February 23, 2020

Consuming Oppression: Haftarat Yom Kippur Shacharit, Isaiah 57:14-58:14

The Israeli Declaration of Independence avers that the state will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.” It’s hard not to imagine that the Yom Kippur morning Haftarah inspired the Declaration’s drafters, for in the Haftarah, Israel and God engage in a tough colloquy:


“Why, when we fasted, did You not see?
When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?”
Because on your fast day
You see to your business
And oppress all your laborers!
Because you fast in strife and contention,
And you strike with a wicked fist!…
Is such the fast that I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast,
A day when the Lord is favorable?
No, this is the fast that I desire:
To unlock fetters of wickedness,
And to untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.
It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked to clothe him,
And not to ignore your own kin.

We can argue as to whether the Israeli state has actually lived up to these admonitions, but they present an inspiring and compelling vision of how life should be.

Or do they? God’s admonition might reflect an unrealistic view of human nature. Consider carefully the horrid “sins” catalogued here: working on the Sabbath and forcing one’s workers to do the same; being in contention with other Jews; not being as charitable as one should. As wickedness goes, this is pretty tame stuff. That is especially true if we read it literally: how many of us would actually take a homeless person into our home?

And precisely because it is pretty tame, it is particularly hard to get rid of. It is the exact opposite of Hannah Arendt’s famous aphorism concerning Adolf Eichmann reflecting the “banality of evil”: in most circumstances, we will not face the danger of committing genocide. It’s pretty easy to avoid becoming a mass murderer. To eagerly take in the homeless? That’s harder.

It gets worse. Okay; we’ll stop oppressing poor people. But in the contemporary age, that’s harder than it looks. Have you ever ordered anything on Amazon.com? “>the outstanding materials for “Chocolate Moses,” created by Rabbi David Spinrad.).

Ever had your car washed? Throughout this country, in our own city, “>look here).

This all seems like a far cry from the Haftarah’s castigation of those who oppress their laborers, and in one sense, it is. But the growing complexity of the modern, globalized economy means that the application of eternal principles such as “do not oppress your laborers” becomes more demanding. Enmeshed within a web of international supply chains for goods and labor, the contemporary consumer can be forgiven for throwing up her hands.

Jewish tradition, though, does not require us to do everything at once; it requires us to do something at once, and then something more, and then something more. The great Jewish existentialist philosopher Franz Rosenzweig was asked whether he wore tefillin. “Not yet,” he replied.

Each year, I take a look at one consumer item or service that I usually purchase, and resolve not to buy it unless I can be confident that the workers who produce it are treated justly. If I can’t be confident about it, I give it up. Two years ago, I went off Amazon; last year, I restricted myself to union car washes; this year, nothing but ethical chocolate. I survived. (and was thus inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life).  Next year – lather, rinse, repeat. If I can keep this up, I might act justly in spite of myself.

I try to do more, but I also try not to mind if ethical consumption seems overwhelming, because the irony is that its very comprehensiveness makes it more Jewish and more profound. The essence of Judaism is to make every activity of life holy, whether it be eating, drinking, washing, or even using the restroom. In the contemporary age, perhaps the most pervasive everyday activity is consuming. That’s what we do. If democracy used to produce citizens, it now produces consumers. It stands to reason, then, that consumption should form a focus of our striving for holiness; such holiness could be 21st century Jewry’s most lasting legacy.

Perhaps a new blessing is in order: Baruch Ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu liknot im lev kodesh. “Who has commanded us to acquire with a holy heart.” Use it when you purchase something that you are confident was produced by justly treated workers. How many times will you say it this year?