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Globalization and Responsibility

04/06/2015 08:24:00 AM


Globalization and Responsibility
Rosh Hashana 2005 by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

Genesis, chapter 11: Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words. 2And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3They said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks and burn them hard."--Brick served them as stone, and bitumen served them as mortar.--4And they said, "Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world." 5The LORD came down to look at the city and tower that man had built, 6and the LORD said, "If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach. 7Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another's speech." 8Thus the LORD scattered them from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. 9That is why it was called Babel, because there the LORD confounded the speech of the whole earth; and from there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

What was the sin of Babel? What so disturbed God that it was necessary to end the project and scatter its builders? God didn't stop Joseph's brothers from selling him intot slavery. God didn't stop Pharoah from enslaving Israel. God didn't stop Nebuchadnezer from destroying the Holy Temple. But God stopped Babel. Why? The Torah doesn't say. So the Midrash, the imaginative tradition, steps in. The sin, teaches one Midrash, was in the initial intention of the builders. They built a Tower to ascend to heaven, to assault God, and take God's place as ruler of the universe. Yet another Midrash locates the sin in the process. As the tower climbed into the sky, the worth and dignity of the human being declined. When a brick fell from the top, the workers stopped to mourn. When a human being fell, he was ignored.

You've been to Babel. You've stood on its tower. You've taken in its vistas. You phone up United Airlines and the woman who checks your reservation is sitting at a desk in Manilla. You call the Dell computer help line and you are connected to a technician in Bangalor. Our clothing is made in China, our cars in Japan, our appliances in Singapore. Fresh fruit is no longer seasonal ­ in November and December, you can eat peaches and watermelons from Chile. Your ATM card works as well in Amsterdam and Bangkok as it does here. You can chat online with your cousin in Mexico City and play chess with your aunt in Haifa. No Bar Mitzvah is kosher unless they serve sushi.

With global manufacturing and global markets, global communications and global new services, the boundaries of nations and cultures have dissolved into a unified global community. In the Bible's tale, we are of the one language and one speech. In the words of journalist Tom Friedman, the world is flat. This is called Globalization. People, products, ideas, capital, flow freely across the globe. National sovereignty, cultural identity, economic boundaries give way before new entities: multi-national corporations, international banks, transnational lobbies, global entertainment. Today, you can go anywhere in the world and eat Kentucky Fried Chicken, shop at Walmart and watch Sex and the City.

We may find this charming. It enriches our cultural life. We can have coffee from Sumatra, films from India, fashion from Italy. You can place a prayer into the Kotel, online. It opens limitless business and cultural opportunities. It bind us together. According to Tom Friedman, no two countries that have MacDonalds have ever fought a war against each other.

But there are dark sides to globalization. What we so readily invite into our lives, our homes and our neighborhoods, is experienced elsewhere as an invasion. There are many who, as in the Midrash, perceive the Tower as an assault on God, as an attempt to rule the world in place of God.

Try and grasp how this feels: A great irresistible world power arrives and the village you live in, the tribe you belong to, the nation of your allegiance, are suddenly overwhelmed. Gone are the boundaries that define your home, your community, your world. Gone are the symbols that define your identity. This foreign power will shape your future and your children's future -- a power that has absolutely no regard for you, your customs and yours ways, your values, your pieties or your principles. Before this overwhelming power, your place in the world grows terribly small. You lose control. You disappear. In the village, in the tribe, you had identity, you were someone important, your voice was heard, you counted. But in this new world, you have no name, no face, no significance, no place. You're invisible.

What is it like to be a religious Moslem when your teenage daughter insists on dressing and talking and acting like the American rock princess she watches on MTV? What do you do when neighborhood MacDonalds serves your children foods that are forbidden and the neighborhood movie theater brings images that are to your values, obscene? What do you do when the local industry that has supported you for generations is off-shored to some distant land, or your farmland is expropriated by a faceless multi-national conglomerate, or your forests and fields are cleared to make way for new development owned by people far away? How do you stop it? How do you protect your identity, your dignity, your place in the world?

If you are Mohammed Atta, you highjack an airliner and fly it into the World Trade Center. Did you ever wonder why Al Quida attacked the World Trade Center on 9/11? If they wanted to destroy America, any one of us could have suggested much better targets. But what they wanted to destroy was precisely that: the center of world trade.

Globalization destroys boundaries and obliterates local cultures. Globalization makes people feel powerless and invisible as they lose their identity, culture, values in the face of a relentless force. They lose control of their world. They lose their dignity.

And people who feel that way can be dangerous. They may turn inward and reassert the loyalties of the tribe, the verities of ancient faith and ancient ways. Tribalism is one response to globalization. Terrorism is another. In desperation, they fight back. The more invisible and powerless they feel, the less they have to lose, the more aggressive and reckless their response will be.

