Post-Holocaust Jewish Identity and the Academy


It is a fascinating and troubling experience for post-Holocaust Jews who are religious and self- critical to find themselves in a dual struggle for survival. The first struggle is within the Jewish community where critical thought related to Judaism and Jewish life – especially with regard to Israel and the Palestinians, but also encompassing spiritual journeys that move within and outside normative Judaism – is frowned upon or even prohibited. The second is within the larger academic community where Jews are typically denied the expansive terrain that scholars of Christian background take for granted. The Jewish scholar thus experiences a solitude because ones natural constituency and adoptive community both see her as suspect or out of place. A double bind is erected and the difficulty of post-Holocaust Jewish life is exacerbated.

It is less a question of privilege, ideology or extra-scholarly identity that troubles these engaged Jews. Rather it is a struggle to survive the double solitude and the lack of support – or even concern – for a tradition that has often been demonized or romanticized but rarely engaged. The scholarly role is of less importance here because a struggle for an entire history is being waged. Just as Christian scholarship has in many cases become a thinly veiled parallel church, where innovative theology and spirituality can be explored relatively free of church authority and parishioners needs, so, too, engaged Jewish thought needs a safe haven and a caring community where the future of Jewish life can be thought through.

On the central questions of contemporary Jewish life, including and especially the question of the displacement and oppression of Palestinians from Palestine – a process that is becoming permanent with the sealing of the borders of an expanded Israel and a ghettoized and fragmented Palestinian autonomy under Oslo and the final status negotiations – there is no place in academic life for Jews who oppose publicly and continually this tragic end to Palestine and the Jewish tradition as we have known and inherited it. Here I refer to Jewish seminaries, university Religious Studies departments and Christian seminaries of all denominations. There is no will for this struggle among Jewish leadership in the academy or outside of it; the study of religion finds this largely irrelevant or dangerous and Christian seminaries are simply not interested in it.

Like Black theology, feminist theology and committed liberation theologies across the globe, Jewish theology cannot afford an abstract stance toward identity and the academy. The Jewish need for an engagement that holds nothing back comes at a time when other engaged community theologies are reflecting back on their insurgency and questioning their next steps. They are engaged in broadening their base and vision at precisely the time that Jews are finding their tradition systematically stripped of its covenantal and ethical bases. The concern of the academy is to move on to a more reflective arena, but those Jews who need reflection and community are absent from the discussion either because of academic discrimination or willing neglect. For many African-American, feminist, native American and Latino scholars, Jews are either invisible or too visible, too quiet or too loud.

At the end, there is time to begin again. This essay seeks to enter the discussion of scholarship, identity and the academy from an autobiographical perspective, raising aspects of a post-Holocaust journey in dialogue with the issues that confront Jews and Judaism. A second-tiered reflection on the academy is then entered as a way of posing the double bind many Jewish intellectuals face. Finally a challenge for Jewish inclusion in the broader tradition of faith and struggle is issued. This challenge will be difficult to respond to in the affirmative. This difficulty is of course not really difficult: it is distant and costly. Perhaps it would also be freeing. At stake is the integrity of the religious search as a truly ecumenical adventure in the 21st century.

Identity and Boundary Crossing in Life in Post-Holocaust Jewish Life

It is telling that the term “worship” has meant little to me, even to the point of being off-putting. Perhaps it is the formality of the term or the simply the way “worship” entered my life: through Hebrew school at too young an age and in a foreign language, through Christian church advertisements on billboards and signs in front of imposing and, yes, foreign, church structures.

For whatever reasons – and no doubt there were many of them – official synagogue and church ritual has always struck me in the wrong way. It is as if God was boxed within a service where the seasons of religious life were known in advance and order of prayer was in some ways the order of God.

I thought this way as a child when I tried to escape the rigors of Hebrew school and Shabbat services to play sports and read. I wanted the open air, to breathe and run with others, to read words of history and imagination, to be free.

And then came the Holocaust – not the event itself, for this had occurred and ended before I was born, but the naming of the Holocaust as an event of significance and horror. What did this event say to the order of worship, to the buildings and leadership where God was invoked with an unthinking regularity? If God had chosen us as Jews, if God had promised to be with us in our struggle for liberation and in our suffering, where was God in Auschwitz? And if indeed Jesus was the savior, the redeemer of all humanity, and if Jesus had a special gift of being with those who were suffering, healing them of their wounds and brokenness, where was Jesus, himself a Jew, at this moment of loss? And where were those who followed him as their salvation? In Europe, at least, so many Christians were involved in anti-semitism or were silent in the face of it.

