Norman Podhoretz: Not a Prophet but the Son of Prophets

By Ages, Arnold | Midstream, January 2004 | Go to article overview

Norman Podhoretz: Not a Prophet but the Son of Prophets


Ages, Arnold, Midstream


Twenty years ago, I had the opportunity of asking the late Frank Talmage (Ph.D. Harvard in Jewish Studies and an expert on the Bible who was teaching at the University of Toronto) what he thought about the then spate of books that were being published on Scripture by literary folk.

Talmage, a scholar and a gentleman, replied with an eloquent though unspoken response by tossing his head in an ever so slight dismissive gesture. It was clear what he meant: he didn't appreciate dilettantism, however shrewd or ingenious. The study of the Hebrew Bible was serious business for him, and it required disciplined professionals.

If Frank Talmage had had the opportunity of reading Norman Podhoretz's The Prophets, * he would have altered his position on the matter, for the former editor of Commentary and one of America's leading literary and political critics has scripted a view of the Hebrew prophets that is original, provocative, and contemporary in its parsing of the grammar in the messages of those great transmitters of Hebraic values.

His book is original, not in the revolutionary Einsteinian sense, but rather in the sense that Pascal, the 17th-century philosopher-scientist, understood the term when he wrote of his own extraordinary contributions to physics, philosophy, and religion: "Let no one say that I am unoriginal: the order is new."

Podhoretz's stunning work is all the more astonishing when one reads that he returned to study the prophetic message after a hiatus of some 50 years, during which he was occupied with classes at Columbia University, studies in England, and afternoon sessions at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. Then there was that 35 years at Commentary where he edited (and wrote) some of the most trenchant essays on Jewish culture and offered coruscating articles on more general themes dealing with aesthetics, music, art, religion, and politics.

As it turns out, these aforementioned rubrics reach a congruence in Podhoretz's survey of the prophets of Israel, whom he analyzes with a magisterial command of both the secondary sources in Bible studies and with the tools of the modern instruments of literary dissection. Podhoretz's wide reading in comparative literature, politics, and history provides a rich seeding ground for an exposition of the prophetical teachings that are as refreshing as they are provocative.

There are surprises in his bold reconstruction of that remarkable eighth-century BCE epoch when the mighty voices of Hebrew prophecy burst forth. Podhoretz offers us those voices in the King James English translation of the Bible, which, despite its smoothing out of the stylistic differences in the different prophetic works, he deems the most faithful rendering in English of the rhythm, syntax, cadence, and locutions of the original. At the same time, Podhoretz is aware of the mischief that crept into the Christologically tinted KJV, and there are many footnotes in the text where the author quibbles with the KJV's translations of difficult Hebrew passages.

There is also a number of unexpected challenges in the Podhoretz scenario to well-established scholarly icons. Although he quotes frequently from Yechezkel Kaufmann and somewhat less so from Abraham Joshua Heschel, two of the greatest names in 20th-century Jewish scholarship, Podhoretz is not reticent in criticizing their work. Kaufmann, he argues, was too adamant in insisting that the Israelites were fervent monotheists from the very first stages of their confederacy. Podhoretz cites the frequent prophetical denunciations of idolatry as evidence to the contrary. As for Heschel's argument that the message of the prophets was an "octave too high" for the People of Israel, Podhoretz counters that such a characterization creates a distance between the prophets and the people, the very people to whom the message was directed.

Podhoretz also directs our attention, in a surprising way, to the fact that not all the prophets of Israel are found in the conventional collection of books bearing their names. …

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