Exile and the prophetic: Our confession at Nelson Mandela’s funeral

Israel/Palestine
on 7 Comments

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.

Reading about the singing of the national anthem(s) at the end of the Yom Kippur service at the Reform synagogue, B’nai Jeshoshua Beth Elohim, north of Chicago, I couldn’t help but wonder what has become of us.   It’s yet another sign that we have lost our way.

Losing our way has ramifications beyond religious services.  When we lose our way, our ability to think through critical issues that confront us as a people atrophies.  We substitute salutes to power for action on behalf of justice. 

Have you noticed how mainstream Jewish commentators are struggling to define how Jews should react to Nelson Mandela’s impending death?  Since Mandela is a hero on a global stage, Jews should celebrate his life and witness.  Unfortunately for some Jews, Mandela’s support for Palestinians and his trenchant criticism of Israel confuses the issue. 

Mandela holds a mirror to the contradictions of contemporary Jewish life.  Does saluting the American and Israeli flags on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar help us see ourselves more clearly?

Nationalism is the most obvious addition to the Yom Kippur service and the dual nationalisms, Israeli and American, are clearly identifiable.  Then, again, since Yom Kippur is about something else anthems are out of place – unless Yom Kippur is more about nationalism than about confession and God’s judgment.

The problem is less with the nationalism on display then with a religiosity that barely speaks to most Jews.  The Prophet Elijah, however interpreted and rendered in liturgical song, is obscure to most Jews.  The anthems with flag accompaniment are recognized by all.  Better to end the service by invoking something familiar and known. 

‘Known’ is perhaps too strong.  The anthems are less about history than they are simple affirmations.  Singing both anthems, what is the congregation affirming?

There’s a kitsch element to the anthems.  Not only are they out of context in the Yom Kippur service, the anthems are without context, too.  They mean what they symbolize.  They symbolize what they mean. 

As visuals, the flags to the side of the Ark of the Covenant are out of place.  They appear to have been snuck in by unauthorized persons.  When did they arrive?  What justifies their presence?  What is their relation to the Torah scrolls?

In large part, Jewish life been reduced to sentiments and images.  Like the anthems at the end of the Yom Kippur service, the Holocaust, too, is often invoked without context.  Just say ‘Holocaust’ and the discussion ends. 

So, staying with kitsch, on the most reflective day of the Jewish religious calendar, the congregation ends the service with anthems that require – and allow – no thought. 

The Yom Kippur service has a long and ancient history without being embedded in any nationalism.  One might argue that the Israeli national anthem has a connection to Jewish history but if it’s so important why isn’t the congregation already living in Israel or immediately moving there? 

The American anthem – the variation here being God Bless America – is where the congregation lives.  Yet being Jewish comes before America and will outlast it.  Wouldn’t it be better to reserve the American anthem for baseball stadiums?

Anthems do not make a life for a person or a people.  The confession Jews need to make – that we have done and are doing to the Palestinian people is wrong – wasn’t made at B’nai Jeshoshua Beth Elohim’s Yom Kippur service.  Perhaps a Jewish spokesperson will make it at Nelson Mandela’s funeral.

Think of it – on a global stage – at the same time recognizing those South African Jews who struggled with Mandela against apartheid.  Could that confession be the breakthrough we need?

After all, rescuing our national anthem-laden Yom Kippur services from resting easy with injustice is a Jewish task.  Why not seize the opportunity to do so as homage to a global hero who praised Jews for their justice seeking and held the Palestinian people so close to his heart.

 

About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is retired Director and Professor of Jewish Studies at Baylor University and author of Future of the Prophetic: Israel's Ancient Wisdom Re-Presented.

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7 Responses

  1. hophmi
    July 1, 2013, 1:36 pm

    “Does saluting the American and Israeli flags on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar help us see ourselves more clearly?”

    Do you have any evidence that this is done on any kind of wide scale? Any at all?

    “So, staying with kitsch, on the most reflective day of the Jewish religious calendar, the congregation ends the service with anthems that require – and allow – no thought. ”

    But most don’t. You talked about one a while back.

    “Then, again, since Yom Kippur is about something else anthems are out of place – unless Yom Kippur is more about nationalism than about confession and God’s judgment.”

    Literally have never, once, in my life, heard about an anthem sung as part of a service. And I come from one of the most religious and Zionist communities in the country.

    “The Yom Kippur service has a long and ancient history without being embedded in any nationalism. One might argue that the Israeli national anthem has a connection to Jewish history but if it’s so important why isn’t the congregation already living in Israel or immediately moving there? ”

    For the same reason people who pray in Greek Orthodox Churches aren’t moving to Greece.

