Category Archives: Bible/Torah

The Power of A Story

I began my current journey in biblical studies six years ago on a walk with my violence-averse husband. A dead and partially mutilated rabbit ended our stroll around the neighborhood with his exclamation of dismay. I asked why “these kinds of things,” which include National Geographic specials that involve one animal hunting and killing another, disturb him so much, glibly announcing, “It’s just the plan of nature.” He responded, “It’s a stupid plan.”

My husband’s comment surprised me, but then I started thinking. In a universe of infinite possibilities, why couldn’t things be different? What if living life didn’t require taking life?  Going a step further, what if there were, in fact, no death?

I’m not the first to wonder, what if? That thought long ago occurred to others. This is the world imagined into being in the first three chapters of Genesis. All animals, human and non-human, were vegan, and there was no death.

Recently on another walk as I was spinning out my newest thought process for my patient husband, I reminded him that this all began from his comment six years ago. This time he added, ”Yes, I wonder why all animals couldn’t have just grazed?” Which caused me to speculate that then there would have been no population control. P’ru u’r’vu (be fruitful and multiply), a command given to all living beings, would have become a planetary death sentence.

So Genesis 1-3 imagines the beautiful world, a world of unrestrained creativity, abundance and no death, a world that crashes into another story of human drives in a world of limited resources and death, the remaining 184 chapters of Torah.

This collision should cause us to sit up and take notice. As Joseph Campbell once said, “Life lives on life. This is the sense of the symbol of the Ouroboros, the serpent biting its tail. Everything that lives lives on the death of something else. Your own body will be food for something else. Anyone who denies this, anyone who holds back, is out of order. Death is an act of giving.”

Isn’t this Economy of Being the problem that Thanos, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy), set out to solve? Too much stress on limited resources? And like the God of the Bible, Thanos sets in motion a plan to randomly reduce the population. Unlike God’s plan in the Bible, Thanos’ plan applies only to humanity (or at least the story deals only with humanity) — and was applied directly, not through the workings of nature. But the initiating challenge and its resolution were effectively the same. “Be fruitful and multiply“ requires a counterbalancing mechanism.

In the Marvel Comics universe, Thanos was not a completely unsympathetic character. He suffered when he saw the results among humans of unrestrained evolutionary success. He thought he had a plan to “fix” that. Randomly eliminating half the population would allow the other half to live comfortably, without suffering. A painful job, but someone had to do it.

Of course, it was satisfying when Thanos was finally vanquished, and those who had been eliminated were returned to life — but this ending begged the question: what provides the counterbalance to the creative urge, the urge of a species to expand to the point of wiping out other planetary resources? Where is the Economy of Being?

The “good guys,” those who vanquished Thanos and brought back the missing half of humanity, didn’t answer that question. So who were the good guys? Thanos, who took responsibility and acted even if we don’t like the action? Or the Guardians, who did something we like better but didn’t address the problem?

Both stories, one from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and one from the Torah, address the same issue. Living beings drive toward their own evolutionary success. But unrestrained success is ultimately destructive. Both stories recognize the need for a counterbalancing force, a limiting factor, and in both stories that limiting factor involves death. Both stories have an issue of justice in their background as one randomizes death (Marvel), and the other universalizes it (Torah). In neither case do living beings live or die based on merit.

Only one of the stories places the responsibility for the problem and its solution on living beings themselves: the Torah story. Human beings and a fellow creature, a serpent, interact destructively in a way that brings death to the world. Forced to recognize their responsibility, they are also required to participate in a solution. Consider the power of this story that over the millennia has insisted on engaging living beings, primarily humans, in maintaining an Economy of Being. We have often fulfilled that responsibility poorly if at all.

The Torah story with its nuance leaves us at the heart of the dilemma. It doesn’t give us a single answer. There is more than one “creation” story, more than one attempt to create a world without violence and suffering. Finally multiple voices and stories are woven together, acting as a vehicle of acculturation. A subset of humanity, the Israelites, receives a body of laws, hopefully producing better outcomes for all life on the planet than when human animals simply follow their unrestrained evolutionary urges. And the story continues.

“Us-Themism”

I imagine some of us would call the creative urge, the drive to “be fruitful and multiply” in all its variations, a ”good” impulse — and those things that limit that drive, including a predatory impulse, “bad.” And yet, in evolutionary terms, both are necessary and therefore, objectively speaking, neither good nor bad.

In Jewish tradition, these drives and impulses are recognized as yetzer ha tov and yetzer ha-ra, the good inclination and the evil inclination. The good inclination isn’t good in and of itself, nor is the evil inclination evil. We might think of the good inclination as an altruistic impulse which, when taken to an extreme, results in the death of an organism. Similarly the evil inclination is responsible for creating, building, developing, but in the extreme, results in greed, predation, suffering and even death to others.

This makes things more complicated for us. How do we know when to give and when to take, when to cooperate and when to compete? When to focus on “us” and when to be wary of “them?” The answers are rarely clear-cut, and those stories sustain us best that are nuanced enough to replicate the complexity of our lives.

Torah stories like the Flood story teach that since these drives are in the makeup of the human animal, our goal should not be to repress or sublimate these urges, to “cure” ourselves of them, but to keep them in balance. In this way, Jewish law is also a story, a means to acculturate us to become the best human beings we can be.

Like many in my generation, I imagine, I grew up disdaining the tribal mentality, an Us/Them worldview. After all, we are all human. And beyond that, we are all creatures animated by the breath of God — or at least are in the same boat on this planet and will either float together or die together.

But now we know, as Jewish traditions intuited, this Us/Them mentality that expresses itself so consistently throughout history is a necessary evolutionary trait, one of those variations on the drive that limits the suffering and evil that would result from unrestrained p’ru u’r’vu, fruitfulness and multiplication.

Science tells us that “the core of Us/Them-ing is emotional and automatic . . . from massive barbarity to pinpricks of microaggression, Us versus Them has produced oceans of pain. Yet, I don’t think our goal should be to “cure” us of all Us/Them dichotomizing (separate of it being impossible, unless you have no amygdala).”

So according to science, Us/Them-ing is an evolutionary trait with a specific purpose, perhaps even multiple purposes. One that stands out is that when resources are limited, an “Us” group is more likely to succeed when “They” are minimized, utilized, or eliminated. Returning a nonhuman animal to the wild that has lived with humans makes clear the danger in modifying the instinct to be wary of “Them.” So we need to respect that instinct in ourselves and other living beings.

But are we doomed to forever look with suspicion on the Other or to minimize their being in relation to our own? Even to commit violence against them? The world’s religions have all said “no.” And here is the role of the powerful story, the story that acculturates us, shapes a worldview, that drives us with greater force than our evolutionary instincts.

It is our stories that give us the capability of modifying our relationships with others. Yuval Noah Harari tells us that the distinctive trait of Sapiens that pushed us to the top of the food chain is our ability to create fictions and persuade others to believe them. This ability, in turn, allows us to cooperate flexibly in large groups. Harari names as fictions religions, corporations, banks and nations among others — basically anything that shapes our world. I like to call these fictions stories. Our stories are not only our downfall but our potential salvation.

Finding Our Story

Just when we need a good story, we live in times when the stories we knew are crumbling, are no longer effective. This applies to our religious stories as well as our cultural and national stories. Millennials are leaving institutional religious life in droves. Dictatorships are replacing democracies. The institutions and value systems we shared and loved, that grew out of our stories, are shredded before us.

Discovering meaning in old stories or finding and creating new stories, though, is even more difficult when we disdain everything that isn’t “fact” or “science.” I have some sympathy with Kellyanne Conway’s comment about alternate facts. I think what she might have meant, or at least should have said, was “alternate stories“ — because it is our stories that give meaning to facts. Myth gives meaning to history, to human experience.

