Posted by Aryeh Cohen
Last year good friends visiting from Israel brought as a gift a CD by Gal Ziv, which put to music some wonderful contemporary Israeli poems. One line sticks with me. It is from the poem “Ibn Gvirol, Tammuz, Future Tense” by Tal Nitzan. The poem is sung with a hauntingly beautiful melody. I am assuming that the poem was written around the time of the Israeli tent protests which captured the passions and imaginations and participation of tens of thousands of Israelis in the summer before the Occupy movement started. I hear the words through the filter of Occupy LA.
Coins dive down to the musician’s bag
with the audacity of small change, feet
will wallow in the detritus of the demonstration
what was spoken and shouted will be swept up
life is much stronger*
And I hear the words echoing with the youthful wistfulness of Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna.”
Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while
And I hear the words resonating with the fleeting nature of revelation as we move toward Shavuot, when we celebrate the necessary distance between people and God by wallowing in the gift of interpretation, of midrash, of study.
And then, in the very next moment, as we look upon it from the perspective of time past, those same people dance around the Golden Calf. The idolatry that is born of a need for concretized meaning and the intimacy of being able to point to a thing—the incarnation perhaps of a divine desire—and say: “This is your god”, overcomes the experience of revelation. Life is much stronger.
The move from rethinking the way the world might work, in which the space that is created between a people and the divine endlessness of Torah writ large, to the small narrow space of concretized and static deity is almost incomprehensible. How does one, let alone everyone, move from the frenetic liberating energy of infinite possibility to the “audacity of small change” which rings hollowly but can be sighted and pointed at. And yet, it is this move, more than revelation, more than liberation, which seems to define history. The day after, when the street sweepers come through and collect the detritus of passion and revolution, and tourists look at the gated off gardens and parks and plazas where righteous anger brought forth a dream of difference, a vital vision of a more just future—that day after regularly saps our spirits and dampens our drive, giving way to the demons of the day to day: “life is much stronger.”
And yet, we return each year with Sisyphean regularity performing the possibility of redemptive reading, hoping that this year the creative discourse of friends and allies hunched over texts ancient and modern, sacred and secular, profound and profane, will propel us into a future more full with the promise of perfectibility.
The future is still covered in the thick fog. With so much in the balance, perhaps this time when the fog clears it will be the dancing of holy revolutionaries singing the psalms of justice that we will hear.
I’ll see you at the foot of the mountain.
* The translation is mine.
5.13.13 at 8:40 am | And yet, we return each year with Sisyphean. . .
5.7.13 at 7:16 pm | The Rabbinic tradition transvalued the warriors. . .
4.23.13 at 5:22 pm |
4.18.13 at 5:34 pm |
3.15.13 at 1:24 pm | Ted Cruz, the apparent supporter of rights. . .
2.15.13 at 8:39 am | The practice of democracy, the practice by which. . .
5.13.13 at 8:40 am | And yet, we return each year with Sisyphean. . . (10)
3.15.13 at 1:24 pm | Ted Cruz, the apparent supporter of rights. . . (6)
7.2.12 at 4:55 pm | Justice Roberts surprised everybody by joining. . . (4)
May 7, 2013 | 7:16 pm
Posted by Aryeh Cohen
Violence rests heavy in the mythological and religious womb of our civilization. The first murder happens just verses after Adam and Eve leave the Garden of Eden. According to legend, Cain was stunned after he struck and killed Abel, as death had not yet inhabited the world. He was literally at a loss as to what to do. The birds taught him about how to bury the body.
Violence has never left us from that wayward moment. However, our biblical religions do not glorify the violence. When God commanded Israel to build a Tabernacle so that God might rest amongst the people Israel, part of the package was that the altar would not be hewn with metal. Metal brought death in the form of swords and the altar was a symbol of life. Death would not bring life. If a priest fought in a war, even a commanded war, a righteous conflict, he was forbidden to do the Temple service if he had taken life. King David was not allowed to build the Temple because his hands were bloodied.
The Torah might sanction war and violence in limited cases (self defense, perhaps), however even sanctioned violence is not glorified. Extinguishing the life of a person, even an enemy, even a bad person, is still an act of evil.
