Bringing it all back home – Marc Ellis on the return of the Jewish prophetic

Bringing it all back home – Marc Ellis on the return of the Jewish prophetic August 19, 2018

(Book review followed by interview with Professor Marc Ellis)

This summer has seen young American Jews walk out of Birthright tours in Israel, fed up with the lack of Jewish community acknowledgement of Palestinian oppression; it’s seen prayers for Palestinian protestors shot dead in Gaza by Israeli snipers read in public by young British Jews; it’s seen the launch in Britain of Na’amod, a Jewish anti-occupation group inspired by If Not Now in America; it’s seen more than 40 Jewish groups around the world stating their objection to some of the illustrations of antisemitism put forward by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance because it fails to allow for valid criticism of Israel and denies the lived experience of Palestinians.

All of these events have attracted condemnation from those that lead Jewish communities around the world (including rabbinical leaders) and from the political leadership of the State of Israel. Sometimes the criticism is condescending and patronising. Sometimes it’s harsh and unforgiving. What’s certain is that something is happening. A new, or more accurately, a renewed force, is back in play. The ancient Jewish tradition of speaking truth to power within our own Jewish community has returned.

Right on cue, Marc Ellis, who’s spent three decades exploring and living the life of the internal Jewish communal critic, has penned a short masterpiece on the return home of the Jewish prophetic. Our current Jewish leadership would do well to pay attention. The rest of us should feel inspired and cautioned in equal measure.

In ‘Finding Our Voice: Embodying the Prophetic and Other Misadventures’ Ellis explores, with at times intense poetic insight, how a tradition which he sees as “indigenous to the Jewish people” has turned inward again after several centuries on the “global prowl”.

In our day, says Ellis, “the Jewish prophetic has returned home, as fierce and unrelenting as ever”. And just as it was in biblical times, the Land of Israel is the Jewish ethical battleground: “Can Jews permanently oppress the Palestinians without provoking a Jewish prophetic insurgency?” asks Ellis. The answer becomes ever clearer by the day.

Like the prophets of Ancient Israel, the target of the returned prophetic is the unthinking and institutionalised injustice practiced by our own leadership, both communal and religious. And like their prophetic forebears in the Hebrew Bible – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Amos et al – the new Jewish prophetic faces rejection, failure and punishment. The “Misadventures” of the book’s title is no joke. Ellis, as he sketches out the new terrain and attempts to navigate the prophetic path, knows there’s no heroism and no glory to be found for those taking up the call to speak truth to power in the context of modern Jewish life.

Fundamental questions

The new break-out of the Jewish prophetic turns out to have the same concerns, the same hypersensitivity to injustice, as the ancient Hebrew prophets. The fundamental questions remain the same: What happens to the Jewish people when the ethical course is rejected? What happens when Jewish morality is sacrificed to power and global empire? The ancient prophetic fear of assimilation is there too: Has the modern State of Israel become the ultimate assimilation to unGodly power?

For the new generation of Jews finding their prophetic voice, Ellis provides the intellectual roots and some theological reflection for their actions. However, ‘Finding our Voice’ is far from being a practical manual for Jewish internal dissent. Ellis is working at a deeper and more challenging level than the next anti-Occupation campaign action. But if the new prophets want to understand how hard the journey they are undertaking may turn out to be, then Ellis is the most reliable guide around.

Long haul

For the new prophetic consciousness Ellis identifies an added complication. The prophets of old were inspired in their righteousness by God. But where is God for the new youthful insurgents? “The prophet today is caught in the cross hairs without God, at least a God who commands and directs history.” For many Jews, writes Ellis, God went “AWOL at Auschwitz” and has yet to show His face again. The new prophets are going it alone.

Many of the Jews now climbing the prophetic barricades will insist they are driven by universal concerns and universal values. Ellis is not convinced: “We cannot escape our origins and have to acknowledge the role they play in our behaviour.” For Ellis, the new Jewish insurgents are expressing a distinctly Jewish sensibility born out of their understanding of Jewish history and the values they were raised with: “Jews face an internal struggle that remains within the traditional Jewish framework”. For Ellis, the Jewish prophetic is “exploding in our time”.

Where all this is leading remains unclear. Ellis navigates the terrain but provides no road maps. There is talk of a “New Diaspora” where Jews may join with prophetic exiles of other communities but the question of what the Jewish future can or should look like is still up for (heated) debate.

