Category Archives: Bible/Torah

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

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

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

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

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

A Goat For Azazel? Really?

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

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

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

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

THE LANGUAGES OF THE TEXT

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

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

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

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

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

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

SOME THINGS THE FIRST 5 BOOKS OF THE BIBLE SAY

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

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

THE PROJECT OF THE HEBREW BIBLE

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

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

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

OUR EXPERIENTIAL DISTANCE FROM THE TEXT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cooking, Pulling Weeds And Resisting

I never thought I’d hear myself say this: Trump gave me a huge gift when he was elected.

It’s hard to imagine myself saying that because my inspiration usually comes from very different kinds of sources. Yet perhaps it’s just the mind- and spirit-numbing nature of Trump’s presidency that compels me to reexamine myself and clarify my course through life.

Like the 2008 recession, Trump’s presidency causes me to take additional steps on my journey toward self-awareness. Taking these steps involves some education and some house-cleaning to bring my values in different segments of my life into alignment. Most importantly I had to recognize both my limitations and my abilities as I figure out how best to respond to an event I experience as nothing less than a cataclysmic step backward in our culture and democracy not to mention our responses to a suffering planet.

I never considered myself a “political” person. In fact, until 2008, I was fairly apathetic for reasons I’ve explored with myself in recent months. Post Jan. 20, I tried to get politically involved in the traditional sense of that word. I attend meetings, I volunteer occasionally, I go on marches. I’ve learned a lot, but one of the things I have learned is that this isn’t the best place for me to contribute passionately and knowledgeably. Of course I’ll still continue to be as involved as I can, but I needed to focus my energies in other directions:

  • I deepened my exploration of veganism through my own cooking and writing.
  • I jumped at the opportunity to create recipes to go with the boxes that come from my CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), Bob’s Fresh and Local.
  • I understand my volunteer work in the farm fields in a different way, as something much deeper and broader than physical and spiritual health.
  • With a fairly extensive background in academics behind me but little involvement for a quarter of a century, I decided to work my way through the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. I wanted to discover in greater depth what it has to say about human life in relation to the planet and other life on it. My blog posts on this topic, largely notes to myself as research, will become the basis of a book. More importantly, my research is providing me with a strong foundation for steps toward meaningful activism. At the very least, it provides me with information I use in evaluating people and policies.
  • I’m teaching for the first time in many years, which demands from me further clarification of my thinking and message.
  • I decided to engage with my synagogue in ways I haven’t before, to take on a role beyond participating in services and preparing food now and then. While it’s shaky ground for me to take on a role in shaping policy, I hope it will be a growth opportunity I can manage.

I think these steps toward more and deeper engagement in various aspects of my life will begin to converge at some point. As my passions become more focused, a path toward taking on my part, however small, in reshaping our world will become apparent.

My engagement with food and the environment developed over the course of 45 years, not so much through academic or professional expertise but through hands-on involvement. I had the opportunity to create a large organic garden in 1972 following the birth of  my first son, the same year that hippies tore up the turf in Berkeley, California. I think part of their impulse probably matched my own, a reaction against Big Food, Big Ag and Big Brother, who don’t always know best. I felt that packaged foods, pesticides and our alienation from nature were somehow an assault on our physical and spiritual health.

I read as much as I could put my hands on at the time. One little book in particular drove my decision to become vegetarian, a path that has had its zigs and zags. That book was Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappe. Her message still resonates with me today, that there is a social justice connection to what we eat.

Until I worked in the food industry, though, I didn’t make that connection at a gut level. Then one day I was writing a post and came across an article that mentioned the life expectancy is lower in Mississippi than in the rest of the country and related it, at least in part, to food culture — and to the non-availability of truly nutritious food.

As Michael Pollan pointed out, yams in the produce aisle don’t have health claims attached to them since that won’t make money for Big Food, and our government subsidizes things like corn, that produces cheap high fructose corn syrup. And as that article pointed out, large food deserts force people into gas stations for food products, and gas stations are even less likely than supermarkets to feature nutritious life-sustaining foods. Something clicked about the relationship between food, social justice and public policy, and I really got it.

There was another milestone two or three years ago, well after I began my exploration of veganism. As I expanded my understanding of justice beyond the human realm, I worked hard to adjust my cooking practices, to separate from well-loved recipes, to find my new cooking philosophy or adapt my old one (real food) and to represent myself through food passionately and deliciously among family and friends already wearied from my years of vegetarian experiments with them. Then one day I looked down and noticed my leather shoes and realized with some shock how segmented my own thoughts are. I grew up in a world in which animal products were pervasive. There was simply a disconnect for almost all of us between the lives of our fellow creatures and the food we ate and clothes we wore. Despite my efforts to resolve that disconnect, there it was.

It’s curious how  we can think we’re fully conscious, making choices based on our values…and then discover our own human frailty, the ways we are embedded in cultural perspectives. And that took me to a path of reexamining another cultural perspective, our deeply held belief that we are superior to other creatures.  My husband’s offhand comment started me along my thought path. My biblical studies are guiding my next steps.

My studies and cooking are one avenue to focus my thoughts, prod myself to examine my cultural assumptions and modify my course through life. My work at the farm, something I had time to take on once I sold my cafe, is another.

I love the beautiful, fresh real food sparkling in the sun with drops of moisture. I love having my hands in the dirt that produces the food. I love experiencing the rhythm of the seasons in my body as I work out in the fields. I love the little lessons I learn in each moment that I work. I imagine the deep wisdom I find in the Bible comes in part from its source in a more agrarian world.

But it is the complete exhaustion at the end of the time I work in the fields, especially at the beginning of the season when I’m rusty after the cold months when my exercise levels drop, that takes me back to Diet for a Small Planet and the lessons I learned from Frances Moore Lappe about social justice. Considering those who do this work for long hours every day, struggling to support families on little pay and with no recognition or appreciation, living with insecurity and worse, brings me back to her themes.

This connection, this social justice theme, connects me to biblical themes of justice within communities and among nations, justice for all life on the planet, environmental justice. It reminds me that every area impacts and influences the others. It is all interconnected.

I was struck this week by this line from Leviticus 18:28 following a set of moral injunctions: “…that the land vomit not you out also, when ye defile it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you.” Like human beings, like our fellow creatures on the planet, the land itself has moral consciousness. It is all interconnected, and our sins against one impact the other.

Cooking and digging in the dirt along with biblical stories, then meaningful study of this text, have had a significant role throughout my life in shaping and reshaping my consciousness about creation, my place in it and what I need to do at this time in our history.

And so I arrive at how cooking and working the fields became my political activism.  First, my work encouraged me to lift the veil, to look at what is behind the things I see in front of me, whether on my plate, in the claims on commercial foods, or in the pages of the Bible.

Each breath I take with clarity of consciousness, each bite of food, each interaction with another person or with a community of people, is activism. Only with clarity of consciousness about the reasons for my own choices can I have a larger role in shaping my communities.

And there are many ways for me to do that, to be active, including:

  • cultivating the habit of looking behind the veil,
  • sharing ideas about the implications of what we eat
  • sharing the specifics of delicious, healthful, affordable eating,
  • supporting local, sustainable agriculture, and
  • supporting other community efforts directed toward food and environmental justice.

I continue to learn about so many aspects of my world, so many things I didn’t know or that I kept from coming to full consciousness. I’ve lived long enough to see how the action of many individuals can change things and to learn that ONLY the action of many individuals can reshape the culture. And I have Trump to thank for intensifying my effort and compelling me to find the political meaning in my work.

From Bob’s Fresh and Local website:

“But the care of the earth is our most ancient and most worthy and, after all, our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it, and to foster its renewal, is our only legitimate hope.” ~ Wendell Berry – The Unsettling of America
For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

Another Take On The Garden Of Eden

I often say that translation is interpretation. There is a powerful example of this fact in the creation stories of Genesis. I can’t help but wonder how history would have played out had two words been translated differently.

ADAM IN GENESIS 1-3

Adam is a word we all recognize, the name of the first human being in both creation stories. It is usually translated “man”:

Gen 1:26 And God said: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.’

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, נַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ; וְיִרְדּוּ בִדְגַת הַיָּם וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּבַבְּהֵמָה וּבְכָל-הָאָרֶץ, וּבְכָל-הָרֶמֶשׂ, הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל-הָאָרֶץ.

Gen 1:27 And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them.

וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ:  זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה, בָּרָא אֹתָם.

Gen 2:15 And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.

וַיִּקַּח יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-הָאָדָם; וַיַּנִּחֵהוּ בְגַן-עֵדֶן, לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ.

The second creation story continues with G-d telling Adam not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, then bringing the animals before Adam to name. Then this passage:

Gen 3:21 And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; and He took one of his ribs, and closed up the place with flesh instead thereof.

