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Norman Podhoretz: not a prophet but the son of prophets.

Twenty years ago, I had the opportunity of asking the late Frank Talmage (Ph.D. Harvard in Jewish Studies and an expert on the Bible who was teaching at the University of Toronto) what he thought about the then spate of books that were being published on Scripture by literary folk.

Talmage, a scholar and a gentleman, replied with an eloquent though unspoken response by tossing his head in an ever so slight dismissive gesture. It was clear what he meant: he didn't appreciate dilettantism, however shrewd or ingenious. The study of the Hebrew Bible was serious business for him, and it required disciplined professionals.

If Frank Talmage had had the opportunity of reading Norman Podhoretz's The Prophets, * he would have altered his position on the matter, for the former editor of Commentary and one of America's leading literary and political critics has scripted a view of the Hebrew prophets that is original, provocative, and contemporary in its parsing of the grammar in the messages of those great transmitters of Hebraic values.

His book is original, not in the revolutionary Einsteinian sense, but rather in the sense that Pascal, the 17th-century philosopher-scientist, understood the term when he wrote of his own extraordinary contributions to physics, philosophy, and religion: "Let no one say that I am unoriginal: the order is new."

Podhoretz's stunning work is all the more astonishing when one reads that he returned to study the prophetic message after a hiatus of some 50 years, during which he was occupied with classes at Columbia University, studies in England, and afternoon sessions at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. Then there was that 35 years at Commentary where he edited (and wrote) some of the most trenchant essays on Jewish culture and offered coruscating articles on more general themes dealing with aesthetics, music, art, religion, and politics.

As it turns out, these aforementioned rubrics reach a congruence in Podhoretz's survey of the prophets of Israel, whom he analyzes with a magisterial command of both the secondary sources in Bible studies and with the tools of the modern instruments of literary dissection. Podhoretz's wide reading in comparative literature, politics, and history provides a rich seeding ground for an exposition of the prophetical teachings that are as refreshing as they are provocative.

There are surprises in his bold reconstruction of that remarkable eighth-century BCE epoch when the mighty voices of Hebrew prophecy burst forth. Podhoretz offers us those voices in the King James English translation of the Bible, which, despite its smoothing out of the stylistic differences in the different prophetic works, he deems the most faithful rendering in English of the rhythm, syntax, cadence, and locutions of the original. At the same time, Podhoretz is aware of the mischief that crept into the Christologically tinted KJV, and there are many footnotes in the text where the author quibbles with the KJV's translations of difficult Hebrew passages.

There is also a number of unexpected challenges in the Podhoretz scenario to well-established scholarly icons. Although he quotes frequently from Yechezkel Kaufmann and somewhat less so from Abraham Joshua Heschel, two of the greatest names in 20th-century Jewish scholarship, Podhoretz is not reticent in criticizing their work. Kaufmann, he argues, was too adamant in insisting that the Israelites were fervent monotheists from the very first stages of their confederacy. Podhoretz cites the frequent prophetical denunciations of idolatry as evidence to the contrary. As for Heschel's argument that the message of the prophets was an "octave too high" for the People of Israel, Podhoretz counters that such a characterization creates a distance between the prophets and the people, the very people to whom the message was directed.

Podhoretz also directs our attention, in a surprising way, to the fact that not all the prophets of Israel are found in the conventional collection of books bearing their names. Thus there are engaging sections in the first half of the book on Moses, Joshua, Nathan, Elijah, and Elisha. In studying their respective roles, Podhoretz compares and contrasts them with the "official" prophets and shows how their messages were confined to more restricted circles. The author does make the rather astute observation that, on a comparison grid, Joshua's stopping of the sun is an example of one-upmanship that not even Moses accomplishes! Another of Podhoretz's subtle notations is that the voices of blessing and execration that are heard in Leviticus, and which are magnified in Deuteronomy, are redolent of the denunciatory rhetoric of the former and later prophets of Israel.

