Jews turn away from Judaism, Jewishly

Israel/Palestine
on 25 Comments

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

Does it matter what boundaries we cross to find the truth we need?  If we can’t find what we need in the place we’re born we might as well cross the sea.

Take every survey you want.  Multiply them until the end of time.  The reason for Jews going out is because the Jewish establishment can’t stretch beyond empire.  This is the fundamental flaw inside the establishment.  It’s been there for a long, long time.

Sure the flashpoint has been about Israel and the Palestinians.  It still is.  But there’s more, much more, rotting the heart of Jewish life.

Perhaps it’s the same in Christian life.  Surely, the rotting there is of longer standing.  Islam, too.  Christians and Muslims of Conscience have a long, long road to travel.

“Don’t go that route,” a voice in my head wants to shout.  Let Christianity and Islam rot from the inside out.  Why dedicate your life to that which cannot be redeemed?  Let your life – including your Christian and Muslim roots – nourish the future.  Your exile will be haunted.  It won’t be in vain.

On the Jewish score, Judaism – as a religion, including the Conservative movement but without leaving out Reform and Orthodox – is a huge mistake. Mainstream Judaism is the wrong turn we have to declare our freedom from.  The surveys tell us this is exactly what Jews do.  Jews leave Judaism.

The surveys don’t poll conscience.  They don’t survey those who leave because the system is so hypocritical there’s no way to remain and retain your ethical sanity.  The same system Jews of Conscience leave is the one that trains our religious leaders – to be ignorant, reluctant and afraid.

So Jews leave and become born-again Christians and Muslims and Buddhists.  The majority of Jews who leave become secular in ways only Jews become secular.  But that is true of Jews who become Christians, Muslims and Buddhists as well.  Jews reinvent their new-found identities – Jewishly.

I’m traveling to Korea in a few days with folks from all corners of the globe. I’ll have more in common with them – and at the deepest levels – than with most Jews right down the street.  They will have much in common with me.

This commonality tells us something significant beyond shared rituals and symbols.  It tells us how little truth claims bind.  How identities can be traps.  How empire builders are one and the same wherever they hail from.  How people of conscience share exile and a new diaspora.

Why do Jews turn away?  The surveys don’t have a clue.

About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is retired Director and Professor of Jewish Studies at Baylor University and author of Burning Children: A Jewish View of the War in Gaza which can be found at www.newdiasporabooks.com

Other posts by .


Posted In:

25 Responses

  1. seanmcbride
    October 19, 2013, 12:03 pm

    Wow — just wow. I am amazed that Marc Ellis has dared to open up this issue:

    On the Jewish score, Judaism – as a religion, including the Conservative movement but without leaving out Reform and Orthodox – is a huge mistake. Mainstream Judaism is the wrong turn we have to declare our freedom from. The surveys tell us this is exactly what Jews do. Jews leave Judaism.

    I have been trying to argue now and then on Mondoweiss that the greatest problem facing contemporary Jewish civilization is the fusion of mainstream Judaism with Zionism — and have run into a great deal of flak, much of it emotional, angry and (in my opinion) uninformed.

    I agree with Marc that Christianity and Islam face the same problems — as does the entire Abrahamic tradition:

    Perhaps it’s the same in Christian life. Surely, the rotting there is of longer standing. Islam, too. Christians and Muslims of Conscience have a long, long road to travel.

    (No need for the qualifying “perhaps” there.)

    But I think Judaism could be easily redeemed with a bit of ideological reengineering — simply start emphasizing the universalist strains in the tradition and turn down the volume on the ethnic nationalist strains. One could do that without necessarily jettisoning Zionism — but Zionism will have to brought into alignment with modern Western democratic norms. Theoretically this is doable — but real-world cultural and political indicators in Israeli society do not inspire much hope.

    • Annie Robbins
      October 19, 2013, 4:32 pm

      sean, it’s not all emotional, angry or uninformed. and you’ve expressed ‘mystification’ before. link to mondoweiss.net

      i think what it boils down to, for me anyway, is that sometimes your wording doesn’t include the terminology of ‘mainstream’. like this: Committing yourself to Judaism these days means committing yourself to Israel and Zionism..in response to someone writing I recommitted myself to Judaism while rejecting Zionism.

      whereas ‘mainstream’ very much implies establishment, and there’s no confusion or pushback about what’s happened with the mainstream. i think it’s very clear, the efforts that have been made to fuse it w/zionism, hardly a novel idea.

