Isaiah For Our Time: To Transform the World

Shofar and candlesticks. Image courtesy of slgckgc/Flickr.

My teaching FOR YOM KIPPUR 5780 (but this is not just for Jews—because Isaiah’s message is universal and timeless—so feel free to circulate this to friends and social media contacts who never even heard of the Day of Atonement/Yom Kippur and it 25 hour fast to help us concentrate on repentance for ourselves and our society).

Rabbi Michael Zimmerman
Congregation Kehillat Israel, Lansing, Michigan

At Rosh Hashanah, one of our members climaxed his d’var Torah with Mark Strand’s 2007 poem “Pot Roast.” All I could think of was that it’s a good thing he wasn’t slated to speak at Yom Kippur. Imagine trying to focus at this moment on a multisensory communion between the poet and his mother’s hamisch culinary masterpiece!

And yet our liturgy challenges us even more than the idyllic dreams of mama’s pot roast. It mocks our well-intentioned attempts at piety and self-sacrifice on the one day of the year that we try as hard as we can to be contrite, to be reverent, and hopefully to be forgiven for the past year’s fumbles and foibles. Just as the absence of breakfast is really starting to get to us, we are told by the prophet Isaiah (57:14-58:14) that fasting simply by abstaining from food, even if we followed all the instructions in the book, is not really what God wants from us. This creates a conundrum – we know we’re doing it wrong, and for the most part there’s not much we can do about it, at least not until tomorrow at the earliest when we can presumably start to implement some of Isaiah’s injunctions:  unlocking the chains of wickedness, the loosening of exploitation, and so on. But we know that the solution is not to go out and order a falafel; that would only make things worse. Plus, if we can hold out fasting until this afternoon, we know that we will read in Jonah that fasting for the sake of repentance is actually a good thing. So next year at this time we’ll find ourselves fasting once again, and once again being mocked by Isaiah for not doing it right.

Still, I really don’t think that Isaiah’s goal is to make us feel guilty, even if that’s what we may expect from a Jewish author with an acid wit. No, Isaiah is not so much a literary superego as a visionary, a political spiritual radical who recognizes that the world we accept as real is not the world to which we aspire, and that a world of love and balance is within our grasp.

Reading this Haftarah every year, I thought I understood it. I even thought that its message—that doing social justice is a good thing—is too obvious to even discuss. This year though, I’m  reading a new book by Rabbi Michael Lerner with the modest title Revolutionary Love: A Political Manifesto to Heal and Transform the World (University of California Press, 2019), and this is giving me a much fuller appreciation of what Isaiah is trying to tell us. Written nearly 2000-3000 years apart, these two works carry essentially the same message, the same assessment of what’s broken in society, the same analysis of the causes of the contributing factors, and to a large degree the same solutions. The metaphors and undefined terminology of the ancient religious poet and the detailed interdisciplinary working out of analyses and solutions by a contemporary scholar may read very differently; yet Lerner reveals hidden facets of Isaiah’s vision just as Isaiah demonstrates the deep Jewish roots of Lerner’s lifelong project to heal society.

To see how Isaiah and Lerner line up, it helps to back up one chapter from our Haftarah, and take a look at Isaiah 56. Two key elements in this chapter are a vision of inclusivity and a condemnation of the evils of society. The inclusivity passage starts with a welcome to eunuchs, in other words those who were dismissed as sexual outliers and had been excluded from the community. This passage is frequently cited by religious leaders who advocate for LGBTQ rights:

As for the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who have chosen what I desire and hold fast to My covenant; I will give them, in My House and within My walls a monument and a name, better than sons or daughters; an everlasting name that shall not perish. (Isaiah 56:4-5)

Next are pious foreigners. They are not detained at the border, but embraced:

I will bring them to My sacred mount and let them rejoice in My house of prayer. For my House shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. (Isaiah 56:6-7)

Isaiah then rails against greed and lack of communal concern, and mocks mindless pleasure-seeking:

Everyone has turned his own way.
Every last one seeks his own advantage, saying:
“Come, I’ll get some wine, let us swill some liquor, and it will be just like this tomorrow or maybe even more.” (Isaiah 56:11-12)

Our ancient prophet will settle for nothing less than a society that is based in compassion and social responsibility, in which greed and exploitation are curtailed, and empty diversions are no substitute for the bliss of divine blessing. This coincides perfectly with Lerner’s vision of a society that no longer privileges financial gain as the be all and end all, but rather embraces a new bottom line:

“that judges the productivity, efficiency, and rationality of our society and its institutions—including corporations, government policies, our legal system, our political system, our educational system, and even our own personal choices—by the degree to which these institutions and preferences enhance our capacities to be loving, respectful, compassionate, empathic, generous, and caring toward each other; supportive of economic, environmental, and social justice; able to treat other human beings as manifestations of the sacred rather than merely as vehicles to achieve our own ends; and capable of responding to the Earth and the universe with awe and wonder rather than treating it as nothing more than an instrumental resource for human needs.” (Michael Lerner, Revolutionary Love, pp. 51-52)

Lerner’s core premise is that all human beings seek love, acceptance, and a higher purpose for their lives. But throughout history those with more power and resources have subjected the rest of society to exploitation, and have fostered an ethos of selfishness, rugged individuality, and alienating competitiveness. As a result, we’ve been conditioned to believe that the only reality is that everyone is out for themselves, that one needs to compete to survive, and while the few succeed, the majority are encouraged to believe that they have only their own inadequacies to blame for their economic deprivation, meaningless jobs, loneliness, and lack of purpose. Meanwhile, commercial interests create a longing for lots of stuff we don’t really need, and people escape the emptiness through entertainment, diversion, and addictions, like Isaiah’s liquor-swilling party-goers.