Here’s how one writer says it: “It’s all a question of story. We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. The old story, the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it is no longer effective. Yet we have not learned the new story. Our traditional story of the universe sustained us for a long period of time. It shaped our emotional attitudes, provided us with life purposes, and energized action. It consecrated suffering and integrated knowledge. We awoke in the morning and knew where we were. We could answer the questions of our children. We could identify crime, punish transgressors. Everything was taken care of because the story was there. It did not necessarily make people good, nor did it take away the pains and stupidities of life or make for unfailing warmth in human association. It did provide a context in which life could function in a meaningful manner.” ~ The Dream of the Earth by Thomas Berry (Sierra Club Books, 1988, p. 123 )

When we minimize the power of our stories, when we fail to find and choose a story in which to stand, we leave the field open to others who appreciate the power of stories and use them to their advantage, planting their stories, which then have a chance to put down roots and flourish. We leave the field to those whose stories rationalize building massive vertical chicken farms or to industrial animal agriculture operations, to those whose stories center around financial success as the greatest value, to those whose stories feature victimization and blame, to Nazis and white supremacists, to ISIS.

If stories give facts their meaning, if stories are the one thing more powerful than evolutionary drives like our natural instinct to be wary of “the other,” even to devalue, minimize, commercialize, or prey on the other, then presenting unadorned facts to a person driven by a powerful story with which we disagree is unlikely to have any effect at all. It’s like speaking in completely different languages.

In When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals, authors Jeffrey Masson and Susan McCarthy point out that until very recently, scientists have refused to speak in terms of animal emotions for fear of being accused of anthropomorphizing and consequently discredited. In this way, a story was generated that supports a giant and brutal animal agriculture industry and contradicts what is obvious to any casual observer.

The story that animals don’t experience emotions and intelligence like humans, also contradicts what we once knew before we placed ourselves so solidly in the story of science, a one-sided science that minimizes the value of, or even rejects, the information brought to us through the humanities.

A course from Yale University, offered through Coursera, Journey of the Universe, says it this way: “The Journey course . . . is based on a new integration that is emerging from the dialogue of the sciences and humanities. Journey tells the story of evolution as an epic narrative, rather than as a series of facts separated by scientific disciplines.”

A parallel process of reshaping the scientific narrative is happening with regard to animals and animal studies. When Elephants Weep is just one of a large number of studies and books coming out in recent years. These scientists and observers are looking more closely at what we share with our fellow living beings on the planet. They are presenting an alternative to the story of minimization.

This new scientific story and this new narrative of the human-nonhuman animal relationship parallels the Torah story, which describes both human and nonhuman animals as flesh animated by the breath of God.

Like their human animal counterparts, nonhuman animals are intelligent, can strategize, have feelings and are held morally accountable. Human animals, like their nonhuman animal counterparts, are driven by evolutionary instincts including cooperation — but also “Us-Themism.”

It occurs to me that humans‘ unique characteristic, that which differentiates us from nonhuman animals, is our ability, as Harari points out, to create stories. Potentially those stories could help us overcome or at least redirect our tendency to violence. Not always, perhaps not even often, but it might. This is God’s theory after the Flood when God permits meat-eating.

Our stories shape our lives and give them meaning. The Torah provides a story for those who would eat our fellow creatures . . . but also a story for those who would not. It provides a story in which animal sacrifice is at the center of an Economy of Being — and Jewish history and experience provides another that replaces sacrifice with prayer.

Our society provides a story for those who breed and fatten billions of living beings each year for slaughter. We are in a process of rediscovering the story of our interconnection, even interbeing, and conscious choice. It is a long, slow and difficult journey of rediscovery, but it is imperative. To save ourselves, we need to find and choose and share that story that is stronger than our evolutionary drives.

“Imagine Peace” by johnmaschak is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

Chapter Three: The Flood – Interconnection & Moral Accountability

The idea of the universe as an interconnected whole is not new; for millennia it’s been one of the core assumptions of Eastern philosophies. What is new is that Western science is slowly beginning to realize that some elements of that ancient lore might be correct. – Dean Radin, in “Entangled Minds”

It’s All About Our Interconnected Whole

Our interconnection isn’t only an assumption of Eastern philosophies. It is embedded in the Torah story that emerged from the Middle East and shaped the western world through its interpreters.

The Garden of Eden story in Genesis represents interconnection and interdependence through the themes of responsibility and consequence that accompany an idea of moral agency. But moral agency, responsibility, and consequence extend beyond the human realm to nonhuman animals and even the earth itself. In this extension of themes, the Torah speaks to Charles Eisenstein’s idea of “interbeing.”

Human and nonhuman animals are both created on the sixth day. The serpent demonstrates they can be similar not only in physical appearance, that is, relative nakedness or hairlessness, but in habits of mind, like the ability to reason and strategize. And all creation suffers the disastrous consequence of the combined activity of a nonhuman animal and two humans.

That consequences come to all for the actions of a few is a way of expressing the idea of the interdependence of all creation: what one does affects all. It also represents the idea of interbeing — what impacts my fellow creatures impacts me because I am them and they are me. A Hasidic idea points to this understanding of things: Bitul Hayesh, total self-abnegation, creating space to experience that ultimate reality is One, Yichud.

Imagine if we could approach our created world from this space of our profound connection to it, even unity with it — with all living creatures, even with the land itself, the water, the stars. What different decisions might we make about our environment, about our fellow creatures on the planet, about what and how we eat and how we live? This is a door to possibility that the “animals’ story” in the Torah opens for us.

These stories of freedom, responsibility, guilt and consequence highlight the overarching aspirational theme of the Torah story. The nature of creation is individuation, God and God’s creation separate but one, unfolding creativity generating separate forms and structures, land and water, birds and fish, human and non-human animals, each differentiated from the other but coming from and participating in the One.

How close this is to a contemporary vision of the creative process that brought about the universe and everything in it!

The aspirational task for human beings is to fulfill their potential as unique beings while maintaining a profound awareness that they are part of the whole — and the whole is in them. As part of the whole, the smallest action of an individual has consequences for all of creation, even God’s self. This is a complex and powerful theme in the Torah story, a theme the Jewish mystics of a later time draw upon with stories of their own, stories in which each action of an individual affects the balance of God Him/Herself.

It is a weighty idea, that each action we perform as part of a greater whole impacts and brings consequences to all creation. Yet this is a key theme of the first story in the Torah, the Creation story. A nonhuman animal persuades a human counterpart that it’s ok to eat from the tree in the middle of the garden. The humans decide to take action on that persuasive argument. The result is a catastrophic consequence for all of creation, not only those who are guilty but those who are merely responsible and even those who are seemingly innocent. The actions of one or a few have consequences for all.

The Flood Story & The Path of Moderation

As in the Creation Story, in the Flood Story as well nonhuman animals along with humans are held accountable — not as individuals but as a whole, the innocent with the guilty. Indeed, all of creation is held accountable: “. . . all flesh under the sky in which there is breath of life; everything on earth shall perish.” (Gen. 6:17) Even the land drowns under the flood waters, the land which swallowed up the blood of Abel, the first homicide.

The Flood Story brings us to the endpoint of God’s first creation — but creative activity is unstoppable, and a new world emerges from the remnants of the old. Like the first, this world has violence in its DNA. There is some hope that in this new world, violence can be restrained, that people can learn — but God accepts the nature of things when God makes a promise not to destroy everything again.

The story of violence in creation begins with Cain, son of Adam and father of violence toward a brother. It continues in his line through seven generations from Cain to Tubal-Cain (Gen. 4:17-24). The fifth generation introduces the first Lamech, like Cain a murderer, perhaps even of a boy. Lamech declares to his wives that if Cain will be avenged seven-fold, he, Lamech, will be avenged seventy-and-seven-fold.

