Saturday, March 21, 2009

Praying For Social Justice


Last Tuesday, members of my synagogue spent the day participating in a month long "Multi-Faith Prayer Vigil" outside the Ontario Legislature Buildings and Queen's Park. Our Rabbi lead the noon time service.

The prayer vigil is being held this month, in advance of the provincial governments budget, which is to be announced on March 26. The Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Council, of which our synagogue is a member, and which is sponsoring the vigil describes its purpose as:
Ontario’s faith communities are praying for the poor at Queen’s Park during a series of pre-budget vigils outside the provincial legislature in March.

Provincial politicians will also be in the prayers of Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and representatives of other faiths during the seven-hour vigils.

Multifaith participants will be praying for the integrity, courage and spiritual strength of MPPs. And they’ll be praying for compassion to be directed to the poor in the provincial budget expected to be presented in the legislature on March 26.

During the last election, 18 month ago, the governing Liberal Party had promised to make poverty reduction a keystone of its agenda. It has spent over a year studying the matter, and now, with the recession on, it says that "Obviously things have changed."

Yes they have: for the worse! There are more poor, and they need more government help then ever! And money or services to the poor, or construction of affordable housing, is as much of an economic stimulus (more so in fact) as tax proposed rebates to the middle class, or the building of new university facilities, or the many of the other stimulus measures being floated. For background on the issue read here, here, here and here.

The idea of the vigil, of course, is to show the politicians that there is a constituency for compassion and justice that rivals the anti-tax and "economic efficiency" lobby. It is to remind them that, as the people's representatives, there are many people who are not just focused on their own well being, but who care about others, and want that care reflected in government policies.

The morning I spent at the vigil was inspirational. It was good to be with people who unashamedly said that good policy and good politics must be just and compassionate. That the bottom line has to include the poor, and not just the economic elites. That the success of our society is not measured by the number of BMWs but by the number of people well fed and well housed.

Rabbi Grimberg focused the noon service around learning of Jewish texts on social justice. "For Jews, study is a form of prayer." The following are from a hand-out she prepared.

1. A person should be more concerned with spiritual than with material matters. But another person’s material welfare is his own spiritual concern.
Rabbi Israel Salanter (1810-1883), founder of the Mussar movement

2. And God said, “Let us make adam in our image after our likeness... And God Created adam in God’s image, in the image of God, God created adam, male and female God Created them.
Genesis 1:26-27

3. When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger; I am Adonai your God.
Leviticus 19:9-10

4. Share your bread with the hungry, and take the wretched poor into your home. When you see the naked, clothe him, and do not ignore your fellow.
Isaiah 58:7

5. Rabbi Hama said: What does the text mean, ‘You shall walk in God’s path?’ Surely this does not imply that a person actually walks behind the Divine Presence. Rather the meaning is to follow after the attributes of the Holy One. As God clothes the naked so do you clothe the naked; as the Holy One visits the sick, so do you visit the sick; as the Holy One comforts mourners, so do you comfort mourners; as the Holy One, buries the dead, so do you bury the dead.
Babylonian Talmud Sotah l4a

6. If there is among you a poor person, your fellow, in any of your towns within your land which God gives you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against them, but you shall open your hand to them, and lend them sufficient for their needs, whatever they may be.
Deuteronomy 15: 7-8

7. Give to the needy readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return the Eternal your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings
Deuteronomy 15:10

8. The highest form of charity is to step in with help to prevent a person from becoming poor. This includes offering a loan or employment investing in a business or any other form of assistance that will avoid poverty The basis for this principle is the commandment in our Passage: you shall Strengthen the poor.
Maimonides’ commentary to Leviticus 25:35.38

9. There is nothing in the world more grievous than poverty the most terrible of sufferings, Our teachers said: All the troubles of the world are assembled on one side and poverty is on the other.
Midrash Rabbah Exodus 31:12

11. When you give food to a hungry person give your best and sweetest food.
Hilchot lssurei Mizbayach 7:11

10. There is no word in the Hebrew vocabulary for “charity” in the modern sense. The word used is tzedakah which literally means “righteousness.” Tzedakah is not an act of condescension by the affluent toward the needy. It is the fulfillment of a moral obligation. Injustice to humanity is desecration of God. Refusal to give charity is considered by Jewish tradition to be idolatry
Albert Vorspan and David Saperstein, Jewish Dimensions of Social Justice, UAHC Press New York, NY, p. 93.

11. The Maharal of Prague taught that there are two types of tzedaka: reactive and proactive. Reactive tzedaka is based on compassion for those who suffer, and it is almost selfish because it is giving in order to remove the painful sight of poverty. Proactive tzedaka seeks out opportunities without being asked. It practitioners understand partnership with the One. (Netivot Olam Netiv Ha~edaka Chapter 1) Rabbi Mordechai Liebling from RRC’s Guide to Jewish Practice Tzedaka

12. For this reason was the human being created alone, to teach you that whosoever destroys a single soul, Scripture imputes guilt to him as though he had destroyed an entire world, And whosoever preserves a single soul; Scripture ascribes merit to him as though he had preserved a complete world.
Mishnah Sanhedrin 4: 5

13. A theology which is not a plan of social action is merely a way of preaching and praying, It is a menu without the dinner.
Rabbi Mordecal Kaplan, Random Thoughts p. 22

14. Belief in God has to do with our attitude toward life itself. Do we find life good? Is life worthwhile? If we believe that life is worthwhile that it is good, that, in spite of all the sickness and accidents, in spite of all the poverty and war, in spite of all the sad and difficult conflict in the world, the world is a wonderful place to live in and can be made still a better place, then we believe in God. When we believe in God, we cannot be discouraged because we believe that all the misery in the world is due, not to the fact-that misery must be there, but to the fact that we have not yet discovered how to do away with that misery.
Ira Eisenstein, quoted in Kol Haneshamah

15. Don’t merely expect to find or to believe that life is worthwhile; make it worthwhile.
Don’t merely see life whole; make it whole.
Not knowing which should come first, to improve one’s self or to improve the world, we end up doing neither.
Actually, the only way to improve the world is by improving one’s self, and the only way to improve one’s self is by improving the world.
Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan

16. We cannot merely pray to God to end starvation;
For we already have the resources
With which to feed the entire world
If only we could use them wisely.

Therefore we pray instead
For strength, determination, and will power,
To do instead of merely to pray
To become instead of merely to wish;
That our world may be safe,
And that our lives may be blessed.
Jack Riemer- adapted in Kol Haneshamah

We also recited the Psalm of the Day for Tuesday, which turned out to be quite appropriate.
1. A Psalm of Asaph. God stands in the congregation of God; he judges among the judges.
2. How long will you judge unjustly, and accept the persons of the wicked? Selah.
3. Do justice to the poor and the orphan; vindicate the afflicted and needy.
4. Save the poor and needy; rescue them from the hand of the wicked.
5. They do not know, nor will they understand; they walk in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
6. I have said, You are angels; and all of you are sons of the most High.
7. Nevertheless, you shall die like men, and fall like any prince.
8. Arise, O God, judge the earth; for to you shall all nations belong.
Lets pray that our prayers will be effective. But also, if you live in Ontario, write to your MPP, and ask them to push for strong poverty alleviation measures in this week's budget. You can find a list of MPP email addresses here.

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