In the many languages the dispossessed speak, they called it Jihad. According to the dark prophecy of Rutgers University Prof Benjamin Barber, we and our children will experience incessant war. For these fighters, "war [is] not an instrument of policy but an emblem of identity, an expression of community, an end in itself." Jihad is not a struggle to achieve any particular end, but itself a reclaiming of significance and control. Faluja is our future. A great super-power mired in endless, and seemingly futile conflicts with bands of insurgents egged on by religious fanatics. For what purpose? Only one thing, to bring down the Tower.

It is not just international. In the midst of this explosion of globalization and its technological wonders, there are communities in America anxious to return Creationism to high school biology textbooks. There is a powerful resurgence of the most fundamentalist Christianity across the country. Pastor Rick Warren's fundamentalist prescription for The Purpose Driven Life, has sold 23 million copies, making it the best selling non-fiction book in American history. This is American Christian tribalism. Why now? As they experience a global culture that makes people feel smaller and less significant, a literal reading of the Bible reasserts their place as the center of God's creation and care.

The loss of identity is one of the dark sides of globalization. We have discovered the other just this past month: The vast numbers who have been left behind by global economics and the shocking disparity between rich and poor that results. For those with skills and resources, globalization offers great opportunities. But for those without, globalization is a disaster. 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina are essentially tragic expressions of the same phenomenon.

Who are the 15,000 people sleeping tonight on the floor of the Astrodome in Houston? They are the ones left behind when all of America's textile mills moved from our Southern states off-shore to China. So they came to Louisiana to find jobs at Walmart, often selling the same products they had once manufactured. But work at Walmart only pays minimum wage, $5.85 an hour. Do the math. Could you raise a family on $12,168 a year, or $25, 388 for a couple? How do you afford child care, health insurance, housing? The government sets the poverty line for a family of four at $18,810. By that definition, the census bureau estimates that one in six children, some 13 million children in America lives in poverty. 36 million Americans live below the poverty line. 45 million Americans lack health insurance, including 8.4 million children. And 14 million have critical housing needs.

That's here in America. According to the United Nations, one sixth of the world's population, that's a billion people, live on less than a dollar a day and cannot satisfy the most basic human needs. More than eight million die each year from contaminated water. Six million from malnutrition or starvation. Two million from treatable diseases. AIDS has claimed the lives of ten million Africans and it is projected to kill 25 million more in the next decade.

And it's not just the poverty, it's the disparity, the polarization. Worldwide, the top 20% of high-income earners account for 86 percent of all private consumption, while the poorest 20% account for only 1.3% of consumption. The richest fifth consume sixteen times more meat, and seventeen times more energy than the poorest fifth. Of the world's total population, 65% have never made a telephone call; 40% have no access to electricity. Americans spend more on cosmetics and Europeans on ice cream, than it would cost to provide schooling and sanitation for the two billion people who go without both.

In American, at the start of the 1990's incomes of corporate executives were on the average 42 times those of blue-collar workers. Ten years later, they were 419 times higher. Of the net economic surplus of over a trillion dollars generated between 1979 and 1999 in America, 95% went to a mere 5% of Americans. According to an estimate from the UN Development Program, a mere 4% of the wealth of the world's 225 richest individuals would be sufficient to provide elementary education, medical care and nutrition for all the world's poor. As the Tower grew taller, the worth of a human individual decline. They would mourn a fallen brick. A fallen human being, they ignored.

In the history of human cultures, email and internet access are very new. CNN, MTV, Citibank, Beyonce, Starbucks, are all new. Globalization is not new. Globalization is an old story, and no one knows it better than we do. Twenty-seven centuries ago, the world's first great global empire came to power and conquered the whole civilized world. The Assyrians were a ferocious Northern Mesopotamian military state. Control of the world in the 8th century meant controlling trade from Egypt to Mesopotamia. That meant controlling the highway that stretched north to south. And that highway went right through our front yard. In the year 722 BCE the Assyrian empire swept across the Fertile Crescent, destroy the northern kingdom of Israel, and exiled its ten tribes. They enslaved Jerusalem and the southern kingdom of Judah as a vassal state. Witnessing this cataclysm was the world's first scholar and critic of globalization, a prophet named Isaiah.

When everything that's sacred to you is compromised by an unstoppable global empire, how do you respond? If you're Mohammed Attah, you fly planes into buildings. If you're Isaiah, you construct a revolutionary new religious vision.

Isaiah witnessed the arrival of this global power, Assyria. He witnessed the bellicose nationalism of his countrymen, swearing to repel the invader and avenge their comrades in the name of the God who had chosen them. And Isaiah drew three conclusions.