The proliferation of the number seven in this genealogy points to the creation theme in which the world was created in seven days. This is what creation has become, a world of scarcity and violence. It must change, or it will destroy itself. The number seven points not only backward, to the first creation, but forward, to a new creation.

Then begins a separate line of seven generations from Seth to a second Lamech, the father of Noah (Gen. 5:3-28). Adam’s son, Seth, is the child whom Eve, always transactional in her thoughts about her children, views as a replacement for her son, Abel, whom Cain murdered:

וַיֵּ֨דַע אָדָ֥ם עוֹד֙ אֶת־אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ וַתֵּ֣לֶד בֵּ֔ן וַתִּקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ שֵׁ֑ת כִּ֣י שָֽׁת־לִ֤י אֱלֹהִים֙ זֶ֣רַע אַחֵ֔ר תַּ֣חַת הֶ֔בֶל כִּ֥י הֲרָג֖וֹ קָֽיִן׃ 

Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and named him Seth, meaning, “God has provided me with another offspring in place of Abel,” for Cain had killed him. (Gen. 4:25)

In this way, the second seven generation genealogy connects to the story of the victim, Abel. And the figure of Lamech provides a link between the two genealogies and a transition to the Flood story.

In the creation do-over that is the Flood, Seth is then the progenitor of the humanity that survives it. Portrayed as neither predator nor prey, Seth is the child of moderation.

Like his brother, Cain, Seth surely carries the genes — or better, has the evolutionary capability — for violence. In the Torah story tho, Seth, unlike his brother Cain, doesn’t act on that impulse. And yet Seth is not an insubstantial “breath” as Abel’s name suggests he was. Seth doesn’t become prey but instead begets sons and daughters and dies at the ripe old age of 912 years, representing the fulness and evolutionary success of moderation.

From Seth’s genealogical line comes Noah, a “man righteous in his generation.” Noah stands in contrast to his generation in this sense. And he contrasts with his generation in other ways: as the child of moderation, comfort and substantiality, he continues that tradition.

A play on words in the text tells us Noah’s name means “comfort” even though that cannot be its derivation:  although the name appears to derive from the stem n-w-h, “to rest,” the “explanation given in the narrative rests on similarity of sound, not on etymology, since Noah cannot derive from n-h-m, “to comfort, give relief.” (JPS Torah Commentary on Genesis, Nahum Sarna, p. 44). Sarna tells us the etymology may be a reference to Noah as a culture hero, inventor of the plow and thereby of true agriculture as well as viticulture — saving time and energy and easing the production of food, providing relief and comfort to his generation and easing the curse on the soil though Adam’s sin. (Rashbam). 

When Extremists Clash: Here Comes the Flood

Noah lives in a time when the world is filled with wickedness “all the time”:

וַיַּ֣רְא יְהוָ֔ה כִּ֥י רַבָּ֛ה רָעַ֥ת הָאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ וְכָל־יֵ֙צֶר֙ מַחְשְׁבֹ֣ת לִבּ֔וֹ רַ֥ק רַ֖ע כָּל־הַיּֽוֹם׃ 

The LORD saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time. (Gen. 6:5)

There is a contrast between Noah, whose ancestry and life represent moderation and substantiality, and the world in which he lives, a world of extremes, filled with wickedness in which “every” plan is “nothing but” evil “all” the time. Indeed, the refrain “all,” a word representing the extreme, associated with violence, repeats in the leadup to the Flood.

God communicates both God’s basic plan and the rationale for it in one brief phrase, pairing extreme behaviors with an extreme consequence. The totality of wickedness and violence on earth is met with the consequence of total destruction, a rollback of creation:

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֜ים לְנֹ֗חַ קֵ֤ץ כָּל־בָּשָׂר֙ בָּ֣א לְפָנַ֔י כִּֽי־מָלְאָ֥ה הָאָ֛רֶץ חָמָ֖ס מִפְּנֵיהֶ֑ם וְהִנְנִ֥י מַשְׁחִיתָ֖ם אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ 

God said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth. (Gen. 6:13)

Nahum Sarna in the JPS Torah Commentary on Bereishit says, “The universal corruption is . . . defined as hamas. This term parallels ‘no justice’ in Job 19:7 and is elsewhere the synonym of ‘falsehood,’ ‘deceit,’ or ‘bloodshed.’ It means, in general, the flagrant subversion of the ordered processes of law.” Also according to Sarna, the key Hebrew stem sh-h-t, “corrupt,” appears seven times in the Flood narrative, a refrain of sorts.

Violence, חָמָ֔ס (hamas) is the reason for the Flood. And the utter devastation of the Flood is comprehensive in its consequences. Six times the refrain “all…” is repeated, emphasizing the point:

וַיִּגְוַ֞ע כָּל־בָּשָׂ֣ר ׀ הָרֹמֵ֣שׂ עַל־הָאָ֗רֶץ בָּע֤וֹף וּבַבְּהֵמָה֙ וּבַ֣חַיָּ֔ה וּבְכָל־הַשֶּׁ֖רֶץ הַשֹּׁרֵ֣ץ עַל־הָאָ֑רֶץ וְכֹ֖ל הָאָדָֽם׃ 

And all flesh that stirred on earth perished—birds, cattle, beasts, and all the things that swarmed upon the earth, and all mankind

כֹּ֡ל אֲשֶׁר֩ נִשְׁמַת־ר֨וּחַ חַיִּ֜ים בְּאַפָּ֗יו מִכֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר בֶּחָֽרָבָ֖ה מֵֽתוּ׃ 

All in whose nostrils was the merest breath of life, all that was on dry land, died. 

וַיִּ֜מַח אֶֽת־כָּל־הַיְק֣וּם ׀ אֲשֶׁ֣ר ׀ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י הָֽאֲדָמָ֗ה מֵאָדָ֤ם עַד־בְּהֵמָה֙ עַד־רֶ֙מֶשׂ֙ וְעַד־ע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וַיִּמָּח֖וּ מִן־הָאָ֑רֶץ וַיִשָּׁ֧אֶר אַךְ־נֹ֛חַ וַֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר אִתּ֖וֹ בַּתֵּבָֽה׃ 

All existence on earth was blotted out—man, cattle, creeping things, and birds of the sky; they are blotted out from the earth. Only Noah Is left, and those with him in the ark. (Gen. 21-23)

So Noah, “righteous in his generation,” a moderate and substantial man, lives in a world of extremes. This extremism works counter to the moral imperative to extend and enrich creation. This extreme violence in creation is met with an extreme consequence from the Creator. It seems both violence and consequence are counter to creation, converging to destroy it. Noah alone, the man of moderation and substantiality, and those who accompany him on the ark, survive the devastation. Moderation, not extremism, not perfection, carries creation forward.

But just imagine for a moment the pathos of Noah’s situation even as he survives. He floats in a (relatively) tiny ark on a vast ocean of water, everything he knew gone. All existence on earth was blotted out—man, cattle, creeping things, and birds of the sky; they were blotted out from the earth. Noah’s status is captured in the simple words, “Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark.” (Gen. 7:23)

וַיִּ֜מַח אֶֽת־כָּל־הַיְק֣וּם ׀ אֲשֶׁ֣ר ׀ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י הָֽאֲדָמָ֗ה מֵאָדָ֤ם עַד־בְּהֵמָה֙ עַד־רֶ֙מֶשׂ֙ וְעַד־ע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וַיִּמָּח֖וּ מִן־הָאָ֑רֶץ וַיִשָּׁ֧אֶר אַךְ־נֹ֛חַ וַֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר אִתּ֖וֹ בַּתֵּבָֽה׃ 

So although still living, Noah hardly escapes consequences. He and those with him are alone, everything else engulfed by extreme forces in creation — and God’s extreme reaction, for which even God repents:

וַיָּ֣רַח יְהוָה֮ אֶת־רֵ֣יחַ הַנִּיחֹחַ֒ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהוָ֜ה אֶל־לִבּ֗וֹ לֹֽא־אֹ֠סִף לְקַלֵּ֨ל ע֤וֹד אֶת־הָֽאֲדָמָה֙ בַּעֲב֣וּר הָֽאָדָ֔ם כִּ֠י יֵ֣צֶר לֵ֧ב הָאָדָ֛ם רַ֖ע מִנְּעֻרָ֑יו וְלֹֽא־אֹסִ֥ף ע֛וֹד לְהַכּ֥וֹת אֶת־כָּל־חַ֖י כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשִֽׂיתִי׃ 

The LORD smelled the pleasing odor, and the LORD said to Himself: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done. (Gen. 8:21)

Belatedly God expresses God’s own intent to moderate responses in the future. He accepts the realities of human and nonhuman animal nature. I can’t help but feel, though, for the isolation of Noah and those trapped with him on the ark, remembering a lost world teeming with life and unable to see their future.

Worse, their condition was brought on not only by the extremity of their fellow creatures but the extremity of their Creator. Where is the path to Interbeing in this watery world? Only among those in the fragile ark floating on the water that submerged everything, only among those human and non-human animals who share their crowded, tiny habitat.

But What Did the Animals Do?

In the pre-Flood Torah world, כָּל-הַחַיָּה (“all living beings” – kol ha-hayyah) became lawless and corrupt. All, therefore, suffer the consequence of their moral failure. Creation rolls back to watery emptiness and void but for the remnant who still have God’s breath of life in them, floating on the vast, dark water in their ark.

The text specifically says, כָּל-הַחַיָּה “all living beings.” But what did “all” living beings do that brought on this catastrophe? Because this refrain makes a point similar to the Garden of Eden story, that moral failure occurs among nonhuman animals as well, and the consequences extend to all of creation. Several clues lead us to understand the role of nonhuman animals and even the earth itself in this story of devastation.

We know that the vision of the first three chapters of Genesis is of a world without death, a vegan world of plenty where each animal receives appropriate food. What we don’t notice when we dismiss the story as folklore is that there is an equality of being, that all, human and nonhuman animals, sit at the spiritual round table. Even the earth participates in this drama. It gives birth to Adam and Eve and takes in the blood of Abel. As a result of the latter, it is twice cursed. In other parts of the Torah, God calls upon the earth to witness, along with the heavens, or upon the earth to deliver consequences to those who are dependent on it.

The world of Gen. 1-3 is one in which all of creation is animated, human and nonhuman animals, the earth, the “lights” in the firmament. Everything lives through the breath of God. Everything is interconnected, and there is an equality of being as in the Flood story. Both the Creation and the Flood story refer to this equality of being through the prism of consequence, and nonhuman animals and even the earth itself pay consequences equally with humans.

At the same time, there are differences between the Flood and Creation stories — but even these differences highlight the equality of being behind the specifics of the stories.

In both stories, skillful and repeated use of “flesh,“ בָּשָׂר – basar, and נֶפֶשׁ – nefesh, “living being,” points to the idea that all creatures, not only humans, depend on God for life, and their life is the breath of God. In the Creation story, the emphasis is on nefesh, the life that is from God.

The Flood story emphasizes the material aspect of creation, כָּל־בָּשָׂ֣ר – kol basar, “all flesh.” In Gen. 7:23: “All existence (כָּל-הַיְקוּם – kol ha-y’kum) on earth was blotted out — man, cattle, creeping things, and birds of the sky; they were blotted out from the earth.” Another way to translate ”all existence” is “all substance,” also a reference to the material aspect of all creatures on earth, human and nonhuman.

So pre-flood, the emphasis is on the material aspect of all being, בָּשָׂ֣ר (flesh). The other aspect of being, so prominent in the creation story, נֶפֶשׁ (life, the breath of God), is minimized. The vocabulary suggests that those who die in the flood are already dead, mere carcasses. The breath of God that animates all being has left them.

And finally, those who leave the ark are all “living things of all flesh” (כָּל-הַחַיָּה… מִכָּל-בָּשָׂר – kol hayyah … mi-kol basar) – Gen. 8:17. These are the living, those who remain ”of all flesh,“ human animals along with nonhuman animals, a remnant of the swarming multitudes from the time before the flood.

The Flood story reverses the imagery of the Creation story in Gen. 1 and is rich with allusions to that narrative as creation recedes. But it is the reference to corruption in the Flood story that makes me wonder what, exactly, brought on this roll back to pre-creation darkness and emptiness. Significant differences between the first creation and the new one that follows the flood suggest an answer, helping us understand the nature of the lawlessness and corruption permeating all of creation that brought on the flood.

A comparison of Gen. 1:29-30, quoted above, and Gen. 9:2-5 tells that story, once again including non-human creatures with humanity in both moral failure and consequence. Gen. 1:29-30 provides “every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit” to human beings for food and “all the green plants for food” to every kind of creature. In other words, both humans and animals are offered a vegan diet. Everything changes in the post-flood world:

Gen. 9:2-5: “The fear and the dread of you shall be upon all the beasts of the earth and upon all the birds of the sky—everything with which the earth is astir—and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hand. Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these. You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it. But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning: I will require it of every beast; of man, too, will I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for that of his fellow man (brother).”

The new creation of Gen. 9:2-5 differs profoundly from the creation of Gen. 1-3 that it mirrors. G-d specifically allows meat-eating to humans, generating fear throughout the animal kingdom. Immediately this reluctant permission is ringed with prohibition: not to eat flesh with its life-blood in it. Further, human beings are not to kill their “brothers,” their fellow humans, an allusion to the story of Cain and Abel, suggesting that every homicide is fratricide.

The passage also, however, pre-supposes meat-eating among animals and cautions they will now be held accountable if their prey is human. Both animals and humans, in taking life that was not permitted to them in the original order of creation, acted lawlessly and corruptly. For both animals and humans, there were consequences for moral failures tied to unjustly taking life that resulted in a return to profound darkness and emptiness.

In the new creation, God warns that both human and nonhuman animals will be held accountable for unlawful killing. At the same time, God recognizes human nature as it is when God gives humans permission to eat meat, although restrictions surround the practice. And consider, for a moment, the possibility that the division of nonhuman animals into those who are “clean” and those who are “unclean” is more recognition of and respect for their nature than judgment or a negative valuation.

Humans killed their own family, and animals killed humans for food in the pre-Flood world. This is the lawlessness and corruption that subverted G-d’s plan and brought down the first creation. In the brave new world post-flood, God recognizes and accepts the reality of human and animal natures and recluctantly, and I imagine sadly, allows meat-eating with restrictions to humans and to animal species according to their individual natures.

Finally, augmenting the theme of interdependence and equality of being in this story of moral agency, responsibility and consequence is the promise that is also given to “all flesh,” nonhuman along with human animals:

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶל־נֹ֑חַ זֹ֤את אֽוֹת־הַבְּרִית֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר הֲקִמֹ֔תִי בֵּינִ֕י וּבֵ֥ין כָּל־בָּשָׂ֖ר אֲשֶׁ֥ר עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ (פ) 

That,” God said to Noah, “shall be the sign of the covenant that I have established between Me and all flesh that is on earth.”

Postscript

In the Flood story as in the Creation story, the theme of Interbeing, our profound interconnection to all being, is demonstrated in the consequences that come to all being, human and nonhuman animals, guilty and innocent alike. Far from relieving the individual of responsibility or implying the uselessness of any individual action, this idea places on each of us a very specific obligation to interact with the world “according to our kind.” As the Jewish mystics insist, each action we take individuals, each word we speak, affects the balance of everything, even God.

