This is truly a collection of random thoughts inspired by my ruminations this week on Yom Kippur and what’s going on in the world and in my life.
A tweet pointed me to a great blog post on “Occupying Kol Nidre” by writer Ester Bloom. Her comments, especially about the communal nature of our sinning and repentance interested me – more on that later. So I surfed on over to the Facebook page established for the Yom Kippur service at Occupy Wall Street. As I scrolled through the comments I noticed one person asking if a cellist was needed to play the Kol Nidre. The response by one of the organizers (a name well known in the blogosphere) was a simple
“no instruments please, but thank you for your kind offer”
The original poster responded:
“How would folks feel about having a cello before 7pm in an unofficial way? I’d really miss not getting to hear the max bruch piece as it really defines the holiday for me.”
Something about that exchange got my dander up and I wrote:
“ why must we continue to shape pluralistic Jewish gatherings in terms of traditional practice as the lowest common denominator? this seems somewhat inconsistent with the whole occupy wall street climate which seeks to rise above politics etc. and strives to be open to all. I believe a progressive Jew can be as offended by the absence of musical instruments in worship as much as a traditionally observant Jew can be by their presence. Surely some form of compromise in is order. I somehow believe our great sages would have found a way…”
I added as an afterthought:
“…and for 33 years, the CAJE conference always found a way as well…”
Now, if you read the full description of the service on the event page, it does state that the service is egalitarian. So we have at least one nod to modernity. So it’s not entirely using traditional practice as the lowest common denominator. Yet it is only going so far.
I’m not sure what got my dander up. Those of you who know me know that I am pretty much post (or trans-) denominational. I’ve taught and worked in Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Chabad, Traditional and other settings. I would not deliberately or purposefully shove my liberal attitudes in the face of a more traditional gathering, and would observe the minhag hamakom. Though, as someone for whom music and using a musical instrument is an essential part of my religious expression, I do have a preference for services that are musical and do use instruments, this has never stopped me from participating in , davening at, even leading services and programs where instruments were not used or permitted. Working across the movements as I do, I’ve had plenty of experiences where I’ve had to lead a group in prayer without my keyboard nearby.
However, the whole Occupy Wall Street movement has stirred within me social and political passions akin to those of my high school years in the late sixties and early seventies. Yes, there is a provocative element among the protestors which has led to confrontations with the police. Frankly, I’m skeptical about the NYPD’s claims to have been exercising great restraint. I do not for one second believe that all the protestors arrested, or hit with batons, or shoved, or otherwise treated roughly were among the provocateurs. The scandal-ridden NYPD has once again shown its true colors. It has also shown the typical law-enforcement misunderstanding of passion. Passion and provocation are not the same thing. People feeling passionate about something can be quite wrought up – but this does not automatically make them a threat. Law enforcement needs a better was to distinguish real from perceived threats especially in these sorts of situations.
I digress. I am concerned that in a movement as broad as Occupy Wall Street the organizers of a Kol Nidre service are showing complete disinterest in accommodating the broadest possible array of practice and praxis. There should be some way to accommodate those for whom the use of music and musical instruments is crucial to their perceived spiritual value of prayer. The organizers are wrong to simply reject it out of hand, and decide, by fiat, “this far and no farther.”
Then there are Ester Bloom’s comments about the communal nature of Yom Kippur. I think this is a time when we might all do well to consider the communal nature of our sins. To be fair, I think we need to include our current economic situation. I don’t think Occupy Wall Street has gone far enough in identifying the problem.
For example, do we need an “Occupy Organized Professional Sports” and “Occupy Hollywood” movement? I posted this on my Facebook profile the other day:
I am in total support and sympathy with Occupy Wall St http://www.facebook.com/OccupyWallSt http://occupywallst.org/ I hope to join those marching in support this afternoon at 4:30pm. However, in comments accompanying an article critical of the apparent lack of diversity among the protestors (an article that actually seems a bit misleading and one-sided against the protest) one poster did raise a valid point: what about the ridiculously wealthy and overpaid folks of the entertainment and sports industries? If we are demanding that CEO salaries be kept in reasonable line with those paid to the lowest paid employees of a company, ought we not ask the same of entertainers and athletes? (It is important to bear in mind that, as with Wall St., it’s probably only 1% of Hollywood stars who are super wealthy, and this is likely true of pro sports as well. Not including the wealthy 1% of entertainment and sports as part of what we are protesting against simply gives ammunition to the critics of this movement. I’d love to hear what Susan Sarandon or Alec Baldwin have to say in response to this. Would they be willing to have their fees limited to some reasonable multiplier of what the lowest paid actor on the shoot gets? (Also, FWIW, the high cost of seeing a Bway show is not really related to what the artists get paid, though even here there are exceptions that ought to be examined.) I agree that, unlike Wall St., the entertainment and sports industry haven’t caused the same kind of economic problems that Wall St’s greed has, but greed is greed, and if we’re going to be fair about things, we should consider this.
The wealthy 1% in the this country, and large Wall St. firms have undoubtedly (with some notable exceptions) unfairly and unreasonably profited from their greed. Yet we must accept the fact that we, the other 99%, are not entirely blameless in all that has transpired. Some of us were seduced, some of us were tricked, some of us willingly went along, some of us were sheep. We wanted to take advantage of the economic good times, so we overspent, over-extended ourselves, took out loans that maybe shouldn’t have taken. None of that excuses or mitigates the guilt of the banks, lenders, etc. who, often through misleading and deceptive practices, preyed on those least able to protect themselves.
