Occupying and Judaism
November 4, 2011
Our Executive Director, Dr. Stephen Hazan Arnoff can add musician, sports fan, Bob Dylan enthusiast, scholar and writer among his list of talents. Stephen has his own blog; “Talkin’ Hava Nagilah Blues”, and from time to time we like to re-post from it. Here. Enjoy!
-14th Street Y
Many talented people have shared in the call to Occupy Judaism as part of the global Occupy Wall Street movement. As these efforts stew, some have complained that Occupy Wall Street is not asking for enough or that it is destructive or misdirected or just plain lazy. Occupy Judaism has been critiqued and praised as well.
Like all elements of OWS, a self-defined Jewish iteration of challenge to the cluster of fiscal and political structures that threaten the health and sustainability of the working, thinking, governing, voting, educating, entertaining, and living, breathing core of our society still seeks definition. But even now the questions that these energizing voices raise are vital and exciting.
Reflection on the meaning of traditional Jewish concepts in the bright light of contemporary concerns offers useful perspective for how to understand them. As has been done for millennia, simply parsing a key term of conflict or curiosity using its classical Hebrew meaning and context in relationship with now urges imagination for solving problems.
In this case, midrash on the term “occupy” offers an opportunity to shape a generative, pluralistic Jewish approach to social critique and action that may serve Jewish causes and be useful to the OWS moment as a whole, too.
There are several classical Hebrew terms which might be applied to “occupation.”
One of them is already loaded from its attempted use in defining the conflict over land and autonomy facing Israelis and Palestinians. In the Israeli-Palestinian landscape, the typical translation of “occupy” is kiboosh, which implies violent control of the collective will of the occupied. Such language is not fully useful in the work of OWS, and perhaps not in the Middle East as well.
In considering the flow of Occupy Wall Street thus far – more or less non-violent from the perspective of the protesters and distinct in its primary desire just to be in the space of Zuccotti Park as ideas about what comes next develop – a better term might be range of meanings offered by the Hebrew root s-kh-n, broadly meaning “to dwell.”
As I have noted elsewhere, the Hebrew root s-kh-n is the source for the term mishkan (the traveling Tabernacle in the desert which served as a precursor to the Temple), shekhina (a word for God’s most visceral presence), and shakhen and shakhoona, meaning neighbor or neighborhood, respectively.
Consideration of the multiple meanings derived from the root s-kh-n suggests principals that likely make good social, economic, and cultural sense for shaping some of the core values OWS and its Jewish off-shoot.
First and foremost, mishkan, or Tabernacle, implies that communities need a nexus and a praxis for gathering to do their holy work.
Zuccotti Park is a nexus, a geographical site in the very center of Lower Manhattan where Wall Street mythically and to some extent actually lives, but it only comes alive for OWS because it is animated by praxis: the force of music, words, formal gatherings, informal connection and conversation, religious ceremonies, and more. Furthermore, it is open to and planned by and for the people who have marked it as a kind of sacred space. Nexus is marked by praxis – the doing of meaning in a ritually defined communal space.
People enjoying dynamic, open space for rituals of dialogue and expression feel less alienated, trapped, and angry – even when the issues they face are gigantic. So goes religion when practiced well. Public space charged with generative, peaceful ritual meaning serves as a heart of a society concentrating and dispersing meaning. Like the mishkan in ancient Israel, where any member of the community could have an offering made on its behalf, Zuccotti Park has become a designated communal space for manufacturing and sharing interlocking circles of ritual meaning. This is something every community needs and should aspire to.
Secondly, s-kh-n is the root of shekhina. While this concept has changed its theological meaning over time, shekhina can be understood generally as the emanation or presence of God closest to mundane human experience. Many of my colleagues and friends participated in Jewish ritual work in the park recently in an attempt to suggest the need for an element of divine prescence at OWS. If mishkan or Tabernacle offers a possibility shaped by humans for a nexus and praxis that urges forth meaing, it is shekhina that must become manifest for divine meaning to be felt.
There is a reason why every American politician on nearly any public stage says some version of “God Bless the United States or America” at the close of her or his words. Cynicism aside, there is nothing wrong with wanting to be blessed, with wanting a sense of the holy in the places where we live and work. This is particularly true in moments when our leaders are sharing their hopes and dreams for our lives together. By inviting the divine into communal space as suggested by the shekhina opens the human heart to meaning in the same way that a mishkan opens physical space to meaning.
Finally, the root s-kh-n is the structure from which are derived the words shakhen and shakhoona, meaning neighbor or neighborhood, respectively. Preached on bumperstickers or in union halls and or on the big board at fancy D.C. hotels where planning and plotting to capture states red or blue unfolds, “all politics are local” is an essential democractic principal. This phrase means many things, but in context of the concerns emrging from OWS, we can say that politics are and should be about how we all live in our neighborhoods with our neighbors. Shakhen and shakhoona mean interconnectedness and dependency in a delicate ecosystem. If local or transnational businesses, just like individuals embedded in a vast web of other people and things, addressed our local and global ecosystem more responsibly and fairly – knowing that all the world is our neighborhood now – not only would our world as a whole be far less warped by fiscal, environmental, and cultural disregard, but our local experiences would be more secure, engaged, capitalized, and connected. When a business or person conceives of his or her or itself in isolation, there is no room for mishkan or shekinah. Society unravels because it has no glue. Anger grows. Local and global splinter.
There is nothing simple about the issues addressed by OWS, but close reading of a single ancient concept of how people, place, and the divine are intertwined in a single word shares hints of the possibilities for generative work together. This work carries the chance for vocation and avocation combined – a true occupation of self in partnership with others.