This is part seventeen of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
Back to my mezuzah watch, this time leading to the questions of questions, God. I’ve been dancing around the God question, preferring the Jewish question and the Israel question – or the prophet/exile tandem – but there’s a Jewish elephant in the room. It’s the one that Jews of Conscience kick down the road or don’t even kick, they just ignore.
Not to get anyone’s hopes up too high. If you’ve ever wrestled with the God question, you know it’s best to approach it indirectly and from different angles. In any case, don’t expect any answers from me, not even close. The last few days I’ve been wrapped in a kind of beach melancholy anyway. It may not be the best time for me to probe the God question but God’s on my mind so I’ll give it my best shot. If I don’t get it done this time, I’ll come around another day.
Before the mezuzah thing and the God question, tell me, are we really going back into the Eternal Anti-Semitism boxing ring? Raised by some Atlantic Monthly writer or affiliate that hit at Mondoweiss and other “marginal” types, as the writer so (un)easily put it, for their anti-Semitism or fellow traveling, I just wish the whole discussion would come to an end someday soon. But, no, that isn’t possible because the anti-Semite charge is easily available and highly charged. In short, it’s just too damn useful.
Most people who use it are grandstanders. As I have noted in a paragraph or two about some of my experiences with BDS – I stress some – if you don’t think anti-Semitism is alive you have your head in the sand. Anyone who thinks that I’m light on anti-Semites doesn’t know me. I’ve already called out the Jewish money responses to my riff on the Presbyterian’s 7 billion dollar portfolio. Really stupid stuff.
Some years ago an Irish Christian Biblical commentator, now deceased, a Catholic priest to boot and active in the Palestinian cause, trumpeted the Hebrew Bible’s colonialism so often I thought he mistook the history of the ancient Israelites with the last 1500 years of Christian history. Funny enough, he didn’t reference the latter. I found this a fascinating case of “Jews-on-the Brain.” Well I referred to him as an anti-Semite in a conference in Jerusalem we both were speaking at and the following day over breakfast he demanded an apology. I refused. I did step back a bit, though, correctly I think. I told him that though I couldn’t say for sure whether he was an anti-Semite as a person, his work certainly was. So either he or his work, or both, were anti-Semitic. Since he’s no longer with us, I’ll leave it at that.
What do you do with ant-Semites? Call them out. What do you do with false accusations of anti-Semitism when you are addressing the Palestinian issue? Call them out.
The internet is fascinating on mezuzah – look it up. Hawking them, many from Israel, the replacement I assume to the Israeli Hanukah candle industry when I was a child, low-tech by today’s standards. Chabad is out there with their mezuzah interpretations as a mitzvah. Listen to Wikipedia on the mezuzah:
A mezuzah (Hebrew: מְזוּזָה “doorpost”; plural: מְזוּזוֹת mezuzot) is a piece of parchment (often contained in a decorative case) inscribed with specified Hebrew verses from the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21). These verses comprise the Jewish prayer “Shema Yisrael”, beginning with the phrase: “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is One”
A mezuzah is affixed to the doorframe in Jewish homes to fulfill the mitzvah (Biblical commandment) to inscribe the words of the Shema “on the doorposts of your house” (Deuteronomy 6:9). Some interpret Jewish law to require a mezuzah on every doorway in the home apart from bathrooms, and closets too small to qualify as rooms. The parchment is prepared by a qualified scribe (a “sofer stam”) who has undergone many years of meticulous training, and the verses are written in black indelible ink with a special quill pen. The parchment is then rolled up and placed inside the case.
You’ve got to love the special quill pen and, yes, the indelible ink – as in fixed, permanent, stubborn, engrained, enduring. The opposite being fleeting or temporary.
Deuteronomy is packed full of hope and despair, rah rah cheers and admonitions that should scare the hell out of anyone who understands that the future is up for grabs. As with most of the Bible you have to pick and choose texts. As Jews have done. As all religions do.
Notice too, that you need a “qualified scribe” – is that to inscribe authority that speaks for God? Notice the scribe rather than the Biblical prophet, who didn’t have a quill pen, at least as far as we know. I don’t remember any of the prophets writing out rote passages or speaking them either. Prophets and writing come later. Without rote passages.
On the “years of meticulous training,” Emmanuel Levinas, the great Jewish philosopher, described the prophet as one who trains like a fighter, as in a boxer, but he reference asceticism. As in, the prophet has years of training – in asceticism. From which the prophetic word springs. But also, from which, there is no rescue.
“An asceticism, like the training of a fighter,” Levinas writes. The prophet is alone. Even God is absent from the prophet’s life. Often.
Levinas writes that the mezuzah grounds a Jewish home like an anchor. Such a home isn’t open to whims of the world. The mezuzah grounds the home and the people within it; everyone knows where they come from.
Still, when Levinas was queried about the Palestinians being our neighbor, the neighbor being everything in Levinas’ philosophy, the one we have an obligation to before even our obligation to ourselves – this during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in the 1980s – he fell short. Levinas answered that the Palestinians were not our neighbors, hence Jews have no obligation to them. Which raises the question as to whether Levinas, who wrote so beautifully about the prophets and the prophetic, can be forgiven? With this terrible error, does Levinas need to be rethought? Or abandoned?
Emmanuel Levinas’ and his beautiful evocation of the mezuzah as the anchor of the Jewish home. Yet he, too, led a secret/double mezuzah life. Perhaps his double understanding of neighbor, our neighbor being Jewish but not Palestinian, is now inscribed on our doorposts in indelible ink.
Those who seek to understand Levinas undergo meticulous training. And need it, since Levinas, like many other philosophers, are difficult to understand.
Let me put it this way. Entering the world of Levinas scholarship is like entering Kafka’s castle. You don’t where the authority who is calling you to task comes from. There’s a scribe with meticulous training somewhere in the castle, but who has authorized their inscription? Is it God on a good day or a bad one, or is it a God stand-in, an obligation to neighbor that disappears when the going gets tough?
This isn’t philosophy time. Or scribe time. The mezuzah is just an object. Symbol. Yet, as well, inscribed in the Jewish psyche. Like the words of the Shema it contains. God is One. Prayer of affirmation. Martyr’s prayer. The last words on our lips before Jews meet their death under various oppressive situations. Now others recite their martyr’s prayers before they are dispatched by us.
Sitting there on our doorposts. At our homes, at my dentist’s office, at the Rabbi’s weekend getaway on the beach. Most often mezuzot are found on the doorposts of the homes of the 1 percent.
In our present historical configuration, Jewish empowerment rules the day. No wonder Jewish empowerment mezuzot are on sale on the internet.
eMezuzah. As in eBay. Inscribed with indelible ink. Don’t forget. If the mezuzah is to be authentic. If your home is to be protected. If your status as a Jew is to be recognized. Have one. And make them bigger and prettier than ever. More expensive?
On the billboards In Texas, the constant refrain: Size Counts. Now that is true in Jewish life. The size of your mezuzah. Says a lot.
Yes, I finish without addressing the God question directly. Right there on the parchment – God is one. Hear Israel, your God. But with the anchor being power – helicopter gunships in the Ark of the Covenant – perhaps we have already translated God out of existence. Or our ability to talk about God.
Many say our reticence about God is about the Holocaust. Where was God in Auschwitz? True. Palestinians maybe asking where God is as Palestine disappears. Should they place mezuzot on their doorposts so that God will pass over them in a (reverse) Exodus?
Jewish reluctance to speak about God may also be about accountability. What if the mezuzah that trumpets our affirmation of God is a way we encase God under our power? So we won’t be accountable?