This is part sixteen of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
Practicing exile. Proximity to the prophetic. Draw near and hear your heartbeat.
Jews have a history of exile that is too often lost to us. As if exile is foreign territory.
Exile isn’t foreign to Jews. Though the territory where exiles live is mostly non-Jewish, it is from these foreign lands that most of the “Jewish” we know it comes from. This means that “foreign”- isn’t.
Exile occurs within the various historical incarnations of Israel, the state. Exile exists within the modern state of Israel. More and more Israelis, already in exile within the state, leave Israel for another exile. These Israelis are twice exiled. Surprising numbers of them are children of Holocaust survivors. Triple exile. Jewish vanguard kind of stuff. Is it in their Jewish DNA?
If we think we’re the first ones to taste the bitterness of exile, we are mistaken. When we think we will be the last ones to taste the bitterness of exile, we are mistaken. When we think first/last we lose out on the lessons of exile, including its treasures.
Christian liberation theologians like the Peruvian Gustavo Gutierrez write about the poor as the engine of history. They are no doubt correct. But another engine are the exiles of every stripe who challenge the understood and acceptable. What joins the poor and the exiles is the prophetic. The prophetic is the bridge between the involuntarily and voluntarily displaced.
The prophets – they are the bridge over troubled water. Or walk on the bridge within troubled water. History as troubled water. Prophets on the bridge. The prophets know the damage. They are surveyors of catastrophe.
The cost of exile is great. What will help us through? At first reading, the Bible doesn’t help much. At least certain readings aren’t much help. Wishing punishment on the victors doesn’t get us very far. God isn’t coming down to tear the powerful down or lift us up. We have each other. Whether we read the Bible or not, that’s about it.
Seems like chump change when compared to God. But I don’t see God hanging around much. Our presence to each other shouldn’t be taken for granted. Exiles know that “each other” is complicated. Distance, infighting, a sense of isolation – all of this takes its toll. Regardless of our flawed presence, without a sense of purpose and mutual aid we are lost.
The prophetic can’t flourish if only desolation surrounds us. There is enough on desperation row to go around for eternity.
Practicing exile is learning to survive and flourish in the prophetic moment. Practicing exile is the long haul. It is an extended riff on the prophetic moment.
Think of those who cut their teeth in the 1980s. Think of my own Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation being more relevant today than it was twenty-five years ago. Any author appreciates the relevance of his work after so many years. Having said that, it’s hardly encouraging to find my ideas about the loss of Palestine and the loss of Jewish ethics more relevant today because the issues addressed there are actually worse than they were then. Much, much worse.
So the long haul it is and the prophetic prepares us for this – if we learn to practice exile. Yet we hardly understand the prophetic. Mostly, we acknowledge the existence of the tradition then move on quickly. We address the pressing issues at hand. As if the mere mention of the prophetic invokes what is necessary and sufficient.
A spirituality of the prophetic? Of exile? Little of substance is written on these topics. Most of it is gloss. The Jewish Renewal movement dealt with the prophetic and exile by ritualizing it. As a way of coping, they Intoned newly learned Hebrew, various Asian meditation techniques and Native American dances. When that was exhausted they delved into the Abrahamic faiths tangle. To me – and with due respect – these are spins on the prophetic/exile dynamic. They are coping mechanisms. It treats exile as if it isn’t permanent. Exile is permanent. None of us are going back.
My experience with young prophetic Jews is that they want little to do with this coping sensibility. They want the prophetic/exile served up in real time. That is the great hope of the present generation.
I suppose part of my exile thing right now is thinking “mezuzah” daily. Visual reminders of exile are all around us. At the Cape, my doorposts are now mezuzah-less. I doubt it matters if there is a mezuzah on my doorpost. Cosmically speaking, who cares? Yet the question remains. What to do with our lives in the meantime?
That’s the only question – and a big one. Since we spend so much energy on our individual existence, we need to engage it with a focused intentionality. Though collective realities seem almost cosmic in scope, there isn’t any proof that collective reality is important beyond a sense of belonging in the here and now. Nonetheless, we are drawn to cosmic questions. We are drawn to collective identities.
Perhaps we should focus only a certain percentage of our energy on these individual, collective and cosmic questions. Taken together, they pretty much sum up what makes history go round. Render unto each their due and refuse to give over what shouldn’t be given over? Part of practicing exile is time allotment.
Being in exile, the focus of life doesn’t shift so much. What changes is the intensity. We cease living accidental lives.
Practicing exile – there are benchmarks we need to develop. Whether they are quiet mornings or prayers before bed. Spending time in nature. Time-off or time reflecting. Shabbat dinners, Passover gatherings, sitting cross-legged on a cushion. Whatever.
Whatever – meaning that our personal practice is ours for the making. Just don’t link it with something cosmic or demand the same practice from others. Leave the “authentic” question to the empire builders.
The personal practice admonition goes for other communities as well. Solidarity across community lines cannot be based on having the same ritual or the same non-ritual. which usually amounts to an unannounced ritual anyway. Whatever helps focus us on the task at hand is the important thing.
On the other hand, the task at hand does not itself make a life. The long haul is intensely public. And deeply personal.
This is the mystery of the prophetic. And the prophet. The deeply personal is most serious challenge of exile.
“Personal is political” doesn’t get at the internal life of the prophet. Not by a longshot. Slogans don’t cover much ground when it comes to the inner part of our human condition.
The heartbeat of the prophet(ic). This is where practicing exile takes on life. We only have glimpses here – snapshots of poetry, testimony, last words, a depth of feeling that cannot be summed up or defined.
The heartbeat of the prophetic is found in the practice of exile. Yet it is almost impossible to encapsulate that ancient and yet so modern experience.
We think of the prophetic as expended in the bright spotlight of history. In actuality, history is only the most visible part of the prophetic. For the prophetic is hidden in another history, a history we have trouble accessing.
This has always been the case. The most visible. The prophet. The least visible. The prophet’s heartbeat.
Is the prophet’s heartbeat and the heartbeat of the prophetic the same?