TZOM KAL (AN EASY FAST)

Here’s a link to a Yom Kippur sermon I gave back in college about teshuvah/returning. And here (below) is one about the reading from the book of Jonah:

A few years ago, on a Yom Kippur much like this one – less late, more humid, equally hungry, my Rabbi stood up, looked across the sanctuary and said, “This is where Isaiah asks us, what the hell are you doing here?”

It’s not a flip question, although it’s irreverent; it’s not an easy question, although it’s direct. It may be the hardest of a barrage of difficult questions which weigh down on us on this weighty day. As we ask what we’ve done in the past year and what we’ll make of the next, we must start with this day – why, every year, do we spend these twenty-some hours judging, flagellating, and starving ourselves? Yom Kippur gives us the time to be all four children of the seder – sometimes intellectuals probing the meanings of our shared experience, sometimes as simple people seeking a foundation onto which to grasp, sometimes searching only for a question from which to begin. And too often, as strangers, spectators at the scene of someone else’s ceremony, someone else’s struggle.

Today we read about a stranger, a man we first meet as ben-amiti – “the son of my truth,” someone who can marshal truth behind him but cannot grapple with it in front of him, who gets it but fundamentally doesn’t get it. “Kum, laich,” God compels Jonah – get up and go. Jonah is one for two – “vayikam yonah livroach” – he got up, to flee. Faced with a moral crisis, Jonah rises so as to retreat milifnai Adonai – from in front of God, from facing God. And in the same breath, vayaraid – he goes down, in the first of a series of descents which will punctuate the narrative. The next of these descents will be into the hold of the boat, the belly of the boat as often translated, or perhaps the womb of the boat as best understood. It will be there that the Captain will find Jonah, sleeping fetus-like in a boat on the verge of destruction at sea – the lightning outside his window like a picket line marching through the garden of Eden. “Mah l’chah,” the Captain asks him. “What’s with you? What do you have? What is yours? What are you ready to own?” “Kum, kra,” – “Rise up, and cry out.” And again, Jonah rises, but in silence.
”Vayipol hagoral al Yonah” – and the lot they cast comes down on Jonah, weighs down on him, presses from above, and instead of rising he dodges in descent. Unable to reckon with his complicity in the harm visited on his fellow travelers, Jonah seeks solace in sacrifice and security in self-imposed exile. He casts himself from the boat into the sea, where he sinks into another moist belly – this time, of a great fish. And inside the fish, Jonah – whether out of contrition or convenience – prays to God in gratitude, and pleas with God to let him out so as to make good on a promise to offer greater praise. Be careful what you wish for. Jonah finds himself vomited out of the fish and back on land.

But why leave the fish? Presumably, if Jonah could last three days in there, he could have lasted three more days. Or weeks. Or months. No reason to think that belly was particularly uncomfortable. Rather, perhaps what’s most impressive, and most damning, about Jonah, is the way he manages to experience a life-threatening disaster, make a dramatic sacrifice, go through a drastic change of scenery, and still recreate precisely the conditions, challenges, and range of experiences which he left behind. Who’s to say the belly of a boat beats the belly of a bass? Both are slippery and solitary. Neither demands human interaction, or moral responsibility. Jonah moves from one womb to another. This, unfortunately, is something that we as a community know all too well how to accomplish. Daniel Boorstin in Hidden History once wrote that when we become tourists, “we go more and more where we expect to go. We get money-back guarantees that we will see what we expect to see. We go more and more, not to see at all, but to take pictures. Like the rest of our experience, travel becomes a tautology. The more strenuously and self-consciously we work at enlarging our experience, the more pervasive the tautology becomes. When we seek experience elsewhere on earth, we look into a mirror instead of out of a window, and we only see ourselves.” We live in a community here which too easily fosters tourists and quite compellingly needs travelers.

Last year, speaking in this space, Kofi Annan asked, “What will move us? What will shake us?” While we’re told Jonah prayed to be let out of the whale, the text gives little indication as to whether he would ever have brought himself to leave on his own accord. Was Jonah, who fled downward to escape God’s call to action, moved to return to the world, to leave the womb, by the churnings of his conscience – or by the churning of the stomach of the fish?

When we think about sin – a word many of us have difficulty using but few of us have ease ignoring, we tend to talk a great deal about descents into Hell, and less about descent into convenient hideaways from moral challenge. When we talk about inscriptions – whether inscribed up above or written by our own hand – we think a great deal about a book of Life and a book of Death, and less about our choices to live full, challenging, painful lives – or not to. HaYom Harat Olam, we chant on Rosh HaShanah – today the world was created. Why ten days, then, before Yom Kippur? What the hell are we doing here? Maybe today we leave the fish. Maybe this day is about being birthed or vomited into the world that’s been waiting for us. Adam shotaif b’ma’asey bereishit, the Rabbis taught – man is a partner in the ongoing work of the creation of the world. But one of the obstacles to partnership is that one partner is often more psyched about partnership than the other.

One of the lessons of the Jonah story, perhaps, is that we are not born all at once, but rather in halts and stops. Jonah goes to Ninevah, a huge and wealthy city, and tells its leaders, a couple thousand years before Led Zepellin, that there are two roads they can go down, but there’s still time to change the road they’re on. Hochiach tochiach, the Torah instructs – critically you must reproach, and Jonah rises, so to speak, to the occasion. He carries out perhaps the basic foundation of ethical monotheism and the central demand of liberal democracy: he speaks justice to power. And then he nosedives in a downward spiral from which he won’t fully have risen as the text closes. As Ninevah commits to change its ways, Jonah once again becomes set in his. Deprived of the fire and brimstone narrative he was expecting, cowed by the complexity of a communal struggle for greater justice as compared to a divine act of retribution, Jonah is rendered bitter, and resentful. He becomes only more so when he sees the divine punishment he was gunning for meted out against a leafy plant he found materially useful.

Jonah writes himself out of his own narrative with a convenient dichotomy – he doesn’t help Ninevah because it’s huge and distant, and he doesn’t help the plant because it’s small and immediate. These rationalizations are not new, and they haven’t gone out of style. It’s easy to perceive a world of institutions which are small, self-sufficient, and eternal, and institutions which are massive, complex, and inaccessible. It’s convenient to render involvement in a cause in which you don’t see a personal stake as meddling, and involvement in a cause in which you do as selfish. We do it every day.

Jonah never reaches Tarshish, the city to which he planned to sail away to escape divine responsibility entirely. So the text leaves us to construct what such a place would look like and where it would be. What are the habits, traditions, institutions, and practices which foster the insularity and alienation which Jonah seeks in Tarshish? Where can a man be an island? How does one travel into and out of the islands we fashion for ourselves and the islands we fashion out of ourselves? Would we know Tarshish if we lived there? Would we know Ninevah if we lived there?

Most of us in this room today are members of the Yale community in New Haven, and members of the Jewish community in the United States – both disproportionately affluent, both built on traditions and values of struggle and engagement, both at a crossroads between mobilization for just partnership and the politics of insularity. This is the time of year for an accounting of what, as individuals and as communities, we have contributed and what we have failed to contribute, and who has suffered for it. This is the time of year to recognize Ninevah and Tarshish and to build the cities and communities we want to inhabit. This is when we leave the womb and determine what the hell we’re doing here.

Fasting, Isaiah warns us, is not enough. “Behold, while you are fasting you engage in business, and your workers you continue to oppress! Behold, you fast in strife and quarrelling, and with a meanly clenched fist you strike.” But we know that to open our hands and our hearts is a difficult task. “Is not the fast that I desire,” asks Isaiah, “the unlocking of the chains of wickedness, the loosening of exploitation, the freeing of all those oppressed, the breaking of the yoke of servitude?” This imperative – to pursue social justice and work for liberation – cannot be isolated from another one: to cry out, in Isaiah’s words, “like a shofar – tell my people of their transgression, the house of Jacob, their mistakes.”

