As Hanukkah approaches this week, earlier and more turkey-filled than ever, it’s important to ask that age-old question: What’s really Jewish?
Rabbis and poets and the atheist uncles at my family’s Seder table have debated the question for generations. Forget the scholars and drunks, I say. The best answer I’ve ever heard came from a comedian. His name was Lenny Bruce.
Our greatest comic and patron saint of profanity, I remember the first time I heard Lenny Bruce’s classic take on the issue. Being Jewish, he taught us, simply meant being…not goyish. And if you didn’t know what goyish was, all that meant was…not Jewish. Pretty simple, right?
The difference between the two, however, can sometimes be very subtle. Lenny explained what it meant back in the 1960s, but I wondered: how can we explain this critical, vitally important issue to the Youtube generation?
So, with my friends over at 3200stories.org, I decided to make an updated version for 2013. I studied the ancient texts, examined every pop culture trend, and came up with some surprising results. Here they are, for your viewing pleasure. Buckle your online seat belts, this is a comedic trip from Mos Def to masturbation to God himself to see who comes out ahead in that age-old battle: Jewish vs. Goyish.
The apostle Paul was a good fund-raiser. In this part of his letter to the Corinthians, he was encouraging them to take part in a campaign underway in all the new churches of the Mediterranean. He called the campaign “the ministry to the saints.” Can’t you see the four-color posters? The goal was to bring a big gift of money to Jerusalem to support the mother church. Now, Paul had had a serious fight with that mother church some time back as to whether God’s promises covered Christians who weren’t Jews. Jerusalem said No, they don’t. Paul said Yes they do – and eventually they were persuaded to support his mission. But surely it did not hurt to bind up the wounds from that dispute with real money. The saints in Jerusalem were poor. The saints in the cities of the empire had plenty. The need of the one and the abundance of others were balanced in acts of generosity.
Paul is brilliant. He is perceptive and practical and persistent. Here he favors them with comparisons to other churches; there he stings them with doubts about their failing zeal, which might embarrass all with a meager gift. Here, as elsewhere in the letter, he has them putting something aside every week. It is a wise counsel. Which of you could give in one week from your income the whole sum you offer in the course of a year? If you can, then your giving is not yet spiritually significant. Paul teaches to give regularly. He calls this practice “being ready.” He teaches giving proportionally, according to means. Then he lightens up. “You must give only as your heart leads you, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Then he pours again and again from the pitcher of spiritual assurance. “God who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed. You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity.”
This year, an unprecedented number of retailers will force their greed on millions of workers by insisting that their endless hunger for “MORE, MORE, MORE!” is more important than ensuring that all who work for the company will have a chance to slow down and appreciate Thanksgiving. Of course, CEOs and other high level executives will not have to come in, but there will surely be pressure on millions of lower income people with families to provide for to come into work if they don’t want to be the first ones let go with the next downsizing.
Clearly, the ethos of materialism in this country is out of control. The profiteers would like to have us believe that nothing is sacred: Not our time, not our families, and certainly not our “unproductive” desire to take a day off to give thanks for what we have when there’s so much money to be made!
We need to take a stand against this madness. If you are scheduled to work on Thanksgiving, call off, and encourage all of your co-workers to do the same. If you have the day off, don’t shop, no matter how enticing the “door busters” may be. We must not allow the power of the competitive market to stop us from exercising our own power.
The idea for this piece came to me when I read a comment on an earlier blog post. The specific content of that post (which was about race), is not the issue here. Rather, it was two references to “ego” which caught my attention and got me thinking for all these months. Here they are as context:
“The only use for these false values are to enhance the ego’s sense of separateness, be it through conceived superiority or inferiority.”
“One result of acting upon true values is the freedom from the ignorance to which the separative ego tenaciously clings.”
There is nothing unusual about these sentences. They simply capture a way of speaking that I have been aware of: attributing intention to what is, ultimately, an abstraction. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so noticeable to me if it weren’t for a second aspect: the intention being assigned to this abstraction called “ego” is one that has a negative connotation with it.
