Category Archives: God

Who is the Stranger Here? Reading the Torah through a Decolonized Lens

Photo credit: 
Paul Connors/Media News Group/Boston Herald

Cross-posted with Jewschool.

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ekev, contains the well-known commandment: 

“You must love the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

(Deuteronomy 10:19)  

While it’s often characterized as the most repeated commandment in the Torah – occurring a total of 36 times, that’s actually a bit of hyperbole – it actually appears only six times.[1]  The number 36 seems to have originated from a passage in the Talmud [2] but in the end, I’d suggest that the accuracy of this claim is really irrelevant. For liberal Jews in particular, this commandment looms large because it’s a powerful statement of collective empathy. The Jewish people, who have historically lived as “strangers in strange lands,” are as such commanded to love and protect all who know the experience of the stranger. 

The Hebrew word for “stranger,” is ger – a legal term in the Bible for “resident non-citizen.”[3] Throughout the laws of the Torah, there is a clear concern expressed for the legal status of gerim, who are often included in the ritual life of ancient Israel. In the commandment to keep the Shabbat, for instance, the “ger within your settlements” is included in the list of those who must cease from work.[4] God also adjures Israelites repeatedly that there must be “one law” that governs the ger as well as the Israelites.[5] 

Given the Torah’s tolerant attitude toward the “stranger,” this commandment is popularly invoked by Jewish communal leaders, particularly in reference to the issues of immigrant justice and refugee rights. This statement from the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism is a classic example, using the commandment to highlight the classic American dream of immigrant “opportunity.”

Our own people’s history as “strangers” reminds us of the many struggles faced by immigrants today, and we affirm our commitment to create the same opportunities for today’s immigrants that were so valuable to our own community not so many years ago.  

Upon deeper examination, however, this use of the commandment to “love the stranger” is not as powerfully straightforward as it may first appear. This commandment – like all commandments in the Torah – is directed toward the Israelites as they prepare to assume a position of power. Even more critically, their position of power will be attained by means of conquest

In fact, this week’s Torah portion – the very same one that contains this famously empathic commandment – also contains a divine command to the Israelites to brutally dispossess and destroy the peoples of Canaan:

You shall destroy the peoples that the Lord your God delivers to you, showing them no pity…The Lord your God will deliver them up to you, throwing them into utter panic, until they are wiped out. He will deliver their kings into your hand, and you shall obliterate their name from under the heavens; no man shall stand up to you, until you have wiped them out.

(Deuteronomy 7:16, 22-24)

In this context, we would thus do well to ask ourselves, what does it mean for Jews – particularly white Jews – to invoke this Biblical verse as we dwell on land stolen by a settler colonial power from its indigenous population? Or to put it another way, before intoning the commandment to love the stranger, we might first ask ourselves, “who is the real stranger here?” 

Indeed, we cannot deny the fact that the Biblical conquest tradition has historically been used – and continues to be used – to justify colonial dispossession, turning indigenous peoples into strangers in their own lands. In other words, the definition of who is a “citizen” and who is a “stranger” is – and has always been – determined by those who wield the power.

Where does this leave us, then? Is it even possible for Jews who cherish Biblical tradition to read the Torah through a decolonial lens? 

I believe it is. I would suggest that the first step is to ask questions precisely such as these. To avoid the temptation to ignore or wish away these kinds of texts; to actively challenge and interrupt the Biblical conquest tradition head on. For there is no getting around it: the Exodus story is not only about a people liberated by God from slavery – it is also about a people commanded by God to conquer and annihilate the Canaanites before occupying the land they inhabit.  

Reading the Torah through a decolonial lens also means coaxing out and amplifying the voices of the “strangers” in the text – the disenfranchised and colonized who might otherwise be voiceless to us. In this regard, I’ve learned a great deal from the pedagogy of commentators from outside Jewish tradition. One such teacher is the Indigenous Studies scholar Robert Warrior, who has written powerfully about the Biblical conquest tradition in his essay, “Canaanites, Cowboys and Indians:”

The obvious characters in the story for Native Americans to identify with are the Canaanites, the people who already lived in the promised land. As a member of the Osage Nation of American Indians who stands in solidarity with other tribal people around the world, I read the Exodus stories with Canaanites eyes. 

I find another important teacher in the work of black womanist theologian Delores S. Williams, whose book “Sisters in the Wilderness” lifts up the voice of the Biblical character Hagar as a role model for African-American women: 

Hagar’s heritage was African as was black women’s. Hagar was a slave. Black women had emerged from a slave heritage and still lived in light of it. Hagar was brutalized by her slave owner, the Hebrew woman Sarah. The slave narratives of African-American women and some of the narratives of contemporary day-workers tell of the brutal or the cruel treatment black women have received from the wives of slave masters and from contemporary white female employers.[6]

I realize that interpretations such as these are undeniably challenging for Jews who read the text literally, identifying Jewish experience exclusively with the experience of the Israelites. It is even more challenging for white Jews who benefit from power and privilege to reckon with the ways we are complicit in the European Christian legacy of colonization – a legacy that continues to do harm even now.

I would suggest that the commandment to “love the stranger” can never be truly honored if it comes from a position of power or noblesse oblige. It can only be honored when those in power step back and amplify the voices of strangers so that they may assume a rightful place of prominence in the narrative. In so doing, we may yet come to see that the decolonization of the text is in fact inseparable from the decolonization of the world in which we live. 


[1] Exodus 22:20, Exodus 23:9, Leviticus 19:33-34, Deuteronomy 10:19, Deuteronomy 24:17-18, Deuteronomy 24:21-22. Some versions of this commandment read “Do not oppress the stranger…” 

[2] Baba Metzia 59a

[3] The word ger would later be defined by rabbinical tradition to mean “proselyte” or “righteous gentile.”

[4] Exodus 20:10

[5] Exodus 12:49, Leviticus 24:22, Numbers 15:15

[6] Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, (New York: Orbis, 1993, 2013), p. 2. 

Judaism Beyond Zionism: Toward a New Jewish Liturgy

Introduction

In the spring of 2015, I helped to establish a Jewish congregation, Tzedek Chicago, motivated in part by a desire to create a religious space for those in the Jewish community who did not consider themselves to be Zionists. The founders of the congregation articulated this intention openly, in a core value we called “Judaism Beyond Nationalism:”

While we appreciate the important role of the land of Israel in Jewish tradition, liturgy and identity, we do not celebrate the fusing of Judaism with political nationalism. We are non-Zionist, openly acknowledging that the creation of an ethnic Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in an injustice against its Indigenous people – an injustice that continues to this day.

In the contemporary Jewish community, of course, identification with the Zionist narrative has become the sine qua non of Jewish identity. While it is beyond the scope of this essay to analyze the process by which Zionism – a 19th century European nationalist ideology that represented a radical departure from traditional Judaism – became normalized in the American Jewish community, it is fair to say that since the founding of the state of Israel, Zionism has become thoroughly enmeshed in the culture of American Jewish life.

There are signs, however, that the linkage between Zionism and Judaism has begun to loosen in the Jewish community – particularly among younger Jews. According to a widely read 2013 Pew Research Center Study, 27% of American Jews aged 18 to 29 do not feel “very attached” to Israel and another 11% feel “not at all attached.” In a 2017 study commissioned by the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco reported that among Bay Area Jews, 22 % of the respondents reported that a Jewish state’s existence is “not important” or were “not sure.”

Beyond individual attitudes, the nascent beginnings of a “Judaism beyond Zionism” are organically developing outside the bounds of the Jewish communal establishment. As Atalia Omer has written,” we are witnessing the emergence of a “grassroots movement that seeks…to transformatively reimagine American Jewish identity outside the Zionist paradigm.” 1 Though still a distinct minority, the growth of American Jewish organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace, #IfNotNow, the Center for Jewish Nonviolence and Open Hillel attest to burgeoning desire for a Judaism that unabashedly challenges Jewish communal support for Israel’s occupation – and in some cases, the very concept of Jewish statehood itself. 2

Another important indication of this shift occurred when Jewish Voice for Peace – an organization that promotes Jewish solidarity with Palestinians and “unequivocally opposes Zionism” – broadened its mission to include the goal of “Jewish Communal Transformation.” In 2011, JVP created its Rabbinical Council to provide “a prophetic Jewish voice inside the Palestine solidarity movement (and) create meaningful ritual, tradition and culture accessible to our growing membership.” JVP subsequently established its own Havurah Network, which it described as “an emergent network that gathers, supports and resources anti-zionist, non-zionist and diasporist Jews and Jewish spiritual communities across the country yearning for a vibrant Jewish life beyond nationalism that condemns and challenges white supremacy within and outside Jewish communities.”

1 Atalia Omer, Days of Awe: Reimagining Judaism in Solidarity with Palestinians, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019, p. 68.

2 Another important sea change occurred in July 2020, when prominent Jewish journalist Peter Beinart, a long-time Liberal Zionist, wrote the New York Times op-ed, “I No Longer Believe in a Jewish State.”

Jewish Diasporism

This newly emergent Judaism beyond Zionism is increasingly being described in positive terms as Jewish diasporism. While this term may seem redundant, we cannot underestimate the extent to which the importance of the Jewish diaspora 3 has been undermined in the era of Zionism. In an age when the idea of Jewish statehood has become thoroughly normalized, however, it is well worth remembering that Rabbinic Judaism originally emerged as a spiritual response to the experience of Jewish dispersion. 

Before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 ACE, Judaism was a land-centered, Temple-based sacrificial system that was splintering into several competing sects. When the Temple was destroyed and the center of Jewish life shifted from land to diaspora, the rabbis adapted to this new reality accordingly, developing a religious system that could be observed anywhere in the world.

In truth, thriving Jewish diaspora communities existed well before the destruction of the Temple. When Cyrus the Great allowed the exiled Jewish community of Babylon to return to the land in 538 BCE, scores remained in Persia where they enjoyed relative economic stability, “unswayed by the promises of a distant homeland they had never seen.” 4 There were also significant diaspora Jewish communities throughout the Hellenistic world. Between the third century BCE and the end of the first century CE, Alexandria, Egypt became one of the most populous Jewish communities in the world, numbering at least several hundred thousand.

Judaism’s foundational Jewish text – the Talmud – was itself composed and compiled in Babylonia. In a similar way, the myriad of lands in which Jews have lived have provided fertile soil for Jewish spiritual creativity throughout the centuries. Indeed, the most important Jewish religious figures clearly reflect their specific cultural time and place: the great 10th century Jewish philosopher Saadia Gaon, the founder of Judeo-Arabic literature, integrated Jewish theology with the Hellenistic Greek philosophy of his day; Maimonides’ classic philosophical treatises were deeply influenced by the neo-Aristotelian philosophy of medieval Spain; Franz Rosenzweig’s work clearly reflects the ideas of modern German liberalism.

This is not to say that the land of Israel ceased to become important in Jewish tradition. The symbolism of the major Jewish holidays is deeply rooted in the seasonal/agricultural rhythms of the land. A great deal of rabbinic debate in classical Jewish writings focused on how Biblical laws specifically pertaining to the land might be observed in a diasporic setting. There was also extensive theological speculation as to whether or not the land itself was inherently holy or whether it’s holiness derived from the commandments that were fulfilled there. 5

The rabbis also debated whether or not it was a mitzvah (religious obligation) for individual Jews to emigrate to the land. 6 At the same time, however, rabbinic authorities were virtually united in their opposition to the political reestablishment of a Jewish commonwealth. While a yearning for the restoration of Zion is undeniably central to rabbinic Judaism, this ideal was expressed within a decidedly messianic context. Jewish tradition is replete with strong warnings against the creation of a sovereign Jewish state via human agency. 7

When political Zionism arose in the 19th century, it consciously sought to overturn the diasporic focus of Jewish life. A central Zionist dictum known as shlilat hagalut (“negation of the diaspora”) viewed the diaspora as an inherently inhospitable place for Jews; only through the establishment of a Jewish state in their “ancient homeland” would the Jewish people normalize and safeguard their existence among the nations.

Many classical Zionist figures were so vehement in their rejection of the diaspora that their descriptions of European Jewry reflected a palpable sense of internalized antisemitism. Zionist writer/journalist Micha Josef Berdichevski opined for instance, that the Jews of the pale were “not a people, not a nation, not human.” 8 Hebrew poet/author Joseph Chaim Brenner called diaspora Jews “Gypsies and filthy dogs” 9 and the Labor Zionist icon A.D. Gordon wrote that diaspora Jewish life was the “parasitism of a fundamentally useless people.” 10 The views of Revisionist Zionist founder Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who was clearly influenced by European fascist ideology, infamously referred to religious diaspora Jews as “ugly, sickly Yids” and Zionist settlers as “Hebrews.” 11

Now six decades after the founding of the state of Israel, however, it might be claimed that the Jews who live there are experiencing a new form of exile. 12 On the eve of its establishment, the celebrated Jewish German political theorist Hannah Arendt presciently warned that the new Jewish state would be “secluded inside ever-threatened borders, absorbed with physical self-defense to a degree that would submerge all other interests and activities.” 13 Today, Israel is one of the most militarized nations in the world, a virtual garrison state with a traumatized national culture. More tragically, the movement that ostensibly sought to end Jewish exile ended up exiling another people in the process. The state of Israel was created through the expulsion of the Palestinians, who today live under military occupation, as second-class citizens in their own land, or else in a diaspora of their own – as refugees or citizens of other countries – and are forbidden to return to their homes.

