Trayvon Martin and Tisha B’av: A Jewish Response
The acquittal by jury of George Zimmerman who shot and murdered the unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin was emblematic of the consistent racism and double standard used in the treatment of minority groups or those deemed “Other” in the U.S. and around the world. Where is there justice in a world in which so many people suffer oppression and in which those who choose to use violence as a way to address and deal with their hatred and fear often seem to triumph?
Jewish theology holds that there is a karmic order, so that evil actions will not always run the world. Justice and compassion are both essential to the survival of the planet. Unlike many religions that focus on individual sinners and imagine that they will be punished in some future not currently verifiable—for example in a heaven or hell after life, or in a reincarnation in some form that provides rewards or punishments for how one lives in this world, most of Jewish theology sees karma as playing out on a societal scale, and over the long run.
There may never be a this-world punishment for George Zimmerman. Murderers and other perpetrators of evil too often get rewarded instead of punished. James Comey, who played an important role in approving water-boarding and indefinite detention without trial when he served in the Bush Administration, was appointed last week by President Obama to head the FBI. The Director of National Intelligence James Clapper lied to Congress in denying NSA surveillance of American citizens, but it is Edward Snowden who is now seeking asylum for whistle-blowing and revealing the extent of that lie. Henry Kissinger who played a central role in prolonging the Vietnam war (causing thousands of deaths) still receives public acclaim. Those bankers and investment brokers who were responsible for the 2008 meltdown of the economy and the loss of homes for millions of Americans received rewards and huge bonuses instead of prison sentences. And corporate leaders who have been responsible for polluting our air, water and land around the planet remain firmly in power while environmentalists are scorned and their message largely ignored by the Obama Administration.
So where’s the justice?
The answer that emerges from Jewish texts is this: God has created the earth in such a way that it cannot tolerate moral evil forever. There will be a judgment, but it will come to the entire society, not just to the perpetrator of evil. For the Jewish people, the Torah predicts that if we do not establish a just society in the Land of Israel the earth will vomit us out. And for all of humanity, we are taught that if the society is not based on the Torah principles of justice, peace, love for neighbors and love the stranger (the Other) there will be an environmental catastrophe and all human and animal life is potentially at risk of perishing. The reason we will all suffer for the harmful actions of a few is because we each bear responsibility for doing our part to bring tikkun to the world. So if we sit by in silence when people are suffering, the planet is being destroyed, etc. we are also responsible and will suffer for our inactions. The Torah takes a hard line on this—it calls for us to be bringing the issue of justice and fairness, love and generosity, peace and environmental sanity into every situation we find ourselves—both in the public arena and in our personal lives. We are urged to bring up these issues even when others may feel it inappropriate, when some people will tell us we should “lighten up” and should not always bring “politics” into the discussion, when our friends tell us that they don’t want to hear about things that are depressing. We should talk about them when we go to sleep at night and when we get up in the morning, teach this to our children, and write it upon the door posts of our houses and our gates. Merely complaining to a few friends is NOT enough.
It was this theology that allowed the Jews to survive through what might be called righteous self-blaming. When Jews this week commemorate Tisha B’av, the day of mourning for the various catastrophes that have befallen the Jewish people starting with the exile from our land that occurred after the Babylonians conquered Judea in 586 BCE and after the Romans destroyed the 2nd Temple in 70 C.E. , our prayers proclaimed “because we sinned we were exiled from our land.” This is a form of self-blaming which is actually empowering, because it tells us that we can change our situation through our own actions as a people (not one by one, but together–and building and sustaining that “together” is really a central underlying Jewish concern and a point of much of Jewish practice–not the lone mediator but the community of people together seeking to connect to the spiritual reality of the universe).
Jewish theologians have pointed out that in this kind of a world, there is much room for human freedom precisely because God does not jump in and right every wrong. To create humans in God’s image, the Transformative Power of the universe (aka God) evolved in humans the freedom to choose how to live, even as that same God gave us a revelation that taught us to love each other and love the Other (the stranger).