וַיַּפֵּל יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים תַּרְדֵּמָה עַל-הָאָדָם, וַיִּישָׁן; וַיִּקַּח, אַחַת מִצַּלְעֹתָיו, וַיִּסְגֹּר בָּשָׂר, תַּחְתֶּנָּה.

Gen 3:23 And the man said: ‘This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman (אִשָּׁה), because she was taken out of Man (אִישׁ).’

וַיֹּאמֶר, הָאָדָם, זֹאת הַפַּעַם עֶצֶם מֵעֲצָמַי, וּבָשָׂר מִבְּשָׂרִי; לְזֹאת יִקָּרֵא אִשָּׁה, כִּי מֵאִישׁ לֻקְחָה-זֹּאת.

Gen 3:24 Therefore shall a man (אִישׁ) leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife (אִשְׁתּוֹ), and they shall be one flesh.

עַל-כֵּן, יַעֲזָב-אִישׁ, אֶת-אָבִיו, וְאֶת-אִמּוֹ; וְדָבַק בְּאִשְׁתּוֹ, וְהָיוּ לְבָשָׂר אֶחָד.

Reading in English immediately presents a grammatical problem: in Gen 1:26, G-d refers to G-d’s’ self as “us” and similarly refers to Adam as “them.”

The problem is easily solved when we understand that Adam doesn’t mean “man” until Gen 3:23 and following when it becomes the name of a specific man, the first man.

Until then, Adam, which comes from the word, “Adamah,” a feminine noun meaning earth, means something else: earth creature, both male and female. Gen 1:27 from the first creation story clearly indicates a simultaneous creation of male (זָכָר – zachar) and female (נְקֵבָה – n’kevah). As it turns out, the second creation story does as well. Adam is both male and female until G-d separates them into man (אִישׁ – ish) and woman (אִשָּׁה – isha).

Consider the implications of a clear statement of the simultaneous creation of man and woman in terms of “in the image.” I’m not talking here just about the idea, which many who don’t read Hebrew as well as many who do, assume anyway, that both male and female are in the image of G-d. We don’t need to make assumptions, though, about what the text says or over-interpret it. We just need to read it at the simplest level in Hebrew, and that statement is obvious.

This translation also explains the confusing pronouns in Gen 1:26 when G-d says, “Let us make Adam in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion…”  Us? Them?

Suppose we imagine that G-d is a unity, containing both male and female. Male and female separated in the created world symbolizes the idea that creation is a system of differences. G-d refers to G-d’s own (unified) plurality, as “us.” Similarly G-d refers to the single earth creature created in G-d’s image, Adam, as “them.”

In essence, the pattern in how Adam is used in the original Hebrew elaborates an important theology and anthropology contained in the story, G-d is a unity, and creation is a system of differences symbolized by sexual difference.

“ARUM” IN GENESIS 3

The word arum appears in four places in Gen 3:

Gen 3:1 Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field.

וְהַנָּחָשׁ, הָיָה עָרוּם, מִכֹּל חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה

Gen 3:7 And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked

וַתִּפָּקַחְנָה, עֵינֵי שְׁנֵיהֶם, וַיֵּדְעוּ, כִּי עֵירֻמִּם הֵם

Gen 3:10 I heard Thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.

אֶת-קֹלְךָ שָׁמַעְתִּי בַּגָּן; וָאִירָא כִּי-עֵירֹם אָנֹכִי

Gen 3:11 Who told thee that thou wast naked?

?מִי הִגִּיד לְךָ, כִּי עֵירֹם אָתָּה

A word used four times in 27 short verses, skillfully, intentionally, just as we saw Adam skilfully worked into a text with man and woman in order to make a truthful statement within the world view, or internal logic, of the text. Outside of this text, a version of the word occurs in 11 other places in the Hebrew Bible, 8 of them in Proverbs, where it is generally translated “prudent.” Strong’s Concordance provides these definitions:  crafty, shrewd, sensible.

Translators of these four passages from Genesis almost universally use “crafty,” “subtle” or “shrewd” for the snake and “naked” for the human beings. Consider how differently we might understand this text if we understood the Hebrew and associated all its meanings with the word. Consider how differently we might understand it had different translations been chosen, for example, what if the serpent were more naked than any beast of the field. Certainly that would make sense — the serpent does appear naked in relation to beasts of the field who generally have a coat of fur. The serpent’s nakedness would elevate the serpent to the level of human beings, who also have no coat of fur.

Or consider if the human beings were prudent, sensible, subtle, even shrewd? Those translations would also fit in a statement about their eyes being opened, and it would totally transform our understanding of the story.

TRANSLATION IS INTERPRETATION

Over the years I have studied this story, I have thought several different things about the nature of the act in the middle of the story and the middle of the Garden, eating from the Tree or the Meal in the Garden, as I like to call it.

Reconsidering the meaning of arum by doing the obvious and translating it the same way for the serpent as for the humans suggests at least one possibility to me: the human beings at the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil made an unconscious decision to eat, a decision without “prudent” consideration of consequences. The consequences of this unconscious decision were catastrophic for all of creation. In becoming conscious, fully aware and capable of conscious choices, arum, they also become aware their action brought consequences. As they realized, after the fact, the enormity of those consequences, they are afraid. This idea certainly provides a framework for the Torah’s fierce focus on conscious choice in all things!

CONCLUSION

The internal logic of the text, the messages that might be in it, revealed through the text’s own literary clues, tells us two other stories as well. It tells us a story about the power of a translation that is always interpretation. When a translator chooses a word to use from a range of possibilities, that translator creates a new narrative which hopefully has its own internal logic. That translation then shapes a culture and a world view.

Imagine the impact over centuries of a narrative that focuses on the secondary status of women, human disobedience, sin, sexual shame and death. Then imagine how those centuries might have developed informed by a narrative that suggests the simultaneous creation of woman and man, in the image of G-d, who become conscious or prudent and thereby aware of the consequences of their earlier thoughtless or unconscious action and whose raison d’etre is to grow toward fully conscious living, making choices in full contemplation and consciouness of their consequences and implications.

Consider for a moment who, in that society, would end up honored and who shamed and punished.

This exploration tells us another story about the usefulness of taking the details of a narrative as they are presented, following its patterns and trying to discern its internal logic rather than imposing the logic of a different narrative on it. Interpretive traditions are different from the original narrative. These interpretive traditions have their own internal logic and meaning and must be understood in the same way as the sacred texts we have received, on their own terms.

Exploring first the biblical text as I have received it to discover what I can of its own internal logic, then to see how interpretive traditions developed from it, is my project in Torah Ecology.

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

Explaining My Torah Ecology Project

For those of you who follow my blog and who are puzzled with my Torah Ecology posts or find them unreadable…I would like to explain. In a few words, my blog is about religion and food and the intersection between them. This has been a lifelong interest.

This year I decided on a project to closely analyze the Torah (first five books of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament) portion by portion with an eye to food, animal rights and the environment. It is a research project using my own brain instead of outside commentaries and references telling me what the material says, although I occasionally look at material outside the text itself. Writing helps me think, and putting it into my blog preserves my thoughts for me and keeps me on schedule, moving through.

I am familiar with both traditional and modern techniques for reading the text including source criticism. I choose to treat the text I have in front of me as a unified document and to see what I can discover. The (Jewish) portions are simply an arbitrary division I chose to work with so I could manage the material.

Sometimes I see things I can’t figure out but want to note and come back to. Sometimes I include the Hebrew as a reminder to myself. Often the writing is heavy, heavier if I’m really searching — as has been the case in the last few weeks dealing with the sacrificial system. I also hope there are some insights in what I write.

Next year, with the perspective of close study of the entire Torah, I will go back and edit week-by-week. The year following, I will collect rabbinic comments on each portion. The year following, I will collect Christian comments on each portion. In the final year of my project, I will edit it all, write an introduction and a conclusion and publish it as a book.

I believe one thing it will show is how Judaism and Christianity developed from biblical religion — both legitimately springing from the same text but emphasizing different things and living in different historical/cultural contexts and therefore developing in different directions.

More importantly for my specific purpose in doing this, I think it will provide a biblically based foundation for thinking about food, the environment and animal rights — and it will show (me, at least) where Judaism and Christianity took those foundational concepts.

I’m not “speaking for” any religious perspective, just trying to understand a text that has been deeply meaningful in my own life and directs my action in the world. I’m interested in seeing what two interpretive traditions have seen in that text and done with it. And I continue to be interested in seeing how people across times and cultures and circumstances deal with the basic paradox of human existence, that it requires taking life to live.

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

What I’m Learning From My Torah Project

This post was made to my personal Facebook page, but I decided to add it to my blog as part of my own record of progress.
On January 1, 2016, I started a year-long project of taking pictures out my back door. I wanted to watch the seasons change and find beauty in each day. It was truly an extraordinary winter, the colors were amazing, and I looked forward to those special moments in the evening when I would take pictures, always of the “same” thing but always surprisingly different.
 
