With a Little Help From My Friends (or: Judaism as Justice)

Gershom Gorenberg

I know that today is Tu Be’Av, the 15th of the Hebrew month of Av, an obscure holiday from the Second Temple period that has been secularized in Israel as the Day of Love – and that, according to Chana Pinchasi, should really be understood as an assertion of women’s freedom and a rejection of violence against them.

But there are things left to said about Tisha Be’Av, and if I wait to the eve of the fast next year, I’ll forget the poetry of protest that my friends and mentors – meaning the same people, my friends who are my teachers – have woven around that day, making it even more relevant than I thought it was.

Let’s start at Frost and Clouds, where Joshua Gutoff writes an essential reminder: The rabbis who created post-Temple Judaism weren’t philosophers (or engineers); their words were poetry and the calendar they designed was choreography. So if you think they were talking about the stones in Jerusalem when they talked about “destruction of the Temple,” please rethink:

…“The Temple” is their way of speaking about a world in which God was experienced as directly and even intimately present, and “Destruction” is the language for the loss of that experience. …

But poetry can sometimes be badly, dangerously misread. The standard religious Zionist reading of Tisha Be’Av quotes Rav Kook as saying that the destruction took place because of “baseless hatred” and that the Temple will be rebuilt out of “baseless love” – a term that is quickly transformed into condemnation of dissent, disagreement and disunity, so that Judaism becomes an introduction to fascism. (Yes, I know what the word means. I use it deliberately, in its historical sense, to describe the disgrace of religious Zionism today and the constant effort of its mainstream spokespeople to label any criticism “baseless hatred.”)

Yehudah Mirsky sticks a pin in this large, hollow idea:

… I am by no means sure that what my very tortured city and society need is a great big hug, and because I am by no means sure that that is what Rav Kook himself had in mind. … Strong belief is not the enemy of good, of humanity and pluralism, or of a rich appreciation of complexity. It is the sine qua non of positive moral action in the world. Tisha Be’Av bids us not to repress our beliefs and our willingness to fight for them, but to weave them into another belief, in the God-given humanity we share with our opponents. …

Myy friend Aryeh Cohen has shown how these thoughts can be turned into action: In the city of the Lost Angels, he put on his “going to jail” clothes and went out to protest the Hyatt Hotel chains shameful, shameless treatment of its workersץ Here’s why, and how it’s connected to Tisha Be’Av:

…Ezekiel explains that the sin of Sodom—the archetypal evil city—was hoarding its wealth and resources and not sharing them. The Rabbis expand this, saying that the Sodomites saw it as a crime for a person to share what s/he had with the needy. Ultimately, the Rabbis define the Sodomite approach as “what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours.”

In many disturbing ways in this time of dire economic challenge for most people in this city, and the country in general, there are growing Sodomite tendencies afoot. Farmer workers dying in the fields, harsher immigration laws, a growing number of day laborers being denied their pay, the Congress barely passing an extension to unemployment benefits, and workers’ rights and hard fought gains under attack across the board. The way back from this precipice, the way towards righteousness, is holding ourselves accountable for the well being of all residents of our cities. We cannot find our way out of the Sodomite morass when we are half-asleep, not necessarily doing anything “wrong” but not awake to the injustices in front of us.

The Hyatt Hotel chain (controlled by the Chicago-based Pritzker family) is, unfortunately, at this moment displaying some of the worst tendencies of the “Chieftains of Sodom.” Claiming penury as a result of the economic downturn, they actually have over a billion dollars in cash available (according to a March 2010 report). Still, they fired one hundred longtime employees in Boston, replacing them with entry level workers—whom the former trained before they were fired. …

(For more here on the Hyatt story, check the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles and In These Times.)

At Uri L’Tzedek, the organization for Social Justice, Sam Fleischacker explains why the commandment to “love the stranger” can’t be locked in the parochial bounds of respecting converts (important as that is):

…We understand God as truly the ruler of the entire universe, creator and guardian of all humankind, only when we recognize Him as the God of the stranger and not just of our kin.  Loving the stranger is the most difficult of loves, the greatest challenge to our inclination to limit our concerns to the people and social system we know.  But to care just about what we know is to worship ourselves, and to limit God to a being who takes care of the Jews is idolatry.

