Video: Reimagining and Rewriting Jewish Liturgy

April 28, 2021
Torah scroll
This discussion featured RCPI Topol Fellow Rabbi Brant Rosen and Professor Susannah Heschel. It was moderated by RCPI Senior Fellow Professor Atalia Omer.

This conversation featured RCPI Topol Fellow Rabbi Brant Rosen and Professor Susannah Heschel, and was moderated by RCPI Senior Fellow Professor Atalia Omer.

Rabbi Brant Rosen of Tzedek Chicago, a non-Zionist congregation, discussed with Professor Susannah Heschel his effort to reimagine Jewish liturgy, community, and meanings beyond Zionist frames. They also examined what it means to (re)write and write anew Jewish prayers that address the realities of Jewish power and complicity with violence, and how the concept of exile/diaspora originated and functioned in Jewish history.



ATALIA OMER: Good morning, good afternoon, good evening. Greetings wherever you are and in whatever time zone you may be. My name is Atalia Omer and I'm a Professor of Religion, Conflict, and Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. I'm also a senior fellow with the Harvard Divinity School's Religion, Conflict, and Peace Initiative, where my esteemed colleagues are. Professor Diane Moore and Hilary Rantisi. The Religion, Conflict, and Peace Initiative is hosting this event. Many Thanks to Reem Atassi and Nava Hardin for a lot of logistics and hard work behind the scenes.

I want to start with a few brief words about the Religion, Conflict, and Peace Initiative. A part of the new religion and public life program, the Religion, Conflict, and Peace Initiative centralizes an analysis of structural injustice, violence, and power, and examines how a more capacious understanding of religion can yield fresh insights into contemporary challenges and opportunities for justice-oriented peace-building. The primary case study we are focusing on is that of Palestine, Israel.

Our aim is to stretch the scholarly discourse around religion and the practices of peace-building, and examine the decolonial potentialities of art, religion, and identity transformation, through rewriting social and political and religious scripts. With this framing in mind, and also with an acute awareness that the outcome of the elections held today in Israel, the fourth in two years, will likely result in the most extreme ethnoreligious-centric coalition in Israel's history. Nevertheless, we are going to hold a wonderful conversation today.

Rabbi Brant Rosen has been in the past year a Topol Fellow in Conflict and Peace with us here at the Religion, Conflict, and Peace Initiative at Harvard. Rabbi Rosen is the founder of Tzedek Chicago, a non-Zionist Jewish congregation based on the core values of justice, anti-racism, and solidarity with the oppressed, including Palestinians. The event today, as we are approaching quickly the Jewish holiday of Pesach, or Passover, emerges out of his fellowship's project, which involves writing a book of new Jewish prayers, which re-imagine Jewish liturgy through values of liberation, the prophetic imperative to speak truth to power, and a diaspora-based vision that interprets the entire world as the Jewish Homeland. Rabbi Rosen will engage here in a conversation with a most fitting and perfect interlocutor.

Professor Susannah Heschel is the Eli M. Black Distinguished Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College where she's also the chair of the Jewish Studies Department. In a number of publications she has intervened in multiple scholarly conversations, including the modern history of Jewish and Protestant thought, the history of anti-Semitism, and Jewish feminist ethics. Those of you who registered in advance may have had a chance to read two short documents-- one by Rabbi Rosen titled, Toward the Judaism beyond Zionism, and the other, an essay by Professor Heschel, published recently on the Contending Modernities blog based at the University of Notre Dame, entitled Ending Exile with the Prophetic Voice of the Diasporic Jew.

These documents just offer a bit of a background with the structure of the conversation that is about to unfold here. Let us now proceed, but before we do, I wanted to acknowledge my presence here in South Bend, Indiana, on the traditional homelands of native peoples, particularly the Pokagon Potawatomi, who have been using this land for education for thousands of years and continue to do so. So let us begin with-- maybe I should invite the participants to turn on the camera so that I'll not speak to darkness--

Right, so let's start with Rabbi Rosen. And I would like to invite you to explain what led you to your effort to re-imagine Jewish liturgy through an anti-militarist, emancipatory, post-nationalist, and Palestine solidarity presence. Where did the need come from? And also, can you offer specific examples of your poetic and liturgical innovations, and share with us a bit about your interpretive process that you employ in rewriting Jewish communal meanings?

BRANT ROSEN: Thank you Atalia. And before I begin, I just want to express my gratitude for being able to be part of this session, particularly to the Religion, Conflict, and Peace Initiative at Harvard. It's been such an important place for me this past year, its support of my work, getting to know the other members of the fellowship, has been a really tremendous experience for me and led to all kinds of areas I never would have dreamed of as I began to do this work. And so thank you to Atalia. I'm also just so pleased to be able to be sharing this webinar with Susannah as well.

