On The Rabbis and the Future of Jewish Life
by Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is a Professor of American and Jewish Studies, and Director of the Center for American and Jewish Studies at Baylor University.  This is a lecture he delivered at The Montague Centre, London to the Rabbinic Conference of the Union of Liberal & Progressive Synagogues on June 5, 2001.

We thank the author for his permission to reprint it here.

It is a strange feeling to stand before a gathering of rabbis and speak of my vision for the future of the Jewish people, especially during a time when helicopter gunships are more and more defining the trajectory of Jewish life.  In my youth, my own rabbis, first at an Orthodox synagogue and then within the conservative movement, did not have to warn us against such abuse of power.  Like most Jews in America, using tanks and aerial bombardment to quiet resistance in villages, towns and cities was reminiscent of the horrors of World War II; the assault on a weak defenceless people gathered in ghettos and surrounded by superior power reminded Jews in America of the fate of European Jews in what later became known as the Holocaust.

I wonder now whether these rabbis would protest today what is surely the swiftest and strangest inversion of position and power in history.  Certainly the rabbis I encounter at home and on the road have little if anything to say about the current situation, except to be silent, to be in unity, to strike at anyone, Jew or non-Jew, who speaks out at the abuse of Israeli power.  Perhaps the rabbis with whom I studied, now long retired, escaped the moment of decision when victimisation turned to oppression and the role reversal called for resistance to our own power rather than the power of others.

I think here of Abraham Heschel and Leo Baeck, in ability well beyond my local rabbis, who, having experienced the Nazi era, were spared, at least consciously and critically, these last decades of Israel's life.  What would they say about helicopter gunships?  What would they say to the displacement of Palestinians that has continued long after the emergency years of the Holocaust?  Would Heschel and Baeck have spoken out against the settlements that continue to expand and erode the possibility of self-determination for Palestinians, with sophisticated by-pass roads and checkpoints that isolate Jews from Palestinians, encircle and enclose Palestinian life and create what many call an apartheid reality?  If they spoke out what would they say?  Would they then be pursued, as many Jews are, by the local rabbis, the Jewish Federation, the Anti-Defamation League, and Hillel chapters on university campuses?  Would they be called traitors, self-hating Jews, "unabashedly pro-Palestinian", and among those who "create the context for another Holocaust"?

While we do not know what Heschel and Baeck would say, or for that matter, the local rabbis of my youth, or what would be said about them if they did speak out, we do know that few Jews in public life speak out today against the injustice of Israel's policies toward the Palestinians and that those who do are maligned and pursued.  Death threats against dissenting Jews abound, but they are only the most extreme of the tactics used to silence Israel's critics.

What is more commonly used are visits to employers, statements in the press and gossip with local cultural and political elites about the authenticity and character of the Jewish dissenter.  Ecumenical relationships that have been built up over many years are often used to signal a dissenting Jew as a troublemaker, one to be ostracised and even demeaned by religious leaders of another faith community.

That these tactics are carried out by leaders of the Jewish community on the local level is bad enough.  When aided and abetted by national Jewish leadership—and too often by Jews who are advisers to politicians and intellectuals in universities—the situation becomes more complex.  How will critical thought about Judaism and Israel, indeed about the future of the Jewish people, find a home, deepen and be communicated to the next generation?  If there is no place for critical Jewish thought in the synagogue, Jewish institutions or the university, how will those who seek to affiliate with other Jews hear diverse viewpoints about what it means to be Jewish after the Holocaust and after Israel?

The phrase "after the Holocaust" is well known today, used sometimes as a cliché, but in the beginning this was not true.  Studying with Richard Rubenstein in the early 1970s, I read his book After Auschwitz as an incredible and difficult attempt to come to grips with the aftermath of the Holocaust.  I did this as a Jew, but also as a human being confronted with the enormity of Auschwitz.  Perhaps I was too young to notice the lack of other agendas in confronting Auschwitz; that came later.

