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Does it help you to know that the Talmud says in Olam Ha Ba, The World to Come (the Afterlife), God corrects the injustices of this upside-down world?


It helps me a little bit because it confirms that whether a criminal act is discovered or prosecuted, it is still wrong. I like the idea that there might be universal human standards or values about what ethical behavior looks like – despite variations in cultures across the planet.

Jewish ideals are one aspect of my “God.” Whether one believes in a Supreme Being or an Afterlife, there is a Jewish way of looking at the world that transcends time and politics. Religion and politics don’t mix well, because, as the saying goes, “If you lie down with pigs, you’re going to get up smelling like shit.” In my opinion, while we might wish religion could inform government, the best religious impulses will tend to be corrupted by government. I have a hard time talking about politics in a spiritual context.

Although theoretically in God’s court, all are judged by the same standards, in our so-called justice system, wealth and status allow criminal behavior to go unexamined and unpunished, while the poor may do prison time even if they are innocent.

…the elite’s exemption from the rule of law has been strengthened at exactly the same time that the law has become an increasingly draconian instrument of punishment for the rest of Americans – particularly the poor and racial minorities. Not only does the law fail to equalize the playing field; it perpetuates and even generates tremendous social inequality….we end the “nightmare”of high-level criminality by sweeping it under the rug, protecting the wrongdoers, and pretending their crimes never happened.

-from With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful, by Glenn Greenwald

You are probably wondering what this has to do with this week’s parasha. We find in our story that the Israelites are constructing the Mishkan (their portable temple) according to specifications God provides, which are detailed enough to serve as a construction contract. This interior design portion of the Torah informs us that God prefers a color scheme of sky blue and crimson, likes wood and precious metals for interior finishes, and enjoys linen and leather furnishings. He also appreciates a nice cherub motif. (The Haftarah describes Solomon’s construction of the First Temple, which replaces the Mishkan, and also serves as an Earthly dwelling for God.) The symbolism of these materials has been explored by rabbis over the centuries – the gold on the inside might represent the spiritual light within each person, for example.

The portability of the Mishkan means that the Israelites can shelter and protect the Divine Presence wherever they may go. The concept of portability has extended past the destruction of the Second Temple into the present, where we create space to receive the Shechinah (the indwelling presence of God, also known as “the Sabbath bride” or “feminine” aspect of God) not only in our homes and places of worship, but more significantly, within ourselves through our actions.

Being good, decent people brings God into our midst. We do not need a High Priest to say God’s name secretly once a year for us. By doing good, studying and transmitting Torah to our children (and ourselves), by taking time off for Shabbat, being good parents, being good spouses, being good friends and doing ahavath chesed (acts of loving kindness) we build our own spiritual Mishkan over ourselves for God to dwell with us. This is the basis of the religion of Judaism as formulated by our rabbis in our Talmud and other texts.

-from A Spiritual and Ethical Compendium to the Torah and Talmud by Rabbi Arthur Segal.

Ideally, religious engagement provides a refuge from the insanity of the world, and inspiration to live a higher quality of life – so that even when our leaders fail as role models, we don’t take their misdeeds as permission to also behave like scumbags. We don’t think committing a felony is OK because “everyone else is doing it.” We don’t allow them to cheapen our values or to contaminate our attitudes. We can be better than the members of the American Nobility, better than the owners of corporations that collude with them in breaking the law. As Paul Simon writes in the song Loves me Like a Rock, when the Devil calls his name, he says “Who do you think you’re fooling?” because he remembers that his mother loves him, so he never thinks of giving in to pressure to be sleazy; he knows who he is, and stays centered.

How do you engage politically without feeling sullied by the process, without feeling yourself being dragged down by bickering and infighting and underhanded tactics? How do you contribute to social justice without “fighting dirty,” without lashon ha ra (casting aspersions), or giving in to the kind of self-righteousness that might block you from examining your own shortcomings? Can you focus on your ideals without becoming smug?

I often feel so turned off by the political arena that I ignore it. I try to block it out of my mind. I hate to go to political gatherings. The news makes me want to vomit. It is a struggle for me to mix concern about what kind of society we live in with “activism” that might help to change things. It feels insurmountable. My reaction is not driven by indifference or even apathy, but by revulsion. Those who have contributed to social gains appear to have been able to ignore the fact that, like Sysiphus, they will be pushing a boulder uphill for eternity. And they are somehow strong enough that they didn’t need to protect themselves the way I feel I need to protect myself from conflict and status wars. Or maybe they simply haven't had that luxury.