So just a little bit of background, we founded Tzedek Chicago in the spring of 2015, so we're in the middle of our sixth year, and we founded the congregation really I think for just a very basic reason. It was originally intended to be a congregation for Jews who did not consider themselves to be Zionist, or who consider themselves to be actively anti-Zionist. Just about every liberal Jewish congregation in the country-- in the United States, in North America-- is, what I would call, Zionist by default in many, many different ways. It's manifest in many different ways. And we can talk more about that if people are interested. But for people for whom this was not just a matter of style or taste or opinion, but for whom we were really not willing to participate in a fusing of Jewish spiritual tradition with a settler colonial enterprise-- with an ethnonational, political project-- it felt like there was just no place for us.

And so, together with a number of people who were members of my previous congregation in Evanston, Illinois, and others in the community, people who-- we knew one another-- who had never really been part of a congregation for this reason, we founded Tzedek Chicago. And we did that initially by crafting these core values, to which you alluded, Atalia. We wanted to be very clear before we recruited our first member, before our first member joined the congregation, that we were very, very clear that we were an intentional community. So it was very clear that our approach to being non-Zionist, our status of being non-Zionist, was part of a larger anti-militarist, anti-colonial, anti-racist frame for our congregation.

So early on we really began to realize that it wasn't enough to simply say we're not Zionists and we began to explore, almost from the outset, what that would really mean in a religious congregational context. And also many of the people in the congregation are active in the Palestine Solidarity Movement and had political outlets for this work. So if standing in solidarity with Palestinians as a Jew was something more than simply a political issue, but really something we understood as a religious imperative, we needed to explore what that meant.

And so that's when the liturgical aspect began to emerge. It was manifest in many different ways, but in terms of the prayers that I began to craft, it became clear to me that Zionism has left an imprint on Jewish liturgy in lots of direct ways and lots of indirect ways. And in order to be true to the core values that we espoused, the approach to liturgy became something that became very, very important. For me, in particular.

I've long been writing creative Jewish liturgy for a long time-- I did it in my former congregations as well-- not because I necessarily fancied myself as a poet or liturgist, but really because it began out of just a necessity that, when it came to creative liturgy there was some wonderful work out there. But, you know, I reached a point where, if I wanted really the kind of prayer that I wanted to express, it became clear to me I needed to write them myself. And so it was really kind of utilitarian approach.

So there are many different ways that this is manifest in the liturgy that we've been using in the congregation. The liturgy that I'm referring to has largely been in English although there have been some examples of it in Hebrew as well. And I think maybe the best way for me to explain my approach, and the way that these values, these core values, are expressed through these prayers, is to share a few of them with you. So the first one I want to share is, since as you mentioned, Atalia, that the holiday of Pesach, of Passover, is coming up beginning this weekend, I thought I would share a prayer that I wrote several years ago for use on Pesach.

And it's just-- to give you a little bit of an introduction-- it's a version from the Haggadah that has to do with children asking questions. In the Torah it mentions, at the very first commandment to keep the Seder in Egypt before the exodus, that God says to Moses and the Israelites, that when your child asks, what is the meaning of this, you will explain to them. And that became, in many ways the foundation for the Seder experience writ large, that it is really a series of questions. So I will share my screen now with you. And this is a prayer entitled Your Child Will Ask.

"Your child will ask why do we observe this festival? And you will answer it is because of what God did for us when we were set free from the land of Egypt. Your child will ask were we set free from the land of Egypt that we might hold tightly to the pain of our enslavement with a mighty hand? And you will answer we were set free from Egypt that we might release our pain by reaching with an outstretched arm to all who struggle for freedom.

Your child will ask where we set free from the land of Egypt because we are God's chosen people? And you will answer we were set free from the land of Egypt so that we will finally come to learn all who are oppressed are God's chosen. Your child will ask where are we set free from the land of Egypt that we might conquer and settle a land inhabited by others? And you will answer we were set free from the land of Egypt that we might open wide the doors to proclaim, let all who are dispossessed return home. Let all who wander find welcome at the table. Let all who hunger for liberation come and eat."

And just to give you a little bit of a background of some of the imagery here. The first question really comes directly from the Torah-- you will answer, it is because of what God did for us when we were set free from the land in Egypt. And then I expanded outward, really going from the-- as you can probably sense-- from the particular to the universal. And our universalism is a very important part of the core values of our congregation-- that we do not understand these rituals, and these prayers, and really, the Jewish tradition as a whole, to only be about us. And particularly when we talk about the core narrative of liberation, that we use our narrative of liberation as a way of expanding outward to understand our solidarity with all who seek liberation.

The reference to holding on to the pain of our enslavement with a mighty hand really is a, maybe not so oblique, reference to the ways in which Israeli society in particular is a traumatized society. And the way that trauma is manifest is often-- in many different ways-- but often it's manifest through the oppression of the Palestinian people, projecting our trauma outward-- the use of the image of the outstretched arm. But here, really understanding God as being manifest-- God's outstretched arm being manifest-- through stretching our arms out and reaching out to, and joining together with, all who struggle for freedom.

