There has been a desire to pin down the central complaint of the 99%, which the Occupy Wall Street organizers purport to represent. So, in preparation for the group’s General Strike on May 1st, International Worker’s Day, the annual commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket Massacre in Chicago, I am adding my rabbinic voice to help clarify their message.
The problem begins with the opening lines of the Constitution, a document almost 236 years old – long enough to make its intentions debatable. Making ancient texts intelligible and relevant is the central role of the rabbi, so as as rabbi I feel especially qualified to clear up the issue.
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
The American Legal system approaches the Constitution in such a Jewish way, it makes Talmud scholars out of every judge and lawyer. The Talmud, formalized between 500CE and 600CE, atomizes the words of the earlier Mishnah, codified in 200CE. The intervening hundreds of years require of scholars deep exploration to decipher the intent of the of the original words, words which when they were set down were perfectly clear to the rabbis of the older Mishnah. The discrepancy in years between the authorship of the Constitution and the presence have made decoding its intended meaning equally onerous. “Well, what do you mean ‘We the People?” “What was the intent of ‘general Welfare’?” “What level of disagreement is meant to be rectified by ‘insure domestic tranquility’?”
I was studying for a rabbinical school Talmud exam when the case of Bush v. Gore was broadcasting on the radio as background noise. I was struck by the similarity of argumentation of the lawyers before the Supreme Court and the sages on the Ancient page in front of me.
My thoughts at the time are still clear to me: 1) Yes, I could have been a lawyer. 2) David Boies and Ted Olson, counsel for Gore and Bush respectively, are hacks. They should try the whole case again in Aramaic!
As a rabbi, trained in the circuitous logic of hyper-analysis of ancient text, I’d like to take a shot at interpreting a specific phrase of the preamble of the Constitution, “secure the Blessings of Liberty.”
“Secure”: A sense of safety, to exist without threat, to person or property.
“Blessing”: Usually translated from Barech (for Hebrew speakers -like Baruch atta Adonai), is a sense of divine oversight. Is the use of the word ‘blessing’ in the constitution a breach of the intent to separate church and state? A fair talmudic question, which deserves a talmud response, no?
For those who have an issue with “In God we trust” on our currency or “one nation, under God” added into the Pledge of Allegiance (when, by whom) – Yes. However, we should rule with the majority, who consider ‘blessings’ to mean expressly the following: ‘with good fortune and ability to effect an outcome that, if we all did agreed about the existence of a divine being, and about the nature of that being, as well as how to worship said deity, we would ascribe the attribute of oversight and agreement to said action. In the case of the Constitution, the good fortune and ability to secure liberty.
But what is ‘liberty’?: Freedom, yes, but we need to consider the intent of the term in its sitz im leben (academic speak for time and place). So we turn to the inscription on the Liberty Bell, Leviticus 25:10:
And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you; and you shall return every man unto his possession, and you shall return every man unto his family.
Our best rendering of this clause of the Constitution’s preamble seems to mean that there will be either divine, or empowered human oversight, to ensure that everyone should feel safe and secure, that as far and wide as they may venture out, they can always return home. If we are to also take the idea of the jubilee seriously, the idea of a re-set of property and wealth, every fifty years, than we might extrapolate that every fifty years we ensure that no one, no segment of the American population has sunk to far, and if they have, that they should be restored to possessions and family.
Which brings up yet another issue (for the uninitiated, please appreciate the meandering brilliance of rabbinic logic): In a society that prides itself of upward mobility, does anyone really want to be restored to the way things were? Consider the fantastic 2005 series on Class which apeared in the New York Times (written before the national and world economic bubbles burst):
“A paradox lies at the heart of this new American meritocracy. Merit has replaced the old system of inherited privilege, in which parents to the manner born handed down the manor to their children. But merit, it turns out, is at least partly class-based. Parents with money, education and connections cultivate in their children the habits that the meritocracy rewards. When their children then succeed, their success is seen as earned. The scramble to scoop up a house in the best school district, channel a child into the right preschool program or land the best medical specialist are all part of a quiet contest among social groups that the affluent and educated are winning in a rout.”
In a nutshell, there may be a real cap to what is possible for even a well intentioned American to achieve. On the other side of this equation, there may not be any limit to how far an American can fall – you can loose your home and even the ability to maintain your family.”
Which brings us to the current mood of the country, and what I believe it means to be part of the “99%”: With the exception of the most wealthy, the 1%, the financially most ‘secure’ Americans, there is a sense that our “blessings of liberty” are not secure. There is little confidence that one will not loose all possession and the ability to provide for family. Too many families are one major illness, one more month of unemployment away from loosing everything.
