“It’s part of Jewish exceptionalism to deny exceptionalism,” Marc Ellis said at Tzedek Chicago’s Shavuot program on May 31st at Grace Place, in downtown Chicago. “There has never been a sustained time in history where Jews didn’t think they were exceptional.”
Ellis, author of more than 25 books, is an author, liberation theologian, and a retired Professor of Jewish Studies (as well as a regular contributor to Mondoweiss). The Shavuot event was a conversation between Ellis and Brant Rosen, the Rabbi of Tzedek Chicago, to celebrate and discuss the 30th anniversary of Ellis’s groundbreaking book Toward a Theology of Jewish Liberation. About 50 people came to hear Ellis talk about his understanding of Jewish exceptionalism, the meaning of Judaism in a post-Holocaust world, and the absence of the Jewish prophetic in discourse on Israel.
Ellis and Rosen’s dialogue emphasized one of the central ideas of the book–that the God of liberation–stemming from Jewish sacred tradition, demands that Jews stand with all forms of oppression rather than only Jewish oppression. Liberation theology centers on a spiritual justice that calls upon us to help all people. “The goal of the evening,” Rosen said, explaining that it’s customary to engage in learning as part of honoring Shavuot, “is to let you in on an ongoing conversation that Marc and I have been having for a long time now.” For this high school teacher who’s almost done with the semester, hearing Ellis and Rosen speak from their hearts–two teachers and thinkers I’ve admired for a long time–was a refreshing and sobering way to commemorate Shavuot and end the school year.
Rosen explained that Ellis’s book paved the way for him, as a Rabbi, to understand the Israel/Palestine conflict from a spiritual point of view, and talked about how influential Ellis’s book was for him when he was in rabbinical school. “I first read this book as a rabbinical student back in the mid-1980s–and suffice to say it fairly rocked my world at the time,” Rosen said. “Here was a Jewish thinker thoughtfully and compellingly advocating a new kind of post-Holocaust theology: one that didn’t view Jewish suffering as ‘unique’ and ‘untouchable,’ but as an experience that should sensitize us to the suffering and persecution of all peoples everywhere.”
Ellis first witnessed the suffering of Palestinians under Israel’s military occupation when he went to the West Bank and Gaza in 1984. He grew up learning about the martyrs of the Jewish people, but when he was in Gaza, he “saw their martyrs–martyred by us.” It was after his trip to Palestine that Ellis knew he had to speak out. “That’s when a Jewish theology of liberation was born,” he said.
Throughout the discussion, Ellis returned to the question of what it means to be Jewish after the Holocaust. He referred to Elie Wiesel and Emil Fackenheim as examples of Holocaust thinkers who believed that Israel was the path that would bring Jews out of suffering and towards redemption. Since they primarily focus on an end to Jewish suffering, Israel, in their view, serves as a quasi-salvation for the Jewish people. This way of thinking wouldn’t allow for an acknowledgement of Palestinian suffering (or, even, at the least, a Palestinian narrative). Ellis referred to Richard Rubenstein, the Holocaust thinker who, unlike Wiesel and Fackenheim, declared that Judaism was at an end in a meaningful way, asserting that Jewish reality was severely compromised after the Holocaust. Wiesel and Fackenheim broke away from Rubenstein, since they believed that the end of Jewish suffering would be brought about by Israel and thus a future for the Jewish people could be assured.
Since the prophetic, Ellis explained, is about justice, and justice involves helping to alleviate Palestinian suffering, “the Holocaust thinkers had to beat the prophetic out of us for Israel and support for Israel to be strong.” The Holocaust thinkers said that we will never suffer again. “But you can’t be Jewish today without being willing to suffer for the sake of justice,” Ellis asserted.
While Ellis and Rosen were talking about the Holocaust thinkers, I kept thinking about the numerous letters I wrote to Elie Wiesel when I was in high school in the 1980s where I told him how much I loved his books. I was obsessively reading everything he wrote– I became a fervent Zionist as my friends were reading Judy Blume books. And I remember the late afternoon several months later when a letter from Wiesel arrived in the mail.
“Study everything you can,” Wiesel wrote. “It is important to learn as much as possible.” I framed the letter on my bedroom wall.
For years, when Wiesel came to speak in Chicago, I’d attend, sometimes with both my parents, always with my mother, and I’d take copious notes and go home and study them and share with my parents what I wrote. I’d stare at his autograph–“To Liz, In peace, Elie Wiesel”– remembering how nervous I was when I approached him at the book signing after the lecture and asked him to sign the books I had brought with me in a grocery bag. Before leaving the house, my mother had said, “Honey, why don’t you bring his books? I’m sure he’ll be happy to sign them for you.”