When I arrived at December 31, 2016, I wasn’t quite ready to end my project, and I continue to take pictures occasionally. I still have a few to post and will probably have more, but this winter been less colorful. I don’t know, maybe it’s as much a function of my internal state as of my environment.
 
Wrapped up (somewhat obsessively in recent weeks) in the progress of events since June 16, 2015 when our current president announced his candidacy, I was slow to start a new project.
 
February 1, 2017, I began work on the weekly Torah readings. My intention was to explore what the Torah (1st five books of the Hebrew Bible) has to say about topics near and dear to my heart, food, agriculture, our fellow creatures on the planet, ecology.
 
This focus seemed as though it would serve two purposes for me: 1) give a shape to my deep anxiety about our country’s direction, and 2) help me prepare for two classes I will teach at MCC, one on hot button issues in the Bible (Hebrew Bible) and one a repeat with revisions of a course I offered last year on Conscious Choices related to food.
 
This project, like my picture project last year, exceeds my expectations each day for discovering beauty and meaning. It feeds my soul in ways I couldn’t have imagined before I started this exploration. I started turning off all electronics on Friday evening when the Sabbath begins and leaving them off until Saturday evening when it ends (as I used to do in an earlier life). I look forward to picking up an actual book during that time and spending hours reading and re-reading a portion until I can begin to see patterns and gain some understanding.
 
I write about my explorations in my blog, www.vegetatingwithleslie.org under the heading “Torah Ecology,” part of each post title. Some of these posts are lengthy, and some need more editing. Maybe that will be next year’s project. They are a work in progress as these words reveal meanings to me. Writing helps me shape my thoughts as I work my way through, and as my doctoral adviser once told me, the editing process involves moving your conclusion to the beginning, then making a step-by-step argument to support the conclusion. I’m not up to that part yet.
 
Here is a glimpse of what moved me so deeply as I worked my way through the portions of the last four weeks. These are things that I see and experience as I study: 1) The Torah is the creative work of a unified consciousness, 2) What it has to say about food, agriculture, our fellow creatures on the planet and ecology goes way beyond a line here or a line there. These themes are what the Torah is about and breathe life into every word. 3) The creation stories of Genesis describe 3 domains, each in this list part of but different in some way from the domain that precedes it: transcendence, creation and all creatures in it, humanity. The 10 Words/Commandments add a fourth domain, a local community, “neighbors.” 4) The Torah is about relationships within the local community and between these domains.
 
Here is an example of how this works from this week’s portion, Mishpatim, a series of regulations directed toward this local community:
 
*****
 
Ex 23:10-12 ordains that Israelites sow their land and harvest their olives and vineyards for 6 years and in the 7th year let the fields lie fallow, leaving the olives on the trees and grapes on the vine so first the poor, then the “beasts” can eat.
 
Ex 23:12 proclaims that Israelites must do their work in 6 days and on the 7th day rest. This rest extends to their beasts (ox and ass), the “son of your handmaid,” and the stranger, emblematic of every creature for whom an Israelite has responsibility.
 
The 7th year or the 7th day restores a balance. A slave goes free, the land rests and replenishes, providing the poor and the beasts of the field with nourishment. For a period of time, an Israelite can take — but there is also a time to give back, to allow restoration. In the 7th year or on the 7th day, Israelites feed their fellow creatures and the creation that sustains them during the other six.
 
*****
 
I am constantly moved as I read these beautiful passages with the amazing message of interdependence and balance between the domains of transcendence, creation, humanity and a specific society, where the focus is on freedom and justice.
 
Passages describing the extraordinary beauty of creation, its order and patterns, can bring tears to my eyes, perhaps more so now with my concerns that we are destroying this amazing gift of creation with our arrogance and greed.
 
Similarly, the absence of freedom and justice in a society causes a roll back of creation in images that echo the creation story. The 9th of 10 Plagues brings a pre-creation darkness so deep that it is palpable, and one person cannot see the person next to him/her. When the Israelites fail to follow those “ordinances” that maintain their relationships to each other, transcendence and creation, they too suffer a roll back of creation:
 
“I looked on the earth, and behold, it was formless and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and behold, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and behold, there was no man, and all the birds of the heavens had fled. I looked, and behold, the fruitful land was a wilderness, and all its cities were pulled down before the Lord…” (Jer 4:23-26).
 
These are the eternal messages I find as I study these words week by week. Creation overflows with life and pattern, with beauty and wisdom. Its message about ecology, food and our fellow creatures on the planet informs the entire text.
 
As humans, we are part of this amazing creation, and we can contribute to it and experience joy in it. We can also cause it to roll back, we can destroy it all — not because we didn’t follow a particular rule or regulation or adhere to a particular theology but because we do not have humility in the face of transcendence. We do not live in balance with our world. We do not show compassion toward every creature and insist on freedom and justice for all in our local community, however we define that.
 
These failures in our society are an affront to creation and to transcendence, and whether or not we believe in a supernatural deity, they will bring us down.
For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

Reclaiming The Burning Bush

This post ended up being lengthy because it’s actually two in one. A podcast I viewed as I was writing helped me look at my topic through a different lens, and I started to write a note…which turned into a post of its own. I decided to leave it here as a note here since it’s relevant to my discussion.

THOUGHTS ABOUT THE NATURE RELIGIOUS CIVILIZATIONS & SACRED TEXTS

Questions about the source of the Bible or the sacred scriptures of religions hold little meaning for me, although the stories of origin do. I like to study the text I have in front of me, accept its unity regardless of its source, and discover how it speaks to me.

Similarly statements about what a religion is or isn’t hold little meaning for me. From my perspective, a religion is how its adherents at any point in time understand its sacred stories and traditions and apply them in their lives and in the world.

Religions evolve and change. If they don’t, if they are fixed throughout time, there is no opportunity for people to engage with them, to make them a foundation for living in the world. Religions are living, not static. They are an interaction of ideas and texts and stories and songs and ethics and rituals and laws that engage people in different times and places throughout history, changing as people bring them to life in particular situations.

Because of this perspective, I squirm when a religion is characterized as a “religion of peace” or a “violent religion.” Just as every major religion has violence in its history — each also has powerful messages of compassion, healing and hope.

So as I accept the unity of a sacred text, or at least those texts that present themselves as unified, I also accept the unity of religious cultures at any point in time. Negative or violent movements in a religious/cultural framework are not separate from the religious/cultural framework itself. These movements may not define the religious culture, but they are not separate from it.

I apply this perspective to every religious culture and therefore consider Nazism as much a function of Christian religious culture in a certain time and place as I do Islamic terrorism a function of Islamic religious culture in a certain time and place and the Massacre of the Innocents or the murder of Rabin functions of a religious culture in certain times and places.

From that perspective, if the religious right wants to claim that the United States is a Christian nation, then they also must claim responsibility for policies completely antithetical to messages in a text they claim as the foundation of their religion. In addition, Judeo-Christian religious culture in the U.S. at this time in history must claim resurgent hate movements and activity in this country as our own.

A BURNING BUSH: COMPELLING IDEAS AND VALUES THAT LEAD TO CREATIVE ACTION IN THE WORLD

The fact that religions change over time doesn’t mean they don’t offer us universals, ideas and values that emerge from a unified consciousness.

I’m thinking about the length of time religious civilizations have lasted, most for millennia.  Even Islam, the most recently arrived of the world’s major religions, has a 13 century history and today is experiencing a resurgence. A new report from the Pew Research Center tells us that Islam “will nearly equal Christianity by 2050 before eclipsing it around 2070, if current trends continue.”

The United States has been a nation just since 1776, 240 years. That’s nothing in the grand scheme of history. Just over two centuries for our democratic experiment…vs. 13 centuries of Islamic civilization and three, four or more millennia to date for other religious civilizations.

Some even suggest, if the U.S. doesn’t change its current trajectory, it is on the downward slope toward ending its experiment in democracy — while Islamic religious civilization is resurgent. If Islam hasn’t yet found its footing, we are losing ours according to many on both the left and the right.

I wondered what gives religious civilizations their staying power, and why our bold experiment in democracy is cracking at the seams after such a relatively short life?

I had this thought: a compelling idea with its associated values is a bush that burns — but is not consumed. It propels a society forward, providing the framework for achievement, creativity, growth and development. It is an idea so compelling that it arrests our attention and both inspires and leads us throughout history, although its surface appearance may change. Years ago I heard a marvelous recording that captures the universality of this idea, although in the form of a staff – The Peasle Tree Sermon.

Despite anti-creation forces in every religious civilization, they have also all been forces for good in the world, creative energies, burning bushes that provide those compelling principles and values that drive adherents to work for a better world.

