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Lawrence Bush
June 8, 2010

by Lawrence Bush
What follows is a keynote address I gave at Kadima in Seattle over the weekend, at a gala to honor David Loud, a wonderful activist whose parents, Oliver and Frances, were life subscribers to Jewish Currents. Kadima is one of the founding organizations of New Jewish Agenda and currently is an affiliate of the Reconstructionist movement.
The Almighty Dollar.
Shock & Awe.
Illegal Aliens.
The Pepsi Generation.
Rugged Individualism.
Whoever Dies with the Most Toys Wins.
Do Your Own Thing.
Lock Them Up and Throw Away the Key.
Boob Jobs.
Face Lifts.
My Country Right or Wrong.
American Idol.
Drill Baby Drill.
The American Dream.
Perhaps this is what it looked like to Abraham — that idol shop that his father ran in Mesopotamia. Perhaps it looked like our own dazed and uncomprehending country.

Ye olde idolatry shoppe: At the front door, two young models dressed like temple prostitutes, eye-candy to get your lizard brain hopping with anticipation. Inside, on sale back at the rear wall, amulets and incantations and magic potions guaranteed to turn your suffering into self-improvement programs, your hopes into fantasies, your yearnings into vanity. All across the floor, graven images for sale, small and large, to fill your eyes, and ears, and mouths, with mystical, useless beliefs. There are household gods everywhere — and no unifying God anywhere.
Abraham took a stick and smashed it all to smithereens. That rebellion is what made him into a Jew, the first Jew — because “Whoever testifies against idolatry is called a Jew.” That’s what the Talmud says, in the tractate Megillah (13a).
For me, and certainly for our man-of-the-hour, David Loud, and for many of you in the Kadima community, that brief passage from the Talmud defines the essential calling of our Jewish identities. Certainly, there are lots of other pithy, wonderful formulations about the fundamental mandates of being Jewish — from the prophet Micah’s “do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with your God” to the prophet Abbie Hoffman’s statement that “Jews have to choose early in life whether to go for the bucks or to go for broke” to the prophet Nelly Sachs’ post-Holocaust statement to the human race, “Despite all the horrors past, I believe in you.” Eloquence abounds, but for me, in this era of the tweet and the ten-second sound bite, it is our venerable Talmud, for all of its seventy-whatever volumes of compressed discussion, that deserves pride of place for zeroing in on the Jewish vocation: “Whoever testifies against idolatry is called a Jew.”
Testifying against idolatry: It’s easier said than done. For the idols we confront are not little clay or wooden sculptures, but the streamlined products of multi-billion-dollar industries — and they’re fabulous! People would not love us for pulling the plug on American Idol, which fetches far, far more votes in every season than any presidential contest. Polls are showing that the public is still saying “drill, baby, drill,” in expectation that they’ll be able to drive away from the despoiled shorelines, drive away from the coastal wetlands slaughter, drive away from all Superfund disaster sites, with cheap gasoline in their SUV tanks. No, testifying against idolatry does not make us popular. People want their breast enhancements, damn it!
Beyond our discouragement at what we may read in public opinion polls, it’s also important for us not even to want to build our own version of a theocracy, or a politically correct vegan dictatorship, even if we could. Progressives must know from our own history how moral conscience too quickly becomes moralism; that ideology cannot possibly contain or explain the world’s complexity; that even our most deeply held beliefs about what is good and what is evil, what is natural and unnatural, what is worthy and unworthy, are fueled by our own psychological biases, our own aesthetic preferences, and our own self-interest — and therefore are not altogether to be trusted. The “road to perdition,” as Albert Einstein once put it, “has ever been accompanied by lip service to an ideal.” Therefore we are forced as progressive Jews to keep side-by-side the impossibility of our utopias, and the impossibility of leaving things the way they are.
