Category Archives: Bible/Torah

Eternal Life

Five years ago when I started my blog, I wrote:

“As we journey through our lives, we both eat and nourish, destroy and enrich.  The great gift we have as human beings is that we can make conscious decisions about the balance of eating and nourishing, taking and giving, in our own lives.  The challenge is to remain fully aware, making conscious choices on each step of our journey.”

Food interests me because it tastes good, it can be a source of vibrant health, and it is a creative activity. On the philosophical side, it interests me because it brings us face-to-face with the central paradox of life, in the words of Joseph Campbell, “life feeds on life.” For this reason, what we eat becomes the proving ground for finding a balance between taking and giving in our lives.

In the course of blogging, I have explored issues of life and death, how they play out in the “food chain,” and the basis for decisions we make about what to eat on a daily basis. Following an experience and conversation with my husband, which I reported in “Our Brain: All  It’s Cracked Up To Be?”, I increasingly focused my attention on the relationship between humans and other life on the planet. I searched for a meaningful argument or rationale in support of an assumption that has shaped the world view of the majority of the globe’s citizens for thousands of years, that human life is superior to other life on the planet. Such a rationale would provide support for taking the lives of other living creatures either to eat or to sacrifice in our place to “pay” for our own wrongdoing.

Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens tells us the distinctive feature of humankind is the ability to create fictions and persuade others to believe them. This allows flexible cooperation in large groups, which in turn allows human beings to dominate over other life. But the fact of domination doesn’t provide the moral basis for which I searched, nor does Harari suggest that it should.

The Torah asserts the supreme value of human life, although in a nuanced way that simultaneously asserts the value of all life and suggests that without adherence to a code of behaviors, human beings are not in a superior position to other animals but are, like them, “prey.” Both humans and other animals are “basar,” flesh, and both humans and other animals are “nefesh,” that is, living beings, blessed with the life that G-d breathes into lifeless flesh (otherwise, a carcass). Only humans, though, are “b’tzelem Elohim,” in the image of G-d, a biblical concept I’m still working to understand better.

My own studies have not yet yielded satisfying objective evidence for statements of superiority. All are culturally shaped, anthropocentric statements of belief or, in Harari’s terms, fictions we have been persuaded to believe. Harari goes further, pointing out that there is no objective evidence underpinning any moral system — that all moral systems are, like our monetary system, fictions we create and persuade others to believe. Regardless of the foundation of an idea, though, onnce it becomes pervasive in a culture, it becomes an assumption, difficult to deconstruct. There are consequences in life that result from those assumptions, and sometimes it becomes a critical task to deconstruct those assumptions.

Charles Eisenstein deals with this kind of deconstruction, or paradigm shift, in The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, where Harari’s “fictions” becomes “stories.” He points out that we live in the story of Separation, only one story among many possibilities, and offers what he calls the story of Interbeing, a potentially radical paradigm shift that could make what seems miraculous in the world of Separation real and natural in the world of Interbeing. The justification or “truth”-basis of this story is inside each of us, our awareness of it a gift. It remains to us to choose the story that is true for us and live it with humility.

Choosing to live from within a paradigm that differs radically from the world in which we live is awesomely difficult, as Eisenstein points out. He says, “Belief is a social phenomenon. With rare exceptions . . . we cannot hold our beliefs without reinforcement from people around us. Beliefs that deviate substantially from the general social consensus are especially hard to maintain, requiring usually some kind of sanctuary such as a cult, in which the deviant belief receives constant affirmation, and interaction with the rest of society is limited. But the same might be said for various spiritual groups, intentional communities . . . They provide a kind of incubator for the fragile, nascent beliefs of the new story to develop. There they can grow a bed of roots to sustain them from the onslaughts of the inclement climate of belief outside.“

The Torah tells us this story, the story of *a paradigm shift in consciousness, revealed, I believe, in the first three chapters of Genesis, eventually setting a group, the Israelites, on a different course that requires incubation from the surrounding culture. And even with incubation, entering a new story is incredibly difficult and dangerous and, some might even say, unsuccessful in significant ways. Yet in one important respect, the Israelites’ effort to enter a new story succeeds: their new story gives birth to three religious civilizations, Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all deeply concerned with issues of life and death, the meaning and value of our time on earth, and conscious choice.

I believe, like both Harari and Eisenstein, that we have arrived at a time when our operating paradigms are severely challenged. Memes like “pro-life” or “pro-choice,” “democracy” or “socialism” or “capitalism” or “communism,” “Judaism,” “Christianity” or “Islam,” “liberalism” or “conservatism,” “Democrat,” “Progressive” or “Republican,” will not serve us in our time. These memes poorly represent the diversity of potential meanings and possibilities within each.

I remember years ago, someone to whom I was close demanded to know if I believe in G-d. I was hard pressed to respond to that question because that word, too, is a meme. I put a dash in the word to remind myself that it is completely inadequate to communicate anything meaningful about the reality behind it. Eisenstein quotes a beautiful phrase from Lao Tzu: “A name that can be named is not the true name.”

I think the Torah offers what Eisenstein calls the Interbeing Story, presented as vision in Gen 1-3, the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible, a world in which we recognize ourselves in “the other,” whoever the other is, and cherish the life in that other, whether fellow humans, other animals, trees, soil or water.

Harari reflects a similar consciousness when he describes animism: “When animism was the dominant belief system, human norms and values had to take into consideration the outlook and interests of a multitude of other beings, such as animals, plants, fairies and ghosts…Hunter-gatherers picked and pursued wild plants and animals, which could be seen as equal in status to Homo sapiens. The fact that man hunted sheep did not make sheep inferior to man, just as the fact that tigers hunted man did not make man inferior to tigers. Beings communicated with one another directly and negotiated the rules governing their shared habitat.” All shared the spiritual round table.

Something like animism is the story of Genesis, chapters 1-3, where beings communicate with one another directly, negotiating the rules governing their shared habitat.