The language of God was too easy to speak, at least from my perspective. And yet I was drawn to those who were religious, preferring their company to overtly secular people. Religious orthodoxy lacked the freedom and the questioning I needed to find my way. Secular orthodoxy struck me in a similar manner. A certainty of denial paralleled the certainty of belief.

For many years I remained between the religious and secular, or perhaps I combined the two. Most of my public life is an articulation of my personal journey, the search for a space and a language, a freedom if you will, to speak of God and humanity with integrity after the Holocaust.

I cannot find my way as a Jew only or a non-Jew only, or even as a Jew and Christian only. I need to listen to the voices of fidelity in every language, culture and religion that I encounter. For me, fidelity, or the struggle to be faithful, is the key to spirituality. When the doors of worship were closed to me, the struggle to be faithful spoke to me. It is the key that unlocks the doors that often enclose religious language and ritual.

It was at the Catholic Worker in New York City that I first experienced Christian worship. As a community that lives and works among the poor and raises its voice in critique of a social order that produces poverty, they gather for worship in the dining room where during the day they served meals to the hungry. The setting is austere: visible are pots and pans that cook the meals and the community gathers around the tables where the men and women of the Bowery ate their food. No prayers are said before these meals nor is religious instruction provided or demanded. The only prayers are at Mass, which everyone who wants to can attend.

I remember sitting at the back of the room listening to the priest welcome the congregation and then solemnly begin the Mass. The community was diverse and included those who volunteered at the Worker and those who affiliated with it in the neighborhood. Often people from the soupline were present, sometimes as communicants, other times interrupting the Mass in need of food or clothing. Occasionally, a brick would be thrown through the window or a person from the street, friendly when sober, would arrive drunk and angry, ready to dispute, at the most inopportune time, the words of consecration.

It was here that I met Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker, and Daniel Berrigan, the radical Catholic priest who then and now continues to present a radical vision of God and the social order. For Day and Berrigan, as for others who gathered at the Worker, worship was prayer in the very heart of their work and struggle. The dining area is cleaned before the service in the same way that the room is cleaned before serving meals. It remains as it is for the work or, if you will, the life lived during the day. No separation is allowed or desired. Liturgy emerges and flows with a committed life lived out in the world.

Life here is difficult for everyone and living at the Worker for a year was the most difficult time of my life. Witnessing suffering close-up, without escape, and living in the context of poverty and destitution is not easy for a person from a middle-class background. I never became used to it nor was I good at attending to the suffering. The smells and horror of some lives I encountered has never left me. Nor has the essential lesson I learned at the Worker. The poor and destitute are no different from the affluent except in circumstance and possibility. There is a thin line between hope and despair, affluence and poverty, goodness and destitution.

When we pray in affluence what do we pray for? Does the God who blesses us deny to the poor and destitute his blessing? Do the prayers of the poor counteract the prayers of the affluent? Are the affluent and the poor divided in life but united in God? Is it true that unity through Jesus overcomes the disunity among Christians in the world? Is salvation found in God or in the world? What is salvation? What does it mean here on earth?

These questions remained with me as I embarked on a journey with the Maryknoll Fathers and Sisters and traveled the world among the poor and liberation theologians who speak for the poor. Here I encountered again the worship of those on the outside of worldly power, those who were segregated into the precincts of the living dead. I often wondered in my travels and conversations in Latin America, Africa and Asia whether those of the living dead were so different from those of my dead in the Holocaust.

The echoes of Jewish life I found here were startling: a recovery of the Exodus and the prophets, even the Jewishness of Jesus. Here God was among the poor, or at least this was the assertion of the theologians and the people themselves. Could it be that God is among the poor in the garbage dumps of Lima, Peru but not among the Jews of Auschwitz? It could be that God is with both these Peruvians and the Jews. And it could be that God is among neither peoples, then or now.

For many years I remained in this question of Gods presence, as if the question itself was all-determining. Yet I was also called to form a religious practice, perhaps because of my personality and perhaps because of the circles I traveled in. I was both an observer and a participant without knowing it and my place in either dimension was unknown and, at the same time, deepening. At this time I made a decision to form a discipline that allowed these two dimensions of my life to coexist and come into a new configuration. The decision was neither rational nor irrational. I was not able to articulate or even define what this discipline might be. Traveling among others who were not my own, I also decided to travel to foreign territory within.