The Jewish population of the world is currently split almost in half between Israel and the diaspora. Where does this leave those in the diaspora who choose not to center our Judaism on the state of Israel; who refuse to celebrate a Judaism that glorifies ethnic Jewish nation-statism? Is there a place for Jews who want to celebrate the diaspora as dynamic and fertile ground for a new kind of Judaism? One that embraces Jewish existence among diverse nations as a multi-ethnic, multi-racial peoplehood? One that advocates for the universal redemption of all peoples?

Over the past two decades, prominent Jewish scholars have been reclaiming and reframing the concept of Jewish diaspora in compelling ways. Melanie Kaye Kantrowitz, for instance, has advocated a conscious celebration of the diaspora as part of a larger project of Jewish empowerment:

Celebrating dispersion, Diasporism challenges the Edenic premise: once we were gathered in our own land, now we are in exile. What if we conceive of diaspora as the center: an oxymoron, putting the margin at the center of the circle that includes but does not privilege Israelis?… Jews worldwide number only about 13.3 million, a tiny minority except in Israel. Diasporism means embracing this minority status, leaving us with some tough questions: Does minority inevitably mean feeble? Can we embrace diaspora without accepting oppression? Do we choose to be marginal? Do we choose to transform the meaning of center and margins? Is this possible? 14

Daniel Boyarin has argued that the Babylonian Talmud itself is a “diasporist manifesto,” imagining its own community and sense of portable homeland:

The Talmud in its textual practices produces Babylonia as a homeland, and since this Babylonia is produced by a text that can move, that homeland becomes portable and reproduces itself over and over. The Talmud, I would submit, is not only the only classical work of the rabbinic period produced outside the Land of Israel; it is a diasporist manifesto, Diasporist Manifesto Number 1. 15

More recently, Susannah Heschel has suggested the concept of diaspora as a prophetic alternative to the traditional Jewish “embrace of exile:”

As prophetic, the diasporic Jew is never entirely at home, never content or complacent in a world of injustice. Diaspora transforms exile into Jewish creativity, as has happened for over two millennia. The prophet is a diasporic exemplar, leaving home and journeying to the urban seat of the political, military, and economic power to demand an end to corruption, exploitation, cruelty, and indifference. The prophetic position cannot exist by trying to end exile with statehood or by embracing exile as the essential mentality of Jewishness. To abandon diaspora in favor of exile is to walk away from the prophetic; to reject exile while embracing diaspora is to retain the prophetic passion for justice.

In short, we are currently witnessing the emergence of a new Jewish diasporism: one that neither stigmatizes existence outside the land nor romanticizes the experience of exile, but rather seeks to center the diaspora as the essential locus of Jewish life, creativity and purpose.

3 While I use the term “Jewish diaspora” here for the sake of clarity, it might be more accurate to refer to Jewish “diasporas,” as Jewish life throughout the world has existed in very different social, cultural and political milieus and throughout unique, distinct periods of world history.

4 H.H. Ben-Sasson, A History of the Jewish People, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976, p. 168.

5 See Mishnah Kelim 1:6: “What is the nature of (the land’s) holiness? That from it are brought the omer, the firstfruits and the two loaves, which cannot be brought from any of the other lands.”

6 From Talmud Ketubot 110a: “Whoever lives outside of Israel may be regarded as one who worships idols.” From Ketubot 111a: “Whoever returns from Babylon to Israel transgresses a positive commandment of the Torah.”

7 The classic rabbinic prohibition against reestablishing the Jewish commonwealth before the coming of the Messiah is known as the “Three Oaths.” See Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 110b, Shir Hashirim Rabbah, 8:11.

8 Walter Laqueur, A History of Zionism: From the French Revolution to the Establishment of the State of Israel, New York: Schocken, 1972, p. 61.

9 IBID.

10 IBID.

11 Alan Wolfe, At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora is Good for the Jews, Boston: Beacon Press, 2014, p. 17. For more on Zionist ideals of Jewish masculinity, see Daniel Boyarin, Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

12 See Raz-Krakotzkin, Amnon, Exile Within Sovereignty: Critique of “The Negation of Exile” in Israeli Culture, from “The Scaffolding of Sovereignty: Global and Aesthetic Perspectives on the History of a Concept,”edited by  Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, Sefanos Geroulanos, Nicole Jerr, pp. 393-420, New York, Columbia University Press, 2017.

13 Hannah Arendt, The Jewish Writings, New York: Schocken, 2007, p. 396.

14 Melanie Kaye Kantrowitz, The Colors of Jews: Racial Politics and Radical Diasporism, Indiana: Indiana University  Press, 2007, p. 200.

15 Daniel Boyarin, A Traveling Homeland: The Babylonian Talmud as Diaspora, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015, p. 32.

Jewish Diasporism at Tzedek Chicago

Since its founding, Tzedek Chicago has become a practical laboratory for the development of this new Jewish diasporism, particularly through the creation of rituals that explicitly celebrate the idea of “diaspora as homeland.”

During the holiday of Sukkot, for instance, instead of the traditional lulav and etrog – the four species native to the Biblical land of Israel – we use symbolic species indigenous to the prairie of the Midwestern United States. 16 We are exploring diasporist approaches to other Jewish holidays as well. On the festival of Tu B’shvat, which typically falls in late January/early March, I offered this teaching to the Tzedek Chicago community:

In the land of Israel, the “harbinger of Spring” festival of Tu B’shvat is marked at this time of year by the blossoming of the white almond blossoms through the central and northern parts of the land. However, those of us who live in the diaspora of the American Midwest, often celebrate Tu B’shvat surrounded by several inches of white snow and leafless trees. Is this any way to celebrate a harbinger of Spring?

I’ll suggest that it is. I actually find it very profound to contemplate the coming of Spring in the depths of a Chicago winter. It reminds me that even during this dark, cold season, there are unseen forces at work preparing our world for renewal and rebirth. Deep beneath the ground, the sap is beginning to rise in the roots of our trees – although this fructification process might not be as visually spectacular as the proliferation of white almond blossoms exploding across the countryside, I believe this invisible life-giving energy is eminently worth acknowledging – and celebrating.

It is true, of course, that the Biblical land of Israel was central to Judaism centuries before the ideology of political Zionism emerged. As such, some might well claim that the decentering of land-based symbolism represents a kind of “radical surgery” to Jewish tradition. If, as I noted above, Judaism originally spiritualized the concept of homeland, might we still retain its land-centric aspects for their symbolic, mythic power?

Such a question fails to confront the radical way Zionism has transformed Judaism itself and how deeply it has influenced Jewish attitudes toward the diaspora. Just as radically, diasporic Judaism seeks to re-right this imbalance by lifting up and centering the idea of Jewish home wherever we happen to live in the world. In Kaye Kantrowitz’s words, “Where Zionism says go home, Diasporism says we make home where we are.” 17 For those of us who affirm that the entire world is and has been our actual Jewish homeland, these new, reframed rituals seek to celebrate the Jewish people’s adaptability – and the unique nature of the homes we have created for ourselves throughout the diaspora.

Another, related issue is the concept of “Zion” itself, an idea that is undeniably, indelibly imprinted upon Jewish tradition and Jewish liturgy. How might a diasporic Judaism understand this concept, whose meaning has been thoroughly literalized by political Jewish nationalism?

As stated above, the idea of the Jewish return to Zion was traditionally understood in messianic terms. This belief is particularly embodied in the concept of kibbutz galuyot (“ingathering of exiles”), which emerged during the Babylonian exile as expressed in the Biblical books of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. 18 In Jewish liturgy, this concept is prominent in a number of prayers, including the Daily Amidah and Ahavah Rabbah (“Abounding Love”), a prayer that is traditionally read before the Shema during the morning service and ends with the line, “May we be glad, rejoicing in your saving power, and may you reunite our people from all corners of the earth, leading us proudly to our land.”

Zionism lifted kibbutz galuyot out of its messianic context and reframed it in explicitly nationalist terms. It is notably referenced in Israel’s Declaration of Independence as well as the Prayer for the Welfare of the State of Israel, both written in 1948 to explicitly celebrate the literal “exilic ingathering” of modern Jewry to the state of Israel. The Zionist interpretation of kibbutz galuyot has been internalized in American Jewish life as well. In many synagogues, for instance, it is even customary to sing the line “may you reunite our people” in the Ahavah Rabbah prayer to the melody from Hatikvah – the Israeli national anthem.

How might kibbutz galuyot be reimagined in a diasporist context? At Tzedek Chicago, our version of Ahavah Rabbah is rendered thus, “May it lead us toward your justice, toward liberation for all who dwell on earth; that all who are exiled and dispossessed may safely find their way home.” Our new reading replaces Jewish particularism and exceptionalism with a universalist, decolonial ethic. As such, it is neither messianic nor Zionist. In this post-modern diasporist reimagining, Zion is not unique to the Jewish people and does not exist in any particular place. So too, kibbutz galuyot does not refer to the Jewish exiled alone but to all who have been – or continue to be – dispossessed throughout the world.

16 In 2018, a small group of radical Jews published a zine that offered “reflections, tips, and resources about creating your own diasporic lulav,” explaining, “Our lulavs – both the ritual object and the ritual acts – are situated in diaspora, and explicitly reject the colonization of Palestine and the mandate to use the “four kinds” (“arbah minim”) of plants associated with the biblical Land of Israel.”

17 Kantrowitz, p. 199.

18 See Isaiah 11:12; 27:13; 56:8, 66:20, Jeremiah 16:15; 23:3, 8; 29:14; 31:8; 33:7 and Ezekiel 20:34, 41; 37:21. The term itself was coined in the Talmud (see Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 12a) and was later connected to the coming of the Messiah by Moses Maimondies (see Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Kings,” 11:1-2).

Jewish Anti-Militarism

In addition to re-centering diaspora, any attempt at promoting a Judaism Beyond Zionism must reckon seriously with the culture of militarism that thoroughly pervades the ideology of Zionism and Israeli society. As Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb has pointed out, “During the past sixty years, the assumption that a highly militarized Jewish state ensures Jewish security has become entrenched as an article of faith… To critique Israeli militarism is to critique Zionism in the minds of many contemporary Jews.” 19

Prior to the onset of Zionism, Jewish tradition promoted nonviolence and quietism over the glorification of war, 20 a doctrine generally traced to the aftermath of the Bar Kochba rebellion (132-135 CE). As Reuven Firestone has written, in the wake of this catastrophic event, “Jewish wisdom would teach that it is not physical acts of war that would protect Israel from its enemies, but rather spiritual concentration in righteousness and prayer.” 21

The rabbis were also painfully aware that the Hasmonean revolt centuries earlier had ended disastrously for the Jewish people. This uprising, chronicled in the Books of the Maccabees and commemorated by the festival of Hanukkah, was waged by the Maccabees, a priestly family who led a rebellion against the religious persecution of the Seleucid empire. Their victory resulted in the establishment of the Hasmonean Kingdom – the second Jewish commonwealth – in Palestine in 164 BCE. 

The militarism of the Hasmoneans however, would eventually prove to be its downfall. Following the Maccabean victory, their brief period of independence was wracked by internecine violence, anti-rabbinic persecution and ill-advised wars of conquest against surrounding nations. In 63 BCE, the Hasmonean Kingdom was conquered by the Romans (with whom they had previously been allied). In the end, the last period of Jewish political sovereignty in the land lasted less than one hundred years. 22

The rabbis of the Talmud were loath to glorify the Books of the Maccabees – secular stories of a violent civil war that were never actually canonized as part of the Hebrew Bible. In fact, the festival of Hanukkah is scarcely mentioned in the Talmud beyond a brief debate about how to light the Hanukkah menorah and a legend about a miraculous vial of oil that burned for eight days. 23 Notably, the rabbis chose the words of Zechariah 4:6, Not by might and not by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of Hosts to be recited as the prophetic portion for the festival.

Hanukkah remained a relatively minor Jewish festival until it was revived by early Zionists and the founders of the state of Israel, who fancied themselves as modern-day Maccabees engaged in their own military struggle for political independence. At the end of his book, The Jewish State, Zionist movement founder Theodor Herzl famously wrote, “The Maccabees will rise again!” 24 Even today, the celebration of the Maccabees as Jewish military heroes is deeply ingrained in Israeli culture.

This Zionist sacralizing of militarism and conquest represented a radical overturning of these central tenets of traditional Judaism. The term kibush ha’aretz (“conquest of the land”) was one of the terms used by Zionist settlers to describe their colonization of Palestine. 25 As noted above, many Zionist ideologues promoted the ideal of the muscular, heroic “New Jew” in contrast with Diaspora Jewry. Zionists were also instrumental in helping to form the Jewish Legions that fought against the Ottomans in Palestine in World War 1. During the British Mandate, Zionists created armed militias such as the Haganah (which later became the Israeli Defense Force after the founding of the state) as well as the more militant Irgun and Lehi.