Eisenstein puts it this way: “The silence, the stillness, the soil, the water, the body, the eyes, the voice, the song, birth, death, pain, loss. Observe one thing that unifies all the places I listed in which we can find truth: in all of them, what is really happening is that truth is finding us. It comes as a gift. That is what is right about both the Scientific Method and the religious teaching of an absolute truth outside human creation. Both embody humility. This same state of humility is where we can source the truth to anchor our stories.”

A Hasidic saying puts it this way: when every Jew celebrates Shabbat in all it details three times in a row, Messiah will come. A paradigm shift for some is a paradigm shift for all, and suddenly what seems miraculous or impossible will be natural, a gift beyond our ability to imagine in the world of Separation.

Yet even if we are successful (this time) and enter a story that binds us with each other, with all creation and with transcendence, challenges will remain. Imagine humanity begins to live out the story of Interbeing, and everything changes. What if we develop the technology to solve, for example, our underlying existential challenge, the fact that we die? Russian scientists already 3D printed a thyroid with living tissue. It’s not hard to imagine a time when we can replace each body part that fails, in essence, a time when eternal life is possible.

But even this achievement won’t relieve us from the central paradox of life. Can we procreate limitlessly if no one dies? If our technology has not yet arrived at the point that we can utilize the resources of infinity, how do we make decisions about who lives and who dies, who gives birth and to how many? Who decides and on what basis?

The dilemmas that always confronted human beings will still be present: how do we decide issues of life and death, the balance between eating and nourishing, taking and giving, enriching and destroying? How do we deal with the central paradox of life, embedded in the food cycle, that sustaining life requires taking life?

These questions of life and death and the place of Homo Sapiens in the wider context of being are as challenging today as they were centuries ago, and they will be as challenging tomorrow even if the questions are framed differently. Our answers cannot come from memes or be captured in single words. We cannot make the decisions we need to make as a society by placing one person’s set of beliefs over another’s. That is a feature of the world of Separation, and that world has driven us to the brink of self-destruction.

It also doesn’t mean we need to put aside our different beliefs or customs or moral codes, all the things that make us different. Outlawing burqas or other forms of religious dress is a superficial “remedy” and will prove an ineffective way to “defeat” the story of Separation. As Eisenstein points out, the idea of defeating another story comes from the world of Separation. Banning burqas or other markers of difference mobilizes against the very things that serve as  portals to the story of Interbeing.

We need to go to a deeper place, a place where we embrace difference, recognize with humility the gifts each life, from a prince to a frog to a mushroom, brings to the spiritual round table, the truth each embodies, and negotiate ways to share our habitat while we enrich it. Only in that space can we make difficult decisions about life and death, taking and giving, meaning and value.

* * * * *

*NOTE: It is difficult to understand a vision of a more beautiful world that includes animal sacrifice or an injunction to kill everything that breathes in a conquered town (a command delivered by the prophet Samuel) without confronting the reality of the backdrop to these practices and how it threatened the Israelites’ nascent vision. The Torah story represents a next step in a paradigm shift from a world that accepts child sacrifice to a world that vehemently rejects it but allows animal sacrifice while yet retaining a vision of a better world.

The most intense encounter with the profound difference between the story that opens for the Israelites and the story that prevails in their surrounding culture — a story that lures many Israelites — resides in a detailed glimpse of Moloch worship:

Plutarch writes in De Superstitione 171: “… but with full knowledge and understanding they themselves offered up their own children, and those who had no children would buy little ones from poor people and cut their throats as if they were so many lambs or young birds; meanwhile the mother stood by without a tear or moan; but should she utter a single moan or let fall a single tear, she had to forfeit the money, and her child was sacrificed nevertheless; and the whole area before the statue was filled with a loud noise of flutes and drums that the cries of wailing should not reach the ears of the people.”

Rashi comments on Jeremiah 7:31: “Tophet is Moloch, which was made of brass; and they heated him from his lower parts; and his hands being stretched out, and made hot, they put the child between his hands, and it was burnt; when it vehemently cried out; but the priests beat a drum, that the father might not hear the voice of his son, and his heart might not be moved.”

John Milton in Paradise Lost writes:
“First MOLOCH, horrid King besmear’d with blood
Of human sacrifice, and parents tears,
Though, for the noyse of Drums and Timbrels loud,
Their children’s cries unheard that passed through fire
To his grim Idol. Him the AMMONITE
Worshipt in RABBA and her watry Plain,
In ARGOB and in BASAN, to the stream
Of utmost ARNON. Nor content with such
Audacious neighbourhood, the wisest heart
Of SOLOMON he led by fraud to build
His Temple right against the Temple of God
On that opprobrious Hill, and made his Grove
The pleasant Vally of HINNOM, TOPHET thence
And black GEHENNA call’d, the Type of Hell.”

(These examples were provided in the Wikipedia article on Moloch).

According to the biblical story, the Israelites received a gift, a story of what Eisenstein calls Interbeing. The Sabbath actualizes the story of Gen 1-3. On the Sabbath, not only Israelites but slaves and animals rest from labor. The Sabbath is a “palace in time” that offers an opportunity to experience Interbeing, a vision of the world gifted to the Israelites.

Do justice, love goodness and walk humbly…

I watched Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale over the last couple of weeks. Visually, it is beautiful. Emotionally, it is searing, sobering and thought-provoking. The book was written in 1985, and the Hulu series began in 2017. I hadn’t read the book or watched the series because of my impression of what it was about. It’s not for everyone, but I’m really glad I watched it. 

It fascinates me how some individuals pick up on cultural trends years before they are particularly visible. And it fascinates me that when a cultural trend was fully unveiled in 2016, film makers returned to a book written more than thirty years before. In fact, both the author and the series returned to a story at least three millennia old, perhaps even as old as humanity’s ability to express itself in enduring forms.

I’ve always thought that regardless of the source of the Bible, it is about people, their relationship to transcendence, to each other and to the world — our human failures, striving, cruelty, compassion, courage, hope. It is about faith but also about fear, its sources, expressions and consequences.

It is fear that drives a question like, why did this (national destruction) happen to us, and how can we make certain it doesn’t happen again? Fear makes people imagine that if they are just more careful to do things in a certain way, they will avoid horrific consequences. Fear drives people to accept things they would never otherwise accept. Fear says there is only one way, fear drives the wish to acquire power and fear creates the willingness, even desire, to submit to it. Fear invites totalitarianism and a willingness to accept brutality. Fear drives the wish to control the behaviors of others no matter what it requires. Fear drives our failure to connect compassionately to the brutality that is our responsibility. Fear generates many ways to avoid confronting the realities of our human existence, which is not only beautiful — but frightening. Fear is an expression of a failure of the faith that comes from our connection to all being.

As many have pointed out, dictators historically come into power with 40% or less support. The Handmaid’s Tale reminded me of the perilousness of our status and our lives, “even” here in America, where we are as susceptible to fear as any other population on the planet — and perhaps less likely to confront it because our great privilege keeps it far away and out of sight. Consequently we allow brutality at our border, the brutality of mass incarceration, the brutality of poverty, brutality toward other life on the planet, brutality toward those who don’t fit an imagined idea of who is ok and who isn’t. The primal fear that others experience is remote from the experience of most of us in America.

Those who base their support for actions and policies that spring from hidden fear on some idea that it’s what the Bible requires aren’t reading the whole book, just lines out of context. Fear, how it is expressed and its consequences, is a human reality the Bible explores. The prophet Jeremiah and others speak of total environmental and national destruction, calling it a punishment. It is punishing, and people should fear it, but it is a punishment people bring on themselves through their own failure: the failure to respect our planet, the failure of compassion and empathy,  the failure to create a just society, a society making conscious choices based on a vision of connection:

“You turned and profaned my name and caused every man his servant and every man his handmaid, whom you had let go free at their pleasure, to return; and you brought them into subjection, to be to you for servants and for handmaids…you have not hearkened to Me to proclaim every man to his neighbor, behold, I proclaim for you a liberty… <so> I will make you a horror unto all the kingdoms of the earth… bodies shall be for food unto the fowls of the heaven, and to the beasts of the earth… I will make the cities of Judah a desolation, without inhabitant” (Jer 34:16-22).

The Handmaid’s Tale repeated this biblical theme. The Gileadites emerge in response to what they see as a thoughtless, selfish society that brought about great destruction and danger to the country. Their society emerges from fear and maintains control through fear.

The consequences of selfish, thoughtless choices, choices made without any sense of being part of a whole, are real — but these are not issues we can address from a place of fear. Ultimately expressions of fear drive in the same direction as a mindlessly selfish pursuit of one’s own goals: toward isolation, a failure of meaning, a deadening of our capacity for compassion, a willingness to accept brutality to maintain our precarious position in the world. 

The Hebrew Bible puts forward the requirement for balance: to follow a set of codes that in that place and that time cultivated awareness of the profound paradox in our human existence, of the fragility and arbitrariness of our place in the world and a sense of humility in the face of that (ritual commandments) — at the same time constantly reminding us of our connectedness, our responsibility for others (ethical commandments). Jewish tradition insists on the intimate connection between ritual and ethical commandments, of their inseparability in a unified and balanced whole.

The Gileadites disparage what is from their perspective a contemporary world wholly given over to a selfish pursuit of personal satisfaction with no consciousness of a greater good. Conversely, they see themselves engaged in building a better world, a process that requires moral renewal, as one group defines morality, the Gileadites.

What the Gileadites forget in their pursuit is the humility that comes from confronting moment by moment their own fragile position in the world. They fail to cultivate an awareness that their current position in life in relation to “the other” is purely a matter of grace, whatever the source of that grace, and that the only appropriate position for a human being based on that grace is gratitude, compassion for all other life that shares their fragile position, and the courage that comes from a sense of connection that strengthens them as they live another day.

As a Hebrew song says, “All of life is a narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to be afraid at all . . . ” We cannot take steps toward improving our world from a place of fear.

As I read the biblical text, I can’t help but think that the Israelites are an emblem of the struggle of all humanity to find that balance between confronting the terrors of the precariousness of our own existence, the compassion for others in the same existential predicament and the humility to discover our connection to all that is, the connection that sustains us.

I think the Israelites represent our human tendency to create false supports for ourselves in the face of existential fear, which leads to disconnection and a failure of faith and courage. They represent us all, our capacity for good action — and our capacity for evil action, our faith and courage — and our fear.

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—if you and your offspring would live…”

Life is precarious and dangerous. There are no guarantees, and not one of us passes through it alive. And yet every healthy creature chooses to live. My hope and wish is that we humans do it with deeper awareness and greater humility, gratitude and compassion toward other life on the planet, even to the planet itself.

Animals in the Bible

One of the things I have noticed and commented about as I have read the Torah story about animals is that they progressively lose stature in relation to human beings: “Gone are the days in the Garden when animals, as much as humans, speak and act in the unfolding story of creation. Now humans are the only actors, and animals are either “beasts of the field” or domesticated, mutely serving humans in a variety of ways…” This is the animals’ story in Genesis — a loss of status in creation.

As I try to understand how we came to use, kill, eat, even abuse animals so thoughtlessly, one answer as I read the text is that we regard ourselves superior to them. Better to kill and sacrifice an animal as payment for a sin we commit than a human being. But how did we arrive at this idea? Was it more than mere anthropocentrism?

In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari talks about the evolution of religions from animism to polytheism to monotheism. Of animism, he says, “When animism was the dominant belief system, human norms and values had to take into consideration the outlook and interests of a multitude of other beings, such as animals, plants, fairies and ghosts…Hunter-gatherers picked and pursued wild plants and animals, which could be seen as equal in status to Homo sapiens. The fact that man hunted sheep did not make sheep inferior to man, just as the fact that tigers hunted man did not make man inferior to tigers. Beings communicated with one another directly and negotiated the rules governing their shared habitat.”