One of the most important questions that are posed in this fine volume pivots on the impermanence of the prophetic voice. Why is it that in one century long ago the Hebrew prophets emerged onto the history of Israel, delivered their dramatic messages, and then developed a laryngitis that has muted their voices ever since? This question is a little like asking why the great composers burst into prominence in the 18th and 19th centuries and then disappeared from the musical world. While we are still seeking a satisfactory answer to the second question, Podhoretz offers us a reason for the first. The prophets of Israel, he argues, came onto the scene to confront an unprecedented collision between Israel and major imperial states and to show that the Deity was using those states as a foil to place in relief the chosenness of the people that was to dedicate its life to mitzvot, a ritual-ethical system whose values could not be compromised. The high voice of prophecy dissipated, however, when Judaism began to be regulated by complex legal structures enacted by the rabbinic tradition.

One of the leitmotifs that courses through Podhoretz's inquiry into the prophets is precisely the ritual versus the ethical debate, as it pertains especially to sacrifices. In his forays into Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, Podhoretz quotes many a passage in which the prophet denounces sacrifices. These passages, lifted willy-nilly from the Biblical text, have served for generations of Christian exegetes (as well as of liberal Jewish scholars) as "proof" that the prophets were evolutionary in their theological thinking and that the critique of sacrifices was intended to show that only a pure and refined ethical system cum spirituality constituted the supreme desideratum for the prophets. Podhoretz takes issue with this interpretation. He shows that the prophetic attack on sacrifices was based on the assumption that they had an absolute value. But sacrifice without ethical conduct was impermissible. Moreover, Podhoretz adduces numerous passages from the prophets that display an affection for properly motivated sacrifices.

This reviewer has discovered three strains of interpretive modalities in Podhoretz's instructive treatise. In the first, the author offers a derivative commentary on technical problems in the text. Using an eclectic collection of Bible scholars, Jewish and Christian--Greenberg, Heschel, Bruegemann, Bright, Kaufmann, Childs, Gottwald, Blenkinsopp (the latter is the most frequently quoted scholar)--Podhoretz ushers the reader into problems of chronology, geography, history, and politics. He shares with us, often in a lighthearted way, the controversies that drive scholars into near intellectual apoplexy --the order in which the prophets appear in the Hebrew wad Christian versions of the Bible, whether there were one, two, or three (or more) Isaiahs, and whether some of the later prophets engaged in a pious and unconscious plagiarism of their predecessors. Podhoretz sails brilliantly, with the aid of others, into the storms of controversy surrounding Hosea's marriage to a woman of ill repute and Ezekiel's posture and diet. The author often expresses an honest dismay at ever really understanding some of the esoteric Hebrew vocabulary deployed by the prophets. One gets the impression that he has a lot of fun pitting one sage Bible commentator against another in an attempt to fathom idiosyncratic texts.

In this arena, Podhoretz shows clearly that he is intimately familiar with the scholarly literature on the prophets and is able to present cogent digests of disparate views. But where he really shines is in those parts of the book where he unleashes his not inconsiderable literary talents in presenting explications de texte of the language of the prophets, which is, of course, poetic speech. In his section on the First Isaiah (chapters 1-39) Podhoretz echoes the view of an Orthodox commentator who allowed the view that considering Isaiah's "... loftiness of thought, beauty of diction, and rhetorical force, the Book occupies a place of its own." Podhoretz adds that Isaiah had some pretty stiff competition from Amos, Hosea, and Micah;
 But he is more consistent in the overwhelming power
 that is generated by an imagination expressing itself
 through compressed verses that somehow keep escaping
 the bounds of their incredible brevity ... exploding
 into spectacular flashes of light that blind the eyes with
 their brilliance and sear[ing] the mind and the soul
 with their heat.


Another instance, among examples too numerous to mention, where Podhoretz waxes eloquent is found in a pithy comment on Jeremiah's scathing attack on Israel as a wanton whore:
 The metaphor of the whore plying her trade in these particular
 haunts of nature worship and fertility cults makes
 for a very rich synthesis, especially pitted against the lingering
 memory of the beautiful young bride. In one
 densely packed image we get pulsating embodiment of
 the idea that idolatry, being an act of infidelity to God, is
 both a great sin against Him and a breeder of degeneracy
 in the sinner.


