At the beginning of October 2000, days after the historic visit of Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, a visit which initiated the latest round of Palestinian resistance to the continuing Israeli occupation of Jerusalem and the West Bank, a female rabbi in the locality where I live sent the following e-mail message to her rabbinic colleagues in the United States: “In Waco we have a similar situation to Michael Lerner, though on a local, not national level. Baylor University, a Baptist University which professes to want close ties to the Jewish community, has a professor, Dr. Marc Ellis, who is unabashedly pro-Palestinian Things came to ahead for us last week, when he was the only Jew interviewed by any of the television stations about the Middle East. We are contacting the media to let them know that he does NOT speak for the Jewish community, and that we consider this biased coverage. Slanted news coverage is trouble enough, but to have so much of this driven by Jews, who are either in the media or get media attention..is tragic.”
This message is interesting in a variety of ways, not the least of which is its attempt to define dissenting Jews as outside for the Jewish community. The rabbi’s e-mail is clear: she, along with the Jewish community, is for Israel; Jews who speak against Israeli policies are pro-Palestinian and, hence, anti-Israel. Jews are either for or against Israel. Those who speak for Palestinians are, by this logic, against Israel and the Jewish community itself. The tragedy is clear for all who read the rabbi’s message: good Jews support Israel no matter what its policies are; Jews who dissent from these policies are hardly Jews at all.
Though this e-mail message can be seen as a personal attack in a local situation where Jews identify their distinction from the surrounding evangelical culture in negative terms -we are not Christians; we are connected to the larger Jewish world, we demonstrate our connection to the Jewish world by identification with Israel and by policing Jewish dissidents and Christians who speak out on the issue -the mention of Michael Lerner signifies a larger issue at hand.
Lerner is known nationally and internationally as a progressive Jewish spokesperson and activist, founder and editor of Tikkun.. Tikkun was begun in 1986 as an attempt to counter the Jewish community’s movement toward neo-liberal and neo-conservative positions on a variety of political and cultural issues. A central part of that rightward drift was the increasing centrality of Israel and Israeli policies to American Jews after the 1967 war. This was confronted by dissenting Jews who saw the post-1967 occupation of Palestinian land, an occupation which featured expanding settlements around Jerusalem and in the West Bank, as unjust and destructive of Jewish ethics and tradition.
The Palestinian Intifada, beginning in December 1987, and the ensuing debate within the Jewish world about the Israeli policies of occupation and violent repression of the uprising, catapulted Michael Lerner and Tikkun into the national spotlight. With strength of words and vision,
Lerner, in a series of strong editorials, castigated Israel and American Jewish leadership for their violence and silence. And more. Lerner linked the occupation policies of Israel and the brutal suppression of the Palestinian uprising as a betrayal of an inheritance of Jewish values and ethics, as well as a history of suffering, most recently in the Holocaust.
An Evolving Tradition of Dissent
Lerner was not alone, and the pages of Tikkun were filled with Jewish voices that said no to occupation and betrayal of Jewish values and history. What Lerner exposed, and no doubt by making it public, heightened, a civil war between Jews, one that would now be played out on the national and international scene. Jewish leadership that wholeheartedly supported Israeli policies or, when questions were raised, counseled silence, would now be met by an articulate and growing number of Jewish dissidents not previously heard by the Jewish establishment or who had been actively discouraged from speaking, even forced, through intimidation, to be silent. There was a rage in the early days of Tikkun, a rage against injustice, especially when committed by Jews in the name of Jewish history, that is memorable. And there was equally a rage against these views by the Jewish establishment that can be seen, in retrospect, as a declaration of war. What was at stake was the history and future of the Jewish people.
Michael Lerner and Tikkun did not simply arrive with the Palestinian intifada. Nor did neo- liberalism and neo-conservatism in the Jewish community simply revolve around the desire for unbridled and unquestioned support of American foreign policy for Israel. The civil war between Jewish leadership and Jewish dissidents began because two very different understandings of Jewish and religious life were developing and because a politics that grew out of these understandings was highly contested. In short, two different views of Jewish life in America vied for attention and support: one then sees America as the golden land of opportunity for Jews and desires to mainstream into the elite structures of the nation; the other sees Jewish history as compelling Jews to identify with those outside of the elite structures of American capitalism and questions assimilation to the state and power .
Jewish dissent vis–vis Israel did not begin with the Palestinian intifada or with Michael Lerner and Tikkun. At the turn of the twentieth century, Zionism was a decidedly minority movement among Jews, opposed by most religious and secular Jewish organizations in Europe and America. Even during the Nazi period and after, significant portions of Jewish life remained either indifferent toward or actively opposed to the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Opposition to a Jewish state was carried even by Zionists who opted for a cultural or spiritual understanding of a Jewish homeland.
Judah Magnes, Martin Buber, and Hannah Arendt belong to those who understood a Jewish homeland within Palestine as important to a Jewish future. However, they opposed the creation of a Jewish state because they believed that such an entity would militarize this homeland and Jewish life itself. Creating a Jewish state would force a displacement of the Arab population of Palestine. Displacing Arabs in Palestine would mirror the displacement of Jews throughout history .It would also mirror the creation of religious legitimated states and the narrowing of intellectual and cultural life that accompanies such states. A Jewish state would ultimately be no different than other nation- states.
Though Michael Lerner and Tikkun did not always articulate their connection with this evolving history of dissent, it is here that contemporary Jewish dissent finds its own tradition and rootedness. And it here that a historical way of understanding the condemnation of Jewish dissent can be found as well. Judah Magnes, a Reform rabbi and an American-born spiritual Zionist, was the first president of Hebrew University .Yet just before he died in 1949, he personally lobbied United States Secretary of State Marshall and President Harry Truman not to recognize the recently- declared state of Israel. He also recommended the presence of American soldiers in Jerusalem to prevent the division of Palestine. Who today among ordinary Jews or Jewish leadership speaks of Magne’s position? Who actually knows of these positions?
Martin Buber, a world renown Jewish theologian, Biblical scholar and philosopher, was forced to leave Germany in 1938 and lived in Jerusalem until his death in 1965. Like Magnes, Buber was a spiritual Zionist. With Magnes, he also opposed the creation of Israel, proposing instead a confederation of communities in the Middle East. In this framework a particular vision and way of life as well as a universal understanding of humanity could be developed. While Magnes talked forthrightly with powerful figures in the United States government, Buber held a series of debates on these subjects with leading Jewish politicians in Palestine and later in Israel. This included a series of sharp exchanges with Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. Buber’s understandings, again like Magnes’, are largely unknown in the Jewish world or, if known, are dismissed as naive and utopian.
Such disregard for Buber’s understandings by Jewish leadership is interesting at the very least. Buber was a refugee who was forced to flee Nazi Germany; he lived his later years in the increasing turmoil between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. While ultimately accepting the Israeli state, he argued his positions within a Jewish context where he was often vilified and where his ideas had consequences for Jews in the land and for his own family. Is it possible to ignore his witness as utopian when he lived through and within the two formative events of contemporary Jewish life?
