This is part twelve of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
Raven-time. If you are going to speak out, you have to have a backup plan. I love Elijah’s whirlwind exit on a chariot and horses of fire. Quite a way to go out. The only thing Elijah leaves behind is his cloak and a disciple Elisha, who is also quite something.
Disciples. Wonder if that’s a good way to go. None for me, which is the way I want it. With Norman’s meltdown, his disciples enter the Garden of Gethsemane. If the story holds true to form, it doesn’t look good. Maybe, International Law will save all of them.
Now before your start calling me Rabbi Ellis – if Lerner and Waskow can self-anoint, why not you and me! – I share these stories because they are fantastic and real. We, who cannot even speak of God, are not thusly disempowered. (Though I often speak with God, or think I do, at least I carry on the conversation with God as if God is there, but won’t testify to it since it sounds ridiculous as I’m sure you’re thinking. That’s for another day, so let’s drop it for now. It does sound far-fetched. If you care to chalk it up to exile desert-oasis imaginings. Mirage stuff.)
The words of the prophets resonate so deeply within us. Whether you believe in God, speak to God or not, the prophetic word is now independent of God. It’s within us. Imagine that.
True, if you are going to be slain by the powers that be, I doubt that a chariot will spirit you away. I haven’t spotted any in the night sky. Best to imagine the ravens as those who offer hospitality on the difficult journey. On the ravine water, try it. Ravine water is crucial when you’re on the run.
When the prophetic word is spoken and you survive, think gratitude. At least, you can look in the mirror and not see Ken Starr starring back at you. That’s the other option, isn’t it? Being well paid is a dream come true. You don’t want to become a rich huckster, do you?
Obviously we have to read the prophets with a critical eye. There’s a lot of violence committed in their name. Nonetheless, we don’t want to critically read the prophets out of our existence. If we do so for all sorts of politically correct reasons, most of which I agree with, or place a multi-colored kippah on the prophets head, we can dance the night away at Jewish-only retreats as Progressive Jews do. However, think what we’ll be left with: the mezuzah on the beach, the Israeli flag flying next to the American flag, academic Jewish studies and the Bible without the bite.
Our primal tongue will be cut out. Jews won’t be able to reason except in some disembodied Cartesian way or, more likely, we’ll simply decide to conform to the powers of this world. That’s what happens to Jews and others when affluence and empowerment come their way.
Our fortune – and our trial – is that the prophetic is our DNA. Some Jews will fight the prophetic tooth and nail, but let’s be honest, since it survived for thousands of years, the prophetic isn’t going away. The Jewish prophetic voice will never die. That’s the lesson everyone is learning in the Golden Age of Empire Judaism.
So, whether or not you believe in God, whatever that actually might mean after the Holocaust and after Israel, knowing that a certain kind of atheism is rampant among Jews of Conscience which may have to do with the Biblical understanding of idolatry, that being the prohibition of the worship of false Gods, false Gods being Gods that enable the empire status quo – you see where I am going with this run-on sentence.
The whole God-thing is way more complicated than Edward Said thought – at least in the itinerant prophetic imagination! (More about Said and the itinerant Jewish prophet story in a coming commentary.)
Why spend too much time with the God question, since the Jewish question is so absorbing that it may contain the God question within it. Without God having to be named explicitly or decided upon. Let Christians hold forth on that since most of them are God know-it-alls. Yet, it’s also the case that we shouldn’t wrap ourselves around Jewish ritual as a way of proving to Christians that we really are religious and right-minded, meanwhile blunting the justice agenda.
My sense is that most of us ought to abandon theological language and the struggle about it because neither will takes us toward our goal. Why not just embody the prophetic in our Jewish way since it has been with us forever? Call it Birthright Prophetic.
You see Birthright Israel has it all wrong. Israel was the Biblical promise, yes that is the case. Nonetheless, the prophetic always took priority, as it does today. More than the land, the prophetic is the Jewish indigenous, it’s the primal thrust of the Exodus and the primary claim over the land. This doesn’t mean that the land or Jewish empowerment is always doomed or always wrong. I’m not going there. Not at all.
The prophetic means that empowerment is provisional and not an end in itself. The prophetic is always under judgment. The judgment is quite specific. It doesn’t rest on theory. If the poor and the stranger aren’t getting a fair shake, if classes of people are marginalized, if power is being over against others – well then a prophetic shake-up is in the works.
So Birthright Prophetic works against Birthright Israel when injustice is the norm. Or, in our time, because the prophetic has to expand its vision as time goes on, if the settling of the land displaces others. You see even the Biblical prophetic has colonial elements in it. Anyone who reads the Bible can see that front and center.
Conscience confronts the colonial. Conscience intervenes and takes priority. Not the Bible, not even God, stand on its own. Because of the prophetic, Jews are allowed to speak our own word. We have to. Especially since God doesn’t seem close by. As in, in our weakness, where were the chariots and horses when we needed them? We need them now, too, in our empowerment. Where are they?
Be ravens to each other. Bring each other the substance of life. We can’t leave the hospitality option to the professionals or to God. We can’t limit where the bread comes from, since you never know when a Muslim or a Palestinian, or God forbid, a Western Christian, might help us survive the Jewish Empire Divide.
You see our Birthright Prophetic is ours but it isn’t everything. Others have their own thing to bring to the banquet of life.
When you’re on the run you never know who you’ll find around the table. While the prophetic gives us our place to stand, we shouldn’t kid ourselves. The prophetic never stands alone. Today wherever the prophetic voice is spoken, all of the prophets are gathered.
Should all of the prophets – across the globe regardless of religion, secularity and geography – be buried together? This would be a reminder of all that is done every day by those who say no to oppression. It would also be a reminder to the living that the prophetic voice is alive in them.
Yes there is a tradition of the prophets. It’s evolving right before our eyes. It’s expanding every justice step of the way. Since it may hold the future of the world in its hands, it has to reflect the world. Don’t you think?
Birthright Prophetic. Is it everyone’s birthright?