Some have complained that the message of the Occupy Wall Street crowd has been variegated and muddled, but in talmudic and constitutional terms, I believe the message is clear and profound:
We the bottom 99% of the people of the United States, do not believe that we have the ability to secure the blessings of liberty, not for ourselves nor for our posterity.
If the above rendering rings true for you, than you may be a 99%er, and you should seriously consider joining the General Strike on May 1st.
Many Jews have ambivalent feelings about the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Thankfully, the Jewish story in the United States has largely been one of success. The dominant narrative (but by no means the only narrative) is that Jews came as immigrants to this country, worked hard, got educations, and moved from the poor, to the middle class, and in many cases in to the upper classes of American society. Those Jews who have achieved great financial success feel attacked by the Occupy Movement. At an event held by the Edgar Bronfman Foundation where Simon Greer, the head of the Cummings Foundation, presented on “Jews and the 99%”, a man in the audience commented, “Why am I being painted by the Movement as a bad guy? I am not a bad person. I am an example of how to succeed in this country.” He was able to fulfill the American dream. He grew up poor, went to college, founded a business and is now considered to be “successful by any standard,” he said.
What Simon Greer, and an Op-Ed by Anderw Kohut the president of the Pew Research Center, point out is that Americans are not upset that there is income inequality in this country, but rather they are upset that it seems that now those in the lower economic echelons do not get a fair chance at raising themselves out of their current state. In Kohuts Op-Ed, he cites “ a Gallup poll last month found 54% believing that income inequality was an ‘acceptable part of our economic system’…What is different these days is that a despondent public, struggling with difficult times and an uncertain future, is upset over a perceived lack of fairness in public policy. For example 61% of Americans now say the economic system in this country unfairly favors the wealthy.”
People need to have hope that they can do better. Hope that their dreams can be fulfilled. Hope that their children’s lives will be better than their own. Depression is really an apt word for the state of this country right now. A key symptom of depression is a lack of hope. Kohut ends his op ed by writing, “What the public wants is not a war on the rich but more policies that promote opportunity.”
Jewish leaders and the Jewish community have a lot to teach Americans about hope. The concept of hoping for a better time in the midst of the deepest darkest days is a central theme in our liturgy, the way we organize our communities, and the Jewish nationalist quest for a homeland in Israel.
First take a look at our liturgy. Since the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 ce, Jews have prayed and hoped for the re-establishment of the Temple. This hope for an eventual return to the holy land, and the re-building of the Temple carried the Jews though thousands of years of Diaspora living. While holding on to this hope, the Jews leaders crafted a Judaism not based on offering sacrifices to the Temple, but rather on daily prayer and rituals. A new Judaism emerged, one which today makes the rebuilding of the Temple itself irrelevant. Yet, it was the hope for the return to the land of Israel and dreams of the Temple that carried Jews forward. Without hope, all would have been lost. Statements and prayers for hope can be found all over the prayer book and Jewish texts.
Then, during the nineteenth century Jews across Europe had the hope of one day making it to the “goldene medina,” the golden land of America, where they imagined the streets were paved with gold. This hope propelled tens of thousands of Jews to travel from across Europe in many different waves of immigration to the US. Then once they were here, the hope of eventual success in America caused Jews to organize Jewish welfare boards, Jewish Social Service Agencies, Jewish Community Centers, and the United Jewish Appeal in order to help Jews here in America and those suffering from persecution in every corner of the world. The Jewish community erected an amazing social support system which still exists today. The Jewish value of helping the poor, widowed, and orphaned was then and still is today taken seriously by the leaders of these organizations. With the hope of eventual success these great organizations would never have been established, and the Jewish community would not be as successful as we are today.
And of course, there always was the hope of returning to the promised land, to Israel. While Jews dreamt about Israel in different ways, some for religious reasons, others for secular nationalist ones, the goal of achieving a homeland stayed with Jews for centuries. It is no surprise that the name of the Israeli nation anthem is “Hatikvah,” “The Hope.”
We have a lot to teach about sustaining hope and the power the simple act of hope has to propel people forward to achieve great things. The Talmud teaches, “you must remove the stumbling block before the blind.” Now is the time to organize to remove the stumbling blocks which stand before us. The Occupy Movement will not succeed if it is based in anger. The message needs to be turned around and made positive. Hope is a positive message. It is the message that propelled Barak Obama in to the White House four years ago. But four years of continued economic depression had taken hope away from the average American.
Let’s restore the hope that the American economy can be strong again. That those who work hard and want to succeed can. Let’s remove the stumbling blocks that exist for those born into poverty. There are many different viewpoints and public policy arguments to be made on how to do this. I am not going to advocate here for any particular one. But I am going to strongly assert that before any particular policy can be effective we have to re-establish the grand hope that our country has the will and resources to help all of its citizens get a leg up.
All of us need to start preaching the call for hope. This is the starting point for our individual and collective success.