A Review of
The Liberating Path of the Hebrew Prophets: Then and Now
Reviewed by Jonathan Homrighausen
In this brief book, Rabbi Nahum Ward-Lev aims to bring the ancient writings of the Hebrew Bible into conversation with contemporary concerns about social justice, liberation, and the need for human relationship and solidarity. He does so through his own reading of the Torah and Prophets of the Hebrew Bible. Ward-Lev, a rabbi who has spent years facilitating study sessions of the Tanakh for Jews, Christians, and others, distills ancient and contemporary concerns, Jewish and Christian theological wisdom, and secular psychological and political insights into this readable book. Ward-Lev’s urgent moral framework, and some of the exegetical work he does to get there, are intriguing, even though the parts of his book on the Bible and on contemporary prophets feel disconnected.
Ward-Lev’s premise is twofold: the Torah and the prophets depict the “ongoing liberation journey” (xxiv) of both God and humanity. The fullest potential of both is reached in mutual, covenantal relationship—both between human and human, group and group, and humanity and God. The Torah and Prophets, for Ward-Lev, are the record of both God attempting to give humans the tools to enact their mutual liberation and prophets of God calling others to love, courage, vulnerability and community.
The first half of Ward-Lev’s book sets forth his reading of the Hebrew Bible, beginning with the historical situation of the Prophets and the Deuteronomist, all working in times when the social order of kingship and temple seem to have disintegrated (13–15). In their place come prophets who relativize (but not deny) the importance of these institutions. They preach that love for God and neighbor is more primary than sacrifice, that sacrifice without love or intention (kavvanah in rabbinic parlance) is meaningless—as the Shema reminds us, “you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your power” (Deut 6:5). Nahum Ward-Lev finds in these figures the beginnings of a “prophetic stream”: “that force within creation, within people, and within a society that leads people to undertake the risky journey toward flourishing, toward more freedom to enter mutual relationship” (112). Several chapters describe the journey of flourishing in creation, the life of Abraham, the family dynamics of Genesis, the women of Exodus, and the life of Moses.
The second half of this book shows how the lives and works of contemporary social justice practitioners—Buber, Heschel, hooks, Guttierrez, and King Jr., just to name a few—follow in the prophetic traditions of ancient Israel. He describes the motifs of covenent, community, journey, dialogue, listening, and love in the prophetic stream. I especially enjoyed his chapter on dialogue, a constant theme in this book: prophets in dialogue with God (34–38), the importance of courage and vulnerability in any dialogue (152–53), and the power of dialogue to effect liberation, drawing on Freire (155–62).
In true dialogical fashion, Ward-Lev incorporates a wide array of thinkers’ words and activists’ deeds. Yet I particularly enjoyed the times when his Jewish formation showed most strongly: his use of rabbinic midrash, which the Christian readers of this book (it is published by Orbis, a Catholic press) may find new. In a moving chapter on the role of women in the Exodus liberation, he quotes one rabbinic tradition:
The women would go out with soup and hot water to the fields where the exhausted men worked. They would wash and massage them, eat and drink, and take them to the fringes of the field to make love. (82)
Ward-Lev’s explanation: though the men had lost hope and desire to invest in the future, nevertheless, the women persisted. He cites a talmudic tradition that “due to the merit of the righteous women of that generation Israel was redeemed from Egypt” (b. Sotah 11b). Further, Ward-Lev connects the passage of the Hebrews through the narrow Sea of Reeds to the passage of a newborn through its mother’s birth-canal. This vivid image has interfaith appeal: both the mikveh entered by Jewish converts, and the baptism undertaken by all Christians.
Throughout the book, Nahum Ward-Lev is sustained not by the abstract, perfect deity of the philosophers but by the dynamic, evolving, immanent God of both the Bible and the Kabbalists: “In the Bible God and human beings are both on the move; they are evolving” (115). This portrayal of God allows him to address some difficult theological questions, such as the role of violence in liberation: Was God just in slaughtering so many Egyptian sons to free the Israelites? While denying that non-violence is always the answer, he answers that even God later realized the limits of force in liberation, as a new society must be established after the violent overthrow of an oppressive one (90). Similarly he highlights God’s promise to Noah after the Flood. Noah’s imperfection causes God to realize the folly of a violent reset button.
In his understanding of prophethood, Ward-Lev is most informed by the works of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Walter Brueggemann. Rabbi Heschel’s The Prophets (1962) aims to, among other things, explore the psychology of prophets: their sympathy with God’s frustration at Israel, their love intertwined with anger. It is possible that Heschel, who marched alongside King, wanted to show what a prophet might be like in his own time—certainly a favorite theme of Ward-Lev’s. Similarly, biblical scholar and United Church of Christ minister Brueggemann’s influential The Prophetic Imagination (1978) explores the importance of the prophet’s ability to connect their understanding of divine love and justice to the concrete circumstances and injustice of their own time. Nahum Ward-Lev extols the importance of biography, painting, poetry, and all modes of expression of the prophetic imagination (185), as “the soaring possibilities present in God’s loving attention to the world fire the prophet with the imaginative power to present the people with an alternative life-giving future” (5). I especially appreciated this given my own work in moral imagination and the visual art of The Saint John’s Bible.
My biggest criticism of this book is that the two parts often do not hang together well. In moving from biblical to contemporary prophetic streams, many of the themes of the latter seem less connected to the former; Ward-Lev’s exegetical insights in the first part can at times be replaced by tedious enumeration of activists and lengthy quotations from contemporary works in the second. Perhaps by exploring themes alternating between eras, Ward-Lev could have tied together the two halves of his book more coherently. Despite those issues, this book would be useful for dialogue groups, especially Jewish-Christian conversations.
Jonathan Homrighausen (MA, Graduate Theological Union) is a PhD student in Hebrew Bible at Duke University and author of Illuminating Justice: The Ethical Imagination of The Saint John’s Bible (Liturgical Press, 2018). Find him online at: jdhomie.com and on Twitter at: @jdhomie1