As Mary Oliver writes in the poem Her Grave, “Does the bear wandering in the autumn up the side of the hill think all by herself she has imagined the refuge and the refreshment of her long slumber?...Does the water snake with his backbone of diamonds think the black tunnel on the bank of the pond is a palace of his own making?” I believe our better impulses are “God-given” – they are hard-wired, no measure of special merit on our part, although we have a choice about whether to listen to the better inclinations.

So that is why I ask.

Shabbat shalom.

Originally posted to Elders of Zion on Fri Feb 24, 2012 at 02:25 PM PST.

Also republished by Street Prophets and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  are you suggesting that (5+ / 0-)

    Jewish ideals allow one to be engaged in politics, even the really ugly stuff, or has your own experience led you to the decision that the two are not reconcilable?

    Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds. --Elie Wiesel

    by a gilas girl on Fri Feb 24, 2012 at 03:28:48 PM PST

  •  I took the liberty (7+ / 0-)

    of quoting from your excellent diary in a comment to another diary today.  Someone had suggested that Christian fundamentalists should really be called "Pharisees", and I'm getting kinda tired of the way that word gets thrown around. Thanks for providing a perfect illustration of values, handed down from the Pharisees' times, that progressive Democrats would applaud.

    •  We Jews are the descendents of the Pharisees (3+ / 0-)

      I wish the Christians who blast Pharisees would realize that.

    •  it would also be nice (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      AaronInSanDiego, word is bond

      if the Christians would realize that Jesus was a Pharisee. This is clear from what he taught. You may find this article interesting:




      I am one of these transdenominational Rabbis that looks at the Christian bible in many parts as cliff notes to our Talmud and Torah, except no one is  giving credit to the sages as rabbis are supposed to do. (E.g: In teaching, a rabbi respectful of his teachers, would say: ''Let your Yes be Yes and your No be No, as Rabbi Abaye taught." ( Matthew 5:34-37)). The Torah teaches us this more than 100 times over by repeating, ''V'YeDabar Adonai al Moshe L'Amor...God spoke to Moses, saying:'' We see this over and over in the Talmud, when a rabbi teaches : ''Rabbi Dostai ben Yannai said in the name of Rabbi Meir.''

      So while they are not mentioned by name, our Talmudic sages are mentioned by their words. So I have no problem seeing Rabbi Gamliel mentioned in Acts, or frankly Rabbi Y'shua, Rabbi Saul, and the whole rest of Jewish folk whose names are mentioned, but in a non-Evrit manner. (Mary for Miriam, for example).

      Note that the Traditionally the Oral Law, the Talmud {Mishna and its Gemora} , is as old as the Written Law, the Torah, 1300 B.C.E, but in reality, was begun circa 586 B.C.E. in Babylonian captivity. It predates the time of Rabbi Y'shua and his Talmudim by circa 600 years.

      Some of the name examples of the Christian bible as a cliff note for the Talmud are:

      Mark 2:27: The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.
      Talmud: Yoma 85b: Rabbi Jonathan ben Joseph said: For it is holy unto you; I.e., it [the Sabbath] is committed to your hands, not you to its hands.
      Matthew 25:45: Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, In as much as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.
      Tosefta Sh'vuot, ch. 3 :One who betrays his fellow, it is as if he has betrayed God.

      Matthew 5:21-22: Insulting someone is like murder.
      Talmud: Bava Mezia 58b: He who publicly shames his neighbor   is as though he shed blood.

  •  An offering (4+ / 0-)

    I so wish that politicians and politically engaged individuals would absorb and apply the beautiful lessons in this diary.

    Cats are better than therapy.

    by Smoh on Sat Feb 25, 2012 at 05:56:34 AM PST

  •  Beautifully written diary..... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    dakinishir, Navy Vet Terp

    Thank you for a beautifully written and immensly moving diary.

  •  Shabbat shalom and yasher koach, (2+ / 0-)

    bluebird of happiness.

    I had the privilege of leyning a bit of the interior design portion of the parsha today. While studying, I use Everett Fox's really excellent translation. He translates "keruvim" as sphinxes, instead of cherubs, because Renaissance art transformed the rather fierce angelic forces into chubby cheek-ed cuties. I appreciated this insight. Fierce angels make more sense to me.

