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Selective Empathy by Rabbi Zalman Kastel


by: on November 19th, 2015 | 1 Comment »

Selective empathy and relationships with ‘others’ – Vayetzei

Terror has struck us’ again. I write us’ referring to Westerners who identify with the Paris victims. I feel angry about this attack against ordinary people in a Western city. A terrible destruction of life perpetrated against people who live in a‘normal’city like I do. I am surrounded by outrage and solidarity expressed in French flags, on Sydney‘s Harbour Bridge, the OperaHouse and all over Facebook. But surely, every life of a non-combatant taken violently is an utterly unacceptable violation of the sanctity of life?

I am disturbed to read Facebook posts by my Arab and Muslim friends rightly expressing their hurt at the implication that French lives appear to matter more to Westerners than Arab or Muslim lives. Some posts list the names of places where Arab or Muslim blood has been spilled, including the terrible attacks in Beirut. Yet, none of these posts mention the recent stabbings of Israeli civilians. I feel a deep sadness about the selective empathy so much in evidence right now.

The term selective empathy‘ is almost a tautology because researchers in this field explain that empathy is by its very nature geared toward people we see as being like us. We can overcome this natural tendency to limit our circle of empathy either by calling on increased compassion (which is not naturally restricted to people like ourselves) or by changing our relationships with ‘them’ so that they become part ofus’.

The inclusion of those we are unfamiliar with and whom we regard as alien can feel quite threatening. After the Biblical Jacob left his village and the people familiar to him he put rocks around his head when he stopped for a nap along the way. This act is considered highly symbolic. Jacob protected his mind from the influences of a new place. Only his hands, symbolising action, were to connect with the new place, but his mind had to remain ‘unpolluted’(1).

Despite the fear some people have about how they might be changed or lose their identity, they do often make efforts to connect with the other. When Jacob met the ‘strangers’ among whom he would live he addressed them as my brothers (2)“.It is easier to regard people as abstract threats when you are not interacting with them face to face.


USDAC Statement on Syrian Refugee Crisis


by: on November 19th, 2015 | No Comments »

Note to my readers: This is the text of a statement released today by the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, where I have the honor of serving as Chief Policy Wonk. Signatories include the full USDAC National Cabinet, members of the first and second cohorts of Cultural Agents, and members of the Action Squad. Please share!

The USDAC calls on all artists and creative activists to use our gifts for compassion and justice, sharing images, performances, experiences, writings, and other works of art that raise awareness, build connection, cultivate empathy, and inspire us to welcome those who are forced from homes that are no longer safe.

More than four million Syrians have been driven from their homes, becoming refugees. Although state governors hold no power to bar entry to the U.S., a short time after the acts of terrorism that took lives in Beirut and Paris, more than half have issued statements rejecting Syrian refugees within their borders. Polls have shown that many Americans oppose accepting Syrian refugees. Poll results from the 1930s and 1940s showed majority opposition to accepting German child refugees and Jews; and from the 1970s majority opposition to the admission of refugees from Southeast Asia.

Once again, we must ask:

  • Who are we as a people?
  • What do we stand for?
  • How do we want to be remembered?

As a culture of fear and isolation? Or as a culture that values every human life, extending love and compassion to newcomers needing refuge?


Keynesian Economics and Neoliberalism: The Debate Rages


by: on November 12th, 2015 | No Comments »

As I read about the presidential candidates’ stated views, and as I watch the televised debates, I see the battle lines clearly drawn over competing ideologies separating not only individual candidates, but also differentiating political parties in the United States and also throughout the world concerning the structure and purpose of government.

One argument rests on the ideas of John Maynard Keynes, a British economist who theorized that economic growth and reduced unemployment can be supported through governmental fiscal policies including spending to stimulate the economy, adjusting interest rates, and placement of certain regulations on market economics.

Another and competing philosophy has come to be known as “neoliberalism,” which centers on a market-driven approach to economic and social policy, including such tenets as reducing the size of the national government and granting more control to state and local governments; severely reducing or ending governmental regulation over the private sector; privatization of governmental services, industries, and institutions including education, health care, and social welfare; permanent incorporation of across-the-board non-progressive marginal federal and state tax rates; and possibly most importantly, market driven and unfettered “free market” economics.

