A few days ago, Rabbi Roger Ross made me aware of Andrew Harvey’s phrase “Sacred Activism.” While I haven’t yet read his literature, I had the general impression that he’s teaching: social/political activism and personal/spiritual growth need not — should not — be thought of as conflicting directions in our lives.

The challenge is to blend them; to grow spiritually along with and through our activism while conversely not becoming narrow-minded and rejectionist in our own “rightness.”

Torah, too, doesn’t teach “tikkun olam” [1] as something separate from spiritual growth. They’re intimately related.

In fact, two rabbis — both very spiritually-inclined writers; unknown to each other; living at more or less the same time, but half a world apart — say emphatically that social activism without spiritual ideals and growth (as well as the opposite: concern for individual spiritual progress while disregarding the needs of the world-at-large) is condemned to ultimate failure:

Rabbi Morris Lichtenstein wrote that all attempts at changing society must falter, if people aren’t changed spiritually (i.e. “within”):

“It is only through love that the salvation of mankind will be attained. It is only when [we] will learn to give full expression to the Divine power of love within [us] that bloodshed will cease and war will be no more…Any project for the maintenance of permanent and universal peace, though [it] be the result of good judgement and lofty intention, must fail…if [it] attempt[s] to impose peace from without. Peace must emanate from within…Universal peace will come about through universal love.” [2

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook concurred, but added, too, that any attempt at individual spiritual growth must likewise be limited, if the improvement of society isn’t part of it:

“Every philosophy which renounces the perfection of the physical world and the proper order of society, and floats in the spiritual realm alone, priding itself only in the perfection of souls and their success, is based on a falsehood that has no link with reality.
And every philosophy which is unconcerned with the elevation to eternal ideals, and places its attention only on the mending of material existence, even if it includes ethical programs and efforts toward justice and equity — will, in the end, be corrupted because of its smallness of vision…when it is detached from the basis of eternal life and the aspiration for it.” [3]

Becoming higher, holier, more loving people should have its expression in (among other things) the way we conduct business and the society we create by our own actions. Alternately, the way we act, the way we conduct business, should be conducive to our becoming higher, holier, and more loving.

But, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, we must be watchful not to “become our ‘enemy’ in the instant that we preach.”

We become holier than our “enemy” by recognizing the holiness of our “enemy” as well as of ourselves.

Even by bringing our “enemy” to see his/her own holiness and ours, as well.

If we believe that “they” can debase themselves with greed, we should also believe that we can debase ourselves by resentment.

We must learn to deal with opposition lovingly. Some — perhaps most — spiritual teachers would counsel against responding to insults and arguments. There is an “inner” level on which that must be true: we must be hyper-observant about our own negative thoughts and feelings; correcting them as soon as they’re recognized.

But I believe that there can — should — be discussion, even when there’s no agreement.

It’s a good time to read what Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and others have written about non-violent civil disobedience. But after reading or learning, it must be “strategized;” we must prepare ourselves. We each must plan how we’ll react, what we’ll say, before actually being confronted by insults or arguments. If we wait until the moment comes, we’re likely to find ourselves filled with too many spontaneous thoughts and feelings to make a rational choice.

If you don’t support “OWS” or the “99%-ers,” I still say: Disagree, debate, but without insults, without sarcasm, without name-calling. State your facts, make your case, but without useless generalizations or distortions-of-fact. To every thought of disagreement, join a thought of respect. Such respect need not negate your convictions; nor need your convictions negate respecting those who disagree with you.

We should be as concerned about our own holiness in our debates, as we are in our prayers.

Let us disagree, disobey, oppose — lovingly. Doing so, we become better people and build a better society.

We grow in love by recognizing and respecting the humanity and holiness of our opponents.

We grow in love by loving.


[1] The term “tikkun olam,” somewhat divorced today from its original meaning in the Ari’s teachings, has become more or less synonymous with “social action.” It’s used here in the latter sense.
[2] Lichtenstein, Rabbi Morris; Jewish Science and Health; © 1925; p. 133
[3] Kook, Rabbi Abraham Isaac; The Essential Writings of Abraham Isaac Kook; Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser, trans.; Amity House, Inc., © 1988; p. 195-6