This is part twenty-three of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
On successive days, the New York Times carried the following obituaries: “Rabbi Y. S. Elyashiv, “Master of Talmudic Law, Dies at 102” and Omar Suleiman, “Powerful Egypt Spy Chief, Dies at 76.” Below some illuminating passages from each.
Slender with a white wispy beard and penetrating eyes, Rabbi Elysashiv represented a rigorously conservative approach to Jewish law that seeks to safeguard its traditions against the assaults of modern life. He opposed service to the Israeli military for yeshiva students, which he called a “plot to uproot Torah from Israel.” He disapproved of professional studies for women…
In 2004, he banned wigs from India made of human hair that were used by Orthodox wives to conceal their actual hair in public. He did so because the Indian hair had been cut off in Hindu ceremonies that he regarded as idol worship, and thus violated the fundamental Jewish belief in one God. Within days, women in Jerusalem were casting their wigs into bonfires, and women in the Borough Park area of Brooklyn were either wrapping their heads in scarves or flocking to stores to buy wigs made of synthetics.
That he died in the United States was, to his Egyptian critics, emblematic of his close ties with the C.I.A., which he had helped as it established the practice of extraordinary rendition; sending terrorist suspects to foreign countries to be interrogated and, its critics say, tortured.
When the C.I.A. asked Mr. Suleiman if he could provide a DNA sample from a brother of the Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, Mr. Suleiman offered to send the agency the brother’s entire arm, according to Robert Suskind, who has written extensively about antiterrorism efforts.
Just to let you know I have placed them both in my ever-expanding file under: “Obituary: Bury Them Together.” Or I could rename the file: “Bury Together: Deserved Each Other.”
Either way, it’s a hoot to read the obits of the famous. What they’re known for. What they’ve done to deserve their fame. What crimes they committed along the way. Image cascade: Orthodox women casting their idol wigs into bonfires as the truly religious Jews escape military service in a Jewish state; Our man in Cairo offering al-Zawarhri’s arm for cash and receives in return money galore and a state-side hospital bed to die in.
So let’s see, right now I have offered joint burial sites to: Arafat/Sharon; Dershowitz/Starr; Elyashiv/Suleiman. Quite a cemetery already but, of course, the historical list is endless. The future list will be endless as well. Among other elements notice that in each joint burial I’ve advocated, the “couples” are from different faiths. Limitations: they’re all men (as of now). But since the homophobia rating of each is probably high the idea of coupling them for eternity is another laugher.
It’s always nice when the empire rattlers end their journey among us. Though replacements are easy to find. Everyone and their brother and sister are vying for honorifics and power. The Wheel of Empire spins.
As for “authentic” Judaism and Jewish knowledge check out this remark on Rabbi Elyashiv by Rabbi Yeruchim Silber, executive director of the Boro Park Jewish Community Council: “The breadth of his knowledge was outstanding.”
Give the Rabbi this, he lived modestly. As his obituary recalls: “He also cast decisions in the most private of cases. Hundreds of Jews would stream to his home – a modest one-bedroom apartment in an alleyway in the ultra-Orthodox quarter of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem – to seek his opinions on their personal quandaries, or simply his blessing. They also came to his nightly tutorials on Talmud, much of which he knew by heart.”
Heart learning. Again credit where credit is due. And for anti-Zionists, whatever that can mean today, no doubt you are of one mind with the Rabbi on this issue. I doubt that means you’ll throw your wig into a bonfire but linking on certain issues while disagreeing on others has some merit. We do this all the time anyway. Life is a series of negotiations. Even joint burials have to be negotiated.
Back on the prophet trail, it’s wrong to think that the prophetic is a stand-alone.
The prophetic is also negotiated.
It seems contradictory. If there’s anything that isn’t negotiable, it’s the prophetic, isn’t it?
My response is no, there is no absolute, not even God. This is the reason that so many sophisticates miss out on contemplating the God question. Or simply dismiss it. Absolutes are out. As in, “I’m too intelligent to go there.” A la Edward Said.
Indeed, we are too intelligent to travel the absolute route on God, though we often travel the other no-God absolute route to deflect the complexity of that absolute.
We substitute one for the other.
That God isn’t absolute doesn’t mean there is no-God. There will be a God, whether named or not, to take God’s place.
This doesn’t mean that the relative wins the day, hands down. Because in that victory the relative often becomes the absolute of narcissism and injustice or absolute certainty about what society has to look like. So neither absolute nor relative – justice with gray areas?
If the prophet wears gray is there any port in the worldly storm? If even the prophet cannot stand firm is there anyone we can count on not to flee the scene when the sea gets rough?
The prophetic is negotiated. Absolute justice isn’t found anywhere. Won’t be found.
Think of Tourist Auschwitz, shall we shut it down because there is no way to deal with the dead without providing buses and bathrooms and restaurants to eat in?
Life goes on. Auschwitz continues to live. Like Luther, Auschwitz has a long shelf-life. Trivialization of everything is part of the modern world. Why shouldn’t Auschwitz become a money maker?
Think of the justice tours around the world, where the empowered visit the oppressed and return home to a comfortable bed.
I think of my travels to Gaza in the 1980s. How welcome we were for a time and then during the as the first Uprising dragged on there were some “ugly” incidents – kids throwing stones at the buses bringing those who were there to “help.”
Evidently, the Uprising kids realized that the helpers wouldn’t rescue them. After all was said and done, Gazans would remain behind in the same situation. Or worse.
Those who came to understand weren’t wrong to come. Many who came returned home and worked for Palestine.
The kids who stoned the buses weren’t wrong to throw rocks. They remained behind and indeed their situation continues to deteriorate.
Like the prophetic, solidarity is negotiated. Like solidarity, suffering is negotiated.
Life is gray. For the most part, the affluent and empowered will remain affluent and empowered. For the most part, the poor and marginalized will remain poor and marginalized. With time, things change. With few exceptions, the waiting time is long.
Dramatic changes often bring mixed results. Example A: Jews after the Holocaust.
The “ethics” of Jewish power. Broached in 1988 and already passé.
Those on the other side of history won’t be rescued. Those who are – watch out.
While practicing exile beware of the rescuer and the rescued within ourselves and the community around us.
An exile community that rescues isn’t reflecting on its internal life. An exile community that awaits rescue doesn’t understand the world they live in.
Jews of Conscience aren’t going to change the world. Jews of Conscience are not becoming the next Jewish establishment either.
Gray isn’t just “them.”
Shall we color the prophet gray? Dark gray, I think. Not black or white.
The prophet argues that people deserve the right to live an ordinary life not conform to a theory of a world reformed. The theory remains as a guiding light on the horizon. People exist in real time.
Years ago in Atlanta, I worked (unsuccessfully) in a poor African-American community. The group I briefly joined was run by white religious folks trying to organize the community that didn’t want to be organized. Which was really disappointing to us. Didn’t the people we were there to serve realize how a different future could be made?
Late one night, we young “volunteers” heard singing and clapping from a church nearby. It was the people we were there to organize up late at an improvised church service. The disdain among the volunteers was palpable. What a waste of time and energy.
I thought: “The people knew where it was going and where it wasn’t before we arrived.”
They would still be there after we left. Which they are.
I have more stories about Israel/Palestine organizing around a two-state solution when the organizers knew it wasn’t going to happen. Reason given to me for organizing others around something you don’t believe in? You can’t mobilize people on the Israel/Palestine issue if the truth you know is known by them.
De-colonize organizing the “masses?”