The Rabbinic tradition transvalued the warriors into Sages who fought on the battlefield of Torah study. “Who is the hero? The one who triumphs over his will.” The 3rd century mishnah debated the symbolic meaning of the machinery of death. While there is a lone opinion that weapons are a man’s decoration, Sages say that weapons are a disgrace to a person. They call on Isaiah, beating swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks.
Yet we are also heir to civilizations which glorify the warrior, which laud the hero with the sword, the battle axe, and later the gun. The macho and often racist mythology of the lone gunslinger whether in a mythical west or a combat zone in Europe, Japan, Vietnam, and more recently America, created the American version of the medieval warrior. This legend of weaponized individuality, cowboyed autonomy (“yippee kay yo”) raised the rifle to iconic status.
We live at a bad moment in the arc of history for us to be embracing these myths and continuing to survive. When the smiths in the middle ages figured out how to forge steel swords, the weaponry of death became much more lethal, since the metal was no longer brittle. However, all this was nothing compared to the death that could be sown with the invention of gunpowder, then guns, repeating rifles and revolvers, and then machine guns in their various types. To our great bad fortune, the aura of the warrior carried over to the poor shlub who wielded an automatic weapon which could spray random death at a distance of a football field.
And so it is up to us to once again choose life. What is called for at this moment is a new Right to Life movement. A movement that does not fetishize the machinery of death in the name of a misguided masculinity or a corrupted culture. The machinery of death is now produced by a vast industry which profits from a product whose only use is the destruction of life. It is up to us to take the streets, the culture and this country back from the death-industrial complex.
In a week when children became killers with their guns, while Wayne LaPierre, the lobbyist for the death-industrial complex vowed to never give an inch in his worship of those guns, and the governer of Arizona declared it illegal to destroy guns, even those that were bought back by the state; in this week when again more people were killed than were killed in Newtown; we must state loudly that our right to life trumps the unfettered right to deal in the machinery of death.
Call your Representatives, take to the streets to protest outside the NRA’s branches, read the names of thousands of victims of the NRA’s war on America outside gun shows, and gun plants. This is the moment and we are called on to seize it.
April 23, 2013 | 5:22 pm
Posted by Aryeh Cohen
David Suissa bemoans the "fact" that Muslims are not self-critical, nor do they condemn terror attacks loudly enough.
So for general edification I spent 5 minutes on Google and came up with this list.
Sometimes we only hear what we want to hear.
April 18, 2013 | 5:34 pm
Posted by Aryeh Cohen
This week has been the week when we have had to repeat simple truths over and over again.
Nobody should be killed by a bomb while watching a marathon.
Weapons of war should not be in the hands of civilians.
And yesterday I found myself standing with car wash workers outside the Aztec Car Wash in Century City demanding, among other things, that they be allowed to have bathroom breaks in a bathroom and not be forced to pee in a cup and then pour it down a drain. “Hey, hey, ho, ho, peeing in a cup has got to go!” That cringing feeling you just got reading that, is what I was feeling yesterday. It was the feeling that we should be past this. That it should be obvious already that workers deserve reasonable compensation and that they should be treated with dignity.
Martin Luther King went to Memphis on his last fateful trip almost fifty years ago to stand with sanitation workers demanding dignity. They carried signs that read “I am a man.” It is embarrassing that this sentiment is still up for debate.
This week’s Torah portion includes the exhortation: “Be Holy.” Sometimes, it seems, we are not even up to being decent. “Hey, hey, ho, ho, peeing in a cup has got to go.”
Simple statements that we, apparently have to repeat over and over again
“What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now!”
March 15, 2013 | 1:24 pm
Posted by Aryeh Cohen
Yesterday during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on a ban on 157 different types of assault weapons, and magazines containing more than ten bullets, Ted Cruz, Republican Senator from Texas, lectured Diane Feinstein on the Constitution. Cruz archly asked Feinstein, the author of the bill, if she would agree to limit the First Amendment so that it only applied to certain books and not others. While Sen. Feinstein appropriately decried and dismissed Cruz’ inappropriate attack, there is yet more irony to be exposed and explored.
