Your child will ask
why do we observe this festival?
And you will answer
it is because of what God did for us
when we were set free from the land of Egypt.
Your child will ask
were we set free from the land of Egypt
that we might hold tightly
to the pain of our enslavement
with a mighty hand?
And you will answer
we were set free from Egypt
that we might release our pain
by reaching with an outstretched arm
to all who struggle for freedom.
Your child will ask
were we set free from the land of Egypt
because we are God’s chosen people?
And you will answer
we were set free from the land of Egypt
so that we will finally come to learn
all who are oppressed
are God’s chosen.
Your child will ask
were we set free from the land of Egypt
that we might conquer and settle
a land inhabited by others?
And you will answer
we were set free from the land of Egypt
that we might open wide the doors
Let all who are dispossessed return home.
Let all who wander find welcome at the table.
Let all who hunger for liberation
come and eat.
This past Monday it was my honor to give the keynote speech at a dinner sponsored by the Israel Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (USA). The event took place in Detroit during the Presbyterian General Assembly and was attended by longtime Christian peace activists, many of whom have become become my dear friends and colleagues in the growing interfaith movement for a just peace in Israel/Palestine.
Here is a text of my remarks:
I am humbled and honored to have been asked to speak to you tonight – and I’m particularly moved to look around the room and see so many people who have become my friends and colleagues in this amazing and growing movement that means so much to us all. I’d particularly like to thank (Reverend) Katherine Cunningham (moderator of the IPMN) for being such a gracious host and guide to me during my stay here in Detroit.
I’d like to start by sharing a little bit of my journey and to try to explain how it is that I have come to stand before you today.
In most ways, you might describe me as a pretty average American Jew: I went to a Jewish Community Center pre-school, I grew up in a synagogue, had a Bar Mitzvah and belonged to my Temple Youth group. And like many American Jews, my Jewishness has been indelibly tied up with Israel for my entire life. My Jewish identity has been profoundly informed by the classic Zionist narrative: the story of a small underdog nation forging a national and cultural rebirth out of the ashes of its near-destruction. It is, at its heart, a redemptive narrative – and it has assumed a quasi-sacred status for me, as it has for many American Jews of my generation and older.
Politically speaking, I’ve identified with what tends to be referred to today as “liberal Zionism.” I’ve long been inspired by Israel’s Labor Zionist origins, and I’ve generally aligned myself with positions advocated Israeli peace movement. I’ve always been very willing to openly criticize the actions of the Israeli government that I believed were counter to the cause of peace. At the same time, however, I generally viewed these kinds of actions as “blemishes” on an otherwise stable democracy and a noble national project. At the end of the day, I understood the essence of this conflict to be a clash between two national movements, each with compelling and valid claims to the same small piece of land.
Over the years, however, I confess, I struggled with gnawing doubts over the tenets of my liberal Zionist narrative. Although I was able to keep these doubts at bay for the most part, I was never able to successfully silence them. As an outspoken critic of American militarism, for instance, I would occasionally ask myself why I wasn’t equally as outspoken about Israeli militarism – why I habitually would give a pass to what was, after all, the one of the most militarized countries in the world.
I would also entertain nagging questions about the ethnic nationalism at the heart of Zionism. Israel’s very existence as a Jewish state was bound up with its maintenance of a Jewish majority within its borders. Like many liberal Zionists, I’d often base my arguments for a two state solution by pointing to the population growth of Palestinians as a “demographic threat” to the national character of the Jewish state. As an American, I’d never dare describe an ethnic minority in the US as somehow posing a “demographic threat” to our national American character. Why, then, was I so willing to invoke this concept about so freely when it pertained to the Jewish state?
And in the darkest, wee hours of the night, I’d even question the very concept of a Jewish nation-state-ism itself. I’d ask myself, what does it mean to maintain an exclusively Jewish state in a land that has historically been multi-ethnic and multi-religious for centuries? Was it even possible to create a Jewish state that was truly democratic? How could a state define itself as “Jewish” and not view its non-Jewish population, in one way or another, as a problem to be dealt with?