Like transporting oneself to a foreign country, the development of a discipline is dependent on the means of transportation available. For me the known vehicles were from my own Jewish tradition and from Asian spirituality, especially Zen Buddhism, which I was introduced to in my university days. Though known in learning, they were still foreign in the sense that visiting another country is different than reading about it.

Thus I began with Shabbat and Zen. On Friday nights I read with my family the Shabbat prayers. Each morning I sat in silence. The two practices are seemingly disparate in extreme. The first speaks of Gods creation and the covenant at Sinai. The second is the attempt to enter the self to experience nothingness. Still both helped me to appreciate the historical and internal landscape of the world in a different way. The questions remained; the colors of life changed.

I could not have embarked on Shabbat if I held to a rigorous honesty. And even today when my oldest child, Aaron, who now shares the invocation of the Shabbat blessings, asks if I believe all that we read, I admit my limitation of belief. “Did God create the earth?” Aaron asked me some years ago. When I began a lecture on the complexity of the question he stopped me short. He informed me that a simple yes or no would do. I told him that I was unsure.

Did God choose the Jews? Does God accompany us through history? These are affirmations that I speak. The answers yet elude me. Still, I continued in the service until the affirmation of truth became less important than the questions the words raised. After more than two decades of Shabbat observance, certain passages of the service continue to provoke. Is it right to thank God for choosing us and setting us apart as a people?

And what does “set apart” mean in our day, especially at a time when Jews are integrated into American life and often as not Christian friends share our Shabbat table? If Jews are set apart, can we also thank God for other times in history, at Auschwitz for example? Does our sense of being chosen and set apart also allow some Jews to act against others, Palestinians for example, in a manner that too closely resembles ways that others have acted against us?

For most people it is difficult to understand a religiosity that is unsure of itself, a faith shadowed with doubt and questions. Can a believer question the creation of the world as an act of God? As important is the affirmation of Gods presence in the world. Who after the Holocaust can be certain of this presence? Often it is said that faith is a gift and those without that gift must simply struggle along. Yet even the Biblical stories are full of doubt. Many other stories seem without a clear destination or one is difficult if not impossible to accept. Can I worship a God who tests Abrahams faith by his willingness to sacrifice Isaac? A God who judges the ancient Israelites fidelity with a reign of death?

I entered faith through doubt. Or perhaps I embarked on a practice that embraces doubt but refuses to be paralyzed by it. This provides the luxury of choosing aspects of the traditions and allows a critical attitude toward aspects of the Biblical journey. Formative events for me occurred then and now and Jewish religiosity is continuing to search history for acts of fidelity in history that inform my own desire to be faithful. Even on Shabbat then and now are in relation as creation and chosenness are confronted by suffering and Holocaust.

As I read the words of blessing I also have in mind Palestinians who experience these words as hypocrisy and worse. For Palestinians they are carriers of violence and exile. There are so many contradictions. Shabbat speaks of the end of exile. I experience Shabbat in the comfort of affluence and security. Does the hope of ending exile speak to those on the other side of powers that often invoke religious symbols to legitimate atrocity?

Doubt can be a critical element of faith, relativizing all claims, including our own. Silence enters here, at least in my own evolving practice. Sitting quietly and regularly is an opening without claims or doubt. Shabbat is an assertion, albeit a beautiful one, and the questions which Shabbat raises for me are speculative no matter how deeply experienced. Zen seeks a reality beyond words and a presence to life without judgement or name.

To reach this point is a lifetime journey. The goal is itself an assertion of a destiny. Silence is a place of rest that refuses destination and destiny. To be here in the moment, to listen to what is inside of us and be attentive to what surrounds us but not to be captive to it, is to practice a freedom. It connects me to the world in a way different way from Shabbat. Perhaps they work in tandem, as voices of self-correction and as postures in the world. One is with words, the other without. One is with others, the other alone.

Still the questions remain. Often I am asked about fidelity as I have come to understand it. What is fidelity? What or who are we faithful to? In an earlier time I responded that the call is to be faithful in and to history. Usually the person asking the question is religious in a more conventional sense. They know that fidelity is to God and the ability to be faithful comes from God. Thus my definition of fidelity is seen as either a challenge or as a superficial response to a deeper question.

