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Yom Kippur’s ancient extremity

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 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.

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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23 Responses

  1. American on September 14, 2013, 3:24 pm

    ”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.”

    Well, thats better.
    I suppose though that trying to tell the very religious of any religion that theirs is probably no more prophetic or has any more or less *obligation* to right the world than another one does, and that they all have the ability to go haywire, is sort of useless.

    • W.Jones on September 14, 2013, 6:30 pm


      Mondoweiss is one of the best blogs on the IP conflict. Its thinking is insightful and deep, and is full of inside information and criticisms. Ellis’ writing is one of the main features on the site for the last year and a half, and perhaps the main writer by now besides Phil himself, due to his regular, daily entries.

      Mondoweiss presents itself as a Jewish website critical of US foreign policy on the Mideast, and it’s natural that it would invite Ellis to write for the blog, since he is so outspoken on the issue. Plus, it’s helpful from that perspective to have a Jewish religious voice that speaks out on the topic, like a chaplain might perform in a Christian institution.

      When it comes to Jewish religious thinking, Ellis is very reformist, probably much like a radical “protestant”, his last article being such an example. It’s very pleasant that he takes the view of liberation theology and applies it to a Jewish context. He cooperates with non-Jews in his work and does not isolate himself. Plus, he has an easy to read writing style and is quite prolific. When it comes to the IP conflict, he appears to be a non-Zionist, but in his writing he does not appear to emphasize traditional (past) rabbinical opposition to Zionism, or the rabbis’ theology on the topic. Personally I would find it very interesting if he did. In fact, I had expected he would rely on traditional rabbis more occasionally in his writings.

      Ellis’ writings about Christianity are pretty frequent and critical in his postings- at least a large minority of his writings mention it. Ellis works alot with interfaith relations, including Christian groups, and often compliments them too. He took the idea of Liberation Theology itself from Christian social leftists. He obviously likes religion and criticising society from a leftist perspective, so his criticism of Christianity is foreseeable.

      One of the main themes in Ellis’ writing is “Constantinian Judaism”- a concept that proposes Christianity is a philosophy of empire since the Romans accepted it. Actually though his criticism is much broader. He explained to the Phillipino girl in Austria that since Christianity bases itself on Judaism, it “colonizes” the latter. So there is really no way for Christianity to “redeem” itself as an ideology, even if it went back to the 2nd century.

      • W.Jones on September 14, 2013, 7:51 pm

        I had expected that Ellis would occasionally criticize Christian philosophy from a rabbinical perspective. For example, one night at a talk on interfaith tolerance, the keynote speaker mentioned that the Israelite Torah would not allow human sacrifice his son- the implication being that Christian theology around the atonement was incorrect. (One Christian rejoinder could be that while God banned it, the ban does not mean that a sacrifice could never be effective for anyone.) While one might disagree with the debates, they could be interesting and clarifying, and I don’t know why he doesn’t enter this territory.

        I could also see an atheist socialist making criticisms of Christianity. Marx’s view was that religion was a product of economic development, and so Judaism and Christianity simply reflected the culture of ancient times, the Middle Ages, and capitalism.

        It is hard to dismiss however the idea that Ellis, as a leftist theologian mixes the two perspectives. On one hand he disagrees with basic Christianity from a rabbinical perspective, and the experience of his community in Christian nations has been as a minority with an opposing view.

        The end result seems to be a negative, social-based view of Christian philosophy and history, especially where it became the majority religion, a criticism especially focusing on negative actions of Christian nations toward his community.

        The end result is that many of his societal criticisms of Christian societies are correct. Medieval Christian societies really did oppress people. But the social criticisms are not even-handed. He does not show how Christianity also liberated people. Marx’s own thinking came directly from Utopian Socialist Christianity, and Ellis’ comes from Christian Liberation Theology. When a plague ridden illiterate Christian nation persecutes Jews, it’s a Christian thing. But when the same medieval nation tolerates Jews and institutes socialist-oriented reforms, those do not come from Christianity.

      • W.Jones on September 14, 2013, 9:44 pm

        I meant this as an example of this contradictory line of thinking:

        When a plague ridden illiterate Christian nation persecutes Jews, it’s a Christian thing. But when the same medieval nation tolerates Jews and institutes socialist-oriented reforms, those do not come from Christianity.

