Carrying Transformative Judaism into Public Space

Crowd uniting action, Torah & prayer at Sukkah,"Occupy Philadelphia" Encampment

Click on the photo to expand it. It shows the crowd uniting action, Torah study, & prayer at the Sukkah built as part of and in support of the “Occupy Philadelphia” encampment at City hall.

Does “Free Kol Nidre/ Occupy Wall Street” Have a Future? Is it the Seed of a Judaism committed to Transforming the World?

Until last Yom Kippur, Kol Nidre in American Jewish life meant the gathering of large numbers of Jews in their own sanctuaries –- either as inward gatherings of community, or as inward searchings for individual spiritual growth.

But then, starting with “Occupy Wall Street,” thousands of Jews suddenly appeared in public space in many cities, to chant Kol Nidre as part of the “Occupy” movement. Gone, the sense of an esoteric ceremony. Instead, the sense that in a moment of national crisis, Judaism must speak in public space to the greatest public issues – corporate domination of American life.

First of all, applying the microscope of history, what actually happened to get public Kol Nidre going? (The Jewish Telegraphic Agency credited me with creating that breakthrough. True? Not quite. Not true? Not quite.)

The real history is a perfect example of a teaching by Martin Buber – that in the life of “I-Thou,” life is not in the “I” or in the “Thou” but in the hyphen between.

On one side of the hyphen, The Shalom Center. For years, we have argued that one of the crucial strands of Jewish thought and practice is resistance to “pharaoh.” In this generation, we argued, “pharaoh” means world-girdling corporate power: Big Oil, Big Coal, Big Banking – and the planet-destroying plagues they are bringing upon us. Millions of disemployed, millions of lost homes, climate disaster, unprecedented droughts and floods.

So when “Occupy Wall Street” began, we called one of the most creative Jewish activists in New York, Daniel Sieradski. We heard he had gathered a few dozen Jews at the protest park of “Occupy Wall Street” for a pot-luck Friday-evening / Erev Shabbat meal.

One week later would be the Ultimate Shabbat – Yom Kippur. One week later, Friday evening would be Kol Nidre!

So we called Sieradski to ask the unheard-of: Could New York Jews take the message of Yom Kippur into public space? Could Isaiah’s great outcry (read every year on Yom Kippur) that we must feed the hungry, house the homeless, free the prisoners, become a public demand when it could matter? Could Kol Nidre come out of the closet, challenge the world?

On the other side of the hyphen, Sieradski. Excitement. Creativity. Real folks on the real ground. Yes!

Without our question, nothing. Without his answer, nothing. The Hyphen is what mattered.

Without the “between,” nothing. With the “between,” everything.

But there is more to tell. Kol Nidre in the streets bears a strange family resemblance to an event of 40 years ago: The Freedom Seder that swept Passover out of the closet of ancient Egyptian history into new meaning.

Why did young Jews of the late ‘60s respond with joy and creativity to the original Freedom Seder, carrying the tale of ancient liberation into their own generation’s struggle over civil rights, nonviolence, war?

Because they themselves were in personal and social crisis. Should they risk their lives for civil rights, in the South? Should the men among them risk their lives in an illegitimate war in Vietnam, or risk jail to refuse? Was the “gray flannel suit” what they wanted to wear the rest of their lives? Were the women among them excited to shape a feminist world – except inside the synagogue, which treated them so badly?  Why was the Judaism they were being taught, so boring? Why did it not matter to the central questions of their lives?

Out of those questions came not only new versions of the Passover Seder but an ever-growing movement to recreate and renew Judaism.

Today, the young Jews of 2011 find themselves in crises of their own.

For many of them, corporate-controlled America has become not the great escalator but a dead end: No job. Huge debts. Endless wars. Is America itself as a spiritual vision dying? Does sitting in synagogues matter if the planet is suffocating?

It is certainly too soon to know whether the moment of “Free Kol Nidre/ Occupy Wall Street” will seed the starburst of a new “Transformative Judaism,” committed to transforming the world as the Jews of 1969 became committed to renewing Judaism.

The Psalm says, “Or zarua latzaddik, u’l’yishrei lev simcha”: “Seeds of light will grow toward justice; in them the open-hearted can find joy.”

We’ll see. Or rather, we won’t just sit there waiting to see. WE will decide. Will we make a difference? Will we overcome?

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