This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
Almost two decades ago, on the cusp of the second Palestinian Uprising, I had an encounter with Edward Said in Jerusalem which is relevant today. It was the last time I saw him. His words were significant to me. Today, in this interim moment, with a ceasefire in Gaza declared, they resonate well beyond my person.
A few months earlier, I listened to a lecture by Said broadcast by WBAI in New York. Listening closely, I heard him mention a number of Jewish supporters of Palestinians. I was pleased when my name came up but challenged as well. Instead of referring to me as “Professor” he called me “Rabbi.”
I am not sure how my being a rabbi came into Said’s mind. I had known Said for almost a decade and never before had my being a rabbi been mentioned. So during my last encounter with him, I mentioned that, though I was pleased he thought of me as rabbi, I wasn’t one. I didn’t want the Jewish establishment thinking I was passing myself off as an ordained rabbi.
Said referring to me as rabbi prompted my thinking about the role of the rabbi, as I put it then, in a time of crisis, as Jews of Conscience entered into an unremitting exile. Decades later more is on the line.
As the strangulation of Gaza continues, what does it mean to be a rabbi?
Over the last days I have heard from a few ordained rabbis in deep crisis. They are experiencing a crisis of faith but it’s not about God. Though shocking to some, my experience is that many rabbis do not believe in God, at least in the way that is usually assumed. Rather, rabbis have a commitment to the Jewish people, Jewish history and a Jewish future. They are trained to be Jewish leaders.
So what to do when some – a handful, more? – realize that for Jews there’s no way back to the ethical strand of our tradition, which is, more or less, the Jewish substitute for an AWOL God?
The Israeli bombing of Gaza once again brought this crisis to a head but, of course, it is the entire Israeli enterprise and the now-permanent occupation of Palestine that really tells the story. Being ordained rabbis, though, their professionalism holds a great number of rabbis back from crossing certain, mostly prophetic, lines.
I see this struggle in a few. Will their numbers grow? Rabbis want to be who they were trained to be. That training includes rising above their prophetic impulses, especially when events in Israel-Palestine become too challenging and divisive within the Jewish community. Unlike the God Question, in this way rabbis are much like priests and ministers – they become trapped in their role as professional religious men and women.
An example of a rabbi on the professional/prophetic edge is Brant Rosen, chief rabbi at Tzedek Chicago, a recently formed congregation, with a distinctly non-Zionist, even anti-Zionist edge. As most rabbis, Rabbi Rosen is a multi-tasker, with skills in the diverse areas needed to establish and maintain a synagogue. What makes Rabbi Rosen distinctive is his reworking of the Psalms for our contemporary times. With vivid imagery and a strong justice orientation, Rabbi Rosen has become know in certain circles as a Rebel Rabbi. His reputation is well deserved.
I have been reading Rabbi Rosen for years. Recently, his writing has become increasingly strong, so strong that at times I feel that he and the Jewish community he depicts are on the brink of catastrophe. During this current bombing of Gaza, though, Rabbi Rosen may have crossed that rebel line into a territory that feels much different. Here is his take on Psalm 140 in light of Gaza:
psalm 140: deliver me
oh lord deliver me from my people
who wield their weapons with impunity
whose armies rain bombs on the imprisoned
whose apologists equate oppressor and oppressed
defending those who punish resistance without mercy.
keep me from those who speak so easily of two sides
of dual narratives of complexities and coexistence
those who call submission peace and lawless laws justice
who never tire of intoning never again
even as they commit crimes again and again
who have forsaken every lesson they’ve learned
from their own history and their
own sacred heritage.
like jacob i have dreamed fearful dreams
i have struggled in the night
i have limped pitifully across the river
and now like jacob in my last dying breath
i have nothing left but to curse my own
whose tools are tools of lawlessness
who maim refugees who dare dream of return
and send bombs upon the desperate
for the crime of fighting back.
so send me away from this people
this tortured fallen assembly
keep me far from their council
count me not among their ranks
i can abide them no longer.
“Oh lord deliver me from my people”: “I can abide them no longer.” Rabbi Rosen’s words here are fraught. Are these the words of an anti-Semite? A self-hating Jew? Or a person, a rabbi, a Jewish leader, who recognizes that there is no return to an ethical Judaism and is about to embark with other Jews of Conscience into uncharted Jewish territory?
For those unfamiliar with the Biblical prophets, Rabbi Rosen’s words seem unbalanced and unduly harsh. Yet the Jewish tradition, starting with the Hebrew Scriptures, is full of these terrible notes. The people Israel have strayed too far. God’s judgment is on its way.
In post-Holocaust Jewish life, the prophet’s voice has been stilled. Now it is back on the scene.
In the coming days will more and more rabbis reach Rabbi Rosen’s conclusion?