Norman Podhoretz, who was arguably America’s most influential magazine editor during his thirty-five year tenure at Commentary, has been in love with the Hebrew Bible his entire life. Returning to that love (which he once nurtured at Jewish Theological Seminary) in his post-Commentary years, Podhoretz found himself disturbed by the state of biblical studies among Jews and Christians. Today’s biblical scholars, he concedes, “command a staggering range of knowledge,” including a mastery of ancient languages (to read the Bible in its original form) and modern languages (to stay abreast of the scholarly debate in their field); deep appreciation of Near Eastern cultural history; and extensive learning about Christian Scripture, the Talmud, and rabbinic commentaries on the Bible written over a period of centuries. It is all very, very impressive.
Yet, after looking into contemporary scholarship on the Hebrew prophets, Norman Podhoretz also decided that there was still something to that old cliche about the forest and the trees. For to study the classical prophets as today’s scholars do “is to be led into thickets from which it is very difficult to emerge” – thickets of controversy that surround almost every verse of a prophetic book. Amidst all the controversies about who said what, when, to whom, and why, “the classical prophets themselves virtually disappear.”
Isaiah is a case in point: “By the time one is through with the modern commentaries on Isaiah,” Podhoretz writes, “one has the impression that no more than a mere handful of the original words of this reputedly greatest of all the classical prophets were left to us by his disciples and editors, and that those words amount to no more than something like, ‘My name is Isaiah the son of Amoz. You are all wicked and deserve to be horribly punished. Farewell.’”
Deciding to do something out all this – deciding to read the prophets afresh with the eye of a distinguished American literary critic well-trained in Hebrew – Norman Podhoretz has produced one of the most exciting books I’ve read in years: The Prophets: Who They Were; What They Are (Free Press). To read it is to be confronted in a fresh way with the astonishing human and religious figures who were the prophets of Israel: men who dared claim to speak the word of the Lord, who boldly taught the utter uniqueness of Israel’s God, and who demanded submission to God’s holy will. To read it is to be liberated from the fascinating, but ultimately debilitating, minutiae with which too many of today’s biblical scholars are obsessed.
Podhoretz is at his best in insisting that the prophets’ fierce condemnation of Israel’s whoring after other gods is at the root of the prophets’ profound insight into the human condition – then and now. The prophets put their lives on the line to proclaim the religious and moral truth that idolatry is the root of all other grave sins. To pay homage to what is not divine is the most serious possible offense against God; it also warps us as human beings. And that warping affects communities as well as individuals. For at the heart of culture is “cult” – what we honor, esteem, and worship. If the objects of our worship are false, our culture will be warped and destructive. That was true in Jerusalem in the eighth century before Christ; that is true in the malls and on MTV and HBO today.
The Prophets also includes a powerful message for Catholics in the United States in this time of crisis. For, without intending to, Norman Podhoretz reminds Christians that the pattern of authentic Christian reform took shape in the prophetic literature of Christianity’s parent, Judaism.
The prophets taught that the answer to Israel’s infidelity was neither more subtlety in the worship of false gods (Idolatry Lite) nor more cleverness in coppering one’s theological bets (Syncretism Lite), but rather radical fidelity to the one true God and his commandments. Like the crises of Israel, the crises of the Church can never be remedied by Catholic Lite, but only by a more radical commitment to living the fullness of Catholic faith. Why? Because, like the crises of Israel, the crises of the Church are always, at bottom, crises of fidelity.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.