This is part seven of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
Beautiful morning. Low tide. Swimming in the ocean. Cool water. Before the heat. Dealing with anger. George Harrison’s admonition running through my mind: “Beware of darkness.” Translated Jewishly, beware of exile?
Again, particularity rather than the universal is important here. Though exile is also universal. So many individuals and communities have felt exile’s sting. Still exile has a certain resonance in Jewish history. Or rather, it is essential to Jewish identity. Like the prophetic. Though it is secondary to the prophetic, since without the prophetic, how can we discern meaning in exile?
Jewishly speaking, exile is darkness. It can also be light. Jewishly speaking, exile is never frivolous. There’s a reason for exile. Punishment is one reason. Exercising the prophetic is another.
I can hear it now and appropriately so. The issue of Palestine is not about Jews. About the Jewish ethical tradition. About the loss and possible recovery of the Jewish soul. I agree. That’s Progressive Jews naval gazing. The “politics of meaning.”
But then look at the place Norman Finkelstein has landed. He’s so taken with the idea of International Law that he’s trapped there. The argument between BDS and Finkelstein seems trapped there, too. Which side better represents the thrust of International Law, as if that law had been handed down from heaven? Is International Law carved on Sinai-like tablets?
The admonition here is clear, at least to me: Don’t get stuck in any ism – International Law(ism), Universal(ism), Particular(ism). Why not use them all, mixing and matching, where one enhances the other, multiplying the possibilities. Of justice around the corner. Because none of them as they are has provided much leverage, politically speaking. Or, to be honest, all of them combined. When we realize that we have lost everything and that there is no victory on the horizon, we are free to spread our wings and fly to our next destination.
Contradictions are everywhere. Appealing to Presbyterians who aren’t risking anything in their material world. Often linking with other Jews who aren’t risking anything in their material world. Infighting about International Law/BDSers. Two states versus One state. Struggling together, we shouldn’t demand a purity of arms. As if any of us have a lock on purity.
This infighting leaves us stuck somewhere and sometimes everywhere. Being stuck is a blind alley. You have to think again.
Being stuck encourages anger. The longer one is stuck, the more the anger. Being stuck in anger means we argue for positions that we wouldn’t ordinarily argue for. We’ve all been there. When it happens we need a prodding. We have to move on.
The singular and then evolving configuration of our stance on politics has to be complimented by a deeper engagement – a deeper encounter – with our backgrounds and the primal sense of who we are and what we should be about in life. This geography of essences is disputed territory, specifically, the issue of essentialism, which in terms I can understand, means simply the question of whether or not there is some kind of enduring substructure to our identity. For example, is there an essence to Jewish identity? Are there primal areas of Jewish identity which, more or less, are unchanging or, in different contexts, orients the change that different environments demand? Like chosenness/special destiny/being singled out. Like exile. Like the prophetic.
Obviously I am going against the modernist grain here. Yet from my vantage point – and in my personal journey – it is clear that there are thoughts and actions, intentional trajectories, that are colored by our backgrounds/inheritance/history/culture/foundational texts and so on. I certainly don’t agree with Harold Bloom’s sensibilities that American – or Jewish – culture is in a downward spiral and that without the classics, culture is doomed. That is a superficial sense of identity formation.
What is fascinating about Jewishness is that the classics, for Jews that is usually considered to be the Rabbi’s writings gathered in the Talmud, is somehow within our Jewish being regardless of our specific “Jewish” knowledge. Rather than the Rabbinic writings, our classic is the Bible, specifically the Biblical prophets. Jews “know” these prophets without having a detailed knowledge of them individually. Learning about the Biblical prophets is an add-on, a way of learning why we are like are. This means that the prophetic is already there within Jews.
How the prophetic gets there is an interesting question. I have thought a lot about this over the years. How is it that the Jewish prophets of today are, more or less, like the Jewish prophets who roamed the earth thousands of years ago? We can try to explain it sociologically, culturally and in a myriad other ways, all of which are of interest; they need to be factored in. Taken together, however, they fall short. These reasons also cannot explain the explosion of the Jewish prophetic in our time, against the grain and against our own best interests.
After the Holocaust especially, why would Jews of Conscience rail against the abuse of Jewish power, especially when embracing that power is their gateway to affluence and acceptance? It just doesn’t make sense, Jews coming out of the Jewish woodwork to say Not In My Name!
Most Jews of Conscience today would do extremely poorly on a Jewish “literacy” test. Equally fascinating – and telling – these Jewish literacy tests are specifically aimed at defusing the primal aspects of the prophetic Jewish identity that Jews of Conscience embody. The educational efforts of Empire Jews and Progressive Jews as well is precisely to tame the Jewish primal prophetic and convince them that the prophet’s companion, exile, is not what it is cracked up to be.
Think of the self-Rabbinic coronation some years ago of Arthur Waskow and Michael Lerner. One month I flip through the pages of Tikkun and read the always extensive editorial of Michael Lerner. The next month I flip through the pages of Tikkun and read the still extensive editorial of Rabbi Michael Lerner. Voila!
Progressive Jews got caught up in the Jewish Renewal movement to improve their Jewish literacy. In doing so, they lost their prophetic edge. True, they chanted newly learned Hebrew prayers and gathered for organic Shabbat celebrations. In turn, the cutting edge of the Jewish Left was grounded into a smooth surface. They thought it was better to do “battle” with the Jewish establishment on their own turf. Huge mistake.
Establishments are not about authenticity. They’re about power. All establishments. I remember being called in by Arthur Waskow when he heard I was writing a Jewish theology of liberation. He informed me that he was the Jewish theologian of liberation. No trespassing aloud!
