Saturday, October 29, 2011

Prophet Isaiah: Occupy Jerusalem!

No, I'm not talking about that issue. (In "The Occupy Movement's Branding Problem" Adam Clark Estes observes, "As the name for a protest, the word 'Occupy' works okay when you put it in front of "Wall Street," but as it becomes a worldwide political movement, it's pretty iffy. Try out: 'Occupy Poland.' Or 'Occupy Palestine.'")

As I recently noted, it was interesting to see how the "sophisticated" readers of the Guardian mostly missed the point of an opinion piece by a British rabbi, attempting to explain the importance of the notion of repentance.

One need not believe in any particular religion, or even God, or for that matter, any sense of "purpose" in life, in order to acknowledge that the world's religions arguably represent the most sustained historical record of our attempt to make sense of our place in the universe and our relation to one another.

The teachings of Judaism pertaining to the High Holy Days and immediately following festivals seem particularly relevant to current debates about economic crisis and social justice, especially in these days of the renewed "J14" and "Occupy Wall Street" movements.

Yom Kippur (copperplate engraving; London, 1780)

As I mentioned in the post on the "Days of Awe," it is striking that the reading from Isaiah for the fast day of Yom Kippur provocatively questions the meaning of such outward piety in the absence of equal obedience to the commandment to do social justice:
Chapter 57
14 [The Lord] says:
Build up, build up a highway!
Clear the road!
Remove all obstacles
From the road of My people!
15 For thus said He who high aloft
Forever dwells, whose name is holy;
I dwell on high, in holiness;
Yet with the contrite and the lowly in spirit —
20 But the wicked are like the troubled sea
Which cannot rest,
Whose waters toss up mire and mud.
21 There is no safety— said my God —For the wicked.

Chapter 58
2 To be sure, they seek Me daily,
Eager to learn My ways.
3 "Why, when we fasted, did You not see?
When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?"
Because on your fast day
You see to your business
And oppress all your laborers!
4 Because you fast in strife and contention,
And you strike with a wicked fist!
your fasting today is not such
As to make your voice heard on high.
5 Is such the fast I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast,
A day when the Lord is favorable?
6 No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
To let the oppressed go free;
And untie the cords of the yoke
To break off every yoke.
7 It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore your own kin.
8 Then shall your light burst through like the dawn
And your healing spring up quickly;
Your Vindicator shall march before you...
The High Holy Days are followed by the pilgrimage and harvest festival of Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles), which commemorates the period in which the Israelites, according to tradition, dwelled in "tabernacles" or "booths" (Sukkot) while wandering in the wilderness after the Exodus.  Because the holiday involves a ritual meal and the construction of a temporary and vulnerable shelter, it naturally lends itself to meditations on the theme of hunger and homelessness.

Sukkot (copperplate engraving; London, 1780)

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, citing a tradition that echoes Isaiah's warning, comments:
We celebrate by eating our meals in colorfully decorated succot which remind us of God’s protection in the desert. Our prayers in the synagogue are punctuated by the waving of the Four Species, by which we thank God for His agricultural bounty.
From this description, it might seem that the emphasis during Succot is on religious rituals connecting God and Israel. However, the great legalist-philosopher Maimonides makes the following comment in his Laws of Festivals: “During the days of our Festival, it is incumbent upon every individual to rejoice and to be glad of heart, parents, children and extended family. However, when one eats and drinks in a festival meal, we are commanded to offer hospitality to the stranger, the orphan and the widow together with other poor and needy individuals.
“He who closes the doors of his home or succa booth and only shares his meals with his personal family – without including around his table the poor and bitter of soul – is not rejoicing in a commandment, but is rejoicing in his stomach. About such individuals it is said, ‘Their sacrificial offerings are like the bread of the dead and those who eat in such an environment become defiled....’” The Four Species are symbolically described by the Sages of the Midrash as representing four types of Jews: The “etrog [citron] Jew” is both learned and filled with good deeds; the “lulav [palm branches] Jew” has learning but no good deeds; the “hadas [myrtle] Jew” has good deeds but no learning and the “arava [willow-branch] Jew” has neither learning nor good deeds. We are commanded to bind these four together, in order to remind us that a Jewish community consists of many types of Jews all of whom must be accepted and lovingly included within our Jewish community.
From examples like these, we see that a festival which superficially seems to be oriented solely toward religious ritual actually expresses important lessons in human relationships. (read the rest)
Haim Shine goes even further:
Over the past few years, Jewish holidays . . . have acquired an additional meaning beyond their religious foundation. It is in mankind's nature to seek meaning, and the incredible pace of modern day life puts us in a never-ending quest for more meaning.

The recent Jewish New Year will always be remembered as the day when the false idol of capitalism disintegrated, and its fragments were strewn about the entire universe. Even the waters of many rivers could not wash away the clouds of dust that resulted from the collapse of the modern Tower of Babel. Wall Street's walls fell in minutes, signalling the end of capitalism, just like the fall of the Berlin Wall symbolized the end of communism.

.... A modern day association with Sukkot can be this past summer, when Israeli masses rallied together and answered the call of the disenfranchised throughout the country.

Judaism has a unique and ancient answer to the existential economic crisis - a beautiful and wonderful holiday, Sukkot. For centuries Jews have upheld the tradition of leaving the comfort of their concrete or wooden homes and moving in to a temporary tent-like home for eight days. The tradition calls for a small "Sukkah," with branches and leaves for a roof and walls of fabric. It is a structure that is hardly secure, and to which Ushpizin (guests) are invited, enabling every Jew to get to know their neighbor. It is a Sukkah that creates equality among mankind and binds us like the four species that are bound and presented during the holiday prayers.

Sukkot is a holiday in which we pray for rain and return to nature due to our commitment to environmental preservation and the preservation of our resources which ensure our existence. In the Sukkah we experience the temporary nature of our existence and are forced to act responsibly towards the coming generations. It is a wonderful time in which we conclude that our security does not lie in our strength, protection, or our egos, but rather in a life filled with values and respect for human life and honor, as well as a commitment to values, justice and morality.

We can only hope that upcoming events will lead Israelis and all of humanity to ponder the meaning of life beyond material assets.
Of course, holidays and campaigns for social justice, no less than the stock market, can produce outbursts of "irrational exuberance." Last I checked, the Sukkah had come down, and capitalism was still standing. But you get the point. There is much that even radicals can learn from tradition.

Religion is able to propose values, and that's a matter of ethics. How we attain those goals remains a matter for debate. That's the realm of politics.

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