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Skin In The Game

Micha OdenheimerFilmed at Limmud Conference 2013

My talk conveys my passionate belief that we are at a crossroads in human life, in which all of humanity is being connected and integrated into a single economic and environmental system. Though facing deep challenges, Jews are no longer a pariah people, but are situated economically and culturally in the mainstream of globalization, with the capacity, right and responsibility to influence the course our world will take, what it will mean to be a human being. Since the period of the Enlightenment, at the beginning of the 19th century, Jews have been split between those whose main concern is preserving the Jewish people’s unique identity, spiritual mission and culture, and those who desired to take Judaism’s universal message of social justice to the larger world. My argument is that, because of the urgency of the hour, and the nature of Judaism’s message, preserving the integrity of the Jewish spiritual tradition means being actively involved in creating a new kind of globalization, driven not by the marketplace (although there is a place for the marketplace) but by a vision for human good.

Born in California, I grew up in the Orthodox Jewish community, graduated from Yale University with a BA in religion in 1980, and received rabbinic ordination in 1984. A student and close friend of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, fascinated by Jewish mysticism as well as Jewish ethics, I made Aliyah in 1987. I was one of the founders of Elul, the first joint secular-religious bet midrash. I spent much of 1990-91 in Ethiopia, where I covered the Aliyah of Beta Israel, including Operation Solomon, as well as the civil war and the rebel entry into Addis Ababa. In 1993 I founded the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews and served as its director until 1998. As a journalist, I reported from such places as Somalia, Burma, Iraq, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Haiti for Haaretz, the Jerusalem Report, the Washington Post and others. My strong interest in the Jewish right and responsibility to participate in shaping a vision for humanity and a desire to engage Israeli and Jewish youth led me to found Tevel ( a Jewish Peoplehood project meant to engage the next generation in the struggle to end extreme poverty and environmental destruction on a global level, from a place of profound commitment to Jewish identity and tradition.  Tevel currently works in Nepal and Haiti, and is set to begin working in Burundi in 2014.  We have developed a unique approach to integrating our service learning participants into cutting edge, agriculture based community development aimed at helping rural villages remain sustainable.

One morning in late 2007, I woke up in Kathmandu, Nepal. I was supposed to go across town for a meeting that morning but when I opened the door, I could smell the smoke of 1000 burning tyres. There were demonstrations everywhere, a general strike, even though Nepal is a gentle place if one can make such a generalisation, today there was an atmosphere of violence in the air. What had happened was that the price of food had risen almost overnight. This had happened because people in Hong Kong or London or New York, or wherever who had control over investment funds, of hundreds of millions of dollars had sensed that the mortgage crisis was about to burst and they’d moved (at least partly this was the reason) they had moved millions of millions of dollars to basic commodities like food which always do well in times of crisis – good for them, they were really, really smart. But it wasn’t so good for the Nepalese, because many of them who had until then had to deal with two meals a day, now realised that they would have to feed their family only one. I’ve been travelling for the past twenty four years in many different parts of the global South, and I already had seen anew that economic globalisation, the integration of all the world’s markets into one big market was a revolution in human history although it was still the outcome of that revolution was and still is up for grabs. Still, I had seen economic globalisation had taken some of the most vulnerable people and marginalised them still further, made their traditional way of life impossible without giving them a real and sustainable alternative. And it also caused devastating damage to the seas, the rivers, the soil and even the climate itself.

