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Why Jews Around the World are Praying for the Victory of the Egyptian Uprising

posted by Michael Lerner
Originally appeared on Tikkun Daily Blog

Ever since the victory over the dictator of Tunisia and the subsequent uprising in Egypt, my email has been flooded with messages from Jews around the world hoping and praying for the victory of the Egyptian people over their cruel Mubarak regime.
            
Though a small segment of Jews have responded to right-wing voices from Israel that lament the change and fear that a democratic government would bring to power fundamentalist extremists who wish to destroy Israel and who would abrogate the hard-earned treaty that has kept the peace between Egypt and Israel for the last 30 years, the majority of Jews are more excited and hopeful than worried.
           
Of course, the worriers have a point. Israel has allied itself with repressive regimes in Egypt and used that alliance to ensure that the borders with Gaza would remain closed while Israel attempted to economically deprive the Hamas regime there by denying needed food supplies and equipment to rebuild after Israel’s devastating attack in December 2008 and January 2009. If the Egyptian people take over, they are far more likely to side with Hamas than with the Israeli blockade of Gaza.
            
Yet it is impossible for Jews to forget our heritage as victims of another Egyptian tyrant–the Pharoah whose reliance on brute force was overthrown when the Israelite slaves managed to escape from Egypt some 3,000 years ago. That story of freedom retold each year at our Passover “Seder” celebration, and read in synagogues in the past month, has often predisposed the majority of Jews to side with those struggling for freedom around the world.  To watch hundreds of thousands of Egyptians able to throw off the chains of oppression and the legacy of a totalitarian regime that consistently jailed, tortured or murdered its opponents so overtly that most people were cowed into silence, is to remember that the spark of God continues to flourish no matter how long oppressive regimes manage to keep themselves in power, and that ultimately the yearning for freedom and democracy cannot be totally stamped out no matter how cruel and sophisticated the elites of wealth, power and military might appear to be.
            
Many Jews have warned Israel that it is a mistake to ally with these kinds of regimes, just as we’ve warned the US to learn the lesson from its failed alliance with the Shah of Iran. We’ve urged Israel to free the Palestinian people by ending the Occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza. Israel’s long-term security will not be secured through military or economic domination, but only by acting in a generous and caring way toward the Palestinian people first, and then toward all of  its Arab neighbors. Similarly, America’s homeland security will best be achieved through a strategy of generosity and caring, manifested through a new Global Marshall Plan such as has been introduced into the House of Representatives by Congressman Keith Ellison.
            
In normal times, when the forces of repression seem to be winning, this kind of thinking is dismissed as “utopian” by the “realists” who shape public political discourse. But when events like the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt occur, for a moment the politicians and media are stunned enough to allow a different kind of thinking to emerge, the kind of thinking that acknowledged that underneath all the “business as usual” behavior of the world’s peoples, the yearning for a world based on solidarity, caring for each other, freedom, self-determination, justice, non-violence and yes, even love and generosity, remains a potent and unquenchable thirst that may be temporarily repressed but never fully extinguished.
            
It is this recognition that leads many Jews to join with the rest of the world’s peoples in celebrating the uprising, in praying that it does not become manipulated by the old regime into paths that too quickly divert the hopes for a brand new kind of order into politics and economics as usual, or into extremist attempts to switch the anger from domestic elites who have been the source of Egyptian oppression onto Jews or Israel which have not been responsible for the suffering of the Egyptian people. Such extremists could easily be marginalized were Israel to take definitive action to accept the peace terms offered by the Palestinians in 2007-8 and known to the world through the release of relevant documents by Al-Jazeera, and were the US in conjunction with Israel to announce a Global Marshall Plan with first location being the Middle East. Such a plan has been developed in some detail by the Network of Spiritual Progressives. 
            
We hope that Egyptians will hear the news that they have strong support from many in the Jewish world.

