I first read Professor Marc Ellis’ book “Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation” as a rabbinical student back in the mid-1980s – and suffice to say it fairly rocked my world at the time. Here was a Jewish thinker thoughtfully and compellingly advocating a new kind of post-Holocaust theology: one that didn’t view Jewish suffering as “unique” and “untouchable” but as an experience that should sensitize us to the suffering and persecution of all peoples everywhere.
And yet further: Ellis had the courage to take these ideas to the place that few in the Jewish world were willing to go. If we truly believe in the God of liberation, if our sacred tradition truly demands of us that we stand with the oppressed, then the Jewish people cannot only focus on our own oppression – we must also come to grips with our own penchant for oppression, particularly when it comes to the actions of the state of Israel. And yes, if we truly believe in the God of liberation this also means that we must ultimately be prepared to stand with the Palestinians in their struggle for liberation.
When I first read Ellis’ words, I didn’t know quite what to make of them. They flew so directly in the face of such post-Holocaust theologians as Elie Wiesel, Rabbi Irving Greenberg and Emil Fackenheim – all of whom viewed the state of Israel in quasi-redemptive terms. And they were certainly at odds with the views of those who tended the gates of the American Jewish community, for whom this sort of critique of Israel was strictly forbidden.
Over the years, however, I’ve found Ellis’ ideas to be increasingly prescient, relevant – and I daresay even liberating. As a rabbi, I’ve come to deeply appreciate his brave willingness to not only ask the hard questions, but to unflinchingly pose the answers as well. And it is not at all surprising to me that we are now witnessing a new generation of rabbis and young Jewish leaders starting down the road he has paved for us.
All this to say I am profoundly sorrowed to learn that Ellis is currently under threat of losing his job at Baylor University due to an investigation led by new university president Ken Starr.
By every appearance, Ellis has had a distinguished academic career, having taught at Maryknoll School of Theology, Harvard Center for the Study of World Religions and Florida State University. Thirteen years ago, he was appointed Professor of American and Jewish Studies at Baylor, where he founded Baylor University’s Center for American and Jewish Studies and currently serves as its director.
There is ample reason to mistrust the academic validity of this investigation. According to a new petition now being circulated by Cornel West and Rosemary Ruether:
Marc Ellis was brought to Baylor in 1998 and all previous presidents supported his dissident voice. After Ken Starr (nemesis of Clinton in the White House) became president in 2010 the attacks started. During the last year Baylor lawyers were instructed to communicate with many of Marc’s colleagues, past students and staff. The objective was to request all of them to report all “abuse of authority.” Most of us explained to the lawyers that was a lost cause because Marc has been an exemplar colleague, professor and mentor.
But starting this Fall he was separated from his classes, his center closed and a hearing scheduled to take place some time in this academic year. As far as we know the accusations are about abuse of authority but we are not aware of the details because they are part of the internal legal process. Obviously it is about something else: Marc’s dissident voice. We will inform all of you as soon as we know more information.
In a statement released yesterday, Ellis commented thus:
Given what I currently understand of the rules of the Baylor process I will, for now, honor the process by not discussing the specifics, except to say that I believe this is a pretext to silence an independent voice at the place for which I have had deep appreciation.
I write now to ask you to please join me in signing this petition in support of Ellis – an important Jewish dissident thinker and (as his many academic colleagues are now attesting) a truly distinguished scholar. I would add: even if you don’t personally agree with all of his ideas, I urge you to support his cause. It is high time for us to stand down those who would trample academic freedom, shun open discourse and debate, and muzzle those with whom they simply disagree.
I’ll end with Professor Ellis’ own words, all too sadly apt under the circumstances:
Prophetic Jewish theology, or a Jewish theology of liberation, seeks to bring to light the hidden and sometimes censored movements of Jewish life. It seeks to express the dissent of those afraid or unable to speak. Ultimately, a Jewish theology of liberation seeks, in concert with others, to weave disparate hopes and aspirations into the very heart of Jewish life.
(“Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation,” p. 206)