Conversely, “farmers owned and manipulated plants and animals, and could hardly degrade themselves by negotiating with their possessions. Hence the first religious effect of the Agricultural Revolution was to turn plants and animals from equal members of a spiritual round table into property.”

This thought and the contrast Harari presents fascinate me from several directions. Possibly the first chapters of Genesis do more than merely preserve elements of a folkloristic past, subdued because it was rejected. Perhaps these chapters are not only visionary but preserve the memory of a transition from a hunter-gatherer society to an agricultural society and with it the memory of a time when humans didn’t see themselves superior to other living beings. This thought helps me begin to understand how a text that brings us the extraordinary vision of Genesis 1-3 also presents us with a system of sacrificing animals in our stead and eating them.

Once humans make the full transition to a world in which “plants and animals are no longer equal members of a spiritual round table” but are mere property, “commodities,” as I call them, it is an easy step to succumb to another evolutionary trait Harari identifies, our sense of us vs. them: “Evolution has made Homo sapiens, like other social mammals, a xenophobic creature. Sapiens instinctively divide humanity into two parts, ‘we’ and ‘they’. We are people like you and me, who share our language, religion and customs. We are all responsible for each other, but not responsible for them. We were always distinct from them, and owe them nothing. We don’t want to see any of them in our territory, and we don’t care an iota what happens in their territory. They are barely even human.“ — or in the present conversation, “they” (animals) are not human and so have less value.

Granted, the Torah never presents the idea that animals are commodities explicitly or comprehensively. It is clear in various stories I have discussed in the course of my study that veganism is a preferred, if unrealistic, ideal. Torah vocabulary signifies profound similarity between humans and other creatures while leaving the difference somewhat vague: both animals and humans are “basar” (flesh, meat, carcass, material substance) and “nefesh” (soul, flesh animated by the breath of G-d). Only humans are Tzelem Elokim, “in the image of G-d,” but it’s not entirely clear to me what that means or how it differs from nefesh. Rabbinic interpretation tells us it refers to moral discernment, and I’m comfortable with that for the most part — yet it’s a precarious difference. Any moment in which human beings fail to exercise moral discernment is a moment in which they are fully animal and in no way superior to other creatures.

Why is it important how we came to the view that humans are superior to animals and the environment and on what basis? Because that worldview led in contemporary times to our crimes against other life on the planet and our environment. Only by seeing other life and the planet as commodities can we breed animals solely for the purpose of short lives of suffering so we can kill them to satisfy our appetites. Only by seeing the environment as a commodity can we take from it whatever we want without thought for its well-being — unless we simply exclude this activity from view and consciousness, as manufacturers strategically do. Ultimately, though, that separation from the reality of factory farms and environmental destruction doesn’t relieve us of either responsibility or consequences.

The possibility that the biblical text presents as vision a memory of an animistic world view suggests so many possibilities to me in terms of how we heal our world today. Here are some of my thoughts:

  • I like the idea of animism, that other life is included at “the spiritual round table,” that we communicate with each other directly and negotiate the rules of our shared habitat.
  • I appreciate a biblical text that includes another world view, namely animism, alongside the one presented in most of its following pages. It gives that other worldview priority of position in its first three chapters (although with a nuanced reference to domesticating animals).

Taking from those models, perhaps we can begin to deconstruct our us-them mentality and our superiority complexes. We can, as in the first chapters of the biblical text, learn from others, including from other creatures on the planet and from our environment as we let them speak to us. We can learn from the wisdom of ancient traditions, no view perfect but each with a glimpse of “truth.”

Hierarchies and the meaning of “in the image…”

Part of what I want to understand as I read the Torah is how it rationalizes hierarchical relationships when its creation accounts share such an extraordinarily inspirational non-hierarchical vision, a vision in which no creature kills another for food and all of creation lives in harmony. I can’t help but think, or maybe I mean hope, that somehow I will discover that the Torah values all life equally, that the vision of the the first chapters of Genesis are meant to guide us, that sacrifice is just…a situational anomaly, something destined to end. Certainly not part of the plan of a compassionate G-d.

I thought I was making some small progress in that direction when I read Noach two weeks ago. The vocabulary suggested to me that animals, like humans, are both basar and nefesh, substance or meat as well as living beings sustained by the breath of G-d. Animals, like humans, are held morally accountable. Humans were violent before the flood — but animals were not guiltless. Both were implicated in unlawful bloodshed, humans directly and other animals by implication. All basar, flesh, is therefore punished. This theory would provide a moral foundation for G-d’s decision to annihilate kol basar, all flesh.

In the new world, humans are permitted meat-eating with the limitation that they remove the blood — and meat-eating among animals is assumed with the limitation that the animal they kill is not human. Hierarchical, yes. But animals still have a role in the story, self-determination.

Then I remembered that only human beings are “in the image” of G-d, although I’m not entirely certain what that means from the perspective of the Torah. And then came Lech Lecha, which confirms the permanent position of other animals on a lower level of the hierarchy the Torah sets out. They are no longer significant to the forward movement of the story, no longer self-determining.

Animals are not the only ones whose value is diminished. Vayera brings us a series of stories in which all individual personalities, all needs, all emotions, recede in significance and value in relation to the purpose G-d intends to carry out through Abraham and Abraham’s devotion to it.

I have read Genesis many times during my life from different situations and perspectives from sitting on our Massachusetts front porch as a five-year-old child browsing my Dad’s illustrated pulpit Bible to a post-graduate academic environment to my current reading in an Illinois living room in an age of factory farms and environmental devastation.

I was particularly struck this year in reading Vayera by the vast silence surrounding the uniqueness and value of life trajectories other than Abraham’s: Sarah’s silence as she is misrepresented to Abimelech and taken into his harem, Hagar’s silence as she is sent away into the wilderness with her child, Yitzchak’s silence as he is bound on the altar and his father raises a knife to kill him, the ram’s silence as Abraham seizes him where he is caught in a thicket and binds him on the altar and slaughters him.