    • libra
      October 20, 2013, 11:40 am

      Sean McBride: But I think Judaism could be easily redeemed with a bit of ideological reengineering — simply start emphasizing the universalist strains in the tradition and turn down the volume on the ethnic nationalist strains.

      So Sean, you’re suggesting an algorithmic tweak is all that’s needed. But as we’ve been told many time, in engineering terms there’s no central code base. Apparently it’s all completely distributed for maximum resilience. That said, it sounds like just the sort of problem Larry or Sergey could tackle in their sleep; not so sure about Mark though.

      • Keith
        October 21, 2013, 5:34 pm

        LIBRA- “So Sean, you’re suggesting an algorithmic tweak is all that’s needed.”

        Sometimes you are quite amusing. I particularly liked the last line about Larry, Sergey and Mark. For what it is worth.

  2. seanmcbride
    October 19, 2013, 12:52 pm

    Marc,

    For some interesting historical background on why the Jewish establishment now finds itself at the center of a serious mess, see this:

    article; Sue Hoffman; Lecture highlights Abba Hillel Silver’s legacy; Cleveland Jewish News; October 16, 2013 link to clevelandjewishnews.com

    Medoff detailed how [Rabbi Abba Hillel] Silver became a national leader. He was also a Zionist at a time that the Reform Movement was against Zionism. “He didn’t mind swimming against the tide. “What Silver is best known for is his role as a leader of American Zionism in the 1940s,” Medoff said. He spent part of his life on the mass mobilization of American Jews on behalf of Zionism. The activism that took place marked the beginning of Jewish grassroots lobbying efforts. Medoff shared the remarkable story of how Silver and Benzion Netanyahu, the father of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, changed the concept of the ‘Jewish vote’ in American presidential politics. Through their efforts, the 1944 Republican Convention platform included an endorsement of opening Palestine to Jewish immigration. The Democratic Party followed suit with a similar provision. “This was Abba Hillel Silver’s most important political achievement,” Medoff said. “For the first time both parties recognized that Jewish concerns needed to be addressed to attract the support of Jewish voters.”

    Silver, apparently, was a key figure in engineering the fusion of Judaism with Zionism and laying the groundwork for the Israel lobby. Future Jewish historians may not view his efforts as an “important political achievement” in the positive sense — it is more likely that they will categorize him as a false prophet.

    Regarding a time when “the Reform Movement was against Zionism” — that now seems like ancient history. A wrong turn on the road was taken.

    • Krauss
      October 19, 2013, 3:52 pm

      By the way, Sean, I’m pleased to you pop up again.
      I’m reading you far too little these days – you used to write a lot more on this site. I’m sure there are reasons for this, but I’d certainly like to see you go back to your old habits. You have a tremendous amount of knowledge and often can give links to stuff that is interesting, even if it’s not directly connected to the conversation, like the above, which I appreciated.

      • seanmcbride
        October 20, 2013, 11:40 am

        Krauss,

        Thanks for the kind comments — and I have been a fan of your well-informed and lucid comments for quite some time.

        I post most of my comments on Mideast politics (and Mondoweiss articles) here these days:

        link to friendfeed.com

        Feel free to drop in. Comments are posted instantly, with very little moderation.

    • mcohen
      October 19, 2013, 8:11 pm

      sean -some interesting info on silver

      link to en.wikipedia.org

      “Regarding a time when “the Reform Movement was against Zionism” — that now seems like ancient history. A wrong turn on the road was taken.”

      history as in ancient ………..66AD shekel

      In the revolt’s first year (66–67 AD), the Jews minted only silver coins,Three budding pomegranates are featured on the reverse, with the inscription “Jerusalem the Holy”.[2]

      During the second (67–68 AD) and third (69–70 AD) years of the revolt bronze prutah coins were issued, depicting an amphora, and with the date and the Hebrew inscription “The Deliverance of Zion”.