The third exegetical modality that Podhoretz grafts onto his narrative is a pervasive philosophical meditation on the universal versus the particular. Years ago, in his prematurely autobiographical memoir, Making It, Podhoretz showed, in a discussion of his days at Columbia University, that all universal values ultimately proceed from parochial roots. His reinforcement of this idea comes through clearly in the sections on the two Isaiahs, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel where Israel's particular "tribalism," its sacrificial system, and spiritual ethos give birth to a grand design in which the glory that trails behind the prophets touches all nations. For Podhoretz, there is no conflict between the particular and the universal. To the prophets, "it is a given that God has chosen Israel to be a light unto the nations, but that the light will shine with full radiance only when Israel, securely restored in Zion, rebuilds His 'house' on His 'holy mountain' and then obeys all his laws and statutes."

At the end of his chronicle of the prophets, Podhoretz adds a 46-page epilogue, which he calls "The Prophets and Us." This gem of a statement stands both as a summing up of his thoughts and as a separate inquiry into the purpose and meaning of the Hebrew prophetic tradition. He notes in the first part of his interrogatory that Jews, even synagogue-going Jews get only snippets of the prophetic writings in the haftarah selections on Shabbat and only disciplined students really get to grapple with the poetics of Isaiah and Jeremiah. (Yeshiva students, he might have added, get the prophets only through the filter of the Talmudic rabbis). But even those who are acquainted with the texts are wont to ask what the prophets can say to us today. Podhoretz says that "their running response to the social, political, and historical realities of the world around them," covers both the big issues of empire and the small issues of marketplace honesty, and they certainly do speak to us.

Some will no doubt assert that Podhoretz's exegesis of the prophets smacks more of eisegesis (in this case, personal neoconservative political views) than of objective interpretation. There is no gainsaying that all interpreters of literary texts inevitably insert themselves into their narratives. It is a question of degree. In this book, Podhoretz clearly shows that the multiple messages of the prophets, which he has explored and explicated with finesse and understanding, have helped mold his politico-religious world view and not vice versa. Moreover, in this aforementioned epilogue, Podhoretz takes great pains to show that there is no utility in converting the prophets into latter-day spokesmen for moral rearmament. The prophets, he emphasizes, must be seen in terms of their own history, geography, and self-understanding. That perception enhances rather than diminishes their impact.

But the "exhortations to justice, righteousness, compassion for the poor and the widow and the orphan and the stranger" are relevant "so long as we look at them exactly where they are in the soil in which they are planted, and so long as we resist uprooting and turning them into abstractions hanging in the air or standing alone as self-sufficient unto themselves." Thus when the prophets speak of those who use sacrifices or ritual to cover up moral failings, they speak directly to the sinfulness of modern society, which has erected altars to the gods of mammon, permissive sexuality, and a moral relativism. They also speak truth to power in insisting that the great empires of the past (as well as those of today) present themselves as self-made constructs, while they serve only the dictates of the divine spirit that regulates the moral conduct of the universe just as the laws of physics regulate the natural law. Podhoretz suggests, moreover, that the search among the physicists for the answers to ultimate questions (which seem to resist scientific endeavors) reminds us of the prophets' (the Pentateuch's and Job's) cautious advice that there are nistarot--hidden things--to which humankind will never be privy.

The classical prophets of Israel now have a classical expositor--Norman Podhoretz.

* The Prophets: Who They Were, What They Are, by Norman Podhoretz. New York: Free Press, 2002, 390 pp., $30.00.

ARNOLD AGES is Emeritus Professor of French Language and Literature, University of Waterloo and Scholar-in-Residence, Beth Tzedec Congregation, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
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Author:Ages, Arnold
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Date:Jan 1, 2004
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