Judaism and Occupy Wall Street

on Friday, 11 November 2011. Posted in Rabbi Marshall's Sermons

Jews have participated in the “Occupy Wall Street” movement since right before Rosh Hashana this year. Protestors have shared Shabbat meals, dined in Sukkot, danced with Torahs. With signs saying “We are the 99%” (as opposed to the 1% who hold the vast majority of the wealth in this country), they gather to protest corporate greed, social and economic inequality, and bailouts for banks in the absence of bailouts for students and homeowners. And yes, while there are those on the fringe who have resorted to violence, let this not detract from the righteousness of the cause.

Most of us already know that this movement is characterized by Jewish values. American Jews have a longstanding connection to social change movements from Socialism to Civil Rights to today. As my colleague Rabbi Ari Rosenberg points out, Leviticus doesn’t have anything to say about surprise wireless fees, but it does teach that “when you sell property to your neighbor and when you buy property from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another” (25:11-24). Deuteronomy doesn’t explicitly talk about living wages, but it does command us not to “oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers, or one of the strangers who are in your land inside your gates”. Our Torah doesn’t talk about mass layoffs or unemployment, but it does teach that even when a man or woman is forced into indentured servitude, they must be released after a period of time. And, “when you set him free, do not let him go empty-handed.” (15:12-18). The Prophets don’t speak about slashing welfare programs in America today, but Amos assails those who would “trample the heads of the poor into the dust of the ground, and make the humble walk a twisted course” (2:6-8).

In the 18th Century Italian Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato’s words, we find timely observations of corporate greed as a violation of the 8th Commandment. He writes, “Most people are not outright thieves, taking their neighbors’ property and putting it in their own premises. However, in their business dealings most of them get a taste of stealing whenever they permit themselves to make an unfair profit at the expense of someone else, claiming that such a profit has nothing to do with stealing. It is not merely the obvious and explicit theft with which we have to concern ourselves, but any unlawful transfer of wealth from one individual to another that may occur in everyday economic activities.

We are not used to referencing the Rabbis’ words as a blueprint for social action, but our rabbinic literature offers a compelling set of guidelines. My colleague Rabbi Aryeh Cohen calls them rules for a “community of obligation.”[1] In the Talmud, each person has obligations as a resident of their home city, and those obligations increase as their residency becomes more permanent. At thirty days’ residency, one is taxed for the soup kitchen, at six months’ they must contribute to the clothing fund, etc. In contrast to the resident who is taxed to ensure that such services are provided, one who needs to use these public services has no prior residency requirement. In fact, a poor person wandering from town to town, who is not a resident of this town, is the community’s obligation – the community must provide for the poor at least two meals worth of food and the necessities for sleeping.

In the Talmud, being part of a city[R1]  entails the resident’s obligation to fulfill the needs of others through social welfare institutions--redistributing resources so that everybody has enough to be able to support themselves with dignity. Relief does not come from charity organizations, it is a tax on individuals. Then, once everyone lives in dignity (food, shelter, clothing, education, health care), individuals are free to amass as much wealth as they wish. But until that time, individual wealth is claimed by the community. Judaism recognizes that there will always be inequalities, but we need to construct our society with a foundation of tzedek, righteousness[R2] , and dignity for all.

With our biblical and rabbinic dictates as our model, let us consider how the Occupy Wall Street movement might progress as a real model for social change. Occupy Wall Street’s theoretical ideals will not fix our broken country. Instead, if the movement could focus on passing a Jobs Bill, we could hasten employing all those who desperately want to work. If Occupy Wall Street advocated transferring this country’s resources from endless wars[2] towards programs for the hungry and destitute, we could address peace and poverty at the same time. If it pursued equitable health care for all, thousands of Americans would not be left financially destitute while trying to care for themselves and their families.

Judaism provides a legacy of communal obligation for all in need. Let Occupy Wall Street lead us towards an America where everyone has the opportunity to live in peace, and health, and dignity. Let the movement apply the Jewish legacy of fundamental fairness for all citizens to hone its vague message. In the words of the prophet Amos: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”[3] May these words incite us to apply the values of a community of obligation to a community of action.

Shabbat Shalom.

 



[2] Rabbi Ari Rosenberg, Bereshit d’var Torah.

[3] Amos 5:24.


 [R1]What tradition? What writings? What time period?currently in Israel?the kibbutz?

 [R2]More on how charity is different from righteousness