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The unasked question in the PEW poll on American Judaism

Israel/Palestine
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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.

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  The rabbis are encased in an outdated and mistaken Rabbinic religious system.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?

Marc H. Ellis
About 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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10 Responses

  1. John Smithson
    John Smithson
    October 15, 2013, 10:03 am

    ” 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. ”

    Can you clarify this? Who/What is assimilating to power?

    • W.Jones
      W.Jones
      October 15, 2013, 6:53 pm

      What does it mean that the prophetic is not indigenous to Christian life?

      Was Noah Jewish?

      And why does Mark Braverman say he dedicates his time to working in the progressive Christian community because he said for them the IP issue was common sense?

  2. Citizen
    Citizen
    October 15, 2013, 11:22 am

    ” 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. ”

    Do you mean if Christians are defined as seeking their reward in heaven and thinking “what is Rome’s, give to Rome, on earth “and Muslims are defined as surrendering to the PTB on earth as Allah’s will, and getting their reward in heaven too? They seem then, at core similar if then, neither is much concerned about accurately describing or predicting what will happen in the future–on earth, that is. Is that your take with your usage of “the prophetic “? And “Jews of Conscience” differ as they care chiefly more about what will happen in days to come here on earth?

    You ask, “… what survey considers Jews who embrace and embody the prophetic as the essence of what it means to be Jewish?” The PEW poll did measure Jews who ascribe Jewish self-identity to concern about ethics, morality, justice. Do you mean the PEW poll, for example, ignored parsing this criteria in any way to make it factually meaningful, e.g., by not asking sub-questions related to US foreign policy and the I-P Conflict factual aggregate?

  3. pabelmont
    pabelmont
    October 15, 2013, 12:19 pm

    “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.”

    YOU SAID IT, BABEE! Otherwise stated, the commandment is “truth, justice, and peace, and in that order.” Time to tell the truth about Judaism and about Israel.”

  4. seafoid
    seafoid
    October 15, 2013, 1:48 pm

    The question: what is the point of torturing palestinians to faciliate jewish prayer in the jewish disneyland? Is it really going to usher in an age of peace? How many fingernails for the most peace?

  5. W.Jones
    W.Jones
    October 15, 2013, 6:28 pm

    The Rabbis teach that the gift of prophecy departed from Israel with the last books of the Tanakh, although this site says that divine inspiration continued, and that prophecy will return with the appearance of the Messiah:
    http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/84902/jewish/What-is-Prophecy.htm

    Christianity teaches that God spoke by the prophets, and that prophets included John the Baptist, and that prophecy continues to inspire Christians’ writings and actions through the Holy Spirit, especially since the appearance of Christ the Messiah.

    So what do you mean when you write:
    There is no reason to be Jewish except to draw close to and embody the prophetic… Though not indigenous to Christian and Muslim life, the prophetic exists there, too”

    ?

  6. wondering jew
    wondering jew
    October 15, 2013, 7:45 pm

    “There is no reason to be Jewish except to draw close to and embody the prophetic.” Spoken like all apostles of truth.

    This is a Palestinian liberation site and so I will not dispute the next point, that the only issue of the prophetic is Palestine. I am obviously attracted to the issue and consider it a vital one for all Jews who take “Jewish” seriously.

    But there are obviously many reasons (that don’t measure up to the Prophetic, not in your estimation, nor in my own) for people to be Jewish. !. Because the Sabbath is sweet. 2. Because connection to the past and to the creator is important. 3. Because keeping the chain letter alive seems like a half decent goal. 4. Because facts are stubborn things and being Jewish is a fact that can be a stubborn thing and the alternative to being Jewish is to attempt to deny a stubborn fact, which seems to be wrong or at least wrongheaded.

    But I accept that you are a preacher.

  7. Citizen
    Citizen
    October 16, 2013, 7:18 am

    @ yonah
    What is the chain letter precisely? Ancestor worship? Simply the urge to keep the tribe alive forever at any cost to anyone? In this way, become (collectively) immortal here on earth?

    • wondering jew
      wondering jew
      October 17, 2013, 10:13 pm

      Citizen- If chain letter had been my only rationale you would be “right” to offer your spurious, trivial goals as the purpose of the chain letter. But I offered three other goals that included: past, creator, the Sabbath and identity.

      • Citizen
        Citizen
        October 18, 2013, 7:17 am

        Why “trivial”? I didn’t say or imply your chain letter was trivial. It’s anything but, especially as to impact on humans of the means to the end.
        Saturday is not inherently “sweet.”
        God is a metaphor, an anthropomorphically-rendered figurative conceit. God is a real estate agent, and makes contracts? The identity you mention is circular and not inclusive.

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