Exile and the prophetic: The rabbis before them

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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.

Email give-backs and a second New York Times article.  What a world we are living in.

The Rabbis and lay leaders of B’nai Jeshurun have taken their second chance to back away from unequivocal support for Palestinian freedom – sort of.  After all, they don’t want to alienate their New Age congregation.

First things first.  What did the synagogue leadership propose in the first place?  Did they propose enough to take back?

At this point in history, shouldn’t we expect more of synagogue leadership?  Shouldn’t synagogue leadership expect more of itself?

B’nai Jeshurun has had two fascinating Rabbis in their long history pertinent to the topic at hand.  The first one was Rabbi Judah Magnes, yes, that Judah Magnes, the Reform Rabbi and first Chancellor of Hebrew University.  He served the congregation in 1911- 1912.  Magnes worked alongside Martin Buber and Hannah Arendt.  He was a spiritual homeland Zionist.  Like Buber and Arendt, Magnes opposed the creation of the state of Israel.  

Magnes’s opposition wasn’t only symbolic.  As Israel was being created, Magnes met with Secretary of State George Marshall and President Harry Truman to try to persuade them not to recognize Israel as a state.  Instead, he shared with them his vision of a unified Palestine. 

Magnes’s vision:  Two homelands in the Holy Land or, better, a Middle East confederation which included Palestine. Jews and the Arabs of Palestine would live together with the other nations of the region. 

Though a pacifist at heart, Magnes argued that the United States should fill the void of Britain’s Palestine departure by declaring an American Trusteeship.  Magnes understood that such a declaration could mean the introduction of American troops into Jerusalem to keep Palestine unified.

Perhaps the leaders of B’nai Jeshurun should take a look at Magnes’s writings.  They can start with an article he published in Foreign Affairs in 1943 – ‘Toward Peace in Palestine.’  It’s still relevant.

Luckily, Magnes didn’t have email.  His paper trail on Palestine is extensive.  They can’t be so easily retracted.  I doubt very much he would want to.

The other distinguished congregational leader is Rabbi Marshall Meyer who served the congregation from 1984 until his death in 1993.  Meyer had a distinguished career before coming to B’nai Jeshurun.  Serving in Argentina, Meyer founded what became the leading Conservative seminary in Latin America, Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano.  In the political realm, Meyer was a strong critic of Argentina’s military government of the late 1970s and early 1980s.  He spoke publicly against the military government and visited political prisoners in jail.  Jacobo Timmerman’s book, Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number, is dedicated to him.

Unlike Magnes who lived and died as the state of Israel became a reality, Meyer was a spiritual homeland Zionist at heart within the context of Israeli statehood.  From his Latin American days, Rabbi Meyer was fully aware of the impact of Catholic liberation theology.  He wondered out loud what such a liberation theology would mean for empowered contemporary Jews with a state of their own.

I first met Rabbi Meyer in the late 1980s when the Palestinian Uprising was in full swing. The occasion was a conference at Dartmouth College that celebrated the life of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy who was a good friend of Franz Rosenzweig, the great German Jewish philosopher.  Both were born Jewish and considered conversion to Christianity.  Rosenstock-Huessy took that route; Rosenzweig demurred.  Instead, Rosenzweig explored his Jewishness at a depth which still enthralls Jewish philosophers.

After leaving Germany as Hitler rose to power, Rosenstock-Huessy spent a significant part of his life teaching at Dartmouth. Years later, Meyer became his student.  In turn, Rabbi Meyer read my book on a Jewish theology of liberation.  He invited me to speak at the conference on this topic.

The conference was unfamiliar territory for me and I was nervous about how my thoughts would be received.  After my talk, the Progressive Jewish philosopher, Paul Mendes-Flohr, insinuated himself as my respondent, dressing me down for my impertinence in criticizing Israel during this difficult time.  He asked that I retract some of my comments about Israel.  I refused.   We were living through the height of the Uprising.  My priority was Palestinian freedom.

Fortunately, before my encounter with Mendes-Flohr, Rabbi Meyer immediately put me at ease with an atypical rabbinic greeting.  After embracing me, he flipped through pages of my book, pointing to his extensive underlining and the notes he had written in the margins.  He said, ‘Marc, you have become my Rabbi.’

Marshall Meyer was the first Rabbi to confess that he had read my book, let alone admit he benefited from it.  He saw us as a team. Later I visited him at his home in New York. Our relationship became more personal.

On my last visit to him before his untimely death, I thanked him for the endorsement of my follow-up book published in 1990.  The title of that book – Beyond Innocence and Redemption: Confronting the Holocaust and Israeli Power.   Rabbi Marshall’s words warmed my heart.

No doubt I alienated a lot of Jews by writing such a book and especially one that bore that provocative title.  Tell me, is that title less or more relevant today than it was then?

As with all of my books until late in the 1990s, I wrote with pencil on long legal pads.  I’m not sure I knew what email was back then.  I didn’t have a chance to retract my words like the Rabbis and lay leaders of B’nai Jeshurun.

Rabbi Meyer died three years after my book was published.  Like Rabbi Magnes, I doubt Meyer would retract the sentiments he shared with me and others at such a deep level. 

When alienating congregants or the wider Jewish community becomes the ethical marker you don’t have Rabbis speaking truth to governments in America or Argentina or Israel for that matter. 

But, then, what’s a Rabbi to do, except test the congregational winds and modify statements that were too modest in the first place.

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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3 Responses

  1. yourstruly
    December 8, 2012, 4:25 pm

    what’s a rabbi to do?
    support justice for palestine
    look forward to continued irrelevancy

  2. yourstruly
    December 8, 2012, 4:46 pm

    but if no longer led by the rabbis, by whom?
    towards what & where?

  3. pabelmont
    December 10, 2012, 10:13 am

    In the 1980s, I worked (as “Media Chairman”, as I recall) for a very small group called “SEARCH for Justice and Equality in Palestine”. At a certain moment we changed the name to “SEARCH for Justice and Equality in Palestine/Israel”. As a result we lost a lot of members and gained a lot of members.

    If these rabbis started “speaking truth to power” (where Power means AIPAC, N-hu, and the ancient protectors of Israel-come-what-may-my-mother-drunk-or-sober here in the USA), sure, their congregations would lose some ancient members and some money, but they might gain some younger members who now see the synagogues as irrelevant in today’s situation. Can you remember the surge of hopefulness many people felt, rightly or not, when Jesse Jackson ran for president and when Barack Obama ran for president — when (some) people thought that an angel of justice might be able to SPEAK TRUTH TO POWER and correct America’s horrible rush toward bankruptcy (moral as well as financial)? The rabbis might be able to rekindle that sort of spirit if they’d be brave enough to say openly what needs to be said about today’s Israel (and today’s America, too). And might gain some members.

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