And through it all, we keep routing for our sports teams, building new stadiums, pay outrageous prices to see movies and shows, and allow sports figures and movie stars to receive ludicrous amounts of compensation for work that is, although admittedly sometimes hard, and very specialized, based on what the public is willing to pay for something rather than what the work is actually worth when compared to other work. (I think of the current TV commercial for a credit card that shows a bit actor on location at a shoot away from home that is running longer than expected. The bit actor uses her credit card to pick up some necessities locally. Something tells me this extra cost is more significant to her than it is to any high-paid stars also working the same shoot.) I’ve made a living in the arts and entertainment industries, and I know that 99% barely manage to eke out a living. Why have we in the arts community never really spoken out about the huge sums paid to top actors, or the millions spent by producers to create spectacle rather than art that drive ticket prices into the stratosphere. (I think the ticket prices for Book of Mormon may be the ultimate irony considering the somewhat anti-establishment origins of its creators. Their very success is ironic and oxymoronic, because their scathing social commentary lines their pockets quite well, I am sure.)
Which leads me to yet another thought thread- the value of genius. Matt and Trey are, in their own way, geniuses. I am not opposed to rewarding genius and creativity financially. It is a question of scale.
Why do some people become enormously successful and wealthy and become the targets of scorn and derision, while others become paragons? Witness the outpouring of sentiment upon the death of Steve Jobs. No doubt he was a genius. Some of that genius was devoted to creativity, but we’d be naive to believe that none of that genius was devoted to financial success for him and his company.
Consider that Apple’s products have always been proprietary and lacked (for the most part) any form of shared open architecture. Apple charged more for their products than other companies, and got away with it. Despite all this, Jobs managed to generally capture the public’s good will.
Let’s consider for a minute. A select group of people each year get MacArthur Genius Grants, That’s $500,000 spread out over 4 years. That’s recognizing and rewarding genius. However, that’s way less than some sports figures receive in salary, and way less than the compensation of may CEOs and top actors. What makes sports players, actors, and CEOs worth more than geniuses? Can we complain about Wall Street and CEO salaries without also drawing attention to the excesses elsewhere?
John D. MacArthur is an exemplar of the American success story. He was raised in poverty and became one of the world’s richest men. The foundation that was created to distribute some of the wealth of he and his wife is a fine example of the wealthy giving back to the community Still, might he not also be an exemplar of all that’s wrong with the system? Did he really need to accumulate all that wealth? Is all that wealth ill-gotten, or did we, the 99%, perhaps help contribute to it?
What about state lotteries? Why do we continue to allow them to be all about huge “mega-prizes?” Might it not be better to see hundreds of $10,000 winner as opposed to a few winners of prizes in the millions? Yet would people buy lottery tickets if the top prizes were capped? My suspicion is they would not. This is a flaw in ourselves that we need to address. We also need to stop using the “American dream” as a means of sucking away dollars from those who can least afford it on a chance at getting rich quick. It’s wrong and we know it. Part of me is glad that some native American tribes have been able to address the injustices done to them through financial revenge using casinos and gambling. It’s wrong, and we all know it. Private home poker games are illegal but casinos can rake in millions? It’s wrong and we know it.
Some fight to keep Wal-Mart out of our their community (that’s certainly a hot topic here in NYC these days, where others argue that Wal-Mart brings needed jobs. ) Yet Wal-Mart rakes it in – because most of us shop there instead of the small Mom and Pop stores they put out of business because it is cheaper.
Some of us, knowing that the music industry and the movie industry have made billions off of us, decide that intellectual property need not be respected and that artists are not entitled to any compensation for their work, and download and watch millions of illegal videos and music files. It’s wrong, and we know it.
How then can we only make Wall Street our “azazel goat” and place all the sins of our economic problems on them? As Walt Kelly said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” (or, if you read, Gus.)
Just as a I do with my Judaism, I’m not going to claim any consistency when it comes to the secular philosophies. I can rant here about the excesses of the wealthy, but I just made the conscious choice to open a bank account at Chase because of the convenience of their many NYC locations, multi-check-deposit ATMs, etc. I took advantage of the economic good times and managed to accumulate plenty of debt I shouldn’t have. I am not without sin. I would like to work with the community to create in world in which we can be less tempted to sin in these ways. Anarchy is not the answer. Libertarianism is not the answer. Socialism and Communism are not the answer. And yes, capitalism, at least in the form we know it today, is not the answer. (I’m a little disappointed that the official Occupy Wall Street site talks about the “stealing of the American dream” because I’m not entirely sure the “American dream” was really a good idea all along. Parts of it yes. The parts about equality and equal opportunity. Not so much the parts about wealth being a goal of life. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness yes. Working hard and insuring I make more money than someone else so that I can live in more relative comfort than they can, not so much. My hope is that the growing Occupy Wall Street movement is about more than seeking redress for all of us injured by the excesses of the past few decades, and will seek to find a new and reasonable path in which justice and economic security co-exist as equals. A world in which economic sin and injustice is usually averted and quickly dealt with. My hope is that it is about restoring the “American dream” to its social, rather than economic roots.
And that is the point of Yom Kippur. None of us is without sin. At Yom Kippur, we repent for the communal sins. Occupy Wall Street is about seeking justice in our world. What has occurred in this country economically is unjust, and Occupy Wall Street is right to seek a way to bring those responsible for the economic meltdown to justice, and to seek fairer economic parity in our society. We must not fall prey to any attempt to make only Wall Street and the 1% our azazel goat, as deserving as they may be of this questionable distinction. However, there can be no justice until we all admit our collective sins, and work together to fix this broken world.
Barukh Atah ’’, Eloheinu Melekh Ha-olam, she-natan lanu hizdamnut l’takein et Ha-olam.
Blessed are You, Ad”nai, our G”d and CEO of all existence, for giving us the opportunity to fix the world.
Gmar chatimah tovah,
©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha: