This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
From Portnoy’s Complaint and the angst of bourgeois Jewish life to Isaiah’s Complaint and the rebirth of the Jewish prophetic is a road less traveled. Or is it?
The rebirth of the Jewish prophetic is a turning point in Jewish history. Whatever happens on the ground in Israel/Palestine and elsewhere, there’s no going back. What lies ahead is another question.
Here’s why. There’s a split in the Jewish world that’s growing wider. Surveys about Jewish life point to reasons for this widening gap but the questions these surveys ask are too staid. They carry unannounced assumptions that render the surveys irrelevant.
Surveys on Jews miss the mark because they make a fundamental mistake in relation to what it means to be Jewish. They assume an ethnic and religious normativity – as if whether Jews are interested (or not) in synagogue affiliation, religious ritual or God is somehow defining of what it means to be Jewish.
Though of interest in relation to the Jewish establishment and in the context of Christianity and Islam, what affiliation, ritual and belief have to do with being Jewish escapes me. There is no reason to be Jewish except to draw close to and embody the prophetic. In Jewish life today there is only one avenue to the prophetic – the Palestinian people. I’ve yet to come across a survey on Jews that approaches this point of view.
So the fact that rabbis are ignorant, rather than (only) reluctant or afraid to speak out on Israel, highlights a much broader issue. True, rabbis don’t know about much Israel – and nothing about Palestine. The deeper ignorance is about what it means to be Jewish. The rabbis are encased in an outdated and mistaken Rabbinic religious system. They missed the Jewish boat long before they ascended the pulpit. Now they’re trapped.
Trapped with them are Christians and Muslims who see religion in their own normative framework. If Christianity is defined as a religion of redemption and Islam as a religion of surrender, you know from the get-go that little is going to happen except assimilation to power. Whether this is what Christians and Muslims are called to be is another question. Though not indigenous to Christian and Muslim life, the prophetic exists there, too.
Sometimes it seems that the role of Christianity and Islam is to slam the lid on the unstable and unpredictable Jewish prophetic. But first Christians and Muslims have to slam the lid on their instability and unpredictability. Is that why Christianity and Islam have a God that is named, knowable and always available?
Most Jews of Conscience are unable to wrap their mind around Judaism and religion in general – except as a way to discipline their waywardness. Whether informed about the details of Judaism and other religions or not, Jews of Conscience are right on target. But what survey considers Jews who embrace and embody the prophetic as the essence of what it means to be Jewish?