In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “In a free society, some are guilty. All are responsible.” As much as some voices in the Torah attempt to demonstrate a direct relationship between behavior and consequence, other voices present a different idea. In the Garden story as in the Flood story, those who are guilty and those who are responsible suffer consequences equally along with the innocent. Heschel’s words don’t speak of consequence — but they do speak of the impact of the individual on the whole, the interrelated network of being. And in this world of interconnection, all being suffers the consequence of our individual actions.

Prof. Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens comments that the unique capability of humans is to create fictions and persuade others to believe them. This capability allows flexible cooperation in large groups. This suggests to me that our unique human responsibility is to tell our stories, those stories that inspire the kind of cooperation that will extend and enrich creation in accord with the first commandment in the Torah, פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ (p’ru u’r’vu), be fertile and increase.

And to the extent that we dominate creation, that is, that we enjoy a certain freedom while other beings, human and nonhuman, are enslaved under our rule, we bear the entire weight of responsibility for what happens in our world. In this interconnected world, those who rule must ensure the well-being of all, humans as well as nonhuman animals, the waters and the earth itself. If we fail in our responsibility, the consequences will fall equally on all being.

 “The Time of Noah | picture of the Church of Almighty God” by jasonchen.gg is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

Chapter Two: Cain and Abel – From Abundance to Scarcity & Competition

All in the Family: Transactions

וְהָ֣אָדָ֔ם יָדַ֖ע אֶת־חַוָּ֣ה אִשְׁתּ֑וֹ וַתַּ֙הַר֙ וַתֵּ֣לֶד אֶת־קַ֔יִן וַתֹּ֕אמֶר קָנִ֥יתִי אִ֖ישׁ אֶת־יְהוָֽה׃ 

Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gained a male child with the help of the LORD.” (Gen. 4:1)

And so begins the tragedy of Cain, born to a mother who views his birth and her relationship to this son through a transactional lens. While קַ֔יִן (Cain) doesn’t derive from קָנִ֥יתִי (gained/acquired/purchased), the alliteration (ka-yin, kaniti) links his name to Eve’s description of his birth.

In contrast, we read of the birth of Abel simply:

וַתֹּ֣סֶף לָלֶ֔דֶת אֶת־אָחִ֖יו אֶת־הָ֑בֶל וַֽיְהִי־הֶ֙בֶל֙ רֹ֣עֵה צֹ֔אן וְקַ֕יִן הָיָ֖ה עֹבֵ֥ד אֲדָמָֽה׃

She then bore his brother Abel. Abel became a keeper of sheep, and Cain became a tiller of the soil. (Gen. 4:2)

Abel’s very name (הָ֑בֶל – Havel), meaning vapor or breath, alludes to his vulnerability, the vulnerability we usually associate with an infant. At the same time, the word can mean “worthless,” as in Ecclesiastes 1:2: הַכֹּל הֶבֶל (All is fruitless/worthless), contrasting with Cain’s worth, alluded to in Eve’s reference to “gain.”

Two infants, one referred to by his mother as gain or enrichment, the other as vulnerable and possibly of no value. And a father who is not in the picture after impregnating his wife. What a sad portrayal of the first human family. What could possibly go wrong?

The names of the infants and their mother’s attitude toward them also hint at their future. As Cain’s mother’s relationship with him is transactional, so is Cain’s relationship with God. How could it be otherwise? Children reflect the relationships they have with their parents in their own relationships as they grow. And Abel is but a breath, a brief and vulnerable life.

וַֽיְהִ֖י מִקֵּ֣ץ יָמִ֑ים וַיָּבֵ֨א קַ֜יִן מִפְּרִ֧י הָֽאֲדָמָ֛ה מִנְחָ֖ה לַֽיהוָֽה׃ 

In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the LORD from the fruit of the soil;

וְהֶ֨בֶל הֵבִ֥יא גַם־ה֛וּא מִבְּכֹר֥וֹת צֹאנ֖וֹ וּמֵֽחֶלְבֵהֶ֑ן וַיִּ֣שַׁע יְהוָ֔ה אֶל־הֶ֖בֶל וְאֶל־מִנְחָתֽוֹ׃ 

and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. The LORD paid heed to Abel and his offering,

וְאֶל־קַ֥יִן וְאֶל־מִנְחָת֖וֹ לֹ֣א שָׁעָ֑ה וַיִּ֤חַר לְקַ֙יִן֙ מְאֹ֔ד וַֽיִּפְּל֖וּ פָּנָֽיו׃ 

but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell.

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־קָ֑יִן לָ֚מָּה חָ֣רָה לָ֔ךְ וְלָ֖מָּה נָפְל֥וּ פָנֶֽיךָ׃ 

And the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you distressed, And why is your face fallen?” 

הֲל֤וֹא אִם־תֵּיטִיב֙ שְׂאֵ֔ת וְאִם֙ לֹ֣א תֵיטִ֔יב לַפֶּ֖תַח חַטָּ֣את רֹבֵ֑ץ וְאֵלֶ֙יךָ֙ תְּשׁ֣וּקָת֔וֹ וְאַתָּ֖ה תִּמְשָׁל־בּֽוֹ׃ 

“Surely, if you do right, There is uplift. But if you do not do right Sin couches at the door; Its urge is toward you, Yet you can be its master.” (Gen. 4: 3-7)

There is no suggestion in this story that Cain experiences loving intimacy, not with his parents, not with God. Cain brings an offering “in the course of time,” eventually, without any sense of urgency. The offering isn’t remarkable. It’s not singled out as the best of what he has to offer or as first fruits. There is no sacrifice involved.

Cain’s offering, like his life in general, is transactional in nature. There seems to be an assumption in the text that an offering is due. Cain brings the offering but with a minimum expenditure of energy and resources.

In contrast, Abel brings the choicest (וּמֵֽחֶלְבֵהֶ֑ן) of the firstlings of his flock. He brings to God the fat of the lambs, his most precious lambs, the firstlings. It is easy to imagine that for a shepherd, these firstlings have more than economic value. Giving them up is a sacrifice, economically and emotionally painful.

Before heaping all the responsibility for a transactional worldview on Cain, though, or on Eve, his mother . . . or even on humanity . . . I wonder. Is God, too, implicated in this view of relationship?

While the text doesn’t explicitly state that God requires sacrifice in exchange for giving life and a beautiful and abundant world in which to live it, where else would Cain and his brother, Abel, have gotten the idea that a sacrifice was required?  And the text does tell us that God appreciates Abel’s sacrifice more than Cain’s. In this way, the story tells us that God, too, has a transactional view of relationships. In an interconnected world, God’s view of things is necessarily part of human consciousness.

This transactional view turns out to be the basis of animal sacrifice, as we will see in later chapters.

The Root of Transaction: Desire

The worldview presented in the Cain and Abel story is very different from that of Genesis 1-3, but the seeds of the latter are in the former. Compare these two verses, one from the Creation Story and the other from the current story of Cain and Abel:

וְאֶל־אִישֵׁךְ֙ תְּשׁ֣וּקָתֵ֔ךְ וְה֖וּא יִמְשָׁל־בָּֽךְ׃

“Yet your urge shall be for your husband, And he shall rule over you.” (Gen. 3:16)

חַטָּ֣את רֹבֵ֑ץ וְאֵלֶ֙יךָ֙ תְּשׁ֣וּקָת֔וֹ וְאַתָּ֖ה תִּמְשָׁל־בּֽוֹ׃

“Sin couches at the door; Its urge is toward you, Yet you can be its master.” (Gen. 4:7)

The first verse, Gen. 3:16 is in the context of God telling Adam and Eve how things will be going forward. In a word with sexual overtones, teshukatech, God declares that a woman’s longing and desire (urge) will be toward her husband — and that he will rule (yimshol,יִמְשָׁל) over her.

