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Brant Rosen’s prophetic voice elevated him beyond the rabbinic politics of our day

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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.

Never a dull moment. The Chicago Tribune reports on the news that broke Wednesday – that Rabbi Brant Rosen is out as Rabbi of the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, Illinois. The Tribune cites tensions within the congregation over Rosen’s increasingly outspoken views on Israeli aggression against Palestinians. The war in Gaza it seems was the congregational last straw.

Rosen’s blog especially is cited by the Tribune as controversial. The Tribune highlights congregation member Lisa Pildes view that Rosen’s public stances gave the “false impression” that everyone at the synagogue supported his view. “Rabbi Rosen’s public and extreme political views divided the congregation when he should have brought the congregation together for respectful discussion,” Pildes wrote in an email. “His actions created distrust among certain members that he was interested in or capable of leading such a dialogue.”

Others disagree. Another congregation member, Rhonda Present, reflected that Rosen took care to specify that his views on Israel were not a reflection of the congregation’s position. “For us, his leadership, his social activism, is an important reason why we’ve remained members,” she said.

So the congregation is split. Nonetheless Rabbi Rosen is on his way out.

Reading Rabbi Rosen’s letter of resignation and the Tribune article I can’t help but think of the Biblical saga. Out of the blue the prophets arise, are shot down, then reappear. It hasn’t changed much in thousands of years. The prophetic is too deeply ingrained in Jewish life to pass quietly into our newly embraced colonial night.

Apparently, synagogues are not for prophets. Those who practice the prophetic and attend synagogue, should take note. Your expulsion is inevitable.

The prophetic was happening, in Evanston of all places. Now Rabbi Rosen is packing his bags. With his conscience intact.

So many shades of the prophetic are at play here. The scene that may have doomed Rosen as a Rabbi – or rather elevated him beyond the rabbinic politics of our day – was the civil disobedience he took part in on August 21 at the Jewish United Fund Stand with Israel fundraiser at the Chicago Hilton. It was quite a show. Dissenting Jews interrupted Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and former Israeli ambassador Michael Oren with the demand that the slaughter of innocent children in Gaza be halted. Tweeting as the interruptions continued, security fingered Rabbi Rosen as the ringleader. With the others, he was escorted out of the event.

Or was the final straw Rabbi Rosen’s blog posting on August 1?

This Monday night begins the Jewish fast of Tisha B’Av: a day of mourning for the calamities that have befallen the Jewish people over the centuries. Among other things, the traditional Tisha B’Av liturgy includes the chanting Biblical book of Lamentations.

Given the profoundly tragic events currently unfolding in Gaza, I offer this reworking of the first chapter of Lamentations. I share it with the hope that on this day of mourning we might also mourn the mounting dead in Gaza – along with what Israel has become…

A Lamentation for Gaza

Gaza weeps alone.
Bombs falling without end
her cheeks wet with tears.
A widow abandoned
imprisoned on all sides
with none willing to save her.

We who once knew oppression
have become the oppressors.
Those who have been pursued
are now the pursuers.
We have uprooted families
from their homes, we have
driven them deep into
this desolate place,
this narrow strip of exile.

All along the roads there is mourning.
The teeming marketplaces
have been bombed into emptiness.
The only sounds we hear
are cries of pain
sirens blaring
drones buzzing
bitterness echoing
into the black vacuum
of homes destroyed
and dreams denied.

We have become Gaza’s master
leveling neighborhoods
with the mere touch of a button
for her transgression of resistance.
Her children are born into captivity
they know us only as occupiers
enemies to be feared
and hated.

We have lost all
that once was precious to us.
This fatal attachment to our own might
has become our downfall.
This idolatrous veneration of the land
has sent us wandering into
a wilderness of our own making.

We have robbed Gaza of
her deepest dignity
plunged her into sorrow and darkness.
Her people crowd into refugee camps
held captive by fences and buffer zones
gunboats, mortar rounds
and Apache missiles.

We sing of Jerusalem,
to “a free people in their own land”
but our song has become a mockery.
How can we sing a song of freedom
imprisoned inside behind walls we have built
with our own fear and dread?

Here we sit clinging to our illusions
of comfort and security
while we unleash hell on earth
on the other side of the border.
We sit on hillsides and cheer
as our explosions light up the sky
while far below, whole neighborhoods
are reduced to rubble.

For these things I weep:
for the toxic fear we have unleashed
from the dark place of our hearts
for the endless grief
we are inflicting
on the people of Gaza.

Strong words, indeed, prophetic words. So traditional!

Perhaps that was Rabbi Rosen’s problem all along, the same problem the ancient prophets encountered and other Jews of Conscience experience today. Like Isaiah and Jeremiah, somehow Rabbi Rosen thought that if he brought the Jewish ethical tradition to bear Jews in his congregation and beyond would heed the call.

A huge error in judgment.

Rabbi Rosen’s lamentations ring true. But what to do with this truth within the Jewish community and outside of it?

The High Holidays are around the corner. Will these days of introspection and confession become a Gaza reckoning for the Jewish community?

The Chicago Tribune can’t answer that question.

Contractually, Rabbi Rosen will still be at the pulpit. And the people of Gaza will still be picking up what’s left of their lives.

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Thanks Marc.

“A Lamentation for Gaza” is breathtaking. Brant Rosen speaks the truth that many do not want to acknowledge.

He has a huge fellowship that can only grow.

What I don’t get (it’s been bugging me for days) is what the “Reconstructionist” is all about. Was the Temple started by ‘carpetbaggers’? Can somebody explain?

“But what to do with this truth within the Jewish community”

What on earth is the problem? You make a new one. You can’t tell me that people who have been persecuted and kicked all around the world are not adept at adapting their religion, culture and ethics to new circumstances.
It’s either that or admit that letting us out of ghettos was the cruelest thing Judeophobes ever did to us.

Mooser: “The Jews” may, many of us, be out of the ghettos (and out of Judaism, too, many), but the pull of the ghetto on Jews is apparently immense, and Israel has created a huge ghetto for its Jewish citizens even as it’s made a prison and killing ground of Gaza and a land of Palestine generally in which there is little left other than sumud.

My only personal edits to this article would be to put the title sentence in the present tense, and to remove the phrase “A huge error in judgment.”

Brant’s prophetic voice elevates him beyond the rabbinic politics of our day.

His judgment is not in error by even an iota.

I hope that these events lead to his inclusion in an even greater and more effective community than a single synagogue.