Monday, November 21, 2011

Compassionate Capitalism & The New Progressives

Ethics & Society

The word tzedakah is untranslatable because it joins together two concepts that in other languages are opposites, namely charity and justice.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks,
To Heal a Fractured World (2005)

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: "Where tzedakah is a gift or loan of money, hessed is the gift of person. It costs less and more: less because its gestures often cost little or nothing, more becuase it takes time and attention, existential generosity, the gift of self to self. More than anything hessed humanizes the world."
Photo Credit: Cooperniall, December 6, 2006.

For my 54th birthday, my daughter and her husband gave me a book, To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility, by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, which represents the Orthodox view of Judaism in England. Rabbi Sacks also holds a PhD from King’s College London. I have long found Rabbi Sacks' thinking and approach to the human condition admirable, warm and compassionate. This book is no different. In it, he brings together a number of ancient ideas, Jewish in origin, universal in application, and makes them relevant for humanity today. To heal or repair is part of the Jewish tradition of tikkun olam, in which humans work in partnership with God to better the world for everyone.

Although tikkun olam origins are mystical, first attributed to Rabbi Isaac Luria, a 16th century rabbi and kabbalist, today most persons look at its application in a very practical way. In other words, humans have a real responsibility to act in accordance with ethical principles, including tzedekah ("righteousness'), chesed (or hessed, "kindness')  and the ideas (and ideals) of human justice, leading to a better more robust establishment of human dignity and freedom. In Jewish ethics, humans have a responsibility to act, not as robots but as free and thoughtful agents of morality, namely, as noble human beings God intended us to be. Rabbi Sacks writes in To Heal a Fractured World:
Nor is Judaism a religion of pure obedience, submission to the divine will. In the story of Noah the Bible delivers a remarkably candid and unexpected critique of pure obedience. Noah does everything God commands him, but in the meanwhile the world is destroyed. Listening to the Bible with Jewish ears, we hear a more challenging demand, God's call to Abraham: "Walk ahead of Me and be perfect" (Gen. 17:1). Don't wait, in other words, until I command you. Sometimes you need to take the initiative. The story of how the Bible encourages human initiative is little known and needs to be spelled out. (12)
Assuredly,  I find that I agree with much of what Rabbi Sacks argues as essential for a fair and just society, and how to move it forward in that direction. It takes direct action by good and ordinary people. In short, much has to do with our, that is, human actions to make the world better by applying well-established moral principles. One can be either passive or active; the latter is always necessary and preferable for change.

The dissident and refuseniks movements are examples of successful political and social actions that brought an end to an anti-human regime of the former Soviet Union. To a lesser though important extent, the occupy protests are relevant, in that the need for reform is both relevant and necessary. That message is getting through, thanks to the young people who have acted according to their conscience, and whose efforts have changed the discussion and garnered the attention of government leaders. It's the beginning of a new era, after 30 years of harsh Regan-era politics that favored the elites

Jeffrey D. Sachs: "Twice before in American history, powerful corporate interests dominated Washington and brought America to a state of unacceptable inequality, instability and corruption. Both times a social and political movement arose to restore democracy and shared prosperity," Sachs said in a recent New York Times article.
Photo Credit
: Sikarin Thanachaiary, World Economic Forum, 2011
Source: Wikipedia
In "The New Progressives," Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York City, writes recently in The New York Times:
Following our recent financial calamity, a third progressive era is likely to be in the making. This one should aim for three things. The first is a revival of crucial public services, especially education, training, public investment and environmental protection. The second is the end of a climate of impunity that encouraged nearly every Wall Street firm to commit financial fraud. The third is to re-establish the supremacy of people votes over dollar votes in Washington.
None of this will be easy. Vested interests are deeply entrenched, even as Wall Street titans are jailed and their firms pay megafines for fraud. The progressive era took 20 years to correct abuses of the Gilded Age. The New Deal struggled for a decade to overcome the Great Depression, and the expansion of economic justice lasted through the 1960s. The new wave of reform is but a few months old.
Yet, it looks hopeful. The moral and ethical  ideas and ideals of both Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Prof. Jeffrey Sachs share a common belief in compassion, justice and individual dignity.  Moreover, each, using the language of his  vocation, voice similar sentiments: each individual can make a difference in the world if we make the effort and forget any risk attached to the good and ethical deed. We no longer have to be slaves to the old anti-progressive, anti-human  and, in some cases, unethical political ideas. There is some light seeping in.

It took the young to teach us older folks a lesson in democracy and compassionate capitalism. Reform is possible; things don't have to stay the same. Again, I return to the words of Rabbi Sacks from his 2005 book:
I have never been persuaded that a jaundiced view of humanity is more realistic than the alternative. To the contrary, I believe that all of us are made in the image of God and that each culture has a contribution to make to the human heritage. Nor do you have to be religious to be good. This became manifestly clear among those quiet heroes and heroines who saved lived during the Holocaust. . . . They were simply human, doing what human beings are expected to do. (10-11)
And can do today.