      • American on September 15, 2013, 12:26 pm

        @ Jonesie

        You know all that is ‘way over my head’……..I am very ‘shallow when it comes to religion(s). I cant get myself that interested in the religions or their differences and all that. From what I can tell from general history most religions have had both good and bad in them from time to time

        However I wasnt really attacking marc, just making a point about how he and some Jews are ‘eternally blaming Christians *collectively* and then turning around and accusing others of ‘sterotyping Jews.
        It’s the hypocriscy thing that irks me. As I tried to point out before the hypocriscy thing works this way;
        Christians and Christianity are *collectively* bad and guilty except for a some individual *exceptions* like the righteous gentiles who saved Jews.
        Whereas Jews and Judaism are *collectively* good and moral and bad Jews are the *exception*.
        In the major religions discussed I dont see them or their adherents as *always* collectively more moral, or innocent, or gulity than the others—religion may be about God, but here on earth the religions are driven by humans and how they ‘interpret it at any given time—and imo they are also driven by human events, politics and other earthly phenomena.
        The other major irk I have related to this, is what is the core behind it — the eternal guilt of others vr. the eternal innocence of Jews, that is the constant meme from some Jews.
        I dont believe in the possibility of there being a ‘certain group of humans’ on earth who have *always been good and innocent and blameless and all their troubles were the result of ‘all other humans’ *always being evil and persecuting them unprovoked and for no good reason.
        To believe that we would have to believe that Jews are in fact different from and not like any other humans on earth.
        To me that is a crazy belief……it’s also one that both radical Jewish Supremist and Neo Nazis subscribe to.

      • W.Jones on September 15, 2013, 5:03 pm


        You made some good points about how the problems in stereotyping Christians and Jews can cut both ways. How can it be correct to generalize suggest large swaths of people as oppressors?

      • W.Jones on September 15, 2013, 5:43 pm


        In a major US city, one of the main interfaith groups working on the IP conflict decided to have a meeting one day to talk about anti-Semitism in America. The meeting had 2-3 times as many people as probably ever come to meetings about the actual IP conflict.

      • American on September 15, 2013, 6:49 pm

        ‘W.Jones says:
        September 15, 2013 at 5:43 pm


        In a major US city, one of the main interfaith groups working on the IP conflict decided to have a meeting one day to talk about anti-Semitism in America. The meeting had 2-3 times as many people as probably ever come to meetings about the actual IP conflict.”>>>>

        Ugh, that is the kind of thing that also irks me and I think also represents the efforts of some, be they jews or gentles, to keep the blame game ( and the benefits it might bring) or whatever it is on either’s part, going and going.
        I would ask where is all this anti semitism? Where are jews being persecuted? I dont deny that anti semitism stll exist *in some individuals* —-you’ll never change everyone on earth—but any social, governmental, dscrimination of Jews anywhere in the world? No , dont see it. US FBI hate crimes reports for 2010—902 reported for Jews, 2,605 for Blacks….way higher for blacks and they probably under report–but still this out of a 300 million population. So I dont see a/s as a real problem. I see racism against blacks, partculary in the law authority and justice system ranks as a much bigger problem—-and all this spying on and demonizing of Muslms.
        I’ve said this before and do believe that the Jewish and Zio orgs keep anti semtism on the burner not because they actually fear some gaint outbreak of a/s but because the victim and feigned fear gig brings a lot of favors and benefits to the Jewish communities. Take for instance the Dept of Homeland Sec. giving the Jewish schools and meeting places 90% of all the DHS funds every single year. And how many attacks have been made on Jewish places since 911 by terriers?— none—-only two by domestic a/s’s that I know of, one in SF and one somewhere else. And we have had how many school shootings of children?—half a dozen a year and getting worse. Totally wrong ‘security’ prorities as far as a real threats go imo. But working to keep a/s front and center and the threat of it alive and kicking is the squeaky wheel that gets the grease and it also keeps the rank and file Jews grateful to and tied to their ‘leadership’ and orgs for securing these free taxpayer goodies for them.
        There might a few that sincerely believe the theory of eternal a/s that can erupt at any time but I think it’s mostly a leadership racket.

      • wondering jew on September 15, 2013, 8:01 pm

        american writes: ‘but any social, governmental, discrimination of Jews anywhere in the world? No, don’t see it.” and then your proceed to talk about the facts in America.

        well, I suppose since your nom de blog is american, you can be excused for thinking that evidence about the state of affairs in the United States is proof of the state of affairs in the world, but in fact, it isn’t so. The US is not the world and regarding the world you will have to do more research than just FBI hate crimes.

      • American on September 16, 2013, 12:54 pm

        “you can be excused for thinking that evidence about the state of affairs in the United States is proof of the state of affairs in the world, but in fact, it isn’t so’…..

        Well yonah enlighten me, where is any persecution or discrimination of Jews going on today?
        And I mean real stuff—-not the acts or expressions of some individuals or a fringe a/s or racist group directed at a Jew or Jews.