Our democratic idea was a burning bush at one time in history, but it seems to be no longer. Why? Instead of railing about criticism of the U.S. and its policies coming from within and without, perhaps we should pause to consider what these criticisms and this anger are telling us about who we are at this moment in time. Perhaps we should stop shouting slogans and posturing and reassuring ourselves for a moment and listen to each other and contemplate. We might be astonished to discover how many of us have the same concerns and would respond to the same strong message if our anguish and our desire weren’t camouflaged under our cultural battle cries.

HOW THE BURNING BUSH LOST ITS FIRE

At risk of vast over-simplification, I want to share some thoughts about why our idea seems to have lost its force and power to lead us after just 240 years while religious civilizations are still here millennia after their ideas and values first entered history.

Our founding fathers recognized that unregulated democracy creates injustice and so forged us as a republic, intending to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority. Similarly, we learned from our history that capitalism requires checks in order to work for the broader society. The more we remove these restraints, the more our burning bush loses its fire.

The cry of the French Revolution, which we embraced at our inception, is no longer heard in our land: liberty, equality, brotherhood. This was an idea and a set of values that inspired people so profoundly that they were willing to give their lives to make it a living principle, much the way religious martyrs throughout history have done.

The Statue of Liberty, a gift from France offered us another myth about ourselves, a vision for who we could be at our best, in the words of Jewish-American, Emma Lazarus, written in 1883: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” This myth is one that seems at best out of sync with our action in the world.

But the failure of checks and balances isn’t our only problem. As I have had the opportunity to be more reflective in the last two or three years about food choices and our food supply, I’ve come to see my world through a different lens. The problem I see at the root of our food supply, the problem that poisons the food chain, bringing chronic disease, death, injustice, poverty, hunger and environmental degradation, is the same problem that permeates our culture, our politics and our world. It is the same problem that makes our republic no longer a burning bush, no longer a compelling ideal.

In addition to eroding those checks and balances that were carefully built into our constitution, we have allowed another imbalance to take over our society, and that is, secularism, including an ideal of unfettered relativism. While the founding fathers may not have been Christians in the image of today’s evangelicals (some left their Christian faith and practice to become Deists, and many others were influenced by Deism, a Enlightenment rationalist idea) they were not anti-religion or anti- spiritually rooted values. Indeed many founding documents and artifacts draw on Hebrew scripture for inspiration. The framers of the Constitution simply believed that the tenets of a specific religious profession should not be part of the constitutional and legal framework of the United States. The way we have translated the idea of separation of church and state would probably surprise them today.

Secularism and relativism bring many important benefits, often including respect for those whose cultural norms and expressions don’t match our own — but coupled with an erosion in how we value our own republic with its system of checks and balances, we have created a society which repudiates the values found in every major religious culture. Successful competition, greed, accumulation, power and opportunism rule the day while we continue to claim we are caring and compassionate. Yet our actions demonstrate the truth of what we have become.

We must claim this current version of our American ideal as part of what America is. Just as we can’t say any religion is a religion of peace or of violence, we cannot say America is a caring and compassionate country — but we also don’t have to let this vision of banning Muslims and rounding up Mexicans and censoring science and debunking our institutions and values define us completely. Both are part of who we are today at this time in history. We are no longer, if we ever were, a shining city on a hill. That is our myth about ourselves, our vision that sustains us and guides our action in the world when we let it.  At present, when we even think of it in the rough and tumble of daily life, it is a myth in remission.

REGAINING THE BURNING BUSH

I am not saying that myths are bad things. They are constructs, as is anything in the created world, including language itself, our vehicle for communication. It is impossible to comprehend reality without looking at it through a construct. Every religion knows this and has its myths of origin, its myths that explain the world and its relationship to transcendence. These myths contribute to creating us as human beings and build our worldview according to a set of beliefs or principles and values.

Similarly rituals and law codes create us, teaching us how to live within a society. Basic to every major religion are codes that inculcate caring and compassion and behaviors that build society.

The myths of religious civilizations, the rituals and the codes that emphasize caring and compassion, are burning bushes that have inspired adherents for millennia. I maintain that our history of secularism, relativism and capitalism demonstrates these principles cannot sustain a democracy. Therefore they cannot serve the same purpose as spiritual value systems that recognize the interdependence of human beings with creation and transcendence. The lessons we teach, the ways we create human beings in our society, based on successful competition, greed, accumulation, power and opportunism will never maintain their fire. They will achieve their ends by asserting power. There is no other possibility. These are not values for which people will willingly give their lives.

Many on the right stake their claim to leadership on a specific religious worldview and frame the left as godless secularists. Many on the left undoubtedly add to this image when they ridicule and discount what they portray as simplistic religious ideas.

Let’s consider, for a moment, that human engagement with transcendence and ultimate meanings is, rather, audacious, as are all ideas about the value of human life on this planet. Engagement, a process, is audacious. Asserting that one knows ultimate truth is human arrogance — but so is rejecting engagement in the process of discovery and connection. Some humility from both directions is probably in order.

I think perhaps the left has been too quick to see what is negative about being “religious,” however we define that and for whatever specific faith.

There is this fact — for a civilization to survive over millennia, even to thrive, its adherents must be inspired and driven by compelling principles and values. These principles and values must be communicated in meaningful ways that shape people’s lives in the world. All mainstream religions can claim major success in this respect by virtue of their long-term and continuing energy and ability to inspire. Our 240 year old republic, in the meantime, struggles.  Half of our citizens aren’t even inspired to vote much less offer their lives for the current principles and values of our society.

I think we on the left need to look closely at what religious civilizations teach us about serving as a burning bush for the long haul. All major religions emphasize values of caring and compassion. All remind us to care for the poor, the disadvantaged, the forgotten among us. And all use myth, ritual and ethical codes to teach us those values, to shape us as human beings.

The left needs to actively re-engage with the meaning of our existence in the context of transcendence and ultimate unity. From this engaged perspective, it must forge a vision, a message, that reinspires its current adherents and shapes and inspires new generations to transform society.

By transformation, I mean we must dismantle the worn out foundation on which we operate today, overwhelmingly secular, relativist and capitalist. We must pour a new foundation, one resting on the principle of the unity of all being, a principle that expresses itself in caring and compassion in every word, action and policy. A principle that expresses itself in community, the kind of community we all want, a community where no person is forgotten or diminished. A principle that expresses itself in our connection to and dependence on the rest of creation.

While we need the humility to recognize as many different paths to enduring truth as there are people in the world, we also need the audacity to engage, to reclaim the enduring significance of a burning bush, a bush that burns but is not consumed, to lead our society forward.

* * * * * *

*NOTES: Yesterday as I was continuing to edit this post, a friend shared a fascinating podcast with me which I believe discusses in a different way some of the same issues I struggle with above.

I was recently alerted to my own dissatisfaction or paradoxical relationship to what Ken Wilber calls the “green” movement, a point of view that asserts there is no absolute truth, that all truth is context specific and relative and that all points of view or cultures or belief systems have equal value.

On the one hand, as you can see from what I have written, I gravitate toward and am trained in cultural studies of religion. This is the method by which religion is taught in universities today — culture and time specific and relative. There are many advantages to this method, and it allows a measure of objectivity, understanding and respect that exists only uncomfortably with assertions of the truth of myth, an approach invariably associated with ethnocentricity, according to Wilber. I’ll add to that anthropocentricity.

On the other hand, as Wilber explains, this “green” perspective becomes mired in self-contradiction and finally, leads to nihilism. If no value statement is superior to any other, then value statements about the green approach itself is also not superior to any other. This leads to an idea that there is no way to say what is true or what superior values can guide us in this life. If there is no difference between bad values and good, in fact no good or bad values, just values — well, why choose one or the other? And if there is no reason to choose and no absolute truth, how is there meaning in our human activity? Why bother with anything, including living?

I sensed but haven’t been able to verbalize this paradox with regard to my studies. I came up against it at a personal level in my late teens when I arrived at a point that I felt there were only two possible responses to questions about the meaning of life: yes or no. Stark, simple, no elaboration needed. A “yes” choice is a biologically driven choice on the one hand, since life wants to live — and a leap of faith on the other hand.

I came up against it again recently in a series of classes I recently took in religion as a refresher. There was a discussion question to Pope Francis’ 2016 statement: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel,” the Pope told journalists who asked his opinion on Trump’s proposals to halt illegal immigration.” The question we were asked was, is Pope Francis correct in making this statement?

From the perspective of the cultural study of religion, he was not. Pope Francis is Catholic, and Trump is Presbyterian. Who says what Christianity is or isn’t? Christianity is what people who consider themselves Christian do at any point in time, etc. As I said, I understand this perspective and the benefits it offers…but I found myself having a negative gut reaction to it. My instinct tells me that if the world and our lives are to have meaning, we require definition, boundaries within which we live, we must make choices on the basis of values we can judge to be superior to other values.