           

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun www.tikkun.org , chair of the interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives, and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue in Berkeley, California.  He can be reached at RabbiLerner@Tikkun.org  To read details of the Global Marshall Plan, go towww.spiritualprogressives.org/GMP

When Generosity, Love, and Kindness are Public Policy, the Violence We Saw in Arizona will Dramatically Diminish

posted by Michael Lerner

The attempted assassination of Congresswoman Giffords and the murder of so many others in Arizona has elicited a number of policy suggestions, from gun control to private protection for elected officials, to banning incitement to violence on websites either directly or more subtly (e.g., Sarah Palin’s putting a bull’s-eye target on Giffords’ congressional district to indicate how important it would be to remove her from the Congress).

On the other hand, we hear endless pleas to recognize that the assassin was a lonely and disturbed person whose choice of Hitler’s Mein Kampf as one of his favorite books reflects his own troubled soul, not his affinity to the “hatred of the Other” that has manifested in anti-immigrant movements that have spread from Arizona to many other states and in the United States and has taken the form of anti-Islam, discrimination against Latinos, and the more extreme right-wing groups that preach hatred toward Jews.

The problem with this debate is that the explanatory frame is too superficial and seeks to discredit rather than to analyze. I fell into this myself in the immediate aftermath of the murders and attempted assassination. I wrote an op-ed pointing to the right wing’s tendency to use violent language and demean liberals and progressives, and its historical tie to anti-Semitism and anti-feminism. Once I heard that the arrested assassin had a connection to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, I reacted from my own childhood pain at realizing that most of my extended family had been murdered by the Nazis. So I pointed to the current violent language used by the right-wing radio hosts and some of the leaders and activists of the Tea Party, and how their discourse helps shape the consciousness of those in pain and provides them with a target.

But the problem really is much deeper, so I’m sorry I put forward an analysis that was so dominated by my own righteous indignation that it may have obscured a deeper analysis, and mistakenly insinuated that all Arizonans were responsible for the racism in the current policies toward immigrants and that all people on the Right embrace the hate rhetoric of some of their most extremely popular hate addicts like Glenn Beck, or the ignorance of history that led Sarah Palin to label as “blood libel” the criticisms directed at her. Some people even thought that in mentioning that Congresswoman Giffords is Jewish that I was somehow suggesting that I would care less if she were not — so I also apologize for being sloppy enough to allow that interpretation — very far from my intent, since I believe that all people are equally created in God’s image, and for that reason I’ve been an outspoken critic of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians (though also a critic of Hamas’ violence against Israeli civilians).

I apologize again, as much for the tone of anger as for the content of that kind of generalization. And although Michael Bader has made a persuasive case that we must challenge media that pretends that use of threats of violence comes as much from the Left as the Right (see his piece here), I was very happy that President Obama’s call for tolerance and mutual respect seemed to be getting a good response across the political spectrum (and only wish that his call to avoid violence was adopted by his own administration in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen and around the world — apparently unaware that if you train your own population to go kill people around the world, some will come home with a love of guns and a certainty that violence and toughness are the ways to deal with problems).

So here is the analytic key to understanding what we must do:

We live in a society in which the fundamental framework of meaning to life has broken down as the ethos of selfishness, materialism, looking out for numbe
r one, and “making it” at all costs, endemic to the capitalist order and a part of all previous class based or patriarchal societies. People increasingly see each other through the framework of “what can YOU do to advance my interests, pleasures, or desires?” People are valued by the capitalist order to the extent that we can help the elites of wealth and power increase their wealth and power. When we no longer can, we find ourselves unemployed and desperate to survive economically, socially ostracized, and lonely.

No wonder, then, that so many people decide that the only rational behavior is to maximize their own advantage and pursue their own self-interest without regard to the consequences for others. In so doing, we mis-recognize each other, and are in turn mis-recognized by everyone else. Instead of being seen as the embodiment of a sacred or holy or God energy (what religious people call “being created in God’s image”), we are seen as beings whose primary value is based on whether we can fulfill someone else’s agenda. And in that sense, we are not recognized for who we most really and deeply are! This mis-recognition makes us feel lonely and misunderstood by almost everyone.