Finally, the case of Hannah Arendt is instructive. Herself a refugee from Nazi Germany, Arendt spent a significant part of her adult years organizing Jewish refugee relief efforts and was one of the first intellectuals to write of the tragedy that befell European Jewry. Her own writing included two of the major and most controversial books written about the Holocaust before the subject was considered worthy of academic consideration. Like Magnes and Buber, but from a more secular perspective and with some modifications, Arendt was a binationalist on the question of Palestine. She also thought that the Holocaust had to be analyzed in historical, philosophical and political terms. Her reporting on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem was deemed insufficiently condemnatory of the evil intent of the Nazi regime, and so this part of the work was chastised rather than forgotten. The campaign of vilification against Hannah Arendt stands as the quintessential attack on a person’s Jewishness rather than dealing with the Jewish tradition of dissent which she embodied and distinguished.
But we need not identify those who have left a record of achievement and notoriety to witness the demise of the Jewish tradition of dissent in our time. Since the creation of Israel, there have been a variety of dissenting actions and speech that address the hopes and aspirations of the Jewish people -a people who has certainly struggled and suffered in the throes of violence legitimated by religion and nationalism -to end the cycle of violence and atrocity.
One thinks here of the soldiers under Yitzhak Rabin’s command in the 1948 war who, educated in “cosmopolitan” ways, refused to cleanse Arab villagers from areas that would become part of the new Israeli state. These same soldiers, seeing Palestinians being displaced and forced across the borders, remembered the Jewish exile from Spain as an image which they glimpsed within the Palestinian catastrophe. The record of dissent continued during the Israeli bombing of Beirut in the 1980s, when some Israeli soldiers refused to serve in Lebanon. It accelerated during the Palestinian uprising when other Israeli soldiers saw, in the policy of might and beatings, images of Nazi brutality once carried out against Jews. For many Jews a transposition had taken place in Jewish life: Were Jews, in denying the rights of Palestinians, acting like those who had denied Jewish rights across the millennia?
After the Holocaust and Israel
As the tradition of dissent has grown over the years, Jewish leadership has become increasingly accepting of Israeli policies which, at different times in the last decades, shocked the Jewish world.
Two different sensibilities have evolved in Jewish life: one that speaks for or at least is silent about Israeli policies; the other increasingly speaks its mind in opposition to Israeli policy.
The recent Palestinian uprising, called by some Intifada 11 or the Al Aska Intifada, has raised the stakes significantly. The initial reports of lsraeli tanks and helicopter gunships surrounding and menacing a defenseless civilian population brought a new realization of the ongoing campaign to demean and destroy the Palestinian struggle for dignity and statehood. This comes after almost a decade of peace talks, with the implementation of the Oslo accords constantly delayed and violated, the Rabin assassination, the Netanyahu era, the election of Ehud Barak, with settlements that grow ever bigger and more provocative and by-pass roads and tunnels that cut through and around West Bank cities and villages. This second intifada has raised both the consciousness of Jewish dissenters and the rhetoric of Jewish leaders.
Even those Jewish dissenters, like Michael Lerner, who accepted Oslo and rebuffed those critical of that agreement who termed it too limited and unjust, have emerged in the shattering of Oslo with a new voice. Rather than policy implementation, Lerner now speaks of witnessing to values in the Jewish tradition, values that are being systematically violated. Lerner writes most forcefully: “We want the world to know that in this dark period there were Jews who stood up and proclaimed their commitment to a Judaism that would fight for a world in which every human being is treated with respect and the sense of sanctity that are central to a spiritual vision of the world.” On the other hand, full page paid advertisements from major Jewish organizations have been appear often in the New York Times. They call for Jewish unity in the face of Palestinian aggression and their refusal to accept the “offers” of the Israeli government for a final settlement of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. Arafat is depicted as a war monger who places children in harm’s way. The bullets they receive from Israeli soldiers are blamed on the Palestinians themselves. In these calls for Jewish unity, the helicopter gunships used by Israel are not mentioned, nor is the closure of towns and cities. Israeli control of electricity and communication, of water and movement of people, as a weapons of war, are not mentioned.
Jewish dissent is in a bind. For many years dissent tied itself to Jewish innocence. Jews were innocent in suffering and empowerment. Zionism is something good, the national liberation struggle of the Jewish people. Israeli policies are sometimes wrong; these specific policies are aberrations and most be opposed. The opposition to certain policies is to bring Zionism and the Jewish state back into line, in a sense to recover their innocence. The scenario is as follows: Jews suffered in the Holocaust, thus the creation of lsrael. The creation of lsrael is a good. Rejected by the Arab world, Israel fought defensive wars for its creation and survival, the wars of 1948 and 1967 especially. After the 1967 war, a temporary and benign Israeli occupation came into being, which over time became semi-permanent. This occupation became increasingly harsh and needed to be criticized. In the late 1970s and early 1980s Lebanon became a base for Palestinians and a target for Israeli incursions and ultimately an invasion. The bombing of Beirut especially was unacceptable and the entire dissenting community was mobilized to oppose this first of Israel’s wars that was clearly neither for defense nor survival. The occupation continued and the first intifada beginning in 1987 was clearly to establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel. This was brutally crushed by Israel. Like the invasion of Lebanon, saw this repression was abhorrent and an aberration. Then came Oslo and the chance to rectify past injustices and end the ever-increasing aberrations of Jewish behavior. The years after Oslo brought further disenchantment, until now, when the argument for Jewish innocence, even a distant return, is no longer heard.
The Jewish establishment and Jewish dissenters have been arguing over the same turf – Jewish suffering and Jewish empowerment as innocent. Jewish leadership proclaimed this innocence as self -evident; Jewish dissenters as in need of recovery .Forgotten by both sides is an initial dissent that did not discuss Jewish innocence per se or even claim aright to a homeland uncontested by another people. In the emergency years of the post-Holocaust world, Magnes, Buber and Arendt desired fraternal bonds between Jews and Arabs in a changing Palestine and, whatever the claims of either people, they envisioned a mutual interdependent empowerment. Still, it is important to note that these initial dissenters were western in their orientation and colonial in their mentality .Like the Jewish dissenters after them, Magnes, Buber and Arendt, did not see that the initial impulse to settle large number of Jews in Palestine would inevitably lead to disaster for the Arabs of Palestine.
The anti-statist views of the early dissenters are important for this evolving tradition of Jewish dissent. Magnes, Buber and Arendt lived before and through the Holocaust and the creation of Israel. Their views of both events were informed by the before and after -between the before and after of the Holocaust, before and after the establishment of Israel. Thus they could anticipate and react to the formative events of contemporary Jewish history , and though the magnitude of the horror of the Holocaust was not be foreseen by them, their views of the choices before Zionism and the consequences of those choices were prophetic. For them the state itself, Israel as a Jewish state, was a recipe for disaster because of what ensues from the formation of any state. Certainly an insurgent European Jewish state in the Middle East would have extreme and negative ramifications on the Jewish religious and intellectual tradition. If the raison d’ etre of Jewish life in Palestine became the creation, maintenance and survival of a nation-state, then the very reasons for a Jewish homeland – renewal of Jewish culture and language, social, political and cultural experiments in the post-war world, hope for the survivors of the Holocaust to find a place of peace and harmony, the revival of a an ancient religious community in its particularity but with a universal message -would be destroyed.
Jewish dissenters today come after the Holocaust and the formation of Israel. Though they have experienced the consequences of statehood, Jewish dissenters have been unable to articulate this clearly and boldly. Earlier dissenters understood that the state would-skew Jewish values until the argument for the recovery of those values would be carried on in their very disappearance from Jewish life. Though contemporary dissenters have experienced this intimately, their inability to directly confront this fact is important. The reason seems to be a fear of being seen as outside the Jewish world or even against it and therefore against one’s own Jewishness. Israel as a nation-state thus becomes the litmus test for Jewish loyalty and Jewish empowerment, again in the form of a nation-state, is the religious and ethnic test of Judaism and Jewish life. Questioning the Jewish state is therefore a sin; questioning its policies is the borderline of sin. When a state has to be defended at any cost, criticism is seen as weakening the state, thereby aligning oneself with those who seek to destroy Israel. Looming on the other side of this border is another Holocaust, and so the stakes are raised beyond individual sin to a betrayal of a community. Clashing with the Jewish state is therefore to court the possibility of being responsible for a second Holocaust in which millions of Jews will die.
The calls for Jewish unity are thinly disguised pleas to prevent a second Holocaust. Once accepted, these parameters are impossible to push to their ethical conclusion. For if Israel, like any other nation-state, is not innocent, if its own trajectories have less to do with an ancient tradition and the pursuit of an individual and corporate ethical life, if it can, again like any nation-state, only use religion and religiosity for its own purposes, then calling Israel to its Jewishness is a lost battle; its Jewishness can only be dimly perceived as traditional and worthy of discussion in a spiritual way. The Jewishness that can be affirmed, the Judaism that is presently practiced in Israel and among Jewish leadership, is reminiscent of the ties that Christianity has had in nation-states after it was elevated from a persecuted sect to a state religion, that is a Constantinian Christianity that links church and state not only in the religious arena but in the intellectual world as well.
Constantinian Christianity was anew form of Christianity that transformed its witness to legitimation of the state and its policies in return for its elevation to respectability. Though the texts of the tradition and the symbolism of its deepest impulses remained, in fact anew religion evolved that used the subversive message of its early years as a cover for policies and the development of an orthodoxy that would have scandalized the early followers of Jesus. Certain arguments for Christian life, including its suspicion of the state and military, dropped away and were even turned around to an embrace of these arenas. Dissent was remembered only to be taken in by the tradition and transformed into views and visions that often contradicted the initial impulse celebrated by the community .
Many Christians have woken up to this Constantinianism and flee it like a person flees a burning building. Religion in service to the state serves only the state. In the end so much is justified by the state in religious language that the ethical center of any religion is gutted, spoken in words but its essence left behind, enacted ritually and contradicted in practice, until the practitioners themselves recognize that there is little, if anything, left. By that time the hierarchy is firmly ensconced and the dissenters are on the margins.
Isn’t this what has happened to Judaism in our time, the embarkation on a Constantinian Judaism in service to the state and to power? And aren’t Jewish dissidents in the same position that Christians find themselves in? Of course, the time is shorter as Judaism has developed this sensibility only in the last decades. The scope of Jewish Constantinianism is much smaller as the Jewish population is minuscule and concentrated compared to global Christianity .To be sure, there is also less on the line for Christians than Jews, for the Constantinianism of Christianity has become so widespread and diffused that no one Christian community seems immediately concerned about the other. Nor has the Christian community, at least in the West, come through an experience of suffering like the Holocaust. And Christianity at least pretends to a universality that the particularity of survival and flourishing has long since dissipated from Christian consciousness.
Yet with all of these caveats, the comparison of Constantinian Christianity to Constantinian Judaism is instructive: its arrival brings to an end the ethical precepts of any tradition and embroils the religion in legitimation of state policies that should be opposed. The elevation of that religion produces a leadership that persecutes its own contemporary prophets even as it hold ancient prophets up as part of its contribution to the world. In the end, Constantinianism defines a religion and the particular symbol structure means little. Constantinian Judaism and Christianity are, in essence and certainly in practice, the same religion.
What are Jewish dissenters to do with this conundrum? On the one hand, they seek to argue as Jews, within the Jewish tradition and for a Jewish future. On the other hand, competing for the same terrain as Jewish leadership, dissenters enter into compromise, arguing ethics within a Constantinian Judaism that is beholden to the state and to power. Jewish leadership is fully assimilated to this Constantinianism in Israel and America, and most Jews follow this path to achieve security and affluence. Any ethical challenge, any headway that Jewish dissenters make, will be within a framework acceptable to the leaders of Constantinian Judaism.
No matter what agreements Israel finally signs with the Palestinians, justice will be distant and secondary .At any moment Israel can declare another emergency, real or imagined, and continue on its way. Jewish dissidents are permanently within a cycle they did not begin and cannot control. They react rather than chart new directions. This reactionary position limits thought and movement. It is always haunted by the powers that be and the accusations that can at any moment be hurled in their direction.
Trying to prove one’s Jewishness in this arrangement is to be on the defensive, permanently it seems, and destined to fail the test. For how much more can ethics be challenged than the wholesale dislocation of a people, aerial bombardments of defenseless cities, closures of towns and villages for weeks and months at a time, assassination squads and torture legitimated by the courts? How long before an ethical tradition is simply declared dead rather than argued for in compromise?
Here, too, it is important to understand that Jewish leadership is not in the main conservative in values or rhetoric. Just the opposite. The Jewish narrative in America, and for that matter in Israel as well, has been liberal in tone and content, even if betrayed in action and policy toward the Palestinians. It is not as if Jewish dissenters have argued with an avowedly conservative elite so a distinction in orientation is clear and unequivocal; liberalism, like Judaism, has been a shared framework. Morality, Jewish tradition, Jewish ethics, Jewish history and liberalism have been a shared universe of discourse.
Sharing this universe and appealing to it, the hard choices have been avoided by those sides in this Jewish civil war. Jewish leadership does not admit its Constantinianism; Jewish dissenters are not honest about the need to disassociate completely with this new Judaism, what Michael Lemer terms “settler Judaism.” In fact both sides shy away from “settler Judaism” even as they embrace such a Judaism in the formation of Israel. Jewish leadership simply closes its eyes to settlers from 1948 on, while Jewish dissenters see settlers only in their post-1967 appearance. Even this is selective because most Jewish dissenters close their eyes to the post-1967 settlers in Jerusalem, preferring to speak about and chastize only the settlements outside of Jerusalem.
A further caveat about Jewish leadership and the complexity of Jewish dissent is crucial. Jewish leadership is most often thought of as found within Jewish organizations like the Anti- Defamation League and rabbinic associations. As important is the network of university-affiliated academics in administration, in Jewish Studies programs, and Holocaust Studies chairs. More than any other group, university-affiliated Jewish administrators and scholars, again mostly liberal in orientation, have stifled debate on university campuses around the country .Competing for their own legitimacy as Jewish scholars, they have often silenced their own voice and voices to the left of their positions. They, too, have been caught in the bind that forces compromise and arguments that twist logic so as to criticize without effectively challenging the dominant establishment. In fact, dissenting Jews, whether identified with the university or identified with Tikkun, have not only helped stifle dissent to the left of them, but in doing so have helped shield the Jewish world from a deeper understanding of the dilemmas Jews face as a people and a possible movement beyond the present impasse.
Could it be that Jewish dissent must free itself of the acceptable parameters of Jewish dissent? If this is the case, a hoped-for return to Jewish innocence must be left behind. Competing on the same turf, the competition to define what Judaism and Jewish life is all about must be downplayed. The very hope that Jewish dissent will become defining of Jewish life, the possibility that Jewish dissent will displace the present and become the next Jewish establishment, must be jettisoned.
In short, it may be that the agreed upon parameters of the civil war, Jew vs. Jew, is obsolete, and can only result in a continuation of a cycle of legitimation and critique that leaves the Palestinian people suffering and the Jewish ethical tradition gutted. Like all renewal movements, Jewish dissenters seek to renew Judaism through calling it back to its best intentions and possibilities. Like all renewal movements, Jewish dissenters function in the shadow of, and, to some extent, live off the power of Constantinian Judaism. Constantinian religiosity typically fights this renewal, absorbs part of it, and then claims it as its own even as the critique is transformed and vitiated. This was the fate of Christian reformers, often and later, at least in the Catholic tradition, named saints. Will Jewish dissenters escape this fate, losing the battle they rage while becoming fuel for the continuation and expansion of the very establishment they fight?
Clearly the entire concept of religion and religiosity, the very thrust of rabbinic Judaism, is part of the problem. And it is telling that Michael Lemer and some other prominent Jewish dissenters have in the last decade declared themselves rabbis. Lemer has even started a synagogue. So much of Jewish dissent, at least the dissent articulated in religious terms, seeks to rework the rabbinic tradition to recover the beauty and ethical sensibility within it. Of course, many Jewish dissenters have left Jewish religiosity all together, speaking their dissent in strictly secular terms. At times another battleground is found, between religious and secular Jewish dissenters.
Wars over Jewish identity multiply further, with secular Jews in different political and ideological persuasions accusing each other of abandoning secular Jewish identity. At the end of the day, one wonders if the very notion of Jewish identity, so hotly contested, is worth fighting over. Much of the fight is retrospective, arguing about what has happened to Judaism and Jewish life, rather than the possibilities of a future. Is this because there is an underlying anxiety that so little of depth of Jewish life is left that a future is not worth arguing over because there is little likelihood of a future?
The New Prophetic
Identity is always problematic, for all peoples, and religious identity is even more problematic, at least in the modern period. Identity is multi-layered and contested and, at least for Jews, the twentieth century bequeathed a pattern of events that has left Jews in a contested struggle over Jewish identity. How does a community, scattered and diverse, deal with the suffering of the Holocaust, the creation of Israel, and the ongoing policies of a settler state as it consolidates and expands its power and terrain? Within these events, is the compression of the Jewish world from an extended diaspora to the centers of America and Israel and the empowerment of a people that just decades earlier were so weak as to suffer the annihilation of more that an a third of its population.
And now within the various civil wars of secular and religious Jews, for and against the Jewish establishment, a further displacement of Jews has taken place; Jews of conscience who refuse the hypocrisy of the Jewish establishment and the compromises of Jewish dissenters. They abandon the rearguard arguments about Jewish identity. They flee the Jewish world, even as they act and organize against Israeli policies of displacement and occupation.
Jews of conscience are in an exile that has no expectation of return and, perhaps because of their situation, no possibility of return. They pose the question to the Jewish establishment and to Jewish dissenters if their exile represents a breach of limitations and competition for turf continued by the Jewish civil war. Jews of conscience pose the question of layers beneath the symbolic and religious discourse on the civil war. Could it be that the Jewish covenant, often invoked and so hotly contested, has fled the precincts of the articulate establishments, whether Constantinian or dissenter? Are these Jews of conscience, without claim or articulation, carrying the covenant into exile with them? Is this the last exile in Jewish history?
Jewish Biblical scholars alert us to a continuing tension in Jewish history between prophesy and the canon. It seems, and perhaps this is true today, that each time the canon is nearly closed, and the claims of the prophetic are defined and sealed, there arises those who refuse that closure. Of course, the canon is always contested and constantly evolves, so, rather than being consigned to the Biblical era, this drama is played out in every generation. The drama is heightened when a generation lives within and in the shadow of formative events of such magnitude as the Holocaust and Israel. Jews today come after the Holocaust and Israel even as the memory and reality of both continue. In light of this contemporary history , is it any wonder that the prophetic is so difficult to embrace and articulate?
Despite the difficulty, it is hardly surprising that Jews of conscience are not welcome in the Jewish world. Nor is it surprising that the exile continues to grow as the debate over the canon, the acceptable of way of Jewish identification, and the prophetic, the way Jewish life should be lived, is hashed out over and over again as the displacement, torture and murder of Palestinians continues, even escalates. It is almost as if Jews in exile realize that the central question of the relation of a nation-state and religious identity is a false question that will be argued for the sake of the Jewish community and Jewish history rather than the burning question of justice for Palestinians for its own sake.
Jews in exile refuse the internal debate because it goes nowhere. It does not lead to Palestinian freedom or a significant dealing with Jewish identity .Rejecting the Jewish civil war as a sophisticated game that will never respond to the fundamental questions, even and especially with a peace agreement that may come into being, Jews of conscience simply leave. What Jews o f conscience seem to be saying to the Jewish establishment and Jewish dissenters is that Jewish history as we have known and inherited it is over. The fight is no longer for Jewish survival or Jewish innocence; the very category of Jewishness is now mired in a quagmire that admits of no resolution or forward movement. The Jewish world as it has been known and inherited is no longer able to provide a future worth bequeathing to the next generation. The argument about identity is really about the spoils of a now fragmented tradition. That argument takes one so far afield from anything approximating the inheritance of the Jewish ethical tradition that the spoils are not worth inheriting or, over time, reconfiguring. For Jews of conscience a level of hypocrisy has entered Jewish life from which there is no recovery, only a semblance of respectability that Jews reject when a similar reconfiguration is presented to Jews by Christians.
