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Exile and the Prophetic: Prophet Gray

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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?”

Marc H. Ellis
About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is Professor of History and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of the Global Prophetic. His latest book is Finding Our Voice: Embodying the Prophetic and Other Misadventures.

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20 Responses

  1. W.Jones
    W.Jones on July 27, 2012, 5:51 pm

    It’s true that “Like Luther, Auschwitz has a long shelf-life.” But for different reasons.

    Luther has a long shelf-life because of his foundational contribution to the development of Protestantism. If someone from the Protestant movement decides he wants to study the ideas and history of Protestantism, Luther is one of the main people he/she will study. Further, I think Luther did make an important contribution in western society. I think his input helped the development of rationalism. Rather than people having to accept the Pope’s ability to make so-called “infallible” ex-cathedra statements, the people of the Christian community were able to come to decisions and beliefs without them being “infallibly” dictated by an earthly Pope in Rome. Granted, the doctrine of “Papal Infallibility”, as I understand it, hadn’t been yet made completely binding on Catholics. But there were other inventions that had developed in the RC Church since medieval times, like the belief in the immaculate conception of Mary, meaning that Mary was born without sin. Luther’s emphasis on sola scriptura allowed people to have more freedom in thought, and this in turn helped develop the Enlightenment following the Reformation.

    Now I do think Luther threw out the baby with the bathwater, or at least muddled the waters enough that it isn’t such good bathwater. After all, alot of people imagine sola scripture means traditions hardly matter at all. And as a result of this disregard, even more new “inventions” in religion, are possible, like the CZ movement.

    Perhaps people will come to disregard Luther and accept tradition while rejecting Papal infallibility. But until they give up the main points of Protestantism, it seems Luther will still be on the Protestants’ “shelf.”

    The point here is not to agree or disagree with Luther overall, but to see why he has a long-shelf life, and I think that this is his contribution to western society’s development, although the positive ideas need not be considered unique. The biggest portion of Palestinian Christians, for example, are neither Protestant nor Catholic.

    Auschwitz, on the other hand, has a long “shelf life” not merely because of the tragedy’s scale and importance in history, but because it has power as a teaching tool. It can teach about universal morality, and about the need to care about minorities. A report on Mondoweiss, as I remember, mentioned that Israeli soldiers visiting Auschwitz actually came away placing more value on universal human rights. That is not to say the wrong lessons could be drawn from Auschwitz, or that the lessons could be abused to justify revenge against people who are actually innocent of it. But in any case, I think it will have a long shelf life so long as the value of the moral lesson remains for a world that has much injustice and risk of it.


  2. wondering jew
    wondering jew on July 27, 2012, 6:25 pm

    Marc Ellis- I am no big fan of Rabbi Elyashiv. But bury him together with a man who said, “I’ll send you his arm.”? Please. Elyashiv was a prodigy, probably autistic who rose to the top of the heap through his simplicity and erudition (and autism)> Suleiman, well, I don’t know his career, but he was the head of an army, where autism is not rewarded, but cynical cut throat opportunism is. You have gotten carried away with yourself when you bury them together.

  3. Mooser
    Mooser on July 27, 2012, 7:41 pm

    “I think his input helped the development of rationalism” (He’s speaking of Luther)

    Yes, W.Jones, didn’t Luther help rationalism along by proving God’s existence using math and scientific observation? And publish this irrefutable proof in a vernacular anyone (who was literate in German or Latin) could understand in addition to his proofs in scholarly Latin.

    • W.Jones
      W.Jones on July 28, 2012, 10:41 am

      To give an example of Luther’s reasoning:

      Mighty potentates have raged against this book and sought to destroy and uproot it—Alexander the Great and princes of Egypt and Babylon, the monarchs of Persia, of Greece and Rome, the Emperors Julius and Augustus—but they prevailed nothing. They are gone while the book remains, and it will remain forever and ever, perfect and entire, as it was declared at first. Who has thus helped it—who has protected it against such might forces? No one, surely, but God Himself, who is master of all things.

      In other words, the Bible’s survival he thinks is so unlikely that it suggests it was miraculous, protected by God. So Luther did use Reason in his thinking. The reasoning could be that miracles are evidence for His existence.

      • OlegR
        OlegR on July 29, 2012, 10:14 am

        The Irony is the that the “Bible” in this case the old testament
        was protected and preserved by the Jews whom Luther being
        an antisemite despised.

      • W.Jones
        W.Jones on August 3, 2012, 3:02 am


        The Old Testament was indeed protected from Babylon and Greece by the ancient Jews, but I am doubtful Luther despised those Old Testament Jews, like Moses and Abraham, considering how important they were to his beliefs.

        The New Testament part of the Bible was protected from the Romans he mentions by Jewish and non-Jewish Christians alike, and I doubt Luther disliked them either.


  4. Mooser
    Mooser on July 27, 2012, 7:47 pm

    “I think his input helped the development of rationalism”

    Oh, his input was all right, but I’ve heard is output was sadly constricted.

    So wow, Jones, you leave me really depressed. Oh, don’t try to be nice. Sure theere’s good ol’ rational Protestantism, then there’s that irrational Catholic religion with its awful superstition. And then way down here at the bottom, down among the roots, wines and spirits, is Judaism, which is so irrational it doesn’t even acknowledge Christ’s saving power at all!
    I know I won’t get into heaven because of that. I can accept it, but now I’m wondering if I (a Jew) should even be suffered to live at all. Maybe we should see what good ol’ rational Luther has to say on the subject, shall we?

    • Citizen
      Citizen on July 28, 2012, 10:41 am

      @ Mooser,

      Quit beating your dead moose. Luther was important because he nailed his objections to the Papal door, things such as you can’t be acting in the name of God when you literally buy and sell the quality of soul life in the hereafter. Jesus rebelled against the same thing, although, despite the fact he was a carpenter, he never nailed his protest to the door of the Sanhedrin. He just jumped inside and turned over the moneychangers tables.

      We owe both men a token of gratitude for standing up against lucrative hypocrisy.

      • W.Jones
        W.Jones on July 28, 2012, 12:05 pm


        I think this is a common misunderstanding about Catholic indulgences: “you can’t be acting in the name of God when you literally buy and sell the quality of soul life in the hereafter”.

        Wikipedia says:

        In Catholic theology, an indulgence is the full or partial remission of temporal punishment due for sins which have already been forgiven. The indulgence is granted by the Catholic Church after the sinner has confessed and received absolution. An indulgence is thus not forgiveness of sin… They are granted for specific good works and prayers. Indulgences replaced the severe penances of the early Church.

        While Luther did not deny the Pope’s right to grant pardons for penance imposed by the Church, he made it clear that preachers who claimed indulgences absolved buyers from all punishments and granted them salvation were in error.
        (See the article on Indulgence )

        The article adds that Luther was reacting against the basic idea in the proverb:

        “As soon as money in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory’s fire springs.”

        The Papal Bull of indulgence gave no sanction whatever to this proposition. It was a vague scholastic opinion, rejected by the Sorbonne in 1482, and again in 1518, and certainly not a doctrine of the Church, which was thus improperly put forward as dogmatic truth. The first among the theologians of the Roman court, Cardinal Cajetan, was the enemy of all such extravagances, and declared emphatically that, even if theologians and preachers taught such opinions, no faith need be given them.

        Thus it appears that in the question of indulgences (freeing someone from doing penance), Luther was representing the official RC position, as against some RCs who misrepresented it.

        Now granted the RC concept of indulgences is also connected alot to the RC idea of the merits of the saints and transferring those merits. And this RC idea isn’t taught by other branches of Christianity, so I think Luther did make a contribution in his preaching against the abuse of indulgences. Plus, if Luther hadn’t taken such a strong stand, perhaps the other branches of Christianity would have the mistaken idea about Saints’ merits related to granting indulgences. etc.

        Which reminds me that Purgatory was another idea invented/developed in Western Christianity in the Middle Ages that Protestants discontinued.

    • W.Jones
      W.Jones on July 28, 2012, 11:41 am


      It seems to me that the “input” (Protestantism) from Luther into society helped the subsequent development of Rationalism in Western Europe, and that the resulting “output”(Democracy) from the Rationalist society was broad.

      Well, Catholicism with thinkers like Aquinas, relied on Reasoning in their writings. But Protestantism seemed to open itself up to Reasoning more, by avoiding the power of the clergy and leadership to tell the doctrines to them. Furthermore, Protestantism refers alot less to traditions, and thus relies alot more on scholarship and reasoning. And out of this it seems to me there was a corresponding advance in politics where people felt they could make decisions as a nation without them being dictated by a king.

      Now granted, this rejection of the authority of leadership and tradition can have the opposite effect: it can result in things like the CZ movement, which don’t follow good reasoning or Christian tradition. Cutting the sails “free” doesn’t mean a ship will sail. In religious terms, I think Protestants gained some and lost some from the Reformation.

      When it comes to Judaism, it seems to me there is a parallel, and that Luther probably contributed to this as well. Please correct me if I am wrong, but it seems to me that the modern “Reform” movement in Rab.Judaism was developed as at least an indirect result of the Protestant movement in society. I mean, even the names “Reform [Judaism]” and “[The] Reformation” sound similar. And perhaps in making this change from old-school to Reform, some valuable traditions were undervalued (as happened in Protestantism)? But nonetheless, the transition from old-school to Reform reminds me of the overall societal shift from monarchy and the nobility’s traditions to democracy.

  5. ColinWright
    ColinWright on July 27, 2012, 11:12 pm

    “… I have offered joint burial sites to: Arafat/Sharon; Dershowitz/Starr; Elyashiv/Suleiman. ..”

    They’ll need to be big plots: like Viking kings or something, most of these folks would have quite a cohort of victims who died with them to accompany them to the afterlife.

    Sharon alone rates a veritable Babi Yar…but I think I enjoy the thought of Dershowitz spending eternity in the hands of his victims most.

  6. RoHa
    RoHa on July 27, 2012, 11:22 pm

    “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.”

    Who are these exile communiites?

  7. Parity
    Parity on July 28, 2012, 2:12 pm

    On how obits are written: Rep. Tom Lantos and Dr. George Habash died at about the same time. The mainstream-media obituaries extolled Tom Lantos for being a leader on human rights (not mentioning his blindness toward Palestinian human rights) and connected his passion for human rights with his experience in Auschwitz. George Habash was rightly portrayed as a leader in Palestinian resistance. However, no context for his passion was given. He was a doctor in Lydda (Lod) when the Israeli forces took the town and expelled the Palestinians. In Lydda, he worked in a hospital where many wounded and dead Palestinians were brought following a massacre.

  8. Parity
    Parity on July 28, 2012, 2:27 pm

    Correction to what I just wrote: Tom Lantos was not in Auschwitz; in lost relatives in the Holocaust.

  9. MHughes976
    MHughes976 on July 28, 2012, 3:19 pm

    I think that the most important exiled community these days is the Palestinians.
    I’m very interested in the question, on which Marc touches, of what is the authentic form of a religion. I think he considers that he considers the religion of R.Elyashiv too petty and legalistic to be authentic: is that right?

  10. DICKERSON3870
    DICKERSON3870 on July 29, 2012, 2:39 pm

    RE: “Everyone and their brother and sister are vying for honorifics and power. The Wheel of Empire spins.” ~ Marc Ellis

    SPEAKING OF “WHEEL OF EMPIRE”, TRY A LITTLE “JUICE” (Join Us In Creating Excitement)! ! !
    FILM: Requiem for a Dream, 2000, UR, 102 minutes
    A widow’s growing dependence on amphetamines and a self-help television show parallels the struggles of her heroin-addicted son and his girlfriend and friend in Darren Aronofsky’s bleak drama.
    Netflix Availability: DVD and Blu-ray
    • Internet Movie Database (IMDb) –
    REQUIEM FOR A DREAM TRAILER HD HQ – best scenes of a movie (VIDEO, 03:32) –
    Requiem For A Dream Music composed by Clint Mansell, performed by the Kronos Quartet. / From the soundtrack for Darren Aronofsky’s second film. (VIDEO, 05:21) –

    P.S. Be certain to watch/listen to “The making of…” and the “Director’s Commentary” in the bonus/extra features. Aronofsky has some interesting things to say about addictions that I think might also apply to “Empire”* (and many, many other things). Also, try to have Dolby/DTS 5.1 audio when watching the feature film. They make very good use of the side/rear channels.
    And Ellen Burstyn’s acting is absolutely brilliant!

    * I see some parallels between “Empire” and Sara Goldfarb’s addiction to amphetamines and her obsession with the self-help television show – an infomercial hosted by self-help guru Tappy Tibbons (Christopher McDonald), based on the acronym JUICE (Join Us In Creating Excitement).
    BUT THEN, WHAT DO I KNOW? I’m certainly no Stuart Smalley!

    • DICKERSON3870
      DICKERSON3870 on July 29, 2012, 2:43 pm


      Sara Goldfarb: “I’m somebody now, Harry. Everybody likes me. Soon, millions of people will see me and they’ll all like me. I’ll tell them about you, and your father, how good he was to us. Remember? It’s a reason to get up in the morning. It’s a reason to lose weight, to fit in the red dress. It’s a reason to smile. It makes tomorrow all right. What have I got Harry, hm? Why should I even make the bed, or wash the dishes? I do them, but why should I? I’m alone. Your father’s gone, you’re gone. I got no one to care for. What have I got, Harry? I’m lonely. I’m old.”
      Harry Goldfarb: “You got friends, Ma.”
      Sara Goldfarb: “Ah, it’s not the same. They don’t need me. I like the way I feel. I like thinking about the red dress and the television and you and your father. Now when I get the sun, I smile.”

      Harry Goldfarb: “Ma? Ya on uppers?”

      Harry Goldfarb: [Harry has just found out that Sara is on diet pills] “Does he give you pills?”
      Sara Goldfarb: “Of course he gives me pills. He’s a doctor!
      Harry Goldfarb: “What kind of pills?”
      Sara Goldfarb: “Oh… erm… a blue one, a purple one… and a…
      Harry Goldfarb: “I mean, what’s in them.”

      Sara Goldfarb: “How come you know more about medicine than a doctor?”
      Harry Goldfarb: “Believe me, Ma: I know.”

      Sara Goldfarb: “[about her pills] Purple in the morning, blue in the afternoon, orange in the evening.”
      [to refrigerator]
      Sara Goldfarb: “There’s my three meals, Mr. Smartypants.”
      [back to pills]
      Sara Goldfarb: “And green at night. Just like that. One, two, three, four.”
      [[ “Ev’ry morning, ev’ry evening
      Ain’t we got fun?”
      – J.L.D. ]]

      [last lines]
      Tappy Tibbons: “We got a winner, I said we got a winner, we got a winner! Our next winner is that delightful personality, straight from Brighton beach Brooklyn, Please give a juicy welcome to Mrs. Sara Goldfarb!”
      The Audience: “Juice by Sara, juice by Sara, juice by Sara oh, Sara’s got juice, Sara’s got juice, ohhhhhhhh Sara!”
      Tappy Tibbons: “I’m delighted to tell you, that you’ve just won the grand prize!”
      Sara Goldfarb: “Oh, no!”
      Tappy Tibbons: “Now let me tell you what you’ve won. Your prize has a sweet smile, and his own private business. He just got engaged, and is about to get married this summer, please give a warm, and juicy welcome, Harry Goldfarb!”
      The Audience: “Juice by Harry, juice by Harry, ohhhh Harry’s got juice, Harry’s got juice, ohhhhhh Harry.”
      Sara Goldfarb: “I love you, Harry.”
      Harry Goldfarb: “I love you too, Ma.”

      SOURCE –

      • Requiem for a Dream – 11. “Be Excited” [VIDEO, 01:33] –
      • Tappy’s 3rd Thing-Tappy Tibbons Month of Fury! [VIDEO, 02:19] –
      • Tappy Tibbons Month Of Fury (mostly not from the film, but rather from the bonus features on the DVD) [VIDEO, 07:25] –

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