When surrounded by people who only see you in these narrow utilitarian or instrumental terms, many people feel lonely (even inside their own families) and devalued. Of course, this plays out differently for different people. Some will simply become depressed and withdrawn. Others seek comfort in alcohol, drugs, sexual promiscuity, or promiscuous consumption of material things. Still others will seek the momentary experience of solidarity with someone at a football or baseball game when their team is winning, or in a religious or political movement that affirms their value but demeans everyone outside their side, or even in the fantasized community they access through Facebook or other online adventures.

And then there are many who find no such compensatory framework for the real pain that they share with so many millions of others. They become lonely and withdrawn and retreat into their own fantasy world, and in more extreme cases become mentally ill or otherwise dysfunctional. It is a huge mistake to imagine that these conditions develop independent of the social order — just ask yourself why the proportion of violence in the US compared to our population is so much greater than that in other advanced industrial societies (clue: it is not in our genes, it is in the way we have organized our society).

We at the Network of Spiritual Progressives have called for a new kind of politics that seeks to build a society based on love, kindness and generosity — we call it “The Caring Society — Caring for Each Other, Caring for the Earth.”

Several of the people who knew the assassin said that they knew that he was acting weird and felt the need to stay away from him. A community college ousted him. No one thought to organize a group of people to reach out to him, to help him out of his isolation or to get him connected to professionals who might treat him. That is just not part of the ethos of a “looking out for number one” society. Too many people have been taught to think “don’t get involved with someone else’s problems — it might get you into trouble in unpredictable ways.”

So many people walk by the homeless, angry at them for having reminded us of the daily suffering caused by an economic system of which we are part but which we do not think we could change without spending a lot more energy than we have, and risking potentially dangerous confrontations with the rich and powerful forces that control our society. We don’t want to get involved with them, not only because doing so may open us to be vulnerable to their suffering, but also because we ourselves don’t feel that we’ve gotten the recognition we deserve for our own suffering, so “why should I spend my time involving myself with these strangers whose suffering would only add to my burden, particularly since I doubt I have the capacity to do much for them?”

Too many people imagine that we can simply turn our back on the suffering of others, or control it through a military, police, and psychiatric system when the daily barrage of media propaganda hasn’t been sufficient to keep the “dangerous others” in line. Yet we are mistaken, because the suffering of others cannot be escaped and manifests in the election of increasingly right-wing politicians, in crime, and in psychotic behavior from people who may someday enter our personal space in a violent way as did the assassin in Tucson! At your local supermarket, or on the highways, or in a movie theatre or coffee shop or in a shopping mall, or where your children go to school! It has already happened in all of these places, and it will get worse!

Or perhaps you imagine you could just stay in your home and never leave, and thus be protected? A far more rational, though by no means easy, way to get lasting protection for yourself and your children or grand
children is to create the Caring Society. To duck out of this necessity by simply labeling people as psychotic really misses the point of how much the social order we are part of is daily generating bizarre and self- and other-destructive behavior. As someone who was himself a psychologist for twenty years before becoming a rabbi, I can assure you that the absence of these kind of insights in the field of psychology deeply limits the amount of help that psychologists are able to deliver to us when trying to handle the mass psychology of alienation, estrangement and violence.

Creating a caring society would require a new bottom line so that every social and governmental policy, every corporation, every school and university, and even every personal behavior is judged to be rational, productive or efficient not only to the extent that it maximizes money or power, but also to the extent that it maximizes love and caring, kindness and generosity, and ethical and ecological sensitivity, as well as enhances our capacity to respond to the universe with awe, wonder and radical amazement at the grandeur and mystery of all that is. Allow yourself to imagine a society based on these principles, teaching them in schools, making them the core of the message of the media, and rewarding the behavior of those who embody this New Bottom Line in their work world and/or in their personal lives. This is the Public Policy that would make a huge reduction in violence in our lives and our society!!! 

