The Prophet in Exile – an interview with radical Jewish theologian Marc H. Ellis

Marc Ellis first came to prominence with the publication of Towards a Jewish Theology of Liberation 30 years ago. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said of Ellis’ work:

“We will all be the poorer if Ellis’ voice is not heeded, but how wonderfully enriched if it is.”

Not everyone would agree, especially many within the mainstream leadership of Jewish communities around the world. His understanding of Prophetic Judaism and his solidarity with the Palestinian people has pushed him into a professional and personal exile. But for a growing number he is a guide and an inspiration helping us to navigate the post Holocaust world for Jews and Judaism.

For the background to this interview read my review of Marc Ellis’ new book The Heartbeat of the Prophetic

Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis

Robert Cohen: Can you sum up the nature of the Jewish prophetic? Is it a moral disposition, a state of mind, a religious conviction?

Marc Ellis: The Jewish prophetic is a combination of the three, some of which is articulate, some of which isn’t, with a political arc that bends toward justice and a profound sense of Jewish destiny. The Jewish prophetic is a deep encounter with the calling of Jewish history. Without this encounter the hope the prophet invokes and the mourning the prophet displays makes little sense.

RC: The prophetic must appear in other faith traditions as well. What, if anything, gives Judaism a particular claim on it?

ME: The prophetic is the indigenous of Jewish. Only the Jewish tradition has this particular claim – originating and preserved in the Hebrew Bible. Other traditions have their important claims, too. However, they come to the prophetic mainly through their exposure to and/or appropriation of the Jewish prophetic. Today some of these traditions re-present the prophetic to the Jewish community which has lost its way. For Jews, the prophetic is local. It is the only reason to be Jewish. The prophetic has also gone global. It is the foundation of the New Diaspora, where exiles and prophetic voices from around the world gather and make their life.

RC: Is Jewish empowerment such a terrible thing? Surely it beats the suffering experienced throughout a great deal of our history?

ME: Jewish empowerment is important and should be affirmed. In my view, those Jewish dissenters who aspire to a pre-Holocaust/pre-Israel Jewish Diaspora sensibility – are naive. I want Jews to be empowered and act justly. Of course, minority communities around the world need empowerment, too. My ideal, which includes Palestinians, is an interdependent empowerment.

RC: You write about the ‘End of Jewish History’ and at the same time you see evidence of the prophetic “exploding in our time”. Can both be happening?

ME: Both are happening. Empire Jewishness, or what I often call Constantinian Judaism, is now the norm and our end, at least as a community that once offered an ethical witness to ourselves and the world. Prophetic Jews – Jews of Conscience – embody a prophetic critique at the end. They chart a future beyond Empire/Constantinian Jewishness. That future won’t be found in what most consider the Jewish community. It will emerge in the New Diaspora.

RC: Your critics say you have become more extreme in your views. Have you moved to the left or have they moved to the right?

ME: In the international discussion of Israel-Palestine and Jewishness in general I am a political moderate with radical questions. For example, I still believe that two states, two real states, with the entirety of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza belonging to an empowered Palestinian state, is the best way to envision a future where revolutionary forgiveness and justice can take hold. Israel has foreclosed this possibility. Nonetheless, as you can see in my writing, I am critical of some one-state advocates who have little interest or room for Jewish particularity. Again, the reason this view has gained ascendancy is Israel’s behavior not any change of heart on my part. I have moved with the times and the facts on the ground but my main thrust when I began speaking and writing on Jewish identity thirty years ago remains. I am a Jewish partisan. I believe Jews have a destiny as a people – to embrace the prophetic.

RC: You support BDS, but can it really shift the power dynamics at play around Israel/Palestine or is it just better than doing nothing?

ME: I do support BDS. It is an important movement. I take issue with those who hammer BDS home as the only way to justice or even as the primary path to justice. At the same time, the unintended consequences of BDS are rarely thought about or discussed. If BDS damages Israel to the extent that its economy is in danger, I believe the political class in Israel will step back and assert, through negotiations with the Palestinian leadership and the international community, some form of restricted and policed Palestinian autonomy. Right now, BDS is more or less the only way forward and BDSers are right to strike hard. As an avenue for victory, though, I have my doubts. Let’s say that I am supportive and an agnostic.

RC: How alienated do you feel from Jewish worship and practice? When I read your writing on Passover or Yom Kippur your despair at Jewish denial over what is happening in the name of Judaism seems to stop you being able to engage at all with the religious annual cycle of festivals.

ME: From indigenous Jewish practice, the prophetic, I am not alienated at all. Just the opposite. On Jewish worship in empire as we oppress the Palestinian people, I am beyond alienation. I reject this kind of worship as a betrayal of Jewish history. I also refuse the New Age sensibilities of Jewish Renewal as a Christian gloss for alienated progressive Jews. I do pray with my children and by myself. I celebrate Shabbat on my own and sometimes with friends. I mourn the loss of Passover in my life. Insofar as we refuse to confess to the Palestinian people and change our ways, Yom Kippur has become the most hypocritical day of the Jewish calendar. For all of that, it may come as a surprise that I have written a devotional – a devotional for exiles. It should be coming out in the next months, with text and photographs from my exile wanderings.