Finally I recognize that the conundrum of the left matches my own conundrum. If we disparage religions as blind and ethnocentric — say that all values systems are equal and that ethics or beliefs are situational and relative…how can we assert a message superior to others? How can we make a statement that has the power to move people, a message we can claim is superior to the message that currently invigorates and moves the right to action?

Here is how I resolve this dilemma for myself. How this works in a political framework, I’m not certain, and that is what I tried to deal with in this post. A statement from Mishna Haggiga guides me: “Whoever speculates on one of four things should better not have been created: what is above; what is below; what is before; and what is after.”

Although the statement, like any scriptural statement, has a context-specific point of origin and addresses context-specific questions, it also has a universal dimension. In that respect, it is similar to statements we hear in so many forms from so many different contexts: we can’t know the mind of G-d, be in the present, develop an attitude and practice of caring and compassion toward the world around us. For a person who, like me, accepts a spiritual dimension, that is the backdrop for everything, it informs everything, but my focus and attention are on how I live in the world. I’m not a philosopher. I don’t want to follow philosophical ideas to their logical end point. They will inevitably fail.

My academic training and my “green” orientation keep me humble. I accept that any worldview is a construct. It might be ultimate or absolute truth, but there is no way any human being knows that for certain, and we are all shaped by our historical and cultural environment, me as much as anyone else.

My personal experience tells me we cannot live without these constructs, and Wilber’s comment defines that conundrum, laying bare the ultimate nihilism of a cultural studies approach. And so I would call the construct that I choose “functional.” I choose it because it works in the way I want it to work in my life: the worldview I choose gives me hope, guides me to be the best person I can be, inspires me to engage actively in the world in which I find myself, inspires me to create.

If there is one absolute, as Wilber points out, it is the persistence of pattern in creation. One of those patterns is that life is creative. Another is that all life ends. So I sought and found a functional worldview that inspires me to become part of that creative activity in the time between my beginning and my end.

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

Journaling and Journeying: Pro-life and Pro-Choice

JOURNALING

When I woke this morning, it was sunny for the first time in weeks. I believe everything is interconnected, interdependent, so I took the sunshine as a signal that my mental and spiritual condition would reshape itself today, and I shouldn’t stand in the way of that process. The sun is struggling a bit, and so am I, but I am open to what comes.

In that frame of mind and spirit, I sat to journal for the second time in, well, months. Last year, I took a class in journaling and learned to create a regular space in time to sit and write on a single word or phrase or idea without stopping for 15 minutes. While I practiced that technique, I discovered it was much more than a way to record my thoughts at any point in time, although it is that. It also took me on journeys into myself to places I wouldn’t otherwise have reached.

When I put things into words, it makes conscious what was unconscious and amorphous. I can get hold of an idea, turn it and consider it and follow its lead to shape another word or thought. Making something conscious is a creative act, and it leads me on a journey to other words, drawing other thoughts from that amorphous place that is unity. Sometimes we call that unity G-d.

In the first chapters of Genesis, G-d creates with words. Consider that for a moment.  The “earth” is “tohu va-vohu,” formlessness and emptiness. G-d speaks, and shapes emerge through the differentiations language provides: light and dark, waters above and waters below, land and sea and vegetation. G-d fills those environments with life, using words: sun, moon and stars, creatures of the land and sea and air, and finally, a human being. Words are creative. Words give shape to “tohu va-vohu,” and they transform unconsciousness to consciousness. Words create the world and the life in it.

I’m thinking about consciousness today because when I sat to journal, what I wanted to write about is a set of labels we created in our country, “pro-life” and “pro-choice,” and my thoughts led me to consider consciousness.

A teacher once said to me, religion is the language of “as if.” That being the case, our juxtaposition of pro-life and pro-choice creates an orthodoxy of extremes, and we are living today as if that alienated state of being were ultimate truth.

These labels we have chosen set out the terms of a complex moral dilemma in a framework that invites conflict. These words as we wield them fail completely to take us on a journey into ourselves. They fail to strengthen our connection to the unity in and behind all being.

Words are powerful and creative, yes, but they also differentiate. There is a balance, and we cling to these phrases in a way that our words only differentiate us, forcing us into limitations of thought that drive us further and further apart from each other and from whatever idea of G-d we hold.

JOURNEYING

In Starting Thought, I shared this idea about food: “As we gather raw ingredients, prepare food and eat, we embrace the central moral paradox of human existence, that it requires taking life to sustain life.  How we respond to that paradox defines us as human beings.” In an age of “alternative facts,” this is one incontrovertible fact for all of us. In order to live, we must take life.

Our profound and primary moral dilemma as human beings is to decide what life to take. This dilemma presents itself to us in every moment. Every religion deals with this dilemma and provides its own tools to navigate it.  Because religions are complex responses to complex human experiences and dilemmas, the answers within any religion are never black and white but rather nuanced, showing us a path for exercising consciousness, thinking and decision-making. Any seemingly clear-cut statement demands interpretation and exceptions.

Some of us prefer not to deal with moral dilemmas and follow what we perceive to be clear-cut prescriptions in religions. Or we remove the reality of these daily choices from our field of perception. Factory farms are an example of this path. Picking up a package of meat in plastic wrap at the store effectively separates us from the reality that we allowed suffering and caused the death of a creature.

Using words as labels to say who we are and what we think instead of using them to explore ourselves and others, instead of using them to create, is another way to escape struggling with the moral dilemma at the root of our existence in the world. And to be sure, not one of us can give each second of our existence the focus and thought it requires if we regard it as a dilemma between taking and giving life — so we accept certain norms and engage in certain rituals that don’t require minute attention.

And so I wanted to think about these labels today when I sat to journal: pro-life and pro-choice. In sharing my thoughts, I’m not focusing on individual experiences and dilemmas, stories of personal suffering and joy. These stories are at the foundation of any discussion, and our experiences shape us — but it’s not where I am going to focus in this post.

I also don’t want to sink into consistency or a debate framed by specific theologies. Of course my religion and my culture influence my thinking profoundly, just as my experience does. Those are facts of human existence for us all.

What I want to do is simply share some (now elaborated) random thoughts I had this morning and encourage responses — because while words make us all creators, words we exchange with others create in a different way.

PRO-LIFE & PRO-CHOICE IN THE BIBLE

Today we use “pro-life” as a label, but I want to explore broader meanings. I believe for many who assign the label to themselves and use it as a litmus test for others, it really means “pro-birth.” Joan Chittister, a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, a noted international lecturer as well as a former fellow at St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge University, England, author of numerous books and articles and co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a partner organization of the UN, captures this thought with her words: “I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”

Certainly the Bible is pro-life, but the conversation is framed very differently from the way we frame it today. I suggest the framing, through stories, is more nuanced, richer and less polarizing than our current framing in a label. “Choose life that you may live.” (Deut. 30:19). Contemplating the meaning of this phrase is a lifelong journey in a world where the one incontrovertible fact of our existence is that we must take life in order to live.

The phrase also highlights that the Bible is fundamentally pro-choice. This phrase doesn’t compel us to choose life, however we understand the word. It tells us to choose it and informs us that choices have consequences. Chapter 3 of Genesis makes the same points about life. The first human beings receive instructions. They make a choice that gives them moral consciousness when they eat from the Tree of Good and Evil. And there are ambiguous consequences of their choice: warned that if they make the “wrong” choice, they will “surely die,” when they do make that wrong choice, they are cast into life. Would it have been better for human beings not to have moral consciousness, indeed, not to live?

So the biblical text is perhaps not as unequivocal as we thought. It is pro-life and it is pro-choice. Choosing has consequences, the consequences play out forever, and categories of right and wrong aren’t always that clear. Indeed, we might even call these categories labels, and this is one reason I think the Bible presents a richer and more complex framework for thinking about these issues than we provide in our modern cultural and political debate.

CONSCIOUSNESS IN THE BIBLE

As I thought further, connecting word to word during my 15 minutes this morning, I came to the word, “consciousness.” It’s a word we toss around a lot these days with phrases like “conscious choice,” reminding ourselves to think about our actions in the world, about how our choices affect not just ourselves but the world beyond ourselves. Three things occurred to me about consciousness in the Bible:

  • Consciousness is creative.
  • Consciousness is fundamental to choosing. Without it, choice is a non-issue, a moot point.
  • Consciousness is also fundamental to life. If there is no consciousness, is there life? Conversely, is there life without consciousness as we define it?

The Bible suggests all three premises in the first chapters of Genesis in the nuanced way that stories do. The words resist precise definition, and we should as well, at least during a thought and discussion process.

That third point in particular, the relationship between consciousness and life, seems a little tricky. There are definitely things in the world we say are living, but we wouldn’t necessarily go on to say they are conscious. On the other hand, perhaps that is a matter of definition. While plants perhaps don’t have consciousness according to our current definition, they react to their environment and communicate among themselves. Similarly bacteria and amoebas react to their environment, live in colonies and communicate among themselves.