In 1948-49, during what Jewish Israelis refer to as their War of Independence and Palestinians call the Nakba (the “catastrophe”), these armed forces engaged in the widespread ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from villages and cities throughout Palestine. Notably, these military operations often used names associated with Biblical history and Jewish religious tradition. For instance, a joint force of the Haganah and Irgun dispossessed 61,000 Palestinians from Haifa on eve of Passover 1948, in a campaign known as “Operation Biur Chametz,” (“Operation Cleaning Out the Leaven”) – a reference to the commandment to remove leaven from Jewish homes before the onset of the festival. 26 Another campaign, waged in the southern Negev desert and the coastal plain was given the name “Operation Ten Plagues.” 27

The Zionist movement and the fledgling state of Israel notably looked to the Biblical conquest tradition – and in particular, the Book of Joshua – as a model for its own conquest of historic Palestine. Though largely secular, Israel’s founders utilized the Bible as a canvas for promoting a national myth of a glorious military past. As scholar Nur Masalha has pointed out, “The Book of Joshua provided Ben-Gurion, Jabotinsky and muscular Zionism with the militaristic tradition of the Bible: of military conquest of the land and subjugation of the Canaanites and other ancient people that populated the ‘promised land.” 28 Ben Gurion himself viewed the book of Joshua as the most important book of the Bible; in 1958 he convened a study group at his home where Israeli generals, politicians, and academics discussed the book of Joshua against the founding of the modern state of Israel. 29

19 Lynn Gottlieb, Trail Guide to the Torah of Nonviolence, France: Earth of Hope Publishing, 2013, p. 19.

20  Reuven Firestone, Holy War in Judaism: The Fall and Rise of a Controversial Idea, New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

21 IBID, p. 62.

22 For more on the history of the Hasmonean Kingdom, see Kenneth Atkinson, A History of the Hasmonean State: Josephus and Beyond, London: T&T Clark, 2016.

23 See Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21b.

24 Arthur Hertzberg, ed., The Zionist Idea, Canada: Atheneum, 1959, p. 225.

25  Firestone, pp. 181-182.

26  Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp. 186-211.

27  IBID, p. 462.

28 Nur Masalha, The Bible and Zionism: Invented Traditions, Archaeology and Post-Colonialism in Israel-Palestine, London: Zed Books, 2007, p. 24.

29 See Rachel Haverlock, The Joshua Generation: Israeli Occupation and the Bible, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020.

Jewish Anti-Militarism at Tzedek Chicago

At Tzedek Chicago, our core values clearly and unabashedly condemn the glorification of war and violence. This is both a return to the traditional rabbinic approach as well as step beyond it. Our vision of Jewish nonviolence does not emerge from quietism but rather from the value of solidarity: the conviction that security for Jews is irrevocably bound up with security for all.

As we state in our core values:

In our education, celebration and communal observances, we honor those aspects of our tradition that promote peace and reject the pursuit of war as a solution to our conflicts. We openly disavow those aspects of our religion – and all religions – that promote violence, intolerance and xenophobia.

Our activism is based upon a vision of shared security for the world; we support the practices of nonviolence, civil resistance, diplomacy and human engagement. Through our advocacy, we take a stand against militarism and colonialism, particularly when it is waged in our name as Jews and Americans.

Liturgically, we express this value in a variety of ways. For instance, in our poetic rendering of the prophetic portion for Hanukkah (Zechariah 2:14-4:7), the rededication of the Temple by the Maccabees is reframed as a dedication to ideals of nonviolence and justice for all people:

Let loose your joy for
your prayers have
already been answered;
even in your exile
the one you seek has been
dwelling in your midst
all along.

Quiet your raging soul
and you will come to learn:
every nation is my nation
all peoples my chosen
anywhere you choose to live
will be your Holy Land,
your Zion, your Jerusalem.

Open your eyes and
look across the valley
look at this ruined land
seized and possessed
throughout the ages.

Look upon your
so-called city of peace
a place that knows
only debasement
and desecration
at your hand.

Turn your gaze to the heavens
and there you will find
the Jerusalem that you seek:
a city that can never be conquered,
only dreamed of, yearned for, strived for;
a Temple on high that can never be destroyed.

No more need for priestly vestments
or plots to overrun that godforsaken mount –
just walk in my ways
and you will find your way there:
a sacred pilgrimage to the Temple
in any land you call home.

Enter the gates to
this holiest of holy places,
lift up its fallen walls,
relight the branches of the lamp
so that my house will truly
become a sanctuary
for all people.

Yes, this is how you will
restore the Temple:
not by might, not by power
but by the spirit
you share with every
living, breathing soul.

These values are also reflected in our Prayer for Reparation and Restoration. which we read in lieu of the congregational Prayer for Peace or Prayer for the Welfare of the Government. (Compare our prayer below for instance, with the Reform Movement’s “Prayer for Peace and Strength:”)

To the One who demands justice:
inspire us to become rodfei tzedek,
pursuers of justice
in our lives and in our communities.

Give us the strength to resist power
wielded with fear and dread;
fill us with the vision and purpose
to build a power yet greater,
a power rooted in solidarity,
liberation and love.

Grant us the courage to dismantle
systems of oppression –
and when they are no more,
let us dedicate our wealth and resources
toward the well-being of all.

May we abolish all forms of state violence
that we might make way for a world
free of racism and militarization,
a world where no one profits
off the misery of others,
a world where the bills owed those who have been
colonized, enslaved and dispossessed
are finally paid in full.

Inspire us with the knowledge
that real justice is indeed at hand,
that we may realize
the world we know is possible,
right here, right now,
in our own day.

May our thoughts and our hopes,
our words and our deeds
guide us toward a future of reparation,
of restoration, of justice,
al kol yoshvei teivel
for all who dwell on earth,
amen.

As a response to the issue of domestic militarization, the prayer below was delivered at a Tisha B’Av vigil, co-sponsored by Tzedek Chicago, at an immigrant detention center in Kankakee, IL. The text is an adaptation from the Biblical book of Lamentations, traditionally read on the festival of Tisha B’Av:

We are beyond humiliation
beyond shame
we incarcerate children without pity
we deport parents without a thought
and build systems that destroy families indiscriminately
now we truly know what it means to be dishonored
our so-called glorious past is now seen
for the sham that it was
the way of life we celebrate is but a privilege
for the few and the powerful
we can’t see that our own might
will be our downfall.

We venerate leaders
who should be tried for their crimes
we never dared imagine a power
greater than our own
like so many before us
we conquered the land then drew borders
as a testament to our fear and dread
now we build higher walls
to keep out those who seek shelter
we built massive checkpoints
we lined up human beings
like cattle in cages
now children cry out for parents
who will never answer their calls
their voices echo endlessly
through the camps but there
is no one left to hear.

We ask one another with bewilderment
have we ever seen such cruel violations
yet in truth we ourselves have inflicted
such cruelties on children here
and around the world
we sentence minors to life in prison without parole
we remain silent as a cruel occupation
abducts and imprisons children in military prisons
convicts them in military courts
and yet we dare to act surprised when
we hear news of children thrown into cages
at our southern border.

Our silence betrays us
these walls will soon encircle us all
soon there will be no one left
only a single mass of mourners
whispering broken hymns of lament
grieving what was lost
and what might have been
one day we will know the sorrow
of the dispossessed.

We who never heard the cries of migrants
and their children will know what it means
to be uprooted detained and discarded
those who we scorned and abandoned
will bitterly welcome us to the world
of the dispossessed
the enemies we created
through our own fearful actions
will surely come back for us all.

Let us hope and pray
there is still time
let the cries of our children
pour into our hearts like water
the cries of any who have been forced
from their homes pursued
taken locked away sent away
anyone whose very lives are forbidden
forgotten forsaken
let their cries compel us
to take down oppressive systems
built by the powerful to maintain
the power of the powerful.

Let their cries remind us
that there is a power yet greater
that comes from a place that knows no borders
no deportations no barrier walls no prisons
no guards no soldiers no ICE no police
a place where we no longer need to struggle because
justice gushes forth like a mighty stream flowing freely.

From the sovereign beyond all sovereigns
we beseech you chadeish yameniu
renew our days
that we may build the world
that somehow still might be
kein yehi ratzon – may it be your will
and may it be ours.

Jewish Solidarity with Palestinians

At Tzedek Chicago, we understand solidarity with Palestinians not merely as a political position, but a sacred imperative. As we state in one of our core values, that “the creation of an ethnic Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in an injustice against its indigenous people.” Accordingly, we reject the ways that the establishment of the state of Israel has become sacralized as redemptive in most American synagogues.30 Needless to say, for those Jews who consider the Nakba to be an historic – and ongoing – injustice, the birth of the Jewish state has a decidedly different religious meaning.

We express our sacred solidarity with Palestinians in a variety of ways. One Passover, for instance, we invited Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the Palestinian movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, to our congregation to speak about BDS as a liberation movement. In our advertising, we described the program thus: “Taking our cue from the season of Passover we will engage in a deep exploration of this important call for Palestinian liberation, and explore its profound challenge to all people of conscience.”

Tzedek Chicago also expresses Jewish solidarity with Palestinians through the use of sacred ritual. For instance, while most American synagogues celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) as part of the Jewish religious calendar, we observe this occasion through our recognition of Nakba Day – the day Palestinians mark as the day of their catastrophic dispossession. In our “Jewish Prayer for Nakba Day” we use traditional Jewish liturgical/theological imagery to reflect our observance of this day as an occasion for mourning, remembrance and repentance:

Le’el she’chafetz teshuvah,
to the One who desires return:

Receive with the fulness of your mercy
the hopes and prayers of those
who were uprooted, dispossessed
and expelled from their homes
during the devastation of the Nakba.

Sanctify for tov u’veracha,
for goodness and blessing,
the memory of those who were killed
in Lydda, in Haifa, in Beisan, in Deir Yassin
and so many other villages and cities
throughout Palestine.

Grant chesed ve’rachamim,
kindness and compassion,
upon the memory of the expelled
who died from hunger,
thirst and exhaustion
along the way.

Shelter beneath kanfei ha’shechinah,
the soft wings of your divine presence,
those who still live under military occupation,
who dwell in refugee camps,
those dispersed throughout the world
still dreaming of return.

Gather them mei’arbah kanfot ha’aretz
from the four corners of the earth
that their right to return to their homes
be honored at long last.

Let all who dwell in the land
live in dignity, equity and hope
so that they may bequeath to their children
a future of justice and peace.

Ve’nomar
and let us say,
Amen.

Le’el she’chafetz teshuvah,
to the One who desires repentance:
Inspire us to make a full accounting
of the wrongdoing that was
committed in our name.

Help us to face the terrible truth of the Nakba
and its ongoing injustice
that we may finally confess our offenses;
that we may finally move toward a future
of reparation and reconciliation.

Le’el malei rachamim,
to the One filled with compassion:
show us how to understand the pain
that compelled our people to inflict
such suffering upon another –
dispossessing families from their homes
in the vain hope of safety and security
for our own.

Osei hashalom,
Maker of peace,
guide us all toward a place
of healing and wholeness
that the land may be filled
with the sounds of joy and gladness
from the river to the sea
speedily in our day.

Ve’nomar
and let us say,
Amen.

In another example of communal Palestinian solidarity, we dedicated a portion of our 2018 Yom Kippur Service to the Palestinians who were then being killed weekly by the Israeli military in Gaza’s Great Return March. In the introduction to this ritual, we stated:

 It is traditional at the end of the Yom Kippur morning service to read a Martyrology that describes the executions of ten leading rabbis, including Rabbi Akiba, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel and Rabbi Yishmael, who were brutally executed by the Roman Empire. This liturgy is included to honor those who have paid the ultimate price for the cause of “Kiddush Hashem” – the sanctification of God’s name.

At Tzedek Chicago, we devote the Yom Kippur Martyrology to honor specific individuals throughout the world who have given their lives for the cause of liberation. As we do, we ask ourselves honestly: what have we done to prove ourselves worthy of their profound sacrifices? And what kinds of sacrifices will we be willing to make in the coming year to ensure they did not die in vain?

This year, we will dedicate our Martyrology service to the Palestinians in Gaza who have been killed by the Israeli military during the Great Return March. This nonviolent demonstration began last spring with a simple question: “What would happen if thousands of Gazans, most of them refugees, attempted to peacefully cross the fence that separated them from their ancestral lands?”

Since the first day of the march last spring, demonstrators have consistently been met by live fire from the Israeli military. To date, 170 Palestinians have been killed and tens of thousands wounded and maimed, most of them unarmed demonstrators, including children, medics and bystanders.

30 This sacralization is reflected in a myriad of ways, whether it be through the placement of the Israeli flag next to the ark containing the sacred scrolls of the Torah, the regular recitation of the “Prayer for the State of Israel” (which refers to its establishment as “the first flowering of our redemption,”) or the celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) alongside traditional Jewish festivals.

Decolonial Judaism

As we have explored the meaning of Judaism beyond Zionism, we have quickly come to realize that many of these issues are rooted in more foundational concerns. For instance, we cannot interrogate the meaning of the Jewish diaspora without also understanding the diasporas of other transnational and/or dispossessed peoples. As we grapple with issues of militarism we must invariably confront the connections between state violence and structural racism. Solidarity with Palestinians cannot be viewed in isolation from the larger legacy of settler colonialism and the dispossession of Indigenous Peoples in the US and around the world.

These connections have, in turn, given rise to critical questions, such as:

• In North America, white Jews are participants in the ongoing colonization of stolen land. How can we celebrate diaspora in a way that respects the land upon which we live and the Indigenous Peoples for whom it remains sacred? 

• In the United States, 12 to 15% of the American Jewish community are Jews of color, many of whom have their own history of colonization and enslavement. How will white Jews center their experience and stand down the culture of White supremacy in the American Jewish community? 

• If we view atonement as a sacred imperative, how can we, as a Jewish congregational community advocate and participate in a process of reparations and rematriation for the members of Indigenous Nations and descendants of enslaved people? 

