I Am/not a Rabbi!


Three days into the Passover holidays, I realized that for the first time in several years I had neglected to write a Passover meditation. In previous years I had written short essays either because an issue was on my mind or it had been requested by a group or a journal. These urgings and requests were new to me, as was the title rabbi, a title attributed to me with increasing frequency. At first I was surprised by the meditation requests and the rabbinic references. I complied with the former and vigorously denied the latter title, though at times I was too tired to constantly define myself by what I am not and let the appellation pass. Still, I began to wonder why people were asking for Passover meditations and using a religious title to address me. The final straw occurred when, listening to a progressive radio station in New York, I heard the familiar voice of Edward Said speaking of the crisis in Palestine and referring, in a positive way, to the “eminent Jewish rabbi, Marc Ellis.” Later at a conference in Bethlehem that Said and I were both addressing, I thanked him for his kind words about me but alerted him to the fact that I was not a rabbi. He apologized for being inaccurate but in a moving way continued, “Perhaps you are not ordained as a rabbi, though you are a rabbi in the deeper sense of the word.”

The Passover meditations, and lack thereof, when joined with the rabbinic references, are important points of reflection. For over the last decade the Passover season has become increasingly problematic for me, to the point where the Passover Seders are conducted in my home only for the benefit of the children. How can I celebrate our deliverance as Jews from the house of bondage while we are placing the Palestinian people in bondage? One might argue that the Seder itself would remind Jews of what it means to be in slavery, therefore raising the subversive question of what Jews are doing to Palestinians, and some progressive Jews do just that in their Passover liturgies. But the reality of state power in Israel, with the complicity of Jewish leadership in the United States, dooms this subversive hope to a prayer without substantive meaning. Thus Passover, once the most meaningful Jewish holiday for me, becomes an empty deception.

So as I started to write Passover meditations with the theme of Jewish oppression of Palestinians, I could no longer practice the Seder with any conviction. Were the meditations themselves a desperate attempt on my part to rescue the season that had meant so much to me as a child and in many ways had opened the world of Judaism and spirituality to me? And was this attempt, coupled with my other writings on Judaism and the challenge of Israel and Palestine, the reason that people were referring to me as rabbi?

In my reflections I note a curious paradox: over the years I have become more overtly religious and articulate on the question of God at the same time that I have become convinced that the Jewish tradition as it has been passed on to us is coming to an end. In the oppression of the Palestinian people, an oppression that continues and escalates under the Oslo accords, we have come to the end of Jewish history as we have known and inherited it. For can we as Jews claim a tradition and a history forged in suffering and struggle that raise the questions of power and ethics in a peculiar and important configuration while permanently oppressing another people?

As with Constantinian Christianity, the original twinning of religion and the state in the 4th century and beyond, the claims can be made and, like Christianity, religion can flourish in its ties with power and the state.

But as with Christianity, a Constantinian Judaism is gutted of its ethical traditions; it becomes something other than originally intended or at least as it has been practiced for the last 1500 years. Constantinian Judaism undergoes an assimilation so similar to that which befell Christianity in its Constantinian synthesis that as the millennium turns, the difference between the two religions is negligible, relegated to ritual and belief. The practice of the two communities, at least in their mainstream variants, are almost exactly the same: heralding the American dream, seeking wealth and status, joining together in thought and theology that serves affluence and power.

In Israel, Constantinian Judaism is even more obvious, driving a wedge between religious and secular Israelis. Some have even questioned whether in the coming years a civil war will erupt between these two groups, one claiming authenticity as religious Jews, the other an Israeli nationality without reference to Jewishness. One Israeli sociologist, a secular Jew himself, has even gone so far as to claim that secular Israelis are not Jewish at all: they are so divorced from the Jewish tradition and so deeply identified with the nation-state that he refers to Israelis as “Hebrew-speaking Gentiles.” Of course then one must ask about the claim of the religious themselves: so identified with the messianic claim of the land and so untroubled by the injustice done to the Palestinians, can this be the Judaism of the future?

And where is Jewish leadership on these questions, the institutional and religious leaders, or if you will, wealthy Jews involved in Jewish life and the ordained rabbis who proudly display their hard-earned credentials? Jewish institutional and religious leaders are found either happily and militantly pursuing Constantinian Judaism, deflecting criticism of such a path from Jews and non-Jews, or turning inward to Jewish spirituality as if Judaism and Jewish life can be practiced as the Palestinian people are denied the right to be free in their own homeland.

