Category Archives: Thoughts

The Power of A Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Us-Themism”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding