The most recent addition to the JPS Bible Commentary series covers the varied selections from the Nevi’m that comprise the haftarot, the second part of the lectionary chanted on Sabbaths and holy days in synagogues. The commentary is intended for several audiences: scholars, rabbis, and Jewish lay people seeking a demanding intellectual experience. My concern in this review is not how successfully Michael Fishbane has met the needs of these latter audiences, but what biblical critics gain from this work.
In addition to detailed commentaries on specific passages, the book contain a lengthy introduction reviewing the crystallization of the rabbinic lectionary. This introduction attends to the development of the laws concerning the haftarot and the various ancient and medieval systems for the Pentateuchal lectionary as well. Like the rest of the commentary, it is noteworthy for its attention not only to Talmudic and standard midrashic texts but also to other medieval works that illuminate the development of the lectionary, the biblical texts selected for it, and the reasons for their selection. These works include lesser-known midrashic collections and medieval Hebrew and Aramaic liturgical poetry. Finally, the book includes fine overviews of those prophetic books from which haftarot are drawn.
Fishbane’s commentary contains a wealth of material for biblical scholars. Of particular note is his attention to how the rabbi’s selections from the Nevi′m imply novel readings of many passages. Fishbane shows that the rabbis sometimes transform the pericope selected for a given Sabbath or holy day by beginning and ending the lection at a surprising spot or by putting two distinct passages together. Two examples will illustrate. The haftarah for the first day of Pentecost, which for rabbinic Judaism celebrates God’s self-revelation to Israel, consists of Ezekiel 1:1–28 and 3:12 but skips Ezekiel 2. Thus the haftarah includes Ezekiel’s vision of God amidst the heavenly beings and the concluding doxology the heavenly beings sing, but not the prophetic commissioning itself. Fishbane notes that the rabbis’ selectivity results in a metamorphosis. In the biblical Book of Ezekiel, the visions introduce a message and validate it; they are a means, not an end. But in the Ezekiel of this haftarah, there is no content from God, only experience of God. By shaping the haftarah as they did, the rabbis convert Ezekiel from a prophet into a mystic. (This is understandable, given the role that the Book of Ezekiel played in early rabbinic mysticism.) Now, the fundamental difference between prophecy and mysticism is hardly a new discovery, but by showing how the rabbis moved from the former to the latter, Fishbane helps clarify this distinction; he shows where the interests of the rabbis lay, at least for the holiday at hand; and he implicitly shows why Ezekiel, in spite of his central role in ancient Jewish esoteric literature, was in fact a prophet and not a mystic: for the biblical book does include chapter 2. In short, Fishbane both explicates the rabbis’ bold approach and clarifies the original text.
A similar recontextualization occurs in the haftarah that precedes the Fast of the Ninth of Av, Jeremiah 1:1–2:3. This selection will strike modern biblical scholars as odd, since it includes not only Jeremiah’s commissioning in chapter 1 but the first three verses of the long prophetic rebuke that is chapter 2. In those three verses, God recalls Israel’s earlier devotion, which led God to regard the nation as sacred and deserving divine protection. In chapter 2 as a whole, this memory creates a devastating contrast between Israel’s erstwhile loyalty and its present behavior. The biblical passage avers that all who harmed Israel in the past were held guilty, but now God will harm Israel. However, by ending the haftarah with 2:1–3 (and thus cutting these verses off from the rebuke they introduce), the rabbis radically recontextualize these verses so that they seem future oriented: nations may harm Israel, but those nations will ultimately be held guilty. Verses that had introduced the message that God will punish Israel come to mean that God will protect her.
The recontextualizations that Fishbane delineates are of great significance for modern biblical scholars in three ways. First, the juxtaposition of the biblical and rabbinic contexts helps the reader to understand the former more clearly. While I have often studied and chanted the texts Fishbane discusses, I must confess that before reading this commentary I missed crucial points about some of them, and I muddled together various readings without quite realizing how different they were. Second, the rabbinic recontextualizations, which sometimes splice together two different texts and often end at a unexpected place, resemble nothing so much as the work of the redactors who created biblical books themselves. At least according to the regnant view among critics, the original utterances of the prophets were reshaped as they were compiled. Precisely this sort of reshaping occurs in some haftarot. It is fascinating to note how drastically the rabbis revise a text’s message without altering a single word. The exacto-knife can be as powerful an interpretive tool as the pen. Tradition historians and redaction critics would do well to contemplate this model of reinterpretation by recontextualization, which does not involve any glosses or expansions. Third, Fishbane provides what I think is a paradigm for a new (Jewish?) form of canon criticism. If, as Brevard Childs teaches us, the essential concern of canon critics is to understand how biblical tradition is received and hence shaped by the community of faith, then commenting on the haftarot is the quintessential canon critical project. Indeed, I venture to propose that this commentary is one of the few genuine works of canon criticism that any modern biblical scholar has ever written. Members of our guild will profit from it greatly.