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"BHC is a vibrant, caring community that warmly welcomes, embraces and engages..."

- Martha Weiman

Kol Nidre, October 7, 2011

No Economic Messiah

©Rabbi Andrew Busch
October 7, 2011
Baltimore Hebrew Congregation
“No Econmic Messiah”

“Depressing” that is one word for it.  Others are “scary,” “nerve-racking,” and even “brutal.”  Our ongoing economic situation causes sleepless nights, as so many of us fear for our home values, job security, or children’s education.  The so-called Great Recession takes its toll on our confidence, our optimism, maybe even our families, as we have real concerns regarding our retirement and our future.  Unemployment and under-employment may feel like nothing compared to those who have slipped out of the reported figures, because they have despaired of finding a job at all.  BHC’s Executive Director, Jo Ann Windman, sadly and respectfully, regularly fields calls from BHC congregants who have lost their jobs, but deeply want to remain part of the community.  She answers, “Absolutely.”  Others have come to speak with Rabbi Sachs-Kohen or me.  It is often our first real conversation.  They tell me of their fears that their business may not survive and they are not sure what their next step should be.  I am not an employment or financial advisor, but it is my humble honor on behalf of our congregation, to provide a shoulder and a caring ear.  These are difficult conversations.  First for the embarrassed individual, who needs to open the conversation.  Second, for Jo Ann or me, who feel deeply for the loss and fear of those speaking with us.  As a congregation, we have done our best to enable congregants to remain within BHC.  Additionally, we have done our best to support them emotionally and spiritually, even while our ability to truly provide for financial needs is limited.  I guess “depressing” would be the correct word for our situation, but, of course, economists tell us that we are facing a recession, not a depression.   However, one BHC congregant reminded me of the old joke: “When you lose your job, it’s a recession.  When I lose my job, it’s a depression.”  For many of us, maybe most of us, this economic turndown has hit very close to home.
It is draining to hear the real economic challenges of our members.  It is also painful to read reports of the bigger picture.  The Wall Street Journal captured some of that pain when reporting on a recent U.S. Census report, stating:

“The income of the typical American family—long the envy of much of the world—has dropped for the third year in a row and is now roughly where it was in 1996 when adjusted for inflation….  The income of a household considered to be at the statistical middle fell 2.3% to an inflation-adjusted $49,445, which is 7.1% below its 1999 peak…. The fraction of Americans living in poverty clicked up to 15.1% of the population, and 22% of children are now living below the poverty line, the biggest percentage since 1993.”  (Conor Dougherty, “Income Slides to 1996 Levels”, September 14, 2011)

That same article criticized the methodology of the Census Bureau’s collection and evaluation of statistics, and yet recognized the losses of the last three years for so many Americans.   Regardless of our political viewpoints or earning power, we have all been made keenly aware of the struggles of American wage-earners, business owners, and families.  These have not been good years for the U.S. economy or for any of us trying to cope with it.  Between the individual accounts and the national statistics lies information brought to light by last year’s Baltimore Jewish Community Survey. Consider how the recession has hit many of the most vulnerable in our own community.  According to the survey:

5200 local Jewish families are living below 200% of the federal poverty level, a far more realistic standard itself.  That is 12% of our community.  20% of those Jewish seniors who are living alone are surviving below 200% of the federal poverty level.  64% of single parents feel like they are just managing financially or worse.  That is 1200 single parent households out of a total of 2000.  Additionally, 35% of married respondents with children report the same sense, which is another 3900 families out of 11,300 total.  18% of respondents felt negatively impacted by the economic downturn, judging by at least two concrete indicators, such as losing a job or suffering a reduction in income.  These families will take years to recover their standing. (http://associated.org/local_includes/downloads/46885.pdf)

These figures are high enough to have all of us nervous and alert, not just those hit most directly by the recession.  The polls confirm such a view.  Americans are paying attention to the economy.  This past week, the Pew Research Center reported that:

With global stock markets fluctuating dramatically and no sign of improvement on the jobs front at home, more than four-in-ten (44%) [of those polled] say they followed news about the condition of the U.S. economy very closely last week.  That’s little changed from recent weeks. Interest is comparable among different partisan groups, income levels and regions of the country.  (http://people-press.org/2011/09/28/economy-again-top-story-for-public-and-news-media/)

Those statistics show us paying far more attention to the economy than we are to any other current major story, including the situation in Israel, capital punishment, or the elections.   We are wondering about the financial situation.  We are concerned about our children’s and our own futures.