It is a matter of historical wisdom, not cowardice, for us to restrain our moral certitude. As an affiliate of the Jewish Reconstructionist movement, Kadima might properly be haunted by the Christian Reconstructionist movement, which actually seeks to establish an American Christian theocracy based on “God’s law” — including, according to Church & State magazine, “the death penalty for various offenders, including homosexuals, the ‘unchaste,’ blasphemers, adulterers, witches, those who worship false gods and even ‘incorrigible’ teenagers.”
Oy. dare we even use the word, “idolatry” with such fundamentalists as our neighbors and our doppelgangers?
Yes, we dare. One of the great virtues of the Kadima generation of Jewish activists, and one of the great lessons derived from the teachings of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Jewish Reconstructionism, is that we are unwilling, as progressives, to abandon Jewish religious vocabulary. Whereas many progressives of my parents’ generation would not enter any room in which the names of God were spoken, we have enlarged that list of names and knocked down walls to enlarge the room.
From me, as a card-carrying or, at least, book-publishing atheist, it may be strange to hear an exhortation for us to testify against idols. If I cannot affirm the existence of a true God, how can I wag my finger against false gods? The answer is that there is a common denominator of faith that we do share, as theists and atheists. Very simply, we share a belief in — no, a recognition of — the reality of human interconnection. We share the understanding that human beings stand poised at all times between the magnetic pull of our selfhood, our individualism, our ego, our yetzer hara, or lustful urge — whatever you want to call it, it’s the capitalist system within our hearts —and the spiritual pull of our interconnection, our interdependence, our love for each other — whatever you want to call it, it’s the socialism within our hearts. Whether this “socialist” reality testifies to the existence of God or not is almost beside the point; our least common denominator, as Jews, is our commitment to the cultivation of what Martin Buber, the great socialist Zionist and theologian, described as “the genuine We.”
“We will not persist in existence,” Buber declared, “if we do not learn anew to persist in it as a genuine We.”
So there you have it, Kadima: the true humanistic, socialistic heartbeat of Judaism, the key reality principle of our political world, and an actual measuring rod that we can use to measure and identify idolatry. The embrace of interconnection versus our willful blindness to it: That seems to me to be the fulcrum on which our world, and especially our country, now teeter-totters.
“The genuine We” — I call it a reality principle because it is testified to by the science of genetics, which points back to our shared homeland, Africa, and our shared mitochondrial mother — and to our relatedness, also, with non-human beings of this planet, whom we treat so glibly and shamelessly as objects rather than as beings.
I call “the genuine We” a reality principle because it is testified to by our personal origins, our being mothered, our being parented, our being born through the blending of human beings, our being raised through the efforts of human community.
I call “the genuine We” a reality principle because of the nature of the spirituality that is hardwired into us, our capacity for elevation and meaning and purpose beyond self-aggrandizement, which we access through love, through the arts, through nature, through organizing. That spirituality is, at bottom, a humanistic phenomenon, a surging recognition that we are not alone, that we are part of a larger fabric of living beings. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan put it most brilliantly (in The Future of the American Jew, 1948) when he contrasted “natural selection,” the competition for survival to which the all life is subjected, and what he called “spiritual selection,” which marks our unique capacity, as human beings, “not only to make for the survival of the fittest, but to aim to make the greatest possible number fit to survive.”
The cultivation of “the genuine We” is a central obsession of Judaism. Ours is not a faith of individual salvation through individual belief and individual action; as Judith Plaskow put it in her groundbreaking book, Standing Again at Sinai, in Jewish thought, the individual “is not an isolated unit who attains humanity through independence from others. . . Rather, to be a person is to find oneself from the beginning in community. . . . The conviction that personhood is shaped, nourished and sustained in community is a central assumption that Judaism and feminism share. . . .” Thus in the season of Shavuot, just past, we all stand at Sinai, says the Midrash, all the generations, past and present, and if even one is absent the covenant is withheld.