      In the fourth year of the revolt (70–71 AD) ….the date and inscription “For the Redemption of Zion”.

      modern day ………2013 AD

      10 new shkalim 23 mm
      Core: 16 mm 2.2 mm 7 g Ring: Nickel bonded steel
      Center: Aureate bonded bronze Reeded Palm tree with seven leaves and two baskets with dates, the state emblem, the words “for the redemption of Zion” in ancient and modern Hebrew alphabet Value, date, “Israel” in Hebrew, Arabic and English February 7, 1995 Current

      do the maths

      2013 minus 66 = 1447 years “for the redemption of Zion”

  3. yrn
    October 19, 2013, 1:47 pm

    Why do Jews turn away?
    Marc H. Ellis who are you to speak in the names of the Jews all over the world.
    Be specific, speak for yourself and your close community
    Where do Jews turn away ?
    In the US? in your community?.
    Now go ahead and write your thoughts again, maybe it will have some sense.

    • eljay
      October 19, 2013, 6:17 pm

      >> yrneee: Marc H. Ellis who are you to speak in the names of the Jews all over the world.

      You’re back, and clearly in the mood to make pronouncements. So I ask you, once again, to please answer in clear, definitive and unambiguous terms the following questions I raised in this post:
      ___________________________
      1. What are the criteria for considering a person to be a Jew? Please don’t omit any.

      2. Is being a Jew the same as being Jewish?

      3. Under what circumstances – if any – can a Jew be stripped of his Jewish identity and rendered not a Jew?

      4. Can a person be a Jew and not belong to “the Jewish people”?

      5. Can a person belong to “the Jewish people” and not be a Jew?
      ___________________________

      Thanks.

      • just
        October 19, 2013, 7:07 pm

        he/she is still pondering the navel.

        I admire your positing of the questions, but would not hold my breath.

  4. Betsy
    October 19, 2013, 3:29 pm

    Marc — are you saying that Judaism was ‘pure’ or not ‘rotting’ until after WWII? and then made a strategic mistake? Are you saying that the problem was that after WWII, Judaism & Jewish identity attached itself to a nation-state — and that it then started to rot, because that State was inevitably part of Empire (because of the nature of it’s historical founding as a settler nation, in a post-settler time)? I think people like Hannah Arendt took a longer view of Jewish history in Europe, which continues to be helpful — discussing how the experience of being problematically disconnected from States in Europe (yet also connected) led to challenges — and that the experience of connecting to Israel after the war, let to other challenges, but ones that built on the tragedies & contradictions of the European experience.

    If you make it sound like the problems of ‘rotting’ just started like a new reality w/ Israel, you lose so much of the prophetic. It seems like a key theme running thro most of the prophets is a brilliant, empassioned discussion of the ethical dangers in the relationship between Religion & State. That’s the big lesson that I took from my (Christian) teachings — that there’s a difference between what we call the Beloved Community (in Christianity) & national or ethnic or state or Empire-based identity — and that God gets angry when they are confused. Am I missing something about the prophetic?

    If you’re locating the problem of Judaism as post WWII, then you’re creating another problem (which I do think you’re prone to) — which is an essentializing of both Islam & Christianity. Both have had long running traditions of resistance to Empire & the State — the ‘rot’ you talk about in Christianity & Islam is in some areas & not others. I frankly think Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and all religions have been both rotting & healing from their very beginning. It’s a problematic exceptionalism, to say that the rot just started for Judaism post WWII & after the formation of Israel (if that is, in fact, what you’re saying).

    • Betsy
      October 21, 2013, 12:18 pm

      “There are only two or three human stories,” Willa Cather wrote, “and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”

  5. Krauss
    October 19, 2013, 3:44 pm

    Surely, the rotting there is of longer standing. Islam, too. Christians and Muslims of Conscience have a long, long road to travel.

    “Don’t go that route,” a voice in my head wants to shout. Let Christianity and Islam rot from the inside out.

    Marc Ellis does get more bizarre with his bigotry by each day.
    It’s not the first time you’ve had this kind of belching racism spilling out, wrapped in progressive foil.
    Also, Ellis, you said you were ‘going to Korea in a few days’ last week.

    I’m hatereading Ellis’ columns now, gathering his bigotry like stamps. I’m looking at a fossile.