As a response to questions such as these, Tzedek Chicago has convened an internal task force “to explore how Tzedek as a community can best participate and support reparative justice efforts, especially regarding the harms of slavery and colonization.” We are also exploring ways to address these questions through Jewish ritual. In 2019, for instance, we celebrated a Sukkot festival celebration jointly sponsored with Chi-Nations Youth Council – a Chicago-based group that organizes on behalf of Native Youth in the region. Our celebration included the prayer, “Earth Shema,” written for Tzedek Chicago by poet/liturgist Aurora Levins Morales:

There is no earth but this earth and we are its children.  The earth is our home, and there is only one.  The ground beneath our feet was millions of years in the making. Each leaf, each blade, each wing, each petal, each hair on the flank of a red fox, each scale on the sturgeon, each mallard feather, each pine needle and fragment of sassafras bark took millions of years to become, and we ourselves are millions of years in the making.

The earth offers itself and all its gifts freely, offers rain and sunlight, and the shimmer of moon on its lakes, offers corn and squash, apples and honey, salmon and lamb, and clear, cold water and all it asks in return is that we love it, respect its ways, cherish it.

We shall love the earth and all that lives with all our hearts, with all our souls, with all our intelligence, with all our might.   

Wherever we walk, wherever we sleep, wherever we eat, wherever we pray upon the face of the earth, we shall uphold the first peoples of that place, those who have loved it longest and know its ways most deeply.  We shall listen to them, learn from them, follow their lead, defend them, and join with them to protect each other and our world, and of every two grains in our bowls, we will give one to the first peoples who sit beside us at the earth’s table. 

The names of those who were here before us are syllables of the earth’s name, so know them and speak them, and speak the first names for the places where you dwell, the water you drink, the winds that bring you breath.  Say the name of this place, which is Shikaakwa, and say the names of its people: Myaamiaki, Illiniwek who are also the Inoca, the Asakiwaki and Meskwaki, people of the yellow earth and the red earth, the Hochagra, and the Bodewadmi who keep the hearth fires, for the land held many stories before we came and the places that were made for us were made by shattering their worlds.

Take to heart these words with which I charge you this day.  Cherish this land beneath your feet. Cherish the roots and the waterways, the rocks and trees, the ancestor bones in the ground and the people who dance on the living earth and make new paths with their feet, with their breath, with their dreaming.  Love and serve this world, this creation, as you love the creator who gifted it to us.  Defend it from those whose hunger for riches cannot be filled, who devour and destroy, bringing death to everything we love. 

Fight for the earth and protect it with all your heart and soul and strength, and hold nothing back, so that the rains fall in their season, the early rain and the late, and we may gather in the new grain and the wine and the oil, the squash and beans and corn, the apples and grapes and nuts, so that the grass grows high in the fields and feeds the deer and the cattle, so that the water flows clean in river and lake, filled with abundant fish, and birds nest among the reeds, and all that lives shall eat its fill. 

Do not be lured into the worship of consumption, comfort, convenience. Do not suck on the drinking straws of extraction, or bow down to the hoarders of what is good. For if we do, the breath of life that is in all things will empty the skies of clouds, and there will be no rain, and the earth will not yield its blessings, but will be laid waste.

So summon all the courage which is in you and in your people, stretching back to the dawn of time and remember this promise by night and by day, with every breath, whatever you are doing.  Let nothing stand in your way.  Put your hands into the soil of this moment and plant good seed that we and all our children may live long in the land and be a blessing. 31

31  This prayer was written as part of Morales’ Rimonim Liturgy Project, a network of which Tzedek Chicago is a participating member. Rimonim seeks the creation of new liturgies that reflect, among other things, “a full integration of the lives and experiences of Indigenous Jews and Jews of Color of all backgrounds, diaspora-centered Judaism that is rooted in global Jewish cultures, and explicitly replaces Zionist content in our liturgy… and acknowledgement and accountability to Indigenous peoples on whose land non-Indigenous Jews are settlers.”

 Conclusion

In her analysis of Tzedek Chicago, Omer referred to our congregation as a “prefigurative Jewish community.” 32 I believe this to be an extremely apt description: Tzedek Chicago is part of a nascent movement that is consciously attempting to build and model a future Jewish community guided by the transformative core values of justice that we hold sacred. In the end, however, it is not only the Jewish world we seek to transform – it is the world at large.

This idea is perhaps most prominently expressed during our Shabbat celebrations, when we liturgically welcome the Sabbath as a weekly taste of olam ha’ba (“the “world to come.”) 33 As opposed to the traditional messianic view of this concept, we define it as “the world as it should be” – i.e., the very real world of equity and justice for which we work and strive and struggle during the week. When Shabbat arrives, our liturgy provides us with the opportunity to experience this world, so that when Shabbat ends, we will be reinspired, replenished – and ready to continue the sacred work that will bring it that much closer to reality.

With this vision in mind, I will conclude with one final prayer – Tzedek Chicago’s poetic rendering of Psalm 92 (The Song for the Sabbath Day):

Tonight we raise the cup,
tomorrow we’ll breathe deeply
and dwell in a world
without borders, without limit
in space or in time,
a world beyond wealth or scarcity,
a world where there is nothing
for us to do but to be.

They said this day would never come,
yet here we are:
the surging waters have receded,
there is no oppressor, no oppressed,
no power but the one
coursing through every living
breathing satiated soul.

Memories of past battles fading
like dry grass in the warm sun,
no more talk of enemies and strategies,
no more illusions, no more dreams, only
this eternal moment of victory
to celebrate and savor the world
as we always knew it could be.

See how the justice we planted in the deep
dark soil now soars impossibly skyward,
rising up like a palm tree,
like a cedar, flourishing forever
ever swaying, ever bending
but never breaking.

So tonight we raise the cup,
tomorrow we’ll breathe deeply
to savor a world recreated,
and when sun sets once again
we continue the struggle.

32  Omer, p. 155.

33  From the Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 57b: “Shabbat is one sixtieth of the world to come.”

The World to Come: Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5781

photo: Thahitun Mariam/Bronx Mutual Aid Network

On Rosh Hashanah, Jewish tradition comes to tell us every new year that everything we’ve ever known is on the line. The zodiac sign for Tishrei, the first Jewish month of the year, is the scale, and for good reason. Over and over again our liturgy tells us that the world is hanging in the balance. The Books of Life and Death have yet to be sealed and we pray the rawest of prayers, literally pleading for another year of life. In ancient times, so we’re told, the Jewish people would gather outside the Temple in Jerusalem, hoping against hope that the High Priest would emerge from the Holy of Holies to let them know the world would indeed be sustained for one more year.

I don’t think we’ve ever experienced a Rosh Hashanah in which it felt more viscerally that the world was indeed actually hanging in the balance. In our communities, throughout our country, around the world, the new year is arriving in time that feels completely and utterly uncertain. For me – and I suspect for you as well – our Rosh Hashanah prayers this year have a powerful, even unnerving resonance.

It’s difficult to know where to even start, and it’s almost unbearable to contemplate all at once: a global pandemic has taken over 200,000 lives in the US and almost one million worldwide. It has permanently changed our world in ways we’ve barely begun to understand. Our health system is overwhelmed and overtaxed. The leaders of our country have been criminally negligent in their response to the pandemic. As a result, in a moment when we desperately need to come together, they are politicizing community health measures like mask-wearing and social distancing, further tearing our national community apart. 

And of course, none of this is occurring in a vacuum. It’s astonishing to witness how quickly COVID has unleashed this terrifying domino effect of economic chaos in our country and around the world, leaving increasing numbers of people unemployed, homeless and uninsured. And contrary to the cliche, the pandemic is not a great equalizer: its impact has been particularly devastating for communities of color, the poor and too many other disenfranchised communities in our midst. 

There is no getting around it: this Rosh Hashanah, we’re greeting this new year in a state of genuine grief over the sheer enormity over what we have already lost and fear over what is yet to come. That’s why, I believe, the first order of business this new year is to give ourselves the space and permission to grieve our collective loss and name these fears out loud. To acknowledge what is no more and affirm openly and honestly that the world has been forever changed in ways we cannot yet fully grasp. Frankly, I don’t know how we can pray these prayers unless we find a way to acknowledge this together.  

I think grief is an apt metaphor for this moment. As anyone who has experienced grief knows all too well, there is a period of deep shock and disbelief that occurs immediately after the loss of someone we love. In many ways, this feels like what we’re going through now: the disbelief, the magical thinking, the inability to fully grasp our new reality, the uncertainty of everything except the hard truth that nothing in our lives will ever be the same. 

When we grieve, however, we do know some things for sure. We know that isolation is our enemy. We know that we have to depend upon each other to move forward. We know that we need community more than ever before. Though this new world is a painful and uncertain place, we must resist the temptation to withdraw from it. This will be a particular challenge in this new age of social distancing: when our survival literally depends upon our being physically apart, we know instinctively that we must find new ways to connect with one another if we are to survive. 

Over the last few months, people have found ways to connect with each other with resilient creativity. Yes, life in the COVID era is surreal, frustrating, and often downright bizarre. Yes, I never, ever dreamed I would one day find myself leading a High Holiday Zoom service, and yes, I’m very sure you never expected you would ever attend one. But over the last few months, as we’ve negotiated this brave new world in our congregation, we’ve discovered that these challenges have come hand in hand with new opportunities we never could have anticipated. 

Here at Tzedek Chicago, since the pandemic began, we’re busier than ever before. We now have four weekly programs and our attendance has grown exponentially. We’ve inaugurated a communal care Hesed Committee to check in on the immediate needs of our members. We now have new members participating regularly in our services and programs from across the country and around the world, from as far away as New Zealand and the UK. In the end, however, this isn’t just a matter of greater access. On a deeper level, I think, this new growth is a testament to the deep desire folks have to connect with others, to overcome their isolation, to find new ways to create community in this moment of profound loss. 

At the same time, amidst all of this massive change, even as we adjust to this new world, there’s that nagging question lurking in the background: how long will we actually have to do this? When will we get our lives and our world back? When will things get back to “normal?” Again, as with the experience of grief, I personally think it’s important to challenge this kind of magical thinking; to resist the temptation to assume that this is only a temporary moment; a period we just have to muscle through before things get back to the way they were. As with the experience of grief, I think it’s important for us to accept that the world we once knew is gone. Something will indeed come in its place, but whatever it is, we need to accept that things will never be the same.  

It occurs to me that Rosh Hashanah might actually be coming at just the right time to help us with this acceptance. After all, when we pray the words “t’chadeish aleynu shanah tovah u’metukah” – “renew us for a good and sweet new year” – we’re not asking for the world the way it used to be. On Rosh Hashanah, we center renewal. Over and over again we proclaim throughout our liturgy that every new year, the world can be recreated and reborn.

This idea is actually the exact opposite of that famous line from the book of Lamentations,“chadeish yameninu ke’kedem;– “renew our days as days of old.” Whatever else it may be, Rosh Hashanah was never meant to be an exercise in nostalgia, a yearning for an idealized, mythic time that never really was. On the contrary, it is an occasion for dreaming of the world that might yet be.

No, we will not go back to “normal.” But amidst the grief, it’s worth asking, do we really want to?  Should we want to?  The great activist poet Sonya Renee Taylor has written powerfully to this point:

We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature. 

That’s right. For far too long, too many in this country have assumed it’s somehow normal to live in a world with a deep and deepening economic divide separating rich from poor, to tolerate a toxic environmental crisis, to treat endemic state violence and systemic racism as just a given.  But none of this has been in any way “normal.” 

In truth, we’ve been living unsustainably for far too long. Deep down, we must have known that one day this bubble would burst. And now it has. The world as we knew it has broken wide open. So yes, if there is a spiritual imperative to this particular moment, it’s not “renew our days as in days of old” – it must be “recreate this word anew.” 

Judaism actually gives us a powerful paradigm for this – a framework for living when the only world we’ve ever known has fallen away from beneath us. It is, in fact, one of the central mythic moments at the heart of Jewish tradition itself: namely the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 ACE. Jewish spiritual memory views this as the formative moment in our history: the cataclysmic moment when Jewish life was cracked wide open. As we have come to understand it, this was the moment when everything in our world changed forever. 

Yes, the destruction of the Temple constituted a massive collective crisis for the Jewish people – but it’s also important to note that it represented an opportunity to stitch a new garment as well. After all, this was the moment that Judaism as we know it came into being. The diaspora might have been a place of exile, but it was also the fertile ground upon which the Jewish people staged their spiritual rebirth. In short, when the only world we ever knew was shattered, we responded in the spirit of hope, resilience and creativity. 

A line from a famous midrash teaches, “when the people of Israel were exiled, God went into exile with them.” Among other things, this means that God wasn’t destroyed along with the Temple. God accompanied us into this new and unknown world. And while this spiritual truth may speak directly to the Jewish experience, it’s certainly not unique to it. It’s a universal truth: at the moments of our deepest loss, we become more spiritually attuned. We can see God more clearly: in the hearts that have been broken and in the wells of strength we never knew we had. In the memory of those we’ve lost, the faces of those we love and who have suffered loss as well. And I would suggest it is this very Presence that is accompanying us right now as we face this uncertain new world. 