The idea that all who are oppressed are God's chosen. Some of that comes from my background as a reconstructionist Jew, and reconstructionist Judaism, which was founded by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, has been famous-- and some might say notorious-- for rejecting the idea of Jews as somehow God's elect or God's chosen. But here I wanted to play with the idea that, if we're looking at a liberatory approach, and we're looking to lift up the narrative of liberation for Jews and all people, to understand that all who are oppressed people are God's chosen.

And then a very direct reference to, not only what's going on in Israel Palestine, but this final question really was my attempt to reckon with the conquest tradition in the Torah. Because the Exodus story is not only about the exodus from Egypt, it's about the exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt so that they may go into a land, dispossess its inhabitants of-- the Canaanites of the land-- and settle it, through the command of God. So this is really an attempt to begin a conversation of how we might reckon with this conquest tradition, which is an integral part of the Exodus narrative, but also, clearly, making that as a reference to the reality of Israel Palestine today. That the so-called liberation of the Jewish people, as the Zionist narrative would have it, came through the dispossession of the people who lived in that land before.

So that's one example and I will share now another prayer. And this is a prayer for Nakba Day. So one of the ways that congregations, as I mentioned before, are Zionist by default, is that many holidays which are really Israeli holidays-- holidays that were instituted by Israel after its founding in 1948-- have become a very regular part of the American Jewish religious calendar. So, in particular, Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, is a regular part of American Jewish ritual, along with our ancient festivals. Yom HaZikaron, Israeli Memorial Day, is another example of that.

So rather than understanding the founding of the State of Israel as a form of redemption for the Jewish people, we understand this, as I mentioned before, as coming on top of those who were living in the land previously, the Palestinian people. And Nakba Day, Nakba being the day that Palestinians refer to as the day of their catastrophe, of their dispossession. We feel that it's important to mark this time not as a redemptive, liberative time for the Jewish people, but rather a time to reckon with the meaning of this dispossession. Both in terms of us understanding it, understanding the history of it, being honest about that, but also bringing in the concept of teshuvah, of Jewish repentance, and ultimately pointing toward reconciliation. That is really the meaning of this time for the Jewish people. So this prayer that I wrote, it's a Jewish prayer for Nakba Day. I'll read it first and then unpack it.

"Le'el she'chafetz teshuvah, to the One who desires return. Receive with the fullness of your mercy the hopes and prayers of those who are uprooted, dispossessed and expelled from their homes during the devastation of the Nakba. Sanctify for tov u'veracha for goodness and blessing, the memory of those who were killed in Lydda, in Haifa and Beisan, in Deir Yassin and so many other villages and cities throughout Palestine. Grant chesed ve'rachamim, kindness and compassion, upon the memory of the expelled who died from hunger, thirst and exhaustion along the way.

Shelter beneath kanfei ha'shechinah, the soft wings of your divine presence, those who still live under military occupation, who dwell in refugee camps, those dispersed throughout the world still dreaming of return. Gather them mai'arbah kanfot ha'aretz from the four corners of the earth that their right to return to their homes be honored at long last. That all who dwell in the land live in dignity, equity and hope so that they may bequeath to their children a future of justice and peace. Ve'nomar and let us say, Amen.

Le'el she'chafetz teshuvah, to the One who desires repentance. Inspire us to make a full accounting of the wrongdoing that was committed in our name. Help us to face the terrible truth of the Nakba and its ongoing injustice that we may finally confess our offenses, that we may finally move toward a future of reparation and reconciliation. Le'el malei rachamim, to the One filled with compassion.

Show us how to understand the pain that compelled our people to inflict such suffering upon another-- dispossessing families from their homes in the vain hope of safety and security for our own. Osei hashalom, Maker of peace. Guide us all toward a place of healing and wholeness that the land may be filled with the sounds of joy and gladness from the river to the sea speedily in our day. Ve'nomar and let us say, Amen."

So just briefly, this prayer uses many traditional Jewish images and references to-- theological references. But the main frame that I used in this prayer is the concept of teshuvah and teshuvah literally means return, but it's also the word that Jews use for repentance and atonement, particularly on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, teshuvah is essentially a central guiding theme of the holiday. So what I did with this prayer was really played with the two sides of teshuvah. In the first half of the prayer teshuvah referring to the desire of return for the Palestinian people, and teshuvah in the second half of the prayer for the Jewish people focusing on the concept of atonement of our, as I said before, a reckoning with the meaning of this dispossession.

And, as I said before, this is a prayer that we at Tzedek Chicago pray while many in the Jewish world are celebrating Yom Ha'atzmaut, as an Independence Day, as a day of really almost religious understanding of redemption of the Jewish people, we understand it in a decidedly different way. So I'll stop there. There's much more to say but I'll turn it back over to you Atalia.

