Exile and the prophetic: Hope against hope

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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.

We don’t have to romanticize/historic Jewish leaders like Rabbi Judah Magnes and Rabbi Marshall Meyer to point out how weak, one might say pathetic, current Jewish leadership is.  Nor need we romanticize the past to want more in the present. 

Current Jewish leadership, including and especially Progressive Jewish leadership, is totally inadequate.  It’s a scandal really.

We’ve been living this scandal for decades.  That the leadership of B’nai Jeshurun took pains to reassure its congregants after ‘alienating’ a portion of their congregation by embracing the United Nations vote on Palestine shouldn’t surprise us.  What’s surprising is that some hardened veterans of the Jewish civil war thought the leadership might stand its ground. 

These veterans should have known better.  Then why did they hope against hope that the synagogue leadership would stand tall? Is it because they still held out hope that alienation could be risked for justice’s sake? That someone in Jewish officialdom would finally stand up and be counted – and survive?

Hope against hope is real when even those who should know better – don’t.

Jews of Conscience keep plugging away at subverting the powers that be.  They aren’t getting very far.  Still hope is alive.  Is there an alternative?

There’s despair, of course.  At least for me, the best evidence of despair is when Jewish and non-Jewish commentators on the Left hail Israel as the loser in the Gaza stand-off. Or when these same commentators believe that Israel’s proposed new settlement construction that closes the ring around Jerusalem is a victory for their version of the one-state solution. 

They place a happy face on a deteriorating situation.  It strains any semblance of credulity.

We’re all waiting for that wild card that changes Israel/Palestine for the better.  We want it so much that we grasp at any straw we find. 

It’s ridiculous to think Rabbis have the courage to risk their prestige – and jobs – by standing up for justice. It’s unreasonable to think Netanyahu’s various political gambles are the final brick in the wall for Palestinian freedom. What evidence do we have that makes these hopes realistic?

Fortunately, this, too, shall pass.  When it does, though, we’ll probably be deeper in our collective mess.   Or a compromise will be reached that is acceptable to few, if any, of those who thought the lay leadership might hold and Jerusalem settlements might be the last note of injustice.

Yes, I hope as well for the cumulative effect filed under: ‘The worse it gets the closer we are to victory.”

Round and round we go.  If we don’t celebrate what we think is the path of reversing Israel’s power – even if it isn’t real –is the alternative to sit idly by and complain? 

Defeatism isn’t the best response to defeat.

Declaring victory in defeat is an illusion.

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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4 Responses

  1. HRK
    December 9, 2012, 12:12 pm


    A few days back you wrote about Rabbi Gordis’ inner circle of caring.

    Here’s what Wikipedia says about Gordis: “Daniel Gordis (born 1959) is President of the Shalem Foundation and Senior Vice President and Senior Fellow at the Shalem Center in Israel. Gordis was the founding dean of the Ziegler Rabbinical School, the first rabbinical college on the West Coast of the United States.”

    So, clearly, he’s not a fringe figure in contemporary Judaism.

    Eric Yoffie has said some things along the same lines. Mondoweiss quoted him as saying this: “I care about humankind, but I love my own group a bit more. I am more comfortable with them. I care more about them, just as I care more about my family than other families.”

    And also this: “I am convinced, to the depth of my being, that Jewish destiny is a collective destiny. And I believe as well that the concept of the Jews being one people is a religious idea and not an ethnic, political, or cultural one. The foundations of peoplehood are not to be found in nostalgia, gastronomy, or a shared sense of vulnerability, but in the covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish people. It is the covenant at Sinai that links all Jew, including nonobservant ones, in a bond of shared responsibility…” [Italics–the part I wish to hone in on, are mine.]

    Wikipedia has this to say about Yoffie: “Eric H. Yoffie is a Reform rabbi, and past president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the congregational arm of the Reform movement in North America which represents an estimated 1.5 million Reform Jews in more than 900 synagogues across the United States and Canada. He was the unchallenged head of American Judaism’s largest denomination from 1996 to 2012.”

    And this: “In 1999 The Jewish Daily Forward named Yoffie the number one Jewish leader in America.”

