With the death of Pete Seeger earlier this week, I’ve been reading a lot about his music, his practices, and his commitment to justice/tzedek and repair of the world/tikkun olam. I’d like to share the Torah/teachings of Pete Seeger, as I understand them.
I. Say what you believe, regardless of the consequences. During the “Red Scare” of the 1950’s, Pete was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and refused to name personal and political associations on the grounds that this would violate his First Amendment rights: "I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.” (Wikipedia). He was indicted and later convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to “name names.” The conviction was ultimately overturned, so he didn’t have to serve any of the 10 years he was sentenced to. In the meantime, his mobility was restricted, and he was blacklisted from appearing on television until the mid-60’s. He was willing to pay the price for adhering to his First Amendment rights.
II. It’s not enough to “talk the talk,” we must be willing to “walk the walk.” There was a solid consistency between the words that Pete sang, and the activism he engaged in. Starting with his involvement in the labor movement of the 30’s and 40’s, through his protests against nuclear proliferation (1950’s), and his work on behalf of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, Pete’s presence and his music spoke loudly on the behalf of the disenfranchised. In the mid-1960’s, he began his work on environmental education and action, which continued up until the time of his death. He was also heavily involved in the Jewish camping movement – specifically with the Surprise Lake Camp in New York. The Camp’s mission statement says they "provide a high quality Jewish camping experience where children and young adults will be safe, have fun, and grow as they engage in programs and activities that enable them to learn values and skills that will help them lead fulfilling lives and be assets to their communities." [emphasis added]
III. When one problem is “solved,” move on to the next. We have not yet reached the point where we’ve brought repair to the entire world (tikkun olam). By his words and actions, Pete exemplified the following quote from Pirke Avot (The Wisdom of the Fathers): "We are not obligated to complete the task, neither are we free to desist from it." (Pirke Avot, 2:16). Or, put another way – in the language of the 1970’s – “We have to keep on keeping on.”
IV. We must use our gifts to try to bring repair to the world. Pete dreamed of being a journalist and took courses in journalism and art, taught music, worked as a puppeteer, and an archivist for the Library of Congress’ Archive of American Folksong. But it was his gift as a singer/performer and a song writer that changed the landscape of social justice. “We Shall Overcome” has been the anthem of every group of people protesting for equality for over 50 years. From “The Talking Union Blues” (early 1940’s) through his performance at Farm Aid in September 2013, Pete used his music and influence to bring attention to the issues of our times.
V. To bring repair/tikkun, you must collaborate with others. And Pete showed by example how critical this collaboration is. Some of the finest songs he sang were in conjunction with other noted musicians – the Weavers, Peter Paul and Mary, Woody Guthrie and – later – Arlo Guthrie. From the Musar Movement, we learn that one should occupy “no more than my place, no less than my space.” Pete wasn’t afraid to lead… but he also was willing to share the responsibility for leadership. Which leads to the next bit of teaching…
VI. Involve those who look to you for leadership. A Pete Seeger concert wasn’t a Pete Seeger concert, unless the audience sang along at full voice. We weren’t passive observers, but active participants in this experience.
VII. If they don’t know the words, coach them! Pete never assumed people knew the lyrics to his songs. As he encouraged us to sing along, he reminded us of the lyrics for the next time. Let’s not be afraid to “coach” each other in this job of working for tzedek/justice.
VIII. We’re never “too old” to be involved in the work of bringing justice to our world. As late as 2013, at the age of 93, Pete was performing on behalf of Farm Aid.
IX. Values are timeless. The values Pete espoused through his music and the words of his songs are truly timeless – and resonate through the ages. As our words and actions should be.
X. In the tradition of prophetic Judaism, we are obligated to speak up when we see wrongs around us. If we don’t, by our silence, we allow them to perpetuate. His legacy will live in the words we sing and the actions we complete. As one Facebook poster wrote, “And thank you for showing us that we ALL have a hammer, a bell, and a song to sing...”
In Pirke Avot 4:13, we read that Rabbi Shimon said: “There are three crowns--the crown of the Torah [learning], the crown of the priesthood [service to God], and the crown of royalty [leadership]. But,” said Rabbi Shimon, “the crown of a shem tov/good name surpasses them all.”
Pete Seeger, of blessed memory, wore the crown of a shem tov.