Isaiah calls on us to be repairers of bridges, restorers of roads home. Today, here, we build bridges within and between ourselves, within and between our communities, within and between our values. Tonight we break our fast and start the physical construction work. Tonight, traditionally, we begin to build our sukkot, our fragile, open, exposed homes without walls which manifest the potential and the path for our redemption.

When we build a home, we claim a place, and own ourselves. We struggle to answer the question the Captain asked Jonah in the storm – “Mah l’chah?” Literally, what is yours? We struggle to answer God’s question to Moses at the Reed Sea: “Why do you cry out to me?” We struggle to answer God’s question to Adam and Eve in the garden: “Where are you?” We strive, like Eve, to seize moral knowledge and ethical responsibility, even at the cost of the idyllic pre-consciousness of the garden. We strive, like Nachshon, to take the first steps out of the stable suffering of slavery and into the troubled, tumultuous birth canal that leads through to the long march ahead. We strive, like Jonah, to leave the whale – and to learn from the mistakes he made once he reached dry land.

If, as Rabbi Ponet suggested last night, we Jews are an ever-dying people, then we must as well be a people that is continually being born. If, as Isaiah, suggests when we call out God will answer with the word of Abraham – hineni – then we must be first to utter it: Hineni, here I am. We must own our city and our nation not as tourists but as citizens, and own our community not as strangers but as partners. We begin to know what the hell we’re doing here, when we begin to know where here is and why it is our place to be there. We must dare, in Elliot’s words, “to disturb the universe,” so that we might too find, at the end of all our journeys, linear and cyclical, physical, temporal, and ethical, that we are home, and that we know the place for the first time.

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ANYBODY CAN SERVE

Anya Kamanetz has a great piece in the Times criticizing the role of unpaid internships in reinforcing inequality and discouraging assertion of material needs by employees and future employees. As she observes, these internships, because they require taking an economic loss during the summer to pay for cost of living while receiving no wage, function as a luxury good available largely to the already privileged – and at the same time, they serve as crucial qualifications for future employment. So they make it easier for the most fortunate among us to stay that way (inadequate financial aid systems are part of the problem as well). And at the same time, these internships support the sense that if you truly care about something, you shouldn’t care about getting paid for it. Which is easier not to care about when you don’t need the money. As Dana Goldblatt observed, “By letting myself be exploited, I’m actually exploiting others.”

Over at Campus Progress, Asheesh notes that progressive organizations are often stretched thin as it is. That’s indisputable. But the unwillingness of so many groups on the left to economically support those potential summer interns who can’t work for free evidences a failure to take a long-term strategic interest in building our base and diversifying the leadership of our movements. And it’s an unfortunate example of the lack in many corners of the modern American left of a systematic account of class and the role it plays in modern American life.

That problem was all too clear when I asked the president of a leading environmental group why the movement wasn’t more diverse and she responded that her group could only recruit “joiners.”

It’s also clear in the valorization by many on the left of an ethic of volunteerism as the ultimate foundation of civic life. I’m all for community service. But statements that make unpaid service out to be the most noble of activities obscure this country’s dependence on the men and women who do critical work for long hours teaching children and caring for patients and serving food and get paid (though not enough) – because if they weren’t being paid, they couldn’t provide for themselves and their families. Volunteerism, as it all too often gets discussed, is a classed ideal, and its valorization to the exclusion of other forms of service leads us to identify as community leaders primarily wealthy people who make contributions that require little sacrifice.

Absolutely, everyone should seek ways to use their time away from work to reduce injustice – though having students clean the windows of public schools together once a year is a less effective way to do that than having them get together and try to figure out why no one in their community is being hired to clean the schools’ windows and how that should be changed. But whether it’s community service or political advocacy, progressives do a disservice to our values and to our community when we valorize first the work that doesn’t pay (this is part of why I’m so excited about Students for a New American Politics).