ATALIA OMER: Great, thank you, yes, a lot is already on the table. And I would like to turn now to Professor Heschel and to invite you to-- well to respond to whatever you want to respond-- but also I was thinking specifically of the essay that you recently authored that I mentioned earlier, where you write, "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." End of quote.

So I wonder if you could elaborate on this intervention that you are making here in terms of understanding the decolonial move as offering glimpses of prophetic pathways and to the degree to which you see your position is similar to Brant's position and perhaps identify where you see divergences. So the stage is yours.

SUSANNAH HESCHEL: Thank you much Atalia, for organizing our conversation today, and Brant, it's great to be with you. I very much appreciate what you just spoke about Brant I would just say that one of the nice things about what you're doing with Passover is, that you're shifting the Seder from what Israel Yuval has described as an anti-Christian polemic, to something that is far more Jewishly oriented. And I appreciate that. The Haggadah shouldn't just be a polemic against certain Christian claims that when we hold up the matzah we say, Ha Lachma Anya, this is the bread of affliction, you Christians just say, this is the body of Christ, you're wrong, we're right-- that kind of polemic. It's nice to move away from that. So thank you for that.

I think in terms of what has happened as what you've called the Zionisation of Judaism in America as well is seen visually also in the Israeli flag at the front of the synagogue, along with the American flag. I don't know why flags are there anyway, that's strikes me as inappropriate, on the contrary, and I'll say a word about why, but it's also in the day schools nowadays. Traditionally when you study, when a child went to [INAUDIBLE] and began to learn Torah, they began with Va-yikra, with Leviticus, and now they're starting with Joshua. And I saw that when my children went to Solomon Schechter and I realized why-- because it's a militaristic conquest of the Land of Canaan. And I was just shocked-- they didn't begin with Genesis, with Exodus, but with Joshua.

So that's an example of it and Rachel Havrelock has a new book in which she talks about that. So those are just some of the ways that, you're right, our Judaism has been turned into a kind of extension of Israel, Zionization, however you want to call it. Ya, so I appreciate what you're doing I come to-- I come to this question perhaps from a slightly different angle. And that is having been influenced by Atalia's work, Atalia Omer's work, and also by the work of Santiago Slabodsky.

And the question for me has been, we talk about liberation from Egypt and then going into exile. And exile is something that every Jew hears all the time-- we lived in exile until 1948-- I don't know who started this, but of course, we haven't been. That is the Romans never issued an edict of exile, Jews remained in the land of Israel, they wrote a Talmud there, they wrote midrashim there, no one exiled us. So what are we talking about?

So it turns out that the idea of being an exile was something that developed around the fifth century and primarily in relation to the Babylonians of the 6th century BCE to that conquest, but there was no edict of exile, Jews have lived in that land. But the vast majority of them, even in the year 7 BCE when the Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem, there were so many Jews living all over the world at that point, living in Egypt and Alexandria, and Elephantine, in Rome and Babylonia Certainly one of my students recently was so sweet-- was so shocked-- at all we had done in Babylonian exile. And said, why isn't that our homeland? That's Iraq today! I just loved his expression, his amazement, at that. So yes, we were in Babylonia, and that's where we wrote the Talmud. And it's in the Babylonian Talmud, the rabbi sitting in Babylonia, saying the only place for Jews to be is in the land of Israel. What do you mean? You're in Babylonia, why are you saying this?

So first of all, we have this myth of having been in exile, and what has that done to us? It has no political basis but it has taken on kind of a sense of identity, has a lot of affect associated with it, it's a way for Jews to feel lachrymose about Jewish history. And it's that internalization of a feeling of exile the affect of it, that's very problematic. It's a very problematic. And I actually would also say that those Zionist thinkers who thought that moving to the land of Israel and establishing a state would be a negation and an end of exile, they're wrong.

And my father actually talks about this, that Israel itself is in golus. What is golus? What is exile? It means on the day of the celebration of Independence Day, when they have parades, they have tanks and jet fighters, that's golus. What does that mean? It means where are the values, where the Jewish values? Precisely what you're talking about Brant, what do we stand for? Do we stand for tanks and planes? What do we stand for?

And so first Atalia's work and then Santiago's work. What I liked was the formulation, first of all, I very much appreciate Atalia demonstrating that religion has to be present for political purposes, that there is no divorce between the political and the religious. And she shows that very clearly, and you exemplify that too, Brant. And then Santiago comes from South America, from Argentina, where there's a vital Jewish community, by the way that nobody seems to pay much attention to unfortunately, but he comes with this marvelous voice and talks about the Global South And he talks about all kinds of interesting thinkers in the Global South that really need to be part of our conversation and Jewish thought.