In the all-important economic realm, too, Judaism subordinates private property to the needs of the larger social network. “The Earth is the Lord’s, and all of its fruits,” says Psalm 24, which the foundational text of Jewish economic philosophy — to remind us of the natural resources, the blessings of sun and water and minerals and flora and fauna that we all share, of the great “commons” that is our planet and from which we derive our wealth: it belongs to none, it belongs to all. And our tradition’s teachings about that wealth are nearly all expressive of the recognition that economic activity is social, that no one creates livelihood without the centuries of education and achievement that preceded us, without the infrastructure that surrounds us, without the culture that informs our every novel invention.
This insight is unpacked and responded to in great detail. We have the Torah tradition of the Jubilee year, which assures that the rising of some families into wealth and the sinking of others into poverty will be curbed through the redistribution of land every half century. Imagine such a system of redistribution in America. We have the everyday tradition of tsedoke, the mandatory redistribution of wealth in the name of justice, which the Talmud calls “equal to all the other commandments.” Imagine that attitude towards taxation in America. We have numerous proclamations of the equal humanity of both rich and poor, and of the whole community’s responsibility for social and economic uplift. Imagine that in our cruel country. We have ancient laws about agricultural land that consistently compromise private property rights to allow for the gathering of wood by all, gleaning of the harvest’s remains by the poor, communal access to water and fishing, and other kinds of sharing in nature’s resources. Other laws ban predatory practices from the marketplace, such as false advertising, windfall profiteering, and worker exploitation. There are laws against armaments sales and other forms of assistance to “perpetrators of evil deeds,” and there are laws that can be readily interpreted in opposition to union-busting, excessive compensation, wholesale layoffs and other forms of corporate abuse. Imagine . . .
With such laws constituting nearly a sixth of the traditional Jewish mitzvot, it is reasonable to see Judaism as, fundamentally, a centuries-long ethical discussion about social democracy: about how we can best live together in community, balancing the realities of our self-interested hearts and our individual urges with the realities of interconnection and interdependence to find that salvational state of “the genuine We.” And if all of this is just too religious for you, we have two and a half centuries of secular Jewish history, activist Jews — like our David Loud and his beloved parents before him — Jews pursuing that balance between self-interest and communal interest in real life, as social activists, union organizers, democratizing capitalists, creative artists, progressive philanthropists. Last year, in Jewish Currents magazine, we did an alphabetical gallery on the cover of such Jews: Abraham Cahan, Bella Abzug, Clara Lemlich, right on through to Walter Benjamin, Yitzhak Rabin, and puppeteer/artist Zuni Maud. “Q” was the only missing letter, so we featured a photograph of a poster: Queer Jews for Peace.
A-Z: You can construct a very full history of the pursuit of the social good just by filling in Jewish names. As Rabbi Leo Baeck, the mourner and survivor of German Jewry, put it in 1949, “We are the sons of the revolution, the daughters of the revolution. We should be aware of it.”
How, then, do we go about cultivating that sensibility of “the genuine We,” especially on a scale beyond our intimate families and communities? Judaism and Jewish identity offer many insights that date back 1,500 years or more. Perhaps most important, our texts seem to understand the role of rakhamim, or rakhmones, in Yiddish — compassion, or mother-love, from the word for “womb” — as the glue of our existence and as an inoculant against our self-destruction. Our tradition teaches the cultivation of rakhmones in order to break the cycle of vengeance, violence, and abuse that is handed down, generation to generation, in the name of self-righteousness. Our tradition teaches that justice without mercy will simply consume the world. That insight is expressed in one of the most peculiar and amazing religious scenes in the Talmud, from the tractate Berachot: “Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha said: Once when I entered into the innermost part [of the Sanctuary] to offer incense, I saw . . . the Lord of hosts, seated upon a high and exalted throne. He said to me, ‘Ishmael, My son, bless Me!’ I replied, ‘May it be Your will that Your mercy subdue Your wrath and Your mercy prevail over Your other attributes, so that You deal with Your children according to the attribute of mercy; and may You, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice!’ And He nodded His head toward me.”
