This is part fourteen of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
Yes redemption is a difficult one, a huge problem. We search for meaning in life and wonder when it will become evident. This is especially true when we commit ourselves against the grain of history. Despite our commitment, suffering continues. It seems our commitment means little.
Perhaps that’s why there is so much commitment that lacks reflection. If we stop and reflect for a moment we’re afraid everything will come down crashing on our heads. Reflection doesn’t solve the problem. Sometimes it crashes anyway. So talk about redemption is mostly out of place, no matter how much I love Martin Buber. Best to stick to the here and now. Keep plodding along.
Reflection without gazing at the ultimate. Or gazing once in a while. For a moment or two. Then on with life.
Down to the beach after a few days with a back problem. Not debilitating, just a strain. This morning I took an alternative route one street over to avoid the mezuzah on the beach. I didn’t want to pass the ostentatiously displayed (inverted) Jewish symbol. Even the exiled need the morning off once in a while.
Jewish power around every corner, remember, it’s my experience rather than a historically airborne theory. Isn’t it strange how this distinction between experience and theory is often lost on our sophisticated elites? On Jews who, for various reasons, including their own self-advancement, seem bent on proving their authenticity.
A few years ago in Paris, I attended a conference on racism and anti-Semitism. There a Jewish participant in conference, who spoke after me, misquoted me on this topic of Jewish power. In doing so, he implied that I was invoking the Protocols of the Elders of Zion conspiratorial aspect of Jewish power. So I interrupted him and made my point a second time: “I am talking about my experience of Jewish power, not a theory of Jewish power.” He accepted my intervention, apologized for misinterpreting me and then repeated his same point. Whereby I interrupted him again, he apologized and went on with his original claim as if our conversation hadn’t occurred.
How to make sense of this? After numerous interruptions and apologies, I came to the conclusion that he wasn’t being deliberately disingenuous. In fact, he accepted my correction and was apologetic. It seemed that he had no other way to express himself except by distorting my point. Cognitive dissonance perhaps. He couldn’t admit that my experience was right and the theory was wrong – that both could be true. Otherwise he would have to take a bite out of the contemporary Jewish Tree of Knowledge apple. He would be naked before the world. Sans fig leaf.
Have you ever run into folks, Jewish and other wise, whose restricted ability to think reflects their limited world view? Point taken on some levels, but here was an American academic researching in the most sophisticated French libraries while writing a work on a major Jewish European philosopher. I wonder if he understands the difference between mythic anti-Semitism that sees a Jewish world conspiracy and the reality that the Jewish establishment(s) disciplines any dissent on the question of Israel.
We never did straighten it out. He kept apologizing during the final two days of the conference. He also kept distorting what I said.
Which is my way of asking if the difference between the Jewish question and the Israel question is misunderstood simply for political reasons or because our collective Jewish will just can’t wrap our minds around the fact that the Jewish situation in the world has changed radically in the last decades?
Time marches on. Returning to Marx, who couldn’t have anticipated the Israel question, then to Arendt, who did anticipate the Israel question, to we who are living the Israel question – these necessitate huge leaps in communal thought and identity formation. Yet as time marches on, history doesn’t play thought/identity catch-up.
When history arrives, what couldn’t be thought or what was anticipated but not experienced is often worse. At any rate, it is different. That difference demands new thinking, precisely the thinking that lags. What is now being experienced still can’t be thought or anticipated. It’s like a cycle of constantly being behind the eight ball. We can’t get a grip on our history.
The prophetic is the ability and willingness to think (un)thinkable thought because that is where we are. But watch out for the Principal’s paddle, the big wooden one standing there around every corner.
Everyone has their own experience and I was just sharing mine in the Parisian intellectual climes. We shouldn’t kid ourselves either. There isn’t any daylight between that power and the Christian right. Alan Dershowitz and Ken Starr. Coming back to my joint burial plans – bury Arafat and Sharon together – how about a Dershowitz-Starr joint headstone? Star of David intertwined with a Cross? Artist’s rendition welcome.
Fortunately I am not a graphic artist. I have so many ideas that could be visualized it would only deepen my exile and perhaps make it permanent. If it isn’t already. Dusting off one of my favorites in case you haven’t heard of it, when I first heard reports of Israel using helicopter gunships to frighten and sometimes rocket Palestinian towns, villages and refugee camps during the second Palestinian uprising – reports which shocked me though perhaps that was just part of my lingering internal Progressive Jewish mentality – I imagined converting the menacing helicopter gunships into ritual objects. After all, if we are going to live by Star of David helicopter gunships and if, spiritually, we are what we practice and should worship what is most important to us, raising the question of what God we will acknowledge because everyone has some kind of God that we bow to – you see where this is going.