    I'll leave the political thought out for today.

    Good Shabbes~

    Be kind. It matters.

    by dakinishir on Sat Feb 25, 2012 at 12:36:08 PM PST

  •  The inequality of justice (2+ / 0-)

    My favorite quote, Anatole France 1894:

    La majestueuse égalité des lois, qui interdit au riche comme au pauvre de coucher sous les ponts, de mendier dans les rues et de voler du pain.

    The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.

    "We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals, now we know that it is bad economics." Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jan. 20, 1937

    by Navy Vet Terp on Sat Feb 25, 2012 at 03:53:27 PM PST

  •  In the Jewish court system (0+ / 0-)

    even MORE offenses would go unpunished than in our secular society. It is assumed that God will take care of the injustices.

    •  not sure what you're saying (0+ / 0-)

      I am talking about equality under the law, and the hope that everyone would be equally responsible for his or her own behavior. I'm not advocating punishment as a solution to bad behavior - because there are better ways to respond to crime. I am not a "law and order," throw-away-the-key type of person. Jewish values favor concepts like reparations and healing. I'm not advocating a Jewish court system.

      If God takes care of the injustices, then what is our individual response to injustice supposed to be? Do we simply stay home and mind our own manners? That's what I am asking. Liberal values say we should seek out injustice and work to change it through political activism. Do we or don't we?

      •  This former Deputy DA needs to respond (0+ / 0-)

        When I had that job, the governor announced that the prisons were overcrowded and so no non-violent offender could be sent to prison without trying everything else first.  

        Most of our crimes were burglaries.  The burglars were generally nice young men who didn't own guns and who wouldn't physically hurt a fly, although they would steal you blind.  Before age 18 they were already committing burglaries but at age 18 they graduated from juvenile court into adult court and they faced the penal system for real.  But with the governor's decree, we couldn't send them to prison for a first offense as an adult.  

        So here is what we would do:

        First offense:  Probation before conviction.  Within weeks, they would be caught burglaring again, or perhaps stealing a car, so -

        Second offense:  Conviction, then probation, and, a few weeks later, guess what, so -

        Third offense:  Revocation of probation, sentence to a half way house.  Within a few weeks, they were AWOL from the half way house, or have a serious infraction, or burgle or steal a car again, so -

        Fourth offense:  Off to prison.

        All this would occur over just a few months.  And I saw it many dozens of times.  And every time I knew in advance what would happen.

        As to violent criminals, my position was, without exception, incarceration in prison.  Society must be protected.  These people were dangerous.  We had a guy commit a double murder of an elderly couple the day after he was released from prison.

        Unfortunately, there is no alternative to prisons for violent and habitual non-violent criminals.

        "We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals, now we know that it is bad economics." Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jan. 20, 1937

        by Navy Vet Terp on Sun Feb 26, 2012 at 01:27:13 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  That is interesting (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Navy Vet Terp

          but even so, does not answer my question, which is about political activism.


          As for these "non-violent" thieves, I often wonder about the circumstances that encourage stealing as a lifestyle. Not saying they aren't responsible for that choice (I'm broke, but I don't steal) but how is probation or living in a halfway house supposed to change their value systems or underlying reasons why they are doing these crimes? Are they doing them because they can't get real jobs? Are they doing them because they don't appreciate the impact on their victims? Are they stealing because they feel a sense of entitlement? Are they stealing to obtain drug money to support a habit? Does anyone ask why?

          Does prison change anyone? Arguably only for the worse. The prison system is of concern when prisons are privatized, because then there is more incentive to put people there to provide cheap labor and/or to make a profit. That's an obvious conflict of interest.

          Before I could say what to do about crime, I would need to know what causes crime, what motivates it, and whether there are basic facets of society that could be changed to discourage it. If prison worked as a deterrent, there would not be so much recidivism. Obviously it doesn't work - even if it keeps those incarcerated away from everyone else. But there are always more people around to commit crime - no shortage - so it seems to have only a superficial effect.

          But that is not the point, either. The point is that people who knowingly commit crimes, no matter how wealthy or powerful, should face the same consequences as everyone else. If a president commits a felony, he should be treated like a felon. Otherwise, the law has no meaning beyond working as a tool of class oppression.

          (Do I sound like a radical?)