After the Holocaust with God in fragments or at least the possibility of faith in fragments, how can I posit a sure anchor from which answers, power, and strength flow? How can I assert a God that is whole and holy when my experience is one of despair and waiting?

If for Jews the Holocaust remains the ultimate shattering, a further shattering has occurred in response to the Holocaust – the formation and expansion of the state of Israel. To many the birth of Israel is a reformation of Jewish life. It asserts life where death reigned and holds open the possibility of the renewal of Gods presence in the life of the people. And so it may be.

For many Jews, and I include myself here, the dispersion and oppression of the Palestinian people makes this view impossible to hold. Empowerment is necessary to maintain ones integrity and survival. It can be the place from which a new interdependence can grow. When a state is built on exclusivity and necessarily the exclusion of others, then isolation and militarism is the norm. Ingathering can become another form of shattering and Jewish redemption from the Holocaust in the creation of a Jewish state becomes a disaster for Palestinians and for Jews as well.

I remember well the further shattering the recognition of injustice toward Palestinians caused for me. As I began to break through the difficulties of worship and move beyond a paralysis that needed assent before ritual, the most beautiful holiday of the Jewish year, Passover, became impossible for me. How can I celebrate our liberation when another people is enslaved? If applied to the entire world the celebration would never be possible. However, here was a most specific case of direct of Jewish responsibility that is being directly evaded. Our fervent desire for liberation after the Holocaust is being perverted in the oppression of another people.

Paralysis of belief and the inability to enter into another space so as to see religiosity from another perspective – for me the movement toward Shabbat and Zen – was different than what I experienced in the waning energy to celebrate Passover. Passover became impossible for me because the contradictions of real oppression were too great. It is precisely the other vantage point, the vantage point of the Palestinians, that brought Passover to an end.

Can fidelity be seen as a movement beyond the historical and within it, as a place from which to judge history in a critical manner? Shabbat and Zen make it possible to look at Passover and judge the communities assertion of liberation at the expense of another peoples oppression. It at least asks a question of history from a vantage point that deepens as it becomes more experienced. Stated another way, the critical examination of Passover as liberation in our time becomes more articulate as an internal affirmation of spirituality is explored in more depth.

Here again resolution is elusive. Contradiction is present as well. There is a choosing, Shabbat over Passover for example, that can be turned on its head. Why not celebrate both or abandon both as a point of consistency? Is one holy day exempt from critique while another deepens it?

Perhaps this is simply another aspect of the fragments of Jewish life after the Holocaust and Israel. Each Jew pieces life together in a particular and eclectic way. Boundaries are crossed and often intersect like an unplanned tapestry. It is untidy. The contours of the tapestry are uneven.

In meeting with other Jews and those from different traditions who are also experiencing a fragmentary life, a sensibility emerges beyond the individual. One encounters a diaspora sensibility in more than a geographic sense or even the traditional Jewish sense of commonality within diversity. The diaspora encountered is a reality where the fragments of different traditions and lives are coming together in new way. There is a particularity found among Jews in this new diaspora and a particularity that is evolving among the various peoples found in the diaspora. Jews, then, form a particular aspect of a larger community that is forming around a condition of exile and fragmentation experienced by many peoples. Jewish particularity in this evolving diaspora is in dialogue with two foundational realities. One is the Jewish world from which we come. The other is the broader community we find ourselves within.

I have found this to be true in my own life. It is almost as if I am traveling the diaspora, carrying with me my heritage and history and encountering other heritages and histories. The interaction is one of solidarity and confrontation. I am forced to expand my capacity for belief and action. I also become more focused on the interior life that is formed and unformed, affirmed and challenged in these encounters. Piecing together a post-Holocaust Jewish life is never static. Traveling the diaspora is a spiritual vocation.

Over time the need for an anchor is experienced, or so it seems in my life. Exploration of fragmentation can lead to subsequent levels of fragmentation until the experience of fragmentation becomes foundational itself. A fragmentation which is foundational is quite different from a fragmentation of a foundation. The danger is that fragmentation becomes less a search for wholeness and more an experience that has no place to return or journey toward. The former has a place of depth from which it is jettisoned and a desire to find meaning even if the original foundation is no longer accessible. The latter ultimately loses the possibility of depth, as the resources from which it came recede into the distance. At some point the resources of tradition become inaccessible and even the quest for depth recedes. Then a refusal to continue on the journey takes place. Either the inability to see a journey or a destiny at all becomes overriding or, in fear, the attempt to re-embrace the foundational reality takes place as if the shattering had not occurred.

