Parashat Lech Lecha: On Greatness, Blessing & Owning Wall Street

For Congregation Ner Shalom, November 4, 2011

(Angry anti-Semitic mob enjoying sunshine and used books.)

In this week's Torah portion, Lech Lecha, we receive the first of the many blessings bestowed on us by the God of Abraham. And as we all know, even the best of blessings can prove mixed. In the parashah, God famously tells Abraham (then still called Avram) to hit the road and leave his birthplace to strike out for new territory. In exchange, God says:

ואעשך לגוי גדול ואברכך ואגדלה שמך והיה ברכה

V'e'es'cha l'goy gadol va'avarech'cha va'agadlah sh'mecha veh'yeh b'rachah.

I will make you a great nation

and I will bless you and make your name great 

and you will be a blessing.

This idea of being a goy gadol, a great nation - not only quantitatively but qualitatively; this sensation of being somethin' special, is in our bones. We are bound up in it. Even we Reconstructionists, who have dismissed the idea of "chosenness" out of hand, are no less susceptible to a certain wonder and, frankly, pride over who our people are, where we've been, what we've suffered and what we have, against all odds, achieved.

Considering our long, long history of marginalization, ghettoization, victimization, our achievements are nothing short of remarkable. And they are quirky too, distributed unevenly across realms of activity. We've always been right up there in scholarship, first our own Torah learning and eventually adding to world's store of philosophy and poetry and science. Music seems to run through our culture, even while our traditional allergy to graven images has kept us more distanced from the visual arts. We've done well competing and excelling in new industries when the timing is right - for instance arriving and taking root in America just in time for the invention of the motion picture.

Historical circumstances in Europe over the past millenium have also shaped some of our areas of achievement. Restrictions on occupations we could engage in; different restrictions on occupations Christians could engage in; heightened literacy among Jews regardless of class or gender; a certain focus on education; the existence of shared Jewish languages and culture throughout the Diaspora - these all set the groundwork for a famous history of involvement in finance and trade. Some elements of these professions were portable; some were not. Jews coming to America, for instance, could not easily enter the old boys' club of banking, but some found their way to the more flexible fields of investment, brokerage, etc. Merchanty skills transferred readily, and we had famous success in retail. The old blue-blood industries - mining, oil, railroads, farming - on the other hand remained a kind of goyim naches. Like hunting or skiing, something Jews just don't do.

But yes, on the whole, our collective story in America is undeniably one involving economic success even though many of our individual stories might not comport with that narrative. And certainly our collective economic success has outshone our political success. We're much better represented in commerce than in politics. We are not people who have ever, at least outside of our current up-and-down experiment in the State of Israel, held political power. America, even now I think, would still rather buy from us than vote for us.

For some Jews, the economic success has been remarkable. A few years ago a Jewish writer in Chicago took the list of Vanity Fair's 100 Most Influential Americans and counted the Jews. (Fine, we all do it, but he published it.) Between the Zuckerbergs and Bloombergs and Katzenbergs, plus many half-bergs with just one Jewish parent, he managed to tally a jaw-dropping 50% of those top 100.

I don't know about you, but as I describe and attempt to quantify the success of our people in the American marketplace, I feel myself tensing up. Because when I hear talk of Jews and finance or Jews and Hollywood or Jews and media, I begin to picture villagers carrying torches. The story of our success has too often been twisted into a battle cry of angry, anti-Semitic mobs, suffering in bad economic times.

Which brings us to Occupy Wall Street - a huge, angry, leaderless movement, protesting not the government but corporate greed, with a special focus on banking and finance and - dare we utter the word? - moneylending. Areas of our historic, disproportionate and somewhat stereotypical involvement.

It sure feels like the blueprint for an anti-Semitic mob.

But interestingly, over six weeks in, it hasn't become one. Yes, there have been people with signs saying Wall Street is owned by Zionist Jews (and if you're ever wondering whether a reference to Jews is anti-Semitic, I say if the word "Zionist" is slapped on, your answer is yes). And while the decentralized structure of the Occupy movement has not even been able to get drummers to take the night off let alone condemn anti-Semitic messaging, there have in fact been responses to anti-Semitism from among the protesters, in a way that is proportional, or so it seems for now, to the tenor of the anti-Semitism on display.

To me, the anti-Semitic threat to worry about is not the crackpot with the sign. But instead the rightwing idealogs who try to discredit Occupy Wall Street by painting it as anti-Semitic at the same time that they reinforce the anti-Semitism they claim to condemn. For instance, Rush Limbaugh a couple weeks ago commenting on the now-famous slogan "We are the 99%." He said, "[T]hat leaves 1%, roughly the percentage of Jews in the population... And Wall Street and bankers have been anti-Semitic code for Jews in this country going back quite a while." For any Rush listeners who hadn't previously associated Jews with banking and wealth, those dots have now been connected. And not in a way that I could call, even in my wildest imagination, "good for the Jews." Thank you, Rush, for caring.

But in the same way that I confess to feeling some pride at how some of our people have succeeded in the world of competitive capitalism, in ways far beyond their immigrant grandparents' dreams, I also feel pride at the visible presence of Jews in both leadership and rank and file of the Occupy movement. And why not? Our heritage imcludes both Rothschild and Trotsky, factory owners and union activists, silver spoons and red diapers.