In high school, when I led our school’s contingent to Philadelphia’s Martin Luther King Day of Service, we got T-shirts with Dr. King’s quote that “Everybody can be great. Because anybody can serve.” King was absolutely right. But his point is often misunderstood. “You don’t have to have a college degree to serve,” he continues, “You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermo-dynamics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

King’s words are a much-needed reminder that we can best overcome divisions through shared projects of social justice. Unfortunately, just as imposing professional qualifications on service would render the ideal inaccessible to many people, imposing the requirement that service be uncompensated to be laudable reinforces already existing divisions. So does the claim made by too many liberals that social justice is about selfless acts for others by those with nothing to gain themselves. Such a definition will always privilege those who have less stake in their struggles and obscure those who take tremendous risks to fight for a stronger community for themselves and their neighbors.

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING SEMITIC

Over at his newly-revived blog, my friend ZT is considering the appropriate term for progressive Jews to use to refer to Jews who have become more traditionally observant. The most common one out there, as he notes, is the uber-problematic ba’al teshuvah (“master of repentence”). Ba’al teshuvah is understandably popular with many people in the group being described; teshuvah, generally translated as repentence, literally means answer or returning, and a fair number of folks I’ve talked to who’ve become much more observant do indeed understand that choice as a return to traditionally/ divinely mandated practice and a repentance for having strayed. Many of the changes such people have undertaken are, to my mind, choices to be celebrated to the extent that they bring meaning and intentionality to the lives of those taking them on. However, as ZT notes, the use of “ba’al teshuvah” language by non-traditionally-practicing Jews to refer specifically to other Jews who have become more Orthodox is too easily understood not as a celebration of willful personal religious exploration in general but rather as a reification of traditional Judaism specifically as the answer (teshuvah), and non-traditional practice as something to be repented (teshuvah) for.

ZT is right that we could use an alternative. And, in classic form for such discussions, he throws out another question as well: What do we call Jews who’ve moved from traditional Orthodox practice to meaningful engagement with non-traditional forms of Jewish practice? He throws out “ba’al tzedek” (master of justice), and rightfully notes that such language is needlessly divisive and renders invisible the central role of social justice work in the lives of many more traditionally-practicing Jews. Then he offers the English acronym PWWFAPOLJBWPAIACBLAO, whose drawback I think is obvious.

ZT doesn’t mention the most interesting – but also deeply problematic – answer I’ve heard: is “ba’al she’ailah” (master of question). Ba’al she’ailah satisfyingly tweaks what’s problematic about the ba’al teshuvah language and validates religious questioning as a project as critical as religious answering. It also intersects interestingly with the increasing use of “questioning” in activist/ campus discourse about sexual orientation, a zone, like religion, in which questioning is too often discouraged and itself a form of subversive activity.

The problem with “ba’al teshuvah,” though, is that it’s as divisive as “ba’al tzedek” and also needlessly limits the meaning of Orthodox Jewish practice. Plenty of Orthodox Jews, needless to say, question constantly. The assumption that davening three times a day (which plenty of non-traditionally-practicing Jews do as well) means you don’t question your religious beliefs parallels the assumption that marching on a lot of picket lines means you don’t question your own politics (an assumption I saw trotted out in full force at a recent debate here at Yale on the relative merits of “activism” and “debate”). Some traditionally-practicing Jews question much more than others. The same, of course, is true of non-traditionally-practicing Jews.

Ideally, everyone – whatever their religious practice – would be ba’al teshuvah and ba’al she’ailah both. But then we’re not talking about useful categorizations of people religious practice and religious path anymore, are we?

Tuesday night several groups at Yale sponsored an excellent debate between the Reverends Barry Lynn (of Americans United for Separation of Church and State) and Jim Wallis (of Sojourners Magazine) on the role of faith in public life. They’re both thoughtful and articulate speakers with a stake in a more progressive turn for this country.

Wallis is frustratingly off-base in his support for President Bush’s Faith-Based Initiatives as an opportunity to be seized by a religious left. The issue, as I’ve said before and as Lynn argued, is not whether religiously-identified groups are eligible for government support when they provide social services but whether they will be subject to the same regulations as everyone else when they are. Lynn quoted troubling comments from Wallis conflating denying funding to groups because they hold a certain faith with denying funding to those groups because they discriminate in hiring against those who don’t. And Lynn rightfully questioned Wallis’ attempt in writing to dichotomize racial and religious discrimination, pointing out that for some of the groups in question one identitiy is mapped onto the other – and that right-wing churches led by the likes of Pat Robertson haven’t been rejected for “preaching hate” like the Nation of Islam has. Wallis, to his credit, expressed unspecified concerns with the implementation of the initiatives, but declined the engage the issue of discrimination and instead expressed hope that the Supreme Court would sort it out.