Looking back, the teenager in me is confused by his words, and now I’m angry about the subtext of his letter, which really said to study and learn everything except certain things. The words he wrote to me were conditional and limited, though they claimed the opposite. My mother continued to attend Wiesel lectures in Chicago, and when she asked me if I wanted to go with her, I didn’t tell her the truth. I was becoming anti-Zionist and I could no longer sit through his lectures that idealized Israel and demonized the Palestinians. The transition has been difficult for my mother who doesn’t understand the shifts in my thinking. At the time, it was easier to say I had plans than to explain why I didn’t want to go with her.In 1986–I was 16–Wiesel appeared on Larry King’s live radio show soon after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, and my friend Gregg and I called in to ask a question. We were put on hold for over an hour. We didn’t know what we were going to ask him, but Gregg held the phone, so I figured he’d ask Wiesel the question when it was his turn. Suddenly, King came on the line and said, “Hello, Chicago!” Gregg froze. He threw me the phone, and left the room. I was on the line with Wiesel and, unsure what to say, but knowing I’d always loved his writing, I blurted out, “Don’t you think you should have received the Nobel for Literature instead of Peace?” King scoffed, then laughed, and said, “Um, I don’t think he’s disappointed,” and hung up. When I reflect on that phone call now, I think a deep part of me–an aspiring writer who, decades later, would transition from a Zionist to an anti-Zionist way of thinking–must have been unconsciously more affected by Wiesel’s writing than by his efforts at peace. At the time, his voice spoke to me in a way many writers hadn’t. I was deeply moved by the literature he wrote.
Though my disillusionment with Wiesel happened years ago, it still stings when I remember how much I admired him growing up. I hadn’t thought about that phone call from 1986 until I heard Ellis and Rosen speak about Wiesel and the other Holocaust thinkers who looked to Israel as a path towards Jewish empowerment. Ellis said Wiesel always talked about Israel as heroic, beautiful, “a cosmic force to fight a second Holocaust.” I believed Wiesel when I was young, and I felt the same way about Israel. I was a young Zionist who looked up to elders like Wiesel to teach me about writing and justice and truth. Once my views about Israel changed–when I understood that Israel is Palestine–I stopped reading Wiesel. And I miss how much I loved his books growing up. A friend suggested to me that I should read Wiesel again, “with this new perspective.” I’m not sure there’s a point. The process of crossing over from Zionism into anti-Zionism is never over. The disillusionment comes back in waves. It hurts each time I remember.
Toward a Theology of Jewish Liberation is in many ways about Ellis’s own disillusionment with the direction of Jewish life. “Our religion has become a sign of violence,” he said. “We had a sense of innocence when I was young. We were the good guys; the Christians were the bad guys. Now we’re the bad guys,” he reflected. “We have become like those who oppressed us.”
What would it have meant for Wiesel and Fackenheim and others to admit the violence that has been committed in the name of Jewish life, history and religion? They couldn’t have done it, Ellis asserted, because they would have had to acknowledge what was happening in Israel to the Palestinian people.
These Holocaust thinkers sought to preserve what remained of the special relationships between God and the Jews, and between the Jews and Israel. “The essence of Jewish history has been about the special relationship,” Ellis argued. “You can’t understand Jewish history without understanding the positive and negative meanings of this exceptionalism.” Toward a Theology of Jewish Liberation, Ellis said, “is about this sea change I was living through at the time.”
When I was in graduate school learning to teach literature to high school students, I was given anthologies with titles like Coming of Age and The End of Childhood and Innocence. Losing one’s innocence is essential to a deeper understanding of the human condition, I understood. I love the stories I teach to students that reflect this idea. I became an English teacher so that I could help students, through the literature they read, find themselves in the stories and feel, albeit briefly, less alone when they experience disillusionment.
My students don’t have to look far for examples of this in the real world. They have so many specific instances they can point to–moments in their young lives where they’ve lost their innocence, realized the world isn’t what they thought, had a paradigm shift. It’s those rare moments in a classroom–despite the unfortunate corporatizing of education–that remain pure and hopeful. Something shifts, and they grow from confronting uncomfortable truths about themselves and the world. It’s necessary if we want to move, as Ellis argues, towards justice and the prophetic. “You can’t have hope without truth,” Ellis said, referring to his own disillusionment.
In 1982, years before the phone call with Wiesel, I planted a tree in his name in Israel. I was helping the forest grow through the JUF. I was in love with Wiesel’s writing and with Israel. Later, I would learn that pine trees were planted to cover up Palestinian villages destroyed by Israel and that they aren’t even native to the Middle East. When we’ve become disillusioned, Ellis said, “There’s no way back and no way forward; it’s never the same.” Once I understood that Israel exists as a product of the atrocities committed against the Palestinians, the Israel that I had known became myth.
It is refreshing to be in the company of teachers and thinkers like Ellis and Rosen as I reflect on my own teaching. When Rosen asked Ellis if he considers himself an activist, Ellis remarked, “My teaching and writing is a form of activism.” It was a good reminder for me, as I wrap up the semester after a difficult school year in a harrowing political climate, of the importance of teachers who accept, rather than run away from, disillusionment as a necessary path.
After Ellis’s talk, I went home and tried looking for the JUF certificate of the tree I planted in Israel for Wiesel. I know it’s somewhere, but I can’t find it. I did find two of Wiesel’s books on my book shelf. I think I got rid of several, in anger, years ago. The Holocaust thinkers never came to terms with the reality of what Israel has become. Books by Ellis and Rubenstein and Rosen are on my nightstand now–prime real estate for books in my home. There is solidarity in disillusionment. “The Holocaust didn’t end Jewish ethical history,” Ellis concluded, “but Israel might.”