New approaches to Haftarah

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

New Approaches to the Haftarah

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

In the traditional Chumash, each weekly Torah portion is followed by a Haftarah (a selection from the Prophets) that is somehow connected in theme or idea to the Torah portion, or to the time of year (like the special Haftarah for the Shabbat just before Pesach).
By choosing the Haftarah for each week, the rabbis gave their own special twist or interpretation to the Torah passage and to Jewish thought and practice in general. The selections are somewhat flexible; in some weeks, for instance, the Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities read different selections, and the Reform community (in the Chumash edited by Gunther Plaut) has chosen some passages different from the older choices.

Some congregations often prefer to lengthen the time available for Torah discussion by not reading the Haftarah, or sometimes omit it because they feel that the traditional Prophetic selection does not speak to their concerns, or because they feel that a reading in Hebrew will not stir the congregation to new thought and action as the Prophets themselves wanted to do.

But there are occasions when the changing history around us may be powerfully addressed by a passage from the Prophets or indeed by some other reading from the richness of Jewish tradition --read perhaps in a good English translation, perhaps with comments that explain the context in which the Prophet was challenging the government or the people. Congregations can choose (and retranslate) their own Haftarah in a week when they feel the need. Some suggestions are provided below as a guide to this process.

Parts of Jeremiah, might be read at a time of impending or actual war. Another haftarah, from Isaiah, is traditionally assigned for the morning of Yom Kippur, and can be a most powerful challenge to the community. It might be used at any time when issues of hunger, homelessness, and tyranny are especially challenging.

Passages from among the Biblical "Writings" or "Literature" (Ketuvim) can also be used at different times of the year and can be related to contemporary issues. These books -- poetry, drama, novelets --are not used for the traditional Haftarah readings, although some of them are assigned for particular festivals (Song of Songs for Pesach, Esther for Purim, etc.)

One of the greatest of these books of "Literature," the Book of Job, is not assigned for reading at any time during the Jewish year. Some of the rabbis encouraged it to be read on Tisha B'Av, the memorial day for the Destruction of the Temple, even though Job rejects the dominant notion of most rabbinic thought about the Destruction -- the notion that we were then and are always punished "for our sins."

Job, or part of it, might become an assigned reading for Yom HaShoah, the Holocaust Memorial Day -- as well as at other times when a particular congregation is facing the hard question of why the innocent suffer. In this way we would preserve the sense that some disasters we bring upon ourselves -- especially those that came when we had some degree of power and could have acted differently -- while affirming that some disasters stem from a deeper problem in the Universe, one we cannot understand or prevent.

In our generation, the Song of Songs is being newly understood. -- It emerges not as an allegory in which the erotic element is purged by being turned into a story of the love between God and the people Israel, but as a great work of immanent spirituality, in which God is present everywhere in the Song precisely because God is nowhere singled out to be named. In this reading, it is the earthy flow of erotic relationship between the lovers of the Song and between them and the flowing earth that is most "spiritual" -- most "God." The Song of Songs thus becomes "the Garden of Eden for grown-ups" -- a hymn to that era of the human race when we can live joyfully in the Garden of the earth without fear or hostility between each other or between us and the earth.

In this sense, the Song might be considered as one of the greatest of the Prophetic books, a description of the Messianic Age -- perhaps the only one in which the sensibilities of women shaped or helped to shape the prophecy. Communities could read portions of the Song as Haftarah portions -- perhaps during the weeks from Pesach to Shavuot, or at other times when the congregation chooses. I particularly recommend the translation by Marcia Falk.

Finally, there are passages from modern Jewish thinkers that in their intellectual depth, their emotional intensity, and their literary power approach passages from the ancient Prophets. Examples include passages from the writings of Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel, and these could also be included as Haftarah readings.

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