He talks about a deep colonial Judaism meaning we, in Jewish thought, whether we talk about Buber and Rosenzweig and Levinas and Moses Mendelssohn and so on, there are all these European thinkers who are engaged with European, Western, Christian ideas and either to refute Kant or to accept Hegel or whatever you want to do-- it's time to get away from that. And he says, what are these Europeans doing? They're colonizing the world-- 85% of the land mass of earth was under colonial domination by the First World War. So Santiago says, we, as Jews, instead of worrying about trying to talk about the Christians in the European-- the West, let's instead identify with the barbarians. The barbarians, namely the people that were viewed as barbarians by this Christian, Western, imperialist mentality, let's identify as Jews with those people and see where it leads us.

Because, in fact, Zionism has identified with the European Western notions of the imperial and the colonized, and so forth. By trying to take us-- we as Jews-- take ourselves out of having been colonized by the West, having been deprived of sovereignty and now establishing sovereignty, we've simply taken ourselves out of having been the victims of Christian supersessionism, to be identifying with those supersessionists. So how can we then develop a Judaism that identifies with the so-called barbarians? And that's what's interesting to me and that's where I see our connections-- for the three of us, and I bring in Santiago, as well.

ATALIA OMER: Yes, wonderful. And I hope Santiago is somewhere there in the cyber audience and he's listening to this conversation. I want to invite Brand to respond to whatever kind of generated reaction for you in Susannah's remarks. And also ask you, since I'm aware that we are actually we are very short in time, I would like to ask you to speak a little bit about the degree to which reimagining Jewish liturgy, as you've been engaging in, and also reimagining Jewish community, specifically American Jewish community, is relational and directly connected to your sense-- or maybe unpack a little bit more since you've shared with us that the Nakba prayer-- your sense of Jewish complicity and atonement and responsibility to what is done in your name. So it's not about injustice in general, but it's injustice that is specifically related to Jewish power.

So I want to invite you to speak a bit more about that and also recognizing that one of the challenges of Jewish re-scripting is to also disengage from kind of this Jewish assimilation into whiteness, which also relates to what Susannah just said. And this also requires an interrogation of the marginality of Jews of color and non-Ashkenazi Jews or non-European Jews. And so to what degree such kind of intra-Jewish scrutiny is relevant for a liturgical and communal reconfiguration that you are a part of, you are one kind of author in that process of rescripting, which relates to many of the points that Susannah highlighted.

BRANT ROSEN: Sure, so to Susannah's first point, you know I've been thinking a great deal about this, you know, the lachrymose vision of Jewish history and what this notion of exile does to us in a spiritual, cellular kind of way. And I think Zionism really lifted that up in a very big way with their concept of Shelilat ha-galut that they saw-- what they call a negation of the exile-- that they saw the diaspora as just a thoroughly inhospitable place for Jews to live. And that the only place for Jews to really fulfill their future as Jews, both physically and existentially, was the land of Israel.

And I've been thinking a great deal too about the idea of galut or exile versus the idea of diaspora, which I think are different. And I prefer to use the word diaspora, actually, and to think of what we're doing at Tzedek as a diasporous approach to Judaism. You know, exile, as you put it Susannah, it implies that we are somehow cut off, that to be Jewish means to be cut off from our source. And that it also means to be vulnerable. You know the word, 'galut' comes from the verb that means exposed or open or vulnerable or naked, you know, it's the same word that was used to refer to Noah in the book of Genesis when he was naked, you know, passed out naked in his tent. And that has a certain connotation, but diaspora literally means scattered. it literally means we are of the world.

And, as you put it, Judaism, as a tradition, really was born in the diaspora. It's an inherently diasporous approach to understanding our place and Babylonia being one of the many important foci of that world. And so I'm thinking a great deal about this concept of diaspora and understanding of diaspora as-- diaspora as homeland, paradoxically. You know that one of the real beauties of Jewish tradition and Jewish life is that we are this multiethnic, multicultural, transnational people. And that's what's kept us alive which is, in many ways, so unique.

More recently there's been studies and diaspora studies and diaspora of other peoples as well. And I think diasporas vary from people to people and even within Judaism. I don't know if--

SUSANNAH HESCHEL: I want to interrupt for just a second. If you don't mind, OK? What I want to clarify is just one thing which is what I wrote for the blog that Atalia Omer edits, it's called Contending Modernities. And what I distinguished there and, have a look at it when you have a minute, is between exile and diaspora is the following. I identified the diasporic position as the prophetic position. A prophet is not a sovereign by definition and a prophet cannot be in exile or there is no real voice. There's a voice perhaps of lament but not a call of prophetic justice to the sovereign.

So it's really only in the position of diaspora-- that is, one who is present, not in power but also not excluded, but present-- that is the position of the prophet. So that's how I understand diaspora. It's not about where you live or being integrated into a society, that's not really the point. The point is the diaspora has a moral meaning and a theological meaning for me, it is the prophetic position. Exile means you've just walked away from the whole thing, you're disengaged, or you're disempowered, you have no voice, nothing. And it may be that the prophet speaks on behalf of those in exile but that is why diaspora is important. That's the diasporic position, to be in the prophetic position.