Two major policy initiatives embody this approach and need your support:

1. The ESRA (Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment) to the U.S. Constitution being introduced into Congress this week on the first anniversary of the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision. The ESRA aims not only to overturn that decision but also to eliminate all private money in national elections and replace it with public funding. It requires media to supply free and equal time for all major candidates while banning private advertising during the months before the election, and it requires large corporations to get a new corporate charter once every five years — a process that requires them to prove a satisfactory history of environmental and social responsibility to a jury of ordinary citizens using the new bottom line as their guide for assessing corporate social responsibility. The ESRA also requires teaching the values of caring for each other and for the earth at every grade level in any school receiving public funding directly or indirectly (please read it and ask your elected representatives and your city council and state legislature to endorse it – www.spiritualprogressives.org/ESRA and join our campaign to build public support).

2. The GMP (Global Marshall Plan), which would replace the strategy of domination as the way to achieve Homeland Security with a strategy of generosity. The GMP would commit the United States to dedicating 1-2 percent of our annual Gross Domestic Product each year for the next twenty to a program to eliminate domestic and global poverty, homelessness, hunger, and inadequate education and inadequate health care. The program would also seek to repair the global environment and enlist all the other advanced industrial countries in this same venture. (Please read it and ask your elected representatives and your city council and state legislature to endorse it at www.spiritualprogressives.org/GMP and join our campaign to build public support.)

Only within a society whose economic and political institutions are reshaped around this new bottom line do we have a chance of dramatically reducing violence and increasing our safety as individuals or our “homeland security” as a society. It’s not enough to have love in our hearts, because the assumptions and consciousness that is shaped by our contemporary schools, media, and daily experience in the world of work dramatically shape the minds of everyone around us in ways that make it near impossible for anyone but the most privileged or the born saints to keep true to the values of love, kindness, generosity, and caring for each other and the earth while we maneuver through daily life and try to make a living.

Anything short of that societal transformation toward the Caring Society is actually utopian and fanciful, and leads to blaming each other or some group or policy option for the irrational behaviors that are tearing our society apart. So, yes of course, gun control would be helpful as would more psychological support services. Yes, the violent discourse of the Right, like the violence that young men are taught to esteem as they are given the option of “serving their country” through the armed services with its legalized murder of Afghanis and Iraqis, and the media saturation with violence all contribute to our normalizing individual and social pathology, are not just “background” but infuse the consciousness of everyone with the notion that violence is the “realistic way” to deal with whoever is deemed “the enemy.” Moreover, and please understand this before condemning those who oppose gun control, for millions of young me in this society, the experience of camaraderie that they felt in the Armed Services was the only time in their lives that they got to experience a “we” instead of an isolated “I,” and of course the romanticizing of that experience after they get out and face a society that doesn’t care one whit about them is inextricably associated with the days that they held and were able to use their weapons. Don’t expect them to give that up until a caring society is available in real life and not only in memory.

We Americans shut our eyes to the 12,000-20,000 children under the age of five who die each day (approximately 12 million a year) from hunger or diseases related to malnutrition and inadequate health care facilities around the world. We don’t even count this as violence, though the mal-distribution of wealth and hence of food and health care are part of the system in which we daily participate and to which we pay our taxes and support by our consumerism. We shut our eyes to the suffering of the poor in our own society, not realizing that in so doing or in supporting lower taxes and cuts of government services we are striking out against the poor in violent ways, guaranteeing that they will be thrown from their homes and denied adequate food, shelter, and health care. We refuse to see the structural violence built into the daily operations of the global economic system of which we are a central part and the violence that we do when we vote against those who would provide adequate support for the poor, the homeless, the downtrodden.

Yet we must not forget that all this violence is only a manifestation of the violence to our humanity that occurs daily in a society in which each of us is constantly being devalued and mis-recognized unless we clawed our way to the top of the economic or political ladders to become “successful.” So I understand and sympathize with those on the Right who say, “hey, don’t blame me” because in fact their behaviors are just another part of the cry of pain that so many people feel deeply and have no way of understanding or dealing with. Our society is bursting with the silent screams of tens of millions of people suffering systematic and daily assaults on their dignity, their humanity, and their capacities to be loving, kind, gentle, and generous.