What allows that movement forward? What propels the continuation of the journey into the unknown? What helps sustain the courage to continue to piece together the fragments after the Holocaust and Israel? What strengthens Jews to travel the diaspora without fear of losing their own identity or even the possibility of further shattering an already fragmented identity?

Looking back to the difficulties I have with worship and the subsequent creation of an admittedly eclectic discipline, what has been present since the beginning is the covenant. Not a whole covenant without question and doubt. Or even a covenant that can be named or found within one tradition. This covenant has accompanied me even as I searched for it.

I often question where this covenant comes from. Where does it reside? By what name is it to be called? On Shabbat I find it within the Jewish tradition. When I sit Zen I find the covenant within silence. In Peru among the poor, I experience the covenant when God is called on to empower the people. When I think of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, the covenant is palpable. In the pictorial representation of Jesus on the breadlines among the poor, the covenant is invoked with an intensity that is haunting. Do I embrace the Jesus portrayed as a Christian? Or do I embrace the Jesus of the breadlines as a Jew?

In my own experience of traveling the diaspora, the covenant takes center stage as an almost unknowable yet intimate reality. At moments it is so close to me and yet just beyond me at the same time. It is the revealed covenant of the Bible. Yet it is also evolves independent of its original revelation. For me the covenant holds forth possibility and engagement where ever people grapple with history at its deepest level. Rather than answers, the covenant embodies the questions and tensions of personal and communal life. It is not a place of rest but rather a calling forth.

The covenant is multi-faceted. It is experienced in different ways when approached from various perspectives. Shabbat and Zen become two vantage points of fragmentation and integration on the same path. The motion is forward, as if both point beyond themselves and transcend their own particularity. Here the answer is less important and truth ceases to be a primary objective. Does the covenant propose a truth? Or is it an accompanying inner voice without destination or destiny, except, perhaps the destiny of the path itself? In the covenant, endings are beginnings. The discipline of searching and seeking to embrace the covenant is itself valuable.

Perhaps the fragmentation of so many traditions is itself a call forward. So often during Shabbat and sitting in silence, I feel a gratitude that comes from the possibility the brokenness of tradition affords. How else would I experience this diaspora and the beauty within it? How else will my fidelity be tested and strengthened? The suffering that has brought about the fragmentation we inherit is beyond words and continues today in so many countries and cultures. Still within the horror the journey continues.

The covenant beckons and fidelity is called for. I often wonder if it is possible to be grateful for a journey that is uneven, discontinuous, even violent. And yet the theoretical question is belied by the experience. It is precisely in the brokenness that gratitude comes into view. I experience a power that sometimes overwhelms me. Other times the power is so subtle that I miss the experience.

Do we often miss the overwhelming and subtle experience of gratitude because we seek to place it within a framework that no longer exists? Do we seek to place a reality that is beyond naming into a historical naming, or mistake a historical naming for our own vocabulary? Does the search for order and certainty replace the possibilities inherent in a dynamic experience that elicits names but eludes a final naming?

It may be that the world has always been fragmented beyond the order imposed upon it by humans in search for certainty. Perhaps the covenant has always traveled freely and been embraced by people searching beyond the confines of the known. The mystical path, found in every tradition is testimony to this, but the reality I experience is beyond the esoteric and the few. The fragmentation and the search is found within ordinary life, among the many and at the very heart of evolving disciplines of spirituality and everyday life. It is not beyond intact traditions. It is at the very heart of traditions fragmented by history.

