Spiritual Activism: From Moses to Bob Marley’s Redemption Song
Rabbi Daniel Brenner
I begin with a story:
The Parable of the Two Scrolls:
A traveler walks down a path holding a scroll of paper in each hand. Every few minutes, the traveler stops along the way and unrolls one of the scrolls.
“The whole world was created for me.” reads the first scroll.
After reading this message, the traveler walks with pride, taking long strides on the journey, enjoying each step, paying little attention to the world as it passes by.
After a while the traveler stops and unrolls the scroll in the other hand
“I am from dust and will return to dust!” it reads.
Suddenly the traveler begins to shuffle along the road in a state of despair, head hanging to the ground, despondent until the next time that the scroll in the other hand is read.
This Chassidic tale is often recalled during the month of reflection that precedes the Jewish High Holidays. Life, we are told by this teaching, is a delicate balancing act between two truths. Hope and despair are those two truths and they are always present.
Today, many political theorists are talking about two truths as well. Two Harvard professors are at the center of this debate. One, Francis Fukuyama, has argued that globalization and the rise of the digital market will eventually create a peaceful world with one language and one culture. The other, Samuel Huntington, has argued that a violent clash of civilizations is upon us - most notably between Islam and the West. In short, these visions predict either a world that is populated by those who wish to forget the past in the name of peace or by those who wish to fight to recreate the glory of the past.
Are either of these predictions proving to be accurate?
While it may seem that the clash is upon us, I want to suggest that in some ways both men are right. We are moving towards a global village and we are more interconnected than we have ever been. Education of millions is now happening via online resources. More young girls are learning than ever before. These could be hopeful signs. Yet, we also live with the images of 9/11 and images of the numerous attacks against Americans and other Westerners who are aid workers, journalists, or simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Who perpetrates these attacks?
In most cases, they are carried out not by those who are directly oppressed under the economic conditions dictated by the West on Arab nations – but those Arab students who can afford to come to the West to seek education and fortune. Sadly, many of them end up feeling more and more alienated from both their ancestral land and the modern world.
The root of the attacks is not Islam or the Quran – but the conflicted soul that rages towards the West (a rage that has been building since the colonial era) and desires the West (for individual autonomy, technology, and political freedom)
That conflict, in a digital world, becomes the impetus for a media spectacle of violence.
So how do we address this conflicted soul? How do we address the alienation that is at the heart of the transition from the local to global village?
We do not have to go to the apartment blocks of Paris, Manchester or Hamburg to see Muslims making the difficult transition from local to global village. They are also here in our midst. And when I have spoken with them, I understand how vulnerable they feel.
Since 1965, America has undergone a radical change in religious diversity that Professor Diane Eck has titled the “New Religious America.” It is an America that includes Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and more. It is an America that is a microcosm of the world’s religions – and a place in which new forms of those religions are blossoming.
And while America may have not received as much public attention as France has with ‘headscarf crimes’, America is facing a similar challenge of diversity. So we must ask a historical question:
How did America respond to the first wave of immigration that brought religious diversity to these shores– the wave between 1880- and 1920?
While it took nearly three decades for Jews and Catholics to feel accepted in America, we have countless of righteous Protestants to thank for making this nation a welcoming one for religious difference. In 1927, when the National Conference of Christians and Jews began with one Protestant, one Catholic, and one Jewish leader, it sent a message that this nation was one which not only tolerated, but found strength in diversity. John F. Kennedy’s presidency was historic, as was Joseph Leiberman’s candidacy. And these events could not have happened without thousands of local events like this one here today.
For Jews, finding acceptance in America was not only vital in the 1920s, but was especially salient after the horrors visited on our people in Europe during World War II. Jews not only came to see America as a refuge, but to call it home. I grew up with the U.S. Army issue Passover Haggadah that my father used as a G.I.
The same efforts that Protestants pushed forward in solidifying this nation as a Judeo-Christian one must now be advanced to widen the tent. And while I hope that both polytheists (like Hindus) and non-theists (like Buddhists) will be included around the table, it is our fellow monotheists, Muslims, that we must reach out to at this hour.
But bringing them to the table is only the first step. The real question regarding diversity is not simply who we can gather around the table, but what can we accomplish together. Jews, Protestants and Catholics came together and played a major role in healing the nation’s racism and establishing civil rights. Today there is a new set of issues to tackle. So where should we begin? We might draw on some spiritual resources.
In the Book of Exodus, the young Moses “Goes out to see his brethren” – The Midrash, the collection of rabbinic commentaries on the Torah, asks “what did he see?”
He saw the burdens of the young on the backs of the old and the burdens of the old on the backs of the young. He saw the burdens of women on men and men on women.
So how did he respond?
Moses began to shift the burdens, running back and forth. He hoped that Pharoah would be pleased, seeing how much more efficient the work had become. But Pharoah forbid him from interfering. It was then that Moses knew that he would have to stand up to Pharoah.
Today we live in a nation in which our collective burdens are being carried by those whose voices of anguish go unheard. Rather than create a society in which there is a chicken in every pot, we have created a gap between rich and poor that has grown larger each year. Fewer people have health insurance – and even those who have it cannot afford decent health care. And there are thousands of workers in this country – men who work the fields among the pesticides, women who are held in captivity and exploited sexually– who are carrying unjust burdens. It is appalling to me that a Wal-mart janitorial employee from Poland was forced to work 364 days a year, twelve hour shifts and denied medical care when she had a work related accident.
Of course we will not change our society overnight, but the one thing that we can change is our minds.
Bob Marley sang:
Emancipate yourselves from inner slavery/ none but ourselves can free our minds/have no fear for atomic energy / none of them can stop the time/ how long will we kill our prophets/ while they stand aside a look/ we’ve got to take part in it/ got to fulfill the book/ redemption song/this song of freedom/ all I ever had
We can change our minds – and through the electoral process we have the ability to change the policies that impact our nation’s most vulnerable. It is said that the worst part of Egyptian slavery was that the Hebrews had given up hope that they would ever be anything other than slaves. But we should not lose hope that it is possible to create a compassionate and caring society. We can shift the energy we have used to become the world’s military superpower to address the AIDS crisis, environmental crisis, and the desperate need for education.
We carry two scrolls with us. One scroll that gives us hope and one that instills despair.
Today, let us look at the new religious diversity in America as a sign of hope. It will take much work, but we can utilize this diversity to touch the lives of people in every nation. Let us dedicate ourselves to building a wide tent, in which all can rest safely and find nourishment. And let that tent be an inspiration for all our fellow travelers on planet earth.