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Trayvon Martin: A Jewish Response

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Crossposted from tikkun.org


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The acquittal by jury of Goerge Zimmerman who shot and murdered the unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin was emblematic of the consistent  racism and double standard used in the treatment of minority groups or those deemed "Other" in the U.S. and around the world. Where is there justice in a world in which so many people suffer oppression and in which those who choose to use violence as a way to address and deal with their hatred and fear often seem to triumph?

Jewish theology holds that there is a karmic order, so that evil actions will not always run the world. Justice and compassion are both essential to the survival of the planet.  Unlike many religions that focus on individual sinners and imagine that they will be punished in some future not currently verifiable--for example in a heaven or hell after life, or in a reincarnation in some form that provides rewards or punishments for how one lives in this world, most of Jewish theology sees karma as playing out on a societal scale, and over the long run.

 

There may never be a this-world punishment for George Zimmerman. Murderers and other perpetrators of evil too often get rewarded instead of punished.  James Comey, who played an important role in approving water-boarding and indefinite detention without trial when he served in the Bush Administration, was appointed last week by President Obama to head the FBI.   The Director of National Intelligence James Clapper lied to Congress in denying NSA surveillance of American citizens, but it is Edward Snowden who is now seeking asylum for whistle-blowing and revealing the extent of that lie. Henry Kissinger who played a central role in prolonging the Vietnam war (causing thousands of deaths)  still receives public acclaim. Those bankers and investment brokers who were responsible for the 2008 meltdown of the economy and the loss of homes for millions of Americans received rewards and huge bonuses instead of prison sentences. And corporate leaders who have been responsible for polluting our air, water and land around the planet remain firmly in power while environmentalists are scorned and their message largely ignored by the Obama Administration.


  So where's the justice?

  The answer that emerges from Jewish texts is this: God has created the earth in such a way that it cannot tolerate moral evil forever. There will be a judgment, but it will come to the entire society, not just to the perpetrator of evil. For the Jewish people, the Torah predicts that if we do not establish a just society in the Land of Israel the earth will vomit us out. And for all of humanity, we are taught that if the society is not based on the Torah principles of justice, peace, love for neighbors and love the stranger (the Other) there will be an environmental catastrophe and all human and animal life is potentially at risk of perishing.    The reason we will all suffer for the harmful actions of a few is because we each bear responsibility for doing our part to bring tikkun to the world. So if we sit by in silence when people are suffering, the planet is being destroyed, etc. we are also responsible and will suffer for our inactions. The Torah takes a hard line on this--it calls for us to be bringing the issue of justice and fairness, love and generosity, peace and environmental sanity into every situation we find ourselves--both in the public arena and in our personal lives. We are urged to bring up these issues even when others may feel it inappropriate, when some people will tell us we should "lighten up" and should not always bring "politics" into the discussion, when our friends tell us that they don't' want to hear about things that are depressing. We should talk about them when we go to sleep at night and when we get up in the morning, teach this to our children, and right it upon the door posts of our houses and our gates. Merely complaining to a few friends is NOT enough.

 

It was this theology that allowed the Jews to survive through what might be called righteous self-blaming.  When Jews this week commemorate Tisha B'av, the day of mourning for the various catastrophes that have befallen the Jewish people starting with the exile from our land that occurred after the Babylonians conquered Judea in 586 BCE and after the Romans destroyed the 2nd Temple in 70 C.E. , our prayers proclaimed "because we sinned we were exiled from our land."  This is a form of self-blaming which is actually empowering, because it tells us that we can change our situation through our own actions as a people (not one by one, but together--and building and sustaing that "together" is really a central underlying Jewish concern and a point of much of Jewish practice--not the lone meditator but the community of people together seeking to connect to the spiritual reality of the universe).

 

Jewish theologians have pointed out that in this kind of a world, there is much room for human freedom precisely because God does not jump in and right every wrong. To create humans in God's image, the Transformative Power of the universe (aka God) evolved in humans the freedom to choose how to live, even as that same God gave us a revelation that taught us to love each other and love the Other (the stranger).

 

Yet there is a danger to this kind of freedom: some people can literally "get away with murder." Too many of Hitler's willing executioners, too many of Stalinist Russia's jailers and murderers, too many of those who implemented Western colonialism and imperialism at the cost of massive suffering in the "underdeveloped" world, too many of those who have abused and exploited in every society, remain powerful and live relatively happy and contented lives while their victims go to the grave without ever having been compensated and their suffering has sometimes even scarred future generations. And every day the capitalist marketplace's values seep deeper into the collective consciousness and unconsciousness of much of the human race alive in the 2nd decade of the 21st century (in Jewish calculations, the year is 5773). 

 

The highest value of the capitalist marketplace is individual freedom (to consume whatever they want whenever they want and without regard to the social consequence sof what is being produced or consumed. Try to impose restrictions on guns in the name of public safety, and you find yourself surrounded by people who, having imbibed the capitalist notion that the good life is that with the most possessions, that safety comes from domination over others, and that the state must never play a role in restricting individual freedom, inist that there be no limit on the  proliferation of guns and weapons, limits that might have kept George Zimmerman from parading around with guns to use on strangers.  A central command of Torah--to love the stranger (the Other) has been wiped out of the collective memory of a society which in other respects (e.g. on abortion or gay rights) often seems to be checking its bible for guidance. So I have to mourn for a society that perpetuates hatred, that created the George Zimmerman and the other George Zimmerman's in the world.  Or that created George White, the African American man in NY who was convicted of murdering a white teenage boy - a black man who grew up in the lynchings of the South and had a genuine reason to fear for his safety (even if he had other options for how to respond in the situation) and was likely having a flashback at the time but was recently convicted of murder.  All this violence, all this fear--and so we need so much more love, compassion, and generosity to heal all the distortions that keep generating so much suffering.

 

 

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tikkun.org
Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun and national chair of the Tikkun Community/ Network of Spiritual Progressives. People are invited to subscribe to Tikkun magazine or join the interfaith organization the Network of Spiritual Progressives-- "both of which can be done by (more...)
 

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