This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
Yesterday on Yom Kippur, I underlined a statement by Franz Kafka’s biographer, Reiner Stach. Stach was commenting on the underlying intensity of Kafka’s famous letter to his father: “To identify deliberately with characteristics that the community regards as strange, insane, or anti-social requires a high degree of reflectiveness.”
Stach’s use of the word “reflectiveness” is suggestive. It might mean introspection or preoccupation. Perhaps it is a combination – an introspective preoccupation.
Since Yom Kippur’s ancient extremity has passed, we can once again ask what this holy day means in its increasingly deceitful and sometimes genuine observance. On Yom Kippur, Jews are meant to probe their personal lives and the life of the community. Jews are expected to be preoccupied with this probing. But since the contemporary observance of Yom Kippur often misses the mark of this intention – which is personal and communal confession/redirection – it’s crucial to identify with what the community regards as strange, insane and anti-social.
What better characteristic to identify with than the prophetic, that strange, insane and anti-social indigenous of the Jewish people?
The claim that the Jewish form of the prophetic is the root of the Jewish tradition and is peculiar to it is challenged by neo-conservative Jews and Jews on the universalist Left. Jewish neoconservatives want empire without internal critique; Jews on the universal Left want justice without a claim of particularity. However, due to the highly charged nature of Jewish history, no matter what Jews want they can’t have it both ways.
This undividable quality of Jewish life is the special and irritating detail about being Jewish. Along with Jewish neoconservatives and the Jewish Left, this is what drives non-Jews crazy about Jews. We are living through only the latest installment of this maddening maze. Even the Bible features this specifically Jewish enigma.
To have a high degree of reflectiveness, one needs an introspection that is an indigenous preoccupation. This can only come from concentrating on a particularity that is self-possessed. By self-possessed, I mean confident, self-assured, poised, certain, rooted.
If justice is an issue, and if that issue is Israel/Palestine, it’s a loser. How does one remain steadfast when all indications are that the Israel/Palestine Jews of Conscience argue for is lost? That is why we should be wary of those who primarily see Israel/Palestine as a political or religious issue.
Many issue fellow travelers are here today and gone tomorrow. As well, they often carry important contradictions at the heart of their commitment which becomes evident when the going gets tough.
The self-possession necessary to be steadfast over the long haul is only possible if reflectiveness is embodied. This is especially so when the broader community and society think that the commitment one embodies is strange, insane and anti-social.
What the larger community and society thinks is strange, insane and anti-social is indeed the case – from their perspective. But then if the prophetic is so outlandish, so out of the box as to really be insane, why condemn and attempt to erase every vestige of it from Jewish life?
The desire to disappear the prophetic is so vehemently pursued because the prophetic is at the heart of Jewishness historically and in the present. The persistence of the Jewish prophetic cannot be explained away. Nor can it be explained any other way.
Is the discussion of the Jewish indigenous preoccupation relevant in our highly political world? I thought a lot about this on Yom Kippur. Then in this morning’s news a report – American and Russian negotiators have agreed on a plan that will rid Syria of its chemical weapons by the middle of 2014 – reconfirmed the importance of the prophetic.
Surely, the agreement is a positive development. It is better than the threatened highly dubious US missile strike. But this means that nine months or more of intense haggling and posturing on the Syrian chemical weapons’ stockpile issue will ensue. More importantly, the agreement means that the US and Russia have probably agreed that the Assad government, albeit in weakened form, will continue into the future. Ostensibly highlighted, the suffering of the Syrian people has taken a back seat.
The Syrian people are “collateral damage.” The agreement portends further collateral damage as well. International attention over the next year will be focused on Syria rather than Israel/Palestine. Israel will deepen its occupation of the Palestinian people. Palestinian suffering will intensify.
For Jews of Conscience – but as well for Palestinians – our indigenous preoccupation is the only way forward. Those who come along as allies are welcome. But the territory we’re exploring is increasingly strange, insane and anti-social. Only the Jewish prophetic – combined with the Palestinian prophetic – will suffice.