At first glance, these statistics might seem quite distant from our Yom Kippur prayers.  Yet, our well-being and our future are at the very core of our worship this day.  Consider our words: “Avinu Malkeinu, let the gates of heaven be open to our plea.”(Gates of Repentance, p.280) or “Then shall we be at peace, O God, whose peaceful shelter we seek through all the days and nights of our lives.” (p.258). No, our prayers are not that God should direct us to tax shelters or that God directly answer our job applications.  The very nature of Jewish prayer is that we pray for strength, patience, and wisdom to deal with the world around us.  We may say: “…inscribe us for blessing in the Book of Life,” (p.281) but we don’t expect that our financial fate will truly be determined on this day.  Rather, we hope that we will be blessed on this day, as the balance of our prayers reminds us to live up to our obligations and to act according to our highest values.  Yom Kippur’s message regarding our economic straights should be read as speaking to our need to be strong and patient for own sake and to be compassionate and patient for the sake of others.  We do not pray for a supernatural solution to our recession.  Our theology should remind us not to expect that any one leader will solve our problems for us.  Our prayers may seek to open us up to a possible, messianic future, but our worship is simultaneously grounded in the events of the present.  

The language of policy pundits and political debate often borrows from that of religion. So, I was amused when a read a headline on Foxnews.com stating: “Hope Fades for the Messiah on the… [New York Times] Opinion Page.”  (http://nation.foxnews.com/president-obama/2011/09/20/hope-fades-messiah-nyt-opinion-page#ixzz1Za6M5ptL)  The website was discussing a column by David Brooks regarding President Obama.  Fair enough, such discussions draw from many sources in trying to get attention and build an argument.  However, as individuals and a community, we should be quite clear about the difference between policy and theology.  We should acknowledge that Yom Kippur is not a day lost in messianic ponderings.  Despite the grand images of the night, we are truly grounded in the reality of the moment.  Let us no overvalue any one critique or proposal.  Let us consider the Reform Jewish understanding of the Messiah and, thus, avoid being drawn into over-emphasizing the possibilities of any one individual in any setting, be it politics, economics, or religion.

Despite the desire to see the arrival of the Messiah, Judaism has historically been quite nervous about identifying that actual Messiah.  This cynicism was present long before 19th Century Reform Judaism articulated a view eager for a messianic age, but not a personal Messiah.  Jews were far too aware of the pitfalls of our having declared the Messiah to be Bar Kochba in the 2nd Century or Shabbati Zvi in the 17th Century.  The fool-hardy risks of counting the days towards the Messiah find themselves as fodder for stories, even about the most grounded of Rabbinic figures, such as the 18th Century Vilna Gaon.  As the story goes,

Every now and then, the great Rabbi Elijah, the Vilna Gaon, would feel the need to perform acts of repentance.  To do this, he wanted to blend in with the people.  So he would wander forth, dressed as a poor man, carrying a beggar’s bag and stick.  One time, the Vilna Gaon felt he had wandered long enough.  He began to walk back towards Vilna.  He was exhausted from his physical and spiritual journey.  At last, a peasant passed in a wagon and gave him a lift back towards Vilna.  The peasant was tired as well, and, rudely, asked the Vilna Gaon to steer the horse and wagon.  The peasant crawled into the back of the wagon and went to sleep.  As the wagon reached Vilna, the Jews who saw him were stunned.  They all recognized the Vilna Gaon, but, here he was, dressed in rags, and driving a peasant’s wagon.  One Jew ran into the street, saw the sight, and started shouting: “The Messiah is coming. The Messiah is coming.”  Everyone poured out of their homes and shops to see the sight.  They asked the man: “Where is the Messiah?”  He replied: “Look.  That is the Vilna Gaon, dressed as a beggar, driving a wagon.  Who could be the worthy passenger to arrive in such a fashion?  It must be the Messiah!”(adapted from A Treasury of Jewish Folklore, edited Nathan Ausubel, p.215-6)

There is no way that the ignorant, bigoted peasant with the wagon was actually the Messiah, just as there is no real way that any one political figure or any one party will be our savior.  If theologically, we are developed enough to not be waiting for any one person to save us, we should be savvy enough to expect that it will take many hands working together on the policy front.  Our knowledge must be broad and our interest sustained.  We shouldn’t only be concerned with our own individual welfare, but recognize that our futures are tied with all those in our society.  In 2011, it may mean that we are linked to the entire world.  Thus, we need to be among the 44% of Americans who now follow the financial news.  We need to understand the issues, as best we can, and we need to grapple with the information, best we can.  Even if we can’t fully grasp the whole picture and knowing that we will not be the key individuals to steer our financial ship towards safer waters, we do have a role to play.  We should be steadfast in our refusal to give in to those who claim any one person is the problem or that any one leader has the solution.  Our theology should inform our economics.  

In the spring, BHC will be bringing one of the most important contemporary Jewish scholars to Baltimore, thanks to a grant from the Hoffberger Foundation.  Daniel Matt, formerly of the Graduate Theological Union, is a scholar of Kabbalah, whose writings reach beyond just mysticism.  On Mother’s Day weekend, we will learn together with him.  

