What Would Isaiah Say?

Isaiah, by Michelangelo; courtesy www.Michelangelo.org.

By David Greenstein

“Why, when we fasted, did You not see? When we afflicted ourselves, You did not answer?”

“Indeed, you are so pleased by your fast day, while you oppress your workers!”
Isaiah 58:3

These words of the prophet Isaiah are traditionally chanted in synagogues on every Yom Kippur. But this year of pandemic has thrown our usual ritual observances into confusion and synagogues around the globe struggle with finding ways they may try to hold on to their accustomed practices and in what ways they will need to be modified, transposed, replaced or eliminated.

Tremendous effort has rightfully been invested in meeting this challenge. As a community we heroically strive to enter the New Year spiritually strengthened, undefeated by the restrictions imposed upon us by this invisible, terrifying foe. The age-old themes of the Days of Awe must be expressed somehow. Many are convinced that this is a unique moment of testing for each of our communities and for our community writ large.

But the real substance of the test needs to be named in order for us to arrive at the best possible solutions. What are the real challenges we face as Jews, as Jewish institutions and as a Jewish people?

The COVID crisis has broken open our society’s habits of seeing, feeling, thinking and speaking. It is not yet clear whether it will change our actions, as well. Long festering issues have been brought to the surface to be seen, and long silenced voices have been raised to speak and be heard. These include issues of racial injustice, income inequality, our inadequate healthcare systems, climate vulnerability, and more, and the voices raised include many previously ignored populations that are severely affected by these problems. Many have begun to see these issues and their societal implications in clearer terms or have realized that they can no longer be ignored.

What festering issues within the Jewish community have been exposed by the present crisis? What are the problems that we have learned to live with or ignore for years, but that have now become more visible?

To the extent that the Jewish community participates in larger society – which is to say, totally! – we can expect to find versions of these festering issues in forms specific to our Jewish reality. The question has so many aspects that it may be tempting to try to avoid confronting them. Our natural ability to survive inertially within broken habits and systems will pull us toward such avoidance. And so will our heartfelt hankering to just “get back to normal!”

It is up to us to choose whether to recognize the magnitude and urgency of this challenge. As we prepare for the Ten Days of Repentance and Return it will be up to us to decide whether we will place an agenda of communal change in the forefront of our institutional, financial and spiritual work. Will our legitimate concern for survival and restoration push aside an agenda of communal change?

Here is but one challenge we will have to choose to either ignore or confront: As we pour our efforts and our resources into trying to make our “holiday experience” meaningful and fulfilling, will we pour our funds into ever more enhanced technological solutions, or will we pour our funds into making sure our essential workers are paid a living wage?

The challenge of paying a living wage to the maintenance staffs and other support workers in synagogues and Jewish institutions has been around for a long time. The financial constraints that have plagued such organizations have long prevented them from confronting the challenge in a meaningful way. Statements by many denominations and legal responsa urging the community to pay workers a living wage have been words on paper or on a screen, having too little impact on the community’s budget. But our reality has been altered at this moment. At this moment, when we are moved to dig into our pockets for newly discovered means to meet challenges that we wish to define as existentially serious, will we be able to find the funds to save the lives of those on whom we depend in the most basic ways every day, and who, every day, depend on us?

Will we choose to expend astounding sums to make sure the words of Isaiah the Prophet will be engagingly broadcast, or will we try to actually listen to his words?

David Greenstein serves as Rabbi of Congregation Shomrei Emunah, Montclair, NJ.