Sunday, October 23, 2011

Occupying and Judaism

A group of leaders have offered a call to Occupy Judaism as part of the global Occupy Wall Street movement. Like all elements of OWS, self-defined Jewish concerns about the sustainability of the global fiscal and political infrastructure still seek cohesive expression. But even now the questions that these voices raise invite vital questions.

Reflection on the meaning of traditional Jewish concepts in the bright light of contemporary concerns provides useful perspective for how to understand the world deeper and better. As has been done for millennia, parsing a key term of conflict or curiosity using its classical Hebrew meaning and context sparks imagination for solving the problems we face today.

In this case, midrash on the term “occupy” shapes 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 may not be 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, a better term might be range of meanings offered by the Hebrew root s-kh-n, broadly meaning “to dwell.”

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. The public spaces of OWS have been a geographical nexus animated by meaning-making: the force of music, words, formal gatherings, informal connection and conversation, religious ceremonies, and more attempt to define communal space ritually. People engaging dynamic space for rituals of dialogue and expression feel less alienated, trapped, and angry – even when the issues they face are massive. So goes religion when practiced well. Like the mishkan in ancient Israel, where any member of the community could have an offering made on its behalf, OWS space offers a public square for manufacturing and sharing 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 as the emanation or presence of God closest to mundane human experience. Those who have urged faith-based work in OWS understand the need for an element of divine prescence in public space. If a mishkan or Tabernacle builds a nexus for meaning, it is shekhina that occupys this space with the possibility of transcendence. Every American politician says some version of “God Bless the United States or America” at the close of her or his words on any public stage. Cynicism aside, there is nothing wrong with wanting to be blessed amongst our peers, with wanting a sense of the holy in the places where we live and work. This is the role of shekhina.

Finally, the root s-kh-n is the grammatical form from which the words  shakhen and shakhoona, meaning neighbor or neighborhood are derived. 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 postive 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 in the 21st century – not only would our world be less warped by fiscal, environmental, and cultural disregard for sustainability and fairness, 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.

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 with meaning that shapes long-term partnership with the lives and aspirations of others. 


Reb Deb Gordon said...

רב תודות!!!!!! Many, many thanks for beginning to talk about this language. לשכן... hm. I wonder what exact grammatical form would work?

I teach an adult Hebrew class whose students include several who are strong supporters of the Occupy movement. I think that שכן will be the focus of the next lesson!

Reb Deb

Anonymous said...

May you and yours be blessed, Dr. Hazan Arnoff

Anonymous said...

Beautiful and insightful Stephen. Such a complex issue and situation, not to mention an ever-evolving one. In the words of Captain and Tenille: "Love will keep us together"