Rosh Hashanah and the Primal Prophetic

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

As Rosh Hashanah arrives, the Jewish Reform movement debates the detrimental aspects of the Bar Mitzvah event – citing rote memorization and synagogue leave-taking after an often lavish ceremony. Proposed instead is immersion in further education and social action, without, of course, considering Palestine. God forbid.

That the latest edition of the Israeli/Palestinian peace process is dead in the increasingly bloodied Middle Eastern water seems beside the point.  Or that many Jewish groups are claiming the moral high ground and joining the Obama/Kerry/McCain war chorus with regard to the use of chemical weapons in Syria.  To bring up the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and the continuing Nakba as essential to the education Jews need – or the knowledge Jews need about Israel’s use of chemical agents in its weapons of choice in Gaza and elsewhere – raises the stakes of Jewish identity beyond the thinkable.  At least for those running the sinking ship called Jewish education.

Or is Jewish life itself sinking by turning its back on its own prophetic destiny?

With Rosh Hashanah, the Days of Awe and Repentance are upon us.  The end point is Yom Kippur, the day of confession and judgment. It’s only fitting to focus on Jewish identity and the education that informs Jewish commitment during these days.  Nonetheless, the elephant in the Jewish identity room isn’t coming of age rituals.  What Jewish leadership refuses to talk about, let alone admit to itself, is the imperial and colonial part of contemporary Jewish identity.  This the crucial confession Jewish renewal keeps missing.

Instead of focusing on the education of the young, Jewish adults need to come of age.  This is more difficult than programs and innovation for the young.  A Jewish coming of age means admitting that we are no longer innocent, that Israel isn’t our redemption and that we now purposefully and continually enable the violence we once suffered from.

We should consider this startling fact:  The contemporary Jewish safe harbor has become violence against others, all the while claiming the moral high ground of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism.  Now we must ask the question as how this strange reversal took place.  Is it permanent?

There’s no reason for Jewish identity discussions without justice – the justice we owe Palestinians.   For the prophetic has always been the heart of Jewish identity.  Palestinians are now at the heart of the Jewish prophetic.  The connection is obvious.   Whether we acknowledge it or look away, the fact remains.

Most Jews who carry justice for Palestinians into the political world – Jews of Conscience – aren’t involved with Jewish religious establishments of any kind.  Why would they be?  In Jewish institutions, the prophetic is routinely derided.  Palestinians are as well.

Does that mean Jewish identity is beside the point?  Not by a long shot.

Just because Jewish leaders of all stripes refuse to understand who we have become as a people doesn’t mean Jewish identity is passé. To merge Jewishness into some undefinable universalism that is rootless and prone to the same colonialism and imperialism under a secular name is a huge mistake.  More than ever, a deep, considered, confessional, prophetic Jewishness is needed in the world.

Outside of Jewishness, where else can the prophetic be spoken and lived in its primal formation?  Outside of Jewishness, where else can the primal prophetic be spoken and lived in concert with other prophetic voices around the world?

As Jews around the world begin a new year, we should ponder our present plight – and the plight of others.  Our destiny cannot be wrapped in the flag of colonial and imperial power forever.  Instead, we must respond to the prophetic call essential to what it means to be Jewish.  Then our path with others, especially the Palestinian people, will be self-possessed.

What other reason is there for being Jewish?

During these days of reflection, we should think deeply about this assertion:  There is no other reason to be Jewish but to ponder, embrace and enact the prophetic call at the heart of our formation and tradition as a people.

The prophetic is our great gift to the world.  It is the Jewish indigenous.  And with Jews of Conscience gathering in ever greater numbers today, we once again bear witness to the startling and irreducible fact that the Jewish prophetic will never die.

Embracing the prophetic is the Jewish coming of age we need today as a people.  Then our young will be well educated in the ways of being Jewish and primed for their contribution to the world.  For after embracing the prophetic, all things Jewish fall into their rightful place – for ourselves and for the world.

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

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