Ted Cruz, the apparent supporter of rights enshrined in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, actually supports curtailing the Fourteenth Amendment so that a woman will not be able to protect her own right to privacy in the case of an unwanted pregnancy. Ted Cruz has also vigorously supported curtailing the First Amendment separation of Church and State. (In other masterful strokes Cruz argued before the Supreme Court in 2003 that Texas was free to back out of a legal settlement in which it had vowed to improve health care services for poor children. The justices ruled unanimously against Texas. The next year, Mr. Cruz persuaded the court not to release Michael Haley, who had been sentenced to 14 years in prison for stealing a calculator from a Walmart, even though the maximum was two years under state law. even Mr. Cruz conceded that prosecutors had erred.)
In addition to obviously wanting to curtail some less important and peskier amendments while being an absolutist on the second amendment, Cruz also stretches credulity with his claim that he is pro-life. While supporting the rights of fetuses who are not people, he seems to blithely dismiss the rights of actual children and adults (some 2600+ have been killed since Newtown) who are threatened by the approximately three hundred million firearms already in private hands.
There is a Hassidic teaching that the reason that Moses broke the Tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written when he saw the Israelites dancing around the Golden Calf, was that he was afraid that they would also make the Ten Commandments into an idol—that it would be worshiped rather than understood, frozen rather than interpreted. Cruz and his ilk (back by the Gun Industry and their shills at the NRA) have made the second amendment into an idol. If even weapons of war are not to be banned from private ownership, we are truly dancing around the Golden Calf.
February 15, 2013 | 8:39 am
Posted by Aryeh Cohen
The practice of democracy, the practice by which we may form a more perfect union, is not that different from the practice by which we try to move in deliberate but halting steps toward a more just world that embraces the presence of God. The practice of democracy does not begin at the ballot box, though the ballot is a necessary part of the practice. The actual democratic practice begins in the face to face conversation of two residents. The growth of this conversation outwards, in concentric circles, is the growth of a democratic movement. The essential moment is a moment of respect and response. It is a moment in which I hear your word as someone who is not me, someone who is outside me and not subject to my whims and wishes, yet someone who can and does challenge me to move toward the right and the just. By listening and responding, by arguing and parrying, by sharing essential concerns of community, we create a bond that can only be called political. The move beyond the dyadic conversation toward a third person and then on, is a move that differs in degree but not in kind. There is a challenge, as we move outward, to retain the essential core gesture of response, of recognizing the individuality of the voice as, in the move from one concentric circle to the next, the conversation grows to form a community and then a constituency. However, if grounded in that initial moment of face to face response, the constituency and even, ultimately, the country retains the aura of persons in a polity rather than the faceless mass of a "crowd" or a "mob". This is what is threatened when the political conversation is controlled by Super Pacs and their mega-donors—the space and the ability to practice democracy.
The power of that initial engagement between citizens reflects the belief that every person is created in the image of the Divine, as a reflection of the Holy. The Holiness is the power of speech. The world, as the Rabbis teach us, was created with speech. It is in this power of speech that the Divine resides in every person.
In one of the most intriguing stories of the Torah, Moses' father-in-law Jethro, a Midianite priest, rebukes Moses for taking on the role of sole legislator, of being the channel of oracular Justice. Jethro tells Moses that both he and the Israelites will be worn out if he takes this role upon himself as sole arbiter and medium of the Divine word. Jethro convinces Moses to appoint others, qualified, respected others to also sit in judgment and deliver justice. God apparently supports this suggestion, which Moses immediately follows. In the next chapter, at the time of Moses' ascent to the top of Mount Sinai, God declares that Israel as a whole is "a nation of priests and a holy people." It is not necessary for there to be one single person who acts as a conduit for the word of God. There are many, many people who can fulfill that function.
