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Levinas: On Ritual and Justice

Friday, December 14, 2012 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz wrote about taxation in America and Hurricane Sandy, FEMA, and the Need for Big Government and . He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

The great French Jewish philosopher and Talmudist Emmanuel Levinas, in his Difficult Freedom (pp. 176-177), taught about the power of Jewish ritual to inform and inspire our work to make the world more just, which is of paramount importance. He wrote: “The Justice rendered to the Other, my neighbor, gives me an unsurpassable proximity to God… The pious person is the just person....For love itself demands justice and my relation with my neighbor cannot remain outside the lines which this neighbor maintains with various third parties. The third party is also my neighbor.” Thus, when we pursue justice in a Jewish way, we come closer to G-d. This is because “[t]he ritual law constitutes the austere law that strives to achieve justice. Only this law can recognize the face of the Other which has managed to impose an austere role on its true nature…”

This discipline found in religious life through ritual is needed in our daily lives: “The way that leads to God therefore leads … to humankind; and the way that leads to humankind draws us back to ritual discipline and self-education. Its greatness lies in daily regularity…” One cannot rely on an occasional, passive religious service, but on daily ritual. To Levinas, ritual tames man and calms the spirit: “The law is effort. The daily fidelity to the ritual gesture demands a courage that is calmer, nobler and greater than that of the warrior…. The law of the Jew is never a yoke. It carries its own joy…” Far from religion as dour, drudge-like labor, ritual is joyful labor.

We can see this truth in other areas, as well. Social workers have seen the beneficial effects of rituals on youths who have grown up with poverty, domestic violence, sexual abuse, drug addiction, crime, and parents who either abandoned their families or have been incarcerated. Mark Redmond, Executive Director of Spectrum Youth and Family Services, observed: “Rituals, whether religious or not, are vital to family life. Having dinner together every night—without any television, cell phones or e-mail present—is extremely important. Bedtime rituals are also important. And making a big deal about birthdays and anniversaries and holidays—all important.” These rituals, and religious rituals, provide safety, stability, and purpose to children who otherwise would live in a world of anxiety and hopelessness.

In a similar vein, Levinas argues that the human-Divine relationship formed in ritual gives us the strength to fight for justice: “The fact that the relationship with the Divine crosses the relationship with people and coincides with social justice is therefore what epitomizes the entire spirit of the Jewish bible. Moses and the prophets preoccupied themselves not with the immorality of the soul but with the poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger.” This human-Divine relationship should not be characterized as “spiritual friendship,” but one “that is manifested, tested and accomplished in a just economy for which each person is fully responsible…” Ritual, therefore, is hopeful, joyful, and necessary to create a just world.

The Jewish sense of slavery, which we return to so frequently in Jewish prayer and ritual, defines our narrative and ethical consciousness. “The traumatic experience of my slavery in Egypt constitutes my very humanity, a fact that immediately allies me to the workers, the wretched and the persecuted peoples of the world. My uniqueness lies in the responsibility I display to the Other…Humankind is called before a form of Judgment and justice that recognizes this responsibility…” Once again, Levinas challenges the view of ritual as insular and passive, recasting it as central in raising our awareness of our commonality with all the poor and vulnerable.

Rituals are non-utilitarian, symbolic acts that involve and promote the cultivation of mindfulness. The transformative power of ritual is achieved when we take the opportunity to explore ourselves, our hearts, and our ideals. We step out of this world to cultivate a meaningful experience and then to return to life changed. This is why we seek to perform ritual on our own and not by proxy. The greatest power of religious ritual, in my view, is the opportunity to deepen awareness about one’s own moral and spiritual values. In ritual, we slow down, refocus on the big picture, and reaffirm our core values. Sometimes we do this in sacred privacy but more often we do it within the spiritual partnership of community.

Levinas reminded us that when we honor the dignity of the other we are also honoring the Other. And when we embrace the Other we are preparing for our work in social justice for the other. May we return to Jewish ritual with fervor and determination, and may we allow its spiritual power to transform us to be agents of love and justice in emulation of the Divine.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America!