RC: You say in ‘Heartbeat’ that you don’t like the idea of disciples, but you’ve surely you’ve got them whether you like it or not. Isn’t there a direct line from your writing to groups like Jewish Voices for Peace or indeed the existence of the Mondoweiss website?

ME: That’s for others to comment on. I spoke out early and have continued on. Everyone likes credit for what one has done. I have noticed that some activists and writers use my ideas without attribution. A book published several years ago by a prominent Jewish scholar is one example. Though quite interesting, it’s basically a reprise of my book, Beyond Innocence and Redemption: Confronting the Holocaust and Israeli Power, that I published twenty-two years earlier in 1990. My name doesn’t appear in the book. Though the vision of Jewishness presented there is too weak and amorphous for me, I am grateful the scholar finally spoke out. To his credit, Mark Braverman, a recent voice on the Israel-Palestine scene, uses my ideas and credits me for them. Rabbi Brant Rosen of Tzedek Chicago has been kind in affirming my influence on his evolving witness. Everyone has their own timeline for coming out on Israel it seems. Jewish dissenters often forget who has gone before them. Unfortunately, this forgetfulness is often tied to personal wellbeing and careerism. Disappointing to say the least.

RC: How do you view Jewish activists like JVP members. Are they wasting their time?

ME: JVP members use their time wisely. Like other Jews of Conscience, they witness at the end of ethical Jewish history. The leadership of JVP, including some rabbis, speak and act within the Jewish prophetic. Sometimes JVP’s vision lacks depth, especially when they mix activism and thoughts about Jewish destiny. Though I have written in a positive way about JVP, behind the scenes I have been asked to temper my criticism for the “sake of the movement.” These kinds of requests are a mistake. Though the prophetic involves action, it shouldn’t be mistaken for activism.  When JVP and other Jews of Conscience act like we are about to win on Israel-Palestine, dissent devolves into cliché. When Jews of Conscience recognize that we are at the end of Jewish history with no way back, they are on surer footing.

RC: You’re harsh on Jews like Michael Lerner, who most others see as a radical critic of Israel. Is his position really so unhelpful?

ME: Lerner has never been a radical critic of Israel. From the beginning, and like many Jewish progressives, Lerner mixed his own ego into the “politics of meaning.” Whatever the politics of meaning is, it certainly isn’t radical. If you read Lerner’s journal, Tikkun, you’ll notice that over the years Lerner, again like other Jewish progressives, has tried to stop every radical idea about Israel beyond his own limited vision. Though Lerner’s failings are obvious to everyone who has dealt with him behind the scenes, this doesn’t mean that Lerner and Tikkun were only unhelpful. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Tikkun was a glossy forum for elements of progressive Jewish dissent which have now given way to more authentic critiques. Once Lerner, with others, declared himself a rabbi, the game was up. The New Age rabbinic take on Israel and Jewish life was a loser from the start.

RC: You seem to like reading biographies and newspaper obituaries, what attracts you to that genre of writing?

ME: I am attracted to long and detailed biographies and often quote from obituaries of individuals who entered deeply into history. I am fascinated by the broad arc of their lives, how they dealt with their obsessions, survived the onslaught and experienced their end. As always with me, it’s about the prophetic, especially the prophetic interplay of the person and the world. The prophet is associated with justice, true enough, but what interests me is the interior life of the prophet. Contrary to most understandings, the key to the depth of the prophetic is the interior.

RC: Will we ever see the Marc Ellis autobiography?

ME: I often write autobiographically as a window onto the world we live in. Taken together, my writing gives a portrait of my life for those who are interested. The idea that I am summed up by my solidarity with the Palestinian people as the deepest solidarity with Jewish history is correct but limited. I have written about many aspects of religion, philosophy, history, art and literature. Over the next years much of that writing will be published, so for those interested the picture of my life might change somewhat. Nonetheless, if I am remembered at all, it should be for my solidarity as a Jew  with the right of Palestinians to be free in their homeland. I will be satisfied if engraved on my tombstone, under a Star of David, my epitaph states simply: “Solidarity with the Palestinian People.”

RC: How has the shift to writing online changed your style and your readership?

ME: Online brought me back to my original writing style of diary and commentary. My first book, A Year at the Catholic Worker, published in 1978, was a combination of diary, commentary and poetry. So it’s back to the past, now online. However, online is diffuse. I think it’s crucial to collect my – our witness – in books. We need to save our witness for those who come after us. As for readership, my first two editions of Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation (1987, 1989), went global in various translations in the pre-internet era. Now readership is more immediate and widespread. Whether this immediate and wider distribution is better is an open question. We are now inundated with perspectives and may pay less attention.

RC: For a man in ‘exile’ your writing is becoming more prolific than ever. What are you working on at the moment?

ME: I have finished two new books, Prophetic Interiors and Exile Devotional, which will be published in the coming months. I am also preparing for publication the daily commentaries I wrote between 2006 – 2008. These will appear in three volumes, one for each year, perhaps 800 – 1,000 pages per volume. The overall title of the series is Gathering Light. I continue to write daily and have another book on the prophetic more or less finished. So, yes, I am writing more than ever but I have always written a lot. Perhaps I feel a greater urgency because the end is near.

About Robert A. H. Cohen