The Jewish Prophet, by Michael Shire

The Jewish Prophet: Visionary Words from Moses and Miriam and to Henrietta Szold and A. J. Heschel
Rabbi Dr. Michael J. Shire
Jewish Lights, 2001

Reviewed by Rabbi Jason Miller in Conservative Judaism

With this wonderful book from British author Michael Shire, I found myself in a dilemma.  Should I keep this volume on my bookshelf in the art section or the leadership section?  Should I place it with other books about biblical figures or with biographies of Jewish philosophers?  This book is the definition of “multi-faceted.”  One can read it from cover to cover in one sitting, or use it as a reference about the lives of important individuals of the Jewish faith.

This beautifully illustrated collection of Jewish prophecy in the biblical, medieval, and modern periods features the lives and teachings of thirty women and men.  Some of these individuals are well known prophets of the Jewish people, while others are not traditionally labeled as such, but after reading their stories, it is clear why such an appellation is appropriate.  There is no doubt that Moses and Isaiah are prophets, but it is not until reading this book that the prophetic contributions of such individuals as Leo Baeck and Solomon Ibn Gabirol are realized.  What is more is that Shire has included over 100 full-color illustrations from medieval Hebrew manuscripts acquired from the British Library.  Enjoying the rich, colorful illuminations brings to mind Shire’s beautiful Illuminated Haggadah with reproductions of medieval haggadot from the same collection.

Throughout Jewish history, members of our faith have bravely stood up to speak God’s message and connect our people closer to God, even when their vision was unpopular among the masses.  Each of the thirty individuals described by Shire has contributed in their own unique way to the continuity of the Jewish people over the ages.  Each selection contains a brief account of the prophetic life of the individual, including how the prophet was viewed both in his own time as well as posthumously.  Shire includes some of the prophets’ most meaningful words; selected from biblical literature, speeches, correspondence, and published material.

The Jewish Prophet serves as a stunning inspiration for us today when we no doubt could benefit from prophetic leadership.  The book is a lasting tribute to the energy these prophets displayed in their own life, and serves as a beacon for us to continue their passion to make the world a better place – l’taken olam b’makhut shadai.  Each of these women and men possessed the leadership skills necessary to encourage the members of the community to lead a moral and spiritual life.  Throughout their prophetic reign, they went to great lengths to criticize the evils of society and root out corruption among those in power, often at tremendous risk.

The author acknowledges that some may perceive “prophet” as a controversial appellation for several of his choices; however, each of these leaders demonstrated a special category of kedushah and action that greatly benefited the Jewish people.  Perhaps this outlook is most evident in Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s classic study of the prophets, in which he wrote that “the prophet’s eye is directed towards the contemporary scene; the society and its conduct are the main theme of his speeches.  Yet his ear is inclined to God.”  Shire, like Heschel, understands that a different understanding of prophet includes figures who witness the world around them with outstanding passion.  Heschel understood that the prophet is a person rather than a microphone.  The prophets’ had the difficult task of serving as a refuge when the Jewish community was in distress; using his voice and vision to sustain the faith of the people.

It is all too easy for us to paint the prophets with a broad stroke of the brush.  In this volume, however, Shire has depicted thirty prophets as unique individuals whose prophesies are as diverse as the times in which they lived.  Dr. Ismar Schorsch writes, “since religion is the human response to the experience of the sacred, the range of dispositions determines the variety of responses.  Some perceive God visually and others auditorily, some rationally and others mystically, some through music, others through poetry.  The endlessly fascinating testimonies in Torah and Tanakh, Talmud and Midrash to this human encounter of the Divine celebrates the tapestry of human typologies.  Or in the words of the Rabbis: ‘The same signal came to many prophets, but no two prophets delivered it the same way’ (B.T. Sanhedrin 89a).”

Certainly, Shire is not the first to consider some of these unlikely individuals to be prophets.  Janusz Korczak, the physician, educator, and children’s rights campaigner set up a children’s hospital to care for the sick and dying he found in the street, and risked his own life to provide medicine and food for these children.  He could have escaped from the Nazis, but instead he chose to remain with his two hundred orphans who eventually perished with him in the gas chambers.  Indeed, to the orphans in Korczak’s care, he was a caring and devoted prophet.

In a 1904 article in the Viennese ‘Our Hope’ Magazine, Theodor Herzl wrote that “in Zionism, as I understand it, there is contained not only the striving for a legally assured homeland for our poor people but also the striving for moral and spiritual perfection.”  To the younger generations of Israeli citizens today, working in hi-tech, serving in the army, or helping tourists discover the Jewish homeland, Herzl will forever be more than a journalist or political leader.  He will be a prophet of great inspiration.

Shire is not the first to dub Heschel a prophet.  Biographers Edward K. Kaplan and Samuel H. Dressner write in their chronicle of Heschel’s life, Abraham Joshua Heschel: Prophetic Witness, that he was “not only one of the outstanding Jewish thinkers of the Twentieth Century, but a prophet as well.  He fulfilled dual roles as a social activist and interpreter of Jewish piety.”  With his words, Heschel motivated thousands to open their hearts to God’s holy presence.

This offering from Shire, who is vice-principal of the LeoBaeckCollege in London, will be a most important addition to the Jewish classroom.  Under a new light, students will be re-introduced to many of the significant figures in Jewish history whom they have been studying like Samuel, Micah, Hillel, Yochanan Ben Zakkai and Akiva.  They will also encounter the fresh words and visions of such notable prophets as Bachya Ibn Pakuda, Baruch Spinoza, Rav Kook, Henrietta Szold, and David Ben Gurion.  We will come to appreciate these “prophets of our time” more after reading about their notable prophetic accomplishments, which are even more impressive considering the amount of adversity they faced.

This special book will quickly alter the belief of anyone who considers the concept of navi to have ended with the canonization of the Torah.  The exploration through the lives of these thirty visionaries is testimony to the fact that the navi has walked in our time as well as the times of old.  Heschel writes, “The prophet’s word is a scream in the night.  While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven.”  Dr. Shire invites us in to explore the wildly chaotic, yet intensely interesting life of the prophet.  We might go into this exploration hoping to learn more about their lives, but we inevitably come out having learned more about our own lives.