The Times They Are a-Changin’

[With thanks to my mother’s 5th cousin, 4th cousin by marriage, Bobby Zimmerman for the title.]

Young (and not so young) Jews are all over the Occupy movement. is a gateway to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Tumblr. The Occupy Judaism Facebook page has as its “About”:

“Finally, an occupation progressive Jews can get behind.”

(Though as the Ashkenazi image on the bull shows, Occupy Judaism also has to work on inclusivity.  It’s a great play on the ballerina balancing on the same bull that’s the icon of Occupy Wall Street on Facebook, but she’s white too.  Just add in more images so more people look at it and see themselves.)

As I’m writing, there are sukkot at various Occupations (Seattle was dismantled, but here’s a round-up of many others.  Here’s a video of Shehecheyanu via the People’s Mic at “A Just Sukkah in LA”; and if you scroll down the Occupy Judaism Facebook page you can find various others… though days or months from now it’ll be a *lot* of scrolling).  There are plans to do hakkafot on Simchat Torah around Liberty Plaza— and as with building the sukkah, the NYPD will run right into free expression of religion.

In fact, the I read somewhere that NYPD has been going around telling the tent campers in Liberty Plaza/Zuccotti Park about the halakhic requirement that they be able to see the stars!  (There’s a no-structures rule, but as it should be, the sukkah is exempted, being an expression of religion in the public square.) Here’s the original tweet.

Rachel Gordon playing Kol Nidrey on her violin at Occupy Boston Kol Nidrey – 5722

My cousin Rachel was one of the organizers of Occupy Boston Kol Nidre, and played Kol Nidrey on her violin.  (Difference in spelling because I used the Facebook organizing page’s spelling.)  She wrote me in the afternoon just before: “Now if only someone could tell me why i volunteered to play Kol Nidre on the violin in public??”  And I replied, in part:

It’ll be what it’ll be, but it will bring an important sound to the service.  Judaism is not about perfection, not even (maybe especially not even) from the bimah.  Model offering what you can.  And they’ll model appreciating it, I guarantee it.

Which she wrote me after to say that they had, indeed, done.

Note the rainbow tallit tied around the shoulders – after Kol Nidrey at Occupy Wall Street – 5772

The Occupy Wall Street Kol Nidrey service drew over 1,000 Jews, not only those camped out in Liberty Plaza.  Using the People’s Mic and a great variety of machzorim (High Holy Day prayerbooks), the service was apparently so inspiring that spontaneous dancing broke out afterwards.  (Read the sermon that was given there — scroll down.)

My Yom Kippur sermon was about the Occupy movement, and was received with much enthusiasm by many of my congregants — and at least one person who decided it was time to join the synagogue.  The sermon itself didn’t feel risky — I know my congregation, and people will at least give me a hearing, and many I knew already were in sympathy — but I finished with something that did feel risky:  The last couple sentences were shared through the People’s Mic.  I had described it earlier in the sermon, and fortunately there were 3 or 4 people at the service who had already experienced it, so when I called “Mic check!” I got back a response, and it went smoothly from there.

As of this writing, I know of only one other pulpit rabbi who preached on this subject on YK, plus I was told of one who touched on it.  And that’s after putting a question out on the Reform rabbis’ listserv asking the question.  I’m sure a few rabbis in other denominations did as well — any Reconstructionist, Conservative, or Orthodox rabbis that you know of?

As far as I’m concerned, this is the most important thing that has happened in this country in my lifetime.  I wasn’t born yet during the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  Nobody  knew at the beginning that it would change lives, energize a community, and mobilize a decade-long Civil Rights movement.  This one’s more obvious — it’s all over the world, it has communication resources only dreamed up by previous generations (including mine!), and it is establishing communities of practice, model communities, all over the place.  As a woman named Elizabeth Miller wrote on Facebook on the evening of Tuesday, October 11,

but then i came back, two days later. and i started to get it: the meetings are the point. the medic tent is the point. the painful f**g process of coming to consensus with people you don’t like and never would have chosen to ally yrself with is the point. the conversations you have during the downtime with that homeless guy from the common or the woman with the SuperDone hair from sudbury are the point. the people’s mic (which you can hear more about here: ) is the point. the complex infrastructure that any person who walks onto the community can use and plug into is the point. and none of those are the whole point, of course–when you’re talking about injustice and stark inequality, there can’t be just one point. but this building, this intentionality, this space that is being made to hold connections–it’s not something i have seen in other movements or organizing i have been a part of. not in this way. being ongoing with people in life, not just in organizing for one moment or for many disparate, far apart moments, is so different.

(I put the asterisks in; she expressed herself clearly.)

No matter what happens in terms of policy, politics, economics, or through any formal structure, the reality of experiencing this movement, of being the organizers, of making things happen and making a difference, will alter people’s lives.