I was struck by the fact that G-d ceases to speak directly to Abraham during those terrible moments on Mt. Moriah and instead, in the two communications that follow the near homicide, speaks through a messenger. Following that horrific moment, even if we grant that a human sacrifice was never intended but was, instead, a test as the text says, wouldn’t we expect more intimacy and compassion instead of less when Abraham demonstrates that he is prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice? After Abraham … silently … went through such an ordeal — and G-d was silent in response?

And far from inspired, I am repelled by the idea that any person would be so committed to anything that they would be prepared to set aside all compassion, all sense of connection, in order to fulfill that commitment, whatever is required.

I try to imagine myself in that home, the wife of this man, whose forward-driving impulse, his faith, leaves those around him buried in the pain, terror and silence of their lives and situations. Even if G-d knew Ishmael would not die and would become a great nation — and even if G-d knew Yitzhak would not die but would carry forward Abraham’s line into the future, Abraham didn’t know and was willing to sacrifice them.

And then there is the terror of the lamb, the horror of its actual death on the altar, its bleating that touches no soul, that we can’t hear through the text. We exalt this single-mindedness of purpose, this unwavering commitment to an ideal no matter what is required as a virtue, a demonstration of faith. Yet I’m very certain if that person stood before us today we would say he is an ideologue…or a terrorist.

As hard as I try, I can’t find a rationale for this kind of hierarchization of life other than to say, life in some situations is harsh and unforgiving, creating a constant awareness of life and death and forcing impossible decisions. As I think of the decisions life forces on us sometimes and in some situations, I am reminded of the movie, Sophie’s Choice, a story of a person whose life was also profoundly changed by a decision she had to make, a terrible dilemma that had no “right” answer. And she had to bear the burden of that terrible decision in every moment that remained of her life.

And when I arrive at this moment in which I can find no answers, I think of this statement and am filled with gratitude that through no merit of my own, I live in a moment and a place in the history of the world that I am not called upon to make impossible choices:

If we could live happy and healthy lives without harming others, why wouldn’t we?” ~ Pam Ahern of Edgar’s Mission

A new practice for Yom Kippur

Jewish tradition teaches that G-d can only forgive transgressions bein Adam l’Makom, those transgressions we commit against G-d. G-d cannot forgive transgressions bein Adam l’havero, between us and our fellow human beings.  Therefore, before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we apologize for ways in which we may have hurt others, intentionally or unintentionally. In this way we enter the Day of Atonement ready to engage in the process of teshuva, or “return” to the path of fulfillment and joy.

Teshuva is about renewing a relationship that has been sundered, not simply curing one party’s guilt. It is about curing a hurt that has caused a rift between parent and child, husband and wife, brother and sister, friend and friend. As much as is possible, it returns things to the way they used to be.

If there is a section of the Torah that comes immediately to my mind when I hear the phrase, “the way they used to be,” it is the first three chapters of Bereishit, Genesis. I am reading those chapters this week, very carefully, as I prepare to begin the cycle of Torah readings once again on another holiday coming soon, Simchat Torah, rejoicing in the Torah. This section comes to my mind because it describes an ideal world, a beautiful, lush, creative, harmonious world…a world in which no creature kills another for food or any other purpose.

The key word is “harmonious.” The world in the first three chapters of Bereishit is not one in which there is no violence because everything is the same. In fact, this is a world rich with difference. Creation is all about differentiating one thing from another, and as creation proliferates, so does difference — and G-d sees that it is all good.

This vision has always led me to think that the path to a world of beauty, joy and fulfillment is not involved in reducing differences, whether they are religious or cultural or political or racial…but in rejoicing in them, seeing them as good, and respecting the wisdom that makes us all experience and see the world in different ways. At the same time, I believe our greatest ethical challenge as human beings is to overcome our fear of and sense of superiority toward “the other.”

In recent years, I have begun to extend that appreciation for difference beyond the human realm. Increasingly I see that human superiority (whether in intelligence or emotion or compassion) is nothing more than a construct — one created by those who place themselves at the top of that pyramid. In reality, other creatures on the planet have different ways of being intelligent or emotional or compassionate, perfectly suited to their environment and survival requirements.

And yet, as Yuval Noah Harari, Israeli professor of history and the author of the international bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, says of factory farm animals: “The disappearance of wildlife is a calamity of unprecedented magnitude, but the plight of the planet’s majority population—the farm animals—is cause for equal concern.  In recent years there is growing awareness of the conditions under which these animals live and die, and their fate may well turn out to be the greatest crime in human history. If you measure crimes by the sheer amount of pain and misery they inflict on sentient beings, this radical claim is not implausible.”

This utter disregard and disdain for other life on the planet is worth contemplating as we enter Yom Kippur. This year I want to include in my own apology to all those whom I have knowingly or unknowingly wronged an apology to all creatures I have knowingly or unknowingly and thoughtlessly used.

As I find ways every day to expand my own consciousness of the times my awareness of and appreciation for “the other” fails me, my hope is to do my part in tikkun, repairing the world, “curing a hurt that has caused a rift” in creation. As I return to that extraordinary vision in the first chapters of Bereishit, I want to be part of returning or bringing our world closer to powerful potentiality.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

Two Models to Feed the World: IFS & Torah

“Much have I learned from my teachers, more from my colleagues, but most from my students.” – Rav Hanina ( Talmud: Taanit, 7a)

I finished teaching a class at McHenry County Community College this past week called “Conscious Choices: Thinking About Food.” I taught the class last year, but each year it’s different as our food situation evolves (or devolves) and my own knowledge base grows.

My formal coursework has been in religion and Bible. I have enjoyed taking and teaching many classes. Informally, I read widely about food, the environment, sustainability and agriculture, in particular animal agriculture. I maintain a Twitter feed primarily for the purpose of following trends and picking up leads to interesting reading. This year I also enjoyed an online class in “The Ethics of Eating” from Cornell University. I fed myself and my family and friends for 50 years, operated a large organic garden, worked in the food industry, and now I work (very part-time) on a farm.

