This is part thirteen of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
From Thomas Merton, the Catholic monk, on his travels through Asia where he met his untimely death in 1968, quoting from the Tibetan Buddhist monk, Milarepa: “Fortunate are those who are not content with partial practice.”
Milarepa was a major figure major figure in the history of the Kagyu (Bka’-brgyud) school of Tibetan Buddhism. He was a yogi and a poet. He was also a mystic, who in his early years practiced a discipline called supernatural running while creating all sorts of havoc with his use of black magic. In his later years he repented and sought a change of life:
“In my youth I committed black deeds. In maturity I practiced innocence. Now, released from both good and evil, I have destroyed the root of karmic action and shall have no reason for action in the future. To say more than this would only cause weeping and laughter. What good would it do to tell you? I am an old man. Leave me in peace.”
Whatever Milarepa did he was all in. No partial practice for him. Since reading Merton’s journals, I have thought about Milarepa’s words often. For every person, every culture, every tradition there is a somewhat different understanding of what partial practice is. And how we overcome it. Let every person/culture/tradition name that practice and contribute it to the world. I doubt that practice is wholly different anywhere. I also doubt that it is same everywhere.
When we are together – overcoming partial practice – how good it is to celebrate our commonality. We realize that there is an ever expanding, ever evolving, global prophetic community. Yet also important to think about where we are as individuals. Shouldn’t we gather ourselves and ask where we are in our own practice – as a person, in our culture and tradition, within the context of the history we are living through?
Much of life is contextual. We are according to the times in which we live. Yet there is a deeper layer that is also independent of history. It is between the two layers where we find our fidelity. Being engaged and disengaged. Being totally present and somewhere else – at the same time. This allows us to be in the world without being totally defined by it. For if we are defined by the world – only – how can be act within it in a dissenting way? There must be a place outside of our context to be involved in it – from a different point of view.
However we get there – with or without religious ritual, with or without God, with or without an immediate community – there we are. Where we are is a test. Where should we be?
Alas in history overcoming partial practice doesn’t mean our community or our history will change. Most often, if change is happening, it isn’t obvious, is too slow. It isn’t going to get where it needs to be. Nor are we, if success is the watchword.
Success is probably the worse compass to fly by. We are never going to get the “success” coordinates right and if we do we’ll end up conforming to power, to the culture, to what is appropriate, to what is “authentic.”
Beware of becoming an “authentic” Jew. Run from the very notion since, by definition, “authentic” is outside of you. By refusing to be authentic we’re actually much closer already. To the real thing. If we want to be Jewish, we have to leave the received definition of Jewish behind. By becoming (un)Jewish, we are already closer.
Which is to say that Jewish prophetic isn’t, first and foremost, learned Jewishly. Since most of Jewish learning is learning how to cope with and submerge the prophetic. Have you ever noticed those of you who attended Hebrew School as I did, three afternoons a week plus the Sunday school thing, that the real lesson we learned was how to conduct ourselves as pillars of the Jewish community? No doubt it has become worse than in my childhood. Now add – pillars of America and Israel.
Becoming a Bar Mitzvah in 1965, I was taught before the Holocaust or Israel was central to Jewish life. We were only on our way up in American society. Hadn’t yet arrived. Israel wasn’t a superpower in the Middle East. Our own sense was that it was sort of hanging around. We didn’t know much about the state. Then again making Israel central to Jewish life hasn’t increased Jewish literacy about Israel either. Israel has more power. Jews know as little. Maybe even less. As the (un)read, (un)readable maps of Disappearing Palestine appearing Westchester County attest to.
Talk about partial practice! File under: Jewish learning at the Hebrew School level and Jewish Studies programs in universities. Sometimes I think the entire Jewish learning enterprise exists to dumb down Jews by inflating them with knowledge of the tradition. But if you think most of tradition is exactly that, to keep Jews in line, then avoidance at all costs is mandatory. Unless you find some Jewish outlier in the tradition, who has been forgotten, which happens, on occasion.
As often, various aspects of the tradition are highlighted, while other parts of the tradition are submerged. The submerged await excavation by (un)authentic Jews.
How do we overcome partial practice? There is a conscious element, as in, I need to do more. I also think there is a spiritual element which is not communal ritual on a designated day of the week.
Though if truth be known, I did become a Sabbath prayer in my late twenties. This continued for more than thirty years. Interestingly, my Sabbath observance came as my Passover celebrations diminished. Of course, I did it all with my kids and enjoyed it quite a bit. It was a meaningful part of our lives together. On the Passover Seder front, I used variations of the Rainbow Seders. For those years I give Arthur Waskow and his crew credit where credit is due. Still, expiration dates don’t only come on milk containers. How long can we celebrate Passover when the very liberation we celebrate is used to oppress another people?
I know the arguments, some of which make a lot of sense. Keep hope alive! Don’t let the Jewish establishment corner the Authentic Jew market. We all need times to gather on our own terms and lay out the Seder as we think it should be. Even this year, I loved the Jewish Voice for Peace Haggadah. Every one of the Ten Plagues involved the sin of occupation! Much less Waskovian. A real and needed advance.
At least in my reading the JVP Passover narrative doesn’t have as much on the one hand, on the other. Meaning the oppression of the Palestinians isn’t – “balanced” – by the need for Israel’s security blah blah blah. Tell me if you remember the Jewish Left as it promoted the end of South African apartheid, showing an inordinate concern for the white minority? If you remember the Sullivan Principles bandied about by folks like Ronald Reagan, it was just a transition proposal that disguised the intention to keep white South Africa afloat. So many of the breakthroughs on the Jewish ritual front, including the expanded Passover Seders, are likewise thinly disguised operations to Israel’s occupation afloat. Sullivan Principles Seders!
