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Exile and the prophetic: The new Jewish flirtation with Jesus

Israel/Palestine
on 19 Comments

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.

The way you look at Jesus changes everything.  Jesus as messiah doesn’t go very far on the justice front.  It’s great for empire though.

Have you noticed that some Jewish Israel/Palestine activists gravitate to Jesus?  Joel Kovel has a series Jesus thing (here and here).  Mark Braverman is sitting on the Jesus fence (link)

I’ve been fascinated with Jews and their journey toward Christianity for a long time.  It’s like JuBu’s – Jewish Buddhists – when Zen was all the rage.  Still, there’s something different about this flirtation with Christianity. 

Buddhism for Jews is an exploration of spirituality with no strings attached.  Whether this is real Buddhism or not is beside the point.  You find few JuBu’s struggling with the empire Buddhism that supported Japanese fascism in the 1930s and 1940s or the recent Buddhist-Muslim flare-up in Burma.  For JuBu’s that’s a world – and a religion – away.

Crossing the Jesus redline is another thing altogether.  Jew-bashing has been a central preoccupation with Christianity for 1500 years. Since a liaison with Jesus is a flirtation with Christianity, it’s a serious boundary to cross for Jews.  Lots of red flags.

Of course, neither Kovel nor Braverman want Christianity as it was.  Many Christians don’t want it either.  What they want is Jesus before Christianity – a Jewish revolutionary naysayer, anti-(Roman) occupation activist and profound spiritual explorer. 

Is this the real Jesus?  No one really knows much about Jesus in a true historical sense but Christianity’s canonical texts are suggestive.  They point to a revolutionary sensibility which Christians rarely follow.

Christian liberation theology has crystallized Jesus’s prophetic sensibility.  Christians who embrace Jesus’s radical prophetic message are, like the Jewish dissidents of our time, deep in exile. 

There is a two way street in radicalizing Jesus.  In order for Christians to find the radical Jesus, Jesus has to be placed in the Jewish prophetic tradition.  Jesus’s Jewishness has to be located – and embraced – by Christians.

So whether you’re walking on the Jewish or Christian side of the street, Jesus, separated from Christianity and placed in the Jewish prophetic tradition, can be a unifier – especially when both the Jewish and Christian establishments sell out their own origins for status, power and wealth.

This makes for another strange transposition.  Whether you’re walking down the Jewish or Christian side of the street matters little if the pursuit of status, power, and wealth orients your life.  If you’re into Constantinianism – having religion bless empire – does it matter if you’re Jewish or Christian?  That’s true for Muslims as well.

Jews, Christians and Muslims of Conscience are practicing the same religion more or less.  They have to find and embrace the persistence of the prophetic.  What better way than to do this together?

Empire Jews, Christians and Muslims are practicing the same religion more or less.  They have to root out the persistence of the prophetic.  What better way than to do this together?

Still, Jews flirting with Jesus is alarming, don’t you think? 

In the end, though, perhaps it’s simply another way of sticking it to the Jewish establishment’s assimilation to power and empire Christianity.

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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19 Responses

  1. Elisabeth
    Elisabeth
    June 22, 2013, 11:51 am

    “Jews, Christians and Muslims of Conscience are practicing the same religion more or less. They have to find and embrace the persistence of the prophetic. What better way than to do this together?”

    That is how I feel too. On that level I do not feel that conversion adds much. It is simply not necessary.

  2. Donald
    Donald
    June 22, 2013, 12:34 pm

    “Empire Jews, Christians and Muslims are practicing the same religion more or less. They have to root out the persistence of the prophetic. What better way than to do this together?”

    That last sentence is both right and wrong. They do work together, but on an unconscious level. Islamophobic Jews and Christians closely resemble in their thinking the Islamic extremists they despise–they all need their demon figures. They work together by stoking hatred, but of course there’s no way that all three could unify, unless by some miracle a fourth group came along they all hated more than they hate each other. In a way that’s what has happened with Islamophobic Jews and Christians–they don’t really respect each other’s beliefs, but the Muslims are their common enemy.

    At this stage though, it’s hard to imagine a fourth group that could unify them–communism might have come close, but that’s gone. Maybe a Martian invasion would work.

  3. Stephen Shenfield
    Stephen Shenfield
    June 22, 2013, 5:40 pm

    In the late 19th century there were American Reform rabbis who looked forward to a fusion of Judaism with Christianity on the basis of a universalization of Judaism and recognition of Jesus as a Jewish teacher (though not messiah — Reform Judaism has always been against messianism). They cooperated with Unitarian ministers to this end. Beyond a certain point it’s hard to make a theological distinction between Reform Judaism and Unitarianism.