And so that means not simply blending into the background in the United States when you write a prayer, Brant, about whether it's Passover or about the Nakba, you are taking a prophetic position. You're not in exile, and you're also not in power, you're not the sovereign. So that's my distinction, that's where it fits in. And I think it's very important for us as Jews to assume that position and not simply regard diaspora as the place of having fun in a multicultural setting. It means taking certain responsibility politically.

ATALIA OMER: And maybe, since we are just to stay for a second on this point, I would like to hear from both of you your thoughts with respect to the place of Zion. What is Zion within the Jewish liturgical imagination? Is it metaphorical, is it concrete is it a place, what is it? And if it is a metaphor, to what degree it doesn't-- that kind process of metaphoricalization-- is not complicit with a supersecessionist framework. And a different side of this question is, just echoing what Susannah just said, to what degree do you think it's possible for Jews in Israel, in that space Palestine Israel, to imagine their Jewishness as diasporates. So to what degree the conversation is, kind of by default, outside of the space, and to what degree we can think about the space in relation to this conversation. So to both of you this is the question.


SUSANNAH HESCHEL: Brand, would you have been comfortable with Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem and Bergmann and others in the binationalist movement?

BRANT ROSEN: You know, I think about that a great deal and I-- it was such a different time and place-- I think they were really responding to the growth of Zionism and the movement toward a ethnically Jewish state with a specific political program. You know, ironically I think what they would be considered today would be anti-Zionist. What was called by binationalist you know, the Brit Tzedek folks, Judah Magnus and Buber and others, I think today they'd be probably drummed out of the Jewish community for their points of view.

So you know, I learn a great deal from them, I appreciate their point of view, they were in a very distinct minority, but they were an important minority. You know I think a great deal about Hannah Arendt's warnings on the eve of the establishment of the State saying, you know, Israel is going to become this Sparta in the Middle East-- the Jewish Sparta and the Middle East. And it's amazing how prescient her words were. So you know, I learn a great deal from them and I identify a great deal with what they're saying, but also am aware that so much has changed since that time.

And I often think about what they would be saying today. I often think about what your father would be saying today. You know, the circumstances of the birth of the State of Israel resulted in such huge dispossession, such massive dispossession, of hundreds of thousands of people. That was really kept at bay in the Jewish world for a very long time and that dam is starting to break now.

I also, I just wanted to say I deeply appreciate your connection with the prophetic of the diaspora. And I think that's a very important connection to be making. Within Israel I know there are-- I think there are Israelis that are prophetic in that way. To Susannah's point that Israel is, in many ways, living in a kind of galut experience itself. I think speaking truth to power can happen in many different places and it does happen in Israel. I think it's a very distinct and embattled minority but there are Israeli galut prophets, or diaspora prophets, I would say.

Just briefly to your question to tell you about Zion. You know Zion is a very rich metaphor and it's understood in many, many different ways. It refers, yes, to a very specific place in Jerusalem or even a mountain in Jerusalem, but it also in the rabbinic imagination refers to wisdom, it refers to the Jewish people, Zion has taken on many, many different layers. And one of the things that the Zionist movement when it coined itself as Zionism, it really conflated all of those metaphors into the most specific literal physical meaning of that term.

And to both reclaim what Zionism could be as a metaphor, as you were saying, that Zion can exist anywhere as an idea. The rabbis talked about Yerushalayim shel mata and Yerushalayim shel mala, that there's an earthly Jerusalem and a heavenly Jerusalem, and you might say that Zionism has become so fixated on Yerushalayim shel mata that the notion of a more transcendent Zion, of a Zion that could exist wherever we might live in the world, wherever we are speaking prophetically to power, as Susannah is suggesting, is something that we can and should be affirming.

So I think all metaphors have their limits. I think this overemphasis on Zion, which is just one of many, many different images in Jewish tradition, can sometimes be self-defeating. But I've written prayers and written liturgies that talk about understanding and anywhere you live is can has the potential to be your Zion. If we understand Zion as the most transcendent aspirations of liberation and justice in our world.

ATALIA OMER: Susannah, do you want to also speak to this point?

SUSANNAH HESCHEL: Well I suppose that would leave us with the question of whether Zion should be retained as a metaphor for a messianic future. That is, does it have a role in a messianic future that is a future of justice for all? I personally am drawn to the binationalists, in other words, if Israel were a binational Jewish Arab state, with equality for all of its citizens, a Democratic state, would I have a problem with it at that point? I don't think so.

BRANT ROSEN: Me neither.

SUSANNAH HESCHEL: Yeah, and in some sense, I think that with all the criticisms that we have of Israel and of the Zionist project, there are some simple things that can be done to correct. It's not a disaster, it can be corrected, in other words. I don't think it will be in our lifetime. But yes, that's the question. So is Zion a metaphor for the future, for messianic future? Does it have a place? Does it evoke the kind of image of justice that we hope for, or does it need to be detached from the profit stream of world peace?

