In February 2009 I was asked to contribute a short text to a collection of Lenten Meditations that members of the congregation of Bloor Street United Church in Toronto were bringing together. (The invitation came, I suppose, because in the preceding several months I had delivered three public lectures at the church, two of them in the Reel Activism series organized by Karin Brothers.) The terms were quite strict: meditations were to be less than four hundred words in length, were to incorporate reflections on one or more of three set scriptural passages (in my case, Jeremiah 26: 1-16, Romans 11: 1-12, and John 10: 19-42), and were to be followed by the author's name and a short prayer. The result was this rather elliptical text—which I supplemented, some months later, with an Afterword which unfolds some of its implications. The present version incorporates a small correction in the third paragraph, for which I'm grateful to Lia Tarachansky. The Afterword has not previously been published.
In late 2002, one of my students, knowing that I had been speaking out in public against the impending American invasion of Iraq, sent me, as encouragement, a quotation from the Talmud: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
I found this moving. Perhaps because I knew my efforts to help expose the fraudulence of the coming war would likely be futile, I valued all the more this incitement to courage and stamina, with its reminder that what counts—what is obligatory—is our participation, now, in an unassuming practice of justice and mercy.
Though my student didn’t say so, this Talmudic text is a midrashic expansion of words ascribed to the early-second-century Rabbi Tarfon, in the Pirkei Avot (or Ethics of the Sages), 2:16. Tarfon is elsewhere said to have debated with Rabbi Akiba the question of which was greater, ma‘aseh (deeds or action), or learning. Tarfon said action, and Akiba said learning; they concluded that learning is greater, because it leads to action (Kiddushin 40b). The same ethical imperative seems again to be implied.
This may seem a peculiar way to enter a meditation on the texts proposed to me: Jeremiah 26: 1-16, Romans 11: 1-12, and John 10: 19-42. But I would note that all three passages represent, as action, an undaunted proclamation of a message that the speaker takes to be both true and obligatory. Jeremiah is threatened with death for prophesying (bar penitence) the destruction of Jerusalem; Paul, quoting Elijah, implies that his own life has been sought for proclaiming the fulfillment of prophecy; and John represents Jesus as threatened with stoning for his proclamation of divinity.
These texts cluster around experiences of historical catastrophe. Jeremiah anticipates (or his redacted texts remember) the destruction of the kingdom of Judah. Paul—Saulus before his conversion—served the Temple authorities in repressing the messianism that culminated in the rising of C.E. 66-70 (and Romans 16: 11 suggests a link to the colonial elite, the Herodians). John, writing a generation or more after the cataclysmic siege of Jerusalem and destruction of the Second Temple, is striving to revision events that preceded a war of genocidal intensity.
Rabbi Tarfon, one might add, lived through the final convulsion of the Bar Kochba revolt against Rome in C.E. 135-36.
Michael Keefer is a professor in the School of English and Theatre Studies of the University of Guelph; he lives in Toronto with the novelist and poet Janice Kulyk Keefer. The prayer he would suggest is from Act III, scene iv, lines 26-36 of Shakespeare’s King Lear. In this scene, the dispossessed Lear insists that his Fool enter ahead of him the hovel that his few loyal followers have found for him as shelter from the storm:
In boy; go first. You houseless poverty—
Nay, get thee in. I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.
[Exit Fool into the hovel.]
Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just.
Though there wasn’t space in Bloor Street United Church's Lenten booklet to say so, this is an unusual prayer. Instead of invoking some higher power, Lear addresses his words to the homeless, the abject, the defenseless. He reproaches himself for failing to attend to their needs when he had the means to do so. And he exhorts those who now have position and power to learn about the suffering of the wretched of the earth—by sharing it, as Lear himself is being forced to do—and then to transform what they have learned into action by another kind of sharing, a distribution to the needy of “the superflux,” what they possess beyond their own needs.
The last line is perhaps the most startling: Lear is telling us that our sense of the justice or injustice of the cosmos arises out of our own human enactments of justice or injustice. The idea feels modern, so we may be surprised to encounter it in a play written four centuries ago.
But perhaps Rabbi Tarfon (or his midrashic commentator) was on to something similar one and a half millennia earlier. You want to live in a world governed by justice and mercy? Do justly, now. Love mercy, now.
The words of King Lear suggest that to act upon these imperatives we must first learn experientially what it means to suffer injustice and oppression. Lear proposes no more than a modest sharing out of superfluities, but declares, realistically enough, that action of this kind needs to be impelled by an empathetic understanding of what people who are oppressed and impoverished have to endure.
Yet as Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiba seem to have recognized when they debated the matter, another kind of learning is equally necessary as the basis for just action. What, for contemporary purposes, would this learning have to incorporate? Ethical principles, to be sure, but equally importantly, an understanding of what is actually going on around us.
Take the example of Haiti. Canadians would no doubt like to think that we are, collectively, behaving justly and with mercy towards Haiti: after all, on a per capita basis, Canada is by far the most significant donor to that tragically impoverished country.
Would it alter our perceptions to know that in 2004 the Canadian government organized, and Canadian troops participated in, the overthrow of Haiti’s democratically elected government and its replacement by a reign of terror? That Canadian, American and French troops occupied Haiti with an illegal Multinational Interim Force, one of whose first actions was to shut down Haiti’s only medical school and turn its buildings into a barracks? That the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) gave generous support to a corrupted human rights organization which fabricated atrocity charges against senior members of the overthrown government, and that CIDA paid the salary of the deputy minister responsible for the appalling prisons in which these and other political prisoners of the coup regime were confined? That the RCMP took responsibility for training the Haitian National Police, which over the next two years repeatedly sent out sniper teams to murder participants in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations? That Canada continues to support a Haitian electoral system which denies participation to the Fanmi Lavalas, the party of the poor that commands the support of an overwhelming majority of the Haitian electorate?1
How just and merciful, to take another prominent example, has been the collective engagement of Canadians with the people of Gaza? Would most Canadians be proud to know that since 2006, when the Palestinians democratically elected a government of which our government disapproves, Canada has participated in an aid embargo against Gaza, and has provided diplomatic support to an Israeli blockade that has destroyed the local economy and deprived an already desperate population of food, fuel, medical supplies, and the materials needed to repair collapsing water supply and sewage systems?
And what of the fact that during the Israeli assault on Gaza in December 2008-January 2009, which subjected defenceless people to a storm of bombs, missiles, artillery fire and white phosphorus, killing 1,400 and wounding many thousands more, leaving tens of thousands homeless and wrecking their life-sustaining civic infrastructure, the Canadian government gave loud and unequivocal support to the aggressors?2
One remembers that Rabbi Tarfon, after exhorting us to do justly and love mercy, invites us to “Walk humbly, now” as we set about the work that we are not free to abandon.
1 For documentation, see the materials collected in Press for Conversion, issues 60 (March 2007), 61 (September 2007), 62 (May 2008), and 63 (November 2008), available at http://coat.ncf.ca; see also http://www.haitianalysis.com, http://www.haitiaction.net/, http://canadahaitiaction.ca, http://pih.org/inforesources/reading.html#Haiti, and http://www.ijdh.org.
2 For evidence that the Israeli Operation Cast Lead was unambiguously an act of aggression, see Avi Shlaim, Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations (London: Verso, 2010), pp. 311-17.