In a beautifully nuanced story, the first three chapters of Genesis tell us that all of creation is an outpouring of G-d’s consciousness and creativity. Similarly, G-d requires creativity from all creatures. When G-d creates land, sea and air creatures, G-d tells them, be fruitful and multiply, which we can understand as, be creative. And G-d uses the same words when G-d creates humans. That vegan world exalts life, the result of G-d’s creativity through the use of words, a product of consciousness.

Humans are creative beings before they are conscious beings. Even in their pre-conscious state, they possess freedom of choice. When they exercise their freedom of choice, they gain moral discernment and responsibility and are thrust into life, assaulted with its reality.

Not until human beings eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil do they become conscious, and not until they are ejected from the Garden, thrust into life, do they have opportunities to exercise it through conscious choice-making. Eating from the Tree is not a moral action since human beings are not conscious. This suggests pre-conscious human beings are not responsible, although their actions nonetheless bring consequences.

So the Bible associates consciousness and moral responsibility with life in the world, not necessarily with an abstraction of life, a pre-conscious life, life that is not confronted with choices. In fact, the Bible associates consciousness with all creatures, because all creatures live outside the Garden in the world along with human creatures.

Yet even as we associate consciousness and life, we can’t be too quick to say there is no life before entry to the world. At the same time the Bible associates consciousness with life in the world,  it allows for a time/space where there is life without consciousness.

With consciousness, choice and responsibility, we are in the image of G-d. This suggests that a fetus, while as much an expression of G-d and consciousness as anything in the world, is not yet in the image of G-d. And life itself is ambiguous. G-d tells the human beings if they eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they will surely die. Yet when the humans beings did eat, choosing not to follow an explicit instruction from G-d, they gain consciousness, and both they and their fellow creatures are thrust from the Garden into life, an environment of birth and death and choice and responsibility.

There were consequences for all creation in that human action. Was the action good or bad? The consequences of it? And it is these nuances, this ambiguity of meaning, that prompts us to think more deeply about what life is as we contemplate decisions of life and death.

The Bible presents us with a nuanced tale that, among other things, explores the relationship between ultimate unity, life and consciousness,  choice and responsibility, a complex interweaving in which all these ideas, expressed in the words of a story, are inextricably linked.

CONSCIOUSNESS & HUMAN LIFE ACCORDING TO SCIENCE

As I wrote in my journal today, I wondered, when does consciousness begin in a human being? An article in Scientific American provided me with these facts:

  • Babies lack self-awareness, although they have some basic level of unreflective, present-oriented consciousness.
  • The substrate of consciousness, the “thalamo-cortical complex that provides consciousness with its highly elaborate content” begins to be put in place during the 24th to 28th weeks of gestation.
  • In the third trimester, the infant is almost always in one of 2 sleep states, active and quiet 95% of the time, the remaining 5% a transition between the two.
  • Do infants dream, a different kind of consciousness? We don’t know.
  • At birth, the dramatic events of a birth, some would say an assault, cause the infant to wake up, draw its first breath and begin to experience life.

Other writers say:

  • A human fetus begins to develop a corpus callosum (inter-hemispheric communication) and the sulci (ridges that are a sign of intelligence) only after week 13 and the myelination and rapid synapse growth happen during week 23 and 28 respectively. So the fetus cannot be called a sentient, self aware, conscious being until this point. It is more of a reflexive low level organism until then.
  • Different people define it in different ways, so it is anywhere from Week 23 in gestation to 15 months after birth. 
  • Our best guesses suggest it’s somewhere between formation of brain-matter appropriate to cognition and “other-awareness.” The measures we gauge by tend towards the beginnings of the ability to communicate or differentiate.

An article in Wired describes research showing that “babies display glimmers of consciousness and memory as early as 5 months old.”

As I read these comments and consider the science, I can’t help but be struck with the insights of the first chapters of Genesis into life and consciousness, pre-conscious states, language and creativity, both reflecting the scientific information we now have and enriching our understanding even further with a nuanced story.

ETHICAL DILEMMAS

We live in the midst of an ethical dilemma. The natural process we are part of requires taking life to sustain it. This, indeed, is the focus of my blog, to think “out loud” about these issues in direct and oblique ways.

Some point to the biblical prohibition against murder as a way to justify a prohibition against abortion, which some interpret as murder. I have tried to raise here, though, some questions about life and consciousness to consider. There are many ways in which a fetus is not the same as a conscious human being. If our category for judgment is, on the other hand, life, “life” is in everything. If it is sacred and worthy of preservation, we must think about it on a continuum not in terms of life is here, not there. It isn’t possible to live in the world without taking life.

But even if we were to apply the murder prohibition only to a fully conscious human being in the world, there are questions that demand thought and interpretation against other moral considerations. In our law code, we allow self-defense. Killing a person because they threaten your life is not murder. Further, all creatures, even humans, have had to deal with what to do with weaker fellow creatures in hostile environments in the course of our history.  Should we judge others in circumstances we can’t imagine for choosing life so they may live? Issues of life and death demand thoughtful, informed discussion, not labels.

With regard to our national debate on abortion, framing our discussion in terms of “pro-life” and “pro-choice” not only oversimplifies, blocks creative thought and discussion and causes alienation, it utterly neglects to address important ethical dilemmas like the moral value of life at one place in the continuum and life at another place on it, why the decisions we make about life and death are important to to the moral foundation of a society and so concern that society as a whole, how we can balance the fundamental necessity of human freedom and choice with living in community and more.

Science provides insight into questions of life and death and consciousness, things we can consider as we weigh these issues. On the other hand, sacred scriptures of all religions offer a better framework for considering issues of life and death than the one we use in 21st century America with its juxtaposition between pro-life and pro-choice, as if they are opposed.

DEFINITIONS & LAWS

Even as our definitions in any discussion of life and death will inevitably have illusive boundaries, living productively and creatively in the world requires that we interpret and define. We must have guidelines for behavior, even laws, if we are to live together as a community.

While there is a reality beyond our immediate cultural and religious context, a continuum of life, of consciousness, a unity, we connect to that experience of unity, that pre-conscious state, in a variety of ways. Even with full knowledge of the unity that surges through everything, our every day world requires that we make choices, often centered on the claims of moral issues that bump up against each other. Rarely but occasionally, the moral choice is clear. Other times, several moral issues bump up against each other, and we call that clash of issues an ethical dilemma. Life itself is, as we have seen, founded on an ethical dilemma, taking life to sustain life.

For the most part, we make decisions about these ethical dilemmas alone or in discussion with a close group of others concerned with the same set of issues or who might be impacted by a decision. Issues like life and death that impact society and our ability to live together require a more broadly based consensus or legislation. Most societies have written law codes and create some mechanism for interpretation and revision.

Legislation becomes even more complicated in a modern world where societies are multi-religious, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-racial and multi-gendered. Moral codes are born out of specific historical and personal experiences and deserve respect in any conversation about legislation that impacts the lives of us all.

Just as the words an individual uses in writing or speaking represent a creative process, so are laws the result of a creative process of exchanging words with each other and making choices. Even if we believe our laws were not a human process, that a supernatural G-d delivered the words to the inhabitants of earth, the process of understanding and interpreting the words is. This process is an answer to questions about how can we live together in community, still leaving people room to exercise that fundamental aspect of their nature as conscious human beings, choice. Laws are not a final resolution of what is right and what is wrong.

How can we talk and legislate on a label like “pro-life?” Certainly we can talk, trying to get at what it means, or at least what it means to ourselves and to others. It is useless for legislation, though, because as a slogan, it can have no meaningful definition.

Everything lives. One person’s choices on that continuum are not another’s, and not one of us can say for a fact where “life” begins and where it ends. Similarly we cannot say with certainty what consciousness is and which aspects of creation evidence it.  All we know with certainty is that there is a paradox at the root of our existence, and in the course of our lives, we will take life to survive. Perhaps we are not aware that we’re making that choice — but we are, in each moment.

Do these dilemmas and our multi-ness mean we cannot make any laws? Of course we must, we can, and we do. But legislation is based on careful definitions, not slogans, and on broad-based consensus. We’re not even close. We haven’t even begun to have meaningful discussions.

For a person shaped by a biblical perspective, human moral dilemmas and the responsibility to make moral decisions are an emblem of being in the image of the creator. In the world, in the face of moral dilemmas, our choices aren’t always clear, and the choices we each make are shaped by our unique circumstances, only one aspect of which is the society in which we live.

These dilemmas require more than labels from us. They require us to use words creatively to search ourselves and our neighbors and to make choices and laws as best we can based the insights we gain through caring, thoughtful, open conversation. Using words to create meaningful lives is, from the biblical perspective, another emblem of being in the image of the creator.

