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Social Repentance on 9/11

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You don't have to be Jewish to take advantage of the Jewish custom of repentance at the High Holy Days (Rosh Hashanah begins this year the night of Sept. 22nd and the period of soul searching goes through Yom Kippur on October 2nd). This year every American has plenty of reason to repent-and our society desperately needs time for collective reflection on how we have gotten to where we are and how we might turn things around.

The rise of the Religious Right as a force in American politics has reshaped America's ethical discourse in a particularly disturbing way. Over the course of the past several decades the focus of public attention to "sin" has increasingly narrowed to a discussion of issues related to sexuality and reproduction. The "respectable" news media found a way around its previous self-imposed constraints on discussions of sex and its insistence that it was on higher intellectual grounds than the tabloids that were depleting their market-share by dramatizing the sexual faults of Bill Clinton and other elected officials.

Yet the Bible and common sense teach us that murder, violence, theft, and oppression are equally important, not only on the individual level but on the communal level.

United Nations studies reveal that we live in a world in which one out of every three people on the planet lives on less than $2 a day, and 1.3 billion live on less than $1 a day. The result is that every day between 20 thousand and thirty three thousand children die of illness related to malnutrition and curable disease that could be averted were adequate health care available. That is to say, the day that you read this, approximately 6 to 9 times as many children will before you go to sleep as all the people who died in the World Trade center on 9/11- and they will die because we in the richest country of the world have been unwilling to take the steps necessary to share what we have with them.

This is politely called "institutionalized violence" but it is violence nevertheless.

Of course, we are also involved in the daily violence that has resulted from the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Not only do we pay the taxes that make the war possible, and support the torture system that President Bush has recently reassured us is necessary for homeland security, but we keep on voting for elected officials who support these policies.

We constantly fall for the bizarre notion that the anti-war Congresspeople really provide an alternative, whereas in fact most of them continue to vote for the huge defense budget and for supplemental appropriations to fund the war and to keep our national defense torturers well financed-hedging their bets in case conservatives might challenge them, yet then pretending to be "courageous" for saying that their ought to be a cutoff date for our presence in Iraq but then setting that far in the future.

Al Gore's recent movie alerted many of us to the environmental damage that is quickly leading to global disaster. But far too many of us have been willing to support political leaders who are afraid to seriously challenge the corporate interests that reject the major transformations in the way we organize the global economy that would be necessary to stop this impending disaster. And then there are the 45 million Americans who receive no health care, the millions who are homeless, and so many other manifestations of social injustice.

As a rabbi I've been faced with countless young people who tell me that they want no part in Judaism if, as they constantly hear from sections of the organized Jewish community, the requirement of being a loyal Jew is to support the current policies of the State of Israel. I try to explain to them that this equation of Judaism with support for a particular national state, even a state with a majority of Jews, is pure idolatry and a perversion of Jewish values (there's nothing in our Torah that teaches that loyalty to a particular state, and indeed our prophets central message was that both the nation and the religion were being perverted by the national leaders and religious leaders who had allowed their commitments to the ancient Jewish state to over-ride their commitment to justice, peace and generosity to the powerless).

For saying these ideas I'm sometimes told that I, too, am an enemy of the Jewish people. So it's not only the oppression of the Palestinians and the destruction of Lebanon for which much of the Jewish community, having been cheerleaders for the war this summer, need to atone, but for the discrediting of Judaism in the eyes of its most ethically sensitive youth.

Wouldn't it be amazing if we could use this time period to ask every institution in American society to dedicate ten days to reflection on the degree to which it is currently livng up to its own highest ideals, how far we have "missed the mark" (which is the real meaning of the word translated into English as "sin"),and what we need to do to return to our highest vision and make it real in our lives.

Yes, we also need a personal accounting and look at our own personal roles in participating in a reality that runs counter to our ethical notions. But in a society so focused on personal life, there are institutions like psychotherapy and religious communities that do a good job of helping us do that personal reflection. What we need is a corresponding institution in our collective life-and so many of us in the Jewish world want to invite our neighbors to participate with us in creating a societal-wide process of repentance and transformation.
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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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