Friday, August 12, 2011

Tisha b'Av (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on Tisha b’Av, see the archives to this blog for July 2006, July 2007, July 10 2008, July 2009 and July 2010.

This past Shabbat I went to Yedidyah—which during my first two years in Talpiyot had been my regular shul, but which I left last summer when I found the distance too hard on my suffering knees and legs—for the first time in nearly a year. It was most fortuitous, for when there I heard a wonderful, passionate sermon for Shabbat Hazon delivered by Gershom Gorenberg, journalist and socially engaged person. His theme was the verse from the haftarah: “Hear the word of the Lord, chieftains of Sedom; hearken to the Torah of our God, people of Amorah” (Isa 1:10). Why, he asked, were the people of Israel compared to those of Sedom? What did Sedom symbolize? What was their salient characteristic?

His answer was a simple one (unlike the Western Christian tradition which associates Sodom with homosexuality, hence the word “sodomy”): the sin of Sedom was indifference to the other; not necessarily cruelty, viciousness, gratuitous violence, but simple indifference and apathy. Pirkei Avot writes: “He who says: What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours, is an ‘intermediate quality,’ and there are those who say: This is the quality of Sodom (midat sedom)” (Avot 5.10). In short, the ethics of Sedom was remarkably similar to that of “neo-liberalism”—that is, of unfettered capitalism, in which state and society abdicate responsibility for the well-being of society, and of its weakest members, as much as possible. Each man is left on his own; the ethics of what is romantically referred to as the “rugged individualism” of the American frontier.

How does this relate to my discussion, in my most recent piece for Shabbat Hazon, of the almost metaphysical meaning of the Temple? Some might say that there is a sharp conflict between the area of ritual and the ethics: either/or. But, alternatively, it is possible to see them as complementing one another. There really is an existential human need for worship, for sacrifice, and even for atonement—but the road to these things goes through social ethics and justice. Our haftarah and similar prophetic texts relate, not to the expression of grief and longing and nostalgia once the Temple was destroyed, but to the question: why was the Temple destroyed? And the answer to this is clear: in punishment for social injustice, indifference to one’s fellow, and groundless hatred that marked Israelite/Judaean society at the time of the Destructions. It is significant that, when the prophet Zechariah was asked (7:1-3) by those who had just returned from Babylonia whether or not they should continue to observe Tisha b’Av (“the fast of the fifth month”), he did not give them a straight answer, but delivered a lengthy prophecy–sermon–rebuke (7:4-8:17) on the subject of social justice, of caring for the orphan and widow, of kindness and compassion, of not allowing the strong to rob the poor (whether with a pistol or a fountain-pen, in the words of the American folk-song)—and only then addresses their question with somewhat cryptic words of blessing: “the fast of the fourth, and the fifth, and the seventh, and the tenth month, shall be days of joy and gladness to the house of Israel,” ending with a final implied admonition: “but [most of all?], love truth and peace” (8:18-19). Or, in terms of my discussion on Shabbat: the need of human beings to feel closeness to the Divine, to break through the barriers between heaven and earth, and to transcend the barriers created by their own weakness and sin and failures (kaparah as existential need) can only be fulfilled when they first behave decently towards others—thereby, as it were, pleasing God, the loving Father of all humankind.

* * * * *

All this is closely related to the events occurring in Israel in recent weeks, on which I shall elaborate, especially for the benefit of readers abroad who may not be au courant. For the first time in many years—certainly for the first time since I came on aliyah, thirty-seven years ago—issues of civil society, of economic justice and of national priorities—are at the forefront of the nation’s agenda, rather than issues of “the territories,” the Palestinians, and “security.” Seemingly out of nowhere, there is a mass awakening of the “ordinary” middle-class Israeli—tens and hundreds of thousands of people have taken to marching and demonstrating on the streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and other cities and even middle-sized towns, week after week, expressing a sense of profound dissatisfaction and even distrust with the government.

It all began with the issue of housing: the grossly inflated prices of both purchase and rental of even modest-sized apartments in the big cities, and the feeling of many young people—hard-working people, many of them professionals, most of them university graduates—who camped out in tents in the middle of Sderot Rothschild in Tel Aviv, that they would never be able to afford a place to live: that is, that society and its leaders had let them down.

But it quickly spread to other areas: the system of medical care—the fine hospitals in which Israel takes such pride—is breaking down. There are not enough hospital beds; interns are paid scandalously low wages (NIS 22 per hour!) while working many and long night shifts every month in addition to a 40-hour-week, leaving them barely any time for family life. There has been privatization of education, so that many high schools have a two-tier system, in which parents with more money can place their children in special classes run private associations that provide a better education. Meanwhile the teachers are hired on a year-to-year contractual basis, without tenure and without social benefits; and, perhaps more important, the schools no longer function as a means of social advancement for bright kids from poor families, as they will get a second-rate education.

More generally, there is an overall sense of unfairness, of injustice, that the “salt of the earth”—those who work and contribute most to society—doctors, teachers, young soldiers—enjoy the least benefits, that too much of the nation’s budget goes to special interest groups of all sorts. That too much wealth and power is concentrated among a handful of “tycoons”—of wealthy individuals and families who enjoy tax incentives and easy-term loans from the government, on the theory that their wealth will “filter down” to the rest of the population. That there is too great a tax burden on the middle class, with too many “regressive” taxes—e.g., 16% VAT on most goods and services—and not enough “progressive” taxes on the wealthy. That too much money has been spent on West Bank settlements, in cultivating cheap land and housing there and not elsewhere, in building bypass roads and infrastructures (NB: I deliberately bracket here the political, moral and even international-relations aspects of this question, and refer only to the economics). That vast quantities of money are spent subsiding full-time Torah study by Haredim—an activity which is hardly in the “national consensus” as a cultural priority—who are also exempt from military service, in response to what can only be called political blackmail. That the military is a “sacred cow,” automatically given priority in matters of budget (Note: While this is seemingly called for in a country like Israel which has had to fight so many wars and suffers serious security threats, much of that budget goes to retirement benefits for career officers from the age of 45, when they can start new and lucrative careers in business, politics, or management—not to mention simple waste and inefficiency.)

The government’s response thus far has been to set up a committee, to talk about fiscal responsibility, budgetary limitations, costs, etc. But the real issue is not this or that minor change or adjustment, but the crying need for a serious rethinking of national priorities, which will require cutting the unfair perks to special interest groups to pay for more equitable social and other services for all. If this involves struggle with those groups which have hitherto enjoyed special privileges (as it will)—so be it. In simple terms: it’s time for the government to be taken back by the people.

All this is something very new to Israel. For more than forty years, politics in Israel have revolved around the issue of the West Bank, and the parties which have various positions on this issue. This new movement is not political in the traditional sense of partisan politics and the struggle for power among them, but in the root sense of concern for the structure and priorities of society. We can only hope that they are successful, in some small measure, in opening a more vital and vibrant discussion on al levels of society, and beginning a much-needed process of change.


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