It was our inability to confront the expanding state of Israel and the use of the Holocaust as a sign of our victimhood, paradoxically of our arrival as an empowered and innocent and affluent community, that trivialised the event that defines the past century.  That is why we as Jews come after the Holocaust and Israel.  It is not only the linear historical sequence that forces this use of after, but the use of the Holocaust as a shield against accountability for abuse of the Palestinians.  We as Jews come after the Holocaust and Israel because our victimisation has become a tool of power and because our proclaimed innocence betrays a culpability that increases even today.

What are we to do with this culpability?  The situation is complex and has at least two fronts for Jews who live in the West.  On the one hand, Jews are a minority living in cultures still defined by Christianity or at least a Christian ethos.  On the other hand, Jews are asked to support and in some cases are held responsible for Israel, a nation-state in the Middle East that Jews in the West do not control, nor, overwhelmingly, do they choose to live there.

Both of these fronts have their own complexity.  Christianity and Christian culture are increasingly less hostile to Jews.  The acceptance of Judaism as a religion and Jews as a people and individuals poses a different threat, the threat of assimilation.  For some time the reason to be Jewish has been found outside the internal practices of Judaism and has been located instead in the memory of the Holocaust and the hope of Israel, which most Jews participate in only vicariously.  Israel is more and more problematic as a supposed symbol of Jewish life and as a beacon to humanity.  The opposite seems to be the case, with Israel mirroring and mimicking the nations of the world and sometimes modelling in microcosm the very problems of the nation-state system.

As Jews we are caught in this dynamic—between an accepting Christian culture and the culpability that an expansionist Israel signals—with little or no leadership to guide us.  We are not oppressed and we are not innocent.  Too often we use the Holocaust as a shield and are silent on the unjust policies of Israel.  To speak out is to dissent on the defining issues of contemporary Jewish life without a way forward.  Thus the desire to strike out against those who dissent because they point out the conundrum of contemporary Jewish life that we cannot deny and for which we have no response.

The retreat to the synagogue in the face of these unresolved issues is insufficient to resolve this dilemma.  We cannot go back behind the Holocaust and Israel as if to transcend history, nor can we in the struggle for the future of Jewish life pretend that a distinctiveness lived out in the world and unique contribution to the life of the world can be offered through prayer and ritual.  The recovery of Hebrew and Jewish forms of community are not enough to face the crisis of Jewish life or the world crisis.

While renewal movements that seek to infuse Judaism and Jewish life with creative adaptations to modernity and post-modernity are praiseworthy and of interest in personal and communal ways, the ancient and still-central thrust of Jewish life, the prophetic, finds no nourishment here.  Without the prophetic there is no reason for Jewish life in and of itself other than a way of meaning and personal fulfilment, important to be sure, but ably covered by other religions or indeed the major religion of our time, modernity.  The renewal of Judaism and Jewish life can be fascinating but only at the expense of a silence about history, especially the history we are creating, actively or passively, in Israel.  And renewal in a Jewish sensibility can only be modestly different than renewal of other communities and traditions.  In short, the distinctiveness of Jewish renewal is, for the most part, illusory and at the expense of the prophetic whose base is history rather than language and ritual.  Thus despite its outward garb of Hebrew and kippah, renewal is in the end a form of assimilation.

When we assimilate to the state and power, whether in Israel or America, we move toward a Judaism that is passive in the face of injustice and may even argue for that injustice with the sophistication of real politik.  The terrain we then enter is one familiar to Jews, though historically we have experienced this terrain as a form of oppression against us.  In fact, it may be argued that Judaism, as it developed within the shadow of an empowered Constantinian Christianity, is a sustained engagement with state-orientated religiosity.  That we as Jews have formed a Constantinian Judaism, where the energies of our leaders in the religious, social and political arenas are bent toward the justification of privilege and power, is ironic for a variety of reasons, not least of which is our recent survival of Constantinian Christianity in the death camps of Nazi Europe.