What Is Fair Taxation?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012 | Permalink

Yesterday Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz wrote about Hurricane Sandy, FEMA, and the Need for Big Government. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning

If one listened only to the avalanche of political ads during the recent election campaign, one might believe that Americans were being crushed under the heaviest federal tax burden ever, and that raising taxes on the wealthy (the “job creators”) was tantamount to national economic suicide. This view, bolstered by much of the record $4-6 billion raised for the Presidential and Congressional campaigns, was heavily supported by a small group of billionaires, perhaps topped by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who reportedly made contributions of a record $150 million himself. In total, billions of dollars were spent by people who claimed that they were forced to spend too much in federal taxes.

In reality, Americans today have the lowest federal tax burden since 1950. Historically, in the 1950s and early 1960s the economy was very healthy, and the top income tax bracket paid around 90 percent. When tax rates were dramatically reduced for the wealthiest Americans, as in the 1920s and over the last decade and a half, brief prosperity resulted, followed by a catastrophic economic crash and the greatest inequality in wealth between the very rich and the rest of the population.

The Jewish tradition has much to say about fairness in taxation, and consistently endorses the principle that those who benefit the most from society have the greatest obligation to pay for the support of the community. For example, Deuteronomy 15:4 states: “And there shall be no needy among you.” In addition, farmers were instructed to go over their fields and vineyards only once, and not to reap the corners of their fields: “Leave them for the poor and the foreigner” (Leviticus 19:9-10). According to the Mishnah, the community was expected to support a communal kitchen, burial society, and other needed infrastructure (Peah 8:7). Later, more defined funds presided over by prominent members of the community were set up to deal with the poor. In order to achieve this, citizens were taxed in proportion to their ability to pay. Thus, Jewish law has consistently upheld the idea that a fair taxation is necessary for the maintenance of the community.

We can see this trend in the 1979-2005 period, which was especially unique for its lower taxes on the wealthy. Congressional Budget Office data indicate that among Americans:

  • The top one-hundredth of one percent had an income growth of 384 percent, while their tax burden decreased by 11.4 percent
  • Median income increased by 12 percent, and the tax burden for the middle quintile decreased by only 4.4 percent

In addition, from 2000-2007, the top 0.1 percent of American earners saw a 94 percent increase in income, compared with a 4 percent increase in income for the bottom 90 percent of earners. As former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich observed, citing 2011 data, poverty – especially among the young – is on the rise, and there are deliberate efforts to create even greater economic inequality:

  • 21 percent of American school-aged children lived in poor households, a 4 percent increase since 2007
  • Nearly one out of every four children lived in a family that had difficulty obtaining a sufficient food supply at some point during the year
  • In spite of this, about 60 percent of all cuts in the proposed 2011 Republican budget targeted child food, nutrition, school programs, food stamps, and Medicaid

In the past, this trend toward lower taxes for the wealthy and greater inequality of wealth led to a pattern of booms and busts. The worst economic downturn occurred after one such period, culminating in the stock market crash in 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression. The second worst economic downturn came at the end of George W. Bush’s second term in 2007, also following a period of tax cuts for the rich and great economic inequality. During his Presidency, the stock market lost about 25 percent of its value, and the NASDAQ lost nearly half its value. In contrast, President Bill Clinton, who raised income taxes for the highest earners, presided over a booming stock market, with the Dow Jones average climbing more than 7,000 points over his two terms. Thus, raising taxes on the wealthy appears to aid economic growth, while cutting taxes for the rich only exacerbates income inequality and encourages reckless financial schemes that can lead to deep economic recession.

This year has offered stark evidence of how lowering taxes for the wealthy tends to increase economic inequality. In one 3-month period in 2012, ExxonMobil’s profits were $16 billion, the highest ever recorded by an American corporation. In spite of this, the oil industry will receive an average of more than $15 billion of subsidies annually from the federal government. On the other hand, most Americans continued to struggle. For example, the greatest number of jobs created was in retail sales, where the average annual salary was less than $21,000. In addition, the number of those unemployed, working part-time but trying in vain to get full-time work, and those who gave up looking for work reached more than 23 million. In a callous gesture, the extended benefits period (the last 20 weeks) of unemployment insurance was cut off this summer due to congressional failure to renew the program, throwing millions of people off unemployment benefits. If Congress fails to act by the end of 2012, an additional 2 million Americans will lose their unemployment benefits.