In the current story of Cain and Abel, Gen. 4:7, God warns Cain of sin, personified and “couching” at the door. The longing and desire (teshukato, urge) of this sin, a seductive, sinister, lurking external entity, is toward Cain — but as God instructs, Cain can rule (timshol, תִּמְשָׁל) over it if he chooses.

Why is this juxtaposition of detail important? Because both Adam and Cain, representing humanity, are set to rule over creation, over all creatures both seen and unseen, but both find it exceedingly difficult to do. They can scarcely rule over themselves. And as they fail in their task, they blame what appears to be external to them, Adam blaming Eve and Cain his brother, Abel.

Neither recognizes that sin is part of them, part of their own human condition, lurking seductively outside the door waiting for the right moment to spring into action through human agency. Sin is mere potential until it works its way in. Then it becomes part of a person, desire rules human nature, and transactions prevail over gifting, subverting the intended order of creation.

In Gen. 1-3, humans are alienated from their fellow creatures. In Gen. 4:1-7, they are alienated from themselves, a double alienation first from family and then from their own human condition and responsibility. What next?

The Ground Beneath Our Feet

Finally the ground itself is called to task for swallowing the blood of Cain’s dead brother, Abel, as well as Cain for spilling that blood onto the ground:

וַיֹּ֖אמֶר מֶ֣ה עָשִׂ֑יתָ ק֚וֹל דְּמֵ֣י אָחִ֔יךָ צֹעֲקִ֥ים אֵלַ֖י מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָֽה׃ 

Then He said, “What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!

וְעַתָּ֖ה אָר֣וּר אָ֑תָּה מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר פָּצְתָ֣ה אֶת־פִּ֔יהָ לָקַ֛חַת אֶת־דְּמֵ֥י אָחִ֖יךָ מִיָּדֶֽךָ׃ 

Therefore, you shall be more cursed than the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.

כִּ֤י תַֽעֲבֹד֙ אֶת־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה לֹֽא־תֹסֵ֥ף תֵּת־כֹּחָ֖הּ לָ֑ךְ נָ֥ע וָנָ֖ד תִּֽהְיֶ֥ה בָאָֽרֶץ׃ 

If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on earth.” (Gen. 4:10-12)

The ground, already cursed in Gen. 17, withholding its abundance from Adam, will now withhold its abundance from Cain, Adam’s first son. And the humans, living but alienated from the connectedness of all being, increase the distance between themselves and a living but unyielding earth. Cain, condemned to wander the earth, leaves the presence of the Lord, settles in another land with his wife, fathers a son, Enoch, and founds a city in his son’s name:

וַיֵּ֥צֵא קַ֖יִן מִלִּפְנֵ֣י יְהוָ֑ה וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב בְּאֶֽרֶץ־נ֖וֹד קִדְמַת־עֵֽדֶן׃ 

Cain left the presence of the LORD and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. 

וַיֵּ֤דַע קַ֙יִן֙ אֶת־אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ וַתַּ֖הַר וַתֵּ֣לֶד אֶת־חֲנ֑וֹךְ וַֽיְהִי֙ בֹּ֣נֶה עִ֔יר וַיִּקְרָא֙ שֵׁ֣ם הָעִ֔יר כְּשֵׁ֖ם בְּנ֥וֹ חֲנֽוֹךְ׃ 

Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. And he then founded a city, and named the city after his son Enoch. (Gen. 4:16-17)

From Abundance to Scarcity

So we are no longer in the world of the first three chapters of Genesis, a world filled with joyful energy, overflowing abundance and harmony. A world in which all beings share the spiritual round table. In the Cain and Abel story, we find ourselves in a world of separation and scarcity, a transactional world that assigns value to living beings, a world of competition, envy, desire, violence and animal sacrifice.

The story of Cain and Abel is one of the increasing alienation of Cain from his parents, from his own brother, from God, from humanity, and finally from the earth itself. What is the source of Cain’s anger? What causes the tragedy and isolation of his life?

The literary details of the story suggest that tragedy begins with Cain’s transactional relationships from the day he is born. What an odd statement Eve makes about his birth, that she “acquired” a child as though he is an item she purchased at the market. There is a profound emptiness associated with that word in this context. We can only imagine the additional pain Cain must experience as he learns that God notices Cain’s brother, Abel, and favors Abel’s offering over Cain’s own.

Cain’s response to God taking note of Abel’s offering is another story element that builds on the transactional theme. Cain brings an offering — and expects a particular return for it, turning the offering into a transaction.

In contrast, the first humans, Adam and Eve, are part of an abundant world they share with non-human animals and with God. They are gardeners, caring for the world God gifts to them. “In the beginning,” they live in harmony with their world.

Did the characters “evolve” through the story? The text suggests, perhaps not. At the end of Gen. 4, Adam and Eve once again have a child, a third son:

וַיֵּ֨דַע אָדָ֥ם עוֹד֙ אֶת־אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ וַתֵּ֣לֶד בֵּ֔ן וַתִּקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ שֵׁ֑ת כִּ֣י שָֽׁת־לִ֤י אֱלֹהִים֙ זֶ֣רַע אַחֵ֔ר תַּ֣חַת הֶ֔בֶל כִּ֥י הֲרָג֖וֹ קָֽיִן׃

Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and named him Seth, meaning, “God has provided me with another offspring in place of Abel,” for Cain had killed him.

A son is gone — a replacement provided. Like Eve’s comment about Cain, that she “acquired” a son, her comment about Seth, that he replaces Abel, leaves us with a feeling of emptiness. Eve’s unemotional evaluation of her situation is surprising. It’s hard to imagine life improving for this family as they move into their future.

The story of Seth’s birth continues in Gen. 5:1-3. We return to a theme of Gen. 1, a hierarchical worldview in which Adam is to his third son, Seth, as God is to Adam:

זֶ֣ה סֵ֔פֶר תּוֹלְדֹ֖ת אָדָ֑ם בְּי֗וֹם בְּרֹ֤א אֱלֹהִים֙ אָדָ֔ם בִּדְמ֥וּת אֱלֹהִ֖ים עָשָׂ֥ה אֹתֽוֹ׃

This is the record of Adam’s line.—When God created man, He made him in the likeness of God;

זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בְּרָאָ֑ם וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֹתָ֗ם וַיִּקְרָ֤א אֶת־שְׁמָם֙ אָדָ֔ם בְּי֖וֹם הִבָּֽרְאָֽם׃)

male and female He created them. And when they were created, He blessed them and called them (hu)man… (Gen. 5:1,2) 

וַֽיְחִ֣י אָדָ֗ם שְׁלֹשִׁ֤ים וּמְאַת֙ שָׁנָ֔ה וַיּ֥וֹלֶד בִּדְמוּת֖וֹ כְּצַלְמ֑וֹ וַיִּקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ שֵֽׁת׃

When Adam had lived 130 years, he begot a son in his likeness after his image, and he named him Seth.

God creates and humans give birth . . . And as the humans are in the image and “likeness” of God, so Seth is in his father’s “likeness” and “image.” Do these echoes of the first chapter of Genesis suggest a repetition of the experience of the first family . . . Or are they more hopeful, foreshadowing a new creation, coming in the events of the Flood and following?

We leave the story skeptical of a future built on either a transactional or a hierarchical foundation . . . But perhaps also with some hope that life goes on, and a fresh start may go better.

Postscript on the Cain and Abel story

In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Prof. Yuval Noah Harari describes 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.”

