Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Time for Less Positive Thinking!

I understand that people who are out of work have to stay positive, as an article in the Boston Globe reported today. It's a psychological necessity--even if it gets extreme at times.

Steve Kitay, laid off from Fidelity Investments, made a vow to stay upbeat during his job search, even as his wife, Cilla, was diagnosed with breast cancer. “Nobody wants to talk to you if you’re negative,’’ said Kitay.
And he's right, unfortunately. But the rest of us, those who have jobs, should not stay positive. It's our duty to be critical--and even negative.

We should think critically about the claims that people are personally responsible for their unemployment. It took years and years of rapacious profits and mendacious politics to get us to this point. Close to one out of every six people in Massachusetts are not living in poverty because of character flaws. This is a social problem.

We should also think critically about the claims that government has done all it can do and that it's time to worry about deficits. There is no history to back that up, and the economic theory that supports laissez-faire and trickle-down is the same theory that got us into the recession in the first place. Even Alan Greenspan confesses that.

We should be negative. We should say no to tax breaks for the rich, bonuses for the speculators, and war profits for Halliburton and Xe (which is really Blackwater but dares not speak its name). We should say no to wars that waste the lives of people back home as well as those who are killed and maimed in battle. Unemployed people cannot afford to be negative? Then they must depend on us to do it. We cannot afford to be brightsided any longer.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Justice and Lovingkindness

One of the most haunting melodies of the High Holy Day season is the one that wafts the prayer Avinu Malkeinu up to the rafters at my synagogue, Temple B'nai Brith, every year. The words are equally poignant. Taken literally, they ask God to answer our prayers and show us a grace we don't deserve, because our good deeds are nothing close to what they should be.

This year, I read the prayer against the grain. I know that aseh imanu tzdakah va-chesed means that we ask God to show justice and lovingkindness in God's dealings with us. I choose to read "with us" as meaning "through us." As John Kennedy once said, "Here on earth God's work must truly be our own." When we chanted Avinu Malkeinu, I prayed that we in this community become the agents of justice, and of kind and loving deeds, that we would normally think are too much for us to achieve. This poor world needs so much from us. It is so daunting sometimes. Let us find the strength to go on working for a better world.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

You Don't Have to be Jewish..or Even Believe in God

Last Saturday, the weekly Torah portion pictured God saying about the people who are about to enter the Promised Land, "They will forsake me and break my covenant" (Deuteronomy 31:16). Reading that verse reminded me of a very similar verse in Jeremiah, which states: "[They] have forsaken me and have not kept my Torah." To which the Pesikta D'Rav Kahana, a 5th- to 7th-century midrash, glosses: "If only they had forsaken me--and kept my Torah!"

Torah literally means teaching, instruction. It is not only the contents of the five books of Moses, or even of the whole Hebrew Bible: it's the tradition that's developed--and still developing, this instant--about how we should live our lives. As the rabbis read it, the God who is a character in the Torah (narrow meaning) says that we don't have to believe in God as a reality in the universe at large. What we have to believe in is Torah (larger meaning): that there is a way to lead a moral life as a person and as a society, and that studying to understand it and to walk in that way is the most important thing we can do.

A God who can say that I don't have to believe in God: that is a God I can believe in! Even if that God doesn't happen to exist (as Stephen Hawking is now arguing, and which would be a most inconvenient truth), that God is still the moral example I can follow and in whom I can put my trust. And my belief that I am in partnership with the moral force of the universe allows me to be partners with you, whether or not you believe in God.

So let's make this world better. We'll find out about the next one if and when we get there.

Monday, September 6, 2010

We Are NOT Out of Iraq

President Obama's declaration last week that combat operations in Iraq have ended is just as big a lie as President Bush's banner, "Mission Accomplished." Your tax dollars and mine are still paying to defend a government in Baghdad made up of warlords who have the same approach to women that the Taliban does. The money is not going to GI's anymore. It is going to mercenaries.

