Theorizing Modernities article

Ending Exile with the Prophetic Voice of the Diasporic Jew

Eduard Bendemann, Die trauernden Juden im Exil. Wikimedia Commons.

Can There Be a Prophetic Voice Today without Diaspora?

The paradox of Jewish exile is that it never happened. There was no edict of exile from the land of Israel after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE; Jews continued to live in Palestine, even composing the Palestinian Talmud and various Midrashim. Most Jews lived in diaspora, at least since the sixth century BCE, flourishing and transforming Israelite religion into Judaism.

Although Jews were never exiled from the land of Israel, the Jewish belief that Jews live in exile shaped Jewish self-understanding as a major theme in religious literature and liturgy. The reality is that Jews settled in diaspora in lands around the globe, assimilating various cultures, languages, and religious ideas. Although diaspora constituted the political and cultural state of Jews, exile became internalized as an existential state, with Jews alienated from society while awaiting redemption. Liturgical fantasies that Jews lived in exile fostered not an alienation from the surrounding society, but an absence of responsibility for it. Zionism arose to address a political exile that had not happened, but its timing was fortuitous: a moment of rising antisemitism that made Jewish assimilation in diaspora unviable, destructive, and ultimately murderous. The existential exilic state supposedly ended with Zionism, which promised to restore normality and masculinity while offering no such restoration to women. Yet, life in the State of Israel continues for some Jews as a state of alienation, living at a distance from meaningful Jewish identity, increasingly distanced from the politics and societal problems in the country in which they live, especially as they affect Arab Israelis, Bedouin, Druze, Christians, and other minorities. Neither exile nor the promised end of exile achieve the prophetic stance of justice. The diasporic position, by contrast, is the condition for the prophetic: standing at the boundaries between society and the reins of governance, the prophet demands justice from the governing, while giving voice to the unheard who suffer at the hands of the regime. Can there be a prophetic voice today without diaspora? The prophet is an iconoclast, refusing to align with king or Temple, warning against the seductions of power: “Behold you trust in deceptive words to no avail” (Jeremiah 7:8). The prophet speaks in the name of God, retaining independence from worldly power; it is a position of diaspora from seats of power, whether king or priest. Isaiah’s vision proclaims “Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth” (19:24), co-existence rather than triumph over enemies, with all of equal merit: “the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage” (9:25). There is no claim of superiority, chosenness, nor distancing from former enemies.

Exile Is a Paradox

The destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel in the eighth century BCE by the Assyrians, who deported the entire population (who then disappeared from history) is simply forgotten in Jewish history. The more important event was the Babylonian destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE, along with the transport of Israelites to Babylonian exile. These events formed the basis for how exilic experience is remembered by Jews. Yet the Babylonian exile of Judah was also paradoxical: a few decades later, Cyrus the Great offered the Israelites safe passage back to Jerusalem, but relatively few returned and the majority remained in Babylonia for over 2500 years, composing the Babylonian Talmud, medieval Jewish philosophy, and turning Israelite religion into Judaism. All the while, rabbis in the land of Israel composed the Palestinian Talmud, various Midrashic texts, and, in the sixteenth century, a Code of Jewish Law along with Lurianic mysticism. Exile became diaspora, and even the prophet Jeremiah, who lived through the Babylonian conquest, advised turning exile into diaspora: “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce…. Work for the good for the city to which I have exiled you, since on its welfare yours depends” (Jeremiah 9:4–7).

Was any of this an “exile”?

Exile as Affect

Exile became a theological doctrine defining Judaism not in response to a political decree banning Jews from living in Israel, but rather, as the historian Israel Yuval argues, in response to the rise of Christianity and its supersessionist claims in the fifth century CE. Religious polemics faded but exile remained as a Jewish mentality: being a Jew is to be exilic. Jews not only live in exile (galut), exile lives in them. Indeed, exile has come to define the condition of the collective Jewish people and the self-understanding of the individual Jew. Exile is not only a theo-political doctrine, it is also a regime of affect, defining the subjective, emotional experience of individual Jews. Doctrine and affect have reinforced one another and been fortified by rituals, such as breaking a glass at a wedding, fast days of mourning, such as Tisha B’Av (which commemorates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem), numerous references to exile in Jewish prayers, and various customs, such as leaving a tear in a wall covering or table cloth to indicate that nothing can be perfect while Jews remain in exile.

The destruction of the Temple marked the end of animal worship and its replacement by verbal worship; the Temple, the home of God and priests, the dwelling place of God and the symbol of Judaism around the world, supplanted by the word, by Talmud and Midrash. Metaphor became law, and exile became a state of being, not a physical location.