When I was ordained as a rabbi in 1992, the stakes were raised on my personal political views. Given the ideological centrality of Zionism in the American Jewish community, my questions now carried very real consequences. As I’m sure you know, rabbis and Jewish leaders are under tremendous pressure by the American Jewish organizational establishment to maintain unflagging support for the state of Israel. Congregational rabbis in particular take a very real professional risk when they criticize Israel publicly. To actually stand in solidarity with Palestinians would be tantamount to communal heresy. So you might say I put those inner questions in a lock box and made a safe and comfortable home in liberal Zionism for the first decade of my rabbinate.
As Israel’s occupation over the Palestinians became more patently oppressive and widespread however, it became increasingly difficult for me to ignore my questions. The breaking point for me occurred in December of 2008, as it did for many American Jews. This was, of course, Israel’s military assault on Gaza, known as Operation Cast Lead.
I remember reading the news out of Gaza with utter anguish. Like many rabbis, my e-mail inbox filled with official Jewish communal talking points about how to respond to the events in Gaza: “This was about Israel’s security pure and simple.” “Like every nation, Israel had a responsibility to ensure the safety of its citizens.” “If Hamas hadn’t launched rockets into Israel, they wouldn’t have had to resort to such drastic military measures.”
In the past, I might have dutifully taken these talking points to heart, along with the obligatory apology: “of course we regret the deaths of innocent civilians.” But this time, I responded differently. In spite of my anguish, or perhaps because of it, I finally felt as if I was approaching this issue with something approaching clarity. The magnitude of Israel’s military onslaught was so disproportionate, so outrageous. By the end of Operation Cast Lead, over 1,400 Palestinians had been killed, 300 of them children. Whole neighborhoods had been reduced to rubble, Gaza’s infrastructure was left in ruins. By contrast, on the Israeli side, 13 people had been killed. Of these, 10 were soldiers, four of whom by friendly fire.
As I read the increasingly tragic news coming out of Gaza, I came to realize this was not about Israel’s security at all. This was about bringing the Palestinian people to their knees. If Israel was truly seeking its security, it was clear to me that it was the kind of security that came from wiping out the other side with the overwhelming strength of its military might. But of course this approach had never and would never bring peace and security to either Israelis or Palestinians.
This is when my paradigm for understanding the Israel/Palestine “conflict” fundamentally shifted. I came to accept that this was not a conflict between two equal sides with claims to the same piece of land. This was about the oppressor and the oppressed.
Although I had always considered myself to be part of the peace camp when it came to Israel – I now came to realize just how hollow it was to invoke the notion of peace without reckoning just as seriously with the concept of justice. I was now ready to accept and to say out loud that Israel’s very founding was irrevocably tied up with a very real injustice to the Palestinian people – an injustice that continues to this very day. And I knew in my heart that until this injustice was fully faced openly and honestly, there would never truly be peace in this land.
There is much more I could say about my own personal trajectory since that time, but for now, I’ll only say that six years after my break from Liberal Zionism, I have gradually found a home in the growing Palestinian solidarity movement. Much to my surprise and delight, I have found I can actually do this as a Jew. For this I owe a great debt to Jewish Voice for Peace for providing a genuinely Jewish home for those Jews who believe as I do, that Jewish tradition demands that we stand with the oppressed and stand down the oppressor – yes, even when it comes to the state of Israel.
I also continue to serve my congregation in Evanston. That doesn’t mean it has been easy. Needless to say, there are many members of my congregation who do not share my views – and there are some who are deeply pained by my activism. But the fact that I can still remain employed at the congregation that I love and continue to make my home in the Jewish community gives me hope that the parameters of Jewish discourse on this issue are widening in significant ways.