    So, clearly, Yoffie isn’t a fringe figure, either.

    I’ve come to believe that it’s not a good idea to criticize religion per se, but I do think it’s sometimes appropriate to criticize the culture of a religion–what people of a religion take to be religious (in distinction to what the religion “actually” or “really” teaches).

    A little more background to my question: In the last, say, five hundred to seven hundred years there’s been a general trend toward liberalism. Yet we have leading Jewish rabbis in the 21st century pronouncing that (though they might love gentiles) they feel as Jews they should make a conscious decision to love their own people more. (These twin factors suggest that this my-group-more-love belief long pre-dates Zionism.) And: here let me note that it sounds as if the rabbis are talking about making a willful, conscious decision and not as if they’re talking about merely having what could be called a natural affinity for their own people–as is surely the case with almost all people groups. (“Natural affinity”: Think friends: You don’t necessarily consciously decide that you like someone as a friend–you just like them. Probably for a lot of small reasons, shared experiences, same age, etc., etc.)

    So my questions to you is this: Historically (I’m thinking Europe here) could this cultural dynamic “embedded” for centuries in leading Jews’ conception of Judaism (and doubtlessly, believed by many of their followers) have been a factor in the growth of anti-Semitism?

    One can see how a group of people more individualistic who didn’t have the religious culture (stress on both words) of loving their own people more would be at a disadvantage in many realms when they came in contact with people who did. If you love your fellow ethnic more than me, are you more or less likely to be biased toward him?

    Why do we insist that judges recuse themselves? It’s not only in cases in which they hate one party. It’s also in cases in which they love one party more than the other. And I’m sure you should be able to understand why. In aggregate (as opposed to focusing on individual examples), we would expect to find a tendency: those judges who love one party of a case are likely to be biased in that party’s direction. The flow of power goes toward the person who is loved.

    One can see what would happen if a small group with this religious culture gained political prominence: The machinery, resources, and power of the state would tend to flow toward their fellow ethnics and away from the majority. The state would be run in such a way so that what happened was good for the smaller group first and foremost, even in situations involving conflicts over resources.

    That’s a situation which could bring about a lot of (justifiable) resentment. And, just as loving one’s own group more invariably (in aggregate) leads to bias, in aggregate resentment leads to hate. And hate leads to anti-Semitism.

    What think you?

  2. pabelmont
    December 10, 2012, 10:55 am

    To your list — Rabbi Judah Magnes and Rabbi Marshall Meyer — please add Rabbi Heschel who is widely quoted (including I think by you somewhere in these essays) as saying “some are guilty but all are responsible”. If he was not talking to and about Jews, then I withdraw the quote.

    Her essay: What I did on my summer vacation:

    This summer I learned that all my family were mobsters who routinely murdered and tortured and robbed innocents. So I packed my bags and left home. I read myself out of my own family! (And later I heard that my father then said, “I have no daughter” which seemed a bit cruel even when I considered that I’d said “I have no family” first.) And then it was fall, the end of summer vacation. What next? Stay tuned.

    Family is what you must leave when you decide that it is no longer a proper place to be. Rabbis? Considering becoming former Rabbis? There’s a lot of work repairing storm damage from “Sandy” and then speaking out on Global Warming. And on Israel.

  3. HRK
    December 10, 2012, 11:36 am


    Please, is it possible for you to answer me? As the only person commenting here (as of yet), it’s doubtful that you didn’t read what I wrote.

    Am I getting the silent treatment because I reached the limits of your liberalism?

    . . . Or did I just bore you to death?

  4. HRK
    December 10, 2012, 1:20 pm

    –Wait. Scratch my last request. I’m thinking it was rude. It’s certainly your prerogative not to respond. I realize my initial comment is somewhat controversial, and I suppose I was growing a little nervous at having no response or no other comments to my comment.

    Also, I want to stress that in trying to elucidate some of the causes of anti-Semitism, in no way am I condoning anti-Semitism. And I’m not arguing that anti-Semitism doesn’t have a life of its own–because I think it does. Looking back on history, I believe one can find a lot of anti-Semitic behavior which is only in the scantiest, most negligible way related to what Jews have done or believed.

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