Yet there is a danger to this kind of freedom: some people can literally “get away with murder.” Too many of Hitler’s willing executioners, too many of Stalinist Russia’s jailers and murderers, too many of those who implemented Western colonialism and imperialism at the cost of massive suffering in the “underdeveloped” world, too many of those who have abused and exploited in every society, remain powerful and live relatively happy and contented lives while their victims go to the grave without ever having been compensated and their suffering has sometimes even scarred future generations. And every day the capitalist marketplace’s values seep deeper into the collective consciousness and unconsciousness of much of the human race alive in the 2nd decade of the 21st century (in Jewish calculations, the year is 5773).
The highest value of the capitalist marketplace is individual freedom (to consume whatever they want whenever they want and without regard to the social consequences of what is being produced or consumed. Try to impose restrictions on guns in the name of public safety, and you find yourself surrounded by people who, having imbibed the capitalist notion that the good life is that with the most possessions, that safety comes from domination over others, and that the state must never play a role in restricting individual freedom, insist that there be no limit on the proliferation of guns and weapons, limits that might have kept George Zimmerman from parading around with guns to use on strangers. A central command of Torah—to love the stranger (the Other) has been wiped out of the collective memory of a society which in other respects (e.g. on abortion or gay rights) often seems to be checking its bible for guidance. So I have to mourn for a society that perpetuates hatred, that created the George Zimmerman and the other George Zimmerman’s in the world. Or that created George White, the African American man in NY who was convicted of murdering a white teenage boy – a black man who grew up in the lynchings of the South and had a genuine reason to fear for his safety (even if he had other options for how to respond in the situation) and was likely having a flashback at the time but was recently convicted of murder. All this violence, all this fear—and so we need so much more love, compassion, and generosity to heal all the distortions that keep generating so much suffering.
Moreover, when the oppressive regimes of the past are overthrown, the innocent in those societies often suffer as much as the perpetrators of evil. Read the book of Lamentations written in the wake of Jerusalem being conquered by the ancient Babylonians and read this week on Monday night when many religious Jews begin the one day of fasting and mourning called Tisha B’av, and you can hear the same kind of stories that we hear 2500 years later from the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—that it is innocents who often take the brunt of the suffering even when an oppressive regimen is being overthrown.
That same story will play out on a massive level unless global capitalism is quickly replaced by global economic arrangements that gives priority to preserving the global environment and building a society that gives primacy to love and generosity over corporate and individual greed. Just as the Torah predicted some 2500 years ago (or more), there will be an environmental catastrophe unless there is the kind of revolutionary changes sought by Torah (including the massive redistribution of wealth every fifty years during the Jubilee—Yovel, the cessation of work every seventh year for the entire society—the Sabbatical Year observed by everyone on the same year, the weekly cessation of all work and all dealing with money or domination or “power over”—the Jewish Shabbat—plus the forgiving of all loans; and of course, the implementation of the Torah laws calling on us to love the stranger—the Other—and love our neighbors). But here again, those who suffer will not only be those who fought to keep corporate power and capitalist materialism and selfishness in place, but everyone in the entire society.
Perhaps the point here is that there is no possibility of people thinking that if they personally live good and just lives they will be rewarded with health, happiness, and the benefits of life on earth. That fantasy is a product of capitalist distortion that encourages us to think of ourselves as “lone rangers” whose fate depends on ourselves. The reality, Torah and Judaism teach, is that we are intrinsically part of a larger society and world, and that our fate is intrinsically bound up with the fate of everyone else on the planet and the fate of the planet itself.
So where is God’s beneficence in all this? That S/He/It conveyed to us that this is how the world was set up, and gave us the insights on what we needed to do to preserve the planet. Exercising stewardship over the earth, acknowledging that we don’t ever have a “right” to the land but only an obligation to use it in ways that are environmentally sustainable and socially just, to be loving and caring toward each other, to respond to the natural world with awe and wonder and radical amazement. Sometimes I wish that God were actually the big man in heaven who intervenes in human history that appears in the imagination of many and that gets called upon in some of our prayers. But that God doesn’t exist, or, at best, is in hiding and can’t be expected to respond to our prayers calling for immediate interventions into history. Except through us, created in God’s image and now partners with God in the healing and transformation of the world (and the word tikkun refers precisely to that process which we must carry out in this world and at this time).
So, no, there will be no justice for Trayvon Martin, or for the hundreds of thousands of minorities that fill our prisons, or for the hundred of millions of people who are now suffering malnutrition and living in conditions of extreme poverty. But there will be a price to be paid, and it will be paid, perhaps by those of us still alive in the next ten to twenty years, certainly by the whole human race within the next fifty years.
