This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
I told myself I wouldn’t write about Yom Kippur this year as I have for more than three decades. How many times can I write the obvious predictive scenario: On Yom Kippur, the Jewish community in Israel, America and beyond will refuse to confess our sins against the Palestinian people. My call for repentance and turning toward justice is repetitious. It is driving me and everyone who reads what I write to the brink.
When I came across the video of a Rabbi’s Rosh Hashanah sermon where she castigates almost everyone for criticism against Israel as anti-Semitic, I was determined to stay the course. The Rabbi lays it out boldly, in her mind at least. Criticism of Israel can be made, of course, just nothing that names the policies of Israel for what they are – apartheid-like, colonial and, yes, racist.
The clincher for me was the simple kindness of a friend in the Philippines who sent me two photos of her seminary’s library collection. I was startled, since the photos showed several of my books side by side with the works of the great Jewish theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel . Seeing my books so close to Heschel’s made me feel proud – and sad. Proud because I, with other Jews, honor Heschel’s memory for the life he lived, which include his wonderful writing and bold commitment to social justice.
Viewing those photos was a reminder that my work is dependent on another theologian, Richard Rubenstein, a student of Heschel’s, who broke with him over the Holocaust. The issues were profound. Heschel thought God and the covenant remained after the Holocaust. How else to be Jewish? Contra Heschel, Rubenstein thought God and the covenant were broken; there was no return to either after Auschwitz. Both Heschel and Rubenstein were fervent supporters of the state of Israel. They agreed that after Auschwitz, Jews needed power to survive.
I met Heschel in 1972, as a student, when he was invited to lecture at my university. I was a student of Rubenstein’s at that time. Years later I wrote a book, Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation, as a response to both men. I understood Heschel’s steadfastness with God and the covenant. I affirmed Rubenstein’s break with God and the covenant. Later I wrote explicitly about both themes so central to Judaism and Jewishness. My Jewish theology of liberation was about the new and central issue to Jewish life that Heschel and Rubenstein failed to address – Israel’s systematic displacement and occupation of Palestinians and Palestine. In subsequent years I wrote books building and expanding on my themes, The Heartbeat of the Prophetic and Burning Children: A Jewish View of the War in Gaza. They are also found in bookshelf photos.
I mention my books because they illustrate an ever-changing context of Jewish life and how far history has brought us in a short time. As beautiful as the depiction of Jewish life was in his Hasidic and Polish background, and the future he foretold for Jews in the 1950s and 1960s, Heschel’s vision for Jewish life is so compromised now that it seems to be, almost literally, from another world. Rubenstein’s writing is much harsher about God and Israel. Whereas Heschel celebrated Israel’s victory in the 1967 war as a miracle but cautioned Jews about the needs of Palestinians who were suffering, Rubenstein took a harder and more conservative line. Only Israel’s strength guaranteed Jewish survival.
On Yom Kippur, the day of Jewish confession, both Heschel and Rubenstein are out of date, if not simply wrong. The Jewishness they championed is archaic. What Israel has done and is doing to the Palestinian people is wrong. Worse is the haunting sense that the historical damage done to Palestinians and the occupation of Palestine itself is permanent. Already it is difficult to read Heschel and Rubenstein. My early responses to Heschel, Rubenstein and Israel’s abuse of power are too simple and optimistic. it is becoming more and more difficult to read positive and hopeful interpretations of Jewish life and Israel. Will it soon become impossible?
A Rabbi friend wrote recently that the “Jewish project” was in danger. By that he meant the ethical core of Jewish life, the search for justice, equality and the dignity of Jews and others. On Yom Kippur and after, the world’s library shelves will continue to expand with books that go far beyond what has been written by and about Jews in the past. There is no other way, if we are truthful. As Jews, we have not confessed and turned toward justice. We won’t this Yom Kippur either.