Path of the Prophets: The Ethics-Dri­ven Life

Rab­bi Bar­ry L. Schwartz
  • Review
By – March 20, 2018

Path of the Prophets: The Ethics Dri­ven Life by Rab­bi Bar­ry L. Schwartz intro­duces the read­er to eigh­teen bib­li­cal fig­ures who per­son­i­fy Jew­ish val­ues. The selec­tion includes those who we com­mon­ly con­sid­er prophets — such as Jere­mi­ah, Isa­iah, Jon­ah, and Eli­jah — but also includes per­son­al­i­ties such as Abra­ham, Judah, Ruth, and Han­nah — bib­li­cal char­ac­ters who Schwartz clas­si­fies as prophets because their words and deeds reflect the prophet­ic yearn­ing for righteousness.

Each vignette opens with a first-per­son rewrit­ing of the prophet’s life and key expe­ri­ences. It then moves to close read­ing of the orig­i­nal bib­li­cal nar­ra­tive and analy­sis by com­men­ta­tors from sev­er­al dif­fer­ent eras, and across the spec­trum of Jew­ish thought. Schwartz ends each chap­ter with an expla­na­tion of the prophet’s rel­e­vance for today’s read­ers. Path of the Prophets con­cludes with a study guide, which makes the book acces­si­ble to edu­ca­tors who would like to uti­lize it in the class­room or a dis­cus­sion group.

The chap­ter on Shiphrah, one of the mid­wives who res­cued Israelite chil­dren from the hands of Pharaoh, is titled Shiphrah’s Defi­ance: The Path of Civ­il Dis­obe­di­ence.” As the name sug­gests, Schwartz rec­og­nizes the hero­ism of this under­ap­pre­ci­at­ed mid­wife as a protest against per­ceived injus­tice in the spir­it of Abra­ham.” The author likens Shiphrah’s act to an Israeli sol­dier dis­obey­ing a com­mand­ing offi­cer when that officer’s orders are unjust. He also under­stands Shiphrah’s refusal to be a will­ing par­tic­i­pant in infan­ti­cide as a pre­cur­sor to the work of Thore­au, Gand­hi, King, and Man­dela. These fig­ures enno­ble us with the courage of their con­vic­tions” and defy author­i­ty for the sake of justice.”

Anoth­er chap­ter focus­es on Ezra, who led the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty that returned to Israel after the Baby­lon­ian Exile. Schwartz describes Ezra as an edu­ca­tor par excel­lence, recon­nect­ing the peo­ple with the Torah. He also casts Ezra as a link between Moses and Rab­bi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who rebuilt Jew­ish life fol­low­ing the destruc­tion of Jerusalem in the Rab­binic Age. The Torah rev­o­lu­tion of Ezra,” Schwartz writes, reaf­firms the cen­tral notion of covenant that cours­es through the Hebrew Bible … It com­mences the process of trans­la­tion and inter­pre­ta­tion of scrip­ture that lies at the heart of Rab­binic Judaism.” The chap­ter con­cludes by posi­tion­ing Ezra as a cen­tral fig­ure in devel­op­ing the mod­ern under­stand­ing of Jews as a Peo­ple of the Book.”

Path of the Prophets: The Ethics Dri­ven Life is an inter­est­ing and acces­si­ble read. It sheds new light on bib­li­cal char­ac­ters and their influ­ence in Judaism’s tra­di­tion of eth­i­cal monothe­ism. It allows for even a well-versed read­er to appre­ci­ate anew Judaism’s role in speak­ing for right­eous­ness and help­ing to repair the world.

Jonathan Fass is the Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of Edu­ca­tion­al Tech­nol­o­gy and Strat­e­gy at The Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion Project of New York.

Discussion Questions