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The Pulsating Society

From all these responses and my own wrestling, I realize that the Torah is envisioning an economy profoundly different from the one weíre used to. Ours is based on constant explosive economic growth. But now itís not so clear that the world economy can keep on "growing" in the way weíre used to. Put as many Chinese, per capita, in automobiles as there are Americans, and the whole planet would suffocate.

What is the Torah's economic vision? We might call it a "pulsating" rather than an expanding or exploding system. And it may be relevant to us in ways we would not have foreseen, one generation ago. Today, economists are beginning to talk about "sustainable" economies, which can meet their peoples' needs year after year, generation after generation, by restoring the earth to the same degree that they deplete it. Not the same as economic growth.

And the Torah's vision of social justice also differs from our modern notion.  At its heart is not equality but "resting," not only from the physical work of tilling the land, but from the political and social work of building institutions and concentrating capital. Even very useful institutions must be periodically dissolved. That way the whole rigid pattern of society, some on top, some on the bottom, some assigned to this role, some to that, all dissolves. People are freed up, the imagination is freed up. How could we win the benefits of that, without bringing on a time of social chaos?

How would we deal with spiritual hunger? We have often encouraged people to buy more goodies, gobble up the world, as a substitute for spiritual nourishment. Our churches, synagogues, schools, families, even our psychotherapists, have gotten sloppy and ineffective in helping us to grow in spiritual depth. If buying new material goods has its limits, will demands for spirituality get stronger? Or, to think of it the other way round, if we need to restrain our material consumption for the planet's sake, do we need to create more spiritual sustenance?

How would we deal with healing the earth? Most official "environmental" programs have focused on cleanup and recycling. There has been very little reexamination of the production end of the process where destruction is actually likely to begin. The Sabbatical/Jubilee cycle teaches that we must face issues of production if the earth is to be protected.

The more I absorb all this, the more I feel both exhilarated and exhausted. What a task! And what a possibility! Pursuing such changes would renew our roots, redirect our history, and release our creativity.  No doubt it would take a great political struggle since those who hold power rarely give it up or share it without a struggle.

I ask myself, how could we begin?

Suppose that in a particular city for nine days, from a Jewish Shabbat through a Christian Sabbath (from Friday night through Sunday), a group of synagogues and churches held a Jubilee Festival.

Such a Jubilee Festival would address the economic renewal of the city and its neighborhoods by inviting co-ops and worker-managed firms, innovative small businesses, etc., to explain their work; by demonstrating equipment for energy conservation and the local generation of solar/renewable energy; by turning empty lots or part of the church or synagogue grounds into communal vegetable gardens; by holding workshops on how tenants can buy apartment houses and turn them into co-ops; by setting up a temporary food co-op and helping people organize a more permanent one.

It would address the spiritual and cultural renewal of the neighborhood through song, dance, storytelling, sharing food.

It would address the political empowerment of the neighborhood by gathering people to discuss in open town meetings some of the major issues of our society -- energy, jobs, environment, prices, families.

Where do we find the energy to start?

The Jubilee passages in the Torah teach us: The most effective politics has a powerful ritual element in it, engaging not only material interests but deep emotional, intellectual, and spiritual energies. And when ritual is made fully communal and focused on reality, it becomes precisely politics: Black churches in the South. Soviet Jews dancing and singing, carrying the Torah into the public streets. Gandhi, fasting.

When I began my journey into Spirit, what erupted in me was a fusion of "ritual" and "politics." The Jubilee is both. The volcano is still alive.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center, author of Seasons of Our Joy, Down-to-Earth Judaism, and Godwrestling: Round 2; co-editor of Trees, Earth, & Torah: A Tu B'Shvat Anthology; editor of  Torah of the Earth: Exploring 4,000 Years of Ecology in Jewish Thought; co-author of Tales of Tikkun: New Jewish Stories to Heal the Wounded World; and co-author, with Phyllis Berman, of A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven.

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