If one listened only to the avalanche of political ads during the recent election campaign, one might believe that Americans were being crushed under the heaviest federal tax burden ever, and that raising taxes on the wealthy (the “job creators”) was tantamount to national economic suicide. This view, bolstered by much of the record $4-6 billion raised for the Presidential and Congressional campaigns, was heavily supported by a small group of billionaires, perhaps topped by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who reportedly made contributions of a record $150 million himself. In total, billions of dollars were spent by people who claimed that they were forced to spend too much in federal taxes.
In reality, Americans today have the lowest federal tax burden since 1950. Historically, in the 1950s and early 1960s the economy was very healthy, and the top income tax bracket paid around 90 percent. When tax rates were dramatically reduced for the wealthiest Americans, as in the 1920s and over the last decade and a half, brief prosperity resulted, followed by a catastrophic economic crash and the greatest inequality in wealth between the very rich and the rest of the population.
The Jewish tradition has much to say about fairness in taxation, and consistently endorses the principle that those who benefit the most from society have the greatest obligation to pay for the support of the community. For example, Deuteronomy 15:4 states: “And there shall be no needy among you.” In addition, farmers were instructed to go over their fields and vineyards only once, and not to reap the corners of their fields: “Leave them for the poor and the foreigner” (Leviticus 19:9-10). According to the Mishnah, the community was expected to support a communal kitchen, burial society, and other needed infrastructure (Peah 8:7). Later, more defined funds presided over by prominent members of the community were set up to deal with the poor. In order to achieve this, citizens were taxed in proportion to their ability to pay. Thus, Jewish law has consistently upheld the idea that a fair taxation is necessary for the maintenance of the community. Continue reading
The Rabbis teach (Ta’anit 11a) that “at a time when the community is suffering, no one should say, ‘I will go home, eat, drink, and be at peace with myself.’” To effectively aid those who are suffering, we need the cooperation and collaboration of each and every individual. We need strong individuals, effective non-profits, and committed states. However, we also need to recognize the most powerful collective body available to address the suffering. In our society, the mechanism that represents the people is the government, and it must be effective. Government does not always have to be big to be effective, but oftentimes it does, especially when responding to disasters on a large scale.
Hurricane Sandy, which struck the east coast in October 2012, was the largest Atlantic hurricane on record and the second-costliest, behind only Hurricane Katrina. At least 253 people were killed and an estimated $65.6 billion was lost due to damage and business interruption. For weeks, many in this, the wealthiest country in the world, were suddenly lacking the basic necessities of life, such as shelter, heat, power, and water. The most dramatic damage occurred in southern New Jersey and the New York City metropolitan area. In New Jersey, the historic Seaside Heights roller coaster was carried out into the Atlantic Ocean, where its tangled ruins remain today. Video of the famous Jersey shore area revealed miles of destroyed boardwalks and beaches that had virtually disappeared, along with hundreds of demolished houses and boats. To the north, nearly 100 people died within a 65-mile radius of New York City as a result of Hurricane Sandy. Manhattan had never before flooded, but Hurricane Sandy’s waters were nearly 4 feet higher than the city’s 10-foot walls. Scores were killed in their homes on the coasts of Staten Island and Queens. Some ignored mandatory orders to evacuate, others were elderly and infirm, but all were victimized by a flood surge that filled houses with water within minutes, allowing no escape. Others were killed by falling branches and trees. Millions of people were without power, and received little-to-no information from their utility companies about when power might be restored. The catastrophe was reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and many feared a repeat of the government’s feeble response to that storm might occur again. Continue reading
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Many Jews today claim that they are “spiritual not religious,” that organized religion is not relevant, or that they would rather spend their free time alone than with others. Those who attend synagogue weekly often reserve the service, especially the sermon, for a special naptime. Others prefer a 20–person basement setting for a quick prayer service rather than a formal, large gathering at shul. Around two-thirds of Americans claim to be members of a house of worship, which is more than 25% higher than Jewish synagogue membership. Is the synagogue becoming extinct? If so, should we seek to prevent extinction?
At its worst, synagogue is rife with factionalism and small-mindedness, a place to mumble irrelevant words and snooze during an out of touch sermon, and later nosh on stale chips at Kiddush while discussing the stock market and the latest gossip. Synagogues spend their limited funds on plaques, high-end scotch and a new social hall rather than on adequately paying staff and investing in learning programs. Congregants drive $50,000 cars but request assistance on the membership dues. The experience is predictable, tedious, and boring. It resembles a business transaction, where one has paid membership dues for the right to services, more than a sacred obligation. The staff and board do not lead with Jewish values but act as management as if the congregation was just another business venture. The ritual is empty and the action is either inadequate or nonexistent.