I’m often asked, how can I, as a Jew, take the kind of stands that I do? To this I can only reply: it is because I am a Jew that I take this stand. I believe that standing in solidarity with Palestinians is the most Jewish thing I can do. As a rabbi, as a Jew, and as a human being, I am primarily motivated by the prophetic strains of Jewish tradition. I am driven by religion that speaks hard truth to power. By a faith that holds unmitigated human power to account.
I fervently believe that when religion advocates the cause of the powerless, when it stands with those who are victimized by the powerful, when religion proclaims that God stands with the oppressed and seeks their liberation – this is historically when religion has been at its very best. And conversely, when religion is used to promote empire, when it is used as by the powerful to justify their rule, when it is wedded to militarism, nationalism and political power – this is, tragically, when we witness religion at its worst.
I cannot help but read Jewish tradition with prophetic eyes. As a Jew, I’ve always been enormously proud of the classic rabbinical response to empire. I believe that the Jewish people have been able to survive even under such large and mighty powers because we’ve clung to a singular sacred vision. That there is a Power even greater. Greater than Pharaoh, greater than Babylon, even greater than the Roman empire that exiled us and dispersed our people throughout the diaspora. It is a quintessentially Jewish vision best summed up by the prophetic line from the book of Zechariah: “Lo b’chayil v’lo b’koach” – “Not by might and not by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.”
Now, there are many who challenge such a religious vision as naive, as over-idealistic, as noble but unrealistic. They tell me it’s all well and good to promote justice, but in the real world “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” In the real world, we need to make hard compromises to achieve peace.
Whenever I hear these kinds of comments, I can’t help but think back to Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which he addressed the liberal clergy who had told him to stay away from Birmingham and not to rock to boat – and to give them the chance to negotiate with the Jim Crow authorities. I can’t help but think of those who criticized those who advocated for divestment from South African apartheid, who said that such measures would antagonize the apartheid regime and counseled “positive engagement” instead.
In all these cases and so many more, peace was viewed as synonymous with “not disturbing the status quo” and justice was seen as the enemy of the good. But of course, today we now openly venerate these struggles for justice and liberation. And these movements succeeded because they were led by people who understood, as King put it so well in his letter, that “Power is never given voluntarily by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
I’d like to end by addressing another way in which my theological understandings have been impacted by my participation in this movement. I mentioned earlier that I used to understand the essence of this conflict to be a clash between two national movements, each with compelling and valid claims to the same small piece of land. As well meaning as such an understanding might be, the problem with this kind of idea is that it is rooted in the notion that any people or nation can actually “stake a claim” on a piece of land. Such a notion can surely be traced back to the Biblical notion of a God that apportions the land and entitles one people to it. To be sure, this is a zero-sum theological model in which there is only enough room on the land for one people – a people who is, moreover, commanded to take possession of the land by dislodging others.
But when we shift the question from “which people has a right to this land?” to “how do we extend full human and civil rights to all who live on the land?” we discover a decidedly different Biblical vision. We lift up the God who tells us that all humanity is made in the divine image – and that when push comes to shove, the land does not ultimately belong to any of us, but to God and we are all but strangers upon it.
I submit to you that our movement is deeply rooted in this theological vision – one that invokes the God of plenitude, not scarcity. After all, when we define our entitlements to a finite commodity such as land, we only doom ourselves to a future filled with endless upheaval and violence. The Bible describes our lot in this regard only too well.
However, when come to understand that our ultimate entitlement is to a boundless commodity such as human rights and human dignity, we ensure a future of true peace for ourselves and our children. This, I believe, is the Biblical vision we share and to which I know we are all so passionately and fervently committed.
It is my honor to share this vision with all of you – and to help build the movement that will one day make it a reality.
This Pesach I’m thinking about the exceedingly radical message at the heart of the story we’ll retell around the seder table tonight.
I’m thinking in particular about what the story tells us about power, about the ways the powerful wield their power against the less powerful, and about the inevitability of corrupt power’s eventual fall. And I’m thinking about what is possibly the most radical message of all: that there is a Power greater, yes even greater than human power.