Prophetic journey

Ellis began his own prophetic journey with the publication of ‘Towards a Jewish Theology of Liberation’ in 1987. Since then he’s taught and lectured around the world about the consequences of the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel on Jewish ethical life.

There was a time in the late 80s and early 90s when Ellis was gaining mainstream Jewish acceptance. He was even anthologised in the study section of Reform Judaism’s prayer books in Britain alongside the much revered Abraham Joshua Heschel, who also spent a lifetime studying and acting on the meaning of our Jewish prophetic inheritance. Heschel became part of the global prophetic, marching alongside Martin Luther King at Selma and campaigning against the Vietnam war. Heschel, for his time, was radical and daring and certainly challenged the Jewish establishment.

But turning the Jewish prophetic back on ourselves turns out to be a whole different ball game as Ellis himself has discovered. He’s paid a high professional price for continuing to speak out with such a clearly Jewish inspired voice of protest.

Ellis may no longer be welcome in ‘respectable’ Jewish circles but his influence is everywhere to be seen. You can trace today’s Jewish generational fracturing over Israel in the United States, and increasingly in Britain, back to the publication of ‘Towards…’. Although he’s played no formal part in the rise of Jewish Voice for Peace or If Not Now, it’s hard to imagine them existing without Marc Ellis first finding his prophetic voice decades ago and bringing it all back home.

Q&A with Professor Marc Ellis 


I read a post on your Facebook page where you said the book came quickly and unexpectedly. Can you say something about how it came to be written. What was the trigger?

The text which makes up Finding Our Voice didn’t begin as a book. It started as a series of meditations on the prophetic that I wrote separately and at different times over a year or so. As I wrote them, I had no idea they would come together as a book one day. Just the opposite. The context for these meditations tell part of the story. They were written as my exile deepened, hounded as I was by a Constantinian Jewish-Constantinian Christian interfaith conspiracy of sorts. I was almost overcome by the darkness of my situation, of Israel-Palestine and the larger world scene. This accounts, I think, for the intensity of the writing. Finding Our Voice was published on the 40th anniversary of my first book, A Year at the Catholic Worker, the diaries I kept while working with the poor in New York City in the 1970s. When I wrote my diaries, a time filled with the darkness I felt experiencing suffering of others, I had no idea they would ever be published in any form. Perhaps this is the key – writing to survive and express oneself. The prophetic is like that, self-involved to an extent, as a window on to the world.

You write that “A Jew in exile without God is doubly difficult. impossible?” If God went “AWOL at Auschwitz” then what’s powering the return of the Jewish prophetic?

The question of God in exile is personal. Some years ago I was asked to take part in a conference honouring Edward Said. I decided to speak on Said’s notion of exile. When I fully confronted his declared secularity, I  asked if I could continue my already deepening exile without God. I concluded that I couldn’t make it without God. This is a private confession rather than a public recommendation.

Once the Jewish prophetic was powered, even initiated by God, at least as we know of its origins in the Hebrew Bible. The prophetic is the great Jewish gift to the world and the root of the global prophetic. But, today, to cite God for our prophetic claims is a non-starter. God has forfeited any claims that were once God’s to make. Where was God at Auschwitz? Where is God in Palestine, in Yemen, on the US-Mexican border? The God-less list is endless.

So God is limited. In Finding Our Voice, I  refer to God as past and still with us, at a distance – the God That Was. Yet the Jewish prophetic remains. It is exploding in our time. The reason for the persistence of the prophetic is a mystery I cannot resolve and cannot explain. I note that it exists. You see the prophetic in Jews of Conscience fighting for Jewish history and Palestinian freedom.

Today, there is only one reason to be Jewish – to draw near, to embrace and to embody the prophetic. Jews who embody the prophetic are performing their Jewishness. This means that the prophetic, once having entered the world through the encounter of God and ancient Israel, has a power of its own. Or perhaps Jews who embody the prophetic testify to the possibility of God in our contemporary world. Are prophetic Jews carrying the God That Was into the future? Call it a hunch.

It strikes me that many of the Jewish activists committed to Palestinian solidarity (and I’d include myself in this) are a mirror image of the Jews they most strongly disagree with. Both sides use Israel/Palestine to define their Jewish identity. We are all wrestling with what it means to be Jewish post Holocaust and post Israel. It’s as if this is the only Jewish reality we can operate within? Does this reflect your assessment of where Jewish life now rests?

Yes it does. The one and only question for Jews today – as Jews – revolves around the Holocaust, Israel and Palestine. Whatever side you are on, everything Jewish comes within and through these events. Other forms of solidarity should be judged in relation to these events, since the Holocaust, Israel and Palestine are what I call formative events in Jewish history. They have oriented, reoriented and disoriented us as a people.