My sympathies were more divided between the Reverends on the other issue which consumed much of the debate: What is the place of religious rhetoric in political discourse? I share Rev. Lynn’s concern that the halls of Congress not be overtaken with arguments over the details of scriptural interpretation. He’s right to argue that in a pluralistic, democratic society votes should be cast, and should be explained, based on popular rather than divine authority, and on the basis of shared rather than sectarian values. He’s right to observe that while religious rhetoric infused the Civil Rights Movement through and through, when members of Congress cast their votes in 1964, they explained them through appeal in large part to the values of equal protection set forth in our common law. And he’s right to reject Wallis’ tenedency to reduce “values” to religion and to reduce the political spectrum to religious right versus religious left.

That said, I think few of us disagree with Rev. Wallis’ contention that it’s long past time that the religious left disrupted what he calls the monologue of the religious right. And I’m not persuaded by the bright lines Lynn seeks to draw between the discourse in the halls of Congress, in the church, on opinion pages, at rallies, and on Meet the Press. Certainly, an advocate assumes a different voice than a representative, speaking on different grounds and to a different audience. But Wallis is right that there should be a place for our elected representatives to speak to their personal faith convictions as well as to our shared democratic ideals. He’s right that for Lynn to bristle categorically at any instance of biblical references by elected politicians does little to further the cause of religious freedom.

One audience member asked Rev. Lynn why he was comfortable with Senators quoting from “anything else in Bartlett’s Quotations,” but not the Bible, and in response Lynn made an illuminating distinction between a quote to persuade – invoked because the quote itself makes a persuasive argument for whatever is being advocated – and a quote on the basis of authority, which is invoked to bring down the authority of whoever said the quote in the first place as an argument in and of itself for what’s being advocated. Lynn’s belief is that Bible quotes are always brought in not to share creative persuasive arguments but to shut down argument by virtue of biblical authority. I’m not so sure. It may be complicated to distinguish between appeals to a biblical argument and invocation of biblical authority, but I think it’s critical that we do. I think it’s similarly critical that we distinguish between those who invoke their particularistic faith values as ends unto themselves, and those who offer them as a personal path to our shared faith in community, in individual freedom, and in social justice.

US News and World Report joins the scattered speculation about Presidential prospects for Russ Feingold:

He’s on a nationwide mission to test out his progressive message that’s liberal on some issues, like universal healthcare, and conservative on others, like the deficit. Fans think he can bridge the blue-state-red-state divide, making him not just a voice for a changing Democratic Party but a possible ’08 presidential candidate.

Feingold, re-elected in November to US Senate – from Wisconsin no less – by a wide margin, was also just named Deputy Democratic Whip. Feingold’s success should be not only inspirational but instructive for the party. Voters gave him six more years by a 12% margin while breaking only narrowly for John Kerry. It wasn’t that they thought Feingold was more moderate (even Karl Rove, when asked by a Wisconsin reporter weeks before whether the so-called “most liberal Senator” was really to the left of Feingold, declined to answer). Looks like it was Russ Feingold who was more compellingly able to speak to the issues facing Wisconsin voters and to their better angels and greater hopes. Looks like Wisconsin voters recognize what Feingold does, and what the pundits don’t: that being an independent is a very different task from being a moderate. That political courage isn’t a matter of sometimes reading from the other party’s talking points but of privileging allegiance to a set of values over capitulation to consensus, whether partisan or (as is too often the case) shared by powerbrokers in both parties. That meant standing for fair trade even as the Democratic party embraced NAFTA’s global race to the bottom. That meant successfully building a majority for real steps, however tentative (and in a few cases, counterproductive), towards limiting the suffocation of democracy by money. And that meant standing in the shadow of September 11 for that which is strongest in the American tradition by breaking with all 99 of his colleagues and voting against the PATRIOT Act. Russ Feingold didn’t run away from these votes when Tim Michels campaigned against them. He ran on them. And he won counties that John Kerry lost.

