Excerpt: Path of the Prophets


The following is an excerpt from the preface of Path of the Prophets: The Ethics-Driven Life (March 2018) by Rabbi Barry Schwartz.


Why the Prophets?

Why is this book different from all other books? Because at all other times we read books of political history, but at this time we read a book of prophetic history.

The lens of prophetic history is not power, but justice. The concern of prophetic history is not conquest, but compassion. The focus of prophetic history is not feat, but faith.

The heroes of prophetic history are not kings or generals, but visionaries and dreamers. They are seekers of justice and exemplars of compassion. They are often ordinary people who have moments of extraordinary courage and insight. They are unexpected heroes.

Most histories focus on political supremacy: who ruled and for how long. Far fewer testify to prophetic authority: who bore witness and for what purpose. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the twentieth century’s outstanding religious thinkers, memorably wrote: “Others have considered history from the point of view of power, judging its course in terms of victory and defeat, of wealth and success; the prophets look at history from the point of view of justice, judging its course in terms of righteousness and corruption, of compassion and violence.”

In the wider world, this approach is sometimes called “moral history.” There is a long tradition in world literature of presenting history through heroes or heroic themes. But the choice of heroes in a moral history is unconventional. Rather than focus on mighty warriors, moral history spotlights spiritual seekers. These pioneers of the spirit are sometimes called to their vocation from an early age. Others are common folk with uncommon experiences.


The Bible itself is part conventional history, part moral history. It chronicles the political and the prophetic. I believe that it is the latter voice that defines the Bible’s essence: the true heart of the Bible. The political voice is concerned with who assumed power, and how they kept command. The prophetic voice is concerned with who challenged power, and how they kept the commandments.

The prophetic voice that courses through Scripture, often as a foil to the political establishment, is unprecedented and unanticipated. No one elected the prophets. We don’t know where they came from or how they became so influential. Yet their burning spirit topples kings and unsettles clerics. More quietly, the prophetic spirit heals families and restores faith.

The stakes are very high. Heschel explained it this way: “The prophets’ great contribution to humanity was the discovery of the evil of indifference. One may be decent and sinister, pious and sinful.” Elucidating further: “The prophets were shocked not only by the acts of injustice on the part of scoundrels, but also by the perversion of justice on the part of the notables.” This led to Heschel’s famous declaration that in a free society, “few are guilty; all are responsible.” No one is exempt from the pursuit of justice. In the words of an old adage, “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.”

Heschel also noted, “To the prophets, a minor, commonplace sort of injustice assumes almost cosmic proportions.” As a result, “Tranquility is unknown to the soul of the prophet. The miseries of the world give him no rest.” One of Heschel’s disciples, Rabbi Michael Lerner, elaborates on this theme:

For the prophets it was nothing less than a catastrophe that the Jewish people were using the language of the tradition but missing its essence. Having established a society in which they had power, the ancient Israelites were now acting the way the other nations acted, and had set up a society in which the ordinary evils of other societies appeared. Violence and cruelty were once again becoming regnant realities, and all this supposedly in a society embodying Jewish values! For the prophets this was a scandal, and with every ounce of their being they denounced the perversion built into this accommodation with the way the world normally operates.

The prophets took it upon themselves to critique leaders and laymen alike. Many assailed society in the role of gadfly. Yet others were less confrontational and chose (consciously or intuitively) to effect change by more quietly modeling a higher code of ethics.

Some of the prophets dwelt in the public eye. Others lived unobtrusively in their families and clans. In common, they created enough of an impression so as to be remembered in the national saga that became codified as Scripture, what we call the Bible.

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