Edward Hicks, Noah’s Art, 1846 (Image credit: Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Working or studying at a Jesuit school, you’re likely to encounter certain catchphrases culled from Ignatian spirituality and Jesuit life, like “Person for Others,” “Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam” (For the Greater Glory of God), or “Discernment of Spirits.” 

One such idea at the heart of all the others is “Contemplative in Action.” A good life, we are told, involves a constant back and forth between listening to the cries of the world around us and the call of the Spirit within, and responding. 

Adjunct Professor of Theology Barat Ellman exemplifies that dynamic. As a rabbi she has spent many years allowing the wisdom of the Hebrew Scriptures to speak to her and guide her. In her doctoral dissertation, she explored the ways that two different biblical traditions used the idea of memory to understand Israel’s covenant with God.  

Witnessing the racial injustices of the world, Rabbi Ellman has also responded, becoming an activist and working to develop an antiracist theology of liberation grounded in the Jewish experience. “I hold the conviction that theology and religion are meaningless unless they are related to the social issues of our day,” she said in an interview last year

I spoke to Rabbi Ellman by phone earlier this month about her ideas on memory and covenant, antiracism, and liberation. 

How did you become a rabbi? 

I was raised Catholic and converted to Judaism when I got married. Several years later, I started doing some real studying and literally fell in love with Jewish learning. That propelled me into more learning and deciding I wanted to do rabbinical work and then rabbinical study. So it was kind of a gradual path going from general interest to very passionate interest and then deciding this is what I wanted to do with my life. 

Rabbi Dr. Barat Ellman ((Image credit: Center for Jewish Studies, Fordham University)

Did you want to emerge as a biblical scholar from the start?  

I went into school thinking I was going to be a congregational rabbi. But I found that I got very excited and interested in biblical work, and wanted to do a Ph.D. in that.  Also I was married, it was a second career, I have children, I live in Brooklyn … I wasn’t going to move anywhere in the country for a job. So that also played into my deciding to not do congregational work. 

I call myself a “Rabbi of the streets” because my rabbinical work is largely in my activism as well as in my teaching.

As I understand it, you did your Ph.D. on notions of memory in the Hebrew Scriptures. Can you tell me about that? 

I was looking at understanding the language, the vocabulary of memory, and how it was distinct in two of the major traditions in the Hebrew Bible, the Deuteronomic and the Priestly. Their different vocabularies showed very different thought complexes for each of the two traditions. 

In Deuteronomy, it was much more about the role of memory on the part of the Israelite people, their obligation to remember all that had happened to them, to remember the covenant, to remember the laws. The idea of forgetting was basically almost a technical term for violating the covenant.

In the Priestly tradition, memory was much more focused on God’s memory, and the idea that God needed reminders to remain in connection with the Israelites. 

How did you come up with this as a topic? 

I noticed how startlingly different Numbers and Deuteronomy are. Numbers was a much more wild, emotionally wrought, and traumatic book. And Deuteronomy was not exactly calm, but a much more rational world. That was where I really started to think about these differences.

When I turned my dissertation into a book [Memory and Covenant], I realized that what I had really found was that these were two different understandings of the covenant between God and Israel. And both of them, regardless of the way they conceived the covenant, felt that memory was essential to safeguarding the covenant. The book ended up looking at the role of memory in sustaining the covenant for both of those traditions. 

How exactly does that work? How does memory sustain the covenant in each tradition?

At the beginning of the Hebrew Bible, you get two creation stories, at Genesis 1 and then starting at Genesis 2:4. Each gives a model of what world God wants, and they’re different models. The first one is a hierarchical and very ordered world that’s characterized by clear boundaries and divisions, things appropriate to each place, that kind of thing. 

In that model, God wants to basically step back, and the story continues with the corruption and violence of the earth, which causes God to destroy God’s creation. But at the end of that, the same reason that God gives for the Flood, that people are thinking of evil all the time, God now says is just who they are. That’s what I have to deal with. And God decides to stay engaged. The sacrifice that Noah makes and God’s response to it lead to the making of the covenant to never destroy the world again, which is then sealed with the sign of the ark. 