First, he realized that his God was too small. God is used as a scalpel ­ dissecting and quartering the world. Us/Them; our people/those people; the faithful/ the infidel; we the children of light/those creatures of darkness. God is used as a weapon to bash those who are unlike us, who challenge our values and attitudes, who make us uncomfortable. God is used a banner to make every atrocity, iniquity, and felony holy and honorable. Isaiah proclaimed: God won't be used.

We may speak of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Israel, but God doesn't belong to anyone's tribe. God refuses to be owned by anyone. Isaiah meets God in a moment of transcendent vision, and joins the angelic choir: "Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, adonai tzevaot, me'lo kol ha-aretz kevodo. Holy, holy, holy, the Lord of Hosts, His presence fills all the earth." God is universal, the God of all the world.

Monotheism, for Isaiah, must never be a statement of exclusivity ­ God is ours and not yours ­ as it is for Osama bin Ladn. Monotheism is the ultimate expression of inclusion. Baruch atah adonai, elohaynu melech ha-olam. We acknowledge God who is master of the world. All the world. Therefore, you can take my village. But you can't take my God. You can overrun my nation, dissolve its boundaries, assimilate us into your empire of the faceless, but you can't touch the face of my God. You can exile me from my home, despoil my land, but I am not lost, because wherever I go, I know God goes with me.

In the face of the overwhelming might of the global Assyrian empire, Isaiah invented the idea of the global God, a God mightier than all the Assyrian armies. It was his greatest act of resistance.

When Assyria invaded, the tiny of kingdom of Judah became a province of in great global empire. For the citizens of Judah, the horizons of human experience suddenly opened up wide. Imagine people who had spent their lives in tiny villages among a circle of family and relations suddenly encountering humanity ­ people of different completion and culture and language and custom. Imagine the wonder of it all. Out of this experience, Isaiah arrives a second revelation. Villages are overcome by cities, and cities by states, and states by empire. No social structure is permanent or inviolable. The locus of social reality, therefore, is in no particular structure. Rather, it lies within, within the individual. It is the individual that God creates, not the village, or the city or the state. And it is the human individual that God endows with worth, with value, with significance. In the words of Genesis:

26And God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth." 27And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. 28God blessed themŠ

Centuries later, the rabbis of the Talmud marveled at this radical notion: When God created elephants, He created herds of them. God created flocks of geese. Schools of fish. But only one man. That was inefficient. If God desired a world of humanity would it not have been wiser to create whole populations at once? Why one man? In Mishna Sanhedrin they taught:

Only one man was created to teach the infinite value of the human individual. For if you destroy one life, it is as if you have destroyed the world. And if you save one life it is as if you have saved the world. So every human being can walk the world and properly say: bishveelee nivrah ha-olam, for my sake was the whole world created.

Isaiah revealed the concept of the infinite preciousness of the human individual. This is not some benign Sunday school truism. This idea comes with revolutionary consequences. For if each individual is of infinite value, then society must be organized to protect their dignity. Society does not have to guarantee equality of income, or wealth, or even opportunity. Society must assure equality of dignity. Each human being has the right to a dignified life. Even the most vulnerable.

The Torah teaches: 
20You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. 
21You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. 22If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, 24If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them as a creditor; exact no interest from them. 25If you take your neighbor's garment in pledge, you must return it to him before the sun sets; 26it is his only clothing, the only covering for his skill. In what else shall he sleep? Therefore, if he cries out to Me, I will pay heed, for I am compassionate.

Beyond deprivation, poverty humiliates. What happens to the soul of the mother or the father who can't provide a child with milk or medicine or schoolbooks? That humiliation tarnishes the divine image. It offends God. A civilization is measured not by its military or cultural or commercial glories, but by the way it treats the weakest and most vulnerable in its midst. A civilization that oppresses the poor and abuses the outcast, earns God's wrath. Especially when that oppression comes from government, from those entrusted with law and with justice. Isaiah proclaims in the tenth chapter:

Those who write out evil laws 
And compose wicked statues 
2To subvert the cause of the poor, 
To rob of the needy of My people of their rights; 
That widows may be their spoil, 
And orphans their plunder! 
3What will you do on the day of punishment, 
When the calamity comes from afar? Where will you hide?