We Jews, all of us, no matter our various political positions, are responsible for what Israel has done and is doing to the Palestinian people. That is why I believe that we, as Jews, dwell in the abyss of injustice. The injustice we have perpetrated upon Palestinians has brought us to the end of ethical Jewish history. The question for Jews, the only question, is what are we to do at this end? Everything else we do might be good, bad or mixed. They are add-ons, not the essence.

You write that “The undoing of suffering is a political rather than religious task” – doesn’t that let religious leaders off the hook? I’m thinking of people like Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who writes with great learning and erudition about Judaism but stays silent on the political implications of his work – especially when it comes to Israel.

Yes, Rabbi Sacks. How high he rose! How sad he ends! You might be surprised that Rabbi Sacks was an early supporter of my book, Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation. Indeed, in my archives is a short but poignant congratulatory letter he wrote me after my book was published in the U.K. in the late 1980s. Unfortunately, what happened to Rabbi Sacks has happened to many in the Jewish establishments around the world. The reason? Ambition? Career? Money? Fear of the personal consequences for opposition to Israel and even fear of looking into our Jewish mirror? Who we have become as a people isn’t pretty.

How do you explain Jewish religious and community leaders whose ethical compass becomes so distorted they are unable to see their own complicity in the destruction of a people at our hands? It is worth noting that most of the people who know everything about Judaism are in the same sinking boat with Rabbi Sacks. With few exceptions, Jewish learned leadership, Jewish Studies programs included, are a scandal to Jewish history. They will be remembered as such.

You say that the Jewish prophetic needs “protection” and “nourishment”. Where will that come from?

God only knows – perhaps. Because even in the Hebrew Bible, God is and isn’t a protector. Simply put, God cannot be relied on for protection. I write this at a time when the Constantinian Jewish establishments in Israel, the US and the UK are violently assaulting Jews of Conscience.

Our allies are there, some in the Jewish community and some outside of it are with us, sometimes. Yet I am sorry to report that Jewish prophetic figures in the public realm are for the most part unprotected and alone. And those Jews prophetic figures and Jewish activist groups that depend on intersectional solidarity, that’s well and good for a time. If you notice, however, that solidarity is often at the cost of articulating Jewish particularity except in an intersectional solidarity approved way. In my view, too often, too much “Jewish” is given over to barter for protection.

As I argue in Finding Our Voice,  there is a deep ambivalence about Jews in any culture touched by Christianity and Islam and, now through them, in modernity as a whole. Thus certain aspects of Jewish particularity are welcomed by others, while other forms are declared off-limits. Finding nourishment for prophetic Jews is thus a complicated matter. In the Bible, Elijah is ordered by God to flee those hunting him with God’s promise that water will be there to for him to drink; ravens will bring Elijah food. Today, some Jews and others might provide water and food when we need it most. They might also disappear when their self-interest is otherwise directed. Jews of Conscience cannot go it alone. Too often we have to. So where does enough protection and nourishment for Jews of Conscience come from? It comes in an unstable combination: from the God That Was, from Jewish history, from Jews and others, and from the prophetic itself. Sometimes I think that the Jewish prophetic, as our indigenous, has a self-generating power, an essence that arrived in history so powerfully it continues to travel through the Jewish universe.

You can be read as both hopeful and deeply pessimistic. Hopeful because you see how the Jewish prophetic always break through and pessimistic because you see no prospect of justice for the Palestinian people: “only the relative size of the Palestinian destruction is on the table.” Is ‘Prophetic realism’ or ‘Prophetic resignation’ a fair description of where you stand?

I’ll stand with both. The second half of Finding Our Voice is about negotiating the prophetic – a prophetic which evolves, doesn’t win, and yet continues on. The prophetic prowls the dark corners of Jewish history and the world, gathering light as it were, even if that light is fragmentary. So Palestinian – and Jewish – history aren’t over by any means. I do believe that the Israeli occupation of Palestine is permanent. This has to be seen within another understanding I have – that history is open. So Palestine is over as it was known. And those who think it will return in whatever form it was are wrong, at least within my definition of permanent, which is the next twenty-five to fifty years.