BRANT ROSEN: I would say messianic, not necessarily the way that the rabbis have all defined the messianic kingdom, but also not the messianic world that the Zionist movement is trying to embody in political nationalism, but a different kind of messianism. As you're saying, it-- I'm often struck that the mere suggestion that everybody who lives between the river and the sea should be a citizen with equal rights is considered heresy in the Jewish world, in the organized Jewish world. That shows how far away from that messianic ideal which we find ourselves.

To your question Atalia, about the intra-Jewish communal conversation, particularly around Jews of color, I think that's something that we're discovering very, very quickly is a voice that needs to be centered. And I make no bones about that, I think that if we are going to understand the kind of Jewish community that Susannah and Santiago and others have been suggesting, the voices of Jews of color and Jews in the Global South have been kept out of the conversation for far too long. And I think that voice is absolutely essential, I mean, it needs to be put front and center if this vision is going to get any kind of foothold for the future.

ATALIA OMER: Yeah, and I personally would also add the kind of Global South that exists within the Israeli framework itself and that includes also, the inhabitants of south Tel Aviv for instance. Thinking about the experience of Arab Jews and non-Ashkenazi Jews, within that broader kind of ideological framework. Because often they are-- they could be potential allies and co-resistors-- and often are kind of precluded from thinking about liberation as an emancipatory vision.

So there are quite a few questions lined up in the Q&A. One question, which I think that was addressed but I'm going to ask nonetheless just to make sure that it kind of feels conveyed. It's by Rabbi Salzman who writes this laments for the Nakba are strong and I note that they lack a section about the sufferings too of Israelis, so the liturgy reads unbalanced and lacks that universal yearning for shalom, fullness, for all. So Rabbi Rosen do you want to respond to this?

BRANT ROSEN: Yes, I think part of my approach in that prayer was going on the assumption that Israeli yearning and Israeli pain and Israeli sense of suffering has been foregrounded exclusively in the American Jewish community. And so, on one level, I think by writing that prayer I was attempting to rewrite that balance. But also, you may remember, that there was a reference in that prayer to our pain, to the pain of the Israeli people and the Jewish people, and that the tragedy of our current situation, and the tragedy of Zionism, is that we manifested our pain through inflicting pain on other people.

And that is also something that I don't think we reckon with in a serious way in the American Jewish community. So if it feels unbalanced I would cop to that, to some extent, but it's really because I'm trying with this liturgy to suggest a recalibration of our understanding of what our moral responsibility needs to be.

ATALIA OMER: Great and there is another question here from Judith [? Beals ?] who writes, many social justice movements-- civil rights, apartheid, anti-apartheid I'm assuming, are examples-- required a major moral reckoning and reorientation within powerful majority religious traditions. Do you draw lessons from that experience that informs how your work might have broader impact over time?

BRANT ROSEN: I'm not sure I completely understand the question.

ATALIA OMER: I think that the question is about what other struggles that deployed kind of a religious and moral reckoning, for instance the anti-apartheid, do you draw on and how?

BRANT ROSEN: Yes, I mean, this goes to what I was saying before about when we began the congregation. There was a sense that this was not just a political issue but that this was a religious, moral issue. And we have people in our congregation who would otherwise define themselves as secular, but I think are drawn to the congregation because their sense of trying to engage with this issue needs a deeper outlet. So I think it's clear that every movement for liberation, I think in human history, on some level has there's a religious component or foundation to it. The Civil Rights Movement in this country would have been unthinkable without the role of the Black church for instance, or in South Africa, or in places around the world.

I'm not saying to somehow bifurcate religion as a separate category is problematic but understanding, as a Jew, the concept of struggle against oppression and liberation not just through a political lens, but through the lens of our most sacred story-- the Exodus story-- is something that comes very naturally. And so yes, I have great respect for the religious dimension of liberation struggles throughout history and, in a very real way, I think that's something we're trying to do in our congregation.

SUSANNAH HESCHEL: Well so many of those struggles for liberation have also picked up on the Exodus and that's really quite remarkable, as Michael Walzer has shown, and others. I find that extraordinary. And I find it unfortunate in certain countries that it didn't happen-- and I'm thinking of Germany here. I also would say that, clearly, I mean look, I don't know of a country whose government I like at the present time. In fact, I dislike I would say almost everybody who's in power at the moment. I'm trying to think of whether there are some out there-- I guess New Zealand is becoming a favorite-- but I have to say that there is something a little bit disingenuous that we sit here, Brant, you and I as Americans, and point the finger at Israel's dispossession when the United States rests on dispossession, genocide and enslavement. So who do we think we are, and are we using Israel, in fact, to cover up our own crimes and sins, to hang it as a kind of curtain so that we don't have to look at ourselves? That worries me a bit. I worry a bit about some kind of moral voice of high moral authority condemning Israel for what it's done, and at the same time benefiting from our own heritage of evil. That has continued an awfully long time and that is, actually, pretty much exploding in our faces right now with the white supremacists and the ADL says they've doubled in the past year.