  2. wondering jew on September 14, 2013, 3:43 pm

    Note to editor: In the last sentence of the third to last paragraph it says, “there aren’t many causal encounters” I believe it means to read “there aren’t many casual encounters”.

    • annie on September 14, 2013, 5:06 pm don’t think he means “of, relating to, or acting as a cause.”

      • Citizen on September 14, 2013, 5:22 pm

        @ Annie Robbins re yonah fredman

        I also think he means casual. Check out, e.g., Jeremiah. He’s right up their with any Baptist’s fire and brimstone God.

  3. just on September 14, 2013, 4:44 pm

    Great post! Enjoy the beach and your reading, and thank you.

  4. Citizen on September 14, 2013, 5:26 pm

    On a related matter, here’s a Jesuit, a Rabbi, and an Iman, discussing atonement in their respective faiths, and slightly making some comparisons. If’s a transcript from NPR from a year ago, and has a phone call-in aspect. Note the relation of the secular-yet-spiritual AA step program, and its origin:

    • just on September 14, 2013, 6:45 pm

      They have so much in common, and yet the millions and billions of adherents to religions always seem to focus on the differences that divide them –which really have zero to do with religion– but always involve humans and their greed.

      I have enormous respect for AA and the programs that have sprung from the original. It’s really universal, embraces all folks and faiths (including atheists and agnostics, the “lost” and the “found” and the “wondering”)– and it works for so very many people. I often think that every adult person on earth would benefit from joining any 12 step program or fellowship of people trying (and succeeding) to be better to themselves and to others.

      Thanks Citizen! Wouldn’t it be so wonderful if people/nations actually atoned for their wrongful actions and made amends? I find it curious that many people think that apologizing makes them appear weak. I’ve always seen it as a sign of strength.

      • Citizen on September 15, 2013, 10:02 am

        @ just

        I too see it as a sign of strength.

        Consider all the folks who rail against Obama for being too apologetic to foreign countries in foreign affairs. I guess they prefer Bush Jr, Walnuts McCain, Lindsey Grahm characters.

  5. Naftush on September 15, 2013, 5:58 am

    “What Jeremiah predicts for Israel in and outside the land is beyond fire and brimstone.” Really? Not if you read the prophecy to its end. By the end, Jeremiah predicts a divinely inspired but a real, flesh-and-blood, boots-on-the-ground return to Zion and the establishment of an outright theocracy by a Jewish population whose willingness to go this route is helped along by divine hard-wiring. I found it thrilling.

  6. marc b. on September 15, 2013, 12:58 pm

    don’t know where else to put this really, but since m.ellis is pondering ‘jews of conscience’ and the lack of a tradition of Christian ethics, I wonder what he’d think of Daniel Goldhagen’s latest apparent smear. I say apparent because I have only read a review of it.

    in my opinion Goldhagen is emblematic of an increasingly paranoid strain in parts of the jewish community, the paranoia only being matched by narcissism and ignorance. I will try to get a library copy ‘the devil that never dies’, and would like to see Ellis review the book, not that i’m giving him a homework assignment. (sorry for the slapdash writing, it’s too beautiful out to stay on the computer longer than for a quick perusal of the news.)

    • yrn on September 15, 2013, 1:28 pm

      The Devil That Never Dies — Events

      September 10 – Barnes & Noble, UWS – New York, NY
      September 17 – Congregation Kehillath Israel with Brookline Booksmith – Brookline, MA
      September 18 – Harvard COOP – Cambridge, MA
      September 29 – Museum of Jewish Heritage with the 92nd St. Y – New York, NY
      October 16 – Manhattan JCC – New York, NY
      October 23 – Forum on Law and Culture – New York, NY
      November 7 – San Diego Jewish Book Fair – San Diego, CA
      November 12 – St. Louis Jewish Book Festival – St. Louis, MO
      November 14 – Katz Jewish Community Center – Cherry Hill, NJ

      • W.Jones on September 16, 2013, 1:25 pm

        How does the number of venues compare to the review in the WSJ?

  7. Shmuel on September 15, 2013, 1:41 pm

    The term “Jews of Conscience” bugs me. Perhaps on a philosophical level, there may be some point to creating neat categories such as “empire” and “Conscience”, but I fail to see its use in convincing those who disagree with us, or representing ourselves to those with whom we agree. In both cases it comes across as arrogant and self-serving. I am not a “Jew of Conscience”.

    • Frankie P on September 15, 2013, 7:47 pm

      I’m with Shmuel. The whole idea of an individual declaring himself “______ of Conscience” leaves a rancid taste in my mouth. It’s a cop-out, an exclusionary tactic designed to place the speaker in an exalted position where he can analyze and criticize the minions below. Talk to me like I’m human, Prof. Ellis.


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