    It’s a mystery to me why you are alarmed by “Jews flirting with Jesus.” What alarming result do you expect it to have? It’s much more alarming that Jews should flirt with Zionism, don’t you think? And global heating is also very alarming. What do these various religions have to say about that?

    • Elisabeth
      Elisabeth
      June 23, 2013, 10:08 am

      When I studied in the US, I attended a Unitarian church (All Souls in Washington DC) and I developed a definite fondness for Unitarianism, of which I knew close to nothing until that time. There were indeed also Jewish members of the congregation and even a French couple who made no secret of the fact that they were atheist. As reasons for joining they mentioned the pleasant company and the fact that nothing helps you better to integrate into American society than joining a church!
      I only later discovered that Unitarian congegations also exist in some rural parts of the Netherlands. In any case, there is in reality not that much theological difference between unitarianism and the views prevalent in the more liberal branches of Dutch Protestantism.

      • W.Jones
        W.Jones
        June 23, 2013, 8:08 pm

        I see Quakerism as preferable them because it is dedicated to progressive beliefs, while still focusing to a meaningful extent on positive parts of Christian traditions.

        Unitarianism, while of course interesting, is not inherently tolerant or progressive, as I understand it- although I know that in practice so far its communities have often been both.

  4. DICKERSON3870
    DICKERSON3870
    June 23, 2013, 2:10 am

    RE: “Have you noticed that some Jewish Israel/Palestine activists gravitate to Jesus? . . . It’s like JuBu’s – Jewish Buddhists – when Zen was all the rage.” ~ Marc Ellis

    ONE POSSIBLE EXPLANATION: Gravitating towards a new religion might be one way of reducing the cognitive dissonance inherent in being an enlightened, progressive Jew at a time when Israel (the self-proclaimed Jewish nation-state) and its leaders (who often claim to speak for Jews everywhere, not just in Israel) are seen as being unenlightened and regressive. There are certainly plenty of unenlightened, regressive Christians and Buddhists, but there is no Christian or Buddhist nation-state with leaders who claim to speak for all Christians or Buddhists.
    I can see how leaving one religion and immersing oneself in a new religion might possibly be associated with defense mechanisms like withdrawal, intellectualization, idealization, humility, mindfulness, altruism, introjection, sublimation, and possibly even humor.

    FROM WIKIPEDIA [Defence mechanisms]:

    [EXCERPTS] In Freudian psychoanalytic theory, defense mechanisms (or defense mechanisms) are psychological strategies brought into play by the unconscious mind[1] to manipulate, deny, or distort reality (through processes including, but not limited to, repression, identification, or rationalization),[2] and to maintain a socially acceptable self-image or self-schema [and to minimize cognitive dissonance – J.L.D.].[3]
    Healthy persons normally use different defenses throughout life. An ego defense mechanism becomes pathological only when its persistent use leads to maladaptive behavior such that the physical and/or mental health of the individual is adversely affected. The purpose of ego defense mechanisms is to protect the mind/self/ego from anxiety [i.e., cognitive dissonance – J.L.D.] and/or social sanctions and/or to provide a refuge from a situation with which one cannot currently cope [i.e., a refuge from cognitive dissonance – J.L.D.].[4]
    Defence mechanisms are unconscious coping mechanisms that reduce anxiety generated by threats from unacceptable impulses.[5]
    . . . The list of defence mechanisms is huge and there is no theoretical consensus on the number of defence mechanisms. . .

    Vaillant’s categorization of defence mechanisms

    Level 1: Pathological

    Level 2: Immature

    Level 3: Neurotic
    These mechanisms are considered neurotic, but fairly common in adults. Such defences have short-term advantages in coping, but can often cause long-term problems . . .
    Intellectualization: A form of isolation; concentrating on the intellectual components of a situation so as to distance oneself from the associated anxiety-provoking emotions . . .
    Idealization: Unconsciously choosing to perceive another individual as having more positive qualities than he or she may actually have.[19]
    Withdrawal: Withdrawal is a more severe form of defence. It entails removing oneself from events, stimuli, interactions, etc. under the fear of being reminded of painful thoughts and feelings. . .

