This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
Sometimes we find comfort in strange places. After reading Arnold Eisen’s trite remarks on the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Conservative movement in Jewish life I needed comfort. It didn’t matter where it came from.
In his call for Jews in the Conservative movement to “stretch” to embrace a future, Eisen, Chancellor of Jewish Theological Seminary, completely avoided the issue that presents the ultimate danger to the Jewish future. That danger is the continuing oppression of the Palestinian people by Israel, with American Jewish enablement.
The first place I went for comfort was the late Jewish poet, Adrienne Rich. I love her straightforward truth-telling. She doesn’t disappoint:
“When someone tells me a piece of the truth which has been withheld from me, and which I needed in order to see my life more clearly, it may bring acute pain, but it can also flood me with a cold, sea-sharp wash of relief. Often such truth comes by accident, or from strangers.”
With Rich’s admonition in mind I went off the Jewish grid. I turned to a radical Christian punk alternative that my older son, Aaron, introduced me to some years ago. The group is The Psalters and the song that struck me then and now is their Altisadora. It’s a hard hitting manifesto about love and God – and the prophetic.
The Psalters have an ever changing membership; their music is described as folk punk and has a semi-nomadic inspiration. At one point, the group lived on the road for five years.
I find a number of songs they sing to be dramatic, stunning really. Their word usage, instrumentation and driving rhythms are original and challenging. The Psalters are not for the faint of heart.
Here is Altisadora. Its refrain goes like this:
I believe in the sun, though it is late to rise, late to rise
I believe in love, though it is absent I cannot give it or feel it
I believe in God, though He is silent, I cannot hear Him I cannot but
I will dream the impossible dream over lies over lies over lies
I have eyes I have eyes I have eyes
I will dream the impossible dream over lies
With the drivel that passes for Jewish life today sometimes we need to step outside. The drivel includes the Birthright Israel propaganda and the cheerleading sessions at J Street. At J Street an errant rabbi or Hillel director is acclaimed for her courage by stepping one foot out of the Jewish Progressive box by way, of course, for the love of Israel. While an entire people is being cleansed and ghettoized!
So it’s refreshing to see young people from any background push the edge of the orthodoxy that floats their community’s boat.
Indeed, The Psalters, committed Christians all, aren’t Pollyannaish. They can’t abide the same settings in their own faith that replicate the (blind) celebration of the Conservative movement.
But if love is absent and God is silent how do we hold to the impossible dream? This is important if we are to keep our commitments over the long run.
It’s because of prophetic awareness – its keen vision – that lies can be located and spoken. “I have eyes I have eyes I have eyes/I will dream the impossible dream over lies.”
Notice the lack to triumphalism in Altisadora. The impossible dream might or might not come into being. The emphasis is on seeing through the lies of the powerful, hammering the lies home with an insistent beat.
The Psalters know the prophetic is doomed. That’s why the prophetic is so important. If the prophetic wasn’t doomed it wouldn’t be able to see through the lies. Instead it would be “stretching” into a future of normalized oppression.
The Psalters may change membership. They are not going away. Nor is the prophetic.
“I have eyes I have eyes I have eyes” – mantra for the Jewish prophetic via radical punk Christians?