So much unrecognized and pervasive pain! Until we transform this big picture, all the little efforts, all the noble reforms, all the good intentions, will amount to little. Moreover, and this is the point missed by those who say “later we’ll deal with that pain, but first we must defeat the Right and provide jobs and food and shelter,” we will never be in a position to deliver on people’s material needs until we build a movement of the majority of Americans to do that, and we will never succeed in building such a movement until we can effectively address this pervasive pain and provide adequate alternatives to the pain reduction provided by fundamentalist religions, drugs, alcohol, profligate materialism, and politics aimed at blaming some relatively powerless group for all the pain whose origin actually lies in the fundamental ethos of our global economic and political system. And that, more than anything else, is why we need a worldwide tikkun olam (healing, repair and transformation of the world). How to get there is described in the Spiritual Covenant with America that guides Tikkun’s action and education arm: The Network of Spiritual Progressives.

In the short run, I hope Linwood, you’ll come to the 25th Anniversary celebration of Tikkun on March 14th (and if possible, the weekend before March 11-13) to stand behind the kind of thinking in this article and in my editorial on the way to bring peace to Israel and Palestine.

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun, chair of the interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives, and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun synagogue. To see how to turn these ideas into actual political practice, read the Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (ESRA) and the Globa
l Marshall Plan (GMP), and then please join as a member of the Network of Spiritual Progressives (all can be found at www.spiritualprogressives.org).

Please help us by joining our movement–and please post this on your Facebook page, your website, twitter, and send it to your friends and ask them to do same!!!! Also come to our 25th anniversary celebration–likely you will learn a lot and have a fulfilling time and maybe meet people who will play an important role in your personal life or in your employment or professional life!

The Spiritual Messages of Chanukah and Christmas — and Their Downsides

posted by Michael Lerner

Christmas and Chanukah share a spiritual message: that it is possible to bring light and hope in a world of darkness, oppression and despair. But whereas Christmas focuses on the birth of a single individual whose life and mission was itself supposed to bring liberation, Chanukah is about a national liberation struggle involving an entire people who seek to remake the world through struggle with an oppressive political and social order: the Greek conquerors (who ruled Judea from the time of Alexander in 325 B.C.E.) and the Hellenistic culture that they sought to impose.

Stattler-Machabeusze.jpeg

The holiday celebrated by lighting candles for eight nights (the first night is tonight) recalls the victory of the guerrilla struggle led by the Maccabees against the Syrian branch of the Greek empire, and the subsequent rededication (Chanukah in Hebrew) of the Temple in Jerusalem in 165 B.C.E. However, there was a more difficult struggle that took place (and in some dimensions still rages) within the Jewish people between those who hoped for a triumph of a spiritual vision of the world embedded (as it turned out, quite imperfectly) in the Maccabees and a cynical realism that had become the common sense of the merchants and priests who dominated the more cosmopolitan arena of Jerusalem.

The cynical realists in Judea, among them many of the priests charged with preserving the Temple, argued that Greek power was overwhelming and that it made far greater sense to accommodate it than to resist. The Greek globalizers promised advances in science and technology that could benefit international trade and enrich the local merchants who sided with them, even though the taxes that accompanied their rule impoverished the Jewish peasants who worked the land and eked out a subsistence living. Along with Greek science and military prowess came a whole culture that celebrated beauty both in art and in the human body, presented the world with the triumph of rational thought in the works of Plato and Aristotle, and rejoiced in the complexities of life presented in the theatre of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Aristophanes.

To the Maccabees, the guerrilla band that they assembled to fight the Greek Empire and its Seleucid dynasty in Syria, and to many of the Jewish supporters of that struggle, the issue of Greek militarism, social injustice and oppression were far more salient than the accomplishments of Greek high culture. Whatever might be the value of Athenian democracy, the reality that it exported to the world through Alexander and his successors was oppressive and exploitative.