I always return to my own sacred text as my best framework for framing words, creating thoughts and ideas and practices and making moral decisions.  I encourage others to share the riches and wisdom of their sacred texts or any source of wisdom or information on which they draw to help us think together about the deepest paradox of life, that we must take life to sustain life. At the same time, we must find ways to live together in our world as moral human beings, each making our own conscious choices to sustain ourselves while keeping our footprint as small as possible.

*Note: In this discussion, when I write about what the Bible tells us, it is shorthand for this is how the text speaks to me. I put my comments out here for your consideration in thinking about these issues and shaping a new framework for conversation.

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

Biblical Diet: Rx for Today

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One of the things I love about teaching is that I always learn. My favorite session in the series I just taught was the one on Bible, and as happens almost every time I read the passages from the first three chapters of Genesis, I had new insights. This time as I approached the text, I was thinking about food, and I realized: the Bible and the dietary laws which it generated introduced the idea of “conscious choice” in relation to what we eat.

But that’s not all I thought about. I’ve also puzzled for many years, as have many others, about the meaning of the lists of creatures permitted for human consumption in Leviticus 10 and 11. I had an idea about those lists today…something that fits within the framework of the biblical symbolism, worldview and message, as I understand it.

The Bible tells us three things about food, all profoundly relevant to our lives today:

  1. It describes the “ideal” human diet.
  2. It describes the human diet as it is in the “real” world.
  3. It provides a framework for “conscious choice” about what we eat.

The Ideal Human Diet

The creation accounts of Genesis 1-3 provide us with an ideal vision, creation according to a plan with meaning and purpose. There are three “elements” in the cosmos of these stories, God, human beings and the rest of creation. The second creation account, the Garden of Eden story, describes the relationships between these elements. These relationships are basically food-based.

God tells the creatures who inhabit creation what they can eat. It is a vegan world. In Gn. 1:29, the first creation story, God says, “Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed–to you it shall be for food; and to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creeps upon the earth, wherein there is a living soul, [I have given] every green herb for food.” Every creature is vegan, even the animals!

In the Garden, everything is in harmony. There is no death, no fear, no bloodshed, no violence. God plants a Garden, humans “dress it and keep it”, a river waters it, and creation thrives. In Gn. 2:16, God again ordains a vegan diet but with a further restriction: “And the Lord God commanded Adam, saying: ‘Of every tree of the Garden you may eat freely eat…but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it; for in the day that you eat thereof you will surely die”.

When Adam and Eve do eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they are exiled from the Garden into life, preventing them from taking from the tree of life, eating and living forever. A flaming sword bars reentry to the Garden.

There is so much to say about this story and its meaning, but focusing just on the food, I’ll note some imagery associated with this ideal world of the Garden. As we’ve said, it’s vegan; there is no violence and no bloodshed. These phenomena go together. Since there is no violence and no bloodshed, there is no fear. Life is eternal. The job of the human being is to tend the Garden, and food is endlessly available.

A forbidden “meal” seems to bring God back into the Garden in the heat of the day, and part of the punishment levied on the human beings following their transgression is also food-related: “…cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Thorns and also thistles shall it bring forth to you; and you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground…” (Gn. 3:17-19) Still vegan, it seems, but not quite a nurturing, vegan feast.

The Human Diet in the Real World

The human beings who exit the Garden are like God in having ethical consciousness. They are unlike God in that they do not live forever, nor does any other part of creation. The two trees in the Garden symbolize these two aspects of human nature. The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, from which the first humans eat, confers on them their ethical consciousness. They do not eat from the Tree of Life but rather are exiled and prevented from reentering the Garden.

The biblical code language for the theology and anthropology described in these stories is “holy” and “pure”.  Adam, the human being, is created “in the image” of God, that is, Adam is both holy and pure.  Holiness has to do with the human beings’ ethical consciousness. Purity has to do with their place in the natural world, a place that changes when they are exiled from the Garden and no longer have the potential to transcend nature. Specifically, purity and impurity are associated with natural processes, ultimately life and death.

The world of exile is very different from the world of the Garden. Not only is it disharmonious and difficult, with nature and human beings in an antagonistic relationship, but it is a world that includes death and is filled with violence and bloodshed. The first story following exile is one of fratricide, as Cain, the gardener, kills his brother, Abel, a shepherd. Abel kills his firstlings for a sacrifice — and God favors the meat sacrifice despite having ordained a vegan diet for God’s original creation.

As disharmony and violence overwhelms this world in exile, beyond the Garden, God brings a flood and a new creation. Noah sacrifices animals as a sign of thanksgiving, and God in return promises to never again destroy the earth. And then…even as God issues a first commandment to this new creation, “be fruitful and multiply,” God formally decrees a new diet, which signifies the nature of this world in exile.

This diet is described in the Noah story in the new creation following the flood (Gn. 9:2-4): “And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, and upon all where with the ground teems, and upon all the fishes of the sea: into your hand are they delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be for food for you; as the green herb have I given you all. Only flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall you not eat.” The world in exile is one dominated by disharmony, fear, violence, and blood — and this world is no longer vegan.

The life thereof, which is the blood thereof. Blood signifies our physical existence, our life in this world. It signifies the profound difference between God and human beings, the fact that human beings are part of nature and do not live forever. Yes, humans can now kill animals and eat them, but they cannot eat the blood, which is the life thereof. Contact with blood and death renders a human being “impure”. A state of impurity is a reminder of human transgression.

Biblical “Conscious Choice”

How can human beings live in this new world where sustaining life requires taking life? Where life is limited and fragile, and hunger, violence, bloodshed and warfare form a constant backdrop to existence?

The Bible tells us that human beings are like God in that they have ethical consciousness. This ethical consciousness makes navigation through the complexities of this world beyond exile difficult. How do we know what choice is the “right” choice?

We have two visions put before us, one of an ideal world, a world as it was intended to be, and one of the real world in which we live, a world in exile, a world of disrupted relationships between nature, human beings and God. The Hebrew Bible provides a framework for how to live in that world. The framework once again includes a dietary plan.

We have already seen one of the fundamentals of this plan in Gn. 9:2-4, the prohibition against consuming the blood of a creature. More details come out in many places in the biblical text, but Leviticus 10-11 provides a list of which animals, fowl, fish and insects are permitted for food. Closer examination of these lists and the habits of these animals reveals they are all vegan.

In the symbolism of the biblical text, though, veganism isn’t a relevant category. It is a contemporary concept that camouflages a deeper truth, namely that these are all creatures that don’t consume the blood of others. Those creatures “fit” for eating, kasher, are those which are most pure, eating according to the ideal of the Garden. Humans, themselves impure, except in the temporary world of a ritual framework, can only eat animals that are pure.

Characteristically the Bible presents us with a nuanced, layered, complex view of the world, filled with subtle paradox. Humans, in the image of God (almost), are exiled from the Garden with part of their likeness, their ethical consciousness, but are compelled to leave behind another part, the possibility of living forever and thus transcending nature. In the real world beyond the Garden’s borders, they eat meat, associated with their transgression and exile. No longer continually pure as in the Garden but rather enmeshed in blood guilt, these humans nonetheless can only eat meat from animals who are pure, who do not kill other creatures for food and do not consume blood.

One scholar suggests that the original motivation for sacrifice was to deal with this issue of blood guilt: In his “Ritual Sacrifice in Ancient Israel” (from Biblical Archaeology Review), William H. Hallo “discusses not only the evidence for ritual sacrifice in ancient Mesopotamia, but also some of the possible motivations for the development of such a practice. He suggests that ritual sacrifice to the gods in Mesopotamia developed as a means of justifying meat consumption by human beings–a privilege generally reserved for the elite of society”. It appears that meat eating may have been a troubling concept in the ancient world, including in the world of the ancient Israelites.

So Where Does That Leave Us?

A speaker in the National Geographic special series, “The Future of Food”, in commenting about the stress on our resources as our world population reaches toward 9.7 billion in 2050, tells us we could easily feed everyone if we stop wasting and all become vegan. Immediately he acknowledges this is not likely to happen just yet. In this way, his comments are reminiscent of a biblical text that tells us of an ideal world but within three chapters moves beyond it to look at the world as it is and to provide a framework for living in it. And that world as it is looks a lot like our world today.

We can learn a great deal from the Bible about our connection to the rest of creation, about a way to live in harmony with the rest of our world, tilling the Garden. We can also learn about how to live in the often harsh reality beyond its borders. We can find tools to help us maintain our awareness of the value of all life. These tools are part of an ethical and a ritual system that continually reminds us of our place in creation and provides us a vision of harmony to keep in our sights as we make conscious choices in every moment.

One of those choices today will be about what we eat. The Bible tells us to make that choice with full awareness. In rising above mere opportunistic eating, we become most fully human.