In practice this means, for Jews in Israel, seeing God in the Palestinians, and for Jews here in America, seeing God in the Latina/os and other immigrants who work in our restaurants and stores and homes. The God of gods, the Lord of lords, the El, hagadol, hagibor v’hanora, stands with all these people against their oppressors just as He stood with us in Egypt, cares for them as He does for us, and is ready to deliver them, as he does kol adam, from one who is stronger than them, even when that stronger person is a Jew. We were not delivered from Egypt to set up another ethnocentric system that oppresses outsiders. We were delivered, instead, precisely to spread the message that the true God cares for all humanity (that is how we become a “holy nation”)….

If there’s anyone around effectively promoting a parochial view of Judaism, it’s the ArtScroll publishers, with their handsome volumes of ultra-Orthodoxy-lite for the masses. Shaul Magid has reviewed a new book on the ArtScroll phenomenon:

…What ArtScroll is doing, according to Stolow, is marketing a particular kind of “Judaism.” And Judaism, in Stolow’s book, is neither a religion, a body of texts, nor a lifestyle. It is a commodity.

Whether ArtScroll is succeeding more at promoting its bourgeois haredism or whether American consumerism and late capitalism is succeeding more in bringing haredism closer to its materialist and capitalist embrace is anyone’s guess and, in part, depends on whether one is “inside” or “outside” the community in question….

ArtScroll’s audience

… is largely middle and upper middle class citizens of a free society who have money to spend and expect their “Judaism” to be as aesthetically pleasing and equitable as their designer furniture and world-class wine. While situating itself as a critique of modern and post-modern culture, ArtScroll may in fact be contributing to the formation of an accomadationalist Judaism all its own.

In those fake-leather-bound volumes, Judaism answers questions instead of demanding that we doubt obvious truths. Rather than pushing us to free ourselves from imprisonment in non-stop production and consumption, it is just a consumer product for another demographic. ArtScroll promises to give you the “real thing” for more money and less effort. It’s a a variation on Che  Guevara T-shirts. But that’s not what Judaism has to be, or should be. If you are paying more, ask yourself if you are getting much less.

3 thoughts on “With a Little Help From My Friends (or: Judaism as Justice)”

  1. I like this musing on Tu Be’Av. This expansive, embracing, inclusive, ( therefore) more highly spiritual view should be repeated every which way, to remind, to stress, not only Jews. It’s an important universal eternal perennial message- and at that not to be dismissed either as ( merely) modern “progressivism” (a word that those who hold on tightly to their exclusivity and righteousness are trying to make into another dirty word such as [what they tried to do to] the word “liberal”) .

  2. The article by Shaul Magid was excellent. I think it deserves to be read in conjunction with Rabbi Dr. Haym Soloveitchik’s now-classic anthropological essay, Rupture and Reconstruction, which traces the famous “rightward shift” in American Orthodoxy to the replacement of a mimetic tradition with a textual one. What does it matter what your parents did when you can get the views of the gedolim in English, laid out in a handsome font at a reasonable price from Artscroll? Indeed, why rely on the community rabbi when multiple roshei yeshiva are a cellphone call away? Anyway, I think I’ll have to think about this a bit more when I have time.

    Sam Fleischaker’s article was also good. I recently finished reading Paul Gottfried’s Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt, which I think our own Aaron recommended in these comments a while ago, and I think Fleischaker’s piece serves as a the start of a corrective to Gottfried’s argument (made with typical paleocon boorishness) that our concern for the Other is really the product of a deformed, secularized Protestantism. (I suppose he would respond that Fleischaker is stretching the authentic concept of veahavta et hager beyond recognition in service of multi-culti ideology or something.)

    Finally, Tu B’Av is an… interesting choice for a symbol of women’s empowerment. The Talmud says that the point of all that dancing in white dresses that Pinchasi mentions was for the men to choose wives. (Which in her article gets transformed into: “Maybe at the end of the evening they will find a partner.”) I guess it goes to show how our progressive-puritanical religion resists attempts to enlist it in service of moral and political activism, no matter how necessary it is. See Levinas, “Judaism and Revolution.”

  3. Not to mention that the Pritzkers hotel hosted Ahmadinejad on one of his recent trips to NYC

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