Marc Ellis and the Jewish prophetic tradition

 JVL introduction

Robert A.H.Cohen, who blogs at Micah’s Paradigm Shift reviews March Ellis’s latest book on the Return of the Jewish Prophetic, inveighing today against “the unthinking and institutionalised injustice practiced by our own leadership, both communal and religious”.

The Prophet Micah

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

Robert A.H.Cohen, Pantheos,
19 August 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.

Now read the Q&A with Professor Marc Ellis 


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