Now, I expected the tarring and feathering of the movement that’s coming from right-wing media.  I was shocked to learn, though, that that includes at least one Jewish media outlet:  Commentary magazine.  I think my parents subscribed to Commentary when I was little.  I was confused to read an excerpt in someone’s Facebook post, quoting Commentary about the Occupy Kol Nidrey service at Occupy Wall Street:

The one new development this service’s organizers may have hit on is the utilization of the Jewish religious tradition in service to their radical politics. Let their successes be few, and the passage of their movement from the American Jewish scene swift.

Let their successes be few?  Jewish religious tradition becoming relevant again to young Jews?  1,000 people gathering for a lay-let Kol Nidrey service?  Proclaiming the prophetic message of peace and justice from a Jewish home base to the world at large?  Let them pass away swiftly?  What?!!

Here’s a link to the whole post, titled “A Sad Mix of Judaism and Radical Politics at ‘Occupy Wall Street.’”  And here’s a link to a great critique of it on a blog that’s new to me, JewSchool (worth looking at on its own!)

So I went and read the whole post.  You can argue with the political and economic analysis of the Occupy Movement, you can differ pointedly with its tactics; but the whole point of my sermon was the extent to which Jewish values are embodied in this movement.  So here’s the crux of the mistake made by the Commentary post:

It must be said there is of course justification to be found for specifically economic protests of a leftist variety in the prophets, perhaps most especially Isaiah. But it stretches truth far beyond the breaking point to claim such texts based on conditions in ancient Israel offer much guidance for the policy questions of our day, or impel a religious believer to a particular side of the political aisle….

“No, Isaiah didn’t really mean it.  Anyway people/conditions have changed too much”  You’ve got to be kidding.  People haven’t changed at all, though perhaps we’ve learned a little.  The moral values of our tradition are not to be taken seriously as a guide to action today?  Why am I a rabbi, then?!  What’s Yom Kippur and self-examination all about?!

The one new development this service’s organizers may have hit on is the utilization of the Jewish religious tradition in service to their radical politics.

Did they never hear of Rabbi Arthur Wascow?  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel?  Just to name two very famous recent rabbis who put their Jewish religious tradition in service to their radical (= to-the-root-of-the-problem) politics.

So here is a link to Rabbi Arthur Wascow’s passionate re-reading of the Yom Kippur morning Haftarah, with his comments about how and why he reads it as he does:

I read it in English, since it seems to me the whole point of the passage is to break through ritual patterns to address the urgent needs of the poor. I try to read it like an outraged activist who has just heard that some president signed an “Act for the More Efficient Starvation of Children.” …

3. I think the speech was actually given as an interruption of a Yom Kippur service, or at minimum is deliberately written as if it were. I fantasize Isaiah elbowing his way thru the crowd at the Temple or through the crowd at a Super-Synagogue in Babylonia — and interrupting — shouting out this radical challenge to the liturgy.

4. Unfortunately, the result of the Rabbis’ assigning this to be read on YK is that it becomes not a challenge to the liturgy but a part of it. There is a wonderful story by Franz Kafka:

“One day a leopard stalked into the synagogue, roaring and lashing his tail. Three weeks later, he had become part of the
liturgy. ”

And here is Rabbi Shefa Gold’s interpretive translation of Isaiah 57:14-58:14, which I quoted in my sermon.

And this brings me to the title of my post.  I’m not actually worried about Matthew Ackerman’s piece in Commentary, as appalled as I am by it.  History is on our side (I include myself, though I’m pushing 50).  This is the new face of Judaism for the 21st century, and it builds on the best innovations of 20th century Judaism.  It is Judaism made relevant, made vibrant, and made young again:  חדש ימינו כקדם — Renew our days with the enthusiasm of younger times!  (Lamentations 5:21) It is what’s bringing young people back into the synagogue, at least into mine, and bringing in energy that is strengthening the Jewish community, helping it grow, and making a huge difference in the wider world as well.

And why do I know it will succeed?  Time is on its side.  When Debbie Friedman z”l died last January, Cantor Jeff Klepper posted an article from Reform Judaism Magazine from November, 1980, about the controversy about the kind of music that she pioneered.  He also posted some of the letters to the editor responding to the article.  I quote from one in particular, titled by the editors “Musical Banality”:

I suspect that Danny Freelander’s “prophetic announcement” about NFTY’s music predominating in the Reform Movement is a kind of wish fulfillment seen from his particular prejudice and vantage point.

That was 1980.  In 2011, Rabbi Daniel Freelander is Senior Vice President of the (American) Reform Movement and supervises URJ Books and Music.  And people like me, who grew up with Debbie and Jeff’s music as well as many others, who fell in love with Judaism at summer camp and often began developing our leadership skills there, are congregational rabbis and cantors.

In 30 years, positions of leadership in American Judaism (and if we’re lucky, elsewhere too) will be filled by Jews who got an important part of their leadership experience and training during this Occupy Movement.  Enough of them that the movement’s values and best practices will be taken for granted.  Time is on our side.  Actually, it’s already begun.

Come mothers and fathers [and bloggers and others] throughout the land

And don’t criticize what you can’t understand

Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command

Your old road is rapidly aging —

Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend a hand!

For the times, they are a-changin’.