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Ani Ma'amin (I Believe) by Dion Futerman
Quatrefoil19 Upper (Habakkuk), The Lord Forces the Prophet to Write of the Doom of Babylon by Unknown French artist
The Prophet Habakkuk (called 'Lo Zuccone') by Donatello

Dion Futerman

Ani Ma'amin (I Believe), 2016, Graphite pencil on paper, 210 x 300 mm, Collection of the artist (?), © Dion Futerman

Unknown French artist

Quatrefoil19 Upper (Habakkuk), The Lord Forces the Prophet to Write of the Doom of Babylon, 13th century, Stone, Amiens Cathedral, West Facade, Photo: © Dr Stuart Whatling

Donatello

The Prophet Habakkuk (called 'Lo Zuccone'), 1423–35, Marble, h. 195 cm., Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence, Italy, Scala / Art Resource, NY

‘Do Not Let Go’

Comparative Commentary by

Donatello’s statue of Habakkuk has the air of someone burdened with serious questions. His searching gaze reflects a person who, as we see in the opening chapters of this prophetic book, is deeply troubled by the divine silence in the face of rampant violence.

In the text, the prophet complains that he has been engaged in protest for some time. The open mouth and tensed body of Donatello’s figure can be interpreted as a recognition of this protest. However, God has been unresponsive to his cry of ḥamas! (‘violence’ in Hebrew)—a distress call that should warrant an immediate response from anyone who is within earshot (see Job 19:7). The prophet concludes that the deleterious deity refuses to offer any aid, forcing the innocent to suffer helplessly. To make it worse, God’s lack of response promotes the slackening of Torah observance, paralyzing the course of justice.

Habakkuk’s remonstration brings forth a distinctive feature of the biblical discourses of expostulation. Unlike other tragic figures in ancient and modern literature, the prophet refuses to acquiesce to the caprice of fate or to the divine whim. He demands repair, and his demand recalls many servants of God, including Abraham, who interceded for the sinners of Sodom (Genesis 18:23–33); Jeremiah, who lamented on behalf of his generation (Jeremiah 8:18–22); and Job (Job 9:15–24).

The Lord provides a preliminary answer for Habakkuk and advises him to study the scenes of the international world. God is ‘rousing the Chaldeans’ (1:5). God is going to use them as the instrument of punishment. Their military might will dispense divine judgment. The divine answer leaves the prophet baffled, however. His question in verse 12 borders on sarcasm, when he says to God, ‘Are you not of old?’. The prophet finds God’s remedy neither to reflect a grasp of history nor to provide a durable resolution to the problem at hand. The prophet points out the irony of a perpetuation of violence being built into God’s administration of justice. To punish the wicked, the prophet argues, God seems to plan to call in those who are more wicked than they are.

Habakkuk is not going to let God off the hook easily. He is not going to settle for a facile argument that attempts to justify God’s way. The prophet climbs up the watch-post with determination and eagerness to receive a word from the Lord (2:1). God answers him again (2:2). In this exchange that simulates a conversation, God and the prophet are engaged in a shared project to defeat the injustice that threatens to prevail over the world. Hope is conceived and can then be conveyed to others, thanks to the prophet’s stubborn supplication.

God asks the prophet to ‘write the vision’ (2:2). The revelation will be plain and will be available to all who seek God. It has been heard in the countless locations where worshippers have gathered ever since—including the Temple in Jerusalem, the entrance of the Cathedral of Amiens, and the campanile of Florence Cathedral, where Habakkuk’s prophecies can be equated with the calling of the bells (the locations of the three artworks in this exhibition).

According to verses 3–4, the vision given to the prophet has to do with the end, which is sure to come even if it may seem to tarry. In the intervening period, ‘the righteous [shall] live by their faith’ (v.4b; the auxiliary verb added). Through the centuries, this counsel of faith has received several interpretations. For example, it may well be construed as a double-edged divine commandment that mandates believers to have faith in God and pursue their life with faithfulness.

Based on these verses, Moses Maimonides constructed his famous Thirteen Principles of Faith, each of which begins with ’ani ma’amin, echoing verse 4b. Over the centuries, the Jewish people have sung ’ani ma’amin to a number of tunes including the one that Rabbi Azriel David Fastag composed by humming it on the way to the death camp at Treblinka. The same tradition of ’ani ma’amin inspires Dion Futerman to illustrate the mournful prayer at the Western Wall in 2016. Grief is there, but the faithful shall not let go of hope, as the nineteenth-century Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav taught, ‘Do not despair. Do not despair. It is forbidden to despair’ ('Asur Lohayitiesh'). Even if the coming of the Messiah seems to tarry, the delay will not destroy the faith of the faithful.

Habakkuk the prophet juxtaposes the life of hope and faith with treachery, exploitation, violence, and a false sense of security in the world (2:5–13, 15–19). In sharp contrast to the pursuits of the wicked, the prophet lifts the final triumph of the glory of the Lord that will be plainly known ‘as the waters cover the sea’ (v.14), when the Lord’s presence will command silence over all the earth (v.20).

 

References

Rabbi Nachman. 'Asur Lohayitiesh (Heb.)', Songs of Rabbi Nakhman of Breslov (Jerusalem: Gal paz)