Woe betide the empire that fails to heed this message. Powerful empires have come and gone, but the Power that Makes for Liberation still manages to live to fight another day. Will the Pharoahs among us ever learn?
There’s no getting around the fact that our seder story is not a neat, tidy or particularly pleasant story. That’s because – as we all know too well – the powerful never give up their power without a fight. No one ever made this point better or more eloquently than Frederick Douglass when he said in 1857:
The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.
This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.
Read that one around the seder table tonight. And for good measure, throw in this sentence from MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail:”
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.
It is my fervent hope that this Pesach, we American Jews, who rank among the most privileged and powerful citizens on earth, will talk openly and honestly about the wages of our power when we gather yet again to tell the story. What would it mean if we truly took to heart our tradition’s most challenging teachings: that God hears the cries of the enslaved, that God is a God of Liberation, that God stands with the oppressed, not the oppressor and demands that we do as well?
Conversely (and much more painfully), are we, as Americans and as Jews, ready to confront the ways we regularly wield our own power and privilege in any number of oppressive ways at home and abroad? Might we possibly be willing to contemplate this truth: that the power that we chronically take for granted, will eventually, inevitably go the way of history as well?
Indeed, if there is any message we learn at seder table tonight, it’s that, to paraphrase the words of poet Kevin Coval, all Pharoahs must eventually fall:
wake in this new day
we will all die soon
let us live while we have the chance
while we have this day
to build and plot and devise
to create and make the world
this time for us
this time for all
this time the pharaohs must fall
Read that one around the seder table too.
I’m so proud to be part of a tradition, a people, a spiritual nation that has survived to outlast far mightier nations because it has affirmed a Power even greater. Greater than Pharaoh, greater than Babylon, even greater than the Roman empire that exiled us and dispersed our people throughout the diaspora, where this sacred vision was sown, took root and eventually blossomed forth.
May the story we tell tonight inspire us to be bearers of that vision in our lives and in our world.
All the best for a challenging and liberating Pesach.
I first read Professor Marc Ellis’ book “Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation” as a rabbinical student back in the mid-1980s – and suffice to say it fairly rocked my world at the time. Here was a Jewish thinker thoughtfully and compellingly advocating a new kind of post-Holocaust theology: one that didn’t view Jewish suffering as “unique” and “untouchable” but as an experience that should sensitize us to the suffering and persecution of all peoples everywhere.
And yet further: Ellis had the courage to take these ideas to the place that few in the Jewish world were willing to go. If we truly believe in the God of liberation, if our sacred tradition truly demands of us that we stand with the oppressed, then the Jewish people cannot only focus on our own oppression – we must also come to grips with our own penchant for oppression, particularly when it comes to the actions of the state of Israel. And yes, if we truly believe in the God of liberation this also means that we must ultimately be prepared to stand with the Palestinians in their struggle for liberation.
When I first read Ellis’ words, I didn’t know quite what to make of them. They flew so directly in the face of such post-Holocaust theologians as Elie Wiesel, Rabbi Irving Greenberg and Emil Fackenheim – all of whom viewed the state of Israel in quasi-redemptive terms. And they were certainly at odds with the views of those who tended the gates of the American Jewish community, for whom this sort of critique of Israel was strictly forbidden.
Over the years, however, I’ve found Ellis’ ideas to be increasingly prescient, relevant – and I daresay even liberating. As a rabbi, I’ve come to deeply appreciate his brave willingness to not only ask the hard questions, but to unflinchingly pose the answers as well. And it is not at all surprising to me that we are now witnessing a new generation of rabbis and young Jewish leaders starting down the road he has paved for us.
All this to say I am profoundly sorrowed to learn that Ellis is currently under threat of losing his job at Baylor University due to an investigation led by new university president Ken Starr.