It’s not the first election in which Feingold defied political prognostication. He won in 1992 against well-financed better-recognized opposition with ads patterned more on Michael Moore movies than conventional TV spots. He showed up at his opponents’ mansions with a camera crew to ring their doorbells and ask for a debate (no response). He took viewers on a tour of his own home (“Here’s the closet: Look, no skeletons”), including the garage door on which he’d painted his three campaign commitments: No out-of-state funding. Town meetings in every county of Wisconsin every year. And no pay raises while in the Senate (a twelve-year legacy recently celebrated by a conservative stalwart). Go watch those ads. And the latest batch as well. They’re not just clever – they’re courageous.

So is Russ Feingold. He publically criticized Kerry and Edwards both for voting for the Iraq War and for voting against the $87 billion. He’s introduced or co-sponsored legislation to bar state and federal executions, use of permanent replacements during strikes, and drilling anywhere in the Great Lakes. He’s voted against NAFTA, the Defense of Marriage Act, and the No Child Left Behind Act. He’s cast a few bad votes. One was to confirm John Ashcroft as Attorney General; another was against scuttling impeachment proceedings against Clinton. He justified confirming Ashcroft, whose nomination he condemned, on the grounds that Presidents deserve the counsel of a cabinet of their own choosing. He justified his vote against halting impeachment on the grounds that the charges merited a full debate. Feingold voted against impeachment on both counts, though his comments were strongly – I would say unjustly – critical of Clinton’s conduct. They do demonstrate a hearteningly high set of ethics standards for elected officials, even if unfortunately misapplied in the Clinton case. And as the Madison Capital Times observed when Gore announced his running mate, Feingold’s criticism of Clinton’s use of political power in the Lewinsky investigation was far more credible than Lieberman’s self-serving reminders to America that sex outside of marriage is immoral.

Peter Beinart argued after the Ashcroft vote that Feingold was guilty of “the proceduralist delusion, that if you get the process right–figure out how much deference presidential nominations deserve or how much money candidates should spend–you can avoid taking sides politically.” But while Beinart is certainly right that “good government” reforms alone won’t overthrow entrenched noxious power or achieve social justice, only willful blindness could lead one to argue that Feingold has avoided taking sides on the divisive moral questions of the day. Beinart’s likely rightly to argue that Feingold’s 1998 campaign could have focused more on what he was doing in Congress and less on how he was campaigning (positively, and with in-state contributions). But in an era in which everyone expresses a desire to clean up American politics but most politicians bristle at regulations which could mean changing the way they themselves do business, Feingold deserves a great deal of credit for leading by example, holding himself to the standards of what would become McCain-Feingold three years before it became law. And Beinart is himself falling prey to delusion if he believes that the means by which politics is conducted has no impact on the relative power of the good guys and the bad guys to achieve their ends (all that said, McCain-Feingold of course still needs a great deal of work).

Feingold’s commitment to progressive means and progressive ends has struck a cord with voters we might expect and voters we might not. His capacities both to take courageous stands on principle and to cooperate constructively with unlikely allies have yielded a string of victories – some immediate, some partial or deferred. Russ Feingold serves as a telling reminder for the rest of the Democratic party that the road to victory in the next Presidential match doesn’t run away from the values of liberalism. And I’d say he has a better claim than most at serving as the party’s standard bearer in that fight. Looks like he’s beginning to think so as well:

Now, some may think that Alabama and Wisconsin are the polar opposites of American politics. But in both states I’ve found that — along with sharing a sincere appreciation of a good turkey dinner — too many hardworking people are losing their battles for decent paying jobs and adequate healthcare. I’m tired of seeing the power-hungry persuade the hardworking people of this country that the only way to preserve important values is to vote against their own families’ basic interests. I believe that the working people of both states have sacrificed for other people’s agendas for too long. And I believe that any political party or political movement or political candidate who would consistently say this would be heard throughout America.