Rabbi Barbara Symons rethinks haftarah for the 21st century
Books21st Century Prophets

Rabbi Barbara Symons rethinks haftarah for the 21st century

“The idea of this book,” Symons said, “is to free the prophets from being trapped on the bimah.”

Rabbi Barbara Symons holds the new book, “Prophetic Voices: Renewing and Reimaging Haftarah."
Rabbi Barbara Symons holds the new book, “Prophetic Voices: Renewing and Reimaging Haftarah."

Rabbi Barbara Symons wants to change the way you interact with the prophets.

The Temple David rabbi is the editor of “Prophetic Voices: Renewing and Reimagining Haftarah,” recently published by CCAR Press.

“The idea of this book,” Symons said, “is to free the prophets from being trapped on the bimah.”

Haftarah, she explained, means “conclusion,” and is read on Shabbat and holidays following the Torah portion.

What we study and hear, though, is only a small segment of the prophetic voices available in the Tanakh, she said.

“If we think about it, not all accepted Hebrew prophets, of which there are 48 male and seven female, make it into the haftarah, partially because not all of them are in the prophets section of the Bible,” she said.

For example, Moses, she said, is remembered as the greatest Jewish prophet, but he doesn’t make it past the Torah.

Additionally, weekly haftarah portions, Symons said, average only 10 or 20 verses. That leaves a lot of writing never heard outside of a class on individual prophets.

The new book allows for an opportunity to change the ways Jews interact with these underread writings, she said.

“This book is meant to be used in study classes, interfaith marches, gatherings, camp, which will hopefully further intrigue people to say, ‘Oh wait, this is interesting, I want to learn more about this,’” she said.

The anthology, which features 179 contributors, including several from Pittsburgh, offers new commentaries on each haftarah and includes short contemporary interpretations, as well as calls to action.

“This gets to the motivation for the book,” she said, “which is to, in some small way, reclaim the title of prophetic Judaism.”

Reform Judaism often refers to itself as prophetic Judaism, Symons said, but added, “it’s not actually so much about the prophets.”

The connection most Jews have with the prophets is through social action or social justice work, she said. The prophets were often quoted by rabbis working as part of the civil rights movement, for example.

Instead of focusing strictly on social justice themes associated with the prophets, Symons looked to the haftarah blessing for the framework that contributors should consider when submitting writings.

Holiness, rest, honor and glory, were themes from the blessing Symons felt were important — so important she included the words in Hebrew on the cover of “Prophetic Voices.”

“We kept holiness,” she said. “Rest we turned into this idea of caring and concern, whether self-care or the way we care for others. Then, we turn to social justice. How do we have honor and glory, whether we see ourselves as the hands of God or partners of God. There are a lot of those components in this book.

“The calls to action go into this,” she continued. “Sometimes they’re very direct, sometimes they’re subtle. They don’t just let us work on social justice but also let us hear one another better, or connect to God on a personal, spiritual level.”

The identities of the writers who contributed to the book were as important as their topics, Symons said. In addition to rabbis, she sought out cantors — voices she felt were important because of their work with b’nai mitzvah students and because they are often the ones chanting the haftarahs at synagogues.

The Monroeville rabbi didn’t stop with Jewish clergy, though.

“We have the executive director of T’ruah and different voices from Israel,” she said. “The contributors to the alternative essays span the diversity of Judaism. There are people of different countries, age, race, LGBTQ and every affinity group.”

Symons made sure to include women’s voices, as well.

“The place women’s voices are traditionally not heard is what I call ‘between the blessings,’” she said. “There aren’t women’s voices within our sacred texts. If women are included in the traditional haftarah cycle, it’s about them; they’re the object not subject. This is a way to bring those voices forward.”

The weekly haftarahs connect to the Torah cycle by theme, Symons said, but they don’t necessarily speak to modern Jews. Sometimes, she said, that’s because the connection between the parsha and haftarah is hard to find. Sometimes, it’s because the connection is esoteric or because the prophets use metaphors that are archaic or problematic to today’s sensibilities.

The alternative readings will help people to find connections, using other selections from the prophets, Psalms and Proverbs, medieval and modern poetry, song lyrics, Jewish thinkers, including Martin Buber and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and the Declaration of Independence.

“Prophetic Voices” also includes 42 haftarah suggestions and commentaries for American Jewish holidays such as Independence Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Breast Cancer Awareness Day and Pride Month.

Symons said submissions were not rejected unless the alternative text was already used. A good thing, since some of the contributors had familial ties.

“You have Election Day, which Rabbi Ron Symons wrote; you have Tu BiShvat, which Ilana Symons wrote; you have camp opening day which Aviva Symons wrote. You also have traditional haftarah which Micah Symons wrote. I wrote in the acknowledgments how proud I am that my family is a part of this book,” she said.

Symons will be hosting a book launch event on March 26 at 1 p.m. at Temple David. “Prophetic Voices: Renewing and Reimagining Haftarah” is available at CCAR Press. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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