Leading such a congregation is virtually impossible. The rabbi is required to perform four full-time jobs, take 3 A.M. phone calls, act as the scapegoat for all failures, and also please each congregant while handling critiques with a smile. Congregants are forthcoming with complaints, but few volunteer when they can watch the football game on television. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel observed: “The modern temple suffers from a severe cold. The services are prim, the voice is dry, the temple is clean and tidy…no one will cry, the words are stillborn.”
Some see patterns of dysfunction. Professor James Kugel identified three kinds of harmful synagogues: the 1) “Ceremonial Hall Synagogue,” 2) “Nostalgia Center,” and 3) “Davening Club.” In the Ceremonial Hall, the congregants neither care to participate nor learn about what is really going on; they just wish to be an entertained audience. Mimicking a Broadway show, shul becomes entertainment, and the rabbi and cantor get a score for their performance. At the Nostalgia Center, the rabbi is often the youngest one present, and Judaism is about sitting where one’s grandfather sat, saying kaddish, and telling old Yiddish jokes. Everything is wrong but nothing should be changed. The congregation’s traditions and customs trump shared values, meaning, connection, and opportunities for growth. At the Davening Club, there is a false semblance of prayer intensity, but it more closely resembles a mumble-festival, without any real spiritual uplift.
On the other hand, at its best, shul can be a transformative spiritual experience. Eager congregants roll up their sleeves to build the community, providing an open, relevant experience for all. Prayer centers can be welcoming, participatory, and collaborative. Most importantly, a strong synagogue is driven by shared values and a sense of mission and purpose. Congregants look inside the walls of the prayer community for intimate connection and reciprocal comfort, and look outside for opportunities to reach out and give back. Peter Steinke, author of Healthy Congregations, explains that congregations need to move from being clergy-focused to mission-focused. Rather than relying upon clergy to inspire and entertain the congregation, everyone is involved in a system of involvement, encouragement, and teaching.
A healthy congregation takes effort to build. A diverse population attends shul for very different reasons: children, singles, empty nesters, intermarried families, etc. Each population must be honored and be given a seat at the table. Too often, the elderly members of the congregation complain that there are not enough young people at the congregation to “keep the tradition alive”; to improve, they must be willing to adapt the experience to invite a new audience.
For the synagogue to survive and be relevant in the 21st century, congregants must seek authentic prayer experiences, enrichment through learning, and a contribution to community building. One does not just show up when convenient, but to support others consistently. Do not sit back and blame a poor prayer experience on the rabbi. If you find yourself unable to achieve meaningful prayer, learning, and volunteer experiences, consider changing shuls (and search within yourself). The heart must actually be open if one wishes to be inspired. But do not quit the synagogue enterprise — it has survived thousands of years for a reason.
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In Jewish law, we are told that it is unjust to be biased and be swayed by poverty, to favor the case of the poor over the rich in a dispute. Within the realm of a formal court’s judgment this is crucial (Exodus 23: 3, 6). However, does this notion still apply today, where the disparity of wealth between the poor and the rich has become so large that the poor often can no longer properly advocate for themselves?
This notion of equality before the law is mostly a fallacy today in America, since the poor have such a serious disadvantage in the courtroom. The New York Times reported that more than 90% of criminal cases are never tried before a jury; most people charged with crimes just plead guilty, forfeiting their constitutional rights. The prosecution usually promises to give a deal to those who plead guilty and go all-out against anyone who tries to go to trial. It is simply cheaper to plead guilty than to try to pay for legal counsel.
Every individual should have the same fair opportunity before the law, because we must be committed to truth and justice. But this is not the reality today. Even if it were true, Judaism teaches that we must go over and above the law (lifnim mishurat hadin) to support those more vulnerable (Bava Metzia 83a). Furthermore, we learn that G-d created and destroyed many worlds that were built upon the foundation of din (judgment), and then G-d finally created this world built upon rachamim (mercy) (Rashi to Genesis 1:1). Our world can’t exist on pure judgment, rather, as fallible beings we rely upon the grace, empathy, and kindness of G-d and man.
We must be moved toward mercy for those who are suffering, and this must affect how we build society. President Obama explained the importance of empathy in jurisprudence when choosing Supreme Court justices: “I will seek someone who understands that justice isn’t about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a casebook; it is also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people’s lives. I view the quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people’s hopes and struggles as an essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes.” Law is not only about principle, it is also about life.
