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Oh Lord, Deliver Me from My People

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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.

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?

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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13 Responses

  1. Don on May 7, 2019, 2:09 pm

    Well, I must be even weirder than I usually think I am. I am not Jewish, I am a Catholic. But reading this…I could not help crying a bit. Very very sad.

    • Citizen on May 10, 2019, 8:57 am

      Cheer up, the Pope has just authorized Whistleblowing among his priestly ranks regarding child sexual molestation.

  2. Keith on May 7, 2019, 4:45 pm

    MARC ELLIS- “As the strangulation of Gaza continues, what does it mean to be a rabbi?”

    As the strangulation of Venezuela and Iran continue, along with increasing imperial warmongering, what does it mean to be an American Rabbi? Israel isn’t the only thing that reflects poorly on Americans of conscience.

    • pabelmont on May 7, 2019, 6:06 pm

      Keith: add Cuba I suppose to your list. But American Jews are not prominent among supporters of the USA’s imperial crushing of Iran, Venezuela, Cuba (well, maybe Iran, some American Jews). But to a high degree, synagogues have taken it as a mission (since 1967 ?) to preach “Israel, Israel” as a replacement religion for whatever preceded it. And so it is noteworthy that a rabbi, and let us hope more than one will do so, breaks away “noisily” from “Israel, Israel”, saying, “if Israel is a Jewish community, then, most emphatically, it is not my Jewish community.”

      And in so doing to teach ethical behavior to all who become aware of the schism.

      • Keith on May 7, 2019, 11:24 pm

        PABELMONT- “But American Jews are not prominent among supporters of the USA’s imperial crushing of Iran, Venezuela, Cuba (well, maybe Iran, some American Jews).”

        The Democratic Party strongly supports current imperial warmongering. Have Jews abandoned the Democrats? Bernie Sanders doesn’t refer to both Chavez and Modero as dictators? Name me one Jewish fat-cat who opposes empire?

      • Keith on May 7, 2019, 11:37 pm

        PABELMONT- “And so it is noteworthy that a rabbi, and let us hope more than one will do so, breaks away “noisily” from “Israel, Israel”….”

        That is all well and good, however, when will this Rabbi break away from empire? Israel is but a part of the larger problem. A much larger problem which is currently endangering human survival. Why would an American Rabbi feel responsible for Israel but not for the American empire?

      • genesto on May 8, 2019, 1:39 pm

        I’ve just sent Rabbi Rosen’s quote to Rabbi Michael Lerner here in Berkeley. I’ve tried to warn him of the moral decay occurring in Israel for quite some time now, but to little avail. Maybe Rabbi Rosen’s words will carry more weight.

      • umm al-hamam on May 9, 2019, 3:14 am

        Keith – The phenomenon of “progressive except for Palestine” has been well observed, but “progressivism” per se is essentially the left wing of capitalism, rebranded. In leftist communities there is a less well documented inverse, “anti-imperialist on Palestine only”. Most Trotskyist organisations (including, in America, the ISO, the DSA, the PSL and many others) oppose the US imperial position on Palestine, because it’s an easy and cost-free position to take—any putatively socialist organisation will have very few people who benefit from settler-colonialism in Palestine or who buy into the Zionist narrative—but otherwise either are completely ignorant of foreign policy, or follow the US line to the letter.

        Thus we have DSA-endorsed politicians like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Ilhan Omar who support the imperial destruction of and wars against Venezuela, Iran, Nicaragua, Cuba, Libya, Somalia, North Korea etc, and who parrot the imperial line about e.g. fake concentration camps in China, or the CIA-sponsored “Syrian Democratic Forces” being anything other than an attempt to balkanise the Syrian state along ethnic lines. One suspects their only reason for supporting Palestine is out of a belief that a future Palestinian state would support US imperial interests better than Israel does today.

