A new genre of Haftarot has been stirring, initiated and taught by Hazzan (Cantor) Jack Kessler of Ohalah and the ALEPH Ordination Program of Rabbis, Cantors, and other Jewish spiritual leaders in the movement for Jewish renewal.
Traditionally, the Haftarot are passages from the ancent Hebrew Prophets, chanted in a traditional melody (nusach). What is new is the creation of chantable haftarot, using the traditional nusach, made up of English-language passages spoken or written by some prophetic figures who are not Jewish.
The newest creative effort in this direction is by Cantor Abbe Lyons of Ithaca, NY, As the 50th yohrzeit of Dr. King (April 4, 2018), was approaching, she decided to shape a new Haftarah from passages of his prophetic “Beyond Vietnam” speech, given at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967 –- exactly one year before he was killed.
As we consider how to use this new haftarah, we might recall the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. On March 25, 1968, he introduced Dr. King to speak to the Rabbinical Assembly. Rabbi Heschel said,
“Where in America do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel? Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America. …The whole future of America will depend upon the impact and influence of Dr. King.”
Ten days later, Dr. King was killed — giving a deeply ironic cast to the last sentence in Rabbi Heschel’s introduction.
Fifty years later, we could turn that history in a new direction. Fulfilling Heschel's words by using the traditional Jewish forms to fully recognize King as a Prophet could contribute to America's doing tshuvah for the long history of racism, violence, and other forms of subjugation.
We invite you to choose the Shabbat just after April 4 to introduce this new haftarah into your sacred service, in addition to the haftarah for the eighth day of Pesach. .
I worked with Cantor Lyons to choose passages from the "Beyond Vietnam" speech. She has set its English words to the traditional Haftarah melodies. This new Haftarah takes seven minutes to chant. You can access Cantor Lyons' chant at --
and her Text for the Haftarah, with the musical trope marks, at --
What has made this a new genre, not just a single experiment, is that Cantor Kessler has done this with other prophetic passages. One is the Declaration of Independence, to be chanted on the Fourth of July or a nearby Shabbat. It has been coupled with the reading of the Torah portion sometimes called Perek HaMelekh, defining the limits on the power of an Israelite king. That passage may indeed be seen as the oldest political and spiriitual forebear of the Declaration. It appears in D'varim (Deut) 17:14-21.
Hazzan Kessler has also created a haftarah from an amalgam of passages from a number of Dr. King's speeches, for chanting on Martin Luther King Birthday Shabbat.
A "kissing cousin" to this form has been developed by Kohenet Shoshana Bricklin of Congregation Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia. She has created several haftarot that intertwine passages from several different prophetic voices, also in English and also set to haftarah nusach.
This effort to intermingle the powerful forms of Jewish tradition with the wisdom of prophetic voices beyond the Jewish community was what the original Freedom Seder of 1969 did, and what the new "MLK+50 Interfaith Freedom Seder," woven by The Shalom Center and already being used in various communities around the country, aims to do. I welcome your comments on the implications of this new approach .
Blessings for a sweet, kosher, and liberating Pesach!-- Arthur