Revelation itself, according to one prominent strain of Rabbinic tradition, was not a monolithic imposition of one divine voice upon a multitude. Rather, the sixth century collection Mekhilta deRabbi Ishmael (BaHodesh 9) commenting on Exodus 20:16 pictures the revelation as multiform and plural: "And all the people heard the thunderings and the lightnings": "But how many thunderings were there and how many lightnings were there? It is simply this: They were heard by each man according to his capacity, as it is said: 'The voice of The Lord was heard according to the strength.' Rabbis say: This is to proclaim the excellence of the Israelites. For when they all stood before mount Sinai to receive the Torah they interpreted the divine word as soon as they heard it."
There are two vitally important ideas here. Each person heard the revelation in a unique way, and upon hearing the revelation each person immediately interpreted it in a unique way. In other words, six hundred thousand Torahs were received at Sinai. Without any one of them the Torah would be deficient. Each voice and each interpretation is a unique contribution to God's revelation. According to a Hassidic tradition, the revelation was intentionally mediated and obscured so that there would be room for interpretation and midrash.
In Deuteronomy, God commands Moses to appoint "judges" and "overseers" in all of Israel's gates. They will judge the people justly. It is not a system with one high point from which justice flows, rather it is a horizontal system that disperses the word through many words that brings everybody closer to justice. The command to appoint justices is followed immediately by the prohibition against bribery, and the command to pursue justice.
When the Rabbis imagined the Great Sanhedrin, the high court and the great judicial deliberative body, they regulated the court’s deliberation such that the most junior members are given the right to speak first so that they would not be intimidated by the more senior members.
The rabbinic study hall itself, the place of the give and take that is of the essence of Torah study—and is itself Torah—is grounded in and dependent upon individual and unique voices clashing and cooperating to close in on some multivocal truth of Torah. When Rabban Gamliel, one of the great Sages of Israel attempted to short-circuit the free flowing conversation by embarrassing another Sage, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabban Gamliel himself was deposed. His autocratic style did not serve Torah well. After he was removed from the patriarchal seat, the guards were removed from the doors to the study hall, and the benches—previously empty—were filled. Torah study, the primary act of worship and of imitating God, was rooted in a nascent democratic practice.
This is not to argue that Rabbinic Judaism foreshadowed or envisioned a democratic polity. The opposite might actually be the truth—in their minds the ideal society would have king and high priest, and yet the authority, by some force of will, would rest in the hands of the Sages. Women were to a large extent (with fascinating exceptions) excluded from this picture. However, I would suggest that with the move from the medieval world to the modern world, a move that was ultimately bound up in the move toward democracy, Rabbinic culture had enough proto-democratic tools in its theological and practical pouch that the embrace of democracy was not necessarily a stretch.
In the fifteenth century Don Isaac Abravanel, philosopher, Bible exegete, and treasurer to Queen Isabella of Spain, was a harsh critic of monarchy. He understood all monarchy (both the ancient Jewish monarchy of David and Solomon, and the contemporary monarchy of the “nations”) as ultimately interested only in its own power. Abravanel argued that the more limited the power of a ruler the better. If a ruler only had a short tenure, he could only cause so much harm. If a ruler had to fear the courts like any other man he would proceed with caution, and not rule capriciously.
Abravanel saw a glimpse of the ideal in the republican government of medieval Venice, which he described as the exemplar of a rule based on the actions of deliberative bodies. Abravanel interpreted the command to appoint judges and overseers of Exodus 24 with the help of Deuteronomy 1:13: “Get you wise and understanding and knowing men according to your tribes, and I shall set them at your head.” “Get you,” he explained, is the result of an electoral process, such that the wise and understanding and knowing men are chosen by the people and then set at their head. He also argues that the scope of their deliberations is not limited to civil or criminal disputes, but, rather, they were tasked with deciding affairs of state, of war and peace.
Don Isaac’s younger contemporary, Niccolò Machiavelli, (in the Discourses on Livy) came to a position similar to Abravanel’s concerning democracy. He argues “that the republic governed by words and persuasion—in sum, ruled by public speech—is almost sure to realize the common good of its citizens; and even should it err, recourse is always open to further discourse. Non-republican regimes, because they exclude or limit discursive practices, ultimately rest upon coercive domination and can only be corrected by violent means.”