        As for the “Jewish community”, if they hold leftist views on any subject it’s probably a consequence of being wealthy and university educated. As such, Israel is easy for them to denounce, because the purpose it serves in American imperialism is to enrich arms manufacturers, technology executives and private prison owners, all of which are “other people” whose activities rarely affect the average leftist American Jew. American imperialism towards Iran and Venezuela, on the other hand, serves to uphold American energy interests, and ending that imperialism would result in higher oil prices and therefore less comfortable lives for leftist American Jews. People, Jewish or otherwise, leftist or otherwise, are fundamentally self-interested.

      • Keith on May 9, 2019, 10:36 am

        UMM AL-HAMAM- “People, Jewish or otherwise, leftist or otherwise, are fundamentally self-interested.”

        Yes, but there are various components to individual self-interest. Both Marc Ellis and Rabbi Brant Rosen appear to me to have strong moral character. My quibble is that they tend to be Judeo-centric in their emphasis. And while I can understand their emphasis on the “Jewish state,” nonetheless I would appreciate some recognition that their moral indignation should extend beyond Israel to include the American empire of which they are a part and share in the responsibility. I would also add that without the empire, Israel could not do what it is doing.

      • Citizen on May 10, 2019, 9:07 am

        I agree with @Keith’s conclusion.

  3. CigarGod on May 7, 2019, 11:47 pm

    Sharing this one.
    I was hoping that kind face would have wise words.
    Hey, sometimes hoping works.
    I guess I’ll have to place him in the same company as Marc Lamont Hill.

  4. Misterioso on May 8, 2019, 10:03 am

    Prophetic comments by five eminent Jews:

    Then Secretary of State for India and the British cabinet’s only Jewish member, Lord Edwin Montagu’s response to Prime Minister Lloyd George following issuance of the illegal 1917 Balfour Declaration: “All my life I have been trying to get out of the ghetto. You want to force me back there.”

    Henry Morgenthau Sr., renowned Jewish American and former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, 1919: “Zionism is the most stupendous fallacy in Jewish history…. The very fervour of my feeling for the oppressed of every race and every land, especially for the Jews, those of my own blood and faith, to whom I am bound by every tender tie, impels me to fight with all the greater force against this scheme, which my intelligence tells me can only lead them deeper into the mire of the past, while it professes to be leading them to the heights. Zionism is… a retrogression into the blackest error, and not progress toward the light.” (Quoted by Frank Epp, Whose Land is Palestine?, p. 261)

    Asked to sign a petition supporting settlement of Jews in Palestine, Sigmund Freud declined: “I cannot…I do not think that Palestine could ever become a Jewish state….It would have seemed more sensible to me to establish a Jewish homeland on a less historically-burdened land….I can raise no sympathy at all for the misdirected piety which transforms a piece of a Herodian wall into a national relic, thereby offending the feelings of the natives.” (Letter to Dr. Chaim Koffler Keren HaYassod, Vienna: 2/26/30)

    Albert Einstein, 1939: “There could be no greater calamity than a permanent discord between us and the Arab people…. Let us recall that in former times no people lived in greater friendship with us than the ancestors of these Arabs.”

    Lessing J. Rosenwald, president of the American Council for Judaism, 1944: “The concept of a racial state – the Hitlerian concept- is repugnant to the civilized world, as witness the fearful global war in which we are involved. . . , I urge that we do nothing to set us back on the road to the past. To project at this time the creation of a Jewish state or commonwealth is to launch a singular innovation in world affairs which might well have incalculable consequences.”

  5. echinococcus on May 10, 2019, 12:00 pm

    “In the coming days will more and more rabbis reach Rabbi Rosen’s conclusion?”

    You can’t be serious! I don’t want to rain on your parade but it’s been 120+ years of colonialism, 70+ of which overtly genocidal… and all that the priestly class and the temples and congregations have to show so far in the way of conscience are the Rev. Rosen and perhaps two more blind mice. Doesn’t this tell you something?

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