By every appearance, Ellis has had a distinguished academic career, having taught at Maryknoll School of Theology, Harvard Center for the Study of World Religions and Florida State University. Thirteen years ago, he was appointed Professor of American and Jewish Studies at Baylor, where he founded Baylor University’s Center for American and Jewish Studies and currently serves as its director.
There is ample reason to mistrust the academic validity of this investigation. According to a new petition now being circulated by Cornel West and Rosemary Ruether:
Marc Ellis was brought to Baylor in 1998 and all previous presidents supported his dissident voice. After Ken Starr (nemesis of Clinton in the White House) became president in 2010 the attacks started. During the last year Baylor lawyers were instructed to communicate with many of Marc’s colleagues, past students and staff. The objective was to request all of them to report all “abuse of authority.” Most of us explained to the lawyers that was a lost cause because Marc has been an exemplar colleague, professor and mentor.
But starting this Fall he was separated from his classes, his center closed and a hearing scheduled to take place some time in this academic year. As far as we know the accusations are about abuse of authority but we are not aware of the details because they are part of the internal legal process. Obviously it is about something else: Marc’s dissident voice. We will inform all of you as soon as we know more information.
In a statement released yesterday, Ellis commented thus:
Given what I currently understand of the rules of the Baylor process I will, for now, honor the process by not discussing the specifics, except to say that I believe this is a pretext to silence an independent voice at the place for which I have had deep appreciation.
I write now to ask you to please join me in signing this petition in support of Ellis – an important Jewish dissident thinker and (as his many academic colleagues are now attesting) a truly distinguished scholar. I would add: even if you don’t personally agree with all of his ideas, I urge you to support his cause. It is high time for us to stand down those who would trample academic freedom, shun open discourse and debate, and muzzle those with whom they simply disagree.
I’ll end with Professor Ellis’ own words, all too sadly apt under the circumstances:
Prophetic Jewish theology, or a Jewish theology of liberation, seeks to bring to light the hidden and sometimes censored movements of Jewish life. It seeks to express the dissent of those afraid or unable to speak. Ultimately, a Jewish theology of liberation seeks, in concert with others, to weave disparate hopes and aspirations into the very heart of Jewish life.
(“Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation,” p. 206)
The most memorable aspect of my Pesach this year? A combination Passover – Good Friday service JRC held together with the wonderful folks at Lake Street Church of Evanston.
The whole thing was hatched somewhat by chance. A month or so ago I was having lunch with my good friend Reverend Bob Thompson of Lake St. Church (appropriately enough at Evanston’s Blind Faith Cafe) and our conversation turned to our respective upcoming rites of spring. Bob mentioned to my surprise that he hadn’t celebrated Good Friday at Lake St. in quite some time – mainly because he simply couldn’t abide by blood atonement theology – the notion that God would somehow require the bloodshed of one man to atone for all of the sins of the rest of the world.
For my part, I mentioned that Good Friday had not generally been so “good” to the Jews throughout history, since this was invariably the time in which the worst pogroms were perpetrated against European Jewish communities. As a result, for much of Jewish history Passover was a secret ritual: observed in fear and in private. Given our complicated mutual history, we both agreed that it would be enormously powerful to celebrate Passover and Good Friday together in a spirit of healing and hope.
So that is exactly what we did this last Friday. While Bob and I weren’t at all sure if this service would fly, it actually suceeded beyond our highest expectations. Hundreds of JRC and Lake St. members filled the sanctuary at Lake St. church. Together we celebrated with a service that mixed Hebrew and English, Jewish songs, Christian hymns and prayers for healing. We ended with a rousing “Down By The Riverside.” Afterwards, countless participants – both Jewish and Christian – told us that the service was an immensely moving and healing experience for them.
During the service, Bob and I had a conversation in which we both mused about what our respective holidays might look like if we recast them in the spirit of healing and hope. Bob began by saying the first thing Christians needed to do when celebrating Good Friday was to apologize to the Jewish community for the legacy of Christian anti-Semitism. He then went on to explore how Christians might recast the meaning of the crucifixion itself. Here’s what he had to say:
Every Good Friday well meaning folk gather to listen to priests and ministers talk about how Jesus was crucified, the “lamb of God,” to take away the sins of the world. In other words, Jesus died a sacrificial death to satisfy the God who demands retribution – the God who requires the shedding of blood for the forgiveness of sins.