Now it is important for me to say right here at the outset that I’m not against globalisation. Globalisation per se has promoted and spread some amazing ideas and techniques from feminism to human rights to, penicillin, to the internet, to vaccinations . But economic globalisation has proceeded, especially over the last 30 years, in a very specific and ideological recipe. It has become an engine, a machine, dedicated to unlimited and voracious economic growth with really no concern for the equitable distribution of that growth or for such externalities as the devastation of the forests or the polluting of the rivers. Even though, in its ideology it talks a lot about human freedom and human enterprise and the value of human selfishness, it is not driven by the needs of human beings really, but is driven primarily by global, multinational corporations who have together with governments created a world that for them is virtually borderless. Corporate-led globalisation has also pushed for the privatisation of education, of the health system, of even the prison system and it has commercialised such global commons as our fresh water and has its eyes set even on the gene pool. Economic globalisation is affecting everyone on this planet in a very deep way and my argument is that if Judaism is to maintain our integrity as an ethical and spiritual tradition, we must begin to engage in a passionate way with our ideas and our actions in trying together with other traditions to shape the world in a way that can hold a higher vision than merely the commercial. I was once friends with a black Muslim, someone from the nation of Islam, and he said to me something that I found memorable and even a little bit haunting. He said ‘the problem with you Jews is that you know there’s one God but you don’t tell nobody’. Whether or not we have to missionise about one God or not, I do believe that the time has come for us to tell what we have deeply within our ethical tradition, what we have to contribute to the discourse in the world about the future of the world. There’s no time like right now. I know that not everyone agrees.

There are a lot of Jews who feel that by engaging Jewishly in global concerns this will come at the expense in a deep involvement in the Jewish existential struggle for survival, now I totally disagree with them but even if I didn’t, I would say that at this point the human condition is that we are global in what we eat, what we earn, what we breathe, we live and influence, through a network of global connections, that affects every aspect of our being. To take only the ethical and isolate that and say I’m global in the stocks I buy, the food I eat the gas I put in my car, the Philippinos who take of my Grandmother, even the kippas I wear that are made in China. But to say the ethical there I am not global, there I am only local that is I believe to risk our very soul. I remember once on Tisha B’Av standing in Puerto Prince and looking out at the slums, City Soleil, the most terrible slums I’ve ever seen, and thinking ‘you know, I’m mourning the destruction of Jerusalem, but really what I’m mourning, what we’re really mourning, is places like this, this is where Jerusalem is still burning, the flames are still licking, where God is in exile, his Shechina is in exile because of places like this and because we are not able to take responsibility for each other. And redemption will come when we can recognise human solidarity and unity. Now I don’t believe that this has to come at the expense of our Jewishness, in fact I believe that it should come and can come through a deepening of our Jewishness and our Jewish identity. There’s so much that is so rich and fruitful the discussions we have been having since the beginning of the Torah, all the way through the Talmud and Chassidus and so on and so forth, about what economic justice is, are really amazing, an amazing treasure. But even before the specifics I believe that we have to, in a general way, begin to reverse what is happening now , which is that the power of the market is really leading humanity towards, I’m not exactly sure where. We have to transform and reverse this, the market has an honoured place in Judaism, I love markets, they have to be contained within a larger circle of responsibility that can hold a vision of a greater human good and of the good of each individual. I believe this happens in the Torah itself where Genesis leads us from the story of the Garden of Eden through the story of Joseph where the storage of food becomes an entity unto itself, and ends up enslaving the Egyptians and finally the Jews. Then redemption happens under the sign of the manna which cannot be stored and which you can collect exactly what each person needs for each day which the Torah defines as an ‘omer’ of mann. Moshe tells Aron at the end of the story take an omer of mann, put it in a jar and put in in the Holy of Holies, the holy Ark , the only other thing the Torah tells us to put there is the ten commandments itself. I see this as a symbol of Judaism’s aspiration, that we put first and foremost the needs of every human being, the daily needs, the daily food, in front of our eyes as a holy symbol. We are in a struggle for the sacredness, the upholding of the sacredness of life. There’s a commercial I often see in the airport, HSBC, the bank, has a series of commercials, one of them says (and the series is – ‘in the future’) one is this picture of a beautiful fish, apparently still swimming in the ocean, still alive, that has a bar code coming up as if from the inside into its very skin – and the tag line is ‘in the future the food chain and the supply chain will merge’. And this to me means that HSBC thinks it’s ok to say that the chain or the web of life will be totally subsumed within the web of consumption, production and profit. I earlier mentioned that some people who think that Jewish global concern will inevitably come at the expense of our own engagement and our own survival I think the opposite is true. I think that many of us know with every fibre of our being that in this century we are in a struggle to uphold the sacredness of life and to the extent that Judaism can martial the deep wisdom it has and become part of the struggle, to that extent we will remain attractive and relevant and potent, for every reason in the world we have to have skin in this game.

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