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

The Bible and Diet: Garden and Exile

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We know the minimum essentials of an early diet in the Land of Israel from a brief notice in the Mishnah, M. Ketubot 5:8. The excerpt refers to what husbands separated from their wives must provide them:  “He who maintains his wife by a third-party may not provide for her less than two qab of wheat or four qabs of barley (per week). Said R. Yose, ‘only R. Ishmael ruled that barley may be given to her, for he was near Edom.’ And one pays over to her a half-qab of pulse, a half-log of oil, and a qab of dried figs or a maneh of fig cake. And if he does not have it, he provides instead food of some other type.”

As Nathan MacDonald suggests in What Did the Ancient Israelites Eat?, the Israelite diet was relatively stable over a long time, so we can probably assume this diet was a minimum standard at an earlier time in Israelite history as well, the time represented in the Bible. We see that the minimum standard was for a grain-based vegan diet. Wine and meat, fish and dairy products, which we know Israelites did enjoy at times, are absent from the minimum standard, as are most fruits and vegetables.

We assume that women augmented their provision from other local sources and that in circumstances other than this specific situation described in the Mishnah, people had greater variety in their diets. At least the biblical text suggests that, with wine as another staple. Written and archaeological evidence indicate that the diet also included other products from plants, trees and animals. Deut. 8:8 mentions the Seven Species, wheat, barley, figs, grapes, olives, pomegranates and dates. In Exodus 3:8 and many other places, the Bible describes the Land of Israel as a land “flowing with milk and honey”.

Archaeology also tells us that legumes were an important part of the diet and that the Israelites enjoyed goat and sheep’s milk when it was available in the spring and summer and ate butter and cheese. Land was used in different ways in Israel according to climate and topography, but in some areas, faunal remains tells us there were sufficient cattle and sheep to provide .45 liters of milk and 44 gm. of meat per person per day. (MacDonald) Very likely much of the meat was traded at market for wine and oil, and Israelites reserved meat-eating for special occasions.

Israelites ate their food, including poultry, eggs, fish, fruits and vegetables, fresh and in season. Episodes of hunger, drought and famine were part of their lives, and the Bible tells us of this reality. Food that could be preserved, was, in order to provide for these times: grapes were preserved as wine and raisins; olives became oil. Israelites dried figs, beans and lentils, and they stored grains.

So that’s what the Bible tells us in concrete terms about the Israelite diet. As MacDonald points out, it may or may not accurately reflect what they ate, but archaeology and other tools fill in the picture a little more.

My exploration offers a different look at Israelite eating, a somewhat more philosophical approach presented in the text of the Bible. Our journey begins with the first chapters of Genesis.

The creation accounts of Genesis 1-3 provide us with an ideal vision, creation according to a plan with meaning and purpose. There are three “elements” in the cosmos of these stories, G-d, human beings and the rest of creation. The second creation account, the Garden of Eden, describes the relationship between these elements.

There is no violence, and it is a vegetarian world: Gn. 1:29, the first creation story: “And G-d said: ‘Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed–to you it shall be for food; and to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is a living soul, [I have given] every green herb for food.'” Every creature is vegan, even the animals!

In the Garden, everything is in harmony. G-d plants a Garden, humans “dress it and keep it”, a river waters it, and creation thrives, without fear and without bloodshed. In this second story as well, in Gn. 2:16, G-d provides a vegan diet: “And the Lord G-d commanded Adam, saying: ‘Of every tree of the Garden thou may eat freely eat…” There is but one restriction: “…but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eat thereof thou shalt surely die”.

When Adam and Eve do eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they are exiled from the Garden into life, preventing them from taking from the tree of life, eating and living forever. A flaming sword bars reentry to the Garden.

The human beings who exit the Garden are like G-d in having ethical consciousness. They are unlike G-d in that they do not live forever, nor does any other part of creation. The world of exile is very different from the world of the Garden. Not only is it a world that includes death, it is disharmonious, and violence prevails. The first story following exile is one of fratricide, and it involves an issue of animal flesh.

As disharmony and violence overwhelms this world in exile, beyond the Garden, G-d brings a flood and a new creation. Noah sacrifices animals as a sign of thanksgiving, and G-d in return promises to never again destroy the earth. And then…even as G-d issues a first commandment to this new creation, “be fruitful and multiply,” G-d decrees a new diet, which signifies the nature of this world in exile.

This diet is described in the Noah story in the new creation following the flood (Gn. 9:2-4): “And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, and upon all where with the ground teemeth, and upon all the fishes of the sea: into your hand are they delivered. Every moving thing that liveth shall be for food for you; as the green herb have I given you all. Only flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall you not eat.” The world in exile is one dominated by fear, disharmony and violence.

From this point, the biblical text presents us with a certain ambivalence toward meat-eating, a reality of this new world. First, as we see in the above quote, the new diet is immediately circumscribed. The blood is prohibited since the life is in the blood.

Most dramatic is the story in Exodus 16 and retold in harsher terms in Numbers 11. Ex. 16 tells us the “whole congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron in the wilderness; and the children of Israel said unto them: ‘Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh-pots…for Ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger’.”

The Lord tells Moses He will cause bread to rain from heaven for the people, who should go out to gather a day’s portion every day. On the sixth day, they should gather twice as much to provide enough for the seventh day, the Sabbath. In the evenings, “the quails came up” so the Israelites had meat, and in the mornings, as the dew dried, there was, on the “face of the wilderness a fine, scale-like thing, fine as the hoar-frost on the ground”. Moses describes this as the bread the Lord has given them to eat, manna. No matter how much or how little each gathered, each ended up with just sufficient for his needs. And they ate manna for forty years, until they came to the Land.

In Num. 11:7, manna is described as a vegetarian food, “like coriander seed”. The people gathered it, ground it, beat it and cooked it to make cakes of it, and it tasted like cake baked with oil. And yet they complained in Num. 11:10: “And Moses heard the people weeping, family by family, every man at the door of his tent; and the anger of the Lord was kindled greatly; and Moses was displeased”. Moses complains about being saddled with these people who weep for the meat they had in Egypt and disdain the manna, who trouble Moses with their weeping, saying, “Give us flesh, that we may eat”.

G-d tells Moses to bring 70 elders of the people to the tent of meeting, and G-d says (Num. 11:19-33): “‘Ye shall not eat one day, nor two days, nor five days, neither ten days, nor twenty days; but a whole month, until it come out at your nostrils, and it be loathsome unto you…’ And there went forth a wind from the Lord, and brought across quails from the sea, and let them fall by the camp…about two cubits (3 feet) above the face of the earth…he that gathered least gathered ten heaps…While the flesh was yet between their teeth, ere it was chewed, the anger of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord smote the people with a very great plague”.

Beyond the prohibition to not eat the blood, delivered immediately after G-d permits meat-eating in Gn. 9, there are additional prohibitions. Lev. 17:3-5 allows meat to the Israelites in the wilderness only in the context of sacrificial worship. Only after entry to the Land are people permitted to eat meat even if it’s not part of an offering (Deut. 12:20).

In Isaiah 55:1-2, in exalted poetry with so many phrases and images reminiscent of the creation stories, we read: “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come Ye for water, and he that hath no money, come Ye, buy and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Wherefore do Ye spend money for that which is not bread? And your gain for that which satisfies not? Hearten diligently unto Me, and eat Ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness.”

In the banquet on the holy mountain described in Isaiah 25:6-8, meat-eating is once again associated with a world in exile, a world ruled by death — and absence of death with redemption: “And in this mountain will the Lord of hosts make unto all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well-refined. And He will destroy in this mountain the face of the covering that is cast over all peoples, and the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death for ever; and the Lord G-d will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the reproach of His people will He take away from off all the earth; for the Lord has spoken it.”

At the banquet, as the people enjoy their fare, G-d eats death and effects a return to the Garden, a harmonious cosmos where G-d, human beings and nature live in harmony: “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together…” (Is. 11:6), a place where not only the potential for fulfilling our ethical mission exists but for eternal life.

Jewish commentaries and scholars pick up on the ambivalence toward meat-eating expressed in the Bible. Pesahim 49b states: “Only a scholar of Torah may eat meat, but one who is ignorant of Torah is forbidden to eat meat”. Nehama Leibowitz, a modern Torah scholar, says we have been given a “barely tolerated dispensation”. Rav Kook, a vegetarian, believes permission to eat meat was “a concealed reproach and a qualified command”.

The Bible presents an ideal world in the first chapters of Genesis, a world of potentialities, a world in which G-d, humans and creation live in harmony. Exile throws all of creation into disharmony, fear and violence as humanity struggles to fulfill its mission in a world of partial vision and alienation from G-d and from creation. One of the symbols of this exilic condition is that creatures kill other creatures for food.

Through ethical conduct and in ritual moments, humanity experiences temporary moments of harmony, peace and fulfillment, yet the facts and practices of daily living continue to enmesh us in shame and in blood guilt. Living requires taking life. One of the functions of religious cultures is to provide a framework for living with this fact of our existence.

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