The 2012 Presidential election campaign offered Americans the opportunity to choose whether to continue the Bush tax policy or return to Clinton-era policy of a slight increase on the tax rate of income above $250,000. Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney stated that he paid a 14 percent rate on his income tax in the one year for which he released his returns. However, his effective tax rate was around 10 percent—far less than the rate most middle class Americans pay. In November, the American people voted to re-elect President Barack Obama, thus voting to raise taxes on the wealthy. As Americans, as Jews, and as activists for justice, we must continue to press Congress to carry out this policy.

Bend the Arc, the great Jewish social justice organization, is leading the way on this cause and others can join their fight by signing on to their petition.

Find out more about Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz here.

Hurricane Sandy, FEMA, and the Need for Big Government

Monday, December 10, 2012 | Permalink
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.
 

The Rabbis teach (Ta’anit 11a) that “At a time when the community is suffering, no one should say, 'I will go home, eat, drink, and be at peace with myself.'” To effectively aid those who are suffering, we need the cooperation and collaboration of each and every individual. We need strong individuals, effective non-profits, and committed states. However, we also need to recognize the most powerful collective body available to address the suffering. In our society, the mechanism that represents the people is the government, and it must be effective. Government does not always have to be big to be effective, but oftentimes it does, especially when responding to disasters on a large scale.

Hurricane Sandy, which struck the east coast in October 2012, was the largest Atlantic hurricane on record and the second-costliest, behind only Hurricane Katrina. At least 253 people were killed and an estimated $65.6 billion was lost due to damage and business interruption. For weeks, many in this, the wealthiest country in the world, were suddenly lacking the basic necessities of life, such as shelter, heat, power, and water. The most dramatic damage occurred in southern New Jersey and the New York City metropolitan area. In New Jersey, the historic Seaside Heights roller coaster was carried out into the Atlantic Ocean, where its tangled ruins remain today. Video of the famous Jersey shore area revealed miles of destroyed boardwalks and beaches that had virtually disappeared, along with hundreds of demolished houses and boats. To the north, nearly 100 people died within a 65-mile radius of New York City as a result of Hurricane Sandy. Manhattan had never before flooded, but Hurricane Sandy’s waters were nearly 4 feet higher than the city’s 10-foot walls. Scores were killed in their homes on the coasts of Staten Island and Queens. Some ignored mandatory orders to evacuate, others were elderly and infirm, but all were victimized by a flood surge that filled houses with water within minutes, allowing no escape. Others were killed by falling branches and trees. Millions of people were without power, and received little-to-no information from their utility companies about when power might be restored. The catastrophe was reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and many feared a repeat of the government’s feeble response to that storm might occur again.

This time, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was ready to act. Within three days, FEMA had deployed about 2,300 disaster-relief personnel across several states; provided shelter to more than 10,000 people; rescued some 700 people; and delivered around 700,000 gallons of water and 1.5 million meals to others in need. Perversely, many in the House of Representatives now propose that we slash the agency’s funding by up to 40 percent, arguing that disaster relief should be handled by the states and private sector, not the federal government. The argument typically goes that the Federal government is overly bureaucratic and slow to act while states can be nimble, understand the needs of the localities and their constituents better, and thus should be charged with more responsibility.

The Federal government must have the capacity to swiftly respond when it comes to disaster relief. Of course, as past mistakes reveal, a bigger FEMA does not necessarily mean a better FEMA, nor enhanced relief ability. The agency spent nearly $900 million on prefabricated homes in New Orleans after Katrina, but then was prevented by its own regulations being able to put them to use. People were getting sick because the contractors used too much formaldehyde in the construction of the houses and the fumes were intoxicating. Rather than providing housings for thousands who had lost their homes, they rotted in storage lots. In spite of this, FEMA can only be effective if it is allowed to be a large agency. When the national government can address disasters effectively, it saves everyone money, including the states and the private sector, which limits the damage caused when roads and power lines are not repaired quickly and people cannot return home and rebuild. As Matthew Yglesias wrote in Slate.com: “But that requires financing by an entity capable of rapidly financing expensive projects – i.e., the federal government…and (slashing federal disaster aid) is the height of penny-wise, pound-foolish thinking.”