But in order to secure God’s presence, the Israelite people and the cult in particular have to provide God with reminders of their presence, to keep God “tethered,” if you will. The vocabulary for memory in the Priestly tradition tends to things like “sign,” “oath,” “talisman,” something that is meant to stimulate memory. 

Even though the second Genesis creation story isn’t by any stretch of the imagination a Deuteronomic text, it’s been overlaid with Deuteronomic ideology. It presents a model of relationship of God providing and the person the human obeying. Everything is provided as long as that person obeys. But the person doesn’t obey, namely eating from the Tree of Knowledge.

In that story, following the exile from the Garden, God searches for a different partner who will be the obedient person to live in the world that God wants, namely the land of Israel. The whole issue becomes obedience and listening to the right voice, and remembering what you’re told. Deuteronomy’s obsession is “Remember what you saw, remember what you heard, don’t forget, keep remembering.” 

Where the Priestly tradition is focused on much more sensory memory, things stimulated by more visual, aural, olfactory, sensory stimuli, in the Deuteronomic tradition, we get “listen,” “hear,” “don’t forget,” a more intellectual memory. The onus is on the Israelites to remember constantly. It says in Deuteronomy, “Recite these words as you wake up and lie down, in your house and when you leave.” Deuteronomy wants an obsessively-conscious Israel to be obedient. It needs to be obsessively remembering in order to remain obedient. 

Why does Deuteronomy feel remembering has to be obsessive? Is it because the writer believes our natural inclination is to forget or sin? 

Yes, Deuteronomy is insistent that if you don’t constantly remember what God says, the Israelites will turn away. Basically unless they’re constantly reminded they will forget. 

It’s partially because this covenant is conditional. God says I will be your God and you will be my people, if you obey my laws. Whereas the Priestly covenant is not conditional. God says as long as you provide for me a proper place for me to dwell I will be with you.

Wow, that’s a heavy burden. 

Yes it is! *laughing* 

As a scholar and activist you’ve talked about a Jewish antiracist theology of liberation. Do you find that work at all connected to your research on memory? 

I would have said initially no. My work came from a watershed moment: seeing the number of police killing of Black men, I realized I had to do more than just think about these things and sign petitions. 

Rabbi Dr. Barat Ellman (Image credit: Center for Jewish Studies, Fordham University)

But in the current world we live in, with this erasure of history that is sweeping our country and the unwillingness to look frankly at the racist foundations of this country and our history, I actually think there is an interesting connection. Memory of where we really came from and facing up to it squarely is an important first step in trying to transcend the racism that this country is based on. 

The last couple of years have really shown me how in our own society we need to remember what’s happening. We need to be really honest about looking at what we take as our realities, and be really critical about looking at the realities that people are positing should be sanctified. 

I’m fascinated by the idea of using Judaism as a starting point for an antiracist theology of liberation.  

The idea came from Black liberation theology, and thinking about how can Judaism have a liberation theology that is not just simply parochial for Jewish people, but is about liberation more broadly and in general. 

The model for liberation in the Jewish tradition is the Exodus, and in Black liberation theology the Exodus is a paradigm for God caring about the downtrodden, then replicated in Jesus’s mission to the marginalized. 

I believe the Jewish experience should galvanize us into liberation movements. Our tradition tells us to remember we were strangers and were oppressed and therefore we must to care for the stranger and oppose oppression. 

But there’s one thing more I think a Jewish liberation theology might entail, and it’s grounded in the wilderness experience which I see as centering the journey over their arrival. Liberation is an ongoing process. If we think we’ve finished the job, we have probably become complacent in our security and not only indifferent to others’ vulnerability but actively contributing to their vulnerability.

I think the thing that stands out to me is the idea of constructing a Jewish theology of liberation that intends to help others be free. That seems to me a very different starting point from other liberation theologies. 

I think Judaism for many people tends to be a much more insular, particularist orientation. I reject that. I don’t believe that we are just for ourselves and that we need to take care of ourselves more, that we are in danger unless we protect ourselves. I’m much more of the feeling that we are safer when we are in community with a lot of different people. Liberation is something that involves all of us. None of us are free until all of us are.

Jim McDermott is a freelance writer based in New York City.