It was a sad surprise to me when I learned that the entry of “ego” into the English language was in large part the result of choices made by Freud’s translator, James Strachey. “Ego” was introduced as a translation of the word in German that simply means “I,” thereby changing the meaning and tone of what Freud wrote. “When one says ‘my ego,’” says Mark Leffert, “one can always distance oneself; when one says “I,” no distance is possible.”[Footnote 1]
Chanukah celebrates the first recorded national liberation struggle-when the people of Judea rallied around a guerrilla war against the remnants of Alexander the Great’s empire, and the subsequent attempt by the Syrian (Seleucid) branch of that empire to impose Hellenistic culture and wipe out Judaism. The victory in 165 BCE is celebrated by lighting candles each night for eight nights, dancing, singing, playing with spinning dreidels, and in sine capitalist cultures the exchange of gifts.
If you happen to be in the San Francisco Bay Area on the third night of Chanukah, Friday November 29th, come celebrate with me and Beyt Tikkun Synagogue-without-walls, the Tikkun community and the Network of Spiritual Progressives.
Our goal: A change in consciousness. Nothing will change our world till we have popularized the following notions:
1. Our well being depends upon the well-being of everyone else on the planet and the well-being of the planet itself. So our goal is to create The Caring Society – Caring for Each Other and Caring for the Earth.
2. A New Bottom Line, so that our corporations, our economic policies, our political institutions, proposed legislation, government policies, our health care system, our legal system, our educational system all are considered “rational” or “productive” or “efficient” not only to the extent that they maximize money or power, but also to the extent that they maximize love and kindness, caring and generosity, ethical and ecological sensitivity, compassion and empathy, justice and peace, and enhance our capacity to go beyond a utilitarian approach to others and the world (“what’s in it for me?”) so that we can respond to all human beings as embodiments of the sacred and respond to the natural order around us with awe, wonder and radical amazement at the grandeur and mystery of the universe.
3. The fundamental changes that have happened in society happen when people decide to stop being “realistic” ( because what is or is not realistic is almost always defined for us by the powerful) and instead use our creative energies to struggle for what is desirable and needed to maximize the future well-being of humanity and the planet Earth. So we don’t engage in causes, campaigns, political activities based on our assessment of how likely we are to win them, but rather on the basis of whether they are helping people define for themselves what kind of a world they really want to live in and give to their children and grandchildren. In short, our activities are judged by whether they open up possibilities for us to educate ourselves and each other about our vision of that which is worth struggling to achieve. Any activity that opens the minds of others to our way of thinking is valuable, whether or not we “win” or “lose” in more narrowly defined terms. So, don’t be realistic – put your life energies behind a new vision of a world based on our New Bottom Line.
It follows from this that there is no one correct way to spread the Tikkun/ Network of Spiritual Progressives worldview – there are many, many paths that can work.
The reasoning behind Richie Incognito’s racist bullying of Miami Dolphin’s teammate Jonathan Martin must be fully understood before we can make any sense of the sketchy facts and conflicting opinions surrounding the story, or appreciate how the logic fails.
(Richie Incognito/ Credit: Creative Commons)
As the argument goes, Martin, a mild-mannered, cerebral Stanford grad, had to be “toughened up” to thrive in the heat of NFL battle. Like the verbal abuse heaped on raw recruits in boot camp to engender a fighting spirit, the anger provoked by racial derogation and talk of sodomizing Martin’s sister would, in theory, acquaint him with the fire in the belly that he needed to summon on Sundays to vanquish opposing linemen. This type of bullying, the reasoning goes, promotes the greater good – in this case, of winning football games.
The trouble with this reasoning is two fold. First, the target is non-consenting, since the strategy wouldn’t work if he was. The statement “Mr. Martin, we’ll be calling you horrible names and expressing the crudest desires with regard to your lovely family as a sort of drill, like running laps or lifting weights, so you’ll play better” would thwart the exercise.
Like the office or the plant where the rest of us labor, though, the locker room is a workplace subject to laws that protect the workforce. Certain employers and employees may yearn for the days when harassment wasn’t actionable and the workplace was as hostile as the boss chose to make it, but the legislature saw no need to carve out an exception for racist bullying or threats of violence on the offensive line any more than on the assembly line. Players’ accountsof the rough and tumble locker-room culture where “men are men” are no more morally compelling than wistful accounts of the days when women and minorities “knew their place.” And Dolphins’ head coach Joe Philbin wasn’t kidding when, asked about the locker-room harassment, he responded “I’m not concerned about any of that stuff. My focus is on [the team's next opponent] Tampa Bay.”
Recently I attended a preview of Twelve Years a Slave, a film graphically showcasing bondage in Dixie. In one scene I watched a white man in a sadomasochistic frenzy rape a young black woman -blood and semen seemed to drip in equal measure. I left the theater shocked and angry. This was the ultimate form of human degradation. I trembled. We seem to be under a continuing curse of psychotic racism spurred by a bloodlust so strong that even God Himself cannot cure it. Slavery is our own “Original Sin.”
It took some days to erase the searing images from the movie. As a historian I began to reflect. The actor who played the central character, Solomon Northrup, is Anglo-African Chiwetel Eijofor. When he mentioned that he is of Igbo descent and had heard of slavery in the West Indies, my antennae went up. Slavery in Igboland was a central fact of its nineteenth’s century economy. It seems that Eijofor wished to isolate a particular variety of slavery, one far removed from African realities.Americans do talk a lot about race and history, but are bound up in a highly stylized version of it —-The Dixie Narrative. By the last quarter of the twentieth century, the paternalistic image of U.S. slavery summoned up in Gone with the Wind and other works on the “Gallant South” had been consigned to the junk heap of history for most of us. The turbulence and violence of the 1950s and 1960s meant that the nation would, thank God, never again embrace any benevolent view of slavery.
(Flyer for Sawant/ Credit: CC-BY-NC-SA by Natalie Woo)
It’s true. Seattle elected a socialist candidate to its City Council. Kshama Sawant, a 40-year-old community college instructor and immigrant, is the kind of socialist spiritual progressives can feel delighted about. She ran on an Occupy platform of raising the minimum wage a hefty $5 to $15/hour, instituting rent control, public ownership of utilities, expanding paid sick leave, increasing citizen oversight of police, and taxing millionaires. She even said, under prodding, that one could make a case for nationalizing Amazon and Boeing; it wouldn’t happen, and she wasn’t running on it, but one could make an argument. And she was still elected.
[Editor's Note: November 22 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and virtually all major TV channels, magazines, and other media outlets are planning specials, documentaries, articles with historical analyses and personal retellings of where people were at the time of assassination. Also, Oliver Stone's 1991 Oscar-nominated film JFK challenging the conventional theory that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman and suggesting that there may have been a conspiracy to kill Kennedy will be shown this month in over 250 theaters nationwide. To put the Kennedy assassination in a historical perspective that is both spiritual and political, we here reprint Peter Gabel's brilliant article on the subject, "The Spiritual Truth of JFK (As Movie and Reality)," originally published in Tikkun in March/April 1992 in response to the original release of Stone's film. Gabel's piece is an example of the kind of historical analysis we are trying to develop in Tikkun - locating the critical event of JFK's assassination in the context of the repression of our collective spiritual longings for a loving world that characterized the 1950s, and what he calls the "opening up of desire" represented by JFK. In defending Stone's film against its critics, Gabel also shows how the conflict between hope and fear, between the desire for an erotic, loving, and caring world and the forces seeking to deny and contain that desire, is central to understanding the meaning of historical events. His analysis also implicitly helps explain why this month there is such an outpouring of memory, pain, longing, and loss in recollecting the assassination fifty years later.]
(JFK, an Oliver Stone film/ CC-BY-NC-SA by www.impawards.com)
Oliver Stone’s JFK is a great movie, but not because it “proves” that John F. Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy. Stone himself has acknowledged that the movie is a myth — a countermyth to the myth produced by the Warren Commission — but a myth that contains what Stone calls a spiritual truth. To understand that spiritual truth, we must look deeply into the psychological and social meaning of the assassination — its meaning for American society at the time that it occurred, and for understanding contemporary American politics and culture.
The spiritual problem that the movie speaks to is an underlying truth about life in American society — the truth that we all live in a social world characterized by feelings of alienation, isolation, and a chronic inability to connect with one another in a life-giving and powerful way. In our political and economic institutions, this alienation is lived out as a feeling of being “underneath” and at an infinite distance from an alien external world that seems to determine our lives from the outside. True democracy would require that we be actively engaged in ongoing processes of social interaction that strengthen our bonds of connectedness to one another, while at the same time allowing us to realize our need for a sense of social meaning and ethical purpose through the active remaking of the no-longer “external” world around us. But we do not yet live in such a world, and the isolation and distance from reality that envelops us is a cause of immense psychological and emotional pain, a social starvation that is in fact analogous to physical hunger and other forms of physical suffering.