This evening, let me share Daniel Matt’s coherent explanation of how we might understand the possibility of a Messiah:
“No single person—past, present, or future—is the Messiah.  But we can help shape a messianic figure by realizing that each of us is one limb of the organism of humanity.  The kabbalist Abraham Abulafia saw the messianic age as a “new reality,” a time when “each person regards every single human being as a close friend, as one regards each limb of one’s body.” (God & the Big Bang, p.167)

Now, Matt is not a Reform Jew, per se.  However, his statement of messianic thought beautifully captures for me a Reform Jewish understanding of messianic possibilities.  He continues:

“Perhaps, through our work of tikkun, through ethical and spiritual activity, we are fashioning Messiah, bit by bit.  This kabbalistic perspective resonates with one of Franz Kafka’s paradoxical sayings: ‘The Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary; he will come only the day after his arrival.’  The world is redeemed by justice, by transformative human action.  A supernatural Messiah is unnecessary, mere icing on the cake.
Supernatural messiahs and predictions of a messianic age captivate the imagination because the world is so unfair and history so fickle.  Most messianic scenarios spell the end of history in which everything will finally be set right.  When the Messiah arrives, it is told, good will triumph and evil will be vanquished.  That would be nice, but it’s not how things work and we shouldn’t fool ourselves.  The world will never be perfect; society will never be completely just.”(Matt, p.168)

Daniel Matt is not an economist, but his field can teach us patience, strength and compassion when it comes to our recession.  Citizens are feeling the impact of those flawed economy, national and locally.  Such pain, the world being “unfair” and “fickle” is why individuals seek out messianic figures.  I appreciate Matt’s clarity in stating that our lives “will never be perfect” or “completely just.”  When I discuss a future messianic age, I try to remember to state that we Reform Jews don’t necessary look forward to a perfect messianic age.  Rather, I think most of us hope for a near perfect time, or at least a better time. We don’t have the power to perfect our world, but we are not powerless.  The 13th Century Abulafia’s image allows us to see ourselves as part of a larger whole.  We have the ability to solve huge problems and to draw ourselves ever closer to that better world.

Our Yom Kippur worship does not include direct hopes for the solution to our recession, but it does include prayers that this year should be a good one for all.  Kol Nidre should not be read as a prayer calling for the modification of under-water mortgages, but the words we speak this day should remind us that truly productive actions are possible in our world.  We review our short-comings during the past year, because we know that we are capable of doing better.  
We are blessed to live in a country that, while flawed, has great capacity for cooperative and productive action.  We should expect that of our leaders, those currently elected and those running for office.

As I have mentioned, Jewish tradition would seem to call for strength, compassion, and patience as we try to address the financial challenges of this extended moment.  Strength doesn’t only mean asserting our own positions, but it may also require reaching out to build workable solutions.  Compassion doesn’t only mean giving out money to those in need, but it also means balancing our financial system as a whole and trying to make it solvent for the good of all.  Patience doesn’t mean only that one should realize that solutions cannot be immediate, but that time must be used wisely and policies must be built calmly and consistently.
Please don’t take my words to mean that we as individuals have no responsibility, since our country’s main issues need to be addressed on the grand stages of policy and finance.  We have clear stakes and responsibilities in these matters.  It is up to us to voice our views to our elected officials, but in a way that is compassionate and patient.  It is our obligation to show strength in the face of what will be a long and complicated struggle to address the financial woes of the United States.  Similarly, as individuals and as a community, we must continue to reach out to offer support to those who have been hit hardest by this recession.  This obligation does not mean that we must provide for all their needs, but rather that we must be understanding and supportive.  Let another story from Vilna remind us that our obligations are real, but must approached realistically.

“The twentieth-century Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky…recalled that when he moved as a young man to…Vilna, he asked [the great] Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, “Since there are so many beggars outside the synagogue, am I obligated to give to each one?”  Rabbi Chaim…told him: “When I lived in a small town before I came to Vilna, I was very scrupulous to greet every person I met in the street cheerfully.  But since I came to Vilna, I stopped this practice, because in such a big city, it’s impossible to great everyone.  The same applies to tzedaka.  In a big city, you simply cannot [afford to] give to everyone.”(A Code of Jewish Ethics, Vol II, edited by Joseph Telushkin,p.235)

The great modern sage was not suggesting that we can ignore those in need.  Certainly, he would demand that we be civil in our behavior and our generous in our tzedakah.  BHC, its staff, and leaders have tried to be both warm and compassionate during difficult years.  That rabbi was teaching of the limitations that individuals face trying to address great modern social issues.  Let us remember our Reform theology.  We do not assume that a Messiah will come and solve all of our problems.  We accept that we must work together as a community and as a society to address those very problems.  However, at the same time, we must remember that we pray alongside our neighbors who suffer real pain and have real needs.  Even as we acknowledge our limitations, may we respect their dignity and attempt to address their needs.  Avinu Malkeinu, please fill our hands with blessing.  Ken Yehi Ratzon.  May it be God’s will.

©Rabbi Andrew Busch
October 7, 2011
Baltimore Hebrew Congregation