Perhaps these different worldviews are one way to think about the difference between Gen. 1-3 and Gen. 4-7. What if the first chapters of Genesis represent a hunter-gatherer worldview while the story of Cain and Abel points to a worldview more closely associated with an agricultural setting? If the agricultural revolution signifies a transition from a world in which “beings communicate with one another directly and negotiate the rules governing their shared habitat” to a transactional world of ownership and wealth, it also signifies a transition from a mindset of abundance and gifting to scarcity, greed and jealousy. Possessions necessitate guarding, and unequal distribution generates desire and envy.

Yet as Charles Eisenstein points out in Sacred Economics: Money, Gift and Society in the Age of Transition, we are not fated to live in one world or the other. Our world is what we make it, the story we create and in which we choose to stand. Harari, too, tells us that the human ability to create fictions, to imagine, and then to persuade many others to believe our fictions, is a unique characteristic of Sapiens. It is that unique ability that allowed humans to “rule over” creation.

Reimagining Creation, Our Human Purpose

At any moment, we can place ourselves back in the Garden, that world in which all beings communicate “with one another directly” and negotiate “the rules governing” our “shared habitat.” We can share the spiritual round table. We can create a world of abundance, freeing ourselves to share and live harmoniously with each other, other beings and with the earth itself.

Or our existence can be transactional, measured, even self-serving. We can view the world as a place of scarcity, guarding our possessions and wealth jealously in our state of alienation and viewing others in a utilitarian way (Martin Buber’s “I-It” way of relating) or with suspicion and fear. It all depends on the power of our imagination and the way we choose to use it.

And this brings me to the message of faith in the amazing ancient text which is the Torah. The times that serve as the backdrop to the biblical text were not free from scarcity and bloodshed. I imagine there was as much cause to feel overwhelmed by fear, suspicion, anger, grief and despair then as now. The text describes many of those events, wars, famine, disease, loss of home and family.

The Torah doesn’t deny or neglect those realities. It doesn’t whitewash the nature of human beings or of other living beings and doesn’t deny that the earth itself can be intransigent. There is no horror in our world today that doesn’t find its echoes in those times. Yet the vision that drives this text, the story that it insists on telling in the face of tragic circumstances, is a story in which there is meaning, justice, beauty, harmony and great abundance for all creatures.

There is, after all, something eternal in the Torah story even in a secular age. It is a story about the reality of our existential condition but also about the power of imagination to create worlds. What world do we want to create? A transactional world of scarcity, alienation and fratricide or a world of abundance and harmony, where we share the spiritual round table with all other living beings? The world we live in is the world we imagine into reality. The Torah shows us both and urges us to “Choose life…” (Deut. 30:19)

“2.5 FarrowingBloodFace1”by mercyforanimals is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Balancing our evolutionary and biological realities

I haven’t written as much on the Torah portions after two years of working pretty steadily at them. With my focus on the relationship between human beings and other animals, it was inevitable that I would have to struggle with the “meaning” of animal sacrifice.

What was sacrifice supposed to accomplish? How did people feel as they prepared an animal for sacrifice? As they experienced sacrifice as a non-priest? Saw the sight of a terrified animal slaughtered, dissected and burned? There is no way to construe a sacrifice as anything other than a violent act — yet it is presented as drawing close to G-d.” How can I reconcile these things?

Some source-critical examination (a technique I don’t usually favor) helped me some with this problem but in the process caused me even greater difficulty. So did an article I read recently about Passover and the Levites, which inspired a post I have not yet finished.

But I have also turned to looking at the problem through a different lens, the lens of evolutionary biology, and amazingly, it is beginning to give me a new appreciation for the insights of the Torah and rabbinic tradition. I will write a post about this eventually too.

For now, I just want to mention some books that have been very important to me in this journey: Richard Wrangham’s Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, Barbara King’s Personalities on our Plate, and Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens and Homo Deus.

Most recently I’m reading Not So Different: Finding Human Nature In Animals, by Nathan H. Lents. Just to give you a sense of the topics covered, the chapter headings are: Why do we play? Animal systems of justice, Moral animals, Sexual politics, Do animals fall in love?, The agony of grief, Jealous beasts: the darker side of love, Darker still (envy, greed and power), Afraid of the dark, The richness of animal communication.

This isn’t an esoteric pursuit for me. I don’t believe we evolve beyond our basic evolutionary and biological realities. I don’t believe we are “saved” from who we are through faith except to the extent that it encourages a constant practice rooted in balancing these evolutionary drives. And although I read and appreciated Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, I don’t think it deals (or to be fair, intended to deal) with the reality of who we are as human beings and the sustainability of a culture that sets as its highest value the harmonious well-being of all life. Yes, we may have a lower rate of violence progressively through history, at least superficially and temporarily, we may be more educated and have a lower rate of poverty. All indicators may, statistically speaking, be better, but I think I could make an argument it’s not as a result of human nature evolving, and therefore I don’t trust its sustainability.

Human nature is what it is — and every religious culture and many non-religious cultures seek and present us with ways to deal with the reality of human nature and guide us toward something more than the cycle of prey and predator, something more than acting mindlessly or on instinct. These considerations seem particularly relevant today when the world is gripped — in mythic terms — by the darker side of our nature.

Every culture, every ideology, every religion demonstrates that in particular conditions, groups will arise that generate “other” hatred and violence and display and encourage an utter lack of empathy. I believe that attachment to one’s group and what goes along with that — asserting superiority over other groups, feeling and acting dismissively toward the needs of other groups, and ultimately violence toward other groups, including non-human animals — is rooted in our evolution and biology. But so is cooperation and empathy — among both humans and non-human animals. Not So Different helped connect me to the science behind what I perceive and gives me a new appreciation for the insights of the Torah.

I hope I have time in my life to study how each religion offers opportunities to work with the reality of who we are as human beings and shapes and educates us to maintain a world-sustaining balance. The chances are good, though, that I will only have time to explore this issue in the kind of depth I would like in the framework of my chosen religion, Judaism. I may not even get past the Bible with that. In fact, I may not even get past the first five books, the Torah.

But no matter how far I’m able to follow this line of study, one thing is clear to me: the darkness that many of us feel in the world today with right wing populism ascendant is the result of giving precedence and unfettered freedom to a biological drive toward greed and an us-them mentality. It is the failure to balance that survival-centered drive with other biological realities like group cooperation and empathy that ultimately leads to violence. This is not a problem of the “right” or the “left,” though, or of any particular religion or culture. It is an imbalance that can occur within any human being and within any society or religion or ideology.

The antidote to violence and hatred in the world is cooperation and empathy, taught and nurtured through daily experience and practice. And what my religion teaches me is a mindful practice that takes us on a path between the extremes, between the drive for self-preservation and the drive toward cooperation and empathy. There is a way we can strive not toward perfection but toward a balance based on realities of human nature the Torah intuited and science now proves.

A purpose-driven life? Not so fast…

I read an article today in The Conversation that started me thinking. It talked about a demonstrable psychological link between those who believe in “creationism” and those who believe in conspiracy theories. The article reports that “The new study takes the role of conspiratorial thought in creationism a step further. It suggests that creationism itself could be seen as a belief system involving the ultimate conspiracy theory: the purposeful creation of all things.”