Academy, Jewish Identity and the Broader Tradition of Faith and Struggle

To travel the diaspora is to enter into another evolving sensibility and connect to another history. It is a move forward and backward at the same time, embracing diversity in the present and past. The struggle to be faithful is found in many places today, and with that recognition the same struggle can be found historically as well. If fidelity cannot be confined in the contemporary world to any one place or community, this is true for the past. Thus the struggle to be faithful is nourished in this two-fold movement. The terrain of embrace and the resources of nourishment are expanded. My fidelity is informed by Jews and others struggling in the present. One thinks here of Ari Shavit, a Jewish Israeli journalist who protests Israeli state power when it abuses Palestinians, and Sara Roy, a child of Holocaust survivors who has traveled among Palestinians and is a world expert on the economy of Gaza. But I am also nourished by the witness of Archbishop Romero, who stood with the poor of El Salvador and was murdered for speaking on their behalf, and Gustavo Gutierrez, who has lived with the poor of his native Peru and founded the theology of liberation which speaks of a God active in the liberation of the marginalized and dispossessed. So, too, with history: I am nourished by the German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig and the German Christian who resisted Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And further back in history I am nourished by the founders of the great religions, including Buddha and Jesus. Should I be denied their insights and struggle? Should I deny the resources that are available to me and carried by others in the new diaspora? By denying them I diminish my own sensitivity to others around me. And since in so many ways those who have struggled to be faithful are connected together through borrowings, cross influence, and common trajectories, my denial would be a denigration of their contributions to our common history.

The broader tradition of faith and struggle can be found in the imagining of a diaspora that is continuous over time. It is part of a search through history for justice and love, which though always incomplete, even in its depth, is somehow complete in its effort. Whether Buddha or Jesus, Rosenzweig or Bonhoeffer, Shavit or Romero, all have sought commitment and community. In this search the covenant has been present and the particular language of their search, whether theological, philosophical or secular, sheds light on the struggles of our own day. I find that when I take my place in a broader tradition there is a calling and a provision of resources for my own journey.

The question remains as to where this journey can find a home in the academic world. If the journey into the new diaspora is experienced by many in different religious traditions and across racial and gender lines, the inclusion of Jews on this journey, or, as importantly, allowing Jewish scholars to articulate this journey in the academic world, is more problematic. It seems that a double standard exists in the academic world. Christian scholars are allowed to explore the world in its many dimensions and incorporate the insights gained into a broader vision of what it means to be Christian. These very same scholars often see Jews within a special category. Jews are Jews. They have a certain place in the theological world that can be argued about but essentially cannot change. When it comes to hiring and recognition, this special place is defining and confining. Jews must remain Jewish in a form recognized by Christians even as the Christianity they adopt is difficult to recognize within traditional categories.

Thus Jews who travel the diaspora and who are in exile from their own community are often thought of as diverging from Judaism by Christians who are likewise traveling this diaspora and are in exile from their community. That is why most Jews hired in the study of religion and in the seminaries are hired in stereotypical roles: as teachers of Hebrew and the “Old” Testament or in Jewish or Holocaust Studies. The most radical departures are the hiring of Jews in New Testament studies, or so it is thought. Upon reflection, however, this is simply an expansion of the stereotypical role accorded Jews in the first place. Jews teach Christians about their own origins or help them reflect on the Jewishness of their own Christianity. Jews are used as mirrors for the opening of Christians to new possibilities.

The role of Jews in the study of religion has been crucial to the renewal of Christianity in the West. It has forced Christians to come to a more critical understanding of their own history and expanded the terrain that Christians can legitimately call Christian. Yet this has also encouraged a romanticized view of Jews that leaves little in the way of critical assessment of the Jewish tradition or contemporary Jewry. As Christians call on Jews to remain in their place and serve Christians in their search for new forms of fidelity and embrace, Jewish thought has atrophied. New critical spaces for Jewish renewal have been denied. As expropriation of Jewish world views, symbols and critical thought continues apace in the larger Christian world, these very same possibilities are denied the Jewish community. There is a mutuality here. Many Jewish academics accept this role willingly and their status and incomes have risen dramatically. The Jewish community has a vested interest in the role of these academics as they provide an intellectual front for a romanticized view of Jews and Judaism where once there was demonization and silence. This comes at a time when the policies of the state of Israel and legitimation of those policies by Jewish leadership and academics endanger the continuation of Jewish history as we have known and inherited it.

This may sound abstract or a case of special pleading. Here are some questions and examples to make this argument more concrete. These questions are also a challenge.

1) Name critical Jewish thinkers at established academic institutions who are known for their critical examination of Judaism and Jewish life, especially in relation to the expanding state of Israel and the Palestinian catastrophe. Compare these thinkers with the following in terms of critical reflection on religion and religiosity that come out of the Christian world: Rosemary Radford Ruether, Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Otto Maduro, James Cone, Carter Heyward and others that may come to mind.