Abravanel and Machiavelli, both raise up the power of deliberation, discourse and dialogue amongst people as the preferable form of rule. These ingredients of democratic practice are given a theological frame with the idea, quoted by Machiavelli and inherent in the Rabbinic understanding of revelation cited above, that vox populi vox Dei, the voice of the people is the voice of God. This represents a radical move in which the locus of authority shifts from the authority of the one monarch, or even from the one representative of the Divine, to the words, the voice of the people—that in people which is, at core, Divine. Jacob Taubes, a mid-twentieth century Jewish intellectual, ordained as an Orthodox Rabbi, who was born in Vienna and died in Berlin (but spent a good deal of the fifties, and sixties in the United States) articulated this idea very well.
[T]he fundamental difference between the symbolic structure of a democratic order and the royal symbolism of theistic liturgy concerns the sanction of authority. In the symbolic structure of the democratic order, the consent of the people establishes law and order: democracy implies that the people are the only sovereign, the ultimate authority. The will of the people is always right—or at least more often right than any individual will—and represents the highest law of the state. The government functions in the name of the people and has no authority of its own. In Lincoln's statement on "government of the people, by the people, for the people" the anti-hierarchical symbolic structure of the democratic order finds powerful expression. The authority of the government is not derived or ordained from "above" but guaranteed in a mystical equation of the vox populi with the vox Dei. (emphasis added) (Jacob Taubes, “On the Symbolic Order of Democracy,” in Confluence: An International Forum, 1953.)
It is then, the free exchange of ideas between people on which the whole democratic project, the project of creating a more perfect union, rests. Rabbi Chayim Hirschensohn (a prominent Palestinian-born scholar who moved to the United States in early twentieth century and served as the Rabbi of Hoboken, New Jersey) stresses the fact that immediately following the commandment to set up “judges” and “overseers” is the commandment: “You shall not skew judgement. You shall recognize no face and no bribe shall you take, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the innocent.” (Deut. 16:19)
The “you” in this verse, as Hirschensohn understands it, is not limited to specific judges dealing with matters of civil or criminal law. The object of this command is, rather, the people as a whole who must deliberate and then choose their representatives who will then further deliberate in order to legislate, to rule. This interaction that is grounded in the exchange of ideas between citizens face to face is the guarantor of democratic process and outcome.
Injecting unlimited amounts of money and the distorting power of media into the mix deliberately undermines this deliberative process. The decision reached by the United State Supreme Court in the Citizens United case, attacks the fundamentals of a democratic practice. Attaching personhood to a faceless corporation does nothing to increase speech. The opposite is true. By dint of unlimited donations, anonymous donors to political action groups (which have to pose as social welfare groups) stymie the possibility of dialogue.
The effect of massive infusions of cash into the democratic process, transforms citizens from practitioners to spectators, from participants to observers. The public discourse moves off the issues themselves, the give and take of ideas and values, and rests upon the impact and the power of the few mega-donors and their SuperPacs. It is to the detriment of democracy when we are all conversant with the “horse race” side of electoral politics but not fluent in the language of policy, nor knowledgeable of the outcomes of the race itself.
These massive infusions of cash (in the form of various types of media) work to intimidate opposition to any issue. Even the threat of that type of massive deployment of money is itself a threat, which can stop deliberation in its tracks.
Finally, the atmosphere that is created by a politics of the plutocracy, is one in which citizens are left in cynical silence believing that an individual opinion or even an individual vote does not matter. The Court’s argument that “The appearance of influence or access, furthermore, will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy,” seems on its face absurd when one looks at levels of participation in elections. It is perhaps this, which is most dangerous of all. If ultimately the SuperPacs and the mega-donors succeed in convincing the citizenry that elections are bought and paid for, it is the practice of democracy that will suffer and be irreparably damaged. A community and a polity so damaged will not long endure.
This post was commissioned by Auburn Seminary as part of a set of theological white papers on the topic of Money in Politics that will be published in March 2013.
February 8, 2013 | 6:52 am
Posted by Aryeh Cohen
What is it that the Jewish community brings to the discussion of immigration? What learned wisdom do we have to share?