The theme, as you know, is reiterated at Rosh Hashone, the Head of the Year, when the shofar is blown to alert the congregation to the start of the holiday. The shofar symbolically alludes to the biblical in which Abraham is spared from having to ritually murder his son Isaac by the appearance of a sacrificial ram; ever since, says the Talmud, the sounding of the ram’s horn has served to remind the heavens to leaven judgment with compassion — and to remind us, the inventors of these metaphors of heaven, that we need not hand our anger on to the next generation.
Even for animals like that poor ram in the bushes, Jewish texts urge compassion. In one of his less-known stories, titled “Pity for Living Creatures,” the great humanistic Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem describes a sensitive boy who is reviled and assaulted again and again for showing compassion to animals. “Pinye,” he declares to his friend, whose father, a shoykhet, has just slaughtered a rooster, “your father’s a goy . . . because he doesn’t have pity for living creatures.”
Now, compare such teachings about rakhmones, womb-love, with the hard-heartedness that has spread across the American landscape in our time. Contrast the emphasis on rakhmones with the world-record two million-plus people in American prisons, living in grim, dehumanizing conditions — and how our politicians are confident of rising poll numbers if they endorse policies of punishment rather than rehabilitation.
Contrast Jewish teachings about lashon hara, evil and careless speech, with the dehumanizing poisons that are spewed on Fox News and other media outlets each and every day, even while they offer relentless violence and sadism as our entertainment.
Contrast the Jewish relationship to immigration — our lives enabled by the open door, our survival denied by the closed door — with today’s rhetoric, which equates border-crossers with criminals and turns “amnesty” into a dirty word. Contrast that magnificent sonnet by Emma Lazarus, mounted in the base of the Statue of Liberty, the “Mother of Exiles” — ”Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” — contrast that with Arizona ‘s new immigration law.
Contrast the Jewish recognition of the reality principle that wealth is a social product, with the incredible polarization of have’s and have-not’s in our country — with over 13 percent of our people, including 19 percent of children, living under the poverty line and as much as 40 percent of Americans dipping below that line in the course of a decade. Contrast Jewish teachings about the sinful city of Sodom — “the cause of their cruelty,” says Louis Ginzberg in Legends of the Jews, “was their exceeding great wealth. . . . Their laws were calculated to do injury to the poor. The richer a man, the more he was favored before the law” — this in the city that Abraham has to plead with God not to destroy on behalf of the righteous few: Bill Gates, George Soros . . . — contrast this with our worship, in America, of the “lifestyles of the rich and famous.”
Contrast the Jewish emphasis on tsedoke as a path to humanistic consciousness — with the Midrash declaring that “the poor person does more for the householder than the householder does for the poor person”with the punitive attitudes towards poverty in America, which actively promotes indignities so as to deter people from seeking assistance, which refuses to prevent homelessness but waits for disaster to overtake families, which refuses medical, nursing home and other benefits to the elderly until their personal resources are utterly depleted, which means-tests and humiliates before bestowing its tsedoke on its own citizens. Consider how the mythical “welfare queen” is so much more despised than the real-life defense contract who steals billions from the taxpayer.
Contrast the Jewish emphasis on devek, cleaving, in sexual love, which locates the power of human sexuality in its capacity to deepen our perception of one another’s humanity, contrast this with the pornographic image-making of America’s commercial culture.
Contrast the Yiddish story of the Jewish draftee in the tsarist army who fires his gun up into the air time and again instead of aiming at the enemy soldiers. “Over there, over there!” his Cossack captain keeps hollering, until the Jew responds: “But Captain, there are mentshn, human beings, over there!” — contrast this bit of our folk wisdom with the Global War on Terror, the easy resort to warfare, the willing resort to torture and the denial of human rights in the name of national security.
Contrast Judaism’s precautionary principle, s’yag l’torah, building a “fence around the Torah,” which bids us to err on the side of caution when it comes to matters of life, limb and spiritual integrity —contrast this with “drill, baby, drill.” Contrast the Jewish spirit of teshuvah with the American tradition of the lawsuit.
