A Reflection on my Moral and Spiritual Life
I want to talk about the importance and meaning of reflection to ethical living. Think about the basic meaning of a reflection. Consider what you see when you look at a reflection -- what Michael Jackson referred to as "The Man in the Mirror." The first and most important figure to whom we must apply a spiritual vision and a moral interrogation is ourselves. To me, some of the most vital moral and spiritual work we can do is in self-examination and self-criticism, identifying, learning from and overcoming our own transgressions, weaknesses and failures.
I was raised Orthodox Jewish in an immigrant working class family in Brooklyn. My father came to the US from Poland as a teenager in the early 1930s. My parents met on a picket line when my mother was fired for joining a union. I lived a very sheltered life in a small apartment in a large apartment house, walking distance from my yeshiva elementary school and from the two synagogues that we prayed at. I spent six days a week in yeshiva starting when I was about 4-1/2, all the way through high school, and Friday nights and Saturdays at the synagogue from as early as I can remember. I learned to read Hebrew pretty much simultaneously with English, and spent half of every school day studying Torah and the prophets, and later the Talmud in yeshiva high school.
My moral and spiritual education was divided between the yeshiva and synagogue experience, and my parents', mostly my father's, trade union consciousness and reading material. I had a little crew of friends from mostly similar immigrant working class backgrounds. We got together on Sabbath afternoons between services. My father would tell them very unfunny jokes -- these became known as "Novick jokes" -- usually involving puns in Yiddish. My favorite one of these not-so-humorous stories, however, involved an "Apikoires" (an Epicurean, atheistic) Jew in a little village in Europe. As my father recounted it, this man would ostentatiously smoke a cigar on the Sabbath while his neighbors walked to and from the synagogue. The village priest, spotting this, thought he might have a good candidate for conversion, and asked if the man was willing to discuss Christianity and Jesus. "Sure, why not?" After several weeks of lengthy discussions about original sin, the virgin birth, and the resurrection, the priest asks the man, "So, do you think you want to accept Jesus as your savior and become a Christian?" The Apikoires replies, "Nu, i ask you, I don't believe in the father, I should believe in the son?"
When I was in fourth grade, my English teacher brought a book of poetry to class. She read to us the poem "Abou ben Adhem" by Leigh Hunt. It made an immediate and striking impression on me. I memorized it upon hearing it once. The poem, which you may know, goes:
Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold.
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the Presence in the room he said,
"What writest thou?" The vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered, "The names of those who love the Lord."
"And is mine one?" said Abou. "Nay, not so,"
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerily still, and said, "I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men."
The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blessed,
And lo! Ben Adhem's name led all the rest.
I can't say I consciously thought of myself as a humanist at that early age, but the way in which my father's tale and that poem spoke to me reflects the attitude or philosophy I was beginning to develop. Another factor was my father's trade unionist class consciousness. In fifth grade, we had an oratorical contest, in which we were supposed to write and deliver a speech about a famous or significant American Jew. I chose Samuel Gompers, the founder of the cigar makers union and first president of the American Federation of Labor. I was upset and mystified when I didn't win the contest, because I felt (I think objectively) that mine had been the best speech. My father said, "Well, what did you expect? All the judges were bosses."
I became increasingly aware of and alienated by various forms of hypocrisy and hierarchy within the synagogue community. This became more acute when I got my first summer job with one of the pillars of the community, who owned a couple of used clothing stores on the Lower East Side. He got a court injunction against a former competitor whom he had driven out of business. That man had gone to a religious court, a Bet Din, and gotten a rabbinical ruling that my boss had violated Jewish business ethics. When the failed competitor made a placard announcing the Bet Din's finding of unethical behavior, and tried to picket my boss's store, my boss got a court order from a civil court ordering him away from the property and called the cops to enforce it. Yet he was still given pride of place within the synagogue in Brooklyn where we prayed. As the civil rights movement began to develop, I also became increasingly upset about the use of the term "Schwarzes" (Blacks, in Yiddish) by my grandparents and others in the synagogue.
My father had told stories of his World War II experiences in the US South, where he found the residents treated the German POWs he was guarding better and more respectfully than they did Black people. He was proudly a member of a chapter of Jewish War Veterans, as were most of my uncles, but I think he felt an affinity between how he was treated as a Jew in both Europe and the US and how he saw Black people being treated.
I graduated Yeshiva University High School for Boys in 1964. I had a major decision to make as graduation approached. My parents, especially my mother, wanted me to attend Yeshiva University and continue my religious studies along with my college work, in order to be ordained as a rabbi. I was going through a tremendous amount of confusion about both my sexual orientation and even my gender identity, with no ability to talk about it, and didn't feel I could deal with going to YU. I was a National Merit Scholarship finalist, the only one at my school. In the application for the scholarship, you had to specify what school you would use it at if you won. Under great pressure to name Yeshiva University, I instead put down Columbia. My high school principal, the son-in-law of the president of Yeshiva U. and never happy with me, scotched my chances for the scholarship with an underwhelming recommendation. I ended up going to Brooklyn College, then tuition free, which I could attend while living at home.
At Brooklyn, I swiftly got caught up in social and political issues. By 1967, I was elected student body president in the first campus wide election since the student government had been abolished for opposing the Korean War, and of course I immediately got involved in the struggle against the draft and the Vietnam War, with tremendous student support including a massive and successful student strike -- until we began to address the question of racism within Brooklyn College, which at the time had only 25 Black students and a dozen Puerto Ricans out of 10,000 students. Participating in the struggles for Black community control of the public schools in their own neighborhoods, and for open admissions to Brooklyn College, so that Black and Puerto Rican high school graduates could attend along with the then 85% Jewish student body, I suddenly found myself confronting racism among my Jewish co-religionists. People I had grown up with joined reactionary and racist formations like the Jewish Defense League, which was anti-Black before it became anti-Arab. Students who had massively and militantly opposed the Vietnam War, who had demanded student rights and campus democracy, turned against us with arguments that admitting Black and Puerto Rican students would degrade the institution, damage the value of their degrees, and deny access to their younger brothers and sisters.
For me, this was an object lesson that unless we are struggling consciously against internalized and institutionalized racism, any other progressive struggles are built on sand. It reinforced the idea that I opened this reflection with -- that moral, spiritual and political struggle must be self-critical. We must apply those ethical principles first of all to ourselves, examine our own complacency, compliance, and complicity with systems of oppression and exploitation. I also experienced this in other ways around the same time, as people whom I had gone to school with rushed to Israel to try to fight in the Six-Day War. I remember seeing one former classmate later on TV as a settler in the West Bank, waving an Uzi over his head and screaming threats at the Palestinians. I on the other hand, felt that too many Jews had forgotten the lessons of our own oppression and had become oppressors in turn. They had lost the power of reflection, and of examining their own reflection.
I believe reflective self-criticism is also a powerful organizing tool in dealing with issues of racism, sexism, privilege and oppression, because by looking self-critically at our own reflections, at the man (or woman) in the mirror, we can model the changes we must make, in order to live in a better world. Doing so in this humble way is also far more appealing and engaging than pious, self-righteous or judgmental denunciations of others. I have done anti-racist and anti-fascist in that spirit ever since, with the understanding that when you point a finger, even at Nazis or at the agents of state repression, three fingers are pointing back at yourself. It is our consent to and participation in systems of oppression and exploitation that gives the oppressors and exploiters their strength. As we withdraw that consent and extract ourselves from collaborating with them, we materially change the balance of forces. We increase the prospects for human liberation and for a reverential and restorative relationship with the natural environment, the web of life, and the rest of humanity.