          •  Actually, I do agree with everything you say (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            bluebird of happiness

            And it is a national outrage that these Wall Street crooks who were largely responsible for the recession have not been investigated to see what criminal statutes they may have broken.

            The problem is that when someone is all grown up it's a bit late to try to figure out what caused this person to commit crimes - society has to be protected and we can't have people running lose commiting violent crimes against innocent people.  I agree that prisons may not cure anyone of antisocial behavior, but at least the criminals are not committing crimes against innocent people while they are behind bars.

            I prosecuted a police officer for kidnapping and holding his ex-wife and other co-workers hostage at gun point, and I thought it was very unfair and inequitable when the judge refused to send him to prison.  I thought the same way about a woman who committed armed robbery of a liquor store - any man would have gone to prison but the judge didn't believe in sending women to prison.

            And shortly before I left that job they opened up a private jail - a pork plant where they taught the inmates how to kill the pigs and cut the meat and package it for frozen shipment.  The pork plant had shut down putting over 80 employees out of work, likely because they had voted to join a union.   Then after a few months they reopened it as a private jail.  The judges were strongly encouraged to send the more minor offenders to work at the pork plant and on my last sentencing days one after another were so sentenced.  This was over the strong opposition of the AFL-CIO and my boss, a Republican, but to no avail.

            I didn't vote for our former governor, Robert "Bob" Ehrlich, a conservative Republican, but I gave him credit for championing in-prison training and GED and other educational programs.  He testified to Congress for more funding for this.  His point - almost all prisoners will leave prison sooner or later and they must be given some option other than to resume their criminal activities.

            "We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals, now we know that it is bad economics." Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jan. 20, 1937

            by Navy Vet Terp on Sun Feb 26, 2012 at 02:32:35 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  it's frustrating (2+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              ramara, Navy Vet Terp

              The theme of Greenwald's book is the two-tiered justice system. He begins with the pardon of Nixon by Ford, and continues forward through the Iran-Contra scandal, the Bush admin's warrantless spying through illegal release of information by the telecoms, torture & rendition, Valerie Plame, etc. Interesting book but appalling to see all the facts laid out from one end to the other - which otherwise would turn into the Outrage Du Jour and fade from the public eye when the media moves on to the next topic. As if these events take place in a vacuum. Crimes committing by government officials in the name of "national security" - raise the issue of covert operations and what a lack of transparency means for the average citizen.

              I almost wish no one would be sent to prison if CEOs can buy retroactive immunity and presidents can pardon all manner of bullshit for their friends, the rich can pressure Congress into changing the laws to allow them to do whatever rotten thing they dream up next. Greenwald finds plenty of evidence to support his claim that aristocrats remain blameless because they are aristocrats - it's not what you do, but who you are that makes the difference. Although I'm sure this has always been the case, he seems to believe it's getting worse. I'm skeptical. I think it's always been that bad, we just didn't hear about it as much.

              The police dept in Seattle was investigated by the DOJ following the killing of a Native American woodcarver who was stopped by an officer because he was walking down the street drunk and carrying a whittling knife. If you happen to have seen the police video cam footage, it is clear that the officer aggressively approached the man and gave minimal warning before shooting him, not once, but four times. The cop got fired but wasn't prosecuted. A news station is currently suing the SPD for having "lost" literally thousands of police videos that might exonerate people who say they were falsely arrested and brutalized by the cops. I've seen people in my neighborhood stopped and searched for apparently "walking while black." Who knows? It pisses me off that people who should be more responsible literally can get away with murder.

              Prisons ideally would provide job training, healthcare, psychotherapy or psychiatric services, education, community, and nutritious food (which can have a huge impact on overall mental functioning and behavior.) It would be nice if "rehabilitation" were possible, and it might be if it were a priority. I hate the idea of throwing people away because it's "too late" for them. What a waste.

              If we can't get decent schools or healthcare for people who don't break the law, because low-income people are viewed as inherently undeserving and inferior, there's no reason to expect better from the prison system.  What is so stupid about that is the denial of the obvious - no one can be wealthy if others are not poor, by definition. ALL wealth is acquired on the backs of others. Even right-wingers use the highways.

              The tendency to construct social hierarchies appears to be hard-wired in human beings, but that doesn't make it right. Even if we assume hierarchies are OK if established for the "right" reasons, who gets to say what those might be? How can humanity be so stupid and short-sighted, yet also capable of brilliance?

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