Tikkun Magazine, July/August 2010

Prophetic Courage in an Imperial Age

by Mordecai Schreiber
Lexington Books, 2010

Review by Barry L. Schwartz

Shortly before his death, Abraham Joshua Heschel gave an interview with NBC News correspondent Carl Stern for the television show The Eternal Light. Heschel talked extensively about the ancient prophets of Israel. His description of prophets as those who combine "a very deep love, a very powerful dissent, painful rebuke, with unwavering hope," captures the essence of the prophetic persona better than anything I have ever come across.

Heschel went on to explain how writing a book on the prophets changed his life. He explained how he was compelled to go beyond the comfort of academia "to be involved in the affairs of man, in the affairs of suffering man." Then he added, "And I would like to say that one of the saddest things about contemporary life in America is that the prophets are unknown. No one knows the prophets."

Not much has changed in the three-and-a-half decades since Heschel's death. As Rabbi David Polish recently lamented:

We are, of course, the people of the Book. But truth be told, the fact that we are "of the Book" does not mean we necessarily read the book. There are whole parts of our own scripture that are virtually alien to most of us—even the most learned. Most Jews who hear the snatches of the Prophets that are included in our worship services as haftarot seem to lose focus as they are being read. We regard them as sacred, but they do not fully make sense to us.

Take Jeremiah, for example. How much do we really know about him? To read him straight through is tough—maybe not quite as hard as Ezekiel, but trying and disorienting nonetheless. Yet it is our loss. Jeremiah's life story is compelling, and his powerful challenge to domestic hubris and colonial imperialism resonates in our age: "See, you are relying on illusions that are of no avail. Will you steal and murder and commit adultery and swear falsely ... and then come and stand before Me in this House, which bears my name and say, we are safe?" (7:8-10)

Books like Mordecai Schreiber's The Man Who Knew God: Decoding Jeremiah are important because they clue us in on what we are missing. Schreiber's series of essays may lack a coherent whole; I don't think he offers a compelling biography of the prophet. Some of his re-created scenes feel contrived, and his concluding homilies pedantic. However, the author does an admirable job of elucidating the remarkable historical significance of the prophet for Jews and Christians. Among his salient points:

  • Jeremiah was the pioneer of pure monotheistic Judaism.
  • Jeremiah was the first proponent of individual (vs. communal) ethical accountability.
  • Jeremiah was the pivotal teacher of Torah to the masses.
  • Jeremiah was the historical model for Jesus' suffering servant ethos.

Yet when all is said and done, what strikes us most deeply in our kishkas about Jeremiah is his resolve in the face of suffering and his true embodiment of prophetic courage. Jeremiah would have none of the pseudo-religious revivals sweeping his country. He decried hypocrisy at every level and paid for it in years of emotional torment, scorn, imprisonment, and exile. The personal cost is hard to fathom; Schreiber even posits that Jeremiah broke with his own father and never married due to his relentless pursuit of the truth. Through it all, he did have his loyal disciple and scribe Baruch ben Neriah by his side. He told Baruch to keep writing. And that is why Jeremiah, a pariah in his own day, lives for the ages.

Barry L. Schwartz is a rabbi, author, and activist. His latest book, Judaism's Great Debates, will be published next year.

Schwartz, Barry L. 2010. Prophetic Courage in an Imperial Age. Tikkun 25(4): 68

tags: Books, Judaism, Reviews  
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