So, too, with much of Jewish feminism in the religious arena. Check out Judith Plaskow’s, Standing Again at Sinai, if you want an important read about women in Jewish life. If you’re looking for the key question facing the Jewish people, the oppression of the Palestinian people, best to look elsewhere. There is only one thoroughly vetted chapter on the issue. No bite. But then if you want to court the Jewish community on the inclusion of women, do you really want to alienate them with harsh words about Israel? Invitations to speak are hard to come by. Bite your lip. Stay in line.
Again, the Authentic Jew comes into place. If women want to be counted as authentic Jews with feminist rituals accorded their proper respect, whose approval do they need? The Jewish establishment’s, of course. To deflect the central question, the establishment said yes to feminism, providing it was disciplined. And manly. Sort of like Hillary Clinton proving that as a woman she was more hawkish than Barack Obama. How else could she prove that she had the fortitude to be President – or translated Jewishly, a Rabbi? Standing again at Sinai, with whom, in what relation, with what kind of power, with what history spoken? A Jewish feminist ritual that details the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians?
Yes, of course, there are plenty of feminists in the prophetic exilic community. They are off the beaten Authentic Jew track. Though on the Rabbinic front, believe me, feminists rabbis haven’t made a dent in the idea of Jews as innocent. At least in years past they held up their part of the Rabbinic patriarchal establishment. They brought new energy to it. Of course, women Rabbis have their complaints, as female clergy of all faiths do. These complaints are real. Insofar as they buttress the Empire/Progressive establishments, however, they need to be called out regardless. Politically correct hasn’t got us very far, has it?
The sad fact is that often women build empires, the every same ones they opposed when the Father’s had them. Or they use the hard won battles for justice for women against others for their own advancement. I have found that, think of this, women can even be bought and, oh my, they can collude with the powers-that-be for their own enhanced paydays. Yes, romanticizing the Other has its limits. Thank God for the women – and the men – who turn down empire’s paycheck. It isn’t a regular occurrence.
What’s our option? Play the game. Win or lose. You can lie on whatever witness stand you’re called to and call it a life. That’s one form of cynicism. You be knocked to your knees and think how unfair it is. Which it often is. You can think the whole world is unjust. Which it might be. But that’s another form of cynicism.
Cynicism, in its various forms, is that what makes the world go round? It might. A certain amount of corruption is probably important to the world’s functioning. And often those whose mandate it is to clean up corruption are corrupt themselves. You can read about it in that intrepid decolonizer’s new book. Fontan relates stories that are so horrific they take your breath away. Of women being raped by one gang then raped again by their “rescuers.” Factor in these seedy realities when we speak about anything bright and cheery, the politics of meaning, International Law, development, protecting human rights. The list is endless.
The prophetic doesn’t venture into the bright and cheery. It doesn’t go anywhere near that goal post. The prophetic doesn’t have a thing to do with success, whatever that means within and after injustice and atrocity. At its deepest point, the prophetic doesn’t even think of itself contributing to the cosmic meaning of the human adventure. Nor does the prophet bring in God as the way out of the truth of our existence.
The prophetic is the consistent attempt – within our human limitations – to overcome partial practice. To plumb the depths of history. To be present to history as a form of fidelity. In Jewish life this isn’t an add-on. Jews aren’t grafted on as Christians are, using the always fascinating Pauline imagery. We’re not just along for the ride. At least, that isn’t our assigned purpose.
Overcoming partial practice – Milarepa thinks how fortunate we are! Yet as he knew well, pitfalls are everywhere.
By the way, if you’re asking, what the rewards are for overcoming partial practice, move to another question. There are brownie points in heaven. With God. If there is a God. No brownie points on earth either. There is too much loss involved.
For Jews, overcoming partial practice is to draw near to the prophetic by practicing it – in exile. Which is coming close to what it means to be Jewish in the world.
That we have to distance ourselves from authentic Judaism to draw near to Jewishness is an irony of great proportions. But riddle me this: Isn’t this true with all cultures, communities, religions and nations, that to draw near, to overcome the partial practice of each, one has to distance oneself from what is known as authentic this and that?
Some folks think that there is a reward and if it’s not here on earth, it’s in heaven. As in the Our Father – at least as commonly interpreted. The prophets know the difference between entry into history and rewards. The prophets go against the grain of history and what most of us want from it. That is why the prophets – and the prophetic – are doomed to failure.
The great Jewish Biblicist, theologian and linguist, Martin Buber, saw it this way – the prophets as failures in history as we typically know it – history from above. Yet at the same time, Buber understood that there was a prophetic stream in history – history from below.
History from below has been taken up by Christian liberation theology. Liberationist Christians see history from below and especially those who suffer in history as the engine of history. Martin Buber wrote of it in a somewhat different language while pointing to the same effect. Buber believed that the prophets very failure – get this – prepared the world for redemption.
Do you believe that, failure as way of redemption?
Which means suffering for what you believe is just. It means exile. No earthly rewards.
Overcoming partial practice. No rewards in this life or the next, except the biggest one of all.
Gratitude for preparing the world for redemption? Difficult. Even if you believe redemption is on the way. A huge question mark for sure. Huge.