In diaspora, exilic trauma was imagined and expressed in Psalm 137:

1 By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!

7 Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, “Raze it, raze it! Down to its foundations!”
O daughter of Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall he be who requites you
with what you have done to us!
Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!

The Spread of Exilic Existence

What is remarkable is the widespread adoption of Jewish exilic trauma. In his famous poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” Langston Hughes writes of African exile, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” The Bible itself renders exile a universal experience, with the banishment of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. The Exodus from Egyptian slavery is an exile into the wilderness that is necessary before the conquest of a land that was never home can be attempted. Hellenistic writers presented the Exodus as the banishment of the Israelites from Egypt by the Pharaoh during a plague and mocked Jews for claiming a heritage as slaves, the most exiled state of existence. As an internalized experience, exile came to define the inner life of the Jew. Lech l’cha: go inward, writes Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, find yourself, the authentic inner being because your Judaism will only be meaningful if it is an expression of your authentic self. Just as Abraham left his home in Ur and went into exile to find his home in the Promised Land, there is a sense of home in exile.

“Who am I without exile,” asks Mahmoud Darwish in the title of a poem, echoing the Hasidic understanding. “Stranger on the river bank, like the river, water binds me to your name. . . . What shall will we do without exile?” (113–14). The poem is remarkable because it speaks of the exile of Palestinians that resulted from policies of the State of Israel and yet the poem could have just as easily been written by a Jew to express the traditional Jewish sensibility of exile. The irony is well-known: just when Zionism overcomes the exile of the Jews, it creates the exile of the Palestinians.

Overcoming Exile?

Or has Jewish exile been overcome by Zionism? Can it be overcome if it simultaneously creates a new exile for another people? Moreover, if twenty-first century Jews have finally (supposedly!) escaped the theology of exile and the existential burden of being exilic, what is the purpose of being a Jew? In recent years, the Argentinian Jewish thinker Santiago Slabodsky has proposed a path: to articulate a decolonial Judaism. During the course of diaspora, he argues, Judaism was colonized by the hegemonic Christian West in which some Jews lived; now it is time for Jews to forge alliances with those displaced and dispossessed by European colonialism, those labeled as “barbarians,” that is, as Sidra Ezrahi describes  them, those standing outside the framework of “the speech community, the community of selves” (18).

The Prophetic

Christian supersessionism is a form of theological colonialism and Slabodsky asks us to imagine recovering a Judaism unsullied by Christian colonization, not a postcolonial Judaism but a decolonial Judaism. For too long, Jews have striven to integrate and assimilate into a fictional Judeo-Christian tradition that has equated itself with a supposedly superior Western European civilization and has been used to justify imperialist and colonialist ambitions that have had horrific consequences. In part, Zionism challenged that goal, demanding that Jews renounce assimilation and escape the incurable antisemitism of Europe and instead constitute themselves as an independent nation-state that would take its place alongside the other nation-states of the world. Yet, Zionism ultimately adopted the political strategy of Europe, becoming an extension of the European Christian West and assuming “the hegemonic position of the agent of civilization,” as Gil Hochberg writes (187). Arriving in Israel has removed Jews from the alterity that defined them in diaspora and initially turned Israel into an ally of the hegemonic Christian West, and has now made it into an ally of the global neo-liberal and authoritarian order. Rejected by Europe, Jews arrived in Palestine to create an outpost of Europe that both negated and appropriated the Arab Orient and now seeks an alliance with its dictators, most recently with the UAE, presumably soon with the Saudis. Rather than focusing on a critique of Zionism and the State of Israel as reproductions of the colonial project, however, Slabodsky argues that Jews should “privilege the knowledge of the colonized to subvert normative thinking in the midst of the colonial divide” (167).

For too long, Jews have striven to integrate and assimilate into a fictional Judeo-Christian tradition that has equated itself with a supposedly superior Western European civilization and has been used to justify imperialist and colonialist ambitions that have had horrific consequences.

Slabodsky’s argument is that Jews need to divorce themselves from the self-proclaimed Christian universalism of Europe that conceals its colonizing goals and instead should realign themselves with the so-called “barbarians” of the Global South. This will allow them to become ethical figures who are disruptive of identitarian, exclusionary politics. Exile would then become a state to be embraced by those rejecting the Eurocentric universal, turning the Jew from a figure of melancholy into, as Bashir Bashir and Amos Goldberg put it, a “herald of disruptive politics, a politics that challenges the rigidity and dichotomy of identity politics and favors empathy, partnership, joint dwelling, and integration instead of separation, segregation, ghettoization, and oppressive assimilation” (298).To live as a Jew in diaspora is to live as a figure of disruption, rejecting the universal that masks the hegemony of the Christian European West and to think with others who have also been rendered “barbaric.” Instead of isolated identitarian politics, Slabodsky urges an “identity in politics” in solidarity with others in the struggle for epistemic and social justice that would unite the diasporic ethical stance of the Jews with new political alliances.

Slabodsky’s proposal suggests to me a call to Jews to revive the prophetic tradition. By this he does not mean the ethical monotheism touted by German Jewish theologians who identified the prophetic message of justice with Kant’s religion of reason. Rather, what is needed is prophetic passion. Religion is not a series of propositions, nor a social order that creates community through ritual performance. Religion demands affect, emotional commitment, and stirs the basic human need for engagement with other human beings.

Prophetic Passion is Needed

It is only when prophetic justice is read with the lens of Hasidic passion and compassion that the meaning of the prophets becomes clear: not as a messenger of God, but as Abraham Heschel notes in quoting Jeremiah 15:19, “a person who stands in the presence of God” (21). That marks the difference, according to Heschel, between the Christian West and its proofs for the existence of God, and the crucial Jewish distinction: to be a witness to God.

Transcendence, too, is about passion: divine pathos that demands strong emotions. Heschel writes that “The prophet’s ear perceives the silent sigh” of human suffering (9). “The prophet’s word is a scream in the night. While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven” (16). For some, the prophetic critique of society might be called hysterical, but then “what name should be given to the abysmal indifference to evil which the prophet bewails?” (5).

When Jews arrived in the United States from Germany in the mid-nineteenth century, they felt they had arrived in the promised land. Dedicating a new synagogue in Charleston, South Carolina in 1841, a slave trading city, Gustav Poznanski proclaimed, “This country is our Palestine, this city our Jerusalem, this house of God our temple” (467). A few years later, in 1857, Reform rabbi Samuel Adler, shortly after arriving in New York, then a city with slaves and supporters of slavery, declared, “Behind us lies Egypt, the Middle Ages, before us the sea of Talmudic legalism. . . . The spirit indwelling here in the West, the spirit of freedom, is the newly-born Messiah” (483). Viewing Europe as Egypt might be understandable in the nineteenth century, although many Jews were flourishing. But viewing the antebellum United States, where slavery was legal, as the Promised Land?

White American Zion

Portrait of David Einhorn. Wikimedia Commons.

Not all rabbis were spiritually and politically unaware. The goal, David Einhorn declared in his inaugural sermon in Baltimore in 1855, was “the liberation of Judaism for ourselves and for our children, so as to prevent the estrangement from Judaism” (481). Within a few years Einhorn was preaching against slavery—and was run out of town by his pro-slavery congregants.

Jewish religious life in America has often been less about faith in God and more about politics. German Jews who arrived in the United States in the nineteenth century identified as white, with whites, and flourished like other whites as bystanders and beneficiaries of the economy and social stratification produced by slavery. Whether or not they believed in God, they strongly believed that “America is our Zion,” as the leaders of Reform Judaism in America stated in an 1898 statement.

Prophetic justice, as Atalia Omer conceives it, is a revival of religion. To stop injustice and to address and transform violence requires religion. She describes the internal Jewish critique that uses key religious symbols, holidays, and liturgy to criticize Jewish political positions: for example, building a sukkah in front of the Israeli embassy to protest the Israeli government’s treatment of Bedouins. Indeed, Heschel writes that to pray and ignore the injustices of society is blasphemy.

The identification of America as a messianic Zion made the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in October 2018 come to Jews as a huge shock: How could this happen in America? And that shock is precisely the problem. For too long, Jews in America not only identified themselves as white, they identified America with the white experience. Innumerable Black churches have been burned by arsonists and Black worshippers murdered by shooters—think of the 2015 murder of nine worshippers at the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina. That, too, is America and it is not part of the messianic vision. 

Even before white Jews can begin to question their own identity as white people and recognize Jews of color, they have to develop the epistemic ability to recognize the white supremacy of America. When the psalmist writes (Psalm 135:16), “they have eyes but do not see,” idolaters are implicated. But perhaps by turning America into a messianic Zion Jews have made themselves idolaters, or, perhaps, arrivistes: tourists, immigrants, bad observers who have come to sojourn for a time, but not live in America.