Christianity has long been infected by atrocity but the Jewish struggle, at least over the last two thousand years, has avoided this infection. Now with power, Jewish leadership pursues this infection almost as a badge of honor, a way toward respectability within the halls of empire. Perhaps Jews avoided perpetrating atrocity only because of Jewish powerlessness rather than because of a highly developed ethical tradition. Regardless, Jews of conscience refuse this atrocity as part of a long tradition of Jewish agnosticism toward religious claims that hide injustice. Is this not one of the most ancient of the traditions within Judaism, a refusal of idolatry to the state and to power?
Here the guide can only be the prophetic directed by a conscience honed in history .After Jewish suffering can we cause the suffering of others? Can a Jewish sense of the ethical be twisted with assertion and compromise then trotted out as a distinguishing aspect of the Jewish journey?
Contextualizing the Prophetic
In 1969, Emmanuel Levinas, the French Jewish philosopher, wrote an essay “Judaism and the Present.” In this essay, Levinas discerns the central trajectory of the Judaic sensibility and the role of the Jewish prophet. Judaism, he writes, is a “non-coincidence with its time, within coincidence: in the radical sense of the term it is an anachronism, the simultaneous presence of a youth that is attentive to reality and impatient to change it, and old age that has seen it all and is returning to the origins of things.” Of the prophetic within Judaism, Levin~s writes that the “most deeply committed man, one who can never be silent, the prophet, is also the most separate being, and the person least capable of becoming an institution. Only the false prophet has an official function.” Levinas concludes his discussion of Judaism and the prophetic with this haunting and perceptive challenge: “But this essential content [ of Judaism and the prophetic] cannot be learned like a catechism or summarized like a credo…It is acquired through a way of living that is a ritual and heartfelt generosity, wherein a human fraternity and an attention to the present are reconciled with an eternal distance in relation to the contemporary world. It is an asceticism, like the training of a fighter .”
This summation of Judaism and the prophetic, this connection of the two that cannot be severed without maiming is for Levinas the essence of the Judaic and its contribution to the world. On the threshold of the twenty-first century, it is at one and the same time in danger of disappearing
.and reappearing with incredible force. Constantinian Judaism is its disappearance in an announced Jewish form; Jewish dissenters raise the Judaic in a fascinating and compromised form; Jews of conscience testify to its survival without being able to articulate this sensibility in symbol or meaning.
The procession of Judaism and the prophetic, this Judaic sensibility which, according to Levinas, refuses idols, mystery and magic, accompanies these Jews of conscience into exile. Determinedly agnostic toward eschatological claims made by religion and the state, and refusing a pre-destined and confined pattern of worship and loyalty, Jews of conscience proceed into an uncertain future. The question of symbolic representation to self and others, of fulfilling and passing the tradition down to their children, of proclaiming a special status or even deriving an ascendant status from the popularity of Judaism and Jewish life in our time, remain unaddressed by Jews in exile.
Unlike Jewish dissenters, who always leave the door open for a return and an inheritance of Jewish establishment life, Jews of conscience are far afield, without signposts or destination. Holocaust is rarely discussed and Israel is seen as a lost land, foreign territory, as other nation-states, including those within which these Jewish exiles live. Of course, there are Jewish exiles within Israel as well, and their voices are crucial to this exile, often arguing for the creation of an Israel/Palestine that privileges neither religious affiliation or ethnic identity .
It is as if the two central events of contemporary Jewish life can no longer be remembered or raised because both have been betrayed. A silence is counseled and practiced, lest a further betrayal occur. In some ways, Jews of conscience embody what lies behind the civil war of the Jewish establishment and Jewish dissenters, thus the exile. In other ways, Jews of conscience have left behind this civil war because they see the war itself as avoiding the deeper challenges. A Judaism and the prophetic, interpreted and guided by conscience, cannot be so compromised in action and embroidered in militant and flowery language. Infected by atrocity , the Judaic limps along, is wounded and consorts with a Constantinianism of the establishment or even the dissenters.
And yet what religion, culture or political tradition is without this wounding? Is it not a utopian projection, a wishful thinking and romanticized rhetoric that abandons the civil wars that abound in every tradition and culture? Do those in exile simply wash their hands of responsibility and complexity? Release from suffering and the ethical management of power are the engines of all traditions and systems that survive in the world. Here Jews of conscience are faulted by those who remain, hands dirty, in the fray. Is the exile a refusal of the challenge, a pretense to innocence where none is possible, an abandonment of the political world while others remain?
The suspicion of the prophetic in the world is highlighted here. The possibility of the Judaic sensibility, holding in tension the contemporary and the ancient, being present and absent, birthing and maintaining those “who can never be silent” and who are the “least capable of becoming an institution,” is now derided. Even in the academy where the prophets are studied endlessly and held up as models of fidelity and religiosity, the possibility of contemporary prophets is down played. Those who embody these ancient understandings today, whose lives are fueled by them, are often ridiculed when the prophetic claim is made on their behalf. It seems a title too lofty, raising them above others, especially those who struggle in the “real” world. And after all, what would happen to the situation of Jews and Judaism, to the memory of the Holocaust and the security of Israel, if these situations were unattended by real politick? This high designation is often seen as egotistical. Is not the claim of one of truth over against the false, and can that claim be made in any arena, especially one fraught with so much complexity and anxiety as the Jewish path in the world?
Surely the prophetic has always been maligned in the present, the words of the prophet marginalized when they are spoken. Movements that carry the prophetic word have, in the main, been seen as forms of abandonment and betrayal. Religious establishments and dissenters within its framework have a vested interest in marginalizing the prophetic.
The Biblical canon, as it is written and adopted by the community over time, also contributes to this marginalization. For the canon itself, preserving (and rewriting) the Pentateuch and the Prophets, reading them back and forth as a tension and corrective, the very reading of the texts on a regular basis in an established liturgical setting already decontextualizes and vitiates the hard demands of the raw experience found in both sections of the Torah. The Biblical canon as it comes to be seals the prophetic in a way that the prophets, even those parts of the community who chastised and persecuted the prophets, would find difficult to recognize. Does that mean that the prophetic is permanently sealed?
Over the last two thousand years rabbinic Judaism has held sway and the canon it adheres to has been in force. In a situation of diaspora, defined in the main by a European context, an adversarial Christianity and relative powerlessness, maintaining the tension of the canon, a tension characterized by chosenness, wandering, suffering, study and prayer, made sense. Rabbinic Judaism is a Judaism of textuality and hope framed by a larger society that at best tolerates the presence of Jews, at worst seeks their removal.
Though it is often thought that the Holocaust and the questions it raised about God and powerlessness are the prime reasons for the breakdown of Rabbinic Judaism, as important is the emergence of Jewish power in America and Israel and the end of the adversarial character of Western Christianity. The emergence of the Jewish world into a history of power and expansion, and now without the ongoing experience of ghettoization, Rabbinic Judaism lost its contextual grounding, and, correspondingly the canonical texts of Judaism, formed, affirmed, and studied only within Rabbinic Judaism, lost there hold on Jews and Judaism.
The arrival of Holocaust theology after the Holocaust and the creation of Israel testifies to this process whereby Rabbinic Judaism becomes a memory to be reflected upon. Here, Rabbinic Judaism becomes a lost world of beauty and limitations; the Torah becomes a place of challenge where the very claims and tensions of the text are used as springboards for a radical questioning of God and God’s fidelity found there. It is only a small step, then, to move outside of the new tension that Holocaust theology creates with Rabbinic Judaism. Holocaust theology becomes dominant even, and perhaps because, it preserves aspects of the rabbinic, but since this is a retrospective preservation, new meanings arrive in Jewish consciousness that playoff the old. In Rabbinic Judaism, God chooses the Jews; in Holocaust theology, Jews choose Jews because Hitler played God. In Rabbinic Judaism, God provided a promise to Israel that would come and go according to Jewish behavior and loyalty to God and God’ sways; in Holocaust theology, the promise, especially of Jewish survival, flourishing and empowerment, has to be seized by Jews regardless of divine acknowledgment and some times, in spite of God’s absence.
Yet even here the innocence of Jews and Jewish life is preserved, indeed heightened by God’s inability to protect Jews and the Nazi attempt to annihilate the Jewish people. In Holocaust theology the prophetic remains unannounced in specific terms or figures, at least as traditionally recognized by the rabbis. Rather, the prophets become the Holocaust theologians themselves, Elie Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz, for example, or those who further Jewish survival and empowerment, such as David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel. As a bulwark of the state of lsrael, America itself becomes part of the prophetic impulse in the post-Holocaust world, as does the Jewish community in America, especially after the 1967 war, because it unifies and mobilizes behind Israel without question or hesitation. Here Israel is the engine of the prophetic, the new center of the canon that is invoked with a regularity that is reminiscent of the cycle of Torah readings. Anew Torah comes into being, with the tension in the traditional canon replaced by an alternating rhythm of suffering and empowerment in the contemporary world. Of the ancient Torah and the Rabbinic framework, only that which speaks to the Holocaust and Israel is relevant. The ancient bends to the contemporary or is rejected.
Contextualization is the norm for religiosity, especially when the religiosity of a time period pretends to a transcendence of time and place. Thus it was normal and natural for the events of contemporary Jewish history to give birth to anew Jewish theology and anew canon. At the same time, new institutions grew up to serve Holocaust theology, institutions that revolved around remembrance and empowerment. In America, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D. C. is the quintessential marker of memory; AlP AC, the American Israel Political Action Committee that lobbies the United States Congress on behalf of Israel, is a central institutional example of an American Jewish community mobilized for Israel. In Israel, Yad VaShem is the Holocaust memorial and the Israel Defense Force is the physical guarantor and symbolic shield of an empowered Israel. Should it come as a surprise, then, that the civil war in the Jewish community today revolves around these Jewish material and symbolic markers rather than the ancient markers of canonical texts? Where the ancient canonical tensions surface, they do so in a subordinate status, to be ferreted out by discerning scholars rather than singled out in the open debate. It should be noted that the prophetic is constrained within the rabbinic canon and the synagogue as its institutional framework and within the Holocaust canon and the memorials and Israel as its institutional framework. The restraint on the prophetic in the Rabbinic era is the process of canonization that leaves the prophetic encased in law and teaching as well as the context of an unempowered diaspora in a hostile Christian West. The restraint on the prophetic in the Holocaust era is the process of canonization that posits suffering and empowerment in almost mystical categories, beyond simple analysis and reason so that both events retain an innocence regardless of details to the contrary .
Neither the Rabbinic nor Holocaust eras, both responding to their own contexts, allow room for the prophetic without restraint. Both begin as subversive and insurgent theologies, only to become orthodoxies that diminish and refuse the context that evolves within their own ascendancy. The Rabbinic initially refuses the Holocaust as a category that is religiously charged with depth and consequence; Holocaust theology refuses the critique of Jewish empowerment as worthwhile of consideration. The Rabbinic refuses contemporary history of suffering and empowerment as defining; Holocaust theology refuses to acknowledge the arrival of Constantinian Judaism.
Sealing the Prophetic
The question remains: What is the prophetic critique of empowerment? If the Rabbinic is subordinate to the events of Holocaust and Israel, and Holocaust theology masks the arrival of Constantinian Judaism, what resources are there for the prophetic? Theology is contextual; it arises in history to meet the needs of the present. Once subversive, these theologies give rise to orthodoxies that seek to fend off the meaning of contemporary events that challenge their hegemony. Each orthodoxy uses elements of the tradition that were once radical. Now they are now used to buttress power .
Challenges to authority are always fraught with danger and accusation; with a small people concentrated in few areas and surrounded by powerful religions, cultures and militias, the stakes are high. For the Jewish community, a community that has certainly known danger, the Holocaust and the situation of Israel in its formative years only increase this sense of fragility. The creation of a nation-state, by its very nature an entity that aspires to permanence, represents a sea-change in the tenuous relationship of religion, ethnicity and nationality that has characterized so much of Jewish history.
Though the emphasis on nationality in a structured and bounded way is not foreign to Jewish life, it is foreign to the Judaism and Jewishness known and practiced for the last two thousand years. In fact, it would be better understood to see Jewish nationality as a phenomenon of ancient Israelite life, rarely embodied, fiercely contested, and ultimately forsaken for reasons of political and religious intrigue and breakdown.
One way of understanding Israelite/Jewish history is in the foundations of this history, at least as recounted and remembered textually through the Hebrew bible, demonstrating competing sensibilities and ideologies. That the founder of the Israelite nation, Moses, continually balanced a theocratic and political system of an emerging tribal confederacy, is already a clue to the problems that lay ahead. The claims of the one true God are, in the Biblical text -a text which in many ways is the constitution of this confederacy -in conflict with the tribal gods.
The political structure, one that seeks to evolve a decentralized system with a common core revolving around charismatic leadership sanctioned by God, is from the beginning deprived of its own internal foundational properties. Nowhere in this constitution is the political system granted its own integrity; it is always beholden and held hostage by a higher authority. That higher authority is interventionist to a startling degree, always threatening and sometimes fulfilling dire prophecies of doom and destruction. Furthering the difficulties of political independence is the role of memory and the lessons of that remembrance as a claim on the political structure. The tribes of Yahweh as they evolve into a Israelite nation are constantly reminded of their enslavement in Egypt and their deliverance from slavery as a free gift from God.
This free gift is hardly free, as the covenant entered into at Sinai as a contract of freedom, obligates the politics of lsrael to create a new society that does not mirror in any way the society the slaves fled from. The tribes of Yahweh, once freed from Egypt, are not free to create a society where normal political processes occur, where division along social and economic classes are normal, contested and periodically addressed through social change and sometimes revolution. Nor are the affluent or the poor free to choose a different constitution or different ideologies or gods to serve their interests.