Finally, though, what most encourages me to constantly reshape these classes is student input. An aha moment for a student is an aha moment for me. In the last series I taught, that aha moment was hearing Alex Hershaft, Holocaust survivor and animal activist, speak. This time it was a comment from Michael Pollan’s 2008 “An Open Letter to the Farmer in Chief,” “But if taking the animals off farms made a certain kind of economic sense, it made no ecological sense whatever: their waste, formerly regarded as a precious source of fertility on the farm, became a pollutant — factory farms are now one of America’s biggest sources of pollution.”

He continues, “As Wendell Berry has tartly observed, to take animals off farms and put them on feedlots is to take an elegant solution — animals replenishing the fertility that crops deplete — and neatly divide it into two problems: a fertility problem on the farm and a pollution problem on the feed lot. The former problem is remedied with fossil-fuel fertilizer; the latter is remedied not at all.”

There is a lot of talk these days about 2050 and the need to feed a predicted world population of 10 billion. How will we accomplish that? Are there enough land and water resources? How do we bring true food security to the “food insecure?” As our world continues to change, will we perhaps all become food insecure? Can our current path make us healthier and happier?

As the class evolved, I realized that I was teaching two models for “feeding the world.” The first model is the one offered up by our American culture: the Industrial Food System (or IFS). The second is what I will call the biblical model. Each of these models utilizes different strategies to produce food, and each produces different results.

What I understood as I taught this year is that not only is each of these models a “system” in every sense of the word, but like any good system, each has a purpose or mission that defines its objectives, strategies and results.

Michael Pollan introduces his Open Letter this way: “The food and agriculture policies you’ve inherited — designed to maximize production at all costs and relying on cheap energy to do so — are in shambles, and the need to address the problems they have caused is acute.”

But if the IFS mission of maximizing production at all costs has failed, so has the biblical mission of expanding the realm of ethical consciousness. This mission has failed not so much because of a problem in the message but more from the dismissive attitude of a secular world toward sacred texts and wise teachers in human history.

We are not the first generation to sit on the edge of catastrophe, yet we reject ancient teachings before we even take time to know what they are. Their wisdom barely enters our consciousness as we struggle with problems that threaten our continued existence on the planet.

Yet just as there may be things of value to glean from the Industrial Food System before we reform it or throw it out, there are things of value to take from the Torah and other ancient teachings.

When I began my Torah Ecology project, my intention was to focus on food, animal rights and the environment. In this first year of my project, my interest isn’t so much on specifics like what people ate but more on what it meant to them — or at least what it was supposed to have meant to them according to the “Author”/authors of the Torah. Understanding this takes me on some thought journeys that seem far afield, but ultimately each week of close study contributes something to my ability to get inside the biblical worldview.

When I redesign the class for next year, I will organize it very specifically around these two models, the IFS and the biblical model, maximum production vs. maximum ethical consciousness. How does each of these models relate to human health, other species on the planet and the planet itself? What does each model say about our relationship to other species and to the planet? Specifically, what does each model say about animal agriculture, agricultural workers, health, waste and human consciousness?

One thing I know about our current food culture is that it encourages a total disconnect from the sources of our food. That disconnect in turn generates distortions in our relationship to transcendence, our environment, other human beings, other creatures, even our own bodies. Working in the fields planting and harvesting, sharing the fields with other animals and cooking with real food break down that disconnect, restoring satisfying, beneficial and meaningful relationships. The biblical model expresses that understanding of interconnectedness.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

Modesty

I happened to see a short segment on Asian Muslim women creating fanciful hijabs. I started to think about Jewish modesty, which requires married women to cover their hair and all females to dress modestly — skirts well below the knees and arms and shoulders covered.

Many liberal women, Jewish and non-Jewish, view this and related practices as expressions of a patriarchal culture. I’ve never seen it that way.

One of the things that is immediately apparent in reading Hebrew scripture is that the first chapters of Genesis present an ideal world, a world which doesn’t even require taking life in order to survive. All of creation is vegan. With a catastrophic human decision in that environment, death enters the world, and every creature is possible prey. The rest of the text works out a plan, with several revisions along the way, for how to live in the real world. With regard to food, the minute meat-eating enters the world, proscriptions enter along with it, showing how to navigate on some basis other than impulse and opportunism.

I’ve formulated several different opinions about modesty along my own path through Judaism, but this morning, this occurred to me: what if female dress simply recognizes a reality and mandates a way to negotiate it, through practices that protect men from their impulses and women from abuse? What if these mandates are simply a bow to evolutionary and biological realities? This view of it is consistent with my understanding of the basic orientation of Hebrew scripture.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

There’s The Ideal…And Then There’s The Real

Sometimes when I study Torah these days I get a little lost in the details of animal sacrifice and numbering and valuing people and animals.

My original purpose in this study was to  try to understand what the Torah says comprehensively, pervasively, about our relationship to the planet and every other creature on it. Certainly there are verses here and there that I can draw on to make the argument for ecological sensitivity and veganism, but I wanted something more pronounced, something woven systematically through this carefully constructed, nuanced text.

The more I study the Torah, the more I regard it as the product of a unified consciousness. Its extraordinary construction, the parallelisms, the chiasms, the repeating themes and images, the nuanced vocabulary…all come together in an impressive architecture that makes an inspired and compelling set of statements about the meaning and purpose of our existence.

I still believe the comprehensive message I seek is there. I see tantalizing hints of it constantly as I study. And of course there are those strong, clear verses here and there, just the things my spirit needs to hear. The comprehensive message, though, seems ultimately to elude me as I read about things like the princes of Israel bringing hundreds of animals to the Tabernacle for slaughter. My imagination springs into life, and I lose my connection to the big meaning behind and under and throughout, as I try to understand the particular meaning within this bloody, terrifying spectacle.

Terrifying, at least, from the animal’s perspective. Was it terrifying for the priests and Levites? The Israelites in attendance? Was there supposed to be an aspect of terror? Of awe? Because certainly there is that dimension to life itself. Even in our modern, secular era, the existentialists identified that.