These tenets taken together, claim those who favor neoliberal ideas, will ensure the continual growth of the economy while protecting individual autonomy, liberty, and freedom.

Neoliberalism rests on the foundation of “meritocracy”: the notion that individuals are basically born onto a relatively level playing field, and that success or failure depends on the individual’s personal merit, motivation, intelligence, ambition, and abilities. Those who are, however, born or enter into difficult circumstances can choose to “pull themselves up by their boot straps,” and they can rise to the heights that their abilities and merit can take them. People, therefore, possess “personal responsibility” for their life’s course, and the government should not give them “stuff.”

I can remember back to the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign and the CNN-Tea Party-sponsored Republican presidential candidates’ debate in Florida. (The former Congressional “Tea-Party Caucus” has since changed its name to the Congressional “Freedom Caucus.”) The debate facilitator, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, asked then presidential candidate Ron Paul the hypothetical question of what we as a society should do in the case of a 30-year-old man who chooses not to purchase health insurance and later develops a serious life-threatening disease. Before Paul had a chance to answer Blitzer’s question, a number of audience members shouted “Let him die. Let him die.”


Jay Janson on Veterans Day


by: Jay Janson on November 11th, 2015 | 3 Comments »

Editor’s Note: In sharing articles in Tikkun, we often print articles with which we don’t agree to make Tikkun a lively forum for ideas​. This article ​is a classic case. Though Jay Janson has a very strong point in critiquing the way that veterans lives have been sacrificed to serve the imperial goals of America’s elites (as has been true for veterans in almost every war in history as people died to serve their own country’s elites), it is not true when thinking about the veterans who served the North in the Civil War nor those who fought the Second World War. War is almost always wrong, but many​ those who fought them have often been motivated by goals quite different from the goals of those who instigated the wars.

We at Tikkun want to see an end to all wars, but we don’t want to negate the decency and even idealism of many who have fought in these wars, an idealism that has often been manipulated by unscrupulous leaders like, in the case of the U.S., Presidents Truman, Johnson, Nixon, Bush, and perhaps Obama also (in his escalation of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq), and by advisors like Henry Kissinger and Vice President Cheney, and the list could go on and on on. Of course, it makes sense to emphasize that soldiers engaged in human rights abuses during those wars also do not deserve to be honored, as for example the Nazis, Stalin’s Soviet armies in the 2nd world war, and some U.S. soldiers in Vietnam and Iraq, not to mention that role of the School of the Americas in training South and Central American soldiers and police in torture techniques (and that School still persists at Fort Benning, Georgia, USA).

Indeed, we do not deny that there is something fundamentally evil about every war-and the untold abuses of others that almost always accompany every battle and every army. We want to see them all ended, right now.

​ And individual soldiers have some responsibility to make determinations for themselves about whether the war they are being asked to serve in has any moral legitimacy. I sent my draft card back to my draft board in 1968 and told them that if they drafted me I’d use the opportunity to organize my fellow soldiers against the Vietnam war. Certainly in the present period in the US, Veterans Day would be a good time to HONOR THE REFUSENIKS WHO Would NOT SERVE IN AMERICA’s IMPERIAL WARS. The Quebec Chapter of the NSP–Nework of Spiritual Progressives under the leadership of former American war resister Isaac Romano has made support for resistors an important part of their activities.

So Jay Janson’s point deserves a lot of public attention, but won’t get it because it doesn’t include these kinds of more nuanced reflections. Yet in its outrage at war, and its constant reminder that we should not celebrate all veterans but only those who did not consciously aid in manipulating us into wars and did not engage in activities like those in Guantanamo and the dozens of other torture centers run by the U.S. military and intelligence forces around the world, Janson has an important point that should be discussed by everyone on Veterans Day. And we should insist that the best way to honor Veterans and all they went through is to end all wars starting NOW.

-Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor, Tikkun


TPP finally revealed–a disaster. Take action against it.


by: on November 6th, 2015 | 1 Comment »

We at Tikkun’s Network of Spiritual Progressives are part of the Citizens Trade Campaign coalition of forces that have challenged the Clinton Administration and now the Obama Administration in their proclivity to  create trade policies that are destructive to the environment and to the well being of working people here and around the world. The latest such is the Trans-Pacific Partnership which, while having some positive aspects, would restrict countries from passing important environmental and health care related legislation that might interfere with corporate profits. This latest effort to give multinational corporations powers that supersede the powers of national governments is one more reason we need the ESRA–Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The ESRA would, among many other important measures,  overturn any such international agreement that has been approved by the U.S. government or will be approved in the future–please help us get it endorsed after you read it at www.tikkun.org/esra. 

Rabbi Michael Lerner issued the following response about the newly released full version of the TPP:

The TPP agreement violates a basic command of the Bible: that human beings must protect and act as stewards for the earth. Instead, it provides a path for corporations to overturn the most moderate environmental restraints on corporate avarice, much less the far more stringent actions that environmentalists tell us are needed to even begin to reverse climate change and preserve the earth for future generations. This is selfishness and materialism taken to a new height, and every religious communityu should stand up against it.

–Rabbi Michael Lerner  Editor, Tikkun Magazine (winner of the mainstream media Religion Newswriters Association “Best Magazine of the Year” Award in 2014 and again in 2015)


Here’s the message we received from the Citizens Trade Campaign which is coordinating this effort:


Still, Life: Zurbaran and Van Morrison


by: on November 5th, 2015 | No Comments »

For so many years, wherever I moved (I lost count around 25 moves), I hung a print of Zurbarán’s Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose on the bedroom wall, positioning it so I could lie in bed filling my gaze with its sublimity. The glass was chipped in one move, but I went on hanging it up, thinking of the cracked corner as a sort of battle-scar, a brittle badge of nomad honor.


I wish I had that print still, but it disappeared somewhere along the way, one of the countless objects I’ve left behind. I’ve been thinking lately—not exactly that I may have lost a bit of my mooring in the pressures and complications of the move we made two months ago, but that I need to refasten the cables, reconnect the anchor.


Trans* People Murdered for Truth-Telling


by: on October 29th, 2015 | No Comments »

Abolitionists jointed together to work for the immediate end to the institution of human slavery and the cessation of racial discrimination and segregation. They faced steep opposition from many quarters including a number of Christian denominations who asserted that sacred scripture not only condoned, but more importantly, mandated the practice of slavery.


Trans* People Murdered:

Alejandra Leos, Aniya Parker, Ashley (Michelle) Sherman, Betty Skinner,

Gizzy Fowler, Jennifer Laude, Kandy Hall, Brittany-Nicole Kidd-Stergis,

Young people conducted a number of sit-in demonstrations at Southern lunch counters to end Jim Crow laws of segregated public facilities, to the abusive taunts of onlookers and crashing batons of local police. Demonstrators faced imprisonment and the imposition of permanent criminal records.

Feminists formed a new wave in the fight for women’s suffrage against a high tide of obstructionism within a patriarchal system of male domination and misogyny, and an attitude that the enfranchisement of women would destroy Christianity and civilization itself.


#AssaultAtSpringValleyHigh: Will This Racism Never End?


by: on October 27th, 2015 | 6 Comments »

It was 1977, I was 12 or 13 years old, and Roots was released on television for the first time. I sat riveted to the screen with my parents and sister. I remember it like it was just yesterday. The living room with our white framed couches with bright colorful cushions, the big coffee table in the middle of the room and the small television screen built into the cabinet on the wall. I am sitting on the floor staring up at the t.v. in disbelief, watching in horror as Kunta Kinte is ripped from his mother’s arms and dragged kicking and screaming (as his mom and other family members and friends scream and look on in horror, having no power to do anything to stop this outrage) into a truck, sold to a new slave owner. As I watch this scene unfold, I am wailing and screaming barely able to hold my little self and my body together and yet I know I am safe – I am white, I am at home with my parents, this is not me, this is not now. Still, I am outraged and horrified at the capacity of human beings to treat one another with such disregard and I make an internal vow to do all I can in my power to contribute to a better, more just and loving world.