Just like the “Bury Arafat and Sharon Together” came into my mind during a dream, this one relating to helicopter gunships and worship also just arrived: “Helicopter Gunships in the Ark of the Covenant.” I wondered what that could mean.
Let’s begin at the beginning – Ark etiquette. There’s an Ark of the Covenant in every synagogue. Inside the Ark you find the Torah scrolls and the ornamentation reserved for the Torah. The Ark containing the Torah is the holiest place in the synagogue, thus there are various rituals for opening and shutting the Ark, taking the Torah out the Ark, parading it among congregation, unfurling the Torah scroll, reading from the Torah, then placing the Torah back in the Ark and closing it.
It’s quite involved. At any rate, one day I was invited to a synagogue outside of London where I was to speak at the Shabbat meal after the service. To be honest, I try to avoid religious services whenever I can, preferring as I do hypocrisy served straight up rather than covered over with religious pieties. How about you? Because of the (rare) synagogue invite I couldn’t refuse the service. No way out.
In this particular synagogue, the Rabbi was positioned facing the Ark during the service. Since I was his guest of honor, I sat with him. During the service I became convinced that when the curtain of the Ark opened the Torah scrolls would be missing. In its place, there would be two helicopter gunships. It was a quasi-mystical experience. Or perhaps it was jet-lag.
Whatever the reason, the vision was quite intense. I visualized the helicopter gunships transformed into ritual objects, dressed for worship, their menacing black transformed into finely rendered silver casing. I anticipated the Ark opening, the congregation bowing before the helicopter gunships as we bow before the Torah. After the prayers were chanted, the helicopter gunships would be taken around the synagogue by the Rabbi where, and with our tallit, we would kiss them, again as we kiss the Torah. The helicopter gunships would then be brought back to the Ark and with our prayers chanted, the Ark’s curtain would be closed.
All empires need helicopter gunships. Empire Judaism needs them, too. Why not place them in the Ark of the Covenant? Having had the idea, I visualize its expansion. With the helicopter gunships, perhaps we should place other Jewish realities in ritualized form. Let’s see – also feel free to add your own – I would add, with a ritualized flourish, an Apartheid Wall, a map of Disappearing Palestine (perhaps as the backdrop that the ritual objects are placed in front of), several settlement blocs (perhaps built out of multi-colored Legos) and a facsimile of the Israel’s Dimona nuclear facility.
Of course, there is more to add but remember that when it comes to sacred objects and their display, more isn’t always better. Minimalism has its place. Perhaps my original vision is best: just austere, dignified, silver coated, helicopter gunships. With Star of David decals. That’s essential.
Star of David Helicopter Gunships in the Ark of the Covenant. Honestly. Hannah Arendt’s anticipated Sparta. (By the way, though I am not an expert on the subject, Sparta’s shelf-life as a dominant power didn’t last very long. If memory serves, I think it was more or less fifty years. Another issue but perhaps best saved as a commentary for a sermon with our newly envisioned Ark of the Covenant display.)
Yes, I was sure when the curtains opened the helicopter gunships would be there. The drama was palpable. I must have been in some mystical trance. Of course, it didn’t happen. You can imagine how disappointed I was when the curtains opened and only the Torah scroll was revealed.
Later, when I related this vision and my disappointment to one of my Jewish students, he told me it all could be arranged one day, surreptitiously. His suggested that the night before the services were held, we could get someone to substitute the silver helicopter gunship for the Torah scroll, then, wham, watch as the Rabbi and the congregation recoil in shock and anger. A real service stopper. The last place you’re supposed to see yourself in the collective mirror is synagogue. Blasphemy!
While I’m at it, let’s move to the Christian side of the aisle. Communion wafers/the Lord’s Supper, ritual bread with Conquistadores’ namesakes imprinted on them? Christians could then ponder if naming Christian empire will take away the sins of the world.
Let’s see – the faces of Pissarro, Cortes, and Columbus on communion wafers. Not to leave out Ponce de Leon and his search for the Fountain of Youth. Communion takers might wonder who they are. Forgetting history seems to be one of the tasks of religion. That’s part of the fun. Placing history front and center.
Or towns names – Chappaqua, Croton-on Hudson, Ossining. My old stomping ground, once the stomping ground of Native Americans, hence the Native American town names. Now the location of Disappearing Palestine adverts. Shall they all be added to the Bread of Life?
Oh my, I almost forgot, for the Ark of the Covenant, add the mezuzah on the beach now upped to ritualistic status – The Mezuzah on the Beach.
All religion is local.