As Derrick Jackson pointed out in the Boston Globe, as the regular military stood down, the shadow military stood up.

A July report from the Congressional Research Service indicates that the number of private security personnel has risen by 26 percent during the drawdown. The report also says there are 11,600 private security forces in Iraq operating under the Department of Defense, a number corroborated by the federal bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting. So the total US security force level in Iraq — both military and private — is around 64,000.
Regular U.S. troops and spies have treated Iraqis in ways that poisoned the name of the U.S.: remember Abu Ghraib? What do we think will happen when soldiers-for-hire, including the infamous Blackwater under its new name of Xe, are in charge of U.S. interests in the country?

We in the U.S. may want to "turn the page" on Iraq, but our debt to the Iraqi people is still on the books.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Who's Responsible?

Rosh Hashanah, the head of the Jewish year, begins at sunset this Wednesday night. It's a joyous time, with many beautiful melodies and the sound of the shofar wafting through the synagogue sanctuary, which is filled with friends and neighbors I might not see more than a few times a year. There are folk customs like eating apples dipped in honey and casting the failures of the past year into the river in a ceremony called tashlich. Even Jews who are not religiously inclined tend to get together with family and friends to celebrate the season.

Yet for many thoughtful Jews, the festivity of the new year is overshadowed by Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, that falls ten days later. Many of us don't know what to do with this holiday. It is not that we think we are so perfect. We are acutely aware of our failures to live up to our highest ideals. Judaism also stresses tikkun olam, the repair and perfection of the world, so it is not only our personal shortfalls that weigh on our conscience at this time: we feel responsible for the planet!

With such a highly tuned sense of moral responsibility, some Jews find a whole day when we focus on repenting for our sins of omission and commission unbearable. I have felt this way, some years in my life. If you are struggling to be joyous this new year, knowing that Yom Kippur looms ahead, I have one thing to say to you:

"Then the Lord said to Moses, 'I have pardoned them, just like you asked."

Where do we see this line in the liturgy? During the Kol Nidre service, the very first set of prayers at sunset on the eve of Yom Kippur! We spend the next twenty-seven hours searching our souls and praying (mostly as a community) for forgiveness and the power to do better, knowing that we are already forgiven!

This might seem illogical to those who think of God as a divine scorekeeper, counting points in favor and points against each person. To me, it makes the deepest sense. It reflects my understanding that God never forsakes us and always wants to see us do better. On Yom Kippur, one day a year, we stress the aspect of God as judge--but that is within a year-round understanding that God and we are loving partners, engaged in a great work together. God needs us as we need God. We are all going on together after Yom Kippur.

If that is too serious for you, then please take the words of Heinrich Heine to heart instead: "God will pardon me. It's his business."

A good, sweet year to all.

Happy New Year

Hello again. I haven't been posting very much this past year, and not at all in the last few months. That's partly because it's been the busiest year of my life at work. Because of thre recession and because of economic stimulus funding, we've been able to add new programs and help many more people who were about to lose their homes, or who needed food stamps and fuel assistance to make sure they could both heat and eat...or who took the longer view and enrolled in our job readiness course, believing that sooner or later, jobs would be available again. That's all to the good, of course--but it has meant I have personally been responsible for submitting four times as many reports to Washington as in 2008. I came home each day and felt more like going to bed than like writing a blog.

I have to admit, though, that what really held me back was the sinking feeling that nobody was listening. I am not so vain, or so enamored of the sound of my own voice, as to send my words out to the blogosphere just for my own satisfaction. Making a difference has always been my passion. Feeling as if I made no difference whatever has kept me from trying, and therefore, I failed to make the small impact it is in my power to make. I am sorry for that. I will try to do better.

I feel a little bit like Peter Pan asking this, but if you want to see more writing from me, please clap your hands--I mean, show your support. Comment on what I've written. Repost pieces you think your friends will want to read. Keep the conversation going. As we begin a new school year and a new year on the Jewish calendar, I hope we can write a new chapter in this book of life.