Thankfully these days there’s an emergent form of Christianity – one that does not buy this “blood atonement theory” – and it is a theory. Today, more and more Christians are saying they do not believe that God requires the shedding of blood… The point is, violence is not a solution – it’s always a problem. We have to get to see that violence never purifies – it always defiles. In every form it is defiling.
That’s why if Jesus was standing here today, I believe he’d say, “don’t call me the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” He might say rather something more like “I am a window to divinity and a mirror of humanity. What I came to do is to show you what it means to be open to the Divine and to reflect the best of who we are as human beings. And everybody can reflect this and be this window if only we have the spiritual vision to see clearly enough.”
In other words, Jesus, I believe, would not say that he suffered to keep us from suffering – he suffered because to be human is to suffer. Jesus hangs there because life is always hanging in the balance for all of us all of the time.
I was so taken by his willingness to take on the violence inherent in the crucifixion image – and I responded in kind with my remarks:
There’s no getting around it: to observe the Seder, you need to tell a story of oppression and violence. And you cannot get to what is for Christians resurrection and what is for Jews the Exodus from Egypt without going through that moment of violence…
I will also say I share with you, Bob, completely, that I do not view violence in any way as redemptive. I reject that categorically. I think we all have to. But we still have to struggle with the way violence affects us and what it does to us and what it does to our souls. We can’t ignore it. Even if we disavow it, we can’t ignore it.
As a Jew… I fear the violence that is embodied by the Seder and that has been waged against the Jewish people for centuries will turn us into a bitter people. That it will only cause us to have a sense of entitlement which means we use our pain as a weapon against the outside world because nothing we do to anyone else can be nearly as horrible as what’s been done to us. Or it will cause us to build bigger walls between us and the rest of the world and to instill a Jewish identity that basically says nothing more than “all the world really wants us dead, and that’s what it means to be a Jew. And we have to be forever vigilant because we live in a world that hates Jews.”
And while I’m not unmindful of this history and I do think we need to retell this history because those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it…I also think we need to look seriously at what this legacy of violence and oppression does to us and what we do with it.
And for me that means bearing witness to oppression in the world. If there is any sliver of redemption in violence, it means that it can open the door to empathy – and I would suggest that this idea comes from a very deep place in Biblical tradition – in the Torah.
The commandment commanded more times than any other in the Torah is some version of “Do not oppress the stranger because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” To me what that says is “you don’t take your pain and use it as a weapon against the outside world. You take your pain and use it as a tool for empathy with the outside world – and to bear witness against oppression no matter where it is fomented, whether it is in our community or it’s in any community.
We cannot hold on to our pain as uniquely ours, and I want to come back to something you said earlier, Bob: “We’re all in this together. It’s not some of us – it’s all of us. And violence against one people is violence against all.”
You can read some of Bob’s thoughts about our service on a piece he’s just written for Examiner.com You can also click below to hear an audio of the entire service. (The service itself begins at the 10:00 point).
By now more than one person has asked me desperately: Rabbi, please tell me: what is the meaning of “The Goy’s Teeth?!!”
I know better than to even begin try and explain it. Even Joel Coen himself has described it as “an elaborate shaggy dog story.”
And given that “A Serious Man” is a retelling of the Book of Job, isn’t that sort of the point? Job is, if nothing else, a Biblical shaggy dog story of epic proportions. (In the words of Rabbi Nachner, “You can’t know everything…”)
Thanks to my friend Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer for tipping me to this great clip: a homemade promo made by the 14 and 12 year old daughters of Samir Selmanovic, author of “It’s Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian.”
No matter what his kids say, I’m thinking I gotta get this book…