Recession, Rabbis, & Rahm

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow

The Great Recession is eating away at many of our congregations: Lost jobs, failing businesses, collapsed retirement funds lead to congregational deficits, layoffs, endangered mortgages and building funds.

Clergy and religious leaders of all faiths are trying to grapple with this crisis. At this very moment, many rabbis are at work crafting the sermons they will give for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. What I am about to say to and about the rabbis could act as a model or a stimulus to those of other traditions.

Many think the "safest" thing to do in such stressful times is to focus on personal needs: compassion, forgiveness, repentance. But does this exhaust the possibilities? What if we were to take Rahm Emanuel's teaching seriously; : "Never let a serious crisis go to waste. It's an opportunity to do things you couldn't do before."

Perhaps ONE --- at least one?! -- of the four big sermons of the Days of Awe could be about political action to address -

the increasing disemployment;

the insane priorities that are having state governments reduce spending and services at precisely the moment when (a) the services are most urgently needed, and (b) the spending is most crucial, as most economists will affirm, to revive the economy;

the need to remake our crumbling railroads, schools, health systems;

the need especially for GREEN JOBS that will move us out of our fossil-fuel addiction into powerful energy conservation and renewable energy use

Personal compassion is necessary, but no amount of it is going to save our congregations from financial disaster as our members experience financial disaster.

There are too many leaks in the rowboat for us to keep it afloat by fixing one hole at a time. What we need is a whole new rowboat, and that means the whole society pitching in to buy it. The whole society caring enough about each other to buy a whole new rowboat.

That too is compassion. And society-wide repentance.

Why is the health insurance bill being so badly mangled in Congress? Why was the Waxman-Markey climate/ energy bill so eviscerated in the House? Why is there no moratorium on foreclosures, no crackdown on the credit-card companies? Why are the banks the only sector of America that has been flooded with government help?

Because Big Oil, Big Coal, Big Hospital, Big Pharma, Big Insurance, and Big Banking all poured tens of millions of dollars into lobbying Congress during the last six months.

What can we do? We who each month have less money to put into politics than we did the month before?

The low-income Black students in low-class Southern colleges, almost 50 years ago; the poverty-stricken sharecroppers of Mississippi; the garbage workers of Memphis -- they figured out how to change America.

Long ago the ancient rabbis taught that we should read Isaiah's outcry (Chapter 57: 14 to 58:14; see my translation at --- )

as the prophetic passage for the morning of Yom Kippur. Isaiah disrupted the solemn sacred liturgy by walking into the Yom Kippur crowd to make trouble. They were feeling good about themselves because, having fasted, they were feeling bad - hungry, grumpy, thirsty.

He upset the people with his shouted message --- "THE POOR! THE HUNGRY! THE NAKED! THE PRISONERS!" -

The crowd shook their fists at him for shouting over the sweet and soothing chants of the Levites. --- "We are fasting as the Torah teaches," they shouted. And he yelled back: "On the very day you fast, you lift your fist in violence. This is not the fast that God demands!"

How would the disemployed members of your own shul respond to a rabbi who spends Yom Kippur morning on the MEANING, not just the recitation, of the Isaiah haftarah?

 What would happen if your rabbi asked your congregants to join in visiting, en masse, 50 at a time, your Congressmember's home office?

 Nonviolently interrupting the "regular business" to demand action on foreclosures, credit-card debt, green jobs, health care?

 -- Refusing to leave till you got a public pledge?

 Davvening on the doorstep if they wouldn't let you in? Reading Isaiah at the top of your lungs?

 Warning that you would be back every two weeks till Congress acts on those measures?

Would Isaiah leap out of his grave shouting, "That's it, that's it! Hallelu-YAH! Thank God!"

Would the membership, so pressed by anxiety as their jobs and savings vanish, respond with excitement and delight?

Would the synagogue board fire the rabbi overnight? Or thank her/ him?


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