In short, the tribes of Yahweh, now evolving in a tribal confederacy and Israelite nation, are not free to experiment or fail. And when failure is apparent, the prophets arise, sent and made articulate by God. With withering words of judgement and exile that do not come from within the give and take of political system itself, the prophets castigate Israelite society and judge it. It is almost as if a constitutional monarch is at work here, but one very different than those of the twenty- first century .In the Biblical period, God is a constitutional monarch who founds the system, establishes its parameters, watches over the attempts to govern the system and holds absolute power of judgement and intervention. The tension between the life of the polis and the ultimate judge lacks even the pretense of equality; only a small space of maneuverability is found and this for complete correction or almost instantaneous doom.
The theocratic and prophetic quality of this system is its foundation and essence. Thus the attempt in Deuteronomy, for example, to seal the prophetic and introduce a priestly and scribal class to assume authority. But even this assumption is articulated within the prophetic as foundational and the theocratic as core. The only argument made in Deuteronomy on the political front is that the prophetic-theological base to Israelite society has already been made, and that henceforth Israelite leadership will interpret and establish this society. Yet, at the same time as the structure of lsraelite society is being articulated by the political and religious classes, free prophecy becomes the norm and flourishes.
Jeremiah, Amos and Isaiah roam the land, speaking in God’ s name against this constitutional usurpation, because the creation of a stable political structure for a normal political life is not the issue. Freedom and free will are later sensibilities, at least freedoms that carry only the consequence of historical judgement. The free prophets, sanctioned by God, refuse the sealing of the canon because, at least for them and through the God of Israel, the canon reifies and makes distant the constant demand that brooks no compromise. If the canon seeks to resolve the tension of political life and the covenant, or attempts to place human initiative at the center, then the canon itself is to be interrupted, destroyed if necessary .The prophets are such figures as they embody God’ s judgement on the present and threaten to restore the political to the theocratic. But again this theocracy is not a religious establishment per se, for in judging the political, the religious are also judged unworthy. No, the prophets speak of an interventionist God who threatens and actually does destroy the systems that do not carry out his will.
Though the Biblical narrative is complex and its historical accuracy suspect, as a constitutional document that is foundational to Rabbinic and Holocaust theology, its power is evident. The rabbis use the Talmud to interpret and determine the Bible’s applicability to Jewish life. Holocaust theologians use both the Bible and Talmud to reinterpret Judaism and Jewish life after the Holocaust and the creation of the state of lsrael. Yet the thrust of both the rabbis and the Holocaust theologians remain with the Jewish world as unempowered and suffering even after empowerment is achieved and suffering is diminished. Thus the canon is seen as internal Jewish discussion about leadership, God’s will, historical events that affirm and/or contradict the covenant and the destiny of the Jewish people. Though the state of Israel emerges as a force within the era of Holocaust theology’s argument with and ascendancy over Rabbinic Judaism, its presence as areal political force with its domestic and foreign policy is almost never addressed. Only in the last phase of Holocaust theology are the ethics of Jewish power discussed, and this as a rearguard defense of an Israel undergoing a relentless critique by Jewish dissenters over the invasion of Lebanon in the early 1980s and the policy of might and beatings instituted to crush the Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s and early1990s. Moving beyond the earlier theologies of Elie Wiesel and Emil Fackenheim that saw Israel as an innocent dream and only in relation to the suffering of the Holocaust, Irving Greenberg, an Orthodox rabbi, sought to reconcile the uses of Israeli power with Jewish ethics. But in an interesting and instructive way, Greenberg, in spite of his orthodoxy, does not surface the tensions of the Biblical text important for this discussion. Rather, Greenberg divides Jewish history into eras where the determining factors for Jewish ethics become the present crisis revolving around the Holocaust and the survival of Israel. This allows Greenberg the freedom to demote the prophetic as a fascinating and limited anachronism that still informs Jewish consciousness in a dangerous way.
In an era when the commanding voice of Jewish life issues not from Sinai but from Auschwitz, and when the central religious commandment of our time is empowerment rather than the critique of power, the prophetic must be disciplined and relegated to a secondary status. For the unintended consequences of the prophetic demand, applied to the state of Israel, can only lead to the destruction of Israel and thus a second Holocaust. Jewish life takes precedence over the prophetic and the ethics of Jewish power, to be discerned primarily by political and religious authorities in Israel in terms of survival and security, are seen by Greenberg as primary .After the Holocaust, no one, not even God, can override the Jewish nation-state in understanding and maintaining this mission.
Though Greenberg distances the era of the prophets in time and efficacy -for how can the ancient tradition of the prophets be revived in a time when the voice of God was not heard at Auschwitz? -he is aware of the persistence of this theme in Jewish life. At the same time, he is wary of the spread of this prophetic sensibility among non-Jews, especially among Christians in the West and in liberation circles in the Third World. Partially due to the lessons of the Holocaust on Western Christianity and the realization of the suffering inflicted on non- Western Christians by dominant Western Christianity, Christians have been re-evaluating their own Christian faith. In doing so, the prophetic has been reclaimed, indeed the very prophets whom Greenberg seeks to discipline and limit have reappeared in Christian theology as a judgement on Christian history and all histories that feature domination and imperialism.
The danger of the Jewish prophetic is thus expanding beyond the Jewish world into areas of the world where liberation is most needed and among the religion which formerly persecuted the Jewish people. For Greenberg, this revival of the prophetic, especially when applied to Israel, is in danger, consciously or unconsciously, of replicating the anti-semitism of a former era in the contemporary world. Thus Greenberg locates anew anti-semitism, defined as forcefully opposing the policies of Israel toward the Palestinians.
In fighting this ban on the prophetic, Jewish dissenters are in a difficult, perhaps impossible bind. Like the Holocaust theologians, they affirm the end of the Rabbinic era, at least Rabbinic Judaism as it was practiced in Jewish history. Jewish dissenters affirm the Holocaust and Israel as central and the Holocaust functions as providing the need for Israel as well as its calling to embody justice for Palestinians. After all, if the suffering of the Holocaust justifies Israel as a nation-state for the survivors, it also mandates the refusal to cause others to suffer. The danger of Israel causing others to suffer is the danger of losing a mandate for Israel itself. For how to justify the empowerment of a people because of their suffering if in that empowerment another people is denigrated and displaced?
Clearly, the critique by Jewish dissenters of Israel is limited to the post-1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the “aberrational” policies that followed. Despite the suffering caused the Palestinians in the creation of Israel, Jews had no choice but to found a nation-state after the Holocaust. Like Holocaust theologians, Jewish dissenters limit the prophetic in time and tone. They agree with each other that the undermining of Israel’s raison d’etre and the power to maintain its existence is an unpardonable sin to be punished with excommunication from the Jewish world.
Though Holocaust theologians and Jewish dissenters agree on the arena and limits of disagreement, Jewish dissenters have over time retreated to the rabbinic framework in order to critique Holocaust theology. Here Talmudic interpretation is found again, mixed with a new age sensibility, and the hard judgements and theological intervention of the prophets and God are eclipsed. Jewish dissent is a renewal Judaism that seeks to recover aspects of the Jewish tradition that have been left to languish by Holocaust theologians. The deep questions about God raised by the Holocaust are mixed and the developers of the textual reasoning movement, a later branch of Jewish dissent, are moving beyond the events of Holocaust and Israel completely.
When the question of God is left behind, at least in Judaism and Jewish life, events cannot be far behind. The original impetus of Jewish dissent in confronting the abuse of Israeli power, to argue from the Holocaust remains, but the need for resources to argue the depth of Jewish life, thus the recovery of the Rabbinic in an age of Jewish empowerment, increasingly leave behind history. Thus as Jews have reentered history with a power and vengeance unknown since the Rabbinic has been in place.
In other words, Jewish dissent has argued from contemporary events and from the rabbinic tradition and within the limits agreed upon within the Jewish civil war. To do this the prophetic has had to be sealed even as it seemed on the precipice of being revived in the Jewish and non-Jewish world alike.
A New Voice
Has this sealing of the prophetic in an age of Jewish empowerment actually taken place? Has the suspicion surrounding the claims of the prophet taken hold? How is the prophetic to be discerned today? Do contemporary Jewish prophets need to meet a litmus test, harkening back to the ancient Hebrew prophets or meeting the stringent, if not impossible, requirements of Holocaust theologians and Jewish dissenters? Do prophets have to claim inspiration by God today as they did in ancient times? Do they need to promise safety and flourishing in the land of promise if the people return to God’s commandments? In short, do the prophets of contemporary life have to speak within a context that is not their own or within a civil war that seeks to tie the prophetic voice to an empowerment that dislocates another people?
The context of the prophetic today is empowerment and an assimilation to the state and power hitherto unknown in Jewish history. At the same time, religious language, including the language of the Bible, is alluded to by those in power. That same language is used by Jewish dissenters. Their struggle to become the next Jewish establishment also demonstrates an assimilation to modernity, albeit with certain divergent understandings of the pace and terms of that assimilation.
It is not as if Jewish dissenters are in exile, passing a prophetic judgement that, if accepted, will pave the way for their return. Return itself is suspect and comes within a nation-state setting, which Holocaust theologians and the Jewish establishment uphold, while Jewish dissenters critique on its margins. The return in the form of a nation-state limits its ability to fulfill even the compromise that the dissenters argue for, as the forces for justice in domestic and foreign policy of any state are typically on the margins.
Insofar as the dissenters still hold out the possibility that the Jewishness of Israel is determining rather than the imperatives and tensions of the nation-state itself, then they are permanently in denial. Within the return has come a disenchantment with the nation-state itself, among Jews in Israel and beyond, and an exile within Israel is forming. Contrary to the Jewish establishment, Holocaust theologians and Jewish dissenters, the diaspora aspect of Jewish life is reasserting itself at the very moment when many Jews call for the end of the diaspora in light of the Holocaust and Israel. What does this reassertion of the diaspora mean for Jewish life and for the prophetic? Does it mean that Judaism is fundamentally diaspora in its sensibility and that the tensions found in its canonical text make it almost impossible to maintain a faithful religiosity in a nation-state claiming Jewish affiliation? In terms of the prophetic, the promise of land, the threat of exile and the hoped for return, while within the canon, have been so thoroughly disciplined by the rabbis and compromised by the actualities of power, that the cycle seems to have runs its course. The prophetic has been found within the canon and has now been lifted from it, shorn of certain aspects and deepened in others. Even the claim of God’s instrumentality and voice are muted. Does this mean that the very source of the prophetic and the very claims of the prophets can no longer be made?
A new voice has appeared. And most often the reassertion of the diaspora is not found in the rabbis or the dissenters who seek to reclaim Jewish innocence by averting their eyes or washing their hands of the Holocaust and Israel. Religious language itself has become so compromised that the very notion of religiosity, no matter how beautifully rendered and appealingly presented, is anathema.
The new voice of the prophet is therefore doubly hidden, unable to skirt the loss of innocence by abandoning history and Jewish complicity in the dislocation of Palestinians and the destruction of Palestine, and unable to travel with a community that hides its power in religious words and song. Since God has been used and abused in this process, the new voice has difficulty with the very concept of God. What could one expect from the prophetic who has barely survived the use of religion by Constantinian Christianity, only to be pursued by the God of Constantinian Judaism?
The arrival of helicopter gunships as the witness of the Jewish people, as central to Jewish life as the Torah once was, and the gathering of millions of Jews in a nation-state that in its creation caused a catastrophe for the Palestinian people, do not demonize Jewish history or relegate it only to a colonial and imperial power. The militarization of Jewish life and thought can be recognized and opposed without condemning the struggles and limitations of Jewish history as foretold through the Biblical canon or a history of rejection and ghettoization.
The idea that a people’s history is uni-directional, without evolution of thought and practice, and without choices that have been made and can be made again, is a form of determinism and racism that others have used against Jews and Jews have used against others. So, too, the idea of separation of peoples as desirable and permanent for the protection and projection of identity. That Jewish history has come to an end as we have known and inherited it does not mean that Judaism, the very touchstone of the Judaic, has lost its force in the world. It only means that the contemporary expression in Jewish life masks a deeper sensibility that in its renewed expression cannot be expressed in language identifiably Jewish.
Militarization of religious discourse, like the militarization of social and political discourse, does not vitiate core values or witness. On the contrary, it heightens the need for such expression even as it severs the language and conceptual framework that has been the vehicle for its expression. Thus the Jewish exile without religious language is absolutely to be expected. It is inevitable that after the experience of Constantinian Christianity, the refusal of Constantinian Judaism in its starkest and most consistent form should be found among secular Jews of conscience who have come into solidarity with the Jewish people.
For some these exiles are an example of abandoning the difficult path of empowerment and the language that path could embrace beyond oppression. But the experience, borne out again during the Al Aska intifada, is that operating within is simply attempting to hold the line on the amount of oppression, the percentage of loss of Palestinian land and freedom, the degree to which militarization of Jewish life will be tolerated.
The cycle of violence will remain, between Jews and Palestinians and within the Jewish world; the helicopter gunships will always be at the ready. The moral force will always usurped by power, held in abeyance when unneeded and called in the voice of loyalty when required. The prophetic will never be free. At this point in our history only the free prophets can point the way forward. Their power is limited, to be sure, and the cycle of violence will, at least for the foreseeable future, continue. In this cycle more Palestinians, and some Jews, will die. Those deaths will be accompanied by the delay of freedom for a people and the destruction of along and eventful history of suffering and struggle. The free prophets have no power to grant this freedom or to salvage this history only to witness to the possibility of another way that joins Palestinians and Jews in a bond that brings forth life rather than death.
Mr. Marc H. Ellis is a University Professor of American and Jewish Studies Director, Center for American and Jewish Studies Baylor University