The Leopard in Isaiah

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 9/2/2003

How shall we read the Great Haftarah — the passage from Isaiah that the rabbis taught us to read on the morning of Yom Kippur ?

Since the earliest days of Fabrangen, 30 years ago, I have made it my business to do the reading of this Haftarah in whatever congregation I am part of, each Yom Kippur.

I read it in English, since it seems to me the whole point of the passage is to break through ritual patterns to address the urgent needs of the poor. I try to read it like an outraged activist who has just heard that some president signed an "Act for the More Efficient Starvation of Children."

In some years I have done more than read it. More on that below.

There are several things about the Haftarah that seem important to me:

1. The whole rhythm of Isaiah's speech is to move from ecstatic "religiosity" to concrete acts of loving-kindness, and then through this connection with the humble and humiliated to reestablish connection with the Infinite.

In other words it moves from a fake high to a deep grounding to a real high — real because everyone, including the lowly, is part of it.

2. I connect this speech with (Deutero)Isaiah's explanation of his mission in Chapter 61, which in verse1 talks of "likro lishvuim dror, to call out to prisoners release." Isaiah Chapter 61 explicitly talks of "calling for the Year of YAHH's favor/pleasure/will" and talks of "dror [release]," a word powerfully used in the Leviticus passage about the Jubilee and used by Jeremiah when he calls for the people explicitly to release their slaves, as required in the Year of Jubilee.

Chapter 58 of Isaiah, which is part of the Yom Kippur reading, bears several strong hints at calling for the Jubilee (e.g. the Yovel was supposed to be announced on Yom Kippur with the blowing of a shofar; I read "Lift up your voice like a shofar" as the Prophet's feeling himself called to substitute his voice for the Shofar that was not being sounded to call for a Yovel).

The other specifics in 58, like those in 61, fit the notion of the Jubilee. What's more, the shift to Shabbat at the end of the passage would make special sense if the Prophet had in mind the super-Shabbat of the Jubilee. If he did, then part of it would be the release of indentured servants.

3. I think the speech was actually given as an interruption of a Yom Kippur service, or at minimum is deliberately written as if it were. I fantasize Isaiah elbowing his way thru the crowd at the Temple or through the crowd at a Super-Synagogue in Babylonia — and interrupting — shouting out this radical challenge to the liturgy.

4. Unfortunately, the result of the Rabbis' assigning this to be read on YK is that it becomes not a challenge to the liturgy but a part of it. There is a wonderful story by Franz Kafka:
"One day a leopard stalked into the synagogue, roaring and
lashing his tail. Three weeks later, he had become part of the
liturgy. "

Many synagogues read the haftarah in Hebew or English as another droning piece of the machzor.

I have therefore tried hard to break thru this drone. For several years, I worked with someone in my congregation to interrupt my reading of the Haftarah by shouting out short lines — headlines fom the newspaper — that exemplify poverty, homelessness, etc.:

"72-Year-old Man Freezes to Death on Philadelphia Street."

"Post Office Announces 30 Jobs, 300 Line Up to Apply"

I read a line of Isaiah about the poor — and the "plant" interrupts. I pause, read another line — and he interrupts again. We make sure people get the content of the interruption.

At first the congregation is scandalized — "He's INTERRUPTING THE SERVICE !!!" They even shake their fists, just as the haftarah says. Then they get it, and they listen with a deeper part of themselves.

Ideally, there should then be time to discuss.

This understanding of the Yom Kippur speech comes from the way I try to read these (and other) texts, which is to put myself in the place of someone saying these things and to ask myself —

What was going on for the author, the editor, of these words? What spiritual struggle, what "political" despair, had arisen for him? (Mostly it was a "him," if the text is more than a century old. Few women had their responses to their own spiritual struggles and oppressions recorded in "the tradition." )

Then I ask myself, "What images, symbols, passages of Torah arise in my head and heart as I overhear the struggle that led to these words upon this paper?" What social / spiritual struggle is really eating at my kishkes?

I try to unleash the leopard in the liturgy and the leopard that is stalking in me, in the synagogue, and in the world. I try to hear the Divine roar of passion and compassion, and give it voice.

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