by Rabbi Burt Jacobson
In the late 1990s a group of some twenty clergy and laypeople from different religious backgrounds occupied several of the empty homes at the Presidio in San Francisco, claiming them for homeless people. I was one of the demonstrators who was arrested and charged with trespassing. At the trial the judge asked each of us why we had chosen to involve ourselves in this action. I remember speaking about the heartbreaking tragedy of large numbers of homeless people living desperate lives on San Francisco’s streets while these residences remained empty. When the judge closed the hearing and dismissed us, the folks in the crowded courtroom hooted and applauded wildly.
Of course the empty houses did not go to the homeless, and since that time the Presidio has become part of the National Park Service, and the home of cultural attractions and events, restaurants and cafes, art installations and archeology sites. According to an official count by the city of San Francisco the number of people who were homeless in the City in 2015 was 6,686.
It was at that action that I met Father Louis Vitale, who had been one of the organizers of the protest. Father Louis, a well-known Franciscan priest and activist, stood out among the defendants at the trial as he had at the site of the action. Tall and slender, he was dressed in the traditional brown robe and knotted rope belt that signifies the Franciscan vows of poverty, charity and obedience.
Father Louis has engaged in civil disobedience for over four decades in pursuit of peace and justice, and he has been arrested more than four hundred times. He believes that his mission is to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and St. Francis, who comforted the poor and preached non-violence.
Father Louis has been especially concerned about the danger of nuclear weapons for most of his active life. Together with a group of Christian peace activists he co-founded the Nevada Desert Experience in 1982. The first action they organized was a six-week vigil at the entrance to the Nevada Test Site, some sixty miles from Las Vegas. At one of the vigils Father Louis told a reporter “I wonder what Francis would think today if he saw how our military is capable of destroying whole cities using one weapon. What would he think if he knew that in the year 2005 our entire planet has become a potential military theater from space?”
At that time Rabbi Arthur Waskow, the founder of the Shalom Center and a major contributor to the development of Jewish Renewal, was arguing that an arms race might conceivably make sense in the context of planning for an impending “conventional” war, since the nation with the most and most effective weapons would be likelier to “win.” He cited the apocalyptic image in the midrash of the world being subjected to a flood of fire, and he stated that in a flood of fire, adding more fires burns everyone. In the late 1980s I joined Waskow and a group of Jewish activists in a vigil to protest underground nuclear testing at the Nevada Desert Experience site. We, too, were arrested and later set free.
The Nevada Desert Experience’s immediate goal of ending nuclear testing was met in 1992, when President George H. W. Bush signed a moratorium on underground nuclear weapons tests. But we are still quite far from an answer to the question of nuclear proliferation and war.
Father Vitale’s commitment to peace and justice derives from his religious convictions. In 2009, he told one reporter, “By taking on the suffering of others we change the world. We are willing to put our bodies where they are and suffer the consequences.” When I read this I thought of the Ba’al Shem’s statement to a disciple that “one must love one’s fellow human beings and never harm them, even if this entails harming oneself. Thus, love of the other takes precedence over love of oneself . . .”
My own approach to politics has been nurtured from many sources, including the biblical prophets, democratic socialist thought, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. But just as Father Louis drew his compassionate approach to activism primarily from Jesus and St. Francis, my own approach to activism has been shaped largely by the wisdom of the Ba’al Shem Tov.
St. Francis and the Ba’al Shem both brought deep compassion to their service to people and the world. The Catholic Encyclopedia states that “Francis’ love of creatures was not simply the offspring of a soft sentimental disposition. It arose from that deep and abiding sense of the presence of God. To him all are from one Father and all are real kin . . . hence, his deep sense of personal responsibility towards fellow creatures . . .” Likewise, the Ba’al Shem taught that our compassion for all of God’s creatures derives from the existence of divinity found within our own souls and within all of our fellow creatures.
The Ba’al Shem taught that individuals should bring a compassionate consciousness to all of their daily activities. He taught that this pure compassion transcends all polarities and divisions because it is rooted in the infinite light of oneness out of which the universe was fashioned. I have come to believe that, through cultivating this vision as a spiritual practice, it should be possible to bring compassionate awareness to all of our struggles for justice, peace and sustainability. In other words, I am convinced that we have the ability to cultivate a kind of non-violent compassion that allows us to struggle with the forces of oppression and with those individuals and collectivities that represent such oppression, without investing our energy into reactionary hatred.
This is certainly not easy. When I read about the cruelty committed by oppressors against innocent victims, my rage flares up. I want to scream at them: “What are you doing? Don’t you know that you are wounding a creature of God?” But I have to remind myself that the tormentor himself became what he became because his life was somehow distorted by some trauma that he himself experienced. It is this that leads me to compassion.
It will come as no surprise to readers that for me the Ba’al Shem’s loving proclamation that “there is no place devoid of the divine” must now be boldly carried into the social, economic, political and environmental realms of our world. There is so much suffering to be sweetened, so many sparks to be liberated, and all of human civilization to be elevated. To my mind engaging in this work is central to what it means to be a spiritual person and an authentic Jew in this era.