A Jewish Theology of Liberation

A review of Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation, 3rd expanded edition, by Marc H. Ellis.  Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2004.  First Published in the Journal of Palestine Studies (2005).

At the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney stated, “The story of the camps reminds us that evil is real and it must be called by its name and it must be confronted.” Palestinians who experience the contemporary evils of home demolitions, apartheid wall, and “collateral damage” from extrajudicial assassinations may wonder when the U.S. government will confront these evils as it retrospectively “confronts” those of Nazi Germany.

It is this juxtaposition—formal, solemn remembrance of the Holocaust in Europe now presided over by influential government leaders, and the ongoing atrocities and injustices in Palestine—that Marc Ellis has spent two decades trying to fathom.  Here, in the third edition of his Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation, Ellis presents an updated and concise record of this journey in understanding. 

Jewish theology necessarily arises out of the formative events of the Jewish people.  And the two universally recognized formative events Jews have experienced in recent times are the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel.  Ellis surveys the work of Holocaust theologians who attempted to respond to the mass murder of millions of Jews in Christian Europe, and how they variously developed critiques not only of Christianity but also of the Jewish tradition and modernity as well.

It was only after the June 1967 war that Holocaust theology took off and moved to the center of Jewish life.  In the subsequent years, the operative framework for many Jewish theologians and institutions was this remembrance of the Holocaust and the support for Jewish empowerment, most notably in the State of Israel.  It is this empowerment, both in the Middle East and in the United States, which Ellis finds in need of religious reflection, specifically, the time-honored Jewish refusal of idolatry. Such a critique leads Jews to practice solidarity with those whom Edward Said once described as “the victims of the victims,” the Palestinian people.

Ellis identifies a long lineage of Jewish dissent on Israel and Palestine that goes from Martin Buber and Hannah Arendt through Noam Chomsky and Sara Roy onto Gideon Levy and Amira Hass.  He also examines the Jewish liturgy of destruction in which Jews use ancient archetypes to reckon with and make sense of modern catastrophes; he argues that in order to be historically accurate and ethically authentic, the Jewish people must also include the narrative and affliction of the Palestinians in their own Jewish narratives.

Ellis’s work is not a systematic theological treatise.  Indeed, its indebtedness to a dynamic history forecloses this possibility, as he continually seeks resources from the margins to illuminate the Jewish struggle to respond to the crisis in Israel-Palestine. As Ellis has incorporated in this volume his further reflections on the first and second intifadas as well as the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, he has come to a new articulation of the fundamental danger facing Jews.  That danger is what he bitingly refers to as a “Constantinian Judaism” whose qualities include: “the normalization of Jewish life in Israel and America; the continued and expanded empowerment of Jews in both societies; the conquering of Palestine and with that, and for all practical purposes, the quieting of Jewish dissent.” (p. 232).

Ellis does not shrink from the awful facts on the ground and the grim struggle for survival among the Palestinians. And yet, the prophetic impulse itself is based on the hope for a transformation, individual, cultural, political, and religious.  Surely, there continue to be hopeful signs of fidelity, if only at the grassroots, such as the Israeli refuseniks and the International Solidarity Movement (which embodies the dangerous practice of critical solidarity Ellis has long championed).

The Catholic El Salvadoran theologian Jon Sobrino was once asked in the early 1990s if liberation theology had become passé. He responded that, as long as there is oppression, there will be liberation theologies to respond to this suffering.  Like Rosemary and Herman Ruether’s similarly critical work from an American Christian perspective (The Wrath of Jonah), Ellis’s Toward Jewish Theology of Liberation will remain a valuable resource for Jews, Christians, and others as long as the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians continues.

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