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Israel Replaces Torah In State Controlled Judaism, Writes Prof. Ellis

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
July-August 2001

The State of Israel, not Torah and God, has become central to the state-controlled Judaism which exists in Israel and for many in the organized American Jewish community, writes Professor Marc Ellis in Tikkun (JulyAugust 2001).  

Dr. Ellis, University Professor of American and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for American and Jewish Studies at Baylor University, compares today's statecontrolled Judaism with the statecontrolled Christianity of the Roman Empire: "The Judaism which is presently practiced in Israel and among the Jewish leadership in America parallels the ties that Christianity has had in nationstates after it was elevated from a persecuted sect to a state religion. Historians call the linking of the Christian Church to the state Constantinian Christianity. We must begin to consider that, in the State of Israel, we now have a Constantinian Judaism."  

Constantinian Christianity, Ellis notes, "transformed its ethical and spiritual witness into a set of policies that legitimated the state and elevated its own respectability...Is not this what has happened to Judaism in our time, the initiation of a Constantinian Judaism in service to the state and to power? Are not Jewish dissidents in the same position that Christian dissidents find themselves?"  

Defending Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, in Ellis' view, makes Judaism something quite different from a universal moral and ethical system: "How much more can ethics be challenged than the wholesale dislocation of a people, aerial bombardments of defenseless cities, closures of towns and villages for weeks and months at a time, assassination squads and torture legitimated by courts? How long before an ethical tradition is simply declared dead rather than argued for in compromise?"  

What has happened, Ellis argues, is that, "Israel itself becomes the new center of the canon, invoked with a regularity that is reminiscent of the cycle of Torah readings. A new Torah comes into being, with the tension in the traditional canon replaced by an alternating rhythm of suffering and empowerment in the contemporary world. Of the ancient Torah and the rabbinic framework, only that which speaks to the Holocaust and Israel is relevant. The ancient bends to the contemporary or is rejected...In an era when the central religious commandment of our time is empowerment rather than the critique of power, the prophetic call to conscience must be disciplined and relegated to a secondary status...Jewish life takes precedence over the prophetic and the ethics of Jewish power trumps the power of Jewish ethics..."  

Ellis concludes: "The arrival of helicopter gunships as the witness of the Jewish people, as central to Jewish life as the Torah once was, and the gathering of millions of Jews in a nationstate that in its creation caused a catastrophe for the Palestinian people, do not demonize Jewish history or relegate it only to a colonial and imperial power. The militarization of Jewish life and thought can be recognized and opposed without condemning the struggles and limitations of Jewish history as told through the biblical canon or through a history of rejection and ghettoization...At this point in our history, only the prophets can point the way forward. Their power is limited, to be sure, and the cycle of violence will, at least for the foreseeable future, continue. In this cycle, more Palestinians, and some Jews, will die. Those deaths will be accompanied by the delay of freedom for a people and the destruction of a long and eventful history of suffering and struggle. The prophets have no power to grant this freedom or to salvage this history, only to witness to the possibility of another way that joins Palestinians and Jews in a bond that brings forth life rather than death."  

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