So, if we are ready to fully enter this changed and changing new kingdom, what do we do now? I think it goes without saying that the order of the moment is care for each other. Too many lives have been devastated already and we know that this devastation will continue in the coming year. For now – and forever more – we must view mutual aid as a mitzvah – a sacred imperative. I know many of you are involved in these kinds of projects, which are founded on the ethics of solidarity and not mere charity. At Tzedek Chicago, we’ve been compiling an ongoing list of efforts in which we can participate locally – mutual aid that supports those who were already economically vulnerable before the onset of the pandemic, in particular low-income workers, day laborers, domestic workers, those who work in the gig economy. If you know of initiatives that are not on our list, please let us know about them so we can make them available to our membership.

It’s also important for us to bear in mind that radical empathy is not only a means to an end. Yes, we empathize with each other because we are social animals that depend on each other for our survival – and this must certainly never be underestimated. But at the same time, it’s worth considering that our empathic support for another actually creates the world we want to see in real time. When we support and find comfort in one another, we need not yearn for the world to come because in a sense, it’s here right now. Beyond the pain, beyond the loss, we would do well to realize that the world we’ve been struggling for all along is being built by our love and support for one another. 

And how do we find hope when that pain and loss feels like it is too much to bear? For me, I’ve always been taken with the definition of hope offered by folks like Vaclav Havel and Cornell West. Optimism, they say, is the shallow expectation that things will naturally get better. Hope, however, is the conviction that some things are worth fighting for no matter what may happen. Hope is the courage to act, even in – especially in – those times when doubt might be warranted.

So let this be my blessing for us all this Rosh Hashanah-like-no other, when so much in our world is hanging in the balance as never before: let us grieve for the world that we’ve lost, show up for those who need it most, and fight like hell for the world we know is possible.

Shanah Tovah to you all. 

Longing for Return: Rabbi Alissa Wise’s Tribute to Tzedek Chicago

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Here are the words of tribute that were offered by Rabbi Alissa Wise at Tzedek Chicago’s recent 5th anniversary celebration. Alissa is my dear friend and colleague and currently serves as the Acting Co-Executive Director of Jewish Voice for Peace. 

Her remarks were made during the havdalah ceremony that marks the end of Shabbat. As everyone who was there will attest, it was a moving, memorable and joyous evening. 

Havdalah means separation – but also difference. So let us make this community different and new through this ritual of Havdalah, ushering you all into a new moment as you head into your next chapter. Let’s think of tonight as one big moment of l’chayim to all that makes Tzedek Chicago different and for the incredible contributions you are making to the future of Judaism in the US and beyond.

This past week we welcomed the month of Adar, famous as a time for us to increase our joy and to celebrate of the topsy-turvy holiday of Purim. The Talmud teaches “just as in Av, our joy decreases, in Adar, our joy increases.” Leave it to Judaism to mandate joy! it doesn’t come easy for a lot of us and for good reason. So thank you, Tzedek, for ensuring we got some joy tonight. Living our best Adar lives!

Tonight is a special moment of joy for me – to be able to bask in this groundbreaking synagogue, to schep naches and to kvell about Brant Rosen, my rabbinic partner in crime. This is also the first invitation I have had during my nine years at Jewish Voice for Peace to speak at synagogue. And tonight, my co-Executive Director Stefanie Fox is delivering a keynote at the annual gala for Kadima synagogue in Seattle led by JVP rabbinical council member David Basior – also a sign of the times. It means so much to be here. More Adar joy!

Tonight’s celebration is for all of us who imagine the end of Zionism and the rise of a Judaism that is, as it has been for millennia, a tradition of wrestlers, questioners and seekers: marking time by the rhythms of the moon, cycling through, again and again the ancient stories passed down to us from generation to generation, while at the same time telling our own.

This celebration tonight is in honor of a Judaism that is a framework for a vibrant inner ethical life that enables a relentless, resilient spirit of passion for justice for all people. A Judaism that understands and reckons with the trauma in our lines, the violence our ancestors have wreaked. The wrongs – and our response in honor of that history and in deference to it. It doesn’t hold us back, rather it inspires and enlivens us. While we are accountable to it, we are not laden by it.

I believe the liberation for all people that binds this community together is inevitable. This celebration tonight truly feels like an evening many will point to as the beginning of this new era – that a congregation can grow and thrive outside Zionism may not surprise us in this deli, and this is just the beginning.

I am not going to lie: I am deeply concerned with what happens for the majority of Jews who still currently hold to Zionism as the main way they identify as Jews. As Zionism and Israel evolve into a place of democracy, justice, dignity, and freedom for all the people that live there, it will be a trauma for many Jews, no question. That is why it is so critical that diasporic Jewish communities thrive and imagine and build spaces for all to come into when that break happens.

Our tradition can actually teach us in this process – both for ourselves and for Palestinians with whom we struggle in solidarity.

On the first day of my rabbinical school course on rabbinic civilization, in a course that explored the social and cultural surroundings of rabbinic literature, the professor assigned readings from a collection of talks given in the 90s at the NY Public Library on the concept of Exile. Called “Letters of Transit,” these writings were essential to understanding the emotional and psychological state of the Talmudic rabbis.

The essays brought to vivid life the profound, all-encompassing sense of loss that permeated the psyche of the Talmudic rabbis, and therefore our liturgies today. With an unquenching thirst, they pined for a rebuilt temple and the end to exile. Little did they know that in that yearning, they were creating the scaffolding for our religious and cultural heritage: an enduring heritage that has manifested differently throughout the world in countless ways, enduring despite expulsions, genocide, colonialism and extractive capitalism. The Judaism we practice today began in their imaginations and from their longing. And baked deeply into it is a profound sense of loss and torment at being in exile.

There is something really powerful in their chaotic, terse, neurotic text that resonates for me deeply as a Palestine solidarity activist: it is their dream of return. I have found that reading the rabbis is an important fuel for my activism. I feel my empathy and ability to relate to the desire and dreams of return that I hear from Palestinians more deeply by immersing in their world – and likewise a celebratory embrace of Diaspora. I learn from that longing for return that emerges from every page of Talmud.

In one of the writings from that book, Andre Aciman, a Jew from Alexandria, Egypt reflected on the comfort of a park in Manhattan where he often went to sit and ponder and yearn and feel his exile. He identified a feeling of being lost in the world as a state of exile, but he also found comfort in the park – in “being lost in the same place every year.” He begins the story with alarm – this precious park is being torn up, and was now a chaotic, hazardous construction site. But at the end the park was just being rehabbed – its statue was removed to be restored, the benches to be replaced, the walkways to be made more accessible.

It made me think of our Torah and holiday cycle and the spaces and communities we build to revisit them together year after year. What a tremendously generous and loving gift you are giving to yourselves and each other in creating a space to get lost and be lost in year after year. If we are open to it, diaspora expands the idea of home. It invites a more responsible relationship with the planet. It not only rejects but renders meaningless borders and technologies of separation.

As an example, let’s look to how the Talmudic rabbis engaged with the upcoming holiday of Purim as their discussion of it is illuminating the mindset of exile and the possibilities of diaspora. Some important backstory/context: During Purim, the liturgy does not include the reciting of Hallel – the collection of psalms of praise and joy that are included in the liturgy at the pilgrimage festivals and other holidays commemorating miracles.

In the tractate of Talmud called Megillah, the rabbis ask: if we say Hallel for going from slavery to freedom during Passover, why not for going from death to life in Purim? The first answer offered: because the miracle of Purim took place outside of Eretz Yisrael.

Things are already interesting for us, right? It is important to note here that we must be careful to not read this a-historically and assign Zionism to this line of thinking. Eretz Yisrael, as your core value of “a Judaism beyond nationalism” notes, has played an important role in Jewish tradition, liturgy and identity. I believe it is both possible and a sacred responsibility of ours to confidently and ethically relate to land without bringing to it a colonialist or extractive or violent ownership. How radical this would be for our planet as it undergoes climate catastrophe!

OK, so the miracle took place in diaspora, no Hallel, the first rabbinic voice offers. But another rabbi challenges this by pointing out that Yetziat Mitzrayim – the Exodus from Egypt – also took place outside Eretz Yisrael! And here it is important to also note that Mitzrayim was likewise exile. Eretz Yisrael was not just the promised land for the Israelites who fled from slavery to freedom, but was the original home of their ancestors who fled that place due to famine. It already was special before Mitzrayim.

Then another rabbi retorts: well, that was before entering Eretz Yisrael, so it doesn’t count – but miracles that take place after we entered Eretz Yisrael are not valid for singing Hallel. So this is interesting: in some ways the rabbis forget that the exile they were suffering through and their yearning was for a second return – because it was after the Exodus that the Israelites were led to Eretz Yisrael by God’s hand and will. And it was there that the Temple stood.

And though this position is what was held – that it is not traditional to recite Hallel on Purim – the dialogues closes with a final dissenting opinion– Rav and Rav Nahman both agree that after the exile, all lands are again fit for reciting Hallel for miracles that happen with them.

A Judaism beyond Zionism for today shares this same Torah: a miracle is a miracle. Praise is praise. All land is sacred, all people are holy.

As the late activist, writer, feminist Melanie Kaye Kantrowitz wrote:

Celebrating dispersion, Diasporism challenges the Edenic promise: once we were gathered in on our own land, now we are in exile. What if we conceive of diaspora as the center: an oxymoron, putting the margin at the center of a circle that includes but does not privilege Israelis?

I love this idea of diaspora as the center. Imagine what would be possible if we were to flip it all around: that the multitude of Jewish experiences, languages, rituals made up the bubbling, expansive center of Jewish identity. What then?

We have it all over our tradition already: think of the tabernacle that traveled wherever the Israelites went during their wanderings in the wilderness. Think of the home rituals of Hanukkah, Shabbat and Pesach. The moon guiding our months and holidays, the sun beginning and ending our days. The moon and sun belong to our planet and to all beings.

And yes, there will still be that nagging feeling of loss and that’s OK. In his memoir “Out of Egypt,” Andre Aciman wrote:

Why spurn my home when exile is your home?
The Ithaca you want you’ll have in not having.
You’ll walk her shores yet long to read those very grounds,
kiss Penelope yet wish you held your wife instead,
touch her flesh yet yearn for mine.
Your home’s in the rubblehouse of time now,
and you’re made thus, to yearn for what you lose.

This is the project I see in Tzedek: a place to be lost. A place to accept and expect and embrace that feeling of loss. To nurture and support Jews ready to embrace and envision a world without Zionism. Those who are at that place now and those that will be in the coming months and years

It must also a place that can provide safety to ask and answer the hard questions we need to ask to be as creative, emergent, visionary partners and organizers. For example, in what ways as Jews who are in solidarity with Palestinians in their demands of not just rights but return – how are we healing ourselves and our past through this work? How much does it quench your longing for home and an end to exile to imagine a free Palestine?

How ready are you to be the majority voice in the Jewish community in a post-Zionist era? How will you embrace and nurture and care for the minority, fringe voices?

Already Tzedek is at a place of enormous power. I want to invite you to let it. Let this struggle heal you. Let it transform you. Let Tzedek be a place that you all tend to in order to do this critical work. Let yourselves indulge in it. Demand in it all you need and more! Let it be a place where you can be vulnerable and show your hurt, feel your loss. let it seep out, let it heal not just ourselves but everyone. Let it inform how we respond to antisemitism and Islamophobia, to racism and transphobia. Let the end of exile for Palestinians take an edge off that stubborn feeling of loss within us. Let your project be a way to do the holy work of remembrance and return.

And as you all know, your leader here at Tzedek is an ideal guide for you on this path. Brant: you are doing an incredible job at being the best Brant Rosen you can be. This celebration is not about you, it is about Tzedek, but please indulge me for a moment.

You and I have had such an incredible relationship, Brant. We are colleagues, comrades, friends, confidantes, and mentors to each other. When I was a rabbinical student figuring out how in the heck to get ordained as an out, queer anti-zionist, you sought me out to learn from and with me.

I recall that it all begin in 2007 at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association conference in Florida, where we spent countless hours talking about the limits and failures of Zionism, the stranglehold it has on the Jewish community. You taught me how to live in the real world of Jewish institutional life and how to not let that restrict or define you. I invited you in to the urgent obligation of challenging Zionism despite the costs it will mean to our professional lives.

In the years I have known you Brant, I have been floored by your willingness and capacity to face and feel the loss you feel. This is part of what makes you such an incredible rabbi for our time. You know how to feel the pain and the loss of our exilic condition. And you know how to then take the next, most courageous step – to change your life, take a stand, vision forward, refuse to accept.

Brant you are Nachshon. You are willing to the step that to so many seems foolish and dangerous, only to see that a beautiful miracle awaits if you have the courage and chutzpah to not just believe but to act. It has been an honor to walk beside you Brant on this journey away from Zionism and toward the fulfillment of your highest spiritual and rabbinic calling by realizing Tzedek Chicago with all of you.

As a leader of an organization myself, I know it is a mistake to give all the credit to the paid leadership. Each and every one of you is making a contribution to a future of Judaism we can all be proud of. It is because you want it, you are willing to work for it, you demand it, you need it, because you love Judaism and Jewishness.

Look around – here we are in this Ashkenazi-inspired deli in public celebration of our tradition and the future of not just Jews but everyone. It is in this bold commitment to safety through solidarity that we’ve been taking to the streets that we separate from the Jews-only logic of Zionism.

The enormous and generous contribution Tzedek Chicago is making to the future of Jewish life – not just in the US but worldwide – is simply incredible. You are a model of a thriving Jewish diasporic community. I am so so grateful. Thank you, thank you, thank you Tzedek Chicago. May you go from strength to strength!