When Hurricane Sandy hit, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who had previously expressed his contempt for government and whose policies led to the dismissal of tens of thousands of government workers, met with President Obama and with FEMA. Governor Christie said: “The federal government's response has been great. I was on the phone at midnight…with the president, personally; he has expedited the designation of New Jersey as a major disaster area.” He later added: “The folks at FEMA…have been excellent.” On December 7, President Obama asked Congress for $60.4 billion in aid for the states most affected by Hurricane Sandy. This will not cover all the estimated losses, as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Governor Christie alone estimated the losses of just their 2 states at nearly $78 billion. The Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, a former Republican turned Independent, added: “We need a full recovery package to be voted on in this session of Congress. Any delay will impede our recovery.” The current session of Congress ends on Jan. 3, 2013, when the next House, with largely the same Republic majority, will take office. California representative Donna Edwards noted that, with global warming looming, the challenge is great, and the need for response greater: “…the importance of investing in this infrastructure now so that we don’t make it more vulnerable later on needs to be high on the priority list, because the damage to us in terms of our long-term economy and competitiveness is really huge.”

Our nation has confronted emergencies before, and the federal government has often been the ultimate solution when the private sector failed. During the Great Depression, the stock market failed, thousands of private banks failed, private charities failed, and when President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in March 1933, the nation was on the precipice of total failure. President Roosevelt closed all the banks for 4 days, and then announced that the federal government would guarantee bank deposits through the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. The result was that the banking system (and currency) was saved, giving the economy had a chance to recover, as the American people had a renewed confidence in their government and its roles and abilities in helping people. The private sector had no plan; government was the solution.

A profound midrash (Bava Batra 10a) teaches about how humans are not in control over nature.

He [Rabbi Yehuda] used to say: "Ten strong things were created in the world—A mountain is strong, but iron cuts through it. Iron is strong, but fire can make it bubble. Fire is strong, but water puts it out. Water is strong, but clouds contain it. Clouds are strong, but the wind can scatter them. Breath is strong, but the body holds it in. The body is strong, but fear breaks it. Fear is strong, but wine dissipates it effects. Wine is strong, but sleep overcomes its power. Death is stronger than all of them. But Tzedakah saves from death, as it is written, 'And Tzedakah saves from death.'" (Proverbs 10:2)

When nature, death, or other forces overcome us, the best thing we can do is fight back with tzedakah (with love, kindness, and charitable giving). We must all do our part as individuals and we need strong non-profits and state-level responses, but we must also unite to support a stronger federal government that is best equipped to address crises wherever and whenever they strike. This is the essence of America: to be united in both our times of need and times of hopes, our traumas and our triumphs.

Find out more about Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz here.

Is the Synagogue a Relic of the Past?

Friday, March 23, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz wrote about prayer and activism and prioritizing the vulnerable in justice. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Many Jews today claim that they are “spiritual not religious,” that organized religion is not relevant, or that they would rather spend their free time alone than with others. Those who attend synagogue weekly often reserve the service, especially the sermon, for a special naptime. Others prefer a 20–person basement setting for a quick prayer service rather than a formal, large gathering at shul. Around two-thirds of Americans claim to be members of a house of worship, which is more than 25% higher than Jewish synagogue membership. Is the synagogue becoming extinct? If so, should we seek to prevent extinction?

At its worst, synagogue is rife with factionalism and small-mindedness, a place to mumble irrelevant words and snooze during an out of touch sermon, and later nosh on stale chips at Kiddush while discussing the stock market and the latest gossip. Synagogues spend their limited funds on plaques, high-end scotch and a new social hall rather than on adequately paying staff and investing in learning programs. Congregants drive $50,000 cars but request assistance on the membership dues. The experience is predictable, tedious, and boring. It resembles a business transaction, where one has paid membership dues for the right to services, more than a sacred obligation. The staff and board do not lead with Jewish values but act as management as if the congregation was just another business venture. The ritual is empty and the action is either inadequate or nonexistent.

Leading such a congregation is virtually impossible. The rabbi is required to perform four full-time jobs, take 3 A.M. phone calls, act as the scapegoat for all failures, and also please each congregant while handling critiques with a smile. Congregants are forthcoming with complaints, but few volunteer when they can watch the football game on television. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel observed: “The modern temple suffers from a severe cold. The services are prim, the voice is dry, the temple is clean and tidy…no one will cry, the words are stillborn.”