The “old-time religion” that the Maccabbees fought to preserve had revolutionary elements in it that went far beyond the Greeks in articulating a liberatory vision: not only in the somewhat abstract demand to “love your neighbor as yourself,” “love the stranger,” and pursue justice and peace, but also concretely in Torah prescriptions to abolish all debts every seven years, allow the land to lie fallow every seven years, refrain from all work and activities connected to control over the earth once a week on Sabbath, redistribute the land every fifty years (the Jubilee)back to its original equal distribution.

The identification with the oppressed, enshrined in Judaism in its insistence that Jews were derived from slaves who had been liberated, and in its focus on retelling the story of being oppressed that was central to the Torah, seemed atavistic and naïve to the more educated and enlightened Jewish urban dwellers, who pointed to the reactionary tribal elements of Torah and sided with the Greeks when they declared circumcision and study of Torah illegal and banned the observance of the Sabbath.

The miracle of Chanukah is that so many people were able to resist the overwhelming “reality” imposed by the imperialists and to stay loyal to a vision of a world based on generosity, love of stranger, and loyalty to an invisible God who promised that life could be based on justice and peace. It was these “little guys,” the powerless, who sustained a vision of hope that inspired them to fight against overwhelming odds, against the power of technology and science organized in the service of domination, and despite the fact that they were dismissed as terrorists and fundamentalist crazies. When this kind of energy, what religious people call “the Spirit of God,” becomes an ingredient in the consciousness of ordinary people, miracles ensue.

It is this same radical hope, whether rooted in religion or secularist belief systems, that remains the foundation for all who continue to struggle for a world of peace and social justice at a time when the champions of war and injustice dominate the political and economic institutions of our own society, often with the assistance of their contemporary cheerleading religious leaders. It is that radical hope that is celebrated this Chanukah by those Jews who have not yet joined the contemporary Hellenists.

Radical hope is also the message of Christmas. Like Chanukah, it is rooted in the ancient tradition of a winter solstice celebration to affirm humanity’s belief that the days, now grown shortest around December 23rd, will grow long again as the sun returns to heat the earth and nourish the plants. Just as Jews light holiday lights at this time of year, Christians transform the dark into a holiday of lights, with beautiful Christmas trees adorned with candles or electric lights and lights on the outside and inside of their homes.

Christianity took the hope of the ancients and transformed it into a hope for the transformation of a world of oppression. The birth of a newborn, always a signal of hope for the family in which it was born, was transformed into the birth of the messiah who would come to challenge existing systems of economic and political oppression and bring a new era of peace on earth, social justice, and love. Symbolizing that in the baby Jesus was a beautiful way to celebrate and reaffirm hope in the social darkness tha

t has been imposed on the world by the Roman empire, and all its successors right up through the contemporary dominance of a globalized rule of corporate and media forces that have permeated every corner of the planet with their ethos of selfishness and materialism. Seeing Jesus as the Son of God, and as an intrinsic part of God, was also a way of giving radical substance to the notion that every human being is created in the image of God. For God to come on earth, bring a holy message of love and salvation, and then to die at the hands of the imperialists and be resurrected to come back at some future date was and is a beautiful message of hope for a world not yet redeemed, and became an inspiration to hundreds of millions who saw in it the comforting message that the rule of the powerful was not the ultimate reality of existence. And yet, using the specificity of one human being and identifying him as God, a move made by St. Paul but not by Jesus himself, did not fit into the framework of Judaism, which could not accept Jesus as messiah because of its view that the messiah would bring an end to wars and all forms of oppression, an end that had not yet taken place during or after Jesus’ death.

Jews and Christians have much in common in celebrating at this time of year. We certainly want to use this holiday season to once again affirm our commitment to end the war in Iraq, to end global poverty and hunger by embracing the

Network of Spiritual Progressives’ version of the Global Marshall Plan, to reduce carbon emissions and population growth, and to save the world from ecological destruction. We live in dark times, but these holidays help us reaffirm our hope for a fundamentally different reality that we can help bring about in the coming years. And that despite the fact that we must acknowledge that the Chanukah revolution led to the rule of the Jewish Hashmona-im, whose rule devolved into tyranny and self-destructiveness, and that the beauty vision of early Christianity devolved into the tyranny and anti-Semitism of Constantinian forms of the merger of religion with state power.? There are reasons to not mush together these separate holidays. The tremendous pressure of the capitalist marketplace has been to take these holidays, eliminate their actual revolutionary messages, and instead turn them into a secular focus whose only command is “Be Happy and Buy.” One might have imagined that the current economic meltdown would significantly modify these messages, but that has not yet happened in December, 2010.

