This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
Was I too harsh yesterday, branding our High Holiday synagogue attendees ignorant violence enablers? Perhaps. My commentary on the lack of an accessible Christian ethical tradition was no doubt too harsh as well.
I plead Yom Kippur’s ancient extremity.
As with the great majority of Jews of Conscience, I’m not in synagogue today. It would only make me angry for what is and what isn’t being said. I’ve been there, fuming the hours away, wondering what in God’s name I’m doing in a place of worship where everything rings false and the injustice of the world – the injustice we as Jews are causing – is buried in a well-rehearsed liturgy.
I didn’t have to struggle with my decision to stay at home as I did years ago. The sense of obligation is behind me. Instead, I’m spending the day walking the beach, reading the third volume of a biography of Franz Kafka, rereading parts of Adrienne Rich’s essays and yet again working through the Biblical prophet, Jeremiah.
If you think I’m too harsh in my criticism of Jewish life, that its condemnation is too sweeping, anti-Semitic or self-hating, listen to the prophets of ancient Israel. What Jeremiah predicts for Israel in and outside the land is beyond fire and brimstone. The Christian evangelical hell has nothing on Jeremiah. If you have to choose between the two, it’s a tossup.
Like Jews of Conscience in America and Israel, my life is marked by sadness and mourning. Not so much for our personal and collective sins which are there and need attending but because we refuse to take account, to probe our culpability and turn toward justice.
Choosing the wrong path at times is part of our personal and collective journey. We can’t change the past. The pressing issue is the present. As Jews, we are stuck in empire, in oppressing another people, in remembering our dead and creating death for others.
We can’t get out of the mess we’re in if we refuse to confess our sins. In mainstream Jewish life that confession – that what we’ve done and are doing to Palestinians is wrong – is unspeakable.
Why is our oppression of the Palestinian people unspeakable? We are drenched in self-reference, isolation and anger, even as our community scales the heights of American and Israeli society.
Our Jewish way of being is fundamentally flawed. We suffer from an empire addiction. Everything that goes along with this peculiar and seductive addiction is found in contemporary Jewish life. It stifles Jewish dissent and cloaks our primal prophetic. It defines our Yom Kippur services and renders them false. Empire addiction is insidious.
Only the prophetic voice of Jews of Conscience can free our community from its addiction. Yet deep in exile our voices are muffled – the same experience the ancient prophets had. Is anyone in or outside of the Jewish establishment listening?
Like the ancient prophets – but with a caveat which makes it more difficult for us. Unlike the ancient prophets, we are without the God of Israel – at least we think this is the case. But it wasn’t easy for the prophets with God, either. In most of the prophetic testimony, God calls the prophet and outlines the prophet’s task. But God knows and lets the prophet know, too, that the prophet’s mission is doomed from the start. So the God of Israel is an unusual God. There aren’t many causal encounters with the God who calls Jews to account.
Since God calls the prophets, one expects God to accompany the prophet in the difficult and doomed mission God has assigned. What a surprise to find that God is mostly absent after the prophet is commissioned, even when the prophet is in great danger. Sometimes God does drop in and rescue the prophet but just as often places the prophet back in harm’s way. Imagine the prophet’s sense of bewilderment and anxiety about being abandoned.
Jews of Conscience may be without God but the empire addicted who call on God this Yom Kippur should know they’re barking up the wrong Jewish tree. The God of Israel isn’t one to consort with the sin of idolatry, which the prophets define as injustice embedded in a way of life.