Some see patterns of dysfunction. Professor James Kugel identified three kinds of harmful synagogues: the 1) “Ceremonial Hall Synagogue,” 2) “Nostalgia Center,” and 3) “Davening Club.” In the Ceremonial Hall, the congregants neither care to participate nor learn about what is really going on; they just wish to be an entertained audience. Mimicking a Broadway show, shul becomes entertainment, and the rabbi and cantor get a score for their performance. At the Nostalgia Center, the rabbi is often the youngest one present, and Judaism is about sitting where one’s grandfather sat, saying kaddish, and telling old Yiddish jokes. Everything is wrong but nothing should be changed. The congregation’s traditions and customs trump shared values, meaning, connection, and opportunities for growth. At the Davening Club, there is a false semblance of prayer intensity, but it more closely resembles a mumble-festival, without any real spiritual uplift.

On the other hand, at its best, shul can be a transformative spiritual experience. Eager congregants roll up their sleeves to build the community, providing an open, relevant experience for all. Prayer centers can be welcoming, participatory, and collaborative. Most importantly, a strong synagogue is driven by shared values and a sense of mission and purpose. Congregants look inside the walls of the prayer community for intimate connection and reciprocal comfort, and look outside for opportunities to reach out and give back. Peter Steinke, author of Healthy Congregations, explains that congregations need to move from being clergy-focused to mission-focused. Rather than relying upon clergy to inspire and entertain the congregation, everyone is involved in a system of involvement, encouragement, and teaching.

A healthy congregation takes effort to build. A diverse population attends shul for very different reasons: children, singles, empty nesters, intermarried families, etc. Each population must be honored and be given a seat at the table. Too often, the elderly members of the congregation complain that there are not enough young people at the congregation to “keep the tradition alive”; to improve, they must be willing to adapt the experience to invite a new audience.

For the synagogue to survive and be relevant in the 21st century, congregants must seek authentic prayer experiences, enrichment through learning, and a contribution to community building. One does not just show up when convenient, but to support others consistently. Do not sit back and blame a poor prayer experience on the rabbi. If you find yourself unable to achieve meaningful prayer, learning, and volunteer experiences, consider changing shuls (and search within yourself). The heart must actually be open if one wishes to be inspired. But do not quit the synagogue enterprise — it has survived thousands of years for a reason.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the founder and president of Uri L'Tzedek. His book, Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century, is now available.

Do We Prioritize the Vulnerable in Justice?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz wrote about prayer and activism. This week, the Amazon Kindle version of his book Jewish Ethics & Social Justice is only $1.99!

In Jewish law, we are told that it is unjust to be biased and be swayed by poverty, to favor the case of the poor over the rich in a dispute. Within the realm of a formal court’s judgment this is crucial (Exodus 23: 3, 6). However, does this notion still apply today, where the disparity of wealth between the poor and the rich has become so large that the poor often can no longer properly advocate for themselves?

This notion of equality before the law is mostly a fallacy today in America, since the poor have such a serious disadvantage in the courtroom. The New York Times reported that more than 90% of criminal cases are never tried before a jury; most people charged with crimes just plead guilty, forfeiting their constitutional rights. The prosecution usually promises to give a deal to those who plead guilty and go all-out against anyone who tries to go to trial. It is simply cheaper to plead guilty than to try to pay for legal counsel.

Every individual should have the same fair opportunity before the law, because we must be committed to truth and justice. But this is not the reality today. Even if it were true, Judaism teaches that we must go over and above the law (lifnim mishurat hadin) to support those more vulnerable (Bava Metzia 83a). Furthermore, we learn that G-d created and destroyed many worlds that were built upon the foundation of din (judgment), and then G-d finally created this world built upon rachamim (mercy) (Rashi to Genesis 1:1). Our world can’t exist on pure judgment, rather, as fallible beings we rely upon the grace, empathy, and kindness of G-d and man.

We must be moved toward mercy for those who are suffering, and this must affect how we build society. President Obama explained the importance of empathy in jurisprudence when choosing Supreme Court justices: “I will seek someone who understands that justice isn’t about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a casebook; it is also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people’s lives. I view the quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people’s hopes and struggles as an essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes.” Law is not only about principle, it is also about life.

This is all the more true outside of the courtroom. Within the realm of Jewish grassroots activism, we learn that our primary responsibility is not equality, but to prioritize our support for the vulnerable.

Numerous Jewish teachings remind us that our primary responsibility is to protect and prioritize the most vulnerable individuals and parties: “G-d takes the side of the aggrieved and the victim” (Ecclesiastes 3:15). When there is conflict, G-d simply cannot withhold support for the one suffering.

Rav Ahron Soloveichik writes: “A Jew should always identify with the cause of defending the aggrieved, whosoever the aggrieved may be, just as the concept of tzedek is to be applied uniformly to all humans regardless of race or creed” (Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind, 67).

This is what it means to be Jewish, to prioritize the suffering in conflict.

This point is made time and time again by the rabbis. The Talmud, based on the verse “justice, justice, you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20), teaches that the disadvantaged should be given preference when all else is equal. The Rambam teaches that even if the disadvantaged arrive later than other people, they should be given precedence (Sanhedrin 21:6, Shulhan Arukh CM 15:2).

Thus, in a court of law, all parties are ideally treated equally, as we are guided by the Jewish value of din (judgment); today, however, justice does not prevail. Further, in activism we must favor the vulnerable, since we are guided by the Jewish value of chesed (empathy, loving kindness). In life, we must learn to balance all of our values: love, justice, mercy, etc. In justice, we do not just choose one guiding principle: As Isaiah Berlin teaches, moral life consists of embracing a plurality of values.

We must always be absolutely committed to the truth and be sure that our justice system is fair for all parties. Yet we also, as changemakers, have a special and holy role to give voice to the voiceless and to support the unsupported in society. This is the role of Jewish activism. The rabbis teach that “Even if a righteous person attacks a wicked person, G-d still sides with the victim” (Yalkut Shimoni). All people deserve our love and care but we must follow the path of G-d and make our allegiances clear: with the destitute, oppressed, alienated, and suffering.

You can now purchase Rav Shmuly’s book Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.

Is Prayer for Activists?

Monday, March 19, 2012 | Permalink
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the founder and president of Uri L'Tzedek. He is the author of Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Our basic premise as activists is human responsibility. We, not someone else, must step up to create change in the world. To turn to others before ourselves is for cynics and critics not change makers. What about prayer? Is it a cop out? I would suggest that prayer offers us three vital opportunities as activists: 1) Reflection and Self Awareness, 2) Reminder of Values and Recharge, and 3) Humility.

First, we know that activism can make us hot-headed, and impulses can run high. Prayer is the opportunity to check back in with our essence. Rav Kook, first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, explains: “Prayer is only correct when it arises from the idea that the soul is always praying. When many days or years have passed without serious prayer, toxic stones gather around one's heart, and one feels, because of them, a certain heaviness of spirit. When one forgets the essence of one’s own soul, when one distracts his mind from attending to the innermost content of his own personal life, everything becomes confused and uncertain. The primary role of change, which at once sheds light on the darkened zone, is for the person to return to himself, to the root of his soul” (Olat HaRa'aya, 2). Prayer reminds us that we must slow down, reflect upon our actions, and become very aware of our feelings and our spiritual integrity.

Second, prayer is a time to recharge, pausing to remind ourselves of core values and reaffirming our highest moral and spiritual commitments. Activists are consumed with opposing some of the most immoral forces on the planet. Prayer is a return to idealism, to hope, and to faith that justice will prevail. The 20th century philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin explained: “We are not physical creatures having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual creatures having a physical experience.” By connecting with our spiritual values, we can return to the material world with a broader, fresher, and more idealistic spirit.

Third, in prayer we humble ourselves. We remember that we do not control the world. We do not naively believe that we will succeed in all of our endeavors or that G-d will merely fulfill our requests. Rather, we seek a humble connection above, without expectations, as we affirm that the job of G-d is taken. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik explained that G-d listens, but prayer is more about relationship and connection than wish fulfillment. “We have the assurance that God is indeed a shomeiah tefillah, One who hears our prayers, but not necessarily that He is a mekabel tefillah, One who accepts our prayers, and accedes to our specific requests. It is our persistent hope that our requests will be fulfilled, but it is not our primary motivation for prayer. In praying, we do not seek a response to a particular request as much as we desire a fellowship with God” (Reflections of the Rav, volume 1, p. 78). When we seek a relationship with the Divine, we not only humble ourselves but fill ourselves with wonder. Biologist J.B.S. Haldane said it well: “The world will not perish for want of wonders but for want of wonder.” Prayer reminds us of how small we are amongst the cosmos.

To be an activist is about taking responsibility for the injustices and oppressions in society. A spiritual life that embraces prayer is not at odds with this goal. Rather, prayer may be one of our most important tools to build community, spiritually recharge, and enhance our collective efforts to create a more just world.

You can now purchase Rav Shmuly’s book Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.