The huge pressure to be happy and the media’s ability to portray others as beaming with joy makes a huge number of people despondent because they actually don’t feel that kind of joy and imagine that they are the only ones who don’t, and hence feel terrible about themselves, something they seek to repair by buying, drugging, or drinking themselves into happiness. And when that too doesn’t work for very long, they become all the more unhappy with themselves or with others.

The pressure to buy as a way of showing that you really care about others puts many people into the position of spending more than they have, putting themselves into further debt, and then feeling depressed about that. Still others have no way to buy “enough” on credit, and then their children, saturated by a media specially attuned to the best ways to market to toddlers and everyone older through their teen years, make their parents or others feel inadequate because they have not bought what the media portrays as the standard for what a “normal family” buys for the holidays. Jews, seeking to fit into American society, grabbed onto this path of the holidays “not really being religious but only a time to celebrate,” and thus many embraced Christmas in the one way they could-buying presents for their non-Jewish friends and neighbors and celebrating Christmas as a “non-sectarian, American holiday.” But this well-intentioned move to fit into American society only helped the capitalist secularists, and unintentionally further undermined the ability of Christians to hold on to the religious and spiritual intent of their holiday. This is why spiritual progressives of the Christian faith have urged Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives to NOT celebrate the holiday as one undifferentiated “holiday season,” but to celebrate them as religious and spiritual holidays and to affirm the specific religious message of each one depending on which fits your particular faith.

Yet we also want to affirm the goodness in what secularists have tried to do with these holidays in removing them from their religious specificity.There has been far too much anger and killing in the name of religions in the history of humanity. We at the Network of Spiritual Progressives do not believe that most of that killing was actually motivated by religious differences so much as by power struggles that were given religious justifications and appearances. And we are all too well aware that in the twentieth century over 150 million people were slaughtered in the name of secular belief systems and secular powers (WWI, WWII, Korean War, Vietnam War, Stalinist gulag, Maoist gulag, colonial and anti-colonial wars, etc.), so we are not going to buy any notion that says that eliminating religio
n will increase world peace (though we wouldn’t shed any tears if the fundamentalist and ultra-nationalist forms of religion disappeared into the dustbins of history).

This painting, by Kristina Benetyte, was published in the November/December 2009 issue of Tikkun.

Many of those who have sought to secularize the holiday season do so from the fear that without that kind of secularization it will be harder for people to express caring and mutual support if they have to do so through the frameworks of religions of which they are not apart. Certainly, when it comes to interfaith marriages and families, the need for this kind of smooth path to affirming both traditions is really much needed. And yet, as a Jew, I want to recognize the particular importance to Christians of having Christmas be about Christ, not about gifts and drinking and merry making but about the meaning of the Christ for Christian belief. In this respect, there is a fundamental asymmetry here. Christmas and Easter are the main Christian holidays, while Chanukah is only a minor holiday that has become major only because some(mostly assimilating) Jews in the West felt the need to provide their children with something that could compensate them for not having Christmas with its attractive glitz and lights and toys. But our major holidays are Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur and Passover (and of course, weekly Shabbat), and so when Chanukah gets secularized we Jews don’t lose as much as Christians do when Christmas is secularized.

As we enter this holiday season, let us stay conscious on all these levels, resist the allure and the seductive charm of the capitalist marketplace and its capacity to reduce all reality and all loving to the consumption of “things,” and instead return to the deep spiritual messages of our own traditions, while lovingly supporting each other to stay true to our own deepest truths.

