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October 21, 2015 6:47 am

Exploring and Explaining the Jewish Prophets

avatar by Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman / JNS.org

Moses pleading with the Israelites. Photo: Wiki Commons.

Moses pleading with the Israelites. Photo: Wiki Commons.

JNS.org – What did the prophets say and why does it matter today? Rabbi Dr. Peter Rosenzweig, a clinical psychologist and former professor at Northwestern University in Chicago, provides the answers in his new two-volume series.

Rosenzweig’s book “What Did the Prophets Say?”—which came out just after Passover 2015 — is the first of its kind to tackle the lessons gleaned from all 48 Jewish biblical prophets and seven prophetesses. What makes the books even more unique is that they are based on three years of classes taught to adult businesspeople, intellectuals and professionals at the Bais Chaim Dovid Orthodox synagogue in Lincolnwood, a suburb of Chicago. Many of the participants had limited backgrounds, which barred them from accessing the prophets’ lessons earlier in their lives. In the books, readers become virtual members of the class, as it is written with the students’ questions, challenges, and insights at the center.

Rosenzweig, the child of Holocaust survivors and a new Israeli immigrant, uses the texts to springboard into a better understanding of the modern Jewish world. While he tells JNS.org that he was careful not to psychoanalyze the prophets, which seems logical given his background, “being someone who is very involved in people’s emotional lives and struggles, it was important to me to see how that perspective would help us understand what people were like during the time of the nevi’im (prophets). What did people like Shmuel (Samuel) encounter in the society in which he was living?”

In his book, Rosenzweig notes that there were very few people in Tanakh (Torah, Prophets, and Writings) who spoke to God on such an intimate and soulful level as King David. But then he also talks to the drama of the relationship between King David and Bathsheba.

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“All of these aspects [of the prophets] are so rich with human conflict and there were tremendous riddles. Take Yishayahu HaMelech (King Isaiah). He was literally raised on the ceiling of the Holy of Holies. How can a person like that be a great king on the one hand and then, at the end of his life, do some things about which the prophets are very critical?” explains Rosenzweig.

Dr. Miriam Gutmann was a member of Rosenzweig’s class. She says her teacher “had a very personal way of approaching the narrative, which would make it take off from the text to more spiritual and philosophical concepts….This was high-powered and thought-provoking.”

That same content appears in the books.

Gutmann also notes that each of the participants would bring in their own thoughts and contributions based on their life experiences and level of learning. This made the class “intellectually challenging — the class and Peter rose to the occasion.”

She continues, “Peter is unique and his book reflects that.”

Bella Heching says she had a similar experience. She tells JNS.org that while she had studied about the prophets in high school, Rosenzweig’s insights “tied together ideas and views that is much more alive.”

“If you didn’t know anything, he could still teach you something. And if you did know something, he could enhance your knowledge,” she says. “His book is excellent.”

Rosenzweig says he never considered himself a writer, but he felt a need to sit down and compose this book, which runs from the Book of Joshua until Kings Two (lecture 146). He hopes that other Jewish communal leaders (like some of those that attended his class) will be able to benefit from it.

“I speak with these leaders through the eyes of the nevi’im (prophets) — the ways the prophets handled the people, and handled disappointment as Jewish leaders,” he says. “These are not just books of written and translated texts. They teach us something about Jewish life in general.:

What Did the Prophets Say” is published by Targum Press and available in several Jewish bookstores and through Amazon.com.

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