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Prophetic Responsibility

at the Kehilla Seder with Oakland Community Organizations (OCO)
& with Peter Beinart and our Middle East Peace Committee

by Rabbi David J. Cooper

“If you didn’t break it, you don’t have to fix it.” That’s basically what American and English common law have held for centuries, at least until recently. You see someone drowning and you didn’t push them in, and you’re not their guardian, then you can let them drown. No liability.

 Jewish law (halakhah) disagrees, so do its Christian and Muslim equivalents,. “Don’t stand idly by…” is the mandate given to us in Leviticus 19:16.

 I guess this is on my mind a lot recently because it has come up in the class on the Hebrew prophets that I’m co-teaching with Rabbis Burt and Dev. We were noticing that many of the prophets were hesitant to act. Jeremiah starts off by declaring that he is too young to have any effect on circumstances. All of us feel some sense of powerlessness when we confront the big issues before us. We are reluctant to get engaged if we think that success is dubious. There are no guarantees of success, but there are guarantees of defeat if no one chooses to act.

 So the responsibility rests upon us to act. We act in the hope of success, but even if we might fail, we must act, nevertheless.

 Two of our most activist committees are involved in events this month about taking responsibility to act. Our Economic Justice Committee with Oakland Community Organizations (OCO) activist Rev. George Cummings will be playing a role to raise our consciousness at the Kehilla Passover Seder about the great economic disparities that we face in America. The theme is: The Mitzvah to Take Action. And later in the month, our Middle East Peace Committee will be hosting journalist Peter Beinart in a presentation called The Crisis of Zionism and the Responsibility of Diaspora Jews.

Kehilla is disproportionately represented in OCO, with congregant Richard Speiglman as co-chair of the OCO Board, on which I also sit. OCO has been in the forefront of organizing around economic opportunity for Oakland’s poor and disenfranchised (especially young adults), and also in the issues concerning neighborhood peace in East and West Oakland. OCO has had a demonstrated effect on these issues, and Kehilla has been involved throughout these efforts. What we learn from our OCO involvement is something the prophets never taught us. That is, that if we are to be effective in our critique of society, that it is necessary for us to organize together. Alone none of us can accomplish much, but together we have power. The Seder will be on Saturday evening, April 19.  You can learn more about the seder here.

Peter Beinart is speaking at Kehilla on Sunday, April 27, 6:30pm. He is the author of the book The Crisis of Zionism, and a contributor to the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Review of Books, and the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. An outspoken Zionist, he has been a controversial critic of Israeli policies, especially in regard to the occupation. As a mainstream writer, he raised the ire of the Jewish establishment a few years ago when he wrote a widely circulated article concerning the detrimental effect that Israeli policies were having on the American Jewish community and especially on the younger generation. More recently, he has advocated a boycott of goods produced by settler industries in the West Bank. Even though he has distanced himself from the global Boycott Divestment & Sanctions (BDS) movement, and even though he does not call for a boycott of all Israeli products, he has been facing some serious vituperation in reaction to his ideas. But the essential question that he’s raising is that if we disagree with the occupation policies as harmful to the needs of the Palestinians as well as the Israelis, do we have a responsibility to act? And if we do, what should we do?

This is the Hebrew month of Nissan, the month of Passover and the beginning of the counting of the omer. This is a time of some introspection and it is also a time that traditionally is set aside for reading the early rabbinic text, Pirkey Avot, Ethics of the Elders. So perhaps it is quite appropriate that we begin the omer with these activities that call us to consider our ethical responsibilities to help repair the brokenness of the world. If not us, who?


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