    • just
      October 19, 2013, 4:55 pm

      A truly unfortunate post by the Professor… I am still trying to “wrap” my head around it.

      Sad.

      Don’t the Jewish adherents claim to be the first of the Abrahamic religions?

      • W.Jones
        October 19, 2013, 5:43 pm

        Just,

        Orthodox Christianity considers itself to have preceded the covenant with Moses, because the ancients were looking forward to redemption, among other reasons. Another way of looking at it is that Christianity considers itself to be contiguous with the Israelite religion, and its fulfillment.

    • W.Jones
      October 19, 2013, 5:39 pm

      Krauss,

      You spelled “fossil” wrong.

  6. Annie Robbins
    October 19, 2013, 4:40 pm

    marc ellis, i read an article i thought might interest you it’s full of references i don’t understand. but it’s a very good read. link to 972mag.com

    First the moderate Judaism of Mizrahi Jews was trampled and some of them were pushed into an extreme orthodox practice that originated in Europe. Then the Mizrahi Jews were blamed for Ashkenazi-originated orthodoxy, and now MK Ruth Calderon reinvents moderate Judaism as if none of this has ever happened.

    it’s full of references i don’t understand. but it’s a very good read.

  7. Ludwig
    October 19, 2013, 5:19 pm

    This website should stick to middle east issues. This article is sick and clearly crosses a line.

    • just
      October 19, 2013, 5:58 pm

      Whoops! I thought Israel was in the ME.

      What “line” does it cross?

    • Eva Smagacz
      October 20, 2013, 4:31 am

      Ludwig,

      What line does it cross? It obviously offended your religious sensibilities, but it would help if you explained.

  8. W.Jones
    October 19, 2013, 5:49 pm

    the Jewish establishment can’t stretch beyond empire. This is the fundamental flaw inside the establishment. It’s been there for a long, long time. Sure the flashpoint has been about Israel and the Palestinians. It still is. But there’s more, much more, rotting the heart of Jewish life.

    Perhaps it’s the same in Christian life. Surely, the rotting there is of longer standing.

    The ancient writings say God gave the Promised to Abraham’s descendants, and it stretched from the Euphrates to the Nile (Genesis 17:7-8) Is that somewhat like the US idea of Manifest Destiny?

    Christianity’s “revelation” was that Abraham’s descendants are Abraham’s spiritual descendants and that they should include all of humanity. In other words, if the new idea was a Christian “empire”, then it was one that would cover all nations.

    My guess is that Ellis is referring to how in c.330 AD Constantine accepted Christianity, and the Roman empire eventually became Christian. However, Christianity as a faith did not focus on the Roman empire itself as a key element. That is not to deny that many Christians associate in their minds ideas about politics and religion. But I think religious people associating the two was not really something so older in Christianity than in those other religions, wouldn’t you say?

  9. Ludwig
    October 19, 2013, 6:29 pm

    Just,

    “On the Jewish score, Judaism – as a religion, including the Conservative movement but without leaving out Reform and Orthodox – is a huge mistake. ”

    I find that to be antisemitic in the most basic sense of the term.

    • Eva Smagacz
      October 20, 2013, 4:40 am

      Ludwig,
      Trashing/disagreeing/mocking someone’s religion is always a case of free speech.

      Anti-Semitism ( and any other form of racism) is about people and denying them full humanity. They are cancer, they try to breed with “our” women and steal our oxes, they are part of conspiracy, they are dirty, they are degenerate, they are lower species, etc….

  10. RoHa
    October 19, 2013, 8:26 pm

    Just more drivel.

    “rotting the heart of Jewish life”

    And what does this metaphor actually mean?

    “Perhaps it’s the same in Christian life. Surely, the rotting there is of longer standing. Islam, too. Christians and Muslims of Conscience have a long, long road to travel.”

    Judaism has, allegedly, been around a lot longer than Christianity. Why have they been “rotting” (whatever that is) for longer?

    “The majority of Jews who leave become secular in ways only Jews become secular. But that is true of Jews who become Christians, Muslims and Buddhists as well. Jews reinvent their new-found identities – Jewishly.”

    And how is that?

    “Your exile will be haunted.”

    Exile? Who is exiled from where?

Leave a Reply