And then yesterday (and still today), 38 years later, I watch in horror as a Black school aged girl is ripped from her desk by a white police officer, thrown on the ground on her head and back, dragged and thrown across the room, and held down while handcuffed and eventually arrested. (Don’t even ask, “what did she do to deserve this” – the answer is nothing. No, she did not have a gun. No, they did not think she had a gun or other weapon. No, she had not threatened anyone, unless you think a teenager not complying with the demands of someone in authority is threatening – I suppose some might if that child is black.) The Black teacher had called the officer allegedly because the girl had supposedly refused to put away her cell phone. (That is disputed by the student who shot the video – http://goblackcentral.com/2015/10/6-things-that-should-enrage-you-about-the-assaultatspringvalleyhigh/.) Another student objected to the officer’s behavior and through her tears said, “This is wrong;” that student was also arrested for “disrupting” school. What? It is the officer who disrupted the school, not the student, the one student who somehow had the internal strength and clarity to speak up while both terrified and outraged. She deserves a medal of honor. I would hope my child would stand up in that situation and say, “This is wrong” and call upon others students to do so as well.

Just as my body shook in horror, grief and rage 38 years ago, and as tears flowed down my cheeks then, they do so now. And again, I was not there. This is not me. So if I feel this level of internal dis-ease from simply watching the video on my computer screen, I can only begin to imagine what the students must have felt and what every black and brown person in this country must feel and live with every single day.


The American Disease of Mass Killing


by: Zhiwa Woodbury on October 23rd, 2015 | 1 Comment »

You might not think that mass shootings and the climate crisis are related problems. In truth, they appear to be symptomatic of the same underlying disease that has rotted American culture from the inside out, and now threatens the future of all life on the planet.

By now, everyone is quite familiar with the nauseating cycle we repeat every time there is a new mass shooting. Shock and horror, sensationalized news coverage focused on “how could this happen here?” and “what could motivate such a despicable action?” Next, the focus turns to the victims and their families, with an expression of moral outrage. If it is horrific enough, the President himself voices his sympathy, and maybe visits the aggrieved. Then the media turns to the problem with easy access to guns and mental illness, prompting a predictably polarized debate about gun control. After a few days, the media moves on to the latest celebrity gossip, natural disaster, or intractable war news, and everyone goes quiet… until the next shooting.

If we are so familiar with this cycle that it has actually become as routine as it is ineffective in processing our felt grief, why do we repeat it every time? Is this not the very definition of mental illness – repeating ineffectual behavior over and over while expecting a different outcome? The better question is this: why does the introspective analysis stop at the expression of polarized views about firearms? Is there really no underlying issue here beside firearms and their easy availability to mentally disturbed individuals?


Imitating Realness: Art and Authenticity


by: on October 23rd, 2015 | 1 Comment »

The older I get, the more I interrogate my own critique of the new-new thing. Even the quickest retrospective glance reveals cultural history as a kind of ping-pong: the oldsters are appalled by the youngers, and when the youngers grow old, they are briefly surprised at finding their parents’ words emerging from their own mouths. Then they get used to it, and the generations roll on.

So take this with a pinch of trepidation, or at least a grain of salt, but I’m feeling more and more fed up with what seems to me to be a wildly misguided and rapidly emergent impulse in art and commerce, which is to hold nothing sacred, to mount an imitation of realness in which both art and authenticity are left lying on the studio floor.

Take the case of the canned parrots of Telegraph Hill. In San Francisco, that rocky North Beach neighborhood is famous for its wild parrots, tended for many years by musician Mark Bittner. He was profiled in Judy Irving’s lovely 2003 film, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, and in Bittner’s own book of the same name.

Recently, some young entrepreneurs opening the kind of trendily unspecific shop which seems more and more ubiquitous as San Francisco becomes increasingly unaffordable decided to intrigue passers-by with a display of cans labelled “Boiled Parrot in Gravy.” The display alludes to Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup cans, of course, and the contents were carefully chosen to reflect the shop’s aspirational brand as described by the filmmaker/graphic designer who created the installation: “a curated modern general store for the neighborhood, with a creative, craft and art focus … it’ll be sort of a neighborhood clubhouse, with a retail angle.”