2) Name the subjects at major academic and seminary institutions that Jewish thinkers are hired to teach. An example worth contemplating is Harvard Divinity School. After an exhaustive search to find an occupant for the first Jewish chair in the schools history, the subject they choose is predictable: “Old” Testament. Now compare the methodology and critical thought of the person who investigates “New” Testament studies at the same school, Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza. Do you think it possible – did it ever cross the mind of the Divinity faculty -to hire a Jewish faculty member with the same sharp critical skills as Schussler Fiorenza?

3) Even these Christian scholars mentioned are often quiet or romantic when it comes to the Jewish tradition. They are either silent on or uncritical about contemporary Jewry. Examples: Schussler Fiorenza limits her discussion of Judaism to the time of the early Christians and as a way of speaking in a positive way to the qualities of the Jesus movement which were subsequently abandoned. Carter Heyward refers to Jews primarily in the framework of the Holocaust and Elie Wiesel, bypassing completely, and in a way that she would find completely unacceptable in her own tradition, the use of the memory of the Holocaust to displace Palestinians from their homeland. James Cone has not mentioned Jews in print since the early 1970’s. Is this because of the ominous presence of Jewish Theological Seminary across the street? Name more than one Christian scholar who interacts critically with Judaism historically and more importantly with contemporary Jewish life. Hint: the issue is Palestinians and the one scholar is Rosemary Radford Ruether. Name another.

4) Of all the liberal seminaries in the United States, name one that has taken on the question of Palestine and Jewish life in a coherent and sustained way. Case study: Union Theological is a seminary that identifies with all sorts of liberation theologies. Is their a critical Jewish voice at Union or even a Christian scholar that takes this issue seriously? Again the presence of Jewish Theological Seminary looms large. Union is silent either because Jews are unimportant in contemporary religious and political life or because they are afraid of arousing the anger of the Jewish establishment. One might legitimately ask if the Jewish seminary is nurturing the critical thought so important to the future of the Jewish people. If so, please name the critical thinkers there on the subject of Jews and Judaism. The most prominent and interesting thinker at Jewish Theological is predictably a writer on the Holocaust, David Roskies. Any application of the lessons of the Holocaust – even the lessons that his own work raises – are opposed.

5) Let us now look at the appointment process for Jewish hires. Is there any other position in academic or seminary teaching that includes lectures and consultations with community groups outside the university? Almost all appointments to Jewish chairs include a process of consultation and approval with local and sometimes national Jewish leadership. Also other Jewish faculty members in other departments are often consulted about Jewish appointments in religion and Jewish studies. Is this done on a regular basis and with presumed veto power with any other subjects? Name one in the humanities.

The result of these obstacles to Jewish critical thought is that many leading critical thinkers on Jewish religiosity and the new diaspora are to found outside the academic world. Those who happen into the academic world are often jettisoned quickly and disappear. As often they see the doors closed and few even think of the possibility.

The consequences are clear. In the main, Jewish thinkers are not part of the discussion and debate surrounding the critical embrace of religiosity in the new diaspora and Jewish students are precluded from hearing this discussion at the point when they are most ready for spirituality and critical thought. If they enter the discussion at all it is by chance or in language and symbols that are foreign to them. Most feel the religious terrain to be a subject for Christians. The uncritical secularity of Jewish life increases.

With most critical Jewish religious thinkers outside of the academy, the future of critical Jewish religious thought is stunted. Is it fated to disappear altogether? The field of Jewish identity is then left to Hillel and other Jewish organizations whose primary role is to increase Jewish identification with the policies of the Jewish establishment in America and Israel.

Many have observed that the ecumenical dialogue, at least as it is among Christians and Jews, is at a dead-end. The rules of engagement have become so rote and uncritical that Christians who are seeking a deeper understanding of their faith in relation to others are stunned at the inability of Jews to face their own history. Why should they be taken aback when they apply the same rules of engagement in their hiring practices for Jews and their refusal to protest these practices that would be totally unacceptable if applied to them? Is it imaginable that the local Catholic priest would be consulted about the hiring of Rosemary Radford Ruether or Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza? Is the local Catholic priest or Bishop consulted before an invitation to Gustavo Gutierrez is extended? Does one consult the appropriate denominational minister/priest before hiring James Cone or Carter Heyward? Can a critical Christianity be explored and taught if this same process routinely applied to Jews is applied to Christian theologians?