    “The American anthem – the variation here being God Bless America – is where the congregation lives. Yet being Jewish comes before America and will outlast it. Wouldn’t it be better to reserve the American anthem for baseball stadiums?”

    Again, not a problem, because virtually no congregation sings the American national anthem as part of the service. You talked about one. I want to see evidence that it’s a widespread practice.

    “The confession Jews need to make – that we have done and are doing to the Palestinian people is wrong – wasn’t made at B’nai Jeshoshua Beth Elohim’s Yom Kippur service. ”

    Are Jews a monolith? Do we speak with one voice? We don’t. Stop essentializing us. We owe neither you nor the world anything.

    “Think of it – on a global stage – at the same time recognizing those South African Jews who struggled with Mandela against apartheid. Could that confession be the breakthrough we need?”

    No. It would be an excuse for the Jewhaters of the world to hate more.

    “After all, rescuing our national anthem-laden Yom Kippur services ”

    Our Yom Kippur services are NOT NATIONAL ANTHEM-LADEN.

    NOT AT ALL.

    • Elliot
      July 2, 2013, 2:24 pm

      Hophmi:
      virtually no congregation sings the American national anthem as part of the service.

      Actually, not Beth Joshua Beth Elohim either. They sang it after the service ended. So, technically, in a narrow liturgical-religious sense, you’re right. Except that for everybody who was there, the last thing they heard at the end of Yom Kippur was the Israeli national anthem.

      Here’s a list of similar and more explicit ways that Israeli nationalism is promoted at mainstream Jewish services in America:

      1. Prayer for the State of Israel as the fulfillment of Jewish messianic dreams. Given prime location at the central observance of reading the Torah. The congregation stands and remains silent in deference to this prayer.
      2. Prayer for the Safety of Israel’s soldiers – Stanadard in Modern Orthodox congregations (among others). In a post from a few days ago, Shmuel showed that this prayer’s title is misleading. It’s actually a prayer for victory over the Palestinians and the coming of the Messiah and so on.
      3. Israel Bonds Appeal. On Yom Kippur (or Rosh Hashana), a chunk of time is given over in the middle of services for an appeal to purchase State of Israel Bonds. These speeches tug at emotional heartstrings. The ones I’ve heard over the years at different synagogues have invoked Zionism, terrorism and the Holocaust among others.
      4. Did we mention the flag. Everpresent. Given equal billing to the Ark and the Torah.

  2. Citizen
    July 1, 2013, 5:24 pm

    kitsch |kiCH|
    noun
    art, objects, or design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality, but sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way: the lava lamp is an example of sixties kitsch | [ as modifier ] : kitsch decor.
    DERIVATIVES
    kitschiness noun,
    kitschy adjective
    ORIGIN 1920s: German.

    Will there be a Jewish speaker, speaking as a representative Jew, at Mandela’s funeral? I bet so. He/she will get up there and praise Mandela–and there will be no squeak about the plight of the Palestinians or of Mandela’s support of them. Wanna bet?

    PS: Of course said speaker will be an American, English, or S African Jew. Definitely not an Israeli Jew.

    • Annie Robbins
      July 1, 2013, 5:52 pm

      and then a few years after he dies someone will claim they heard him say anti zionism was anti semitism (or some similar lie) and they will make videos about it and zionist keyboard warriors will spread it all over the internet like they try to do w/martin.

      • just
        July 1, 2013, 7:08 pm

        Absolutely correct. The Zionists did not much care for Gandhi’s views either.

  3. RJL
    July 2, 2013, 1:05 pm

    What does Yom Kippur have to do with the Palestinians? Are they the sun around which the world revolves? Has Judaism because a servant to the needs, wishes, and “our sins committed against the Palestinians?” What kind of BS is this? If this is your interpretation of Judaism, that you claim will continue beyond the American Jewish experience, then maybe you’re the one that needs to go back to school and learn the aleph-bais-gimmel of Judaism, Professor. You’re brain is water-logged with Palestinianism. You need a shunt to drain the intercranial pressure, soon.

  4. Elliot
    July 3, 2013, 7:08 am

    What does Yom Kippur have to do with the Israelis? Are they the sun around which the world revolves? Has Judaism because a servant to their needs, wishes?” What kind of BS is this? If this is your interpretation of Judaism, that you claim will continue beyond the American Jewish experience, then maybe you’re the one that needs to go back to school and learn the aleph-bais-gimmel of Judaism, Professor. You’re brain is water-logged with Israeli nationalism. You need a shunt to drain the intercranial pressure, soon.

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