And what about responsibility, guilt, atonement, gratitude? Aren’t these all fully human experiences and emotions? If we are fully open to our human experience, if we are fully human in that experience, is it possible that experience can be without overwhelming moments of gratitude or of realizing the stark limits on living without causing harm?

Finally, at least at this point in my progress, I come back to the idea that a harmonious, beautiful vision is put before us, an ideal world in which there is no bloodshed and no violence in creation. Harmony reigns, not hierarchy, and there is a continuity between transcendence, creation and human beings. Ethical consciousness pervades everything.

And then there is the real world, the world in which we live, the only world we know. It is a world in which ethical dilemmas are almost always Gordian knots. There is no escape from the reality of life, no deus ex machina, no magic. G-d’s compassion in the Torah is to teach us how to navigate through that real world, how to keep that picture of an ideal world in our sights, but at the same time stay focused on what is and find joy in it.

Even if the surface language of blood sacrifice seems contradictory to the deep language of the Torah, I still believe the message is consistent throughout, although I cannot yet detail how that works. It’s like holding two ideas simultaneously in my consciousness, an extraordinary beautiful ideal and a real world where good enough is our best hope.

As a former employer liked to say to me of our plans for the organization, “there is the ideal…and then there is the real.” The Torah gives us an ideal to keep in our hearts and imagination as we live in the moment, striving to extend holiness in a very real world. There is a message in the sacrifices that still escapes me, although from time to time I grasp pieces of it, like torn bits of brightly colored fabric floating over the abyss.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

Torah: Why I Don’t Like To Call It (Written) Law

Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) is most often translated “law.” Strong’s points out that the word “derives from yarah - view larger image yârâh (Strong’s #3384) meaning ‘to shoot out the hand as pointing, to show, indicate’, ‘to teach, instruct’, ‘to lay foundations’, ‘to sprinkle, to water’, ‘to shoot, as an arrow’.” BiblicalHebrew.com elaborates on this theme of teaching or instruction.

I like referring to the Torah as “teaching” because ethical legislation is only one of the teaching methods of the Torah, which also uses myth or storytelling to instruct. Both methods serve to shape human beings. Another teaching method in the Torah is ritual practice, which I like to call “body language.” The ways and places we use our bodies and connect with food and the environment teach something about a relationship with transcendence.

The Torah teaches at an embodied level, but it also teaches at an abstract level. With ritual, the Torah teaches through the body, but one can even make the argument that G-d has a body from some parts of the biblical text. Other sections, in particular Deuteronomy, state over and over again that G-d has no body.

It is meaningful for me that the Torah teaches in so many ways. Its versatility of methodology reminds me of a D’var Torah I once heard about Ishmael in the desert, when G-d speaks to him “ba-asher hu sham,” where he is (Genesis 21:17). The D’var Torah likened G-d to a skillful teacher, who instructs each with different methods, reaching each where he or she is.  Ethical legislation is only one of those methods.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

A Goat For Azazel? Really?

I’m teaching a short four session class on Bible. So far my focus has been on the first chapters of Genesis and the middle section of Leviticus, especially chapter 16, the Yom Kippur ritual. In our last week, we will examine the 10 Things or Words, better known as the 10 Commandments. I also hope to touch on the extraordinarily beautiful chapter 25 in Leviticus, about a Shabbaton for the land and the Jubilee Year.

Any text has something to communicate. Some texts do a better job of that than others. I think the first five books of the Bible do a consummate job, but it’s difficult for us to receive the communication, as relevant as it may be for us today, because of its mode of presentation in myth, ritual practices and legal codes and because of our American cultural isolation from the life experience that inspires this text. If we decode those forms, though, and if we can find ways to identify with the experience of destruction of a nation and exile, we find pervasive and powerful messages for our times.

For many of us, certainly the secularists among us, the first five books of the Bible, the Torah, are difficult to understand in meaningful ways. Myth is just…well, myth. The rituals of Leviticus, purifications from childbirth, death, menstruation, seminal emissions and leprosy, are alienating. Even the legal codes, with the exception of soaring passages here and there, can be somewhat opaque. What significance can all the details related to a goring ox have for contemporary urban dwellers so far from that world?

Beyond that, many of us live in an insular situation. Poverty, systemic discrimination, bloodshed (even for our own food), brutality, the instability and terror of living in a war zone…these are all things that if they are in our consciousness at all are likely at its periphery. It requires significant effort to identify with others’ experience so different from our own. It is difficult to understand the profound ideas of the biblical text and its pervasive concern with and response to bloodshed and injustice when we are so insulated from even the normal processes of life and death in our daily lives.

THE LANGUAGES OF THE TEXT

So how do we begin to examine this text and try to understand it? One way is to explore how these three forms, myth, ritual practice and moral legislation, speak. The tools of literary analysis, using the evidence of the text itself, offer a path into the material.

Using this approach, we discover that the first chapters of Genesis and the book of Leviticus make the same set of statements in different ways: Genesis relates a theology and an ontology and outlines a paradox at the root of human existence through story. The rituals of the Purity Code and the ethical legislation in the Holiness Code convey the same themes.

In the narrowest terms, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil points to the Holiness Code, with its emphasis on ethical relations between the Israelites, their neighbors and their world, and the Tree of Life points to the Purity Code, with its emphasis on birth and death, sexuality and procreation, and leprosy or organic decay.

The first theme is about how creation reflects and is like its creator in that it is pervaded by ethical consciousness. The second half of Leviticus focuses on the specifics of how the Israelites are to express that in their local community. The second theme is about how creation is different from its creator.  Accordingly the first half of Leviticus focuses on how G-d can live among the Israelites post-Garden given that profound difference.

The two goats in the Day of Atonement ritual, the goat for the Lord and the goat for Azazel, remove both ethical sins, sins against one’s neighbor, and impurities that stand between the Israelites and their G-d. The dual action reestablishes a coextensive relationship between G-d, creation and human beings in this local community. It recreates the Garden in this temporal space.

When we use the text itself, its intra-textual allusions, its internal structures, its Hebrew vocabulary, its repetitions — and its repetitions with changes, we can see that. We also might discover it says some things that surprise some of us, upending our assumptions.

