Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 1/19/2005
In December, The Shalom Center presented the Menorah Awards for bringing light into dark places to Ruth Messinger, head of the American Jewish World Service, and Seymour Hersh, investigative reporter. They were, of course, illustrious before. Now, scarcely a month later, they are even more so.
Sy Hersh has dominated most news sources this week with his article in the New Yorker reporting there have already been US incursions into Iran to target military installations for attack — that is, acts of war intended to make future acts of war even easier.
Ruth Messinger led the AJWS response to the tsunami disaster. She was one of the dozen leaders of relief efforts who met with the President, and the only one he quoted when he reported to the public. He was taken by her reporting that AJWS was focusing on replacing fishing boats that had been swept away, so that villagers could begin to feed themselves again.
Jewish tradition views tzedakah - the gift of money to the poor - not as voluntary charity but as a socially responsible obligation. Within this practice there are gradations of worthiness. The highest form of tzedakah is to give the fishing-boat way - so that the recipients can make their own living in the future.
The President's approval for this fishing boat approach shows that even within this propagator of illegitimate war, torture, shifts of power and wealth to the super-rich, and destruction of the earth, there is a nugget of good values.
Perhaps it hints at the worthy aspect of a right-wing religious perspective that can often be deeply damaging. Retro-religion often talks about personal responsibility, rejecting the notion of social responsibility. Secular progressives often do the reverse: call for social responsibility while ignoring personal responsibility.
At our best, the prophetic religious community demands both.
The President was honoring Ruth's /AJWS' effort to strengthen personal responsibility - the fishing boat. He was honoring the relief organizations on the basis that because they are voluntary, they embody personal responsibility. What he does NOT see is that AJWS is an example of BOTH personal and social responsibility: In Jewish tradition, tzedakah was never voluntary - it was obligatory, even upon the poor, as was the obligation of tithing when the Temple stood.
What he also does not see, or does not like, is that government can become an instrument of social responsibility that encourages fishing boats - personal responsibility.
This whole encounter with Bush can remind us of what I wrote last week in commenting on the Torah: God tells Moses COME [not go] to Pharaoh, for I am already there. The radiance of power he shines forth is really Me. Don't be afraid, and don't be crippled by rage. Come with steadfast courage for justice.
That is what Ruth Messinger, a strong opponent of the Iraq war, a feminist, and a strong supporter of progressive change, did at the White House.
We need to explore what it would mean for us, building a New Prophetic Agenda, to do next. How do we resist the war that is killing our people, and killing the Iraqi people, and killing our hopes of a decent society here at home, and killing their hopes of a decent society in Iraq? What can we do in firm resolve, rooted in love rather than rage? How can we walk in the paths of Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day, Abraham Joshua Heschel and El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz (Malcolm X after his pilgrimage to Mecca)?
Sy Hersh's discovery about Iran makes it even more important to reassess what we have done to oppose the Iraq war. What more must we do to prevent its worsening and widening into an Iran war, even a war against all Islam — and to end the damage it is doing to American life.
I fervently wish these two occasions - the tsunami and the US incursions in Iran — had not arisen to give new luster to these two people. Since they did arise, I am proud The Shalom Center honored Ruth and Sy beforehand and gave them a platform whereon to bring new light. For this alone, had there been nothing else,* I hope you have been using our work will help strengthen us.
* There was in fact plenty else. In this same period — we mobilized rabbis and leaders of other religious communities to publicly oppose torture and its proponents;
we sponsored the successful Tent of Abraham, Hagar, & Sarah statement by Jews, Christians, and Muslims that has just appeared (January 14) as a full-page ad in the NY Times urging strong US action to end the occupation of Iraq and to end the Israeli-Palestinian War; we have held one and are about to hold another Abrahamic retreat, bringing together about 15 Muslims, Jews, and Christians to build the personal trust and the spiritual understanding to work together; and we taught at: the Ohalah rabbis conference, the conference of Prophetic Religious Leaders sponsored by John Podesta's Center for American Progress; Renselaer Polytechnic Institute; Temple Beth-El of Poughkeepsie; Limmud/New York; and the first national conference of the Progressive Democrats of America.