A few decades ago economist Milton Friedman wrote a famous essay trying to understand why Jews tend toward collectivist, anti-capitalist values despite having benefited from capitalism. He reviews the theories of other economists and historians, dismissing most of them. Instead he sees Jewish leftism in America as an apologetic reflex - Jews specifically distancing themselves from the successes of capitalism in order not to be targets of anti-Semitism. In other words, our value of selflessness over selfishness is just a subconscious ploy to be visibly unlike the stereotype of the greedy Jew.

Interestingly, Friedman rejects the idea that today's Jews are influenced by the prophetic tradition of seeking justice. He quotes sociologist Nathan Glazer's dismissal of that possible connection: "The Jewish religious tradition probably does dispose Jews, in some subtle way, toward liberalism and radicalism, but it is not easy to see in present-day Jewish social attitudes the heritage of the Jewish religion.”

Which might be true, if you remove this particular Jewish social attitude from consideration. But this particular Jewish social attitude is a biggy. Tzedek tzedek tirdof. "Justice, justice shall you pursue." Torah is full of words that speak directly to justice and to economic fairness. Laws about paying your workers. Laws leveling the playing field between rich and poor in legal disputes. Laws requiring landowners - the equivalent of today's corporate CEOs - to designate 10%, not Herman Cain's 9%, of their production for public use. Laws prohibiting wrongdoers from hiding behind the actions of the majority. Torah is vociferous. And Friedman's suggestion that a modern, largely secular Jew cannot take these values to heart - that in the absence of a shtreimel and a kosher lunch there is no reason to think that Jewish values play any significant role in one's world view - is absurd and smug. For many of us it is in fact what is at the core of our Judaism. "Justice, justice shall you pursue." It is when we are protesting and rabble-rousing; when we're standing up or sitting in or shouting back or acting up or being carted off that we feel most Jewish. For how many secular Jews, for how many atheist Jews, has "justice, justice" replaced shema Yisrael as our central creed?

So yes, I think Torah, this still-living Torah, is profoundly relevant in figuring out why we are not just in the Board rooms but also at the barricades.

And I think there is one more element that Friedman doesn't consider at all that feels very real to me. And that is the experience of outsiderness. A thousand years in Europe and still considered aliens certainly has some relevance. But even here and now. More than a century of succeeding in a new country and still not quite being the person this country idealizes. Our outsiderness remains. We are the queers of the American dream. In it but not quite of it. Valued for what we bring to the table, but without clearly a seat at it.

And as queers we've found ways to pass, to make ourselves invisible and unobtrusive. To not identify our successes as Jewish successes. To produce many decades of movies in which Jews do not even figure. To become moguls but only after changing our name from Lifshitz to Lauren. To theorize, like Milton Friedman does, about Jewish participation in the radical left and pretend not to be an outsider when you do it. I can't help but imagine that Jews who really have made it into the inside, wherever that is, probably feel like they're only masquerading as insiders.

And so I think it is in part our outsiderness, our cultural queerness, that allows us to look at systems of power with some distance and some doubt. The ways we have been kept out of power might be different than they are for the 98% of Americans who are not Jewish, but they are no less meaningful. We have, in the aggregate, been successful economically. But we have also experienced the sting of exlusion.

And our historic outsiderness has played a role in instilling in us collectivist values. We take care of our people, whether it is through the old benevolent societies and landsmanshaftn, or through philanthropy or synagogue membership. Taking care of those among us in need has remained defiantly important, even in this new, unapologetically selfish age.

So here we are, Jews, on both sides of the barricades. It is no paradox and it is no wonder.

But one question lingers for me. Do we have something special to offer as Jews in the Occupy movement? Do the Jews participating on this side have any special responsibility to speak our truth, our Jewish truth, to the Jews on the other side? Do we hold them to any standard higher than that to which we hold others of the corporate cast of characters?

I say yes. I say why not? What's the worst that can happen? We'll be disappointed? We're already disappointed. So yes, let's say what we expect of them, not only as living, breathing, thinking human beings, but as Jews. We are inevitably bound up with them and they with us. Such is the mixed blessing of a great nation. We might as well name it.

So what does greatness mean? How do we own our greatness, both as occupier and occupied? Here's a last thought. God says to Abraham,

ואעשך לגוי גדול

V'e'es'cha l'goy gadol

I will make you a goy gadol. A great nation. The root gadol - great, large, formidable - has another meaning in Hebrew, a rare one, that we see in the word gadil. A twisted cord. Like a wick or a braid. Perhaps our destiny of greatness, if you believe in one, is a prophecy not of economic success, and certainly not of raw numbers, but one of connectedness. We are meant to be bound up together like threads in a cord. And wrapped up with this world also - in all its creativity and its possibility and its struggle. A people integrated, a people of integrity. Threads woven together. Sometimes in a beautiful garment. And sometimes, as gadil is in fact used in Torah, we are inevitably the fringe.

ואעשך לגוי גדול ואברכך ואגדלה שמך והיה ברכה

V'e'es'cha l'goy gadol va'avarech'cha va'agadlah sh'mecha veh'yeh b'rachah.

I will make you a nation of connectedness, wound together and braided into the fabric of this world. And you will be a blessing.

May we, in fact, be a blessing.


Below: A Torah scroll is unrolled and read at Occupy Wall Street on Simchat Torah, highlighting texts that speak to matters of social justice.