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Toward a Techno-Jubilee

So let us imagine that the Jubilee could be for us not quite a model but a pointer, a hint. A pointer to what the middling classes of America could say in the search for a decent society, beyond their own greed, beyond their own guilt.

Imagine applying the Jubilee approach to the despair, violence, anomie, alienation of our cities. To drug abuse, the disintegration of families, violence not only on the streets but within families, the abuse of children, the abandonment of old people. What would it say?

That everyone must know for sure that neither poverty nor charity, neither despair nor greed, neither envy nor largesse, will last forever; that economic independence and responsibility are coming to everyone.

That there must be hope, not the hope of fantasy, but the hope of sure knowledge.

That in one's own family, neighborhood, community is where cultural roots and economic independence begin.

That individual rest is not enough; whole communities must take their rest together, for that rest to be truly refreshing.

That just as communal rest is necessary for the renewal of work, a rhythm of communal return to the songs, stories, crafts, and foods of communal roots is necessary to healthy cultural growth.

That a rhythmical communal celebration of earth and air and water, plants and animals, is necessary for a healthy return to contact with other human beings.

That we must recreate the rhythms of rest, roots, and nature, to recreate these rhythms in the very midst of the cities where they are now abandoned.

How would we translate such wistful statements into policy and program? When people in 1976 began to "think Jubilee," economic sharing felt most important.  When I read the Jubilee passage in 1992 with a group of people at a national convention of Jewish Federations and United Jewish Appeals, the Jubilee's implications for the healing of the earth leaped out at us. We noticed a darker side of the Jubilee tradition (Lev. 26: 34-35) that in the more optimistic ë70s we had not even noticed: If the community does not let the land rest in the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, "Then shall the land make up for its Shabbat years through time that it is desolate. . . Through the time that it is desolate, it shall observe the restfulness that it did not rest in the restful-Shabbat years while you were dwelling on it."

Suddenly these Jewish leaders saw encoded in this ancient teaching what they had thought an ultramodern ecological assertion: "It's like the law of gravity. The earth will rest, and if we don't get it, if we don't let it rest, and even celebrate by resting too, then the entire planet will "rest" all right -- upon our heads. Sounds like what my eighteen-year-old daughter keeps telling me."

Recently, I have been asking scientists, business-people, rabbis, economists with whom I study the Jubilee texts to suspend for a moment their own skepticism over what would be possible to get society to do, and instead just imagine what would be a modern way of carrying out the sabbatical year or the Jubilee. Some interesting ideas have emerged:

From a businessman: "I could set aside one year of every seven when I kept selling my old products but didn't produce any new ones. That would give the whole  company a chance to pause and think about where we're going. And it would reduce the strain on the earth a little."

From an engineer: "Suppose every seventh year we stopped all technological research and development, except maybe R & D on mortal diseases. (After all, just as Torah teaches, we're supposed to violate the Shabbat rules in order to save a life.) Suppose the whole society gave us a year off at some reasonable salary, to think and talk about what technology is good for anyway. What we do now is the exact opposite of Shabbat: we're figuring out how to make the earth work harder. Produce more. With a year off, the earth would get to rest a little right away, and we could seek a kind of technology that in the long run would let the earth and human beings rest more deeply."

From a rabbi: "Suppose we brought the idea of Shabbat or even a week-long festival like Sukkot to the public at large: a week-long celebration of communal roots, neighborhood, and playfulness. Maybe the week of the Fourth of July. We would close down not just factories and offices, but gas stations, airplanes, and trains. Even newspapers and TV.  Instead of using vacation time to get as far away from our neighbors as possible, we visit. We have street fairs, with music and stories and food and crafts. And neighborhood  town meetings where people talk about public issues, protecting the earth, making our neighborhoods alive again, what work is like,  why jobs are so hard to get, and what to do about it."

An environmental biologist: "Nowadays we insist on 'environmental impact' assessments  before making any major changes in land use. But we don't do this when a corporation is about to introduce a major new product. What if any corporation or agency that was planning to invest more than one billion dollars in producing a new automobile, say, or a new computer, a new weapon -- were required to wait for a "sabbatical" year while its impact on the earth was assessed by independent examiners?"

An economist:  "Suppose we had a pool of loan money in every state. Money we could lend to businesses that were owned and run by face-to-face communities: Family businesses where at least 80% of the workers were in the family. Co-op grocery stores housed in a synagogue. Bike factories owned by a couple of dozen workers. PTAs, unions, a chapter of the NAACP, they could all start businesses."

"Where would you get the start-up capital?"

"Well, if we took the Jubilee seriously, the way they divide up the land every fifty years -- for us, I guess we'd put a special tax on, say, any corporation worth more than one billion dollars that has been around more than forty-nine years." He laughs. "Wouldn't be so easy to pass that tax. No wonder it was hard for them to actually do the Jubilee."

A Catholic nun from an urban ministry: "What I like is very earthy," she laughs; "I mean literally. We could work in my neighborhood to develop vegetable gardens and  fisheries, maybe even chicken farms. Make us less dependent on the supermarkets. Even canneries, food stores, restaurants."

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