So I would say I'm grateful for the United States, it, it saved my father's life. Had there been a State of Israel, it would have saved 6 million Jewish lives. The United States saved my father but it didn't saved my grandmother and three aunts of mine who were murdered. So there are things that one has to take into consideration. I worry about a liturgy that is concerned with the Nakba and not concerned about Native Americans and about Black Americans. And about all the people who are struggling desperately at our southern borders right now because of the wickedness we have done in Central America that has caused them to flee the violence and the poverty. So in some sense what-- we all focus on one thing, because that's all we're capable of, but that's the danger, that we don't see the whole picture.

ATALIA OMER: Brant, you as a member of this congregation, I noticed that there was a lot of kind of deepening of thinking, exactly what Susannah was just mentioning or thinking about white supremacy, slavery, and kind of complicity of the American complicity, American Jewish complicity as well. So do you want to speak to that?

BRANT ROSEN: Yeah, I know, I just want to make it very, very clear that I'm not-- I think it's a mistake to look at the situation in Israel Palestine in a vacuum and that it needs to be understood within a context. And in the paper that Atalia shared it includes a prayer that I wrote, which is a reworking of the Book of Lamentations, that was read at a detention facility and in Illinois on Tisha B'av. So I've developed and we've developed liturgies that far transcend the unique situation in Israel Palestine and understanding that that's really a subset of a larger system of oppression to have an intersectional approach to this I think is absolutely essential.

I think it's a problem often in the American liberal Jewish community that people are progressive except for Palestine as we often hear, but I think that the opposite is problematic, just as problematic, which is progressive only on Palestine--


And you can work out those acronyms for yourself. but no, I think Susannah, your point is absolutely well taken and essential. That we need to be able to understand the situation in Israel Palestine in the larger context if we're going to be doing this work.

SUSANNAH HESCHEL: I know that we agree about this.

ATALIA OMER: Yeah all right so there is one-- maybe you have time for one final question from Liz Bolton who writes, Dr. Heschel saying there is no divorce between the religious and the political reminds me of my favorite quotation from Rabbi Heschel, "prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive," highlighting my feeling that Rabbi Rosen's work deeply reflects both of these messages. [HEBREW] to both speakers for illuminating the capacity in our tradition to hold and sustain the challenge and to model the embrace of classic texts with contemporary diasporic revisioning.

Does Dr. Heschel see a way that the present delegitimizing of anti-Zionist voices or congregations could be addressed and challenged in light of your understanding of the prophetic voice?

SUSANNAH HESCHEL: In other words, could I defend what Brant is doing?

ATALIA OMER: That was my reading.

SUSANNAH HESCHEL: Yes, I think it's very important. I mean I would say that one of the important lessons I learned from my father was to be first of all, I as a Jew should feel at home in every Jewish community and congregation, whether it's a Hasidic steeple or a reformed temple at vespers, or the workmen circle or wherever, and I do, and it's important for my children that they feel that way as well. I'm not always happy as a woman, but that unhappiness is not limited to an orthodox synagogue where there is a visible curtain, but is felt just as much in a reform context where the curtain is invisible but nonetheless present. But I think Brant, what you're doing, and Atalia, what you've written about in your book, is very much illustrative of what Santiago Slabodsky caused us to think about in his book Decolonial Judaism.

How do we, in fact, understand our Judaism not as a triumphal Judaism aligned with the powers, but on the contrary, as diasporic and therefore prophetic, standing in that position where we question, where we challenge. And the issue is, in the name of justice, those who may not at first understand or feel comfortable or at home, need to ask themselves, why, why not? Actually, why do they not feel comfortable with the liturgy that you've written Brant, that worries about the horrors that have been experienced by people all over the world, not only our own suffering but everyone's suffering. My suffering means nothing unless I understand everybody's suffering. To come before God with the same plea for relief-- there is no such thing as pleading from my own suffering alone, only mine is significant-- that's meaningless in religious terms. So, I thank you. Thank you for this wonderful conversation and especially right before Passover.


SUSANNAH HESCHEL: [INAUDIBLE] And I hope, Brant, that what you've written which you wrote for the Passover Haggadah, that would be, I'm sure everybody who's listening, would love to have a copy. So maybe, Atalia you can distribute it.

ATALIA OMER: Yeah, I will to all those who registered. Thank you for these profound concluding words, Susannah. And also with reference to further conversations-- just the addition to the feminist dimension that you just introduced-- so it's such a joy to end the conversation knowing that there are so many more questions to ask, especially in the spirit Peach, of Passover. So please join me in thanking Professor Heschel and Rabbi Rosen and thank you for attending this event.

SUSANNAH HESCHEL: Great to be with you,

BRANT ROSEN: Thank you so much. Thank you Atalia, thank you Susannah.

SUSANNAH HESCHEL: Thank you, Brant.