It is true that the Jewish people is a people born and nurtured in the Diaspora, as immigrants, as strangers and sojourners on the way to or from somewhere else, making temporary or permanent homes in foreign lands. As the French Jewish Bible scholar and thinker Andre Neher points out, beginning with Abraham, the Israelites spent more time wandering and living outside of Canaan and the Land of Israel than residing in it. As soon as Abraham follows the Divine directive and leaves Haran and arrives in the Land of Canaan, there is a famine and he and Sarah and the whole household hit the road again. This story repeats itself until three generations later the Israelites settle as sojourners in Egypt for four hundred years.
The Torah itself ends with the Israelites camped in the desert across from the Land of Israel, not having crossed over the Jordan yet. The Jewish canonical Bible ends just as Cyrus authorizes the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple and resettle the land, but before they actually return. This is an important point since the final book of the Jewish Bible (the TaNaKh—Torah, Nevi’im/Prophets, Ketuvim/Writings) is not historically the last book. Chronicles ends the canon, but the books of Ezra and Nehemiah recount the return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the walls and the rededication of the Temple. The canonical choice then is making a point—a point about the importance of the Diasporic experience.
Further, the vast majority of the Jewish textual tradition was produced in Babylonia, Kairouan, Fez, Toledo, Barcelona, Burgos, Troyes, Dampierre, Medzhybizh, Vilna, Warsaw and on. The library of Jewish knowledge is a Diasporic library written by a diglossic people, the second learned language was always the rabbinic Hebrew of the sacred tradition. (In truth, the Jews were usually triglossic, speaking also a Jewish language in addition to the language of the place they lived and the holy language in which they studied and composed.) And so, there are those who say that what we bring to the table is the memory and experience, the truth and the travails of having lived in many, many lands as foreigners, sojourners, immigrants and refugees, documented and undocumented. This is true, of course, but there is more.
It is true that the foundational tale of the Jewish people is the Biblical story of the Exodus, in which we are narrated as having toiled for four hundred years as slaves, and so, the Torah reminds us: “you know the soul of the stranger.” The wisdom gained from this servitude is that the lesson of oppression is compassion. We who understand slavery, being marginal laborers, are mandated to be compassionate to those who know toil at the margins and under the radar.
There is something to this narrative, however I think that what we bring to the table is neither the history of our sojourns and tribulations—though that too. Nor is it the story of slavery in Egypt. There is no one alive who remembers what it was like to be a slave. Vicarious suffering does not create empathy, nor is it, to my mind, a solid ground for good politics.
What we bring to the table is a different part of the story—the part where the Israelites stand on the other side of sea, the side of freedom and liberation, and exult. What we bring to the table is the possibility of being liberated, of knowing that the tables do turn and that political structures of hierarchy and oppression are not eternal. They change.
We bring this and one other thing. Leviticus 19:2.
“You shall be holy for I, the Lord your God, am holy.”
Generations and centuries of scholars and scholarship have tried to understand how to fulfill the command: ‘You shall be holy.’ How is one to be holy? What is a practice of holiness? What is it that one does in order to become holy? In the twelfth century in Spain, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (known as Nachmanides) explained that this command is saying: Do not be “a scoundrel within the bounds of the Torah.” There are many things that are permitted and forbidden according to Jewish law. According to Nachmanides this extra prohibition comes to warn that one could follow the letter of the law and still be a scoundrel.
It is this frame which we can bring to the discussion of undocumented immigrants. We must warn against being a scoundrel within the bounds of the law. We can bring to the conversation the idea that citizenship is not only about a piece of paper. As Jeffrey stout writes:
An individual counts as a citizen in the formal sense only if he or she is recognized as such under law. The legal system confers the official status of a citizen on particular individuals. But when the legal category is applied in an arbitrarily narrow way, it can come into conflict with an informal process of mutual recognition among the people. In a broader sense, then, citizens are individuals who treat one another as bearers of the relevant kind of responsibility. To be a citizen, in this sense, is to be recognized by others as such, or more strongly, to be worthy of being recognized. (Blessed are the Organized, pp 10-11)
We must bring to the table the forceful idea that a large population of undocumented people have been working and contributing to this country, creating communities, raising families, more and more being involved in weighty political conversations that effect everybody in the country—in short have been behaving like citizens—for many years.