The ambiguities of hope were well illustrated in the past two years by the Obama administration. Brought to power by a movement that believed we had elected a president committed to peace, social justice, human rights, and environmental sanity, the Obama administration quickly pulled away from its progressive base and became, on many (NOT ALL) issues, hard to distinguish from many presidential administrations that came before. Tied to serving the interests of Wall Street and the elites of wealth and power, unwilling to articulate a progressive worldview that could contend with the selfishness and materialism and fear of the other which has always been the central psychological core of global capitalism, self-disempowering so that it would not fight even for the ideals it was willing to articulate,fearful to challenge the war-makers who run the military-industrial complex, enamored by the idea of compromise to his Right but not to his Left, Obama has turned many previously hopeful people into cynical or apathetic citizens. In the process he has generated emotional and spiritual depression, despair, and humiliation among those who had momentarily overcome their doubts and recommitted themselves to engaging in social change work. In that respect, Obama may have done more to weaken the forces of hope than even right-wingers might have been able to accomplish.

The victory of the Maccabees and the triumph of Christianity in the Roman Empire starting with Constantine may have had the same kind of impact as Obama. The Maccabees were in some respects like the Taliban — completely ruthless in their religious fanaticism, willing to impose it by force on fellow Jews, and their Hashmonean kingdom that they created became as corrupt as the Hellenists they replaced. The Christianity imposed on Europe through force with its hateful anti-Semitism, misogyny, and ruthless determination to burn as witches or torture those who would not accept its rule, played a major role in discrediting the love-oriented message of the Jewish prophet and wisdom teacher Jesus of Nazareth. So there is a certain downside to these victories that is necessary to acknowledge and talk about on these holidays.

But history is always ambiguous, because we ourselves as human beings have not yet evolved to the point where we fully embody our highest ideals. It makes sense to celebrate these holidays even so, and to allow ourselves to rejoice in the partial victories that humans have achieved through our history, even as we reaffirm the need to go much further than the consciousness that has surrounded these holidays in the past or among some of our co-religionists in the present (including for Jews the way that Chanukah is now appropriated into the right-wing versions of Zionism in Israel). But lets not forget:it was Christian ideals that led Americans to embrace the civil rights movement, and it was the preservation of Jewish consciousness by the victory of the Maccabees that made possible the Jewish contribution to subsequent history and culture, philosophy and social theory, not to mention involvement in shaping revolutionary and utopian thinking and practice.

So the limitations of Judaism and Christianity s
hould not overshadow the valuable contributions that some aspects of these religions still inspire.

For Jews celebrating Chanukah as a wonderful moment of national liberation, we must not put out of our minds the national liberation still being struggled for by the Palestinian people, but instead use this holiday to commit to supporting them while protecting Israel as well. Christians who, had they voted like Jews in the 2010 midterm elections (68% of whom voted for the more liberal candidates in U.S. Congressional elections), would have given us a Congress with a strong liberal bent, might use this Christmas to popularize in their families, neighbors, friends, and churches the Network of Spiritual Progressives’ campaign for a Global Marshall Plan and our call for an Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Both communities might use the holiday season to combat growing Islamophobia in the United States and challenge those who are showing a willingness to let the Right set the public agenda in the coming years. And both might rejoice in each other’s particularity, while maintaining their own traditions in a joyful and generous spirit.

If you happen to be in the SF Bay Area on Dec. 3rd, you are invited to our Chanukah party (at the First Congregational Church of Berkeley, Friday night, Dec. 3, 7 p.m., but give yourself fifteen minutes to park), NW corner of Channing and Dana. Candle-lighting at 7:20 p.m. Dancing to the music of Achi Ben Shalom, Jan Padover, and Julie Walcer, plus latkes and sour cream and other yummies!!!! Entrance fee: $15-$25 sliding fee scale depending on ability to pay to help us defray the cost of the evening.Followed at 8:45 p.m. with our innovative, but also traditional, Shabbat service.

Chag urim sameyach-happy holiday of lights.
Chag Chanukah sameyach-happy Chanukah.
Merry Christmas.
Happy Kwanzaa.
Mubarack Eid.

Many blessings to you!
Rabbi Michael Lerner


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