There is one-state now, Israel from Tel Aviv to the Jordan River. Those who seek a different one-state, a democratic secular state, and brook no opposition to this hoped-for configuration are speaking rhetorically rather than politically. I believe it is better to confirm the reality on the ground, that we are stuck and that those who want justice for Palestinians have been and are losing. And not only because of Israel and the various Jewish establishments outside Israel. The entire Middle East is involved in enabling Palestinian suffering; they have other self-interests. The US and Russia are negative players there as well. Other than rhetoric, the world conspires against Palestinian freedom. There must be a way through at some point; I doubt it will be in my lifetime.

Some will criticise all this talk of the “Jewish prophetic exploding in our time” as so much Jewish self-obsession, when what really matters is Palestinian suffering not Jewish angst. What is it for you that makes this such a profound issue for Jews as Jews?

I have no time for those who want to tell me how to be Jewish. My writing and speaking isn’t about Jewish angst. It is about Jewish history, a history that is important to Jews and the world. Everyone has a right to their opinion and, certainly, Palestinians have a point about Jewish dominance in the discourse about Israel-Palestine. I have spent a good part of my life being told to be quiet and to speak a certain way or not at all. I simply reiterate what Edward Said, whom I knew, wrote a long time ago: “Permission to narrate.”

Though much of the speech about Israel-Palestine, Jews and Palestinians is dumbed down, that hardly means that speech about what it means to be Jewish should end or become subservient to other causes. What a loss to the world it would be if Jews lost their voice, giving it up voluntarily or under duress! Will the world be better off if Jews are silent? In terms of what makes Israel-Palestine such a profound issue for Jews as Jews is obvious. Everything, the core of Jewish history and the prophetic, our indigenous, is at stake. Soon there will be so little left for the next generation of Jews that to commit to be Jewish in a real and public way, with the costs involved, might make Jews wonder if the cost is worth the trouble.

How would you interpret the current breakdown in relations between the leadership of the Jewish community and the leader of the Labour Party in the UK?

I have watched the “anti-Semitism wars” against Jeremy Corbyn and Labour with great interest over the last few months, partly because I have traveled to the U.K. many times on speaking tours. During these tours, I found the U.K. landscape complicated. There is, of course, great solidarity with Jews and Jewish history in the U.K. I have also experienced profound ambivalence toward Jews and worse, on singular occasions. Some of the pro-Palestinian support from U.K. Christians, for example, is highly principled. Some, especially by way of the critique of Christian Zionism on behalf of Palestinians, features disturbingly regressive Christian theology bordering on anti-Semitism. So as a Jew on tour, I have experienced both solidarity and ambivalence toward Jews. And, true enough, in the BDS movement in the U.K., I have, on occasion, run into outright anti-Semitism. Yet having said this, the great majority of those who support BDS in the U.K. want Jews and Palestinians to live together in peace.

The Jewish establishment’s attack against Corbyn and Labour is obviously over the top. It should be seen as a political attempt to destroy the majority of what Labour seeks to present to the British public. Does this attack only have to do with criticism of Israel’s transgressions? I doubt it. As a moderate socialist, with a desire to take the U.K.on a different military and diplomatic path, the issue Corbyn’s detractors have with him may have to do more with the U.K.’s power relations in the world and, what they believe to be, the final, final end to the very last remnants of the British Empire. Funnelling all of this vitriol through and on behalf of Israel, though, as some U.K. commentators point out, might actually ramp up the ambivalence toward Jews already present in British society. From my perspective, the Jewish establishment in the U.K. is completely out of line; it is carrying the waters of injustice in dangerous buckets.

What next for Marc Ellis?

I hope to give lectures and seminars on Finding Our Voice. I believe that my book is the first take on the prophetic that includes the two formative Jewish afters: after the Holocaust and after Israel. I have much as yet unpublished work, more actually than I have published. I would like to see that writing in print as part of my witness. I think especially of three years of daily commentaries – 2006-2008 – that map my view of Jewish and Christian life, politics, culture, art and includes Israel’s wars during those years. I have my daily diaries  – 2016-2018 – that describe my life as I live it plus commentaries on everything from religious liturgy, suicide via Anthony Bourdain, and extended thoughts on Houria Bouteldja’s, White, Jews, and Us: Toward a Politics of Revolutionary Love. I also have a manuscript about my tour of the Philippines and beyond ready to go – Philippine Diary: Traveling Jewish in the Land of Dreams Deferred. Though past, these writings are also fully present. Up ahead is a manifesto on the New Diaspora and responses to the essays written in the Festschrift devoted to my work that is being prepared as I write and perhaps a newly written fourth edition of a Jewish theology of liberation. So plenty ahead.




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