On Hanukkah, Let’s Rededicate Our Commitment to Environmental Justice

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TOMERTU / SHUTTERSTOCK

Cross-posted with Truthout

The central story commemorated on Hanukkah comes from books 1 and 2 Maccabees, which tells of a small group of Jews in the land of Israel that fought to liberate their community from the increasingly oppressive reign of the Seleucid empire. Under Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the empire had imposed their Hellenistic culture upon the Jewish community; in 167 BCE, Antiochus intensified his campaign by defiling the temple in Jerusalem and banning Jewish practice. The Jewish band known as the Maccabees subsequently waged a three-year campaign that culminated in the cleaning and rededication of the temple and ultimately, the establishment of the second Jewish commonwealth.

The meaning of Hanukkah has historically been understood and interpreted in many different ways by Jewish communities throughout the centuries. For the rabbis of the Talmud, who sought to downplay the militarism and violence of the story, the holiday is emblematic of God’s miraculous power, symbolized famously by the Talmudic legend (quoted above) of a miraculous cruse of oil in the rededicated Temple that lasted for eight days. The Zionist movement and the state of Israel celebrate Hanukkah as a nationalist holiday, glorifying the Maccabees’ military struggle for political independence. In many nations throughout the Jewish diaspora, the festival is often understood as an expression of Jewish minority pride and a celebration of religious freedom.

More recently, some American Jewish religious leaders have been reinterpreting Hanukkah as a holiday of sacred environmental concern, framing the legend of the oil as a lesson about the importance of energy sustainability. Jewish environmental activist Rabbi Arthur Waskow, for instance, has proposed observing “Eight Days of Environmental Action” during Hanukkah, suggesting that the legend “is a reminder that if we have the courage to change our lifestyles to conserve energy, the miracle of our own creativity will sustain us.” The website of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center (RAC) now devotes an entire section to “Green Resources for Hanukkah.” The Jewish environmental organization Hazon also offers extensive resources for the holiday, including “10 Ways to Make your Hanukkah More Sustainable.”

While these new approaches are certainly meaningful as far as they go, it is worth questioning why the environmental dimensions of Hanukkah must begin and end with green personal behaviors. Given that the festival celebrates a struggle for liberation, Hanukkah also offers us a powerful opportunity to highlight and celebrate the emergent global movement for environmental justice.

This connection is particularly relevant since this struggle is unfolding in critical ways in the land where the Hanukkah story actually took place. In fact, the state of Israel has a well-documented history of monopolizing and exploiting the natural resources of historic Palestine — all too often at the expense of the Palestinian people themselves. If we are truly serious about celebrating Hanukkah as a “green holiday,” we should also use these eight days to shine a light on the myriad environmental injustices being committed in Israel/Palestine — and further, to rededicate ourselves to the movement for environmental justice there and around the world.

“Green Colonialism” in Israel/Palestine

Environmentalism has always been central to the myth of Zionist pioneers who described themselves as having “greened the barren desert” of Palestine. Like many of my generation who came of age in American Jewish religious schools, I well remember being taught that helping the Jewish National Fund (JNF) plant pine trees in Israel was an act of almost sacred significance. Like generations of Hebrew school students before and after us, we were encouraged to regularly put coins in the iconic blue-and-white JNF collection boxes and were given certificates as gifts whenever a tree was planted in our honor or for a special occasion.

The reality beneath this mythos, however, reveals a much more problematic and troubling history. We didn’t learn the crucial colonial goal behind the JNF’s forestation policy throughout Palestine — that the widespread planting of pine groves and forests was instrumental in the dispossession of Palestinians. We certainly didn’t learn about Yosef Weitz, director of the JNF from 1932 to 1948, who was a primary architect of the Zionist policy of Palestinian Arab “transfer,” often advocating for this policy openly and unabashedly.

At a meeting of the Transfer Committee in 1937, for instance, Weitz stated:

The transfer of Arab population from the area of the Jewish state does not serve only one aim — to diminish the Arab population. It also serves a second, no less important, aim which is to advocate land presently held and cultivated by the Arabs and thus to release it for Jewish inhabitants.

It is now known that pine forests planted by the JNF were widely used as national and recreational parks to hide the remains of destroyed Palestinian villages and neighborhoods that were depopulated by force in 1948. According to scholars Ilan Pappé and Samer Jaber, “covering ethnic cleansing with pine trees is probably the most cynical method employed by Israel in its quest to take over as much of Palestine as possible with as few Palestinians in it as possible.” The Israeli organization Zochrot estimates that “more than two-thirds of [JNF] forests and sites — 46 out of 68 — conceal or are located on the ruins of Palestinian villages demolished by Israel.”

In a recent conference call sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), journalist/activist Naomi Klein referred to this practice as “green colonialism,” pointing out that “the use of conservation and tree planting and forest protection as a tool of settler colonialism is not unique to Israel” and that “the creation of state parks and national parks (in North America) are seen by Indigenous people in these settler colonial contexts in similar ways.” According to Klein, “there is a long and ongoing history of conservation … where the land is declared a park and the traditional inhabitants and users of the land are locked out.”

The cumulative environmental impact of nonindigenous pine trees throughout historic Palestine has been devasting. European pines, which were consciously planted to evoke the memory of the forests familiar to Zionist settlers, have largely failed to adapt to the local soil, requiring frequent replanting. As they have aged, non-native pines also have demanded more and more water, rendering them more vulnerable to disease. Moreover, falling pine needles have acidified the soil, inhibiting the growth of native species.

This practice, coupled with the steadily soaring temperatures in the region, has increasingly led to devastating forest fires such as the Carmel wildfire in 2010, estimated to be the worst in Israel’s history. Given its grievous environmental impact, the 2010 fire subsequently precipitated a widespread reassessment in Israel of early Zionist tree-planting policies. In 2011, Yisrael Tauber, director of forest management for the JNF, grudgingly admitted, “Planting is still important, but in many cases we have to make a kind of change in our consciousness.…We are now building sustainable forestry after these pioneering pines did a wonderful job for the first generation.”

Of course, given the rising threat of the global climate crisis, this admission arrives as too little, too late. Increasingly dangerous conflagrations are now a regular occurrence throughout Israel; this past summer, three simultaneous wildfires necessitated the evacuation of hundreds of residents across the country. This trend is particularly ominous given that this region is among the hardest hit by the climate crisis. At the UN Climate Conference in Madrid this month, the Israeli Ministry of Environmental Protection issued a report listing a number of devastating projections, including an expected rise in the risk of natural disasters.

“Water Apartheid” in the West Bank

The struggle over water resources is another important example of historic and ongoing climate injustice in Israel/Palestine. Israel has almost complete control over water sources in the region, a monopoly the human rights group Al-Haq refers to as “water apartheid.” According to Amnesty International, Palestinian consumption in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is about 70 liters a day per person (well below the 100 liters per capita daily recommended by the World Health Organization) whereas Israeli daily per capita consumption is about 300 liters. In some rural communities, Palestinians survive on 20 liters per day.

Those who visit the West Bank cannot help but be struck by the sight of Israeli settlements, with lush, well-watered lawns looming over Palestinian towns and villages surrounded by rocky soil and sparse vegetation. This is largely due to the fact that Israel uses more than 80 percent of the water from the Mountain Aquifer, the only source of underground water in the West Bank, as well as all of the surface water available from the Jordan River, which is completely denied to Palestinians.

As a result of this inequitable system, some 180,000 to 200,000 Palestinians in rural communities have no access to running water. In towns and villages which are connected to the water network, water rationing is common, many Palestinians have no choice but to purchase additional supplies from mobile water tankers which deliver water of often dubious quality at a much higher price. (The Mountain Aquifer, one of the most valuable natural resources in the region, is situated almost completely east of the Green Line, a key factor in Israel’s inexorable annexation of the West Bank.)

Over the years, Israel’s over-pumping of underground aquifers has lowered the groundwater table below sea level and caused saline water intrusion in many areas. The average flow of the Jordan River has been decreasing dramatically and has become so polluted by Israeli settlement and industry run-off that it was declared unsafe for baptism by Friends of the Earth Middle East in 2010 (known today as EcoPeace Middle East). The Dead Sea has shrunk into two separate and rapidly evaporating bodies of water, increasingly polluted by Israeli companies that pump out its salts for cosmetic products.

Environmental Injustice in Gaza

When it comes to Gaza, Israel’s crushing 12-year-old blockade has almost completely depleted the supply of drinkable water for the nearly 2,000,000 Palestinians who live in this small strip of land. Gaza’s only water resource, the Coastal Aquifer, is insufficient for the needs of the population, and Israel does not allow the transfer of water from the West Bank to Gaza. In the meantime, the aquifer has been steadily depleted and contaminated by over-extraction and by sewage and seawater infiltration, and 97 percent of its water has been contaminated and unfit for human consumption.

Stringent restrictions imposed in recent years by Israel on the entry into Gaza of material and equipment necessary for the development and repair of infrastructure have caused further deterioration of its water and sanitation situation. For the past several years, sewage has been flowing into the Mediterranean at a rate of 110 million liters a day. At present, 97 percent of Gaza’s freshwater is unsuitable for human consumption and only 10 percent of Gaza’s residents have access to safe drinking water.

However, as is invariably the case with issues of environmental injustice, what goes around comes around. This past June, EcoPeace Middle East reported that the collapsing environmental situation in Gaza was creating a “national security risk” to Israel, warning that “the collapsing water, sewage and electricity infrastructure in the Gaza Strip pose a material danger to (Israel).” In a particularly perverse example of victim-blaming, the Israeli military recently urged the World Health Organization to condemn the “ecological catastrophe” caused by the burning of tires by Palestinians on the border during the weekly Great March of Return protests.

In addition to water pollution, there have also been reports of rapidly increasing soil contamination due to Israel’s regular military assaults on Gaza. According to a report by the New Weapons Research Group, Israeli bombings in Gaza Strip have left a high concentration of toxic metals, such as tungsten, mercury, molybdenum, cadmium and cobalt in the soil. These metals can cause tumors and problems with fertility, and they can have serious and harmful effects on newly born babies.

Hanukkah and Global Climate Justice

What does this current environmental reality bode for the future of the Jewish state? British journalist Robert Cohen powerfully concludes that the climate crisis, coupled with Israel’s steady over-exploitation of resources, has functionally rendered Zionism “obsolete.”

“How,” writes Cohen, “can Israel present itself as a Jewish safe haven from a hostile world when its water security is at high risk, crop yields will soon be falling and fires will be raging all year round…? When it comes to climate change, national borders will offer no protection from antisemitism. Climate has no interest in faith or ethnicity or in historical or religious claims to a particular piece of land.”

Cohen’s point can certainly be applied to the world at large. The climate crisis clearly knows no borders. But while no one will ultimately be safe from its devastating effects, we can be sure that the more powerful will increasingly seek to safeguard themselves and their interests at all costs at the expense of the less powerful. Such is the harsh reality of “green colonialism”: as the climate crisis renders more and more of the world uninhabitable, we are clearly witnessing increased state efforts at border militarization, population control and the warehousing of humanity.

What then, is to be done? In a recent op-ed for The Nation, journalist Ben Ehrenreich offered this compelling prescription: “it is time to shout, and loudly, that the freedom of all the earth’s people to move across borders must be at the center of any response to the climate crisis.… If we are to survive as a species, we must know that no boat can save us except the one we build together.” In her JVP presentation, Naomi Klein echoed this challenge in similarly powerful terms:

What is clear is that the space for humanity to live well is contracting…. So, the core question is what kind of people are we going to be as we live in greater density? And if we look to Israel/Palestine, we see a really terrifying example of how to lose your humanity and how to fail to share land — and the monstrousness it requires to fail to share….

This is a global process that is happening now … so we’re going to have to start practicing solidarity and mutual aid. And we’re going to have to practice love and show each other what love looks like in public more and more. Because a lot of people have lost faith that they can do it.

There can be no better Hanukkah message for the 21st century. Given the realities of our current age, the nationalist dimensions of the holiday are not merely irrelevant, but dangerous. In the words of poet/liturgist Aurora Levins Morales, “this time it’s all of us or none.” If Hanukkah is to be a true celebration of environmental justice, it must become a “rededication” to fight for a more universal vision of liberation, for a world of solidarity, mutual aid and open borders.

Or to put it another way, the Maccabees’ struggle must now be broadened to represent the universal struggle of all who are committed to showing what love looks like in public, for the sake of all humanity. For the age of global climate crisis, the stakes could not be higher.

Playing Politics with Human Rights: Thoughts on the Recent Anti-BDS House Bill

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photo: Mohammed Asad/Middle East Monitor

Last Tuesday, the House voted overwhelmingly to pass an anti-BDS bill with the strong support of progressive democrats (including “squad” member Ayanna Pressley). I know there are many who are asking how and why did this happen? As I see it, the answer, as always, is pure politics.

Just a bit of history: the genesis of the bill known as H. Res. 246 dates back to the AIPAC convention last March, when a number of liberal Jewish groups, including  J Street, Ameinu, National Council of Jewish Women, Partners for Progressive Israel and Reconstructing Judaism (my own denomination), met informally to give their preliminary approval to this prospective bill. As they saw it, this was a strategic move. The bill was designed to give cover to liberal Democrats who had previously voted against anti-constitutional bills that virtually criminalized BDS. This new bill would allow them to vote on the record for a non-binding bill that criticized BDS without curtailing freedom of speech or labeling it as antisemitic. It would also give Democrats aligned with liberal Zionist groups the opportunity to reaffirm their support for the two state solution.