In Constantinian Judaism, Israel is always right, threatened, under siege by the unwashed and uncivilised Arabs who resemble, if they do not incarnate, the Nazis.  United States foreign policy that supports Israel must be defended at all costs and any group or entity that criticises Israel or United States foreign policy is misguided, probably anti-Jewish and regardless needs to be confronted.  The new anti-semitism is less defined by views toward Jews and Judaism as defined by acceptance or non-acceptance of Jews as citizens within the larger society than it is by those who support or criticise the state of Israel.  Tied to this unequivocal support of Israel and Israeli policies is the remembrance of the Holocaust as a global obligation, and as the experience of suffering of all time.  Any attempt to place the Holocaust in the broader sweep of history or even in the context of the suffering of other peoples or, and especially, as an avenue of solidarity with the Palestinian people, is an expression of anti-semitism.

Today Jewish leadership is defined by the Constantinianism of Jewish life.  The rabbis are not exempt from this definition, even if they are not at the head of the structure of Jewish power.  In fact, the rabbis are by definition far down the road in terms of power in this form of Jewish life.  Still they are expected to carry out and defend policies and viewpoints over which they have little, if any, control.  Rabbis do not control and are not even consulted about Israeli policies; in the United States, at least, they have little power in American Jewish organisations that interact with the political life of the country.  Yet rabbis are the closest to synagogue-affiliated Jews and the spokespersons for the local Jewish community.  Thus rabbis are expected to communicate, interpret and defend policies and statements of a Jewish world that they do not participate in, have no power within, and often, if left to their own conscience, would quarrel with or even oppose.  Historically speaking, on what became the two central engines of contemporary Jewish life, Holocaust and Israel, the rabbis were hardly consulted; they were left to integrate, reform and pick up the pieces of a religious world that ultimately supercedes and diminishes rabbinic Judaism.  In the end a hybrid is developed between Rabbinic Judaism and Constantinian Judaism where the rabbinic survives only to serve as the local arm of this new form of empowered Judaism.  And more often than not, rabbis function as the local arm of the law of Constantinian Judaism, a new halacha that fences in authentic Judaism more narrowly than ever before in Jewish history.

This is how the rabbis are experienced by Jews of conscience who have abandoned Jewish institutions, often fleeing for a life of integrity.  Instead of aiding in the formation of conscience and identity, instead of infusing the covenantal obligations of justice and reconciliation with Jewish sensibilities, language and questions, the rabbis have functioned in the main as an agent of reproach and banishment, sealing an exile from the Jewish world that is unremitting.  In the main, rabbis do not interact with Jews of conscience on the personal level, at least those who cannot countenance the often twisted argumentation of an empowered Judaism, for they are gone, disappeared from Jewish life, in exile.  And most of those Jews of conscience are decidedly, even militantly, nonreligious.  After having barely survived the God of Constantinian Christianity, is it any wonder these Jews of conscience reject the God of Constantinian Judaism?

In the end, of course, Jews of conscience see the God of Constantinian Christianity and the God of Constantinian Judaism as the same God, and Constantinian Christianity and Constantinian Judaism as the same religion.  That would make the clerics of both religions, and the leadership patterns and arguments employed by them, essentially the same as well.  If the same God and religion and leadership is shared by Constantinian Christianity and Judaism, then the historical judgement on Christian and Jewish religiosity and leadership follows.  For Jews of conscience, then, Christianity and Judaism, Christians and Jews, priests, ministers and rabbis, are blurring into an interchangeable force that seeks to quell the pangs of conscience and to censor the articulate prophetic speech, that is, the very heart of Jewish identity.

That is, at least, what the heart of Jewish life once was or, perhaps more accurately, what we hoped it to be.  That Judaism and Jewish life have failed in the face of power and the state is hardly an exception in the history of religion.  Rather it is the norm.  But the patterns of Jewish life, shared with other religions but also always searching for distinctiveness in the ethical realm, make more difficult the survival of Judaism and Jewish life in this Constantinian phase.  The agnosticism of Jewish life with regard to ultimate realities is rooted in the Torah and carried forth in Talmudic searching and argumentation.  This has led historically to a practised religiosity, a religion of deeds and action where God is alternately affirmed or ignored, present or absent, depending on time and place.