Contrast the Jewish concept of the minyan, of gathering the community before we can proceed with our sanctifications, with the prideful American mystique of “rugged individualism,” which lends an egotistical perspective to every success and every failure, and renders Martin Buber’s concept of “the genuine We” inconceivable or highly subversive.
It is deeply painful to me to see how the abandonment of “the genuine We” and the worship of individualism have become the foundationstones of our idolatrous temple in America. Marc Lilla wrote about this recently in the New York Review of Books, when he described the Tea Party movement as filled with “blanket distrust of institutions and an astonishing—and unwarranted—confidence in the self. They are apocalyptic pessimists about public life,” Lilla continued, “and childlike optimists swaddled in self-esteem when it comes to their own powers.” He calls this “the politics of the libertarian mob. . . anarchistic like the Sixties, selfish like the Eighties,” appealing to “petulant individuals convinced that they can do everything themselves if they are only left alone, and that others are conspiring to keep them from doing just that.”
But we don’t need the extremism of the Tea Party to identify the idolatry of individualism that surrounds us. For thirty or more years, the conservative movement has been seeking, in the words of Grover Norquist, to shrink government to the point where they can “drown it in the bathtub.” The very concept of the government as mediator, as arbitrator, as regulator, as protector — the very concept of the government as a hub of our interconnection — has been demeaned, vilified and all-but-shattered. Meanwhile, the corporate system, with its streamlining technologies, has so streamlined our lives and our culture as to leave us all independent, isolated, and perfectly happy to be so.
Don’t get me wrong: I recognize that the freedom of choice in our lives, including the choice to associate with people or not, is a blessed thing. Individualism was indeed America’s greatest innovation at the time of our nation’s founding: It marked what the historian Gordon S. Woods has called “the radicalism of the American Revolution.” It was on these shores that money became the medium of transaction among people — at least, among white men — which meant that your circumstance of birth, in the serf’s hut or in the lord’s manor, would not necessarily be determinative of your destiny. Capitalism, in its day, was a mighty revolutionary force: Marx and Engels how the force of the marketplace caused “all that is solid” to melt, “all that is holy” to be profaned. I would add that this, too, is part of the progressive portmanteau of the Jewish people, for we were among the pioneers of capitalism, going right back to the Middle Ages. Driven by the enmity of the Church into the theologically despised fields of money-lending and commerce, Jews unwittingly helped lay the foundations for a system that would bring about the end of the Church’s temporal power. We helped make possible the invention of the modern individual.
But “when there is too much of something, something is missing,” says another Yiddish proverb, one of my favorites. Today, our individualism has been inflated into a golem of self-salvation, self-involvement, self-entertainment, and self-satisfaction. We have Netflix as our living room, take-out food as our kitchen, and Facebook as our front porch. We have a government that runs on the fumes of the New Deal while offering the public nothing but scraps from corporate boardroom tables — and we have a public ready to believe that even those meager hand-outs constitute something evil called “socialism.” We have a school system that exposes kindergarteners to tests and competitive pressures as much as to group play and fundamental ethical values. We have SUVs in our driveway and oil spills in our rear-view mirrors. We have a professional, so-called “volunteer” military that we can send with its drones to nations all around the world, while fewer than 25 percent of us even hold passports and would dream of visiting those places. We have free-floating anger and resentment at the very real betrayal of the American dream — the jobs that have migrated to cheaper markets, the houses that have been turned into Wall Street “derivatives” — and we’re on the lookout, with an American eagle-eye, for an “other” to blame.
“When there is too much of something, something is missing.” With the golem of individualism running amok, we are losing our capacity for social response-ability — that is, the ability to respond to the social, to recognize one another as fully human beings. We are losing the ability to subordinate those desires we want to gratify to the needs of the planet. We are losing the ability to stand again at Sinai, the whole lot of us, and respond once again to the call that converted a mass of slaves into a people bonded by ethical law and conscience.