And there will be a come-uppance for the Jewish people for having allowed Israel to present itself as “the state of the Jewish people” even while it was engaged in oppressive policies toward its own Arab citizens, toward the Palestinian people as a whole, and toward the Bedouins upon whom the Knesset is now seeking to deny rights. For those of us, including myself, who love Israel and wish it to survive and flourish, the continuing tragic path it chooses, largely a result of the still-dominant Post Traumatic Stress Disorder which I describe in my book Embracing Israel/Palestine and which operates equally self-destructively among Palestinians, the self-inflicted wounds of the Jewish people today raise more sorrow than anger, more wishes to assist in healing than desire to see punishment, more deep sadness for our people which once again, in power, is doing precisely the kind of distorted activity that led to the last two Jewish exiles from our land.
But this time it will be different, because the fate of Israel is intrinsically tied to the fate of the rest of the planet. And that fate is growing more and more disastrous every day we continue to allow the environment to be poisoned and the minds of ordinary people filled with the common sense of capitalist ideology: that are all alone, that we are powerless to change anything big beyond our personal lives, that we can’t trust others except if we have power over them, that domination rather than generosity is the path to homeland security, and that we shouldn’t worry because everything will work out fine. It is this twin focus, mourning for the mis-direction of Israel and the destructive impact of global capitalism on the life support system for the planet, that is my focus for Tisha B’av.
So this is all part of what I’m mourning as I start my fasting for Tisha B’av. Monday night, July 15.
But Judaism has always included a message of hope as well, and it is this: we human beings are not morally neutral—we have a positive and powerful inclination toward the good, manifesting as a fundamental human need to be in loving relationship with each other and in an equally powerful need to live in a morally coherent universe in which our lives have a transcendent meaning that goes beyond the materialism and selfishness of the world of class structure and oppression. This inclination can never be fully repressed. It continues to pop up even among those seemingly most beaten down. So Tisha B’av turns on Tuesday afternoon from mourning to rebuilding.
When I was growing up, that rebuilding was focused on the Zionist enterprise, which was seen as “the answer” or “the tikkun” to the Holocaust and the previous suffering of the Jewish people. Today, it’s more obvious that Israel and Zionism itself need a huge tikkun, and that must come from returning to the deepest truth: that we are all equally created in the image of God, all deserving of love and compassion, and all yearning for a world of kindness and generosity and caring for each other and the earth.
And that compassion must also extend to those whose own inner distortions lead them to act in racist, sexist, homophobic, or xenophobic ways. It is in building a movement that can at once challenge the global ethos of materialism and selfishness while simultaneously manifesting a great deal of compassion and generosity of spirit toward those who are suffering from their own PTSD or from their indoctrination into the values of the competitive marketplace that there lies the greatest hope for a different kind of world, for the tikkun olam (transformation and healing of the world). And that too is part of the meaning of Tisha B’av, and a reason for hope that before the next set of disasters paralyze and possibly destroy human life on earth as we have known it, it may still be possible for an ethos of love, kindness, generosity, ethical and environmental sanity, and awe and wonder at the grandeur of the universe to bring the world to a deeper harmony and a less destructive path. That deep inclination inside every human being is apparent in hundreds of millions of people on our planet, if only we could find a way to work together and recognize each other. I like to call this up-wising (yes, up-wising) of the goodness in humanity: Love’s Rebellion—and it’s what gave Martin Luther King Jr. the faith that the arc of the universe bends toward justice. If you are with me on this perhaps you’ll come to the training we are offering to help you become an agent of this kind of tikkun-ing of the world. RabbiLerner.firstname.lastname@example.org
Rabbi Lerner is editor of Tikkun and Chair of the Network of Spiritual Progressives www.spiritualprogressives.org. He is also rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue-Without-Walls in Berkeley, Ca. and invites you to register and come to High Holiday services with him (info at www.beyttikkun.org) and/or to sign up for the training Jan 17-20 –Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend) which Rabbi Lerner and Cat Zavis are offering for people who wish to become spiritual progressive activists (at www.spiritualprogressives/training) and join the Love Rebellion.