Yet rejecting the teleological idea of “the purposeful creation of all things” is hardly “a step further.” Koheleth (The Preacher of Ecclesiastes) begins:

הֲבֵ֤ל הֲבָלִים֙ אָמַ֣ר קֹהֶ֔לֶת הֲבֵ֥ל הֲבָלִ֖ים הַכֹּ֥ל הָֽבֶל׃

Utter futility!—said Koheleth— Utter futility! All is futile! (Ecc. 1:2)

He proceeds to observe the workings of nature and to test out each thing a person might do with his or her life and decides all is purposeless and futile. Koheleth goes so far (Ecc. 3:18-21) as to counter what I see as a bedrock biblical belief, the sanctity and uniqueness of human life in relation to other animals with whom we share the planet:

אָמַ֤רְתִּֽי אֲנִי֙ בְּלִבִּ֔י עַל־דִּבְרַת֙ בְּנֵ֣י הָאָדָ֔ם לְבָרָ֖ם הָאֱלֹהִ֑ים וְלִרְא֕וֹת שְׁהֶם־בְּהֵמָ֥ה הֵ֖מָּה לָהֶֽם׃

So I decided, as regards men, to dissociate them [from] the divine beings and to face the fact that they are beasts.

כִּי֩ מִקְרֶ֨ה בְֽנֵי־הָאָדָ֜ם וּמִקְרֶ֣ה הַבְּהֵמָ֗ה וּמִקְרֶ֤ה אֶחָד֙ לָהֶ֔ם כְּמ֥וֹת זֶה֙ כֵּ֣ן מ֣וֹת זֶ֔ה וְר֥וּחַ אֶחָ֖ד לַכֹּ֑ל וּמוֹתַ֨ר הָאָדָ֤ם מִן־הַבְּהֵמָה֙ אָ֔יִן כִּ֥י הַכֹּ֖ל הָֽבֶל׃

For in respect of the fate of man and the fate of beast, they have one and the same fate: as the one dies so dies the other, and both have the same life breath; man has no superiority over beast, since both amount to nothing.

הַכֹּ֥ל הוֹלֵ֖ךְ אֶל־מָק֣וֹם אֶחָ֑ד הַכֹּל֙ הָיָ֣ה מִן־הֶֽעָפָ֔ר וְהַכֹּ֖ל שָׁ֥ב אֶל־הֶעָפָֽר׃

Both go to the same place; both came from dust and both return to dust.

מִ֣י יוֹדֵ֗עַ ר֚וּחַ בְּנֵ֣י הָאָדָ֔ם הָעֹלָ֥ה הִ֖יא לְמָ֑עְלָה וְר֙וּחַ֙ הַבְּהֵמָ֔ה הַיֹּרֶ֥דֶת הִ֖יא לְמַ֥טָּה לָאָֽרֶץ׃

Who knows if a man’s life breath does rise upward and if a beast’s breath does sink down into the earth?

Yet the book concludes with:

ס֥וֹף דָּבָ֖ר הַכֹּ֣ל נִשְׁמָ֑ע אֶת־הָאֱלֹהִ֤ים יְרָא֙ וְאֶת־מִצְוֺתָ֣יו שְׁמ֔וֹר כִּי־זֶ֖ה כָּל־הָאָדָֽם׃

The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe His commandments! For this applies to all mankind:

כִּ֤י אֶת־כָּל־מַֽעֲשֶׂ֔ה הָאֱלֹהִ֛ים יָבִ֥א בְמִשְׁפָּ֖ט עַ֣ל כָּל־נֶעְלָ֑ם אִם־ט֖וֹב וְאִם־רָֽע׃
[סוף דבר הכל נשמע את־האלהים ירא ואת־מצותיו שמור כי־זה כל־האדם]

that God will call every creature to account for everything unknown, be it good or bad. The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe His commandments! For this applies to all humankind. (Ecc. 12:13-14)

After an entire book devoted to demonstrating the utter purposelessness of life, Koheleth exhorts us to revere G-d and observe His commandments. What does this mean?

It means that in the final analysis, all a person can do is make choices, and one of those choices is how will you live your life? On the basis of what belief, what worldview? Yet there is no objective basis for making this choice and no argument to be made to support your choice.

As I wrote in a post a couple of days ago, this is basically my own position. Admittedly this is not a comfortable place to be in relation to my life. I’ve often admired and even envied people like my grandmother who had a deep and very specific religious faith and sense of purpose.

But it’s the only place I can be. Once I say with Steven Hawkings that there is no G-d, or with Neil deGrasse Tyson, that we come from the same material as the stars, and it is an incredible series of coincidences and accidents that resulted in human life, or with Yuval Noah Harari that our human genius is creating fictions that we persuade others to believe and that it’s all fiction, or with Charles Eisenstein that it’s all stories . . . it’s a short step to say we cannot demonstrate that any system of belief or morality is objectively superior to any other. And it is one more short step to say there is no intrinsic purpose to anything. But that’s not the end of the world. It might even be the beginning of one.

Yes, we are left with stark basic choices: will we continue to live knowing there is no objective evidence for purpose in it? And if yes, how will we live? Read the message behind Koheleth’s words: “Revere G-d and observe his commandments!” Recognize and be humbled by what is greater than yourself, the impossible-to-conceive stretch of time and beyond-time, of space and beyond-space. Live according to a set of norms that teaches and guides you to experience your connection to all being because that is all you have. And it turns out, it’s more than sufficient.

Job discovers the same truth: the comforters with their reasoned arguments and judgments are no comfort. Experiencing the unimaginable vastness and beauty of creation in a profound moment of connection is the only thing that touches his pain and heals him.

As I read the article from The Conversation, I thought two things: I understood a little better, perhaps had a little more compassion for, a group of people that I have had great difficulty understanding: anti-science, climate-denying, religious literalists. Existentialism is a scary branch of the tree to sit on. It’s actually not even a branch. It’s more like floating alone in space utterly disconnected and without knowledge of how you got there or where you’re going. Consciousness in this place can be terrifying. I understand how attractive the alternative of certainty is, how attractive it is to imagine that the joy and the suffering we experience in life has purpose and meaning and we know, with utter certainty, what that is.

I also understood a little better the source of my own faith which is both faith and, I think, science. I believe everything is interconnected. Science tells us that every action creates an equal and opposite reaction. It tells us we came from the same substance as the stars. It tells us that we are connected to our planet and that our actions affect the planet.

It is also a belief expressed in the Bible, a text I grew up reading sitting in my Dad’s lap and continue to read today as I approach the eighth decade of my life. The Bible reminds us in every page of our connection to each other, to other animals, and to the planet. When we fail in our responsibility in the social realm, all of creation rises against us.

As I view the world through the prism of that observation and belief, I choose a set of practices and experiences that reinforce it and repeatedly demonstrate its truth. I experience connection and nurture the experience. The experience is self-affirming. It provides me with certainty and encourages me to open the circle of connection wider and wider, to resist or seek to overcome experiences of disconnection.

Here, on the other hand, is an image that contrasts so sharply with that experience of connection. Instead it expresses isolation, loneliness and anger in the midst of a sea of connection between people on the right and the left, throughout a divided nation, and among nations.

The image shows so clearly that this choice for science-denial and creationism doesn’t present an easy or comfortable path either. What are the sources of strength that might carry this person through personal suffering?

And here I return to Koheleth’s final message: recognize and be humbled by what is greater than yourself, the impossible-to-conceive stretch of time and beyond-time, of space and beyond-space. Live according to a set of norms that teaches and guides you to experience your connection to all being because that is all you have. Continually stretch the boundaries of compassion. The truth reveals itself and provides its own evidence.

And so after all, I can see that my belief is evidence-based. To the extent that I experience connection to my world, to family, friends, community, other animals, the planet and even, possibly, beyond, not only does scientific observation support me in that, my life just works better. It is more fulfilling, more beautiful, and I experience purpose. In other words, the experience of faith through connection is true because it works at the simplest levels: I have only to put my hands in the soil, prepare a meal from real foods, or walk with my dog in the snow, an experience of connection because we both love being outdoors, we are both happy, and it’s better together.

“At the end of the world, turn left.” Sof ha-olam smola.  Just be sure you have a friend of any species with you.

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.

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