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Rabbi Howard Cooper on St. Paul’s and the ‘Crisis in Capitalism’

Rabbi Howard Cooper of Finchley Reform Synagogue looks at the ‘Occupy London’ protest at St. Paul’s Cathedral.

My curiosity got the better of me. I went down to St. Paul’s Cathedral around ten days into the ‘Occupy London’ protest. I wanted to see for myself what was happening, rather than rely on how the media were representing it.

I found myself wandering round the site: into the educational centre and the multi-faith centre and the media centre and the volunteer-run kitchens and the legal aid centre and the entertainment centre and the first-aid centre – tents large and small, spread out higgledy-piggledy, and yet in a curiously tidy way, around the cathedral, with clear and safe access to and from the building for those who want to use it.

There seemed to be a lot of good-natured conversations going on: academics and lawyers, teachers and the unemployed, young and old, sober suits in earnest conversation with dreadlocks and grunge, discussions serious and jovial, with the great religious building providing a backdrop – and a majesterial commentary – on the social and political issues at stake for all of us, but being given specific attention by the inhabitants of these makeshift booths plastered with posters and quotations and lists of daily events, discussions, lectures and films…

It felt like a new hybrid, a cross between politics and street theatre, an on-going act of performance art that, like all art, wants to change the world – or perhaps, less grandiosely, just help us see the world differently.

Trying to see the world differently, trying to live out certain ethical values, is of course a Jewish preoccupation, a Jewish meshuggas, that stubborn refusal to accept the world as it is, a stubborn belief that we could live in better and more life-enhancing ways. And the talk was of a range of issues – political and environmental and economic – and the commitment to try and create a particular form of community.

One of the largest banners on the site read ‘Capitalism is Crisis’ – too simplistic, I thought, it makes it too easy for us to be sceptical. And yet, as propaganda, it might provoke us to think more deeply, more rigorously, about what is going on in relation to the economic values we live by; and the systemic failures we have to endure.

I don’t agree that ‘Capitalism is Crisis’; it might be in crisis but Judaism traditionally didn’t disparage wealth creation – it just insisted (regularly and rather boringly) that when wealth had been generated it needed to be distributed fairly, equitably; that spreading justice was a higher value than accumulating wealth; that charity was an obligation, that with wealth comes responsibility; that a society that neglected the poor, the widow, the orphan, the outsider – that deprived them of the means to live with dignity, that refused to listen to their cries for help, their needs, their well-being – that such a society where wealth was generated but not used for the good of all, that kind of society was – to use a traditional word – ‘sinful’. And, as both the Torah and the prophets intuited, such societies were doomed, would in the end be destroyed (from the outside), or destroy themselves.

We were due to read the Tower of Babel story that Shabbat. And I was struck – but how could one not be? – by the relevance today of that mythic tale about a society that ‘had the same language and the same words’ and the people said ‘Come on, let’s all build a city with a tower that reaches to heaven’ – literally a skyscraper – ‘and let’s make a name for ourselves…’ (Genesis 11:1-4).

And this is what we have done, more powerfully than ever before in the history of this planet – the same language, the same words, whether you are in London or Berlin, New York or Brussels or Beijing: ‘globalisation, economic growth, free-market turbo-capitalism, deregulation, consumerism based on the manufacture of desire’ – this is what we have built.  This is the name of the game – and what a ‘name we have made for ourselves’.

You can go up to Hampstead Heath and look out over this awesome, awful city of ours, London, and you survey the thrusting Canary Wharf-Gherkin-Shardification of our skyline, all that glitter and glass and phallic cold steel – and you don’t have to be the God of the Hebrew Bible to think: no good will come of all this, the omnipotent building and the idolisation of growth; and you don’t have to be the Holy One of Israel to think: who do these people think they are, playing god with people’s lives?

Remember the midrash about the Tower of Babel? If a person slipped and fell down and died, nobody paid any attention and the work went on. But if a brick fell down, everyone stopped working and wept: ‘Woe is us! How, when, are we going to get another brick to replace it!’

You don’t have to be a Marxist critic of capitalism to see what is going on in this story. Two thousand years ago the rabbis were aware that people were quite ready to put the projects of empire-building before care for people, for individuals. Building the brand becomes more important than the conditions of the workers. Profit margins take precedence over alleviating poverty. It’s a universal story and it has led us in our own times into a profound crisis.

And ‘Occupy London’ – and all those other protestors around the world –  are reminding us to pay attention to those who fall off the project, who slip out of sight, who are exploited and abused and used for the sake of the Babel projects of profit and consumption. Those protestors are articulating something very Jewish: a belief, a hopefulness – what use to be called messianic hopefulness – that we can do better than this. We can build a society, brick by brick: dignity, justice, generosity, compassion, care, companionship – these are the building blocks of real community and a good, a godly, society where people are more valued than profit margins, where sharing what we have is more important than share options. It’s a commitment that unites a secular belief in the dignity of the individual with a religious belief in the holiness of each human being. We can do it better.

For a fuller version of this text see Rabbi Howard Cooper’s blog

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