Occupy is Back! Occupy Rosh Hashanah

Last year a thousand young people gathered at the Occupy demonstration in NY to celebrate Rosh Hashanah. That will happen again this year in N.Y. and at a service sponsored by Beyt Tikkun synagogue-without-walls in Berkeley, California (at the Pacific School of Religion Sept. 16-18. I’ll be co-leading the High Holiday services in the S.F. Bay Area with Rabbis Phyllis Berman and Arthur Waskow (author of Seasons of our Joy, Godwrestling, and many books on Judaism and the environment , and with the participation of Code Pink leader Rae Abileah and spoken word poet Josh Healey. These will be social justice and environmental-oriented services (info at www.BeytTikkun.org).

After the services and the veggie pot-luck that follows it on the first day, we will be picketing the Wells Fargo bank in downtown Berkeley, though our intention is to challenge the lending practices of all the major banks including Bank of America, Chase, etc.

In New York, Occupy Judaism and all who wish to join them will gather at or near Zuccotti Park from 7:30 to 11 pm on Sunday, September 16.

For updated information on the Zuccotti Park action: https://occupyjudaism.org

Why on Rosh Hashanah? Isn’t this mixing politics and religion? Well, in Judaism there is no such separation—the entire Torah is the story of a liberation struggle against oppression that Jews read a part of each Shabbat. In fact, a fundamental message of Judaism was that the God of the universe cared about social justice, peace, and love, and hence sought for people to engage in lives that fostered a society that embodied those values.

But there is more. The Torah specifically enjoins us to not offer loans for interest, but rather to loan without expectation of reward. And it also enjoins us to redistribute the wealth of the society (in the ancient world, that would be land ownership) every fifty years. Suspecting that people might find it challenging to do this, that they might come up with rationales for not doing so, God is heard to be saying that people need to remember that “The whole earth is Mine.” That is, there is no “right” to private property or to the produce that we humans help bring forth from the earth. We are, the Torah tells us, merely sojourners on God’s earth, and our obligation is to protect the earth and care for it, not to act as though we have a right to it. So, the Torah enjoins us to share the food with the homeless, the stranger (the “Other” or in today’s reality, the immigrant), the widow and orphan (i.e. the powerless).

And the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) are the very days when these obligations were to be proclaimed and people were to begin to implement them. So of course, Rosh Hashanah is the perfect time to start our questioning of how to rebuild our societal institutions in ways that are in accord with the central value being expressed here: the equal worth of all human beings, be they Jewish or strangers, be they well-to-do or poor, be they powerful or powerless.

As we have seen in the U.S. in the past few years, the selfishness of the rich and powerful and the institutions that embody their ethos of serving the rich and powerful at the expense of everyone else has been hugely destructive. At the center of that ethos are the banks and Wall Street, so it makes sense that on Rosh Hashanah, when we ask ourselves what kind of transformation we need, that we start with these institutions, challenging them to stop and repair the damage they have done to the poor and the powerless (which today includes much of the American middle class).

And there is still more. The Rosh Hashanah liturgy is focused not only on inner transformation (tikkun atzmee) but also transformation of the economic, political and social institutions of our world (tikkun olam). Of course, we at Tikkun magazine and our activist arm the interfaith (including secular humanists) Network of Spiritual Progressives, are engaged in these activities all year round. But specifically on Rosh Hashanah those of us who are Jews get to repeat throughout this period the vision of our ancient rabbis when God (not the rich or powerful) would be the king over all the earth and “the earth will open its mouth and in one moment all the evil will perish, so that the kingdom of arrogance (which today we can clearly identify as global capitalism to the extent that it increases the suffering, exploitation, and unequal distribution of wealth and food and basic essential of life) will pass from the earth.”

Of course, our tradition teaches us to be compassionate, both towards others who have wronged us and toward the parts of ourselves that embody the same distortions of selfishness and materialism that global capital represents. Just as on Yom Kippur we ask God to be generous and forgiving toward us, as long as we make serious efforts to heal those distorted parts of ourselves, so we approach others who have been at the center of the system of exploitation with an attitude of compassion and an invitation to join us in the process of healing our planet by building a “new bottom line” so that our economic, political and social institutions are judged efficient, rational or productive not only to the extent that they produce money and power, but ALSO to the extent that they help all people nurture and maximize our capacities to be loving and caring toward other, generous and compassionate, ethically and ecologically sensitive, and capable of responding to the universe with awe, wonder and radical amazement at the grandeur and mystery of “all that is.” So on Rosh Hashanah we celebrate the creation of the universe, but also move toward a deeper practice of challenging the distorted economic and political institutions within which we live our daily lives.

That’s why Rosh Hashanah is precisely the right time to picket the banks and investment companies and Wall Street and their exploitative lending policies and incredible greed, and to envision a world that will catch up with this element of wisdom in our ancient Torah.