This may be happening to Catholic theologians in certain Catholic universities and seminaries. Still here the terrain is broader. It is the very taking in of dissident Catholic religious scholars by Protestant seminaries that has allowed Catholic thought to continue to evolve. Again I think here of Ruether and Schussler Fiorenza at Garrett-Evangelical and Harvard Divinity School respectively. A joint front of concerned academics have made sure that the outcast of one community finds a home in another community. This has allowed a cross fertilization of tremendous importance for the growth in spirituality of both the Catholic and Protestant communities. It has also assured access of students by those who teach and write about the frontiers of theology and spirituality. The free flow and cross fertilization so important to the future of religious thought and spirituality has, for the most part, been denied to Jewish thinkers and students alike. A thought to ponder: What would it have meant to contemporary Christian faith and searching Christians and the entire movement in feminist theology if Ruether and Schussler Fiorenza had been lost to the academic world because they could not find or maintain employment in Catholic institutions of higher learning? What will the future of Jewish thought be within this pessimistic assessment of critical Jewish thought in the academy? How will the next generation of Jews encounter critical Jewish religious thinkers? Will the academy which once excluded or limited Jewish presence and Jewish thought so exclude or limit in the future by including only certain types of Jewish scholars? Will Christians and those of different religious faiths in the academy care about this?

It is fascinating and tragic that the Jewish question, so prominent in discussions during the twentieth century, is now considered, at least in academic circles, to be answered. With the help of the Jewish establishment, the academy has declared the question closed, at the very same moment that Jewish history and the Jewish tradition are fighting for their lives.


I have written about the challenge of Palestinians to Jewish life on numerous occasions most recently in Marc H. Ellis, O Jerusalem: The Contested Future of the Jewish Covenant (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999).

An example of this second level reflection is found in Dwight Hopkins, Introducing Black Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1999). This is not to criticize reflection on initially insurgent theologies. It is simply to state that these theologies now have well placed interpreters in elite institutions whereas the initiators of these struggles were rarely found in secure academic circles.

My initial exposure to the Holocaust in formal discourse was with Richard Rubenstein in 1971. I read then his now classic After Auschwitz: Radical Theology and Contemporary Judaism (Indianoplolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966). That this book would lead to a academic position in a major department of Religious Studies as it did for Rubenstein at Florida State University in 1970 is almost impossible to contemplate today. In fact just the opposite. Today a book with such radical thought about Judaism and the future of Jewish life would doom a career.

I wrote about my stay at the Catholic Worker in 1978. It has just been republished under the title A Year at the Catholic Worker: A Spiritual Journey among the Poor (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2000).

I am currently finishing a book on the subject of exile and the new diaspora. The tentative title of the book is Traveling the Diaspora: A Memoir of Exile and Hope.

Obviously the fact that Jews are allowed to teach New Testament studies and are invited to teach in some universities and seminaries is a revolutionary statement in some respects. However this advance is less obvious than one might hope for at this time in Jewish history. What was once unheard of is actually a quite safe place to be. Ones commentary is limited to history and Christian renewal. This is part of what I have called the ecumenical deal.

Rosemary Radford Ruether has written extensively and critically on Jewish empowerment and the culpability of the Jewish establishment in injustice. See Rosemary Radford Ruether and Herman Ruether, The Wrath of Jonah: The Crisis of Religious Nationalism in the Middle East (New York: Harper and Row, 1989).

See David Roskies, Against the Apocalypse: Responses to Catastrophe in Modern Jewish Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984). His anger toward my expansion of his sense of the Jewish liturgy of destruction to include the Palestinian people was expressed to me in Warsaw before we both traveled to Auschwitz on a delegation. I discuss this journey in Ending Auschwitz: The Future of Jewish and Christian Life (Louisville: Westminster, 1994). The fact that Roskies had not read my writing on the subject did not deter him from his negative evaluation.

For those who like spirited discussions and/or angry confrontations that have nothing to do with academic or intellectual integrity you should try applying for positions in Jewish and/or Holocaust Studies. There is no other selection process quite like it.

Encounters with Hillel centers on university campus is another distinctive feature of contemporary Jewish academic life. Experience also the “truth” squads who are routinely sent to interrupt and trivialize speakers defined as anti-Israel. Hillel provides an identity for Jewish students that overlooks the culpability at the heart of our community. Hillel also functions to police and censor other non-Jewish academics who might raise their voices on the question of Palestine.

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.