This is all the more true outside of the courtroom. Within the realm of Jewish grassroots activism, we learn that our primary responsibility is not equality, but to prioritize our support for the vulnerable.
Numerous Jewish teachings remind us that our primary responsibility is to protect and prioritize the most vulnerable individuals and parties: “G-d takes the side of the aggrieved and the victim” (Ecclesiastes 3:15). When there is conflict, G-d simply cannot withhold support for the one suffering.
Rav Ahron Soloveichik writes: “A Jew should always identify with the cause of defending
the aggrieved, whosoever the aggrieved may be, just as the concept of tzedek is to be applied uniformly to all humans regardless of race or creed” (Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind, 67).
This is what it means to be Jewish, to prioritize the suffering in conflict.
This point is made time and time again by the rabbis. The Talmud, based on the verse “justice, justice, you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20), teaches that the disadvantaged should be given preference when all else is equal. The Rambam teaches that even if the disadvantaged arrive later than other people, they should be given precedence (Sanhedrin 21:6, Shulhan Arukh CM 15:2).
Thus, in a court of law, all parties are ideally treated equally, as we are guided by the Jewish value of din (judgment); today, however, justice does not prevail. Further, in activism we must favor the vulnerable, since we are guided by the Jewish value of chesed (empathy, loving kindness). In life, we must learn to balance all of our values: love, justice, mercy, etc. In justice, we do not just choose one guiding principle: As Isaiah Berlin teaches, moral life consists of embracing a plurality of values.
We must always be absolutely committed to the truth and be sure that our justice system is fair for all parties. Yet we also, as changemakers, have a special and holy role to give voice to the voiceless and to support the unsupported in society. This is the role of Jewish activism. The rabbis teach that “Even if a righteous person attacks a wicked person, G-d still sides with the victim” (Yalkut Shimoni). All people deserve our love and care but we must follow the path of G-d and make our allegiances clear: with the destitute, oppressed, alienated, and suffering.
Our basic premise as activists is human responsibility. We, not someone else, must step up to create change in the world. To turn to others before ourselves is for cynics and critics, not change-makers. What about prayer? Is it a cop out? I would suggest that prayer offers us three vital opportunities as activists: 1) Reflection and Self Awareness, 2) Reminder of Values and Recharge, and 3) Humility.
First, we know that activism can make us hot-headed, and impulses can run high. Prayer is the opportunity to check back in with our essence. Rav Kook, first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, explains: “Prayer is only correct when it arises from the idea that the soul is always praying. When many days or years have passed without serious prayer, toxic stones gather around one’s heart, and one feels, because of them, a certain heaviness of spirit. When one forgets the essence of one’s own soul, when one distracts his mind from attending to the innermost content of his own personal life, everything becomes confused and uncertain. The primary role of change, which at once sheds light on the darkened zone, is for the person to return to himself, to the root of his soul” (Olat HaRa’aya, 2). Prayer reminds us that we must slow down, reflect upon our actions, and become very aware of our feelings and our spiritual integrity.
Second, prayer is a time to recharge, pausing to remind ourselves of core values and reaffirming our highest moral and spiritual commitments. Activists are consumed with opposing some of the most immoral forces on the planet. Prayer is a return to idealism, to hope, and to faith that justice will prevail. The 20th-century philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin explained: “We are not physical creatures having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual creatures having a physical experience.” By connecting with our spiritual values, we can return to the material world with a broader, fresher, and more idealistic spirit.
Third, in prayer we humble ourselves. We remember that we do not control the world. We do not naively believe that we will succeed in all of our endeavors or that G-d will merely fulfill our requests. Rather, we seek a humble connection above, without expectations, as we affirm that the job of G-d is taken. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik explained that G-d listens, but prayer is more aboutrelationship and connection than wish fulfillment. “We have the assurance that God is indeed a shomeiah tefillah, One who hears our prayers, but not necessarily that He is a mekabel tefillah, One who accepts our prayers, and accedes to our specific requests. It is our persistent hope that our requests will be fulfilled, but it is not our primary motivation for prayer. In praying, we do not seek a response to a particular request as much as we desire a fellowship with G-d” (Reflections of the Rav, volume 1, p. 78). When we seek a relationship with the Divine, we not only humble ourselves but fill ourselves with wonder. Biologist J.B.S. Haldane said it well: “The world will not perish for want of wonders but for want of wonder.” Prayer reminds us of how small we are amongst the cosmos.
To be an activist is about taking responsibility for the injustices and oppressions in society. A spiritual life that embraces prayer is not at odds with this goal. Rather, prayer may be one of our most important tools to build community, spiritually recharge, and enhance our collective efforts to create a more just world.