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Exile and the Prophetic: Gender equality is worth struggling for. Gender equality within Constantinian Judaism isn’t.

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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.

Constantinian Judaism is an amalgam of religion and politics. Christianity pioneered it in the 4th century and beyond. Any Constantinian formation– including Constantinian Islam – is about religion and state working hand in hand. Each one scratches the other’s back.

Religion blesses the state. The state blesses religion. A mutual coronation. In the end, guess who serves who?

Our new gender equality advocate, Prime Minister Netanyahu, is no doubt religionless – unless you count political gamesmanship as religion. Let’s just say that Netanyahu cultivates political power religiously. He’s nothing if not devoted. Principle never stands in the way of his devotion.

The effects of Jewishness in bed with empire are devastating. It marks contemporary Jewish life in a way that only future historians will fully understand.

Constantinian Judaism apes the Christianity Jews barely survived. Now Palestinians have to survive Constantinian Judaism.

For a long time, Jewish feminism has been cutting edge in its critique of patriarchal power. On Israel, it has fallen short.

Like Progressive Jews in general, most Jewish feminists want to rock the boat in their direction. To do so they need allies. Their allies don’t want Israel rocked – too much.

That’s the deal Jewish feminists strike. It’s understandable to sacrifice others if your issue has such a priority that nothing else matters. In this case, Palestinians are sacrificed for equality in prayer.

The issue couldn’t be starker and more in your face then the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Who, in God’s name, wants to pray there?

To get to the Western Wall, you have to venture through Jerusalem. You don’t have to be a political sophisticate to notice that a significant part of Jerusalem is Palestinian. Nor do you have to be a military analyst to experience Israeli soldiers patrolling Jerusalem to keep the lid on an obviously volatile situation.

Do you have to hear a lecture by a professional historian to see the number of settlers growing and the Judaization of the Old City continuing apace?

If you still haven’t gotten the Palestinian reality in Jerusalem, it’s hard to miss the Dome of the Rock. For some, though, it’s not for want of trying.

Years ago, I spoke at a conference in Tel Aviv and took a day tour with conference participants to Jerusalem. The Israeli tour guide brought our group to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and then to the Western Wall. During our visit he recounted in great detail the history of Judaism and Christianity in the land. Midway through the tour I noticed something missing: He hadn’t mentioned Islam.

I played ignorant I inquired about that ‘beautiful building in front of the Western Wall.’ Could he tell me what that was? When he finally said the word mosque and Muslim, I asked if they had any significant history in this area. He admitted that it was so but left the details unspoken. Our tour guide was clearly irked. He waved us on to another part of Jerusalem’s history.

Everyone knows what’s going on. Then how can gender equality folks bury their heads in the Western Wall sand just to stand shoulder to shoulder with Jewish ascendancy?

Gender equality is worth struggling for. Gender equality within Constantinian Judaism isn’t.

Gender equality is possible in parts of Judaism. I suppose the idea is that once it is achieved other barriers will fall. The biggest barrier thwarts Palestinian freedom.

Since Constantinian Judaism is the present and future of Judaism – including the future of Progressive Judaism as Constantinian Judaism’s Left-wing – what in Judaism is worth fighting for?

You remember the back-down of B’nai Jeshurun’s leadership over the United Nation’s vote on Palestinian statehood. It wasn’t a complete retraction that the leadership signed onto. Rather it was an agreement to split the difference. The leadership’s critical sensibility could remain as long as there was no real commitment to change.

That’s what Netanyahu’s gender equality leadership is all about. He wants to smooth the rough edges of political oppression so women can carry the Torah at the Western Wall.

But when carrying the Torah scroll at the Western Wall is protected by the Apartheid Wall you have to challenge Constantinian Judaism rather than accept its leadership to reach your goals.

When your equality is built on someone else’s inequality, we’re not far from the irruption of the prophetic.

So it is when the Western Wall and the Apartheid Wall merge in Jewish consciousness. In Palestinian consciousness, the connection is already there.

Jews of Conscience are playing catch up. Gender equality at the Western Wall is yet another wake-up call. There’s a lot of catching up to do, prayer-wise, too.

The walls we worship at and the walls we build define us.

Praying at the Western Wall with the Palestinians occupied is like Catholics praying in Cathedrals with a Jewish ghetto down the street.

Are the Western Wall and the Apartheid Wall defining the Jewish future?

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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2 Responses

  1. piotr on December 28, 2012, 10:22 pm

    I like your essays, Marc, but even though my knowledge of history is a bit above average, I am not sure what you mean by “Constantinian”.

  2. Castellio on December 29, 2012, 10:58 pm

    The head of state, Constantine, actually called the Christian religious leaders together and influenced them in the development of an acceptable Christian creed. In other words, the religion was expressly shaped according to both state and religious needs; an evolutionary turning point in Christianity.

    In the same way, contemporary Israel and its political forces and personalities are forging a new Judaism for the present and the future. Ellis is seeing an historical analogy, and has (unfortunately, I think) mixed the terms to get across the point.

    The early history of Christianity is, in general, very badly understood. But let’s say this: the expanse of Christianity benefited from state support (although the integrity of the religious institutions didn’t), and it is supposed that the growth and security of Judaism will benefit from state support as well. Ellis wonders, though, about the integrity of the religious institutions; and if they falter (as they have) can one truly call Judaism secure, no matter how powerful the state of Israel might be?

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