Think­ing about the Prophets: A Philoso­pher Reads the Bible

  • Review
By – November 27, 2020

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.

Discussion Questions