This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
What to do with a rabbi who, for the upcoming Tisha B’Av. a Jewish fast day commemorating the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem, uses the Biblical Book of Lamentations as a starting point for his dark, poetic vision of a post-apocalyptic world? And, to thicken the plot, as Palestinians in Jerusalem and elsewhere rage against the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem and Al Aqsa Mosque where the Temples stood.
I first encountered Rabbi Brant Rosen in 2011 when he came to my defense during the travails I experienced at my university under the “Christian” presidential leadership of the since demoted/resigned/fired Ken Starr. It was all a blur at the time and I only read his strong and uncompromising support years later.
Rabbi Rosen resurfaced on my radar screen during the Israeli invasion and decimation of Gaza in 2014. As I recall, it was August and across my Facebook screen I watched him with several congregants protest at a fundraiser for Israel involving the mayor of Chicago and Jewish institutional leaders from across the city. In the live streamed video, I saw several Jews standing and shouting out the scandal of what Israel was doing to defenseless civilians in Gaza. In the room, I glimpsed Rabbi Rosen tweeting the protest. I was amazed to see a quite respectable and professionally trained rabbi do everything he was taught not to do – act in public against Israel’s proclaimed self-interest. I knew Rabbi Rosen’s career as a Reconstructionist rabbi was over.
By the time Rabbi Rosen invited me to join him and his recently created congregation, Tzedek Chicago, for the 30th anniversary of the publication of my Jewish theology of liberation this year, I was keenly aware of his emerging significance on the Jewish and interfaith scene. In an era where most rabbis are silent on what Israel has done and is doing to the Palestinian people, or, to their shame, are enablers of this injustice, Rabbi Rosen speaks publicly about this and other issues of injustice across the globe. He pays a price for his speech and activism. Could Rabbi Rosen be the template for the next generation of rabbis?
Now with Tisha B’Av upon us, Rabbi Rosen has released his contemporary take on the Biblical Book of Lamentations – Lamentation for a New Diaspora (PDF). With the Palestinian Jerusalem Uprising taking form as the time of Jewish mourning arrives this week, Rabbi Rosen’s timing is exquisite. Shall Jews now mourn for the destruction that Jews are visiting upon the Palestinian people?
Rabbi Rosen’s lamentation is poetic, strong and dark. It should be read slowly and in a safe place. Trigger warnings are everywhere. Trauma is the global name of the game. If hope is found, it is among the ruins.
Placed in our times or, rather, in a post-apocalyptic future already arrived, the location of Rabbi Rosen’s lament is unspecified. It could be centered, as the Jewish tradition has it, in Jerusalem, but it is global as well. The ravages of mass culture, industrialization, militarism and climate change have taken their toll. The New Diaspora, the community of refugees and exiles of every stripe who gather to protest the coming global catastrophe, are themselves scattered and without hope. Have they, too, been overcome?
If the reader can find God in Rabbi Rosen’s apocalyptic landscape, share the insight. Though a rabbi in good standing, at least among Jews of Conscience, Rabbi Rosen doesn’t use God as the wild card. In his post-apocalyptic vision, we will not be rescued.
Yes the silence of God, so familiar in the Holocaust, is now applied to globally.
Fragments of the whole set the scene:
our city lies ravaged
the glory we once knew
was always an illusion
a hollow shell
masquerading as greatness
but now the truth is so very plain
for all the world to see
late into the night we weep
mourning for a past that
never really was
we are beyond consolation
there is no comforting
those who grieve
we have no more friends
no more enemies
only this desolation
from which we can no longer
all our champions
have betrayed and abandoned us
the real heroes have
there is no one left
to save us now
for all this and more do we weep
for that which never was
and that which might have been
for our complacency and complicity
our willful blindness
our readiness to look away
from that which must be faced
we built ever higher
ever stronger walls
we built massive
checkpoints that lined up
human beings like cattle in cages
we put cameras on every street corner
and surveilled every inch of the city
like an omnipotent god.
the politicians and generals and CEOs
who fed off bodies lives and souls
are nowhere to be found
they will never be held accountable
they have vanished like thieves
in the night
those who warned us of this day
must take no pleasure in its arrival
there is no right there is no left
only a single mass of mourners
whispering broken hymns of lament
grieving what was lost
and what might have been
Into the endless night we are headed, or have we already arrived? Rabbi Rosen places us in a future without hope. Is this itself a hope, serving as a final prophetic warning to avert disaster? Rabbi Rosen’s view of the global catastrophe is universal. Is it also deeply Jewish?
At the end time, does the Jewish/universal divide matter less, or more? For the prophetic, applied by Jews to the people Israel and by Jews to the world, has the same indigenous Jewish root.
In Rabbi Rosen’s post-apocalyptic world, without God, the New Diaspora, our last hope on the ropes or gone, does the prophetic survive? Because without the prophetic there is no meaning in the world.
Rabbi Rosen goes there. Must we?