While not using the notion of holiness, the Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit articulates a similar point.
Since a decent society involves respect for humans, and humiliating any human being is wrong, no distinction should be made in this regard between members of the society and people in its orbit who are not members. It is for this reason that I do not define the decent society as one that does not humiliate its members, but extend the concept to include anyone under its jurisdiction. (The Decent Society, p. 150)
What we must bring to the table is the idea that if we are to become a holy society, a more perfect union, we cannot systematically humiliate and discriminate against fourteen million people. We must finally recognize them as being, for the most part, the citizens that they already are, and make that official.
My book Justice in the City: An Argument from the Sources of Rabbinic Judaism is available here.
October 30, 2012 | 9:23 pm
Posted by Aryeh Cohen
How do we translate our common moral commitments into action?
For argument's sake let us agree that we all believe in the dignity of every human being. That is, we believe that a person's dignity is an inalienable part of their being, to borrow a phrase from the founders. In religious terms one would say that every person was created in the image of God. This is perhaps the most forceful way of saying that each and every person's value as a person is not contingent upon anything external to that person, and that no one has a right to act in such a way as to harm that dignity, that image of God, that tzelem elohim. It is as if when one damages another's dignity one does harm to God.
Okay, let us assume that we all agree with this. How do we translate this into practice? How do we move the rhetorical statement to action—moral and legislative at once—which incorporates this understanding into the fabric of our polities, city, state and country?
The only way to get from here to there is to get into the high grass of public policy—and the highest grass of public policy is budgeting. I am not arguing, nor would I, that the budget should direct our moral choices, that the economic bottom line should be the deciding factor in whether or not a policy is good or bad. The exact opposite is what I would argue. The choices we make in our budgeting process must reflect the values which we hold most high.
Since here in California we have over the years decided that our elected representatives should have us do their work for them in the ballot process; and since in that process important questions of budget and taxation are decided, we are forced every election to weigh our votes on budget propositions on the basis of whether or not they reflect our most important values.
The bottom line is that a budget must be an ethical document. The choices of what to fund and what to cut cannot be just a matter of arithmetic, but must first of all be a matter of moral choice.
So how do we create a budget which reflects the respect of every person's being created in the Divine image?
I would suggest that we start by articulating the interlocking web of necessities which a person needs in order to be able to live with dignity in our cities. A non-exhaustive list would include, for example, a job with a living wage, decent education, housing, and health care. These needs are interlocking in that if one is missing, the whole web can fall apart. If one does not have a decent job with a living wage, then one cannot get decent housing or healthcare which impacts one's ability to get an education. If one does not have access to education, one cannot get a decent job which impacts one's ability to get access to housing or health care. And so on. (The more robust argument, for another time, would include the claim that all of these necessities enable a person not only to survive, but to flourish as a person, which is to actualize the Divine image.)
When the budget that is created does not allow for people to live in dignity, let alone flourish we have failed as a society.
It is then incumbent upon us as a society, through our government—which is the mechanism by which we handle our ability to live together—to redirect our resources such that everybody can live in dignity. To that end I would argue, we must support a robust school system and a system of higher education. We must ensure that everybody has access to health care. We must provide shelter and housing to the homeless.
In this election, one action which can bring us one step further along this path is voting for Proposition 30: The Schools and Local Public Safety Protection Act. The temporary (seven year) increase in income taxes for those who earn more than $250,000 a year, and 1/4 cent increase in sales tax for four years would garner the resources necessary for to continue funding our education system. The dire cuts that would ensue if Prop 30 fails—5.4 billion dollars from the Los Angeles school system and community college system; 250 million dollars from the UC and Cal State systems; 50 million dollars from mental health services and more—would cripple us morally, doom many to lives of poverty and pain, and almost certainly guarantee that California will not thrive economically in the future.
For these reasons I urge every California voter to support Proposition 30.