SOME THINGS THE FIRST 5 BOOKS OF THE BIBLE SAY

Here are samples of statements the text makes that we discover using literary tools:

  • In the Israelite cosmos, creation is ordered and coextensive with transcendence, and an ethical consciousness pervades it all.
  • Male and female are created simultaneously, together in the image of G-d.
  • G-d and human beings are like each other in some ways and in other ways profoundly different. They share with G-d and the rest of creation ethical consciousness and responsibility. The relationship between the Israelites and their neighbors, even the rest of creation, is governed by ethics.
  • Human beings, like the rest of creation, are different from G-d in that they are bound by the laws of nature: birth, death, sexuality  and procreation, and disease or organic decay. In addition, creation is differentiated. G-d is a unified consciousness. This should be a cause of some humility. Certainly it is a cause for reflection on how G-d can be in creation, living among a group of people, engaged in an intimate relationship. The relationship between G-d and G-d’s people is governed by ritual.
  • There is more than one way to think about the meaning of the event in the Garden, the “meal in the Garden” when we look at multiple meanings and associations to the word, arum (usually translated naked). What if we read that, “prudent,” as it is in Job? Human beings eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil bringing consequences for all of creation. Their eyes are opened, and they realize the enormity of their impulsive action. The Torah, then, urges “prudent” action, conscious choices in full consideration of consequences and implication.
  • Ethical intelligence pervades everything, transcendence, all of creation, the animal world, and human life. Whether conscious, instinctive or impulsive, action in one realm impacts all realms.
  • A recurring motif of creation and rollbacks of creation tells us that widespread or communal failures to exercise ethical consciousness return us to a dark, empty, barren pre-creation state. We see this motif in the Flood story of Genesis 6-8, and we see it in the 10 Plagues of Exodus 7-13 as well as in other sections of the Torah and in the books of the Prophets.  This idea has enormous meaning for us today in relation to problems we face in human, environmental, animal and food justice.
  • Bloodshed and violence are fundamental and endemic problems in our world. In the biblical world, this translates to a guide to establishing justice and compassion within a local community.
  • The structure of government in local communities is not at issue: what is at issue is the extent to which a society extends holiness by establishing justice and exercising effective compassion.

THE PROJECT OF THE HEBREW BIBLE

The first chapters of Genesis (myth) present a vision of an ideal world, a world in harmony and without bloodshed and violence. These chapters make a set of important statements about the nature of transcendence and creation and our role in creation.

Then we get another picture, a picture of the world as it was then and remains today — but we get more than a realistic graphic. We get a guide for living in that world, extending the boundaries of holiness, mediated through the local communal experience and practices of one group, a group tasked with recreating the Garden in its midst. The Purity and Holiness Codes of Leviticus make the same statements as the myths of Genesis, describing how to create that Garden in the real world through the ritual practices and ethical legislation that teaches and shapes a community.

The 10 Commandments set up an overarching framework for relationships, G-d, all of humanity and creation, then focus in on a local community of “neighbors.” The communal mission is to create a Garden in their midst, where people live in correct relationship to their world and their neighbors and G-d dwells among the people. Following the teachings within this framework leads to “life.” Abandoning these teachings leads to pre-creation darkness, emptiness and barrenness.

OUR EXPERIENTIAL DISTANCE FROM THE TEXT

My own understanding of the text was greatly assisted by a teacher who reminded me that we always have to ask what questions a text comes to answer?  And that is the rare moment when I turn to source criticism for help in my understanding.

Many scholars think the final redaction of the Torah came in the mid 5th century b.c.e. At that time, Ezra, the priest, and Nehemiah, the governor, returned to the land of Israel from Babylonian exile to meld returnees and some who never left into a cohesive community. Life in Israel was devastated 140 years before in 586 b.c.e. when the nation and its center, the Temple in Jerusalem, was destroyed. After much bloodshed and many deaths, the people were sent into exile. When a small part of their descendants returned, they came to an impoverished land and faced an almost insurmountable task of rebuilding a nation in the midst of hardship and intra-communal bickering. While those who remained and those who returned had not personally witnessed the devastation, it was surely emblazoned on their consciousness, its effects enduring.

We would, perhaps, better understand those difficult times today if we lived in Syria or any of the other deeply troubled, war-torn, suffering or poverty-stricken corners of the world. We would understand how impulsive actions, envy, greed, the arrogance of power and the failure to extend justice in the world result in the destruction of civilizations and impoverishment of the planet. We would understand the experience of a rollback of creation and our responsibility in it. And we would understand the universality of human experience and how this text speaks directly to it.

In my imagination, the returning community  would have confronted these questions: Why did this happen to us, and how can we avoid it happening again? Where is G-d, and how can G-d walk again in our midst? And how can we forge ourselves into a unified community to move forward in this new environment? The answers to the first two questions shape the answer to the third.

And it is at this point that I end the class, hoping that I have opened some possibilities for peering into difficult material and considering what it might be trying to say, what meaning it might have in our time:

  • What is the human relationship with transcendence, and what implications does that have for our lives in this world?
  • What does it mean that all of creation is coextensive with transcendence although profoundly different from G-d?
  • That ethical consciousness pervades everything that is?
  • That human beings, male and female together, are “in the image” of G-d?
  • That impulsivity and imprudence have consequences?
  • What are the fundamental challenges in creation, and how do we respond to them?
  • What is the relationship between G-d and human beings, between human beings and the rest of their world?
  • What is the spiritual and ethical significance of being embodied?
  • How can we live in community? What is the relationship between the community and the individual?
  • Should politics be local?
  • What is our task as human beings on this planet?

The demand I hear most clearly coming from this text is the one for conscious choice. Impulsivity brought catastrophe to creation. When Adam and Eve’s eyes opened and they were “prudent,” they realized the grave consequences of their impulsive action. The consequences remain with us according to this story, but that defines purpose, extending holiness, or justice and compassion, the products of ethical consciousness, throughout creation.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.