Like I said, pure politics.

Still, no matter how much liberal Democrats might rationalize their support for H. Res. 246, (Rep. Pressley explained on Twitter that her vote affirmed to her “constituents raised in the Jewish faith Israel’s right to exist”) no amount of explaining can wash away the fact that this resolution is a cynical political move that unfairly and incorrectly attacks a genuinely non-violent movement for human rights – and will do little to advance the cause of real justice in Israel/Palestine.

Just a few responses to the actual text of the resolution:

• While the resolution mentions “rising anti-Semitism,” it is completely silent on anti-Palestinian oppression and the threat of Islamophobia. Even the simple term “occupation” is nowhere to be found.

• The resolution claims that the BDS “seeks to exclude the State of Israel and the Israeli people from the economic, cultural, and academic life of the rest of the world.” In fact, this is not the goal of BDS; the very suggestion reduces the entire movement to an essentially nefarious aim. Rather, the Palestinian civil society call for BDS advocates for non-violent economic activism as a tactic toward three rights-based goals: an end to the occupation, equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and a recognition of the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

• The resolution claims that BDS “undermines the possibility for a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by demanding concessions of one party alone and encouraging the Palestinians to reject negotiations.” The three goals of BDS above are not “concessions” – they are basic rights enshrined in international law that have been patently ignored or denied in previous negotiations. There is nothing in the BDS call that “rejects negotiations.”

• The resolution quotes BDS leader Omar Barghouti (who addressed Tzedek Chicago on the eve of Passover this year) thus: “We oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine. No Palestinian, rational Palestinian, not a sell-out Palestinian, will ever accept a Jewish state in Palestine.” While this quote is genuine, it crucially omits the first part of his statement: “A Jewish state cannot but contravene the basic rights of the land’s indigenous Palestinian population and perpetuate a system of racial discrimination that ought to be opposed categorically, as we would opposed a Muslim state or a Christian state or any kind of exclusionary state…”

Here, Barghouti calls into question whether an exclusively Jewish state – as opposed to one state of all its citizens – can ever be truly democratic. This is an important question that deserves genuine consideration and debate. This egregiously truncated quote, however, only serves to imply Barghouti and the BDS movement seeks nothing more than the “destruction of the Jewish state.”

• The resolution states that the BDS movement ” targets … individual Israeli citizens of all political persuasions, religions, and ethnicities, and in some cases even Jews of other nationalities who support Israel.” This is a false and spurious accusation that the resolution offers with no evidence whatsoever. The targets of BDS campaigns have always been institutions, not individuals. (The government of Israel and Israel advocacy organizations, however, routinely target individuals with blacklisting websites such as Canary Mission and by barring entry of Palestine solidarity activists into the country.)

• The resolution states “BDS does not recognize the right of the Jewish people to self-determination.” There is no universal consensus that self-determination for any group of people must ipso facto mean the establishment of an independent nation state on a particular piece of land. Self-determination goes by many definitions and takes many forms. There are millions of Jews around the world who are happy to enjoy individual self determination in the nations in which they live. (It’s also worth noting that the Israeli government recently passed a law declaring that only Jews have a right to self-determination in Israel.)

• The resolution states that BDS “leads to the intimidation and harassment of Jewish students and others who support Israel.” Here again, the resolution is putting out a damaging claim without offering any evidence whatsoever. What can be stated however, is that however uncomfortable some Jewish students may be made to feel by pro-divestment campaigns on their campuses, pro-Israel activist students enjoy significant support from college and university administrations. By contrast, Palestine solidarity activists (including many Jewish students) experience routine suppression of their freedom of speech. Palestine Legal reports that “seventy-six percent of the incidents Palestine Legal responded to in 2018 were campus related” and that they “responded to 51 administrative complaints against Palestine activists, double the number from 2017.”

• The resolution states “in contrast to protest movements that have sought racial justice and social change, the Global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement targeting Israel is not about promoting coexistence, civil rights, and political reconciliation but about questioning and undermining the very legitimacy of the country and its people.” To this, I can only say, see bullet point #2 above. In fact, the BDS call is actually very much akin to “protest movements that have sought racial justice and social change.” Nowhere does it “delegitimize” the state of Israel. Anyone who take the time to read the actual call will see it focuses exclusively on the basic, essential rights that Israel routinely denies Palestinians.

To this final point, it was quite sobering to contemplate that on the very day that the House voted to condemn a nonviolent Palestinian call for human rights, House members were notably silent in response to Israel’s massive demolition of homes in East Jerusalem that took place at the very same moment.

In the end, despite the cynical politics behind this particular bill, I cannot personally view this as merely a political issue alone. As a Jew and a person of faith, I view the BDS call as nothing short of a religious imperative. I said as much in an address I was honored to deliver at the American Academy of Religion two years ago:

I realize there may be some in this room who cannot bear to hear me say these words, but I – and increasing numbers of people around the world – believe them to be true, no matter how painful it feels to hear them. Israel is oppressing Palestinians. And when a people are oppressed, they will inevitably resist their oppression – yes sometimes violently.

In this case, however, a nonviolent call for popular resistance has been placed before us. Thus, for those of us that believe God hears the cry of the oppressed and demands that we do the same, the BDS call represents a direct challenge to our faith. Will we be like God, and hearken to their cries, or will we be like Pharaoh and ignore them?

As a Jew, as an American, as a person of conscience, I would suggest this call presents us with nothing less than the most consequential spiritual challenge of our time.

Blessed are the ones who hearken to the cry of the oppressed.

When Secular Israelis Claim “God Gave This Land to Us”

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(photo: AP video)

Israeli Ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon, created something of viral sensation last week when, during a speech in the Security Council, he dramatically brandished a Bible and declared “This is the deed to our land.”

He then continued:

From the book of Genesis; to the Jewish exodus from Egypt; to receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai; to the gates of Canaan; and to the realization of God’s covenant in the Holy Land of Israel; the Bible paints a consistent picture. The entire history of our people, and our connection to Eretz Yisrael, begins right here.

Danon’s use of an ancient religious text as justification for the State of Israel’s right to the land was likely an astonishing moment for many. What on earth was a secular Israeli doing lecturing the UN on “God’s covenant in the Holy Land of Israel?” For those familiar with Zionist pedagogy however, his comments were neither unusual nor unprecedented.

When I heard about Danon’s Biblical tutorial, I immediately recalled a famous story about a 1937 meeting between David Ben-Gurion and Lord Peel, who was then heading the British Royal Peel Commission of Inquiry into the potential partition of Mandate Palestine. According to the story, Lord Peel asked Ben-Gurion where he was born and Ben-Gurion replied that he was from Plonsk, Poland. Lord Peel responded that the Arab leaders with whom he had met were all born in Palestine and most of the Jewish leaders were from Eastern Europe. Peel noted that the Arab people had a kushan (Ottoman land deed) that entitled them to the land – and asked Ben-Gurion if he also had a document that proved the land belonged to him.

At that point, Ben-Gurion became aware of the Bible upon which he had just sworn as a commission witness. He grabbed it, held it up and exclaimed, “Here is your kushan. It is the world’s most highly respected book and I believe that you British regard it with much respect too. We must have this land!”

This phenomenon – that of otherwise secular Israeli Jews proclaiming “God gave this land to us” – is not particularly uncommon. It is actually rooted in the unique form of nationalist ideology that gave rise the state of Israel. If we are to grasp this mentality properly then, we must first understand the early ideological trends that motivated Israel’s original settlers and eventual founders.

Many scholars have pointed out that Zionists – particularly those from Russia and Poland – were markedly influenced by the ideas of European Romantic nationalism (also known as “ethnic nationalism,” “organic nationalism” or “integral nationalism”) an intellectual movement that spread across Europe in the mid-19th century. The early seeds of this ideology were planted in the ideas of Rousseau, Hegel and particularly the German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder, who posited that “each nation is separate, distinguished by climate, education, custom, tradition, and heredity.”

These ideas were a powerful part of the ideological fabric of 19th century Europe from which Zionism emerged. In his book “The Founding Myths of Israel,” Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell notes that “Herder’s thinking had tremendous importance in Eastern Europe” during the 19th century and that these ideas were formative for important Labor Zionists such as A.D. Gordon, Berl Katznelson and David Ben-Gurion. Sternhell’s work compellingly demonstrates how otherwise secular socialists could espouse an ideology that articulated a deeply spiritual – and at times almost mystical connection of the Jewish people to land, history, language and ritual:

A cultural-organic conception of the nation necessarily included religion, which it saw as an inseparable part of national identity. This was the case in Eastern Europe, but also in Western Europe, in France and Spain. French integral nationalism was no less Catholic than Polish nationalism, and religion played the same role in it as it did in Poland or Romania. It was a focus of unity and identity, over and beyond social divisions. In integral nationalism religion had a social function, unconnected with its metaphysical content. Generally, it was a religion without God; in order to fulfill its function as a unifying force, religion required only external symbols, not inner content (p. 56, emphasis mine.)

In other words, the settlers and eventual founders of the Jewish state instrumentalized religion, emphasizing its social function to unify the people under one national identity. Indeed, the idea of a “religion without God” can be clearly discerned in the words of many pivotal Zionists. Thus Gordon, the father of Labor Zionism, could in one breath excoriate traditional Judaism with incredible vehemence while claiming that “the greatness of nationalism is its cosmic dimension” (p. 62). Sternhell also describes the venerable Labor Zionist figure, Berl Katznelson, as “a kind of secular rabbi whose strength lay in a direct contact with a sect of believers” (p. 135).

As my anecdote above demonstrates, Ben-Gurion’s world view was also deeply motivated by this mindset. Decades after lifting a Bible before Lord Peel, Ben-Gurion famously convened a study group of archeologists, academics and military officers to read and discuss the Biblical book of Joshua. It was well known that Joshua, which describes the Israelite conquest of Canaan in vivid detail, was Ben-Gurion’s favorite book of the Bible. In keeping with the ways of Romantic nationalists, he considered the Bible to be the Jewish people’s “national epic,” connecting them to a glorious ancient past as well as the a justification for their contemporary settlement of the land.

As American scholar Rachel Haverlock has noted:

Similar to other national movements, Zionism appealed to the glories of an ancient past and brought biblical words and phrases into spoken Hebrew. The Hebrew Bible served as a linguistic source and literary template in the prestate Yishuv and early decades of the State of Israel…

Ben-Gurion saw the biblical war narrative as constituting an ideal basis for a unifying myth of national identity. Not only could modern Israelis relate to the processes of conquest and settlement, but through the prism of Joshua they could also understand them as reenactments of the biblical past (“The Joshua Generation: Conquest and the Promised Land ” p. 309.)

The use of the Bible as national epic was not the exclusive provenance of Labor Zionists. Zeev Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism (the ideology of the present-day Likud party) wrote the 1927 novel, “Samson the Nazirite,” which portrays Samson as a Jewish national hero. Though Jabotinsky was a passionate opponent of Labor Zionism, he and his socialist Zionist compatriots clearly shared a deep attachment to the trappings of Romantic nationalism.

Since the founding of the state (when the Bible was invoked in its Declaration of Independence), these romantic mythic narratives have since exerted an indelible hold over Israeli socio-political culture. Well before Danon’s UN pronouncement one could choose from a myriad of examples. To offer but one more: Netanyahu’s 2015 speech before Congress, in which invoked the Biblical book of Esther to drive home the “threat” of present day Iran to the state of Israel. (“Today the Jewish people face another attempt by yet another Persian potentate to destroy us.”)

With the political ascendency of the settler movement, it might be said that the Romantic nationalism Israel’s of socialist founders has found common cause with religious Zionists who use the Bible to make unabashedly fundamentalist claims on the land. Thus, an extreme nationalist Israeli politician like Ayelet Shaked can be accurately described as “a secular woman from left-leaning Tel Aviv (who has) become the most successful spokesperson for the religious-nationalist party and the settlement movement it strongly supports.” In a sense, we might say that the trajectory of contemporary Zionism has hopelessly conflated secular nationalism and religious ideology into one Biblically-based claim to historic Palestine.

In the end, however, whether it is used by Labor Zionists, Revisionist Zionists or right wing West Bank settlers, the use of the Bible as the “Jewish people’s deed of sale” to the land of Israel represents a radical break with Jewish history, throughout which Jews regarded this text as a religious – not a political – document. It is also a profoundly fraught enterprise, particularly when you consider that the Zionist national epic includes God’s command in the book of Joshua for the Israelites to take the land by force and dispossess its Canaanite residents.

In an era that is currently witnessing the rise of romantic/ethnic (read “white”) nationalism throughout the world once more, it is critical that nations honestly assess what it is that truly binds them together. Is it one people’s “organic right” to a particular land or a commitment to the individual rights of all who dwell upon it?

 

For Tisha B’Av: “Lamentation for a New Diaspora”

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photo credit: NateHallinan.com

The Jewish festival of Tisha B’Av begins this Saturday evening, July 21. In anticipation of the day, I’m reposting the new poetic take on Lamentations that I wrote last year.

While this Biblical book is an expression of Jewish communal loss, my new version places these themes in a universal 21st century context, set in a not-too-distant future that I fervently hope shall never come to pass. In this reimagining, it is less an elegy for what was lost than a spiritual/poetic warning about a future cataclysm that is, in many ways, already underway.

May the grief of this Tisha B’Av give us all the strength to fight for the world that somehow still might be.

