlemiel can’t, is if they are read against the world. And this requires us, as readers, to relive this tension between the schlemiel and the world.

This requires us to relive and interpret the schlemiel’s gestures, words, and actions.

For in doing so, we may be able to experience the “demand of the hour.”

That way we can, perhaps, act. It all depends on how we read this character. This reading, assuming it is possible, is what we will call prophesy. It is given to us as a gift, so to speak, by the schlemiel.

This reading should bring us close enough to ‘the demand of the hour,’ to know better what our options are.

More to the point, we can say that the schlemiel shares this demand with us. However, it is only shared if we read the schlemiel’s oblique words, gestures, and actions against the world. And the more we pronounce this tension, the more the demand will be pronounced. This reading, this possibility, can expose us to the “demand of the hour.”

How we act in relation to “the hour” is another question.

Each hour may be the last. And each situation is different. What is prophetically demanded or required in relation to that hour is unique, unrepeatable, and unpredictable.

By closely reading the schlemiel, prophesy and the hour can be shared. Or as Derrida would say in his essay on Paul Celan entitled “Shibboleth,” the hour (what Derrida, reading Celan’s poems calls the date) is or can be partage (shared).

The schlemiel comically shares the demand of the hour, obliquely. The laugh that laughs at the laugh, the subtitle of this blog (which comes out of Samuel Beckett) participates in this sharing. It is a type of interpretation or reliving that laughs at the laugh that laughs at the schlemiel. This laughter is – so to speak – the laughter of the hour. (We will return to this idea in the very near future.)

In my next blog entry (or the one after, as tomorrow is Purim!), I will provide an example of such sharing and such laughter.

So sayeth the schlemiel, the lord of dreams!

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