    Level 4: Mature
    These are commonly found among emotionally healthy adults and are considered mature . . .
    • Humility: A quality by which a person considering his own defects, has a humble opinion of himself.
    • Mindfulness: Adopting a particular orientation toward one’s experiences in the present moment, an orientation that is characterised by curiosity, openness, and acceptance.
    • Altruism: Constructive service to others that brings pleasure and personal satisfaction.
    • Humour: Overt expression of ideas and feelings (especially those that are unpleasant to focus on or too terrible to talk about) that gives pleasure to others. The thoughts retain a portion of their innate distress, but they are “skirted round” by witticism, for example Self-deprecation. [J.L.D.: FOR EXAMPLE – Photoshopped spoof billboard in front of Superland’s ferris wheel “”Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays for Jews. Mondays and Wednesdays for Arabs.” – http://mondoweiss.net/2013/05/is-israel-funtown.html ]
    • Introjection: Identifying with some idea or object so deeply that it becomes a part of that person.
    • Sublimation: Transformation of negative emotions or instincts into positive actions, behaviour, or emotion. [E.G., TAKING UP A NEW RELIGION! – J.L.D.] (ex. Playing a heavy contact sport such as football or rugby can transform aggression into a game)[19]

    SOURCE – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defence_mechanisms

  5. Citizen
    Citizen
    June 23, 2013, 9:40 am

    Interesting article, and interesting comments. I’m an agnostic myself. By default because I’ve never been able to get past any religious premises. I don’t have faith. I don’t even have any will towards faith. I also don’t know whether the role of religion in human life is a net good or bad. Jesus is a character (individual or composite) who spoke in parables.

  6. Citizen
    Citizen
    June 23, 2013, 9:56 am

    He quite often told little stories indicating he worked with stone, so maybe he was a stone carver, or simply a guy who hauled the stone. Or maybe those parables indicated he knew his audience, and tailored his talks to their experience.

  7. joer
    joer
    June 23, 2013, 2:15 pm

    Or we could say religion is a private matter, and human rights are a public matter.

    • quercus
      quercus
      June 25, 2013, 6:04 am

      @Ellen, thank you for your excellent summary of early Christianity. There is not much I could add to it, other than to say that I believe Jesus to be a reformer in the way that Martin Luther was. Neither “intended” to start a new religious movement, but rather desired to end the corruption and abuse by the religious elites within the religions to which they subscribed.

      Mr. Ellis’ statement about the 1500 year history of Christian “Jew-bashing” as he calls it is, as you noted, so very trite, and I would add, so very predictable, and so very incorrect. In its early, early history, it is Jews who were persecuting “Christians”, although I’m not sure they called themselves by that appellation at the time. One only has to read the story of the apostle Paul (a zealous Pharisee educated in strict observance of the Jewish “Law”) and his ‘enlightenment’ on the way to Damascus, and whereas Christianity was essentially proscribed until the Emperor Constatine, Judaism was a recognized and accepted religion. All that changed, however, after Constatine’s death and the fortunes for Jews and Christians were reversed. Perhaps Mr. Ellis doesn’t know these things because he’s never read the New Testament. Perhaps he should.

  8. Ellen
    Ellen
    June 23, 2013, 5:15 pm

    Yes, the idea of Jesus as Messiah is/was great for Empire. But no different than the idea of other proclaimed Jewish Messiahs who seek followers and come and go, such as Sabbatai Zevi who had a huge following in 17th century. But maybe, unlike Jesus, he lived too long, did not die as a martyr (easier to create imagery and myths around the person) so his gig wore out.

    As for Jew-bashing has been a central preoccupation with Christianity for 1500 years. What a trite statement, and what does this really mean?

    Like the reform movement of Christianity to break away from the excesses of the institutional and political control and corruption of the Church, early Christianity was a political reform movement within Judaism. So we have symbolic stories: Matthew 21.12: “And Yeshua entered The Temple of God and cast out all of those who sold and bought in The Temple and upset the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.”

    Christianity was a Jewish movement, and at it’s core, not only for reform, but to break away from the confines of tribalism to a Universalism. Just as any reform movement, was hugely threatening to the existing social power structures.

    What is the “New Jewish flirtation with Jesus?” Do you mean a flirtation with Christianity? The symbol, icon of a Jesus representing Christian teaching?

    I do not know about Mr. Ellis ideas, but Christians (at least those I know of and having gone to mostly Catholic schools) the education was that Jesus is of the Jewish Prophetic tradition and was a Jewish prophet and political figure of the time.

    Early Christian thought was a Jewish movement. Yes, a radical Jewish movement. This is the Christian teaching and education. So what does Mr. Ellis mean by “Jew-bashing has been a central preoccupation with Christianity for 1500 years. ” Huh???

    Christianity was first adopted by the fringes of Roman and Jewish culture, and the increasingly marginalized Hellenists. It spread among the mostly disenfranchised as many social movements can. In spite of Emperor Diocletian murderous purges of Christians, the movement survived. Constantine adopted it to garner support wherever he could as his Empire was breaking.