It is only recently that I came upon that quote from Leo Baeck, that “We Jews are sons of the revolution, daughters of the revolution . . .” I do not yet know its context; Wikipedia has its limits. Was Leo Baeck talking about that archetypal revolution of the Hebrew slaves against the Pharaoh, the founding myth of our peoplehood? Was he talking about the French Revolution, which enabled Jews to be individual citizens of the “Hebrew persuasion”? Was he talking about democratizing revolutions of the mid-19th century in Europe, which were repressed and drove leaders of Progressive Judaism to America? Could he have been talking about the Russian Revolution, which did ultimately yield the defeat of Nazism and Leo Baeck’s own liberation from the Theresienstadt concentration camp?
I don’t yet know the answer — but I do know that “the revolution” that is ours to make, as contemporary Jews, is the revolution of “the genuine WE,” the revolution that seeks to redress the imbalance between individual consciousness and collective consciousness, between “natural selection” and “spiritual selection” — our capacity to make the maximum number “fit to survive.”
The revolution that is ours to make is the revolution of social response-ability, the ability to respond to the social, which desperately needs cultivation in our land.
Your community of Kadima has been an important center of that work, with a proud, proud history as one of the founding chapters of New Jewish Agenda, a proud history of thirty-two years of progressive activism, a proud history of the Women’s Torah project, a proud history of Jewish education and community-building. You must not now allow it to disintegrate or fade or succumb to inertia. Likewise, the magazine that I edit, Jewish Currents, which is about to enter its 65th year as a uniquely multigenerational voice of countercultural, progressive Judaism, must not be allowed to follow the way of all print. David’s parents, Oliver and Frances, were life subscribers to Jewish Currents from way back, so I am especially delighted to be rebuilding a bicoastal relationship here, and to welcome so many of you to our subscription rolls.
My dears, I have thrown enough Jewish text and interpretation at you in the past half hour to drive you crazy, whatever part of the Jewish spectrum (or, for that matter, the non-Jewish spectrum) you may hail from. What I have tried to do this evening is offer a little intro and/or refresher course on “Why Be Jewish?” — why express your dissatisfaction with the world-as-is using Jewish idioms and in affirmation of our peoplehood. I know that we all have our hang-ups about Jewish identity, our reasons for participating and our reasons for withdrawing — and we have the good fortune in America for this identity to be, fundamentally, voluntary.
I share in the ambivalence: I have my passport from Jewish identification at the ready each time I hear of an Israeli atrocity and a spirited defense of it by one of our mainstream unelected Jewish leaders; I have my passport at the ready each time I encounter Jewish religious fundamentalism; I have my passport at the ready each time the tribalism of our people turns into chauvinism; I have my passport at the ready whenever the fluid, evolving, and hard-to-pin-down nature of Jewish identity frustrates the ideologue in me. Still, I pursue the work, my life work, really, of cultivating Jewish consciousness as something countercultural, something radical, something that defies what Sigmund Freud called “the compact majority,” and insists on carrying the world up the twin peaks of justice and compassion. I believe the tenacity of Jewish liberalism, especially at the ballot box and in the world of tsedoke, to be a mighty political resource for our country — and I believe that the tenacity of that liberalism gives testimony to the fact that there is a progressive pulse at the core of Jewish thought. It is this pulse — humanistic, engaged with the world, dissatisfied with the status quo, and deeply committed to the cultivation of social consciousness — that keeps me most engaged with Jewish identity and committed to its nurture.
Notwithstanding contrary interpretations or even widespread indifference to the philosophical riches of Judaism, I’m drawn to the view of I.L. Peretz, the other giant of Yiddish humanistic literature, who wrote that Jews who “wish to be true to ourselves” should be asking “vital questions” about “conscience, freedom, culture, ethics.” So I praise you and reach out to you as khaveryim, comrades, who have been, and will continue to be, asking those vital questions. Thank you for giving me the privilege of expressing myself, thank you for listening — and may the circles of those who listen to us all expand and help heal our battered country.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.