Last year I was chatting with a member of my congregation over bagels with our Tot Shabbat families. She mentioned a mutual friend who has a photo of himself with Robert Redford on his wall. Having been a big fan of Redford as a young adult, that is – years ago – I was tickled. But in this conversation I noticed that another young woman who was standing with us at that time had a blank look on her face. I asked her if she knew who Robert Redford was, and she said, “no.” Oh, did I feel old!
Last week I saw an interview of Crosby, Stills and Nash on a morning TV show. You know Crosby, Stills and Nash, right? They were (and still are) a folk rock supergroup of the sixties, seventies, and beyond. “Teach Your Children” is one very famous song they contributed to the American musical lexicon. I still listen to their music regularly for its beauty, power and social justice themes. I wish the folk rock music of that era was still the cultural currency of our day!
So imagine my surprise when I sat at a table in a very crowded Apple Store in NJ and noticed a very familiar looking man standing next to me, talking with some companions. I know I could be wrong, but I was thought it was David Crosby. I was so excited; I opened his Wikipedia page to check the photo while he walked away. At that moment the Apple Store technician, clearly 25+ years my junior , came over to assist me. I was all excited — “Hey, he was just standing here!” I said as I pointed at the picture. The technician gave a cursory look at the web page and said, “oh”, “now how can I help you?” I was frantic to find someone in the store who had noticed the (apparent) celebrity, so I searched the faces of the crowd. No one seemed to have noticed. Young, almost all a generation younger than my own, they were oblivious.
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.