The Spiritual Practice of Politics

Rabbi Jonathan Omer-man

The Spiritual Practice of Politics

By Jonathan Omer-man

I learned from a teacher in Jerusalem, someone who was both kabbalistically educated and a political scientist, that "peace is the ongoing process of nonviolent resolution of inevitable conflict," and that Shalom can only exist when the opponent is regarded as part of the system, not outside it.

There can be no peace when the other is not respected and known with understanding and, if possible, compassion.

Some of us translate this understanding into a disdain of politics as merely and inevitably "left bashing right, or right bashing left." But for me, politics in its nobler forms is a manifestation of the divinely commanded pursuit of justice.

Love, compassion and empathy are essential, but they are not enough. Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama, and let's add our own Heschel, and of course Thomas Merton, represent figures I most admire: profound spiritual leaders who take political stands, confronting power, challenging authority and naming iniquity, often involving personal danger. They know when to be flexible, and when to be unyielding and stubborn. They make alliances, trying to win over "good people who stand by and do nothing." They take risks and make mistakes. They are activists.

I see much more danger within our own community in aversion to conflict, in unwillingness to taking clear positions, in excessive passivity, than I do in exclusionary stridence or polarization. I am afraid that we are not ready enough to follow in the footsteps of the Rev King and Heschel, to name iniquity and to march for justice.

The world is filled with God's glory, AND there is much injustice in the world:

One third of all women have suffered violence or abuse.

The youth of our inner cities are starved of economic, social and emotional sustenance.

Our criminal justice system seeks vengeance, not rehabilitation or restoration.

Our prisons are a disgrace, an offense to high heaven.

Corporations accountable to nobody make decisions that affect our lives.

The tobacco industry formulates "anti-smoking" initiatives with mendacious language and supports them with zillions of dollars (and of course I sympathize with the farmers).

The pharmaceutical industries are gouging the elderly.

Power and wealth are accumulating in fewer hands. Participatory democracy in America appears to be in danger. Etc. etc., etc.

It is not enough that we, in some ways, are at the vanguard of a renewed spirituality in American Jewry. It is not enough that we are aware of the unity of all being, that we davven with the angels, that we know our opponents with compassion. It is not enough that we see sparks of divinity everywhere. We also have to be activists in the fight against injustice.

And if sometimes this will lead us to being less spiritual, so be it. We cannot, we must not desist.

Let each of us adopt at least one cause in which we do something actively, both for the sanctification of the Name, and as part of our spiritual practice.

Rabbi Omer-man is director of Metivta, a spiritual center for study and meditation in Los Angeles.