Perhaps that is why two prominent progressive American Jews, Michael Lerner and Arthur Waskow, have recently taken on the honorific “rabbi” without benefit of ordination. Were they also referred to by this title so often that they simply assumed it as bestowed by that part of the Jewish community that will not accept Constantinian Judaism and its consequences? Did Lerner or Waskow simply acquiesce to the constant reference and, in doing so, identify with a part of themselves recognized by others? Of course, in their case, as high profile personages who claim the center of the Jewish religious tradition, the rabbinic title may represent to them a status due them and necessary in the battle against what Lerner calls “settler Judaism.” In this case, “rabbi” becomes part of the civil war within Judaism and stakes a claim that is also a chasm: choose which Judaism you want to be a part of for that choice defines you and the future of the Jewish people.

A Jewish civil war is like any other war, fought with armaments and authority, and Jewish renewal is like any other subversive movement that claims the center, a fight unto death to forge the future of a nation or people. And yet the reality is always more complex. At this point in Jewish history, calling the state of Israel and the people Israel to an innocence long since compromised and preparing for a future as if the dislocation and humiliation of the Palestinian people is to be noted and bypassed so that a renewed and expanded piety can be embraced, is to accept the fate of Palestinians as peripheral to Jewish history. It is the other side of Constantinian Judaism, the shadow side if you will, that believes Jewish continuity and presence to be more important than the dislocation which, after the fiftieth anniversary of Israel, has, for all intents and purposes, become permanent.

What does it mean to a rabbi in this situation? Perhaps it means accepting the title or even appropriating it to wage the battle, no matter the prospect of victory. Or it could be that the meaning of rabbi here is outside of the known religious framework, en route to a place that ordained rabbis rarely venture or even know exists. Could it be that a rabbi today must articulate what is felt by many Jews, albeit Jews who are outside of institutional Jewish life, that the Jewish tradition as we have known and inherited it is over? Could it be that a rabbi today is called less to be an official representative of the community or even to wage battle for the forces of good over evil, than to be with those on the margins of the Jewish world, in exile from silence and complicity and even from progressive Judaism and the war raging for the heart of Judaism?

Since most Jews in exile are secular, unwilling to entertain the question of God or, perhaps as important, no longer able to articulate a spirituality even when drawn to it, the rabbinic function is less a religious instruction than accompanying witness. Being with those Jews who are in exile for the very reason of justice and compassion, two centers of the history and tradition we inherit, is the task of the rabbi, a task that can be joined only if the rabbi himself is in exile.

Where does this exile lead? What is the practice of exile? What can we say about God in this exile? Does the rabbi embody these questions, become articulate about them, share them with others on the journey, help name the exile for those who are searching to explain to themselves and others the difficult road they have embarked upon? I wonder also if a rabbi is, at least at this moment in time, for Jews only. Or can the articulation of the journey into exile also be for others in exile, those from every religion, culture, and nation-state who have also embarked on this journey? These exiles are also part of the Jewish exilic community, an emerging community that needs each other’s voices for support and light. Does the rabbi here, as the Jewish exilic community in general, become listener as well?

I am/not a rabbi. This has become a mantra of sorts and remains so. Exploring the themes which emerge from the appellation is helpful so long as one is not caught up in the honor of being thought to be such a person. Being a rabbi in exile, perhaps the last exile in Jewish history, is a title that can make sense only if it is substantive, humbling, inconclusive. If it is true that these Jewish exiles carry the covenant with them in their journey, then the prospect of being a rabbi on this journey is even more daunting. And if the destination of these exiles, as it surely must be, is a solidarity with those whom we Jews have dispossessed, the Palestinian people, then the journey is bound to a place where all of Jewish life is questioned and transformed.

How strange the transposition over the course of the century: rabbis accompanying their own communities to death in the killing centers of Nazi Europe; rabbis accompanying an exilic community into solidarity with the Palestinian people.

One can spend a lifetime pondering this transposition at the heart of Jewish life, even denying that it is possible. One can spend a lifetime meditating on the title bestowed by those inside and outside of Jewish life who unwittingly or perhaps with insight spark this reflection. For what right do they, or for that matter I, have to such a title?

At the end of Jewish history, in the last Jewish exile, these thoughts do not come without a cost. I am/not a rabbi, to be sure, unless I grasp the solidarity at the center of this exile which I share with so many other Jews and continue on whatever the burdens that lie ahead. On the threshold of the twenty-first century, the challenge is fidelity, whether for a rabbi or not.

Mr. Marc H. Ellis is University Professor of American and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for American and Jewish Studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.