In Catholic terms, playing the authentic card is like taking on the Vatican. To do this you have to become more Catholic than the Pope. Over the last decades, this has been more or less what we have witnessed, the “who is really authentically Jewish,” the Empire Jewish establishment or the would-be next Jewish establishment led by Progressive Jews? How do you feel about replacing Edgar Bronfman with Michael Lerner? Or Elie Wiesel with Arthur Waskow? I’m not going there.
To my mind, the struggle over “authentic” Jewishness is a vast illusion, apes Christian piety and dulls deep thought into a return to a virtual Jewish summer camp reality show. Now everyone should do what they need to do, including improving one’s knowledge of Judaism, but to follow the Rabbinic model of either the Empire or Progressive Jewish establishments is a dead end.
Why sign on the elites of either of the establishments since they are both fated, one to be remembered as war mongers, the other as leading a failed movement on the verge of extinction. In the end, there will be only two major groupings in Jewish life, Empire Jews and Jews of Conscience. As well, most Jews won’t be connected with either group. That’s another illusion – “the Jewish community.”
Which isn’t to down Waskow or Lerner. They did their thing for their time. Personal and cultic excesses aside, however, they made a wrong turn and brought many people with them. The wrong turn was being more “Jewish” in a certain defined way – a kind of New Age Rabbinic search for meaning and connection with a justice-edge sensibility. In practice it meant dulling the prophetic impetus that the Rabbinic system in its original formation had already accomplished. Why the Jewish renewal movement thought that dressing the old up with the new would change its dismissal of the prophetic I have no idea. It may be related more to the cult of personality than lack of thought, though the two may be tied together. Anyway, the Tikkun phase of the Jewish Left is over. In the end it became the Left-wing of Empire Judaism.
Why loiter here? It’s on to the next phase. But first, another memory. Several years ago, against the odds I was asked to serve on the Board of the Society of Jewish Ethics. It’s a long story but suffice to say that almost everything the SJE does programmatically is imbued with the Rabbinic. This includes holding Shabbat services on Friday night and Saturday morning even though the SJE is an academic society and meets at an academic convention it shares with the much larger Society of Christian Ethics and more recently the Society of Islamic Ethics.
When I first understood that this was the way they operated I was shocked. Everyone dressed in ritual garb. Our food was catered (quite expensive) Kosher. The demonstration of our Jewishness alarmed me. We wore it on our sleeves. Nonetheless I remained on the Board for three years. Most of the Board members were quite respectful of me. They even listened to my complaints.
One night I retired to my hotel room for some rest before dinner and heard noises from the street below. The conference was in Chicago. It was January 2008. When I looked out my hotel window, I saw a demonstration, several hundred strong, protesting the Israeli invasion of Gaza. At dinner that night the Board met to make sure everything was going right with the conference. We even spoke about the future. On the invasion of Gaza, silence. The Society of Jewish Ethics, good people, demonstrably Jewish. Silence.
Several years later, Reverend Jeremiah Wright was invited to speak by the Society of Christian Ethics. There wasn’t silence then. In fact, all hell broke loose. The Board sent an emissary to complain about his appearance and what he said about Israel and Jewish power in the United States. A joint panel of both societies was arranged for the following year to soften the tone. As you might imagine, I was asked to represent the “Jewish” point of view.
Perhaps the challenge is to decrease Jewish literacy. The most learned among us are too often the silent, the angry, complicit. Have you noticed?
Silence on Gaza. Fury at Reverend Wright. So typical, it goes without saying. Without thinking, what in God’s name is going on?
Yes, in terms of Jewish literacy, though, to end on a more positive note, did you see the new world Jewish population figures? A lesson in Jewish geography. Or a way of mapping Jewish history.
The demographics show 15.3 million Jews in the world. Can you guess the top five areas where Jews reside? The first two are obvious, the United States and Israel, followed by Argentina, with the Russian Federation ranking fifth. As Adam Horowitz points out, the fourth most populous Jewish area in the world isn’t even a country. Think! Are you ready? Number four on the list is the Palestinian Authority – it is listed as such – with the citation coming from the CIA Factbook. Over 600,000 Jews in Palestinian territory. This was in 2007.
A bold step it is for the CIA to list the area as the Palestinian Authority, though this is clearly the case. What they don’t say is that this particular population is a settlement population, a new nomenclature for Jewish demographics. So, just to let it sink in, after the United States, Israel and Argentina, are most populous Jewish community is living within internationally recognized Palestine. And according to international standards these Jews are living there illegally.
So, with South Africa starring us in the mirror, let it fly: our fourth largest population concentration of Jews are illegal settlers. Now, at least from the Palestinian side, Israel’s Jews might figure into that category as well. So rounding off Jewish demographics, from almost five to more than thirty percent of the world’s Jewish population are illegal settlers or dominate a land that once was someone else’s home. These are numbers to remember. What to do with these facts – on the ground?
So often I hear both Jewish establishments talk about Palestinian demographics. The only discussion about Jewish demographics I hear relates to low birth rates and intermarriage. Should the world’s Jewish demographics take on a new theme – Jews as illegal settlers?
Or how about this. Counting America and Israel as empires on the global and regional scene, more than two/thirds of the world’s Jewish population lives in empire. Ever heard that discussed and analyzed? No wonder Jewish identity is empire-oriented.
Map literacy. Jewish geography. Rather than Hebrew or Rabbinic sources – no matter how progressive – perhaps this is the Jewish literacy we need.
Jewish professionals listen up. The title of our next conference is: “Confronting the Problem of Jewish Demographics.” Topics to be discussed: Jewish birth rate, Jewish intermarriage, Jewish illegal settler population, Jews living in empire.