On a typical Shabbat, rabbinic sermons usually offer interpretive and moral teachings based on the weekly Torah portion. Often left unanalyzed, however, are the haftarah, texts drawn from prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Amos, and Hosea and read in tandem with the weekly parshah. In his Thinking about the Prophets: A Philosopher Reads the Bible, Kenneth Seeskin, a distinguished Jewish studies professor at Northwestern University and author of, among other works,Thinking about the Torah, aims to offer a corrective.
Building onThe Prophets, a seminal work by twentieth-century theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Seeskin seeks to convey the relevance of these texts to today’s moral public. After all, the questions these seers raised to their ancient Israelite audiences are no less relevant today; asking how observance of Jewish holidays enhances practitioners’ moral and ethical sensitivity, inspiring justice and assistance to the poor, and questioning the honesty of vendors in the marketplace are all still familiar struggles.
The words of the prophets resonate across time to such a degree that Martin Luther King Jr.‘s famous “I Have a Dream” speech even quoted the prophet Amos when he said: “we will not be satisfied ‘until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ ” Comparing the prophets, whose words of critique extended to kings, judges, priests and the general population, to contemporary whistle-blowers, Seeskin urges the reader to take their verses as calls to stand up for what is right, comfort the afflicted, and serve God with authenticity in today’s fraught and fractured public sphere.
These texts, he concludes, remind us that externalities matter less than honesty, compassion, courage, justice, peace and the ability to take responsibility for one’s actions in obeying God’s commandments and improving the world.
Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advisor to the Provost of Yeshiva University. He has edited or coedited 17 books, including Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity and Books of the People: Revisiting Classic Works of Jewish Thought, and has lectured in synagogues, Hillels and adult Jewish educational settings across the U.S.