The most debilitating element in this model is the powerful notion that the only reality is based in what is tangible and measurable:  money, rank, status, reward. All contributing to a state of existential despair Lerner calls “the great deprivation.”

One thing is clear: this cannot be the way people want to live. Transformation is needed, and the first step, to use Isaiah’s words, is to Remove the stumbling block from my people’s way. (Isaiah 57:14)

One of our congregation’s co-presidents wrote in his column from last month’s newsletter:  “I don’t know about all of you, but there is an underlying something (depression, numbing, etc.) that invades my daily life regarding the state of the world and our country. And I don’t really know what to do with these feelings and thoughts” (“Co-President’s Column,” Koleinu, Congregation Kehillat Israel, September 2019, p. 3). I’ve noticed something similar in recent weeks: people are agitated, short-tempered, depressed, forgetful, more than usual. Or as Michael Lerner describes it,

“All over the world, psychotherapists are beginning to notice a pervasive depression in many patients. People feel hopeless about the possibility of saving our planet and are more inclined to abandon any involvement in societal processes other than extracting as much pleasure for themselves as possible before our planet becomes unlivable.”  (Lerner, p. 74)

Isaiah’s response:  As for the downtrodden and the destitute, I shall revive the spirit of the lowly, and the heart of the depressed I shall restore. (Isaiah 57:15)

We may be lulled into silence, but Isaiah reminds us that we must not succumb:  Cry from the throat, do not relent, raise up your voices like a shofar. (Isaiah 58:1)

So here’s the deal. The world we experience is not the world that is our birthright. Michael Lerner describes the goal as “The Caring Society—caring for each other and caring for our planet Earth,” or “A World of Love and Balance.” Isaiah speaks in metaphors and similes:

From me shall my spirit drip like dew. I shall create the breath of life (57:16).

The Righteous One will satisfy your thirst in desert wastes, will give your bones new life, and you’ll be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters do not fail (58:11).

These water images are especially poignant in an era when climate change is rapidly producing desertification and life as we know it on this planet hangs in the balance. Clearly this imagery sends a powerful message of hope, just as Michael Lerner has continued for decades to send a message of hope through his books and Tikkun magazine www.tikkun.org, even as so much in human society seems to just keep getting worse.

In Lerner’s vision, that hope stems from recognizing that people in all segments of society, including those who subscribe to hateful ideologies or perpetuate oppression and exploitation, basically hunger for love, respect, and purpose. They may seek it in counterproductive ways, and so Isaiah said that The wicked are like a troubled sea, they cannot be at peace, their waters stir with mire and mud (Isaiah 57:20)

But if we engage with those whose worldviews we find problematic, doing so in a spirit of “prophetic empathy” that is both respectful to others and clear about how things are and how they need to be changed, people can start to find their way out of the mire and mud.

Isaiah’s program is comprehensive: To unlock the fetters of wickedness…To let the oppressed go free. And to break EVERY yoke [v’CHOL-motah t’nateku] (Isaiah 58:6).

Lerner is equally uncompromising, convinced as he is that indecisive compromise positions merely grumbling at a long list of what is wrong will not inspire people to work for the vision we need and will probably not lead to substantive change.  As he writes,

“Martin Luther King Jr. did not become the major icon of social change by giving a speech to 300,000 people in which his main line, repeated several times, was ‘I have a …complaint.’” (Lerner, p. 141)

Lerner’s program is not only far reaching; it is radical by any measure, because it is clear that so-called “realistic” solutions are inadequate for the state of today’s world. So in his book Revolutionary Love, he outlines new family support policies, new economic models, new systems for education, health care, and criminal justice, and more. Just as the Book of Isaiah scans two or three centuries of Israelite history, so does Lerner jump ahead from 2019 to the mid-22nd century, inspiring us to work for future outcomes that would be inconceivable in today’s world. What more fitting tribute to the spirit of the Biblical prophet who envisioned a world in which the wolf would dwell with the lamb, the leopard would lie down with the kid (11:6), and nation would not take up sword against nation or ever learn war again (2:4). In his closing chapter, Lerner spins off of Isaiah’s prophecy:

“In the 22nd century China, Russia, the United States, the European countries, and the Islamic countries are all working together to repair the damage of the past and to ensure that there are no more hot wars, trade wars, or diplomatic struggles.” (Lerner, p. 237)

But as Lerner repeatedly emphasizes, strong transformation requires a soft touch. The program he outlines must reflect love and generosity and counter the image that those who challenge the selfishness and cynicism generated, he believes, by the capitalist marketplace really are elitists who hate ordinary Americans. So the movements and political organizations and religious organizations who want to bring a world of love and justice must make that the center of its vision. And in every step of the campaign to bring the caring society agenda to realization, debating those who oppose it, implementing it, and generating the mechanisms to sustain it, love and caring must pervade every interaction. It is only by promoting kindness and human decency at every turn that Isaiah’s vision of a people pervaded by the blessings of the Almighty can truly come to be.

[Addendum: If Lerner’s book Revolutionary Love is not available at your local bookstore, urge them to get many copies. Or, you can order it from our webmasters at www.tikkun.org/buyrevlove.]

More info about Revolutionary Love and about Rabbi Lerner’s national book tour: www.tikkun.org/lj.

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