Kol Nidre at Occupy Boston: We are the 99% and the 1%

This guest post is by Alex Sugerman-Brozan. Alex is a labor lawyer and part-time activist and tries hard to be a mensch. Photos courtesy HowardC. (This is the second of two Occupy Boston reflections. See the first by organizer Jocelyn Berger.)

Tonight, I attended Kol Nidre services at the site of Occupy Boston. It goes without saying that of all the services, Kol Nidre or otherwise, I’ve ever attended, this was in the unlikeliest setting. Occupy Boston is situated at Dewey Square, a park near Boston’s waterfront, and in the heart of Boston’s financial district. It is right between on- and off-ramps to several major highways. At least 120 people davvened in the midst of rush-hour traffic, trucks honking, commuters streaming toward South Station, and the hustle and bustle of the experiment in radical community that is Occupy Boston.

Reciting the Vidui and the Al Chet has special resonance in light of the Occupy encampments. “We are the 99%” is the motto of Occupy Wall Street and its now-global offshoots. The 1% are the wealthiest in our society – the big banks, the investment firms, the global corporations and their CEOs – who possess an enormously disproportionate share of the wealth and who do not contribute their fair share to our common good.

But the confessional prayers of Kol Nidre reflect a different light on the 99%. These recitations of a litany of sins, mistakes and misdeed hold us all responsible, whether we partook in the particular act or not. When we read Isaiah on Yom Kippur, he inveighs against the sins of our society, in which we all bear a hand. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible.” The sins of Wall Street and corporations are all our sins – we buy the consumer products, we put our money in the banks and the mutual funds, we elect the leaders who fail to remedy corporate excesses. We are all the beneficiaries of these sins, even when we protest against them. Tonight at Dewey Square we inveighed against – and sought forgiveness for – and forgave sins like foreclosures, inadequate health care, cuts to social services, climate change, and countless other crises born of and worsened by corporate greed, we were forced to acknowledge our own role in them, and the benefit all of us derive from them (some of us much more than others — depending on the color of our skin, our gender, where we were born, our sexual orientation, and many other things).

One of the first teachings in Bereshit/Genesis is that human beings are created b’tselem elohim – ín the image of the Divine. Judaism draws from this its teachings about both the inherent goodness and the inherent dignity of all people. The 1% — whoever or whatever “they” are – are created b’tselem elohim. It is a core tenet of progressive social movements that we do not necessarily blame the individuals within institutions, but the institutions themselves, and the structures that give those institutions so much unaccountable power. There are good people within the big banks, within the global corporations, within the halls of Congress. And those good people may be doing very bad things – even evil things. But they remain b’tselem elohim, even when that image of the Divine is buried deep beneath layers of greed and cynicism.

So to me, the 1% is all of us. It is that part of us that is susceptible to greed and cynicism. In some of us, those tendencies dominate over our better traits. In a rare few, they are subsumed to our highest potential for good. But in most of us, we struggle constantly with our greed and our cynicism. The Talmud teaches us that we each have a Yetzer Hara and a Yetzer Hatov – an evil inclination and a good inclination. And the Talmud further teaches us that we need the Yetzer Hara – in the right proportion, it drives us – to earn a living, to start a family. When the Yetzer Hara gains too much power, drive turns to greed, purpose turns to blind ambition, and power corrupts.

To me, then, the 1% is the Yetzer Hara and the 99% is the Yetzer Hatov. Social movements must be proceed on the belief that everyone can change – how we act, how we talk, how we listen, how we deal with our fellow people and the Earth. The key is to return these inclinations to their proper proportions – in ourselves, in our communities, in our economy, in our government, and in all our institutions.

So on this Yom Kippur, I look with wonder and amazement at the waking up going on around the world – from the Arab Spring to J14 in Israel to Occupy Wall Street and beyond. We are indeed the 99%. We are also the 1%. In the New Year, let us work towards reconciling these.

7 Responses to “Kol Nidre at Occupy Boston: We are the 99% and the 1%”

  1. I have always considered myself, a slightly right of centre, moderate capitalist and democrat.

    However, now is the time to accept that untamed capitalism (like Russian Communism)has flaws, that could prove fatal unless they are addressed.

    Capitalism requires buyers and sellers. Most members of society, are only able buy products, with income derived from the sale of their labour. Currently jobs are sliding from developed nations, to developing nations that benefit from lower wage costs. Resulting in strife and deprivation in developed nations.

    It would be a mistake for developing nations too feel smug. Soon they too, will experience a drop in employment and confidence, as robotics and further automation kicks in. Share holders will continue to demand production costs are reduced, in order to maximise profits.

    Resulting in a Worldwide reduction in employment, leading to a worldwide reduction in income, leading to a worldwide reduction in prosperity, and an ever decreasing proportion of rich in the world.

    I believe, greater international agreement will inevitably occur. It’s just a matter of how much pain is felt first.

    Maybe the WTO (or similar), should require that participent nations set maximum working hour limits, and a minimum wage based upon a countries GDP.


    Pete brown · October 12th, 2011 at 11:41 am
  2. יישר כח/Yasher Koach! My Kol Nidrey sermon was about the Occupy movement, and I led off by talking about my cousin Rachel who helped organize the Occupy Boston Kol Nidrey service you wrote about. That whole day, the liturgy came alive in a way it hasn’t for years. But during the whole day, I don’t think I every quite put together the plural nature of the /vidui/ (confession, for readers who don’t know) with our own complicity in the system. תודה רבה/Todah rabbah/Thank you so VERY much for this!


    Reb Deb Gordon · October 13th, 2011 at 8:56 pm
  3. PS. How do I put the badge and quote below on my own website?


    Reb Deb Gordon · October 13th, 2011 at 8:57 pm
  4. [...] But instead of having a low-key day, she’s now one of the organizers of the Occupy Boston Kol Nidrey Service. [...]


    Yom Kippur 5772: The Bull of Ba’al | Quotes About People · October 14th, 2011 at 3:01 am
  5. [...] But instead of having a low-key day, she’s now one of the organizers of the Occupy Boston Kol Nidrey Service. [...]


    Yom Kippur 5772: The Bull of Ba’al | Quotes About People · October 14th, 2011 at 3:01 am
  6. [...] Yom Kippur services alongside three other cities. (Our first-person reportage from NYC, DC, Boston here and here.) Here’s a collection of the [...]


    Occupy Mishegas | Jewschool · October 17th, 2011 at 11:01 am
  7. [...] at the margins of the occupations, must be balanced against the thousands of people in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, DC and elsewhere turning up to Kol Nidre prayers and sukkot. Highlighting a few [...]


    #Occupy | contested terrain · October 18th, 2011 at 10:37 am

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"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik