I recently came across a copy of the June 28 issue of The Jewish Press. The Jewish Press is an Orthodox Jewish weekly periodical out of Brooklyn that has a political agenda with which I could not disagree more. When I saw the headline “Time for the Halachic View on Abortion to Be Heard,” I groaned inwardly and prepared to be outraged. Imagine my surprise when the article, by Yori Yanover, the senior internet editor of the publication, turned out to be a call to traditional halachic voices to distance themselves from Christian anti-abortion activism and to express more forcefully in the public arena the nuanced rabbinical approach to the difficult topic of abortion. While I do not at all appreciate Yanover’s description of both liberal Jewish groups and evangelical Christians as “the crazies,” I think it is extremely important that a publication like The Jewish Press is reminding its audience that even the strictest interpreters of Jewish law consistently approached abortion from the perspective of protecting the viable life of the mother over the potential life of the fetus. The rabbis, Yanover points out, historically did not consider abortion to be murder.
Just to be clear, traditional rabbinic rulings neither condone nor promote abortion. Yanover cites the 1990 Rabbinical Council of America statement that abortion should not be an option except in “extreme circumstances and in consultation with proper Halachic authority,” but he gives equal space to the part of the same statement that rejects endorsement of legislation that would prevent abortion in those cases. Given the greater rights of the living human being–the mother–Jewish law would even allow late term abortions if the fetus poses a mortal danger to her.
This article caught my eye not only because of its source but also because of the questions that persistently came my way when I was writing my recently published book Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace: American Jewish Women’s Activism, 1890-1940 (NYU Press, 2013). The book includes two chapters on the history of American Jewish women’s involvement in the early birth control movement. I have repeatedly been asked what the “Jewish position” on contraception was during the early 20th century. Naturally, there was no single position. All of the denominations struggled to formulate a response. The Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis turned down an invitation by the Catholic church to issue a joint statement of blanket condemnation but did not officially endorse birth control for some years after beginning to discuss the issue. The Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly followed suit shortly thereafter. And the Orthodox Union preserved a telling silence, officially neither approving or disapproving of contraceptive practices that the organization saw as best left to individuals making decisions in consultation with rabbinic authorities. There is plenty of latitude within halacha for birth control, which apparently comes as a surprise to those who want to see all religious people of all faiths as equally fundamentalist. I find myself agreeing with Yanover that extremists on both the right and the left could learn something from the history of Jewish institutional and legal responses to the complexities of the intersections of reproductive rights and religion.
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.
So the tents have come down at Zuccotti Park. Occupy Wall Street is over. Or, as the more hopeful would have it, it has morphed into Occupy Everywhere. I hope they’re right. I hope Occupy Wall Street does become Occupy Everywhere. I hope the issues of the 99 percent become a focus of the upcoming Presidential campaign. And I hope real, lasting, meaningful change comes of this movement.
But just for a moment I’d like to look at the other side of the coin.
I’d like to sing the praises of failure. I’d like to point out that failure is in fact the universal fate of truly transformative social, political, or religious movements. And I’d like to argue that graceful failure matters just as much for revolutionaries as it does for source code and suspension bridges.
Actually, I’ve been thinking about graceful failure ever since Simchat Torah. This year it fell just after the Occupy Wall Street march on Times Square. My husband and I were more spectators than marchers, since we had two sleepy kids in tow. But a few days later when I looked at the bright faces of the children gathered under the tent of the upraised prayer shawls, whispering about important things like chocolate while we grownups droned on overhead about death and creation, I suddenly remembered the faces I’d seen streaming out of Times Square after the march.
It was a very New York crowd: a crowd of every age and color and social class. There was a radiant joy and hope in those faces that is all too rare in America today. And the sight of that great flood of humanity streaming across Manhattan reminded me powerfully of Martin Luther King Jr.’s prophetic words about justice rolling down like a mighty river.
Of course justice never did roll down like a mighty river. If it had, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s hate crime blog would be a lot quieter than it is. And the statistics on African-American children in poverty and African-American men in prison would not be source of national shame. The history of transformational politics in America is essentially a lesson in failing, failing again, and failing better. The late Howard Zinn dedicated much of his life to documenting this history. And more recently two wonderful books — John Nichols’s The ‘S’Word: A Short History of an American Tradition … Socialism and James R. Green’s Death in the Haymarket: A ShortStory of Chicago, the First Labor Movement, and the Bombing that Divided GildedAge America – have documented this underground history.
Martin Luther King knew this history. And he had a theologian’s grasp of the readings that waft over the heads of the children in synagogues all over the world each Simchat Torah. King understood that failure is the fate of all truly transformational social movements. If you read through the arc of his life and writings, you see him always pushing toward the next goal, peering around the next bend in the road, reminding people that the moment you begin to reify a movement — to become infatuated with success or paralyzed by the fear of failure — you have started the slow slide from revolution to institution, from transformation to status quo. This was one of his great contributions to American politics, though it’s one that is a lot harder to quantify and celebrate than his more tangible successes.
People like to tell fairy tales, of course. And as a fantasy writer I’d be the last person to claim that fairy tales are mere escapism. Fantasy turns a magic mirror on our world that can reveal long-accepted injustices and inspire us to transform society in light of our highest ideals. But many fairy tales have an insidious lie at their hearts: the promise of a happily ever after where conflict and corruption are banished; the promise that slaying dragons is a once-in-a-lifetime event, something you do right before sailing off to what James Thurber (tongue firmly in cheek as usual) called ‘the blessed isles of Ever After.’
But in real life there are no blessed isles of Ever After. In real life Moses dies in the desert. In real life Martin Luther King, Jr. died just as he was beginning to take on the truly intractable problems of socioeconomic injustice in America. In real life the promised land is always on the other side of the river — and transformative social movements are always crushed or corrupted, diluted or deflected, or simply lost in the flood of daily trivia.
So as we talk about what it means that the tents have come down, we should remind ourselves that it was never a question of whether Occupy Wall Street would fail. It was only a question of when. Occupy Wall Street will inevitably fail, just as all truly radical attempts at transformation fail. But if it fails well, then it will have brought us to the bank of the river. And it will have given us the courage to learn from our failure, turn back to the beginning of the scroll, and risk everything once again in a new act of creation.
Like so much of the Jewish liturgy, Simchat Torah is a ritual that meets you wherever you are in life and seems to impart new wisdom from year to year. As a parent I see it mainly as a time to give thanks for the gift of children and reaffirm my commitment to their Jewish education. But this year I was struck by the great gift that the ritual gives to our children: the gift of teaching them that failure is, if not exactly sweet, then at least part of the life’s cycle and no more to be feared than any other part.
That’s not a gift most of us are very good at giving our children in real life. Don’t get me wrong; kids certainly get plenty of chances to watch their parents fail. But we rarely do it gracefully. Usually we look around for someone else to blame. Or we lie to ourselves — especially in the realm of politics — settling for the achievable compromise and then reacting with fury when anyone has the chutzpah to remind us that we once hoped for bigger and better things. Simchat Torah cuts through the denial, in the most simple and unsentimental way imaginable.
And so we sing our songs of hope and failure. We put up our tents even though we know they will be taken down. We tell our children that the Torah is as sweet as honey. We tell them about Moses dying in the desert within sight of the promised land. And then we turn the scroll back to the beginning, and we start a new year of struggle, and we hope we fail better next time.