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Book Review

The prophets defy us.

Dr. Mordecai Schreiber is the latest in the long line of teachers who strive to close the gap between the way we see the prophets and the way they see us.  He has chosen Jeremiah as his focus, and for good reason.  There is no other prophet who lets us into his inner life as much as he does.  And there is no other prophet who tells us more about his struggles with his community than he does.  Yet, despite all that he reveals, the mysteries remain.

Jeremiah cannot be easily categorized.  He somehow holds together within his soul endless love for his people and constant anger at their behavior.  On the one hand, he is the one who says:  “Haben Yakir Li Efraim”—Is not Efraim My Darling Child—and yet he is also the one who calls them over and over again: “Banim Shovevim”—Rebellious Children. He is the author of “Kol Sasson V’kol Simchah”, which we sing at every Jewish wedding, and yet, on the other hand, he himself was never permitted to marry.

He spoke out against the kings and the priests without end, and yet he was no simple popularist — he complained about the people just as much as he did against their leaders.  He preached against rebellion and urged the leaders of Judah to accept the reality of Babylon’s superior power, and yet he held fast to the vision that God would ultimately restore his people.  He warned that exile would come, but when it did, he purchased land when everyone else was selling land, as a symbol of his faith that after exile there would be a return.  He was no simple pacifist, and he was no uncritical Zionist, though both of these movements have tried to claim him as their model.  He lived at a time when he had no choice but to pronounce a message of doom to a people that was blissfully unaware of the disastrous consequences of its behavior, but he never gave up hope in the future of his people and of mankind.

He was a failure in his lifetime, and yet his words have outlived his enemies, and they have been translated into every language on earth.  He screamed out that ritual without righteousness is a perversion of what God wants, and yet the Sages took his words and those of the rest of the prophets off the streets where they were mocked, and brought them into the synagogue, making their words part of the liturgy that is recited on every Sabbath and every holy day.

Jeremiah and the rest of the prophets defy easy classification.  They are everything you can say about them—and more.

The first half of this book is a popular commentary on the life and thought of Jeremiah.  But in the second half, Dr. Schreiber goes beyond the confines of scholarship in order to deal with the question of what Jeremiah’s teachings mean to us here and now.  In this section, he makes a number of very bold suggestions.  One is that Jeremiah was the person that Second Isaiah had in mind when he described the Suffering Servant.  Another is that Jeremiah was the one who laid the groundwork for Jewish life in the Diaspora, that he simultaneously taught the exiles how to live in Babylon, and, at the same time, how to hold on to the hope that someday they would come back to their land.  He proposes that Jeremiah created the concepts and the forms that are at the core of post-Biblical Judaism, and that at the same time that he was the one who laid the foundations for much of western civilization.

Most moderns know very little about Jeremiah.  If we think of him at all, we think of him as a prophet of gloom and doom, for the word ‘Jeremiad’ has come to mean one who weeps and laments.  This is why this book is so valuable. It opens the door for us into the inner life and the towering achievements of a prophet whose words still have the power to speak to us twenty five hundred years after they were first uttered.

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