Throughout history, religious leaders have shown moral courage in the face of social injustice. Perhaps the most iconic image of this is the picture of Conservative Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, marching arm in arm with (among others) Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Selma Civil Rights March (1965). Rabbi Heschel reflected on this experience, “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.”
We should also note that religion plays a role in social justice initiatives, despite the criticism of the anti-religious, who claim that religion is the source of most war and bloodshed. As Conservative Rabbi David Wolpe aptly points out in his book Why Faith Matters, “While faith has been filled with fighting, fighting, however, is not ultimately cause by faith.… [R]eligion did not bring fighting into the world… Religion entered a world in which human beings fought, over and over again.… The great tyrannies of the twentieth century were tyrannies of atheistic regimes: Mao’s China, Stalin’s Russia, and Hitler’s Germany.”
Jewish leaders have a “key in” to a timeless wisdom that has informed and calibrated our moral compass for generations. We have a responsibility to offer this input to efforts for social justice – be they community organization, protest, or otherwise. That said, I am wary in this day and age of the countless examples (in all faiths) of religious leaders who have abused the “power of the pulpit” – speaking in absolutist, fundamentalist terms. Such language is not reflective of mainstream Judaism, and runs the risk of devolving into extremism (on either end of the spectrum). Judaism and the mission of Israel leads us to a particular vision of and hope for a better world – one that is inclusive, not exclusive, one that is peaceful and protective and secure of the rights of Jews and others to live and thrive in an increasingly interconnected world.
You are absolutely right in that the Occupy movement lacks clear vision and direction, not to mention leadership. What do they stand for? Economic justice is on the agenda but then so is just about everything else. In fact, the movement is so without form that it seems that it is a magnet for anyone who has a complaint about anything. Indeed, it has on more than one occasion been a James Dean forum who, when asked what he is against said, "Whad'ya got?" Frankly, after a while of unclear direction, uninspired leadership and unknowable goals, the movement is boring and will fade away.
But that does not mean that it should.
The issues of economic justice are, of course, prophetic issues in our tradition. If Jewish leaders can take up the mantle of leadership focussing on these issues, that is perfectly appropriate. Unfortunately, the Occupy movement is open to every complaint and has, on occasion, even welcomed good old anti-Israel and anti-Semitic elements into it. And so Jewish leaders find themselves in a quandry. Personally, I will not support a movement that is unclear in its goals. Hating everything is not a goal. Wanting to take away what hard-working people have created is not a valid goal. Contempt for those who struggle and succeed is neither a goal nor a valid strategy.
And so I would suggest that Jewish leaders focus on issues of economic justice, the ethics of bank bail-outs, home foreclosures, the insecurity of the 21st Century, etc., from their pulpits and their board rooms, not under the umbrella of the Occupy movement. If you don't know what they stand for, they don't stand for anything. If that changes in the future, maybe it will be worth another look but now, they have only said that everything they see is disgusting. That is not a movement.
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