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

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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.

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 The Heartbeat of the Prophetic which can be found at Amazon and www.newdiasporabooks.com

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