Exile and the Prophetic: The circled wagons

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This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

With the High Holidays over, I need a breather. At least a change of direction.

I begin with the observation that most of the Jewish Left uses the High Holidays as a propaganda tool. Though not personally involved in religious observance, they utilize the High Holidays as an organizing tool. Since ordinary Jews relate to High Holidays – and Passover, too – why not exploit the symbols. Organizing 101.

I doubt this presumption is accurate. Many Jews have an acquaintance with the High Holidays through Jewish background, culture and the bare minimum of Jewish education. Non-Jewish neighbors who remind Jews of their holy days is probably as important as anything specifically Jewish.

What these holy days mean is unknown. But, in a highly educated way, this is true for most Rabbis, too. Other than the official ritual, Rabbis have become functionaries with renewable contracts. They know what to do.

The most important time of the Rabbi’s year is Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The Rabbi’s job is to remind Jews who they are. But then, if the Rabbis don’t have clue who they are outside of reminding Jews who they are, how can they advise Jews of a place beyond where we are?

It’s a “circle the wagons” kind of thing – without knowing where anyone is going and why we’re there in the first place. We don’t even know who’s really out there who wants to get us. The terms that are used – Palestinians, Arabs, Holocaust deniers, Iran as future Holocaust preparers – are largely mnemonic devices. Few Jews in the Pews have ever met any of these “types.” These types function as stand-ins.

Israel and Israelis function as mnemonic devices, too. Few Jews in the Pews have ever met any of these “types” either. Israel as a stand-in second only to the Holocaust. The percentage of living Jews who are true survivors of the Holocaust is small. The unreality of Holocaust discourse is highlighted when all Jews can be seen as survivors. Attending Holocaust commemorations is another highlight of this unreality.

I use “Jews in the Pews” as a Christian cross-referencing device just to orient our discussion. I am thinking now that the “Jews” in Jews in the Pews itself must be analyzed anew. What does this new evolution of Jewish mean?

We know about Jews on the run. That’s a lot of Jewish history in one form or another. For Jews who have never been on the run and no longer know how to run to be taught that they are on the run – the meaning of this is unknown.

The unknown is here. If you checked the circle wagons you will find this question somewhere. That is, if anyone is allowed to speak. Or can speak, since the language of Jewish is so out of step with the reality of ordinary Jewish life that Jews can only speak in the “types” that have been given. The real surprise is that those with higher Jewish education, the Rabbis, can only “type speak,” too. This is where things get really scary.

In large part, we don’t know what this out of context speak/teaching means for the Jewish psyche. Or we know, at least in partial fashion. Here it is as far as I can see: Jews who have never been on the run and don’t know how to run are taught that they are on the run; this dissonance can only be maintained if Jews keep others on the run psychologically and physically. Keeping others on the run functions as a way of deflecting the underlying issue of what it means to be Jewish.

Those on the Jewish Left have regained part of their Jewishness by knowing that this Jewish equation is wrong – and by being on the run, again. The content of their Jewishness is exile and the prophetic. Many have reclaimed this specifically Jewish content precisely because other Jews claim a Jewishness highlighted by a false stability and an contextually absurd foundational identity.

Jewish uniqueness: Can you think of another world-view, let alone a religion, whose content essence is being on the run and periodically reclaims that essence by beginning to run again?

Knowing the wrong equation. As good a way of being Jewish ever devised. The only way of being Jewish when the wagons are circled and we are surrounded by “types” that we fear and have never met.

Knowing the wrong equation. The prophetic. No other content is needed to uncircle the wagons.

About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is retired Director and Professor of Jewish Studies at Baylor University and author of The Heartbeat of the Prophetic which can be found at Amazon and www.newdiasporabooks.com

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