Epistemic Resistance

If Judaism is to be decolonized, what must be removed are not only the distortions caused by Euro-Christian hegemony, but also the patterns of Jewish thought and political practices that have arisen in response. These might include Hasidism’s association of piety with particular sexual repressions, Zionism’s assumption that statehood will overcome exile, and German-Jewish thought’s repudiation of both movements, along with its imitation of Lutheran Protestantism. As the racist American rabbi and eventual politician in Israel Meir Kahane correctly noted, removing Jews from exile is easier than removing exile from Jews; the existential sense of being in exile has functioned for too long to justify Jewish indifference to the wider society, downplaying racism while being profoundly attentive to antisemitism. The observation points to the additional question of how Euro-Christian hegemony’s shaping of Judaism can be excised from the minds and emotions of Jews and Judaism.

If Judaism is to be decolonized, what must be removed are not only the distortions caused by Euro-Christian hegemony, but also the patterns of Jewish thought and political practices that have arisen in response.

Perhaps a contrarian embrace of the colonial might be effective in subverting its power. In a similarly suggestive way, Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin writes that “the Jew must be part of the dominant culture but maintain a critical relationship to this dominant culture . . . basing Jewish existence in Israel on the concept of exile means removing the land ‘as place’ and turning it instead into a spiritual concept, thus separating the concrete land from the idea of redemption.” Turning the place of Israel into a spiritual concept would mean re-entering an exilic consciousness that cannot be eradicated by a nation-state, army, or even political sovereignty. But a deeply ingrained exile may also offer the possibility of an ethics of transcultural encounter that links Raz-Krakotzkin with Slabodsky into a political project. Insisting on the state of exile has placed Jews in alliance with conservative evangelical Christians in the belief that Jews stand outside the course of history, living in a theological realm of Heilsgeschichte, governed by an unknowable divine plan. While ostensibly differing from Zionism’s claim to bring Jews back into the course of history, there are surprising links between the exilic and the Zionist claims: both are responses to Euro-Christian hegemony.

The decolonial Judaism that Slabodsky proposes would no longer need to respond to Christian supersessionism with a theology of exile, and a shift to identifying as Jews with the “barbarians” of the Global South would also mark a leap away from the Euro-Christian imperial domain. Indeed, the political decolonization of the twentieth century is no doubt an additional reason for Christian questioning or even withdrawal from its supersessionist theology. Can the existential sense of exile that has pervaded Jewish identity over the centuries be transformed into an active voice for social justice in diaspora?

CLOSE THE CAMPS – Day 26 of a month of actions outside ICE San Francisco. Photo Credit: Flickr User Peg Hunter.

In diaspora the souls of Jews, too, can grow deep as rivers. In Babylon, “we lay down and wept,” but today there is no time for weeping. Authoritarian regimes abound, massive corruption prospers, racism is now recognized as a public health crisis, antisemitism is growing yet is cynically manipulated by some Jews for political gain, the gap between the wealthy few and the impoverished many is turning the world into a giant slave plantation. And yet even in our anger, the prophet Habakkuk reminds us, we must remember mercy (3:2).

We Cannot Walk Away from the Prophetic

What the prophets accomplish is a transformation of exilic mentality into a position of marginality within diaspora: the lonely but very loud voice of justice, compassion, and hope that constitute the promised redemption. Jeremiah’s voice is clear: “They know no bounds in deeds of wickedness; they judge not with justice the cause of the fatherless, the rights of the needy. Shall I not punish them for these things, says the Lord, and shall I not avenge myself on a nation such as this?” (5:28-29) According to the prophets, the ultimate expression of God is not wisdom, magnificence, land, glory, nor even love, but rather justice. Zion, Isaiah declares, shall be redeemed by justice, and those who repent, by righteousness. Justice is the tool of God, the manifestation of God, the means of our redemption and the redemption of God from human mendacity. Isaiah asks, “Can we abandon despair and find the inner resources to respond when God asks? Who will speak for me? Who will remember the covenant of peace and compassion? 

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.

Susannah Heschel
Susannah Heschel is the Eli M. Black Distinguished Professor and chair of the Jewish Studies Program at Dartmouth College. The author of Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany, and Jüdischer Islam: Islam und jüdisch-deutsche Selbstbestimmung, she and Umar Ryad have just co-edited The Muslim Reception of European Orientalism. She has also edited Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays of Abraham Joshua Heschel. The recipient of four honorary doctorates, she has held research grants from the Carnegie Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the National Humanities Center, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin.  

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