And when that mistreatment is wrapped a banner of religious piety, it earns Isaiah's most bitter scorn. The purpose of prayer and ritual, the function of religion, is to expand the circle of our moral concern. The one who prays fervently, believes passionately, keeps tradition scrupulously, but remains hunkered stubbornly in his own narrow moral myopia, denies God. In the first chapter, Isaiah declares:

10Hear the word of the LORD, 
You chieftains of Sodom; 

Give ear to our God's instruction, 
You folk of Gomorrah! 
11"What need have I of all your sacrifices?" 
Says the LORD. 
"I am sated with burnt offerings of rams, 
14Your new moon ceremonies and festival offering 
Fill Me with loathing; 
They nauseate Me, 
I cannot endure them. 
15And when you lift up your hands, 
I will turn My eyes away from you; 
Though you pray at length, 
I will not listen. 
Your hands are stained with crime‹ 
16Wash yourselves clean; 
Put your evil doings 
Away from My sight. 
Cease to do evil; 
17Learn to do good. 
Devote yourselves to justice; 
Aid the wronged. 
Uphold the rights of the orphan; 
Defend the cause of the widow.

"Why, asks Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his interpretation of Isaiah, "should religion, the essence of which is worship of God, put such stress on justice for humanity? Does not the preoccupation with morality tend to divest religion of immediate devotion to God? Why should a worldly virtue like justice be so important to the Holy One of Israel? Perhaps the answer lies here: justice is not just a value; it is God's part of human life, God's stake in human history.

"The universe is done. The greater masterpiece still undone, still in the process of being created, is history. For accomplishing God's grand design, God needs the help of human beings. The human being is and has the instrument of God, which one may or may not use in consonance with the grand design. Life is clay, and justice the mold in which God wants history to be shaped."

God is the author of history. This was Isaiah's most powerful idea. To modern ears, this sounds strange and primitive and more than a bit unbelievable. Consider for a moment what he might mean.

We read history as the story of political and economic power, of nations and interests struggling for control. There is another element to history that requires a much more sensitive reader, and that's the impact of ideas and values. How does an idea, a moral vision, a concept of the world, shape events and shape lives? When told that Pope in Rome objected to his policies, Stalin once asked derisively how many battalions the Pope commands. Fifty years later, Russian leaders discovered the power of a Pope and his moral vision to shape the course of history. Armies, economies, interests, governments hold power. But ask Nelson Mandela how much power the idea of justice possesses. Ask Lech Walesa and Vacslav Havel how much power there is to the love of freedom. Ask Martin Luther King how much power there is to the notion of equality. Ask David Ben Gurion and Golda Meir about the power of visions and dreams.

For Isaiah, God acts in history. God's demand for justice ­ a justice that advocates the preciousness of human beings, a justice that assures an equality of dignity for human beings, a justice that promotes human solidarity ­ God's demand for justice is the real story of history. Those who pursue justice will be sustained. Those who don't will disappear

It's not about the power we possess. In history, the powerful come and go. Assyria is gone. Babylonia is gone. Persia is gone. The Greeks and the Romans are gone. The Holy Roman Empire, the British Empire, the Nazis, the Soviets ­ all powerful, all gone. According to Isaiah, history is about the justice we bring to humanity. It's justice that determines whether a civilization, even a powerful global civilization thrives or vanishes.

Our task is startlingly clear: Either we use our global power to construct a world of justice. Or we face a future of never-ending warfare, and ultimately the destruction of our own civilization. Choose your prophet: Isaiah or Osama. Choose between the future prophesied by Isaiah, or the future predicted by Mohammed Atta and Osama bin Laden.

Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of Great Britain, writes: "The globalization of communication, trade and culture globalizes human responsibility likewise. The freedom of the few may not be purchased at the price of the enslavement of the many to poverty, ignorance and disease."

Can we this be done? We've globalize Starbucks and MTV, can we globalize justice and human dignity? Isaiah in the end was a prophet of great hope.

Remember the story of Babel? In that story, humanity began as one, but exploited this unity for purposes of conquest, domination, and viciousness. So God divided us and scattered us across the globe. Suppose, Isaiah imagined, there were some power that could yet bring humanity together, from the corners of the globe, and direct their energies to the service of justice. What would happen then? Then we would witness the story of Babel in reverse. Babel in reverse: not scattering but uniting; not conquering but nurturing; not demeaning the human being, but upholding human dignity; not assaulting and displacing God, but seeking and revering God. Isaiah prophecied a future that is the reverse of Babel. A future that is the globalization of redemption.

2In the days to come, 
The Mount of the LORD's House 
Shall stand firm above the mountains 
And tower above the hills; 
And all the nations 
Shall gaze on it with joy. 
3And the many peoples shall go and say: 
Let us go up to the Mount of the LORD, 
To the House of the God of Jacob; 
That He may instruct us in His ways, 
And that we may walk in His paths." 
For instruction shall come from Zion, 
The word of the LORD from Jerusalem. 
4Thus He will judge among the nations 
And arbitrate for the many peoples, 
And they shall beat their swords into plowshares 
And their spears into pruning hooks: 
Nation shall not take up 
Sword against nation; 
They shall never again know war.

May it be in our days.

* This document, or any portion thereof, may not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.


Sat, August 15 2020 25 Av 5780