    If you are into the confines of labels, Christianity is at it’s core a spiritual Jewish movement in the tradition of Jesus’ contemporary, Hillel. Jesus, the Jew, never wrote a book of laws or anything down. It was the word, the breath, a universal spirit.

    Jews might “gravitate towards Christianity” because there is no spiritual difference between the two at the core.

    • tree
      tree
      June 23, 2013, 7:35 pm

      “As for Jew-bashing has been a central preoccupation with Christianity for 1500 years.” What a trite statement, and what does this really mean?

      Its’s Marc’s way of getting in a little Christian-bashing. It has just as long a pedigree, and Marc always does his part to keep up the tradition.

      • Ellen
        Ellen
        June 25, 2013, 3:15 pm

        Tree, I guess so, as I’ve noticed veiled bashing, including what seems a lack of historical perspective among theologies, etc. in previous posts by Mr. Ellis. But as it was yet again “so very predictable” as quercus says.

        With all due respect, is that what a ” liberation theologian” does?

  9. American
    American
    June 23, 2013, 5:57 pm

    joer says:
    June 23, 2013 at 2:15 pm

    Or we could say religion is a private matter, and human rights are a public matter.>>>

    Agree with that…that’s how I was raised. Whatever religion one practices is their own personal right and business. But human rights, how people, societies, governments treat people is everyone’s business and responsibility.

  10. W.Jones
    W.Jones
    June 23, 2013, 8:02 pm

    Dear Marc,

    You asked:

    What they want is Jesus before Christianity – a Jewish revolutionary naysayer, anti-(Roman) occupation activist and profound spiritual explorer. Is this the real Jesus?

    He was certainly a profound spiritual explorer, since He asked “Why fear those who can kill the body, but not the soul”?
    He proposed a revolution of the heart (repentance), was Jewish, and was a naysayer to the establishment.
    His movement was “outside” of the Roman occupation, rather than supporting or politically opposing it. As a result, he healed the centurion’s daughter. Granted, once everyone is on board with Jesus’ message, then there is no longer an occupation, Roman or otherwise.

    You asked:

    If you’re into Constantinianism – having religion bless empire – does it matter if you’re Jewish or Christian?

    First, I am doubtful that it’s best to call “Constantinianism” “religion blessing empire,” since Christianity from Constantine’s time and before has literally meant praying for and blessing one’s enemies. (Matt 5:44) As you are well aware of course there are many Christians who have not really repented and forgiven fully- perhaps they do not know how to.

    Secondly, I believe the answer is that it’s better if the “Constantinian” is Christian, because of the example of slavery. There, the brutal and ignorant slaverowners were at least nominally Christian and made their slaves Christian. In turn, their slaves were taught texts like that of the Israelites’ liberation from slavery, which the slaves then used to boost their spirits and motivate them, as in the negro spiritual “Go Down Moses.”

    Peace.

    • W.Jones
      W.Jones
      June 23, 2013, 8:29 pm

      My point is that those nominal Christians were interested in converting the subject peoples to their religion, and that religion contained important messages about redemption from slavery. I don’t know if you want to say that it worked as a liberating “trojan horse”, but nonetheless it eventually worked against the system.

  11. RJL
    RJL
    June 24, 2013, 4:12 pm

    No mention of today’s Islamists who want to create an Islamic empire throughout most of the world. Only Jews and Christians are accused of being empire creators. But then, Dr, Ellis, you mention bashing of Jews by Christians for over 1500 years. I guess even you can only be politically correct up to a point, after which you’d lose total credibility if you denied what Christians did to us, and still did aiding and abetting the Nazi slaughter of Jews in Europe. Without the Christian Empire. Ever ask yourself, why not love and embrace real Judaism, and let the other religions practice as they wish, as long as they don’t overpower each other, and us?

    • Ellen
      Ellen
      June 26, 2013, 11:54 am

      RJL,

      if you denied what Christians did to us, and still did aiding and abetting the Nazi slaughter of Jews in Europe.

      Do you really believe the atrocities and crimes under the Nazi’s was Christian motivated? If so, can you explain why so many Christians were sent (the majority) to the organized work/death camps? Why there was a unit in Buchenwald (I believe it was) just for Priests? How about all those un-named and uncounted Gypsies — also Christian by faith.

      The paranoid Fascists Nazis saw enemies everywhere. Jews, among other groups were targets. That is how paranoid state-fascism works everywhere and always. It is not a religious thing, but maybe primitive and tribal.

      did to us….. Tribal victimology. Do you need to keep primitive ideas alive to know who you are? Is that your identity?

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