In Rabbinic Judaism the practice of Judaism, or we might say more precisely, the practice of the covenant, occurred without power and in the face of power.  This was its peculiar strength.  In a time of power, in the shadow of Constantinian Judaism, Rabbinic Judaism is a shadow of itself, as are the rabbis.  As a Jewish thinker who has taken Jewish history seriously, it is sad to report this fateful transposition, as it means that Jewish history as we have known and inherited it has come to an end.  As an ordinary Jew who was born into the faith and has consciously embraced it, who has a Jewish home and children who are being raised as Jews, the sadness is more personal.  For what future is carried by helicopter gunships?  What kind of Jewish life is constructed around the displacement and humiliation of another people?  If Rabbinic Judaism once bequeathed achievement, struggle, ethics and suffering as the cornerstones of Jewish life, what will Constantinian Judaism bequeath to our children?

The hope that Constantinian Judaism will pass is illusory, as is a hope for a complete Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and annexed East Jerusalem.  The map of Israel, with territory that stretches from Tel Aviv to the Jordan River, and with millions of Palestinians in between, is the map of Jewish life for the foreseeable future.  This is a Constantinian map that requires of Jews within Israel and beyond a loyalty to the state and power.  No Jew can escape this Constantinianism completely and no Jew can dissent from this map completely and actively and be seen as authentic.  At the same time, there will always be Jews who cannot accept the restraints this map places on territory, social organisation and conscience.  Will there be rabbis who refuse a Contantinianism that mandates a militarised God and a theology that disguises helicopter gunships with passages from the Torah and learned Talmudic discussions?

That is why Jews of conscience have been and will continue to leave the Jewish community and why the religious consciousness of these Jews atrophies in articulation and symbol.  Perhaps these Jews of conscience in exile today from Constantinian Judaism are placing above all and without specific language the two most ancient themes of Jewish life, the refusal of idolatry and the refusal of assimilation to the state and power.  I ask you as rabbis, with ordination and congregations, what do you say to these exiles?

My own sense is that these exiles carry the covenant with them, and this perhaps is the last exile in Jewish history, at least as we have known and inherited it.  No doubt there will be rabbis who accompany those in exile or who will arise from within the exilic community itself.  But first and foremost they will be prophets, with no need of respect from the Jewish establishment or fear of congregational censure, free prophets whose witness is deep and freely given for the historical crisis that envelopes us as a people.  It is this witness that will one day provide a reckoning and a possible future, however defined and with whomever pursues the struggle for community over empire.

Whether the children of these Jews of conscience will identify as Jews, whether they will gather for rituals or use language that Jews employ today is doubtful and perhaps beside the point.  For the covenant, once given, can never be claimed or owned or named by any one people in perpetuity.  In the final analysis, the covenant belongs to the broader arc of humanity.  As Jews we have been privileged, even in our suffering, to carry this covenant with us as a people.  Today it belongs somewhere else, outside our community.

This analysis may seem too pessimistic to some, but if we look at the covenant as free, given but not owned, carried but also betrayed, if we see the covenant as available and present in the most unlikely places, as it was in the beginning, then this seeming pessimism is lightened.  As Jews we have failed, as others before us and as those who go after us.  But we also, again with others, have periodically risen to the occasion and become witnesses to the covenant and to the world.  Helicopter gunships and the nation-state that employs them, like all forms of violence and all nation-states, vitiate this witness through a Constantinianism to which all religions succumb.  Did Jews think we would be different, that placing Jewish before the name of a state would thereby change its dynamics and trajectory?

We are left here, at least today, with a tradition in fragments and a leadership that is bullied by that state and in turn too often bullies those who dare to say that Jewish and state do not mix and that the covenantal affirmation that has carried Jewish life has fled its home.  This tragedy prompts a reckoning that can only be approached when we acknowledge that the Judaism that we inherited and the leadership that represents that Judaism is effectively over and that the potential leaders of Jewish life are in exile.  For all their limitations and flaws, one can believe that the covenant is travelling with them and the challenge of leadership in the Jewish world is to accompany this exile wherever it leads.  For with the covenant there is always the opening to God, as it was in the beginning, recorded in our own sacred books.  Should we be surprised that these understandings have returned and that Jews turn towards them?

In this time of helicopter gunships, when we are defined by a power that we once struggled against to survive, the time is now to announce our position.  And to live it, until the end.