Click here for the pdf. Feel free to share.

A Jewish Prayer for Nakba Day

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Le’el she’chafetz teshuvah,
to the One who desires return:

Receive with the fulness of your mercy
the hopes and prayers of those
who were uprooted, dispossessed
and expelled from their homes
during the devastation of the Nakba.

Sanctify for tov u’veracha,
for goodness and blessing,
the memory of those who were killed
in Lydda, in Haifa, in Beisan, in Deir Yassin
and so many other villages and cities
throughout Palestine.

Grant chesed ve’rachamim,
kindness and compassion,
upon the memory of the expelled
who died from hunger,
thirst and exhaustion
along the way.

Shelter beneath kanfei ha’shechinah,
the soft wings of your divine presence,
those who still live under military occupation,
who dwell in refugee camps,
those dispersed throughout the world
still dreaming of return.

Gather them mei’arbah kanfot ha’aretz
from the four corners of the earth
that their right to return to their homes
be honored at long last.

Let all who dwell in the land
live in dignity, equity and hope
so that they may bequeath to their children
a future of justice and peace.

Ve’nomar
and let us say,
Amen.

Le’el she’chafetz teshuvah,
to the One who desires repentance:

Inspire us to make a full accounting
of the wrongdoing that was
committed in our name.

Help us to face the terrible truth of the Nakba
and its ongoing injustice
that we may finally confess our offenses;
that we may finally move toward a future
of reparation and reconciliation.

Le’el malei rachamim,
to the One filled with compassion:
show us how to understand the pain
that compelled our people to inflict
such suffering upon another –
dispossessing families from their homes
in the vain hope of safety and security
for our own.

Osei hashalom,
Maker of peace,
guide us all toward a place
of healing and wholeness
that the land may be filled
with the sounds of joy and gladness
from the river to the sea
speedily in our day.

Ve’nomar
and let us say,
Amen.

On Marc Ellis, Exile and the Prophetic (or Welcome to the New Diaspora Rabbi Rosen!)

IMG_4236My remarks at a Festshrift in honor of Marc Ellis held at Southern Methodist University, April 14-16, 2018. The gathering included presentations by a number of Marc’s colleagues and friends, including Naim Ateek, Sara Roy, Santiago Slabodsky, Robert O. Smith, Joanne Terrell, Susanne Scholtz, Robert Cohen and Marc’s two sons, Aaron and Isaiah Ellis:

I first learned about Marc Ellis’ book “Toward a Theology of Jewish Liberation” shortly after the first edition was published in 1987. I discovered it quite by accident on the shelf of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College library. Questions abounded: What on earth was Jewish Liberation Theology? And who on earth was Marc Ellis? Like any pretentious young rabbinical student, I thought I knew my contemporary Jewish theologians. Then I saw from the byline that he taught at Maryknoll. Wait, was he even a Jewish theologian?

It took me only a few paragraphs into the book to learn that he was in fact Jewish. As I read on however, it became clear that Marc Ellis was unlike any Jewish theologian I’d ever read. For one thing, he wrote about Palestinians. A lot. He presented Israel’s oppression of Palestinians as theological category. He wrote about the moral cost of Jewish empowerment. He wrote about Jewish collective confession to the Palestinian people. It was radical Jewish theology in every sense of the word.

I wasn’t ready to fully hear what Marc had laid before me at the time. I don’t think I even finished the book. It’s wasn’t for lack of concern for Palestinians – as a liberal Zionist, I had long identified with the Israeli peace movement and had supported Palestinian statehood back when such things were considered beyond the pale by the organized Jewish community. But I would never dare to view Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as a theological concern. Like most liberal Zionists, I viewed the peace process in pragmatic terms. I didn’t necessarily support a two state solution for moral reasons – it was all about Israel remaining “Jewish and democratic.” I also don’t think I would have been too comfortable referring to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as “oppression.” Like most liberal Zionists, I would have said it was “complicated,” with enough blame to go around.

Over the years however, I struggled with nagging, gnawing doubts over these talking points. Although I was able to keep these doubts at bay for the most part, I was never able to successfully silence them. When I was ordained as a rabbi in 1992, the stakes were raised on my political views. As you know, rabbis and Jewish leaders are under tremendous pressure by the American Jewish organizational establishment to maintain unflagging support for what Marc would later call “Empire Judaism.” Few, if any congregational rabbis would dare cross this line publicly.

I’d been a rabbi for about 10 years when I returned to “Toward a Theology of Jewish Liberation,” which had just been released in a much-expanded third edition. This time I was ready. I read it cover to cover. And this time, Marc’s unflinching moral clarity made a direct line to my head and my heart. Liberal Jewish thinkers typically treated Israel/Palestine as a complex political issue that needed addressing. Marc, on the other hand stated unabashedly that Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians was the issue – the central moral issue facing Jews and Judaism today. All the rest was commentary.

Taking his cue from the Holocaust theologians he analyzed so well in his book, he viewed Jewish empowerment following the Holocaust as a critical turning point in Jewish history. Like them, Marc embraced this empowerment – he had no desire to turn the clock back to an old diaspora of a bygone era. But unlike thinkers such as Irving Greenberg, Richard Rubenstein, et al, he was unwilling to view support for Jewish empowerment – embodied by the state of Israel – as a “sacred Jewish obligation” for the current era. Quite the contrary: if we had any sacred obligation at all, it was to repent and make confession to the Palestinian people for our collective sins against them.

However, there still remained the question: “Who is this guy?” I noticed that he was now teaching at Baylor University and had established its Center for American and Jewish Studies. Of course I understood that someone who espoused ideas such as these wouldn’t necessarily be welcome in Jewish institutional circles – but it was still astonishing to me that his name was not counted among the top Jewish thinkers of our day.

I discovered that he had become quite prolific since the publication of “Theology of Jewish Liberation.” I also discovered that his ideas had deepened and broadened. He had coined terms such as “Constantinian Judaism” and the “Ecumenical Deal.” He wrote extensively about “Jews of Conscience” and the “Jewish Prophetic.” He wrote about the end of ethical Jewish history.

As I personally evolved on the issue of Israel/Palestine, Marc’s work became a central guiding force for me. And while I wasn’t always ready to go to the places he did, it was liberating to know there was someone in the Jewish world who was actually saying these words out loud. More than anyone I had ever encountered, here was someone who embodied the essence of the prophetic. Frankly, liberal Jews had been bandying this word to the point that it has now become an empty cliche. But Marc understood that prophetic meant daring to utter aloud the unutterable.

Of course it also meant being regulated to what our Jewish communal gatekeepers considered the fringe of “normative” community.  I was deeply saddened to hear in 2011, that he had been forced out of Baylor – but by then I knew enough to understand why. And though I had never met him, I felt compelled to join the voices who were rallying to his support.

This is what I wrote in my blog at the time:

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 legacy of suffering – 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 Jewish empowerment embodied by 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.

Three years after I wrote those words, I ran into some professional difficulties of my own. Up until that point, the congregation I had served for the past 17 years had found a way to countenance my increasing Palestine solidarity activism. But gradually, perhaps inevitably, discord grew in my congregation. In early 2014, I learned that a small group of members had organized and wrote an open letter to our board demanding that they rein me in. When I spoke out publicly during Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza, their calls grew even stronger. When I participated in a public disruption at a Chicago Jewish Federation fundraiser for the war effort, the tensions grew yet worse still. Then I was ejected from the Board of Rabbis of Greater Chicago. In the fall of 2014, I made the anguishing decision to resign from my congregation.

It was an enormously painful and traumatic time in my life and for the most part I’ve avoided speaking about it publicly. I’ll just say for now that when all this went down, I didn’t know if I could be a rabbi any more. I didn’t know how I would continue to be Jewish any more.

Less a week later, I learned that Marc had written about my resignation in his column at Mondoweiss. I was astonished – I had no idea he’d even heard of me. But here he was voicing his public approval and support of my actions, and in such classically Marc Ellis fashion:

The Jewish Reconstructionist Synagogue in Evanston, Illinois is looking for a new rabbi. Rabbi Brant Rosen is moving on. No one who is really going to look Israel in the eye need apply…

The whole thing is sad beyond words – who we have become. Rosen is one of the few rabbis in America with an ethical spine. He’s an outspoken advocate for Palestinian rights and co-chair of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council. I’m not sure what more needs to be said to analyze the situation.

Jewish congregational life, no matter how divided, can’t support Jewish leadership that has the prophetic at its core…Maybe the war in Gaza was the final straw. Rabbi Rosen and his congregation came face to face with the end-times of Jewish history. Rosen stood fast. It seems that Rabbi Rosen’s synagogue leadership blinked. What happened behind the scenes will probably remain secret – except for the voluminous leaks that are part of the vibrancy of congregational life.

Voluntary or forced and probably a combination of the two, Rabbi Rosen has his ticket to ride.

The Jewish rails?

Exile it is Rabbi Rosen! Welcome to the New Diaspora!

Shortly after his post appeared, I spoke with Marc on the phone. At first he was apologetic, hoping that he did not make things even more complicated for me. I reassured him that at that point, nothing could really make things more complicated than they already were. During our long conversation he told me something that he’s told me several times since. He said I needed to grasp how my participation in the Federation disruption was, in fact, contrary to everything I was trained to be in rabbinical school. What rational reason could possibly explain why I did this? For a congregational rabbi to disrupt a room filled with hundreds of Jewish leaders and community members? Why did I do it? How could I possibly explain it rationally?

In a subsequent article, Marc wrote further:

Out of the blue the prophets arise, are shot down, then reappear. It hasn’t changed much in thousands of years. The prophetic is too deeply ingrained in Jewish life to pass quietly into our newly embraced colonial night.

Apparently, synagogues are not for prophets. Those who practice the prophetic and attend synagogue, should take note. Your expulsion is inevitable.

The prophetic was happening, in Evanston of all places. Now Rabbi Rosen is packing his bags. With his conscience intact.

While I realize that Marc was offering out his hand in friendship and support at that moment, I think his gesture went even deeper than that. Though I sense his ideas about the prophetic have been informed by his own personal experience, I don’t think they come from a place of self-aggrandizement. After all, personal and professional banishment is not a pleasant experience. It is anguishing. It is traumatic. It is emotionally wounding. Marc wasn’t simply joking when he wrote, “Welcome to the New Diaspora, Rabbi Rosen!” He was letting me know that he had been there too and that yes, this “New Diaspora” as he called it, could be a brutal place. But he was also reassuring me that despite the trauma I was experiencing, even though I had lost everything I had thought to be Jewish up until then, I needed to understand that I had indeed acted in authentically Jewish fashion.

To hear this from someone I considered to be an intellectual and spiritual mentor meant the world to me. Ultimately it helped me to understand my actions as something other than merely ill-advised career suicide.

Now that I’m a few years removed from that time, I’m delighted to say that I’ve been able to carve out a fairly comfortable corner in the New Diaspora. It is, in fact, a steadily growing corner – and much of this is due to the path Marc has painfully charted. We’re witnessing the growth of what Marc would call a Jewish community of conscience. It is primarily an activist community, expressed through organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace. I daresay those who have found a home in this community owe a significant debt to Marc whether or not they stop to realize it. I’ve tried to do my part in ensuring they know that Marc Ellis is, in no small way, their spiritual forbearer.

At the same time, I am acutely aware that he is not – and does not consider himself – an activist. As one who understands the Jewish prophetic to its core, he does not flinch from critique even of activist Jews of conscience like myself. As you all know, he perfectly willing to call out any behavior or analysis that he feels lacks depth – and the growing Jewish movement of solidarity with Palestinians is not immune from this critique. Like the prophets of old, he has no trouble serving as an equal-opportunity annoyance. Or maybe he just can’t help himself. Either way, Marc’s keen eye keeps us all honest.

In the spring of 2015, in an attempt to create a spiritual home for Jews of Conscience, I founded a congregation, Tzedek Chicago. True to form, Marc greeted this news with a characteristic blend of joy, skepticism, amusement and hope.

Here’s what he wrote in Mondoweiss:

We have arrived at the end of Jewish history and now another, prophetic, opportunity presents itself. Life is strange that way. Why worry about a failed future when the abyss we Jews inhabit is so obvious?

So fare forward, Tzedek Chicago. The deep and treacherous Jewish waters you ply are uncharted.

Or are they? Another way of being Jewish in the world is a return to our prophetic origins.

Yes, I hesitate. Yes, I join. As a witness at the end. With hope that there is more.

In more ways that he knows, he has helped to inspire our new “congregation of the abyss.” So yes, Marc Ellis has become a member of a synagogue. Yes, I am now Marc Ellis’ rabbi.

Last year, Tzedek Chicago brought out Marc to be our congregation’s scholar in residence, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of “Toward a Theology of Jewish Liberation.” For Marc, it was the opportunity to teach in a Jewish space for the first time in many years. For me, it marked the turning of a significant cycle in my life that began that day in 1988, when I took a book off the shelf of my rabbinical school library, with no way of knowing that it would become a kind of spiritual bellwether for my own journey.

Today we celebrate another important milestone – a long overdue gathering of Marc’s friends, colleagues, students and children. To quote Marc, “the deep and treacherous Jewish waters we ply are uncharted.” But we are charting them together. If we have indeed arrived at the end of Jewish history, I have faith that together we will discover how to begin it anew.

I will end with a quote from Marc’s book – it’s a passage that resonates with deeper meaning each time I return to it:

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.

I can think of no better mission statement for life in the New Diaspora.