When Rabbi Stephen Listfield began planning his three-week seminar on the prophets of Israel, it was just because the subject interested him.
But financier Bernard Madoff, whose alleged $50 billion Ponzi scheme crippled charities, schools and investors large and small, changed all that.
“I was going to teach it because I wanted to teach it,” said Listfield, spiritual leader of Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill. “Now, it turns out the Jewish world needs to hear it.”
That became all too apparent, he said, when he read a Dec. 23 New York Times story about the scandal’s impact, which quoted Rabbi Benjamin Blech, a professor at Yeshiva University for more than 40 years.
Blech told The Times, that the Madoff scandal “is an opportunity to convey to students that ritual alone is not the sole determinant of our Judaism, that it must be combined with humanity, with ethical behavior, with proper values, and most important of all, with regard to our relationship with other human beings.”
To Listfield, that’s a troubling thought.
“I have only the greatest respect for professors of Yeshiva University, but I find it stunningly pathetic that a Jewish teacher has to say that Madoff presents the occasion to explain that Judaism is not about ritual alone,” Listfield said. “It is stunningly pathetic because the prophets of Israel over 3,000 years ago taught Jews — and through Jews, taught the rest of the world — that Judaism is about loving your neighbor as yourself; it’s about justice; it’s about compassion.”
That’s what Listfield hopes to get across in his three-week program, “The Prophets of Ancient Israel,” that begins Tuesday, Jan. 20, at 7:50 p.m., at Tree of Life. Parts two and three will begin at the same time on Jan. 27 and Feb. 3.
Listfield plans to focus on six prophets: Nathan, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and Micah.
“The reason we study the prophets of Israel is because they go deeper,” Listfield said. “This is why they are in the Bible, because they felt keenly a God sense of right and wrong. This is what the prophets of Israel conveyed. As far as we know they were the first to convey this idea to the whole world.”
The prophets, or nevi’im in Hebrew, acted as “spokesmen” for God in the biblical times. According to the Talmud, there were actually hundreds of thousands of prophets in antiquity, but most of the prophets conveyed messages that were intended solely for their own generation and were not reported in the Bible.
In fact, Jewish scripture identifies only 55 prophets of Israel, including the patriarchs, Moses and Aaron, Kings David and Solomon, and seven women (Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah and Esther).
Asked why the Jewish world doesn’t have prophets today, Listfield replied, “Maybe we do, but we don’t know it.”
“The tradition says prophecy ended with Malachi well over 2,000 years ago,” he continued, “but that’s the formulaic answer. My answer is maybe there are prophets, but we don’t pay attention; we don’t know. It’s our fault; we’re not so attuned.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)