The Great Society

06/03/2017 at 11:18 Leave a comment

“The Great Society”

 

Parashat Mishpatim

Neil F. Blumofe

25 February 2017

 

In the spring of 1964, addressing the students at Ohio University, President Lyndon Johnson declaimed, “and with your courage and with your compassion and your desire, we will build a Great Society.  It is a society where no child will go unfed, and no youngster will go unschooled.”  In this time, the American people needed direction, and they needed help.

 

After the ravages of World War II, and in the thick of the Cold War – and most immediately after the assassination of the president, John F. Kennedy in 1963, it seemed that economic and social conditions for the people were not stable and it seemed too that America was adrift.  The vision of the Great Society called for dealing with some of the most difficult areas that hampered the progress and the promise of America.  After Roosevelt’s New Deal, after Kennedy’s New Frontier, Johnson’s Great Society was meant to address the inequality of civil rights, was supposed to tackle the blight of poverty, and was geared to improve education, lower medical costs for older Americans, and improve access to healthy living for millions of Americans.  In addition, the Great Society established the National Foundation for the Arts and the National Foundation for the Humanities – in addition to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting – which includes the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio.

 

Improvements were sought too in transportation, consumer protection, environment, housing, rural development, and labor.  Before Johnson left office, giving way to President Nixon – 226 out of 252 major legislative requests had been met, federal aid to the poor had risen from $9.9 billion in 1960 to $30 billion in 1968, 1 million Americans had been retrained under previously non-existent federal programs and 2 million children had participated in the Head Start program.  Federal expenditures on education rose from $4 billion to $12 billion and spending on health rose from $5 billion to $16 billion.

 

To seed the dramatic oratory of 1964, there were practical if not controversial plans and policies drafted.  More than any rhetoric, it was the details and the commitment to work with various coalitions on the finer, specific points, that determined the implementation of much of Johnson’s vision of the Great Society.

 

And here we stand, just after the giving of the Aseret haDibrot, the 10 Commandments, after the revelation of the people, and after the shaking, smoking mountain again comes to rest – and after our experience of slavery and not having an effective voice to advocate for our rights, we are now guided to fill out the broader vision of a trajectory of and purpose to our lives, guided by Divine inspiration, in the exquisite cellular detail of what we do, every day.

 

Our Torah now launches into great design in order to shape and give understanding to a principled order for the Israelites to thrive in their newly-experienced freedom.  With these standards of behavior, each person is meant to struggle to overcome their baser nature, and to develop an internalized social conscience as a bulwark against selfishness, arrogance, entitlement, greed, and consolidated privilege.  As each of these laws rolls past the Israelites in dazzling detail, they are energized, and as an extension of the revelation itself, the people as one exclaim, “kol asher diber haShem, na’aseh v’nishma – all the words that God has spoken, we will do and we will obey.”  Nothing will get stuck in subcommittee, there will be no Executive Order signed to subvert a reasonable process of debate among lawmakers – all have access to the same information – and all have found a shared spirit of cooperation — common ground to work together to improve their lives through individual restraint, accountability, and governance.

 

If we had a sustained conversation about the greatest ills and challenges of our community, what would we decide were our highest priorities?  How have things changed from the challenges that the Great Society was trying to address 50 years ago?  How have things changed since the giving of the Torah?  If we were able to restrain ourselves and not speak about specific personalities – dreaming that things will only improve if Moses or Aaron were relieved of their power — rather, if we could identify not superficial solutions but rather, moral and ethical resolutions worth fighting for to address our common maladies, how can we forestall a possible implosion of what we hold dear, and how can we advance from our narrow-minded positions inherited after the trauma of slavery?

 

Our sages have given this much thought – and they teach that the scaffolding of society debuted in our Torah this week stems from a commitment to reduce jealousy and avarice among us.  We are to care for those most degraded among us, for they too are created in the image of God.  Rambam and Sforno – two medieval commentators, suggest that we cannot truly know ourselves until we humanize our neighbor.  Until we see our neighbor as an extension of who we are, our self-interest will overshadow any attempts that we make to improve the condition of the world around us – as the mystics teach us, tikkun olam starts within ourselves – if we can put ourselves into perspective, then we can find a way to reach out to others.

 

No one will deny the wisdom of our tradition – I think that the sticking point is for all of us to admit to ourselves and each other who exactly our neighbors are.  Is this moral code applicable to everyone who desires it?  The difficult question for us to consider is – who do we feel belongs in our world, and who does not?  What rights do we give the outsider, or our enemy juxtaposed to the rights that we reserve for our close circle, our family?  Where is the boundary, and where is the cut off?  What are the rights and privileges of membership into our conception of the world, and what are the consequences of not belonging?

 

Are human rights truly universal – and if so, by what measuring stick are they assessed?  How much hypocrisy and injustice can we live with, as we make our decisions and as we enjoy the lives that we pursue?  How much effort, or sweat-equity do we want to invest in these questions in order for us to have comfort and feel satisfied that we have done something – how far are we willing to go to fight for the principles and standards in which we believe?  Are we even willing to have this conversation among people that we call our friends?

 

How much are the principles that we seek problematized by competing, contingent interests?  How fast can we hold onto nuance, thus increasing our risk for misunderstanding, censure, or condemnation?  After all of this, can we still feel that we have a community?

 

Mishpatim teaches us to start with the world around us – to cultivate respectful or at least cheerfully tolerable relationships among all of the people that we encounter.  From this place, expanding outward, we can create formidable bastions of justice that can withstand and curb the inevitable trespasses of wrongdoing and draconian presumption – and we can realize that this quest for integrity is no different than the challenges presented at the foot of Mt. Sinai so long ago.  Like the villain Amalek, the affliction of poverty and injustice will never depart from our midst.  As inheritors of our great Jewish tradition and the decisions of our American republic, it is now our decision of how comprehensively we are willing to address these issues with our courage, compassion, and desire, to keep hardship and suffering at bay.

 

Shabbat Shalom.

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