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Exile and the prophetic: When David Gregory came to my seder

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

Miscellany.  Scattered reflections during the Days of Awe.  Trying to keep it light.  Back to the diversion after yesterday’s thought poem. 

I begin on the David Gregory front, apropos of his controversial (without mentioning the words Palestine or Palestinian) interview a few days ago with Netanyahu. Around the time I had Muna Hamzeh speak in my Holocaust course, Gregory spent Passover in my home in Central Texas. 

It happened like this.  President Bush’s vacation spot is in Crawford, Texas just a few miles from I lived.  It was during Bush’s first term and he was on Easter vacation so Gregory, then Chief White House correspondent for NBC News, was there to cover the President.  That year Passover intersected with Easter and Gregory looked for a Jewish home to share a Seder meal.  Combing through the university directory for a Jewish Studies presence, he happened upon me. 

As I remember, Gregory is from a mixed background and now identifies Jewish.  My time with him was pleasant.  For the most part, Gregory is more or less as he comes across on television, intelligent in a certain way, interested in the back and forth of good conversation and considerate of others.  On the food front, as a contribution to the Seder meal, he brought exquisite chocolate macaroons from a bake shop in Washington.

I’m not sure if he knew who I was and what I represented in the Middle East war of ideas before our Seder time together.  If he did, he didn’t let on.  We discussed the Middle East a bit.  Obviously he understood Israel’s transgressions and showed concern for Palestinians.  Yet even in private he had a newsman’s presence about him.  He played both sides of the issue. He didn’t want to wade into the Israel/Palestine quagmire.

“Meet the Press” was Gregory’s reward for playing both sides of all issues in public and private.  To become successful, keep the world at bay by being non-committal on things of importance.  Or impartial, depending on how terms are used in the company you keep and the company which promotes you.  The reward is lots of money and status.  Thinking of Gregory, though, I wonder if a life that follows those rules makes a life.

After our time together, he invited me to Crawford for a Presidential press conference.  The only way to gain entry was to be part of the press or a press person’s invited guest.  So there I was, just yards away from President Bush. I found him as he is often portrayed, an impish prankster and the stereotypical immature middle-aged man. 

Mahatma Condi was also there, standing off to the side.  I remember feeling how staged these press conferences are and how the world is discussed – and decided upon – in such flippant tones.  The overall sense of the proceeding was boredom.  Everyone seemed tired and out of place.  Uprooted – to return to Simone Weil’s theme.



It is hard for most of us to imagine Jewishness different than the Jewishness that surrounds us.  We can imagine rebelling against that Jewishness.  Rebelling against that Jewishness is our Jewishness.  At times we’re caught up short by those who question the content of our Jewishness.  Other times we catch ourselves up short.  We ask ourselves if the only Jewish we know is rebellion against the Empire Jewish Other.

The Days of Awe heighten everyone’s suspicion.  What is this one’s and that one’s Jewish?

But factor this in.  Whenever content to Jewish is prescribed or ascribed, there’s always rebellion.  The attempt to define the content of Jewish inaugurates assaults on radical thought.  It demands conformism to establishment power.   Boundaries are established that cannot be crossed without incurring severe penalties. 

When the definition of Jewish isn’t up for grabs, Jewish atrophies.  The more Jewish is trumpeted, the less it means.


Much to do lately about the Abrahamic faiths, what with the anti-Muslim video, the death of the American ambassador to Libya, rumblings in Egypt and the Pope in Lebanon.

Can’t we all just get along?

I was amazed when I heard that the recent hurricane was named Isaac.  The weather storm came only weeks before the present religious storm. Of course, the religious storm is ancient; it’s been with us for so long we don’t even name it.  When we’re in the eye of the religious storm, we count our blessings.  It’s only a matter of time before the torrential rains and ferocious winds return.

Isaac is a Biblical talisman for being bound and being free.  The Abrahamic legacy is variously interpreted along those lines  The God in the Abraham/Isaac story is a forbidding/forgiving one, depending on how interpreters turn the text.  As it is common in the Bible, the text can be read different ways.  It also has silences, jump cuts in the narrative and redactions galore. 

My son, Aaron, attended a class in a seminary on the Hebrew Bible last summer.  Part of the course focused on the Abraham story.  We spent many an evening on what seems to be a very straight forward story.  At least with modern interpretations, it isn’t.

But then I often wonder about modern interpretations of ancient texts.  We bring our modernity to everything and when the Bible is concerned Orientalism is often the elephant in the room.  Religion does this to everyone, it seems.  It skews our sensibilities and our judgment.  Much like secularism does.  There doesn’t seem to be an exit from interpretative frameworks that are later changed or disavowed completely.  

I stay away from the Abraham/Isaac story primarily because the rather ridiculous interfaith mandala gathers the three monotheistic religions under the same (modern) tent.  I find the “tent” theme strange.  Of late, I haven’t met any of the Abrahamic faith participants that live in a tent.  Mostly I meet them at conferences in mammoth hotels. 

Nonetheless, sometimes there are symbolic Abrahamic Faith’s tent meetings.  Usually the host complains about the complexity of renting and using such a venue.  To begin with, tents are hard to find.  For the tent gatherings to make sense, the rented tent has to be large enough for a crowd. Tent rentalsare expensive. Other than weddings for the affluent, they’re not much in demand.  The modern “Rent a Tent” industry hasn’t taken off yet.

The Jerusalem Abrahamic Faiths stuff is especially dumbed down.  The World Parliament of Religions is rife with it. Satellite gatherings can also be the religious place to be.

At Abrahamic Faith gatherings anyone who’s anyone has a religious costume.  When the dignitaries appear they carry their sacred book with them.  Everyone prays in their own language whether anyone around them understands their language or not.  Everyone pretends they’re interested in other faith prayers when they’re hardly interested in their own.

As a religious fashion show it’s the place to be. 

In general, these gatherings aren’t gateway mandalas.  For the most part, they block the way forward by freezing all of us in the religious equivalent of shipping crates.   Once you’re packaged carefully, there’s no way out until you’ve arrived at your destination.  If spirituality is a journey, you have to be prepared to move in a variety of directions that aren’t on the shipping routes.


Our good friend and cosmopolitan Jew, Edward Said,couldn’t stand the Abrahamic Faiths’ routine.  It couldn’t be more inane and farther from the Jewish prophetic, Said was so drawn to. 

The idea that Jerusalem and the world would be better off with the monotheistic religions at the core of a political deal is ludicrous.   Among other things, such a view enshrines the official leadership of these religions as religious in a meaningful way.  It is more accurate to understand them as political gamers who advanced to the top rungs of the church/mosque/synagogue bureaucracy.  Romanticizing these religions consigns the prophetic to the fringes of the spiritual world.  Or, rather, it pushes them off the religious map altogether.

The Abrahamic Faiths movement is for the most part static. It protects religion – and politics – from the prophetic sniping at its heels.  The real Jerusalem is less about the Judaism, Christianity and Islam than it is about Jews and Palestinians finding a just way to integrate their lives.  Within the context of justice, religions have a place.


Meanwhile, parasailing, where people dangle from a parachute tethered to a boat, is in the news along the Florida coastline.  It seems that folks are dropping from the sky on a fairly regular basis. The latest is a woman who slipped from her harness and fell two hundred feet to her death a few days ago.  As you might expect, the parasailing industry is unregulated. The local news reports as a matter of fact that regulations aren’t very popular in Florida. 

Along the parasailing line during the High holidays, I wonder if a representative of each faith, fully decked out in their official religious garb, could parasail in the Mediterranean and then, catching a wind current, be airlifted over Jerusalem. The citizens of Jerusalem can see the Flying Abrahams calling for peace and prayers for everyone and everything.

Visions of the Ed Sullivan show.  Apropos of the relevance of the High Holidays.

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 new book, Finding Our Voice: Embodying the Prophetic and Other Misadventures, is forthcoming.

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7 Responses

  1. radkelt
    September 19, 2012, 6:36 pm

    please explain (……cosmopolitan Jew, Edward Said,……) I don’t think Dr. Said
    was a jew.

    • Kathleen
      September 20, 2012, 7:52 am

      Edward Said one of the individuals out on the front lines of this issue… long ago. Love that man he was willing to speak the truth early on when it was not accepted to go where few were going.

  2. gazacalling
    September 19, 2012, 7:52 pm

    Yet another beautiful post. The portrait of Gregory seems correct (I never talked to him, but I used to hang out at the Starbucks he would frequent in DC).

    I wanted to briefly point to this sentence: “The reward is lots of money and status.”

    I’ve been reflecting on this in recent days. The nature of a scam is when somebody offers you something for (seemingly) nothing. This is what we all want! Unconditional love, someone to give us things we didn’t earn.

    But this isn’t the way life works. When money and status are offered to you, there’s always something expected in return. And that something is usually your integrity.

    It’s hard to have integrity. You have to really put yourself out there on occasion, and stand up for something. What is it you’re going to stand up for?

    The only thing worth standing up for are the oppressed everywhere. Bravo to Marc Ellis and Phil Weiss for leading the way and giving us the benefit of their examples.

    • Kathleen
      September 20, 2012, 7:56 am

      You actually agree that David Gregory plays both sides of all issues in public? Where, when please show me. I have never heard David Gregory ever ask a question about the I/P issue based on facts or challenge the Israeli I lobby view. Never ever. Please link some kind of back up for that shallow fact less claim.

  3. Citizen
    September 20, 2012, 12:53 am

    They say everybody likes Disneyland. Each of those religions has its own. Adults work their way up the ladder their too. Kids are funneled there from childhood, many never outgrow the allure. This is also the history of war-mongering, and wars.

  4. Kathleen
    September 20, 2012, 7:49 am

    Did you really mean to say David Gregory plays both sides in public. The man does not even get close. Does not even inch that way on the I/P issue. Does not even dip his toes in. Totally complicit. If that is playing both sides I have a bridge in the Mojave desert to sell you. The man rose up the ladder because he does not play both sides. In his latest kiss the I lobbies ass he did not even get close to asking logical questions. Why was Irans offer to stop enriching uranium in 2011 turned down? It is rather absurd that Israel demands and pushes a war based on Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program when Israel has massive stockpiles of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons that are not inspected by the IAEA. When will Israel sign the Non Proliferation treaty? I

    David Gregory is a boring, playing the game host. Have seldom heard him play hard ball. Now MSNBC’s Chris Hayes is stepping out of the kiss Israel’s ass box. Dylan Ratigan did, Cenk Uygar did. But David Gregory’s lip prints are on Netanyahu’s and the I lobbies collective ass.

    Going to read your post again. But seemed all over the place. But what do I know. Will give it another shot

  5. DICKERSON3870
    September 24, 2012, 8:12 am

    RE: “Visions of the Ed Sullivan show.” ~ Marc Ellis

    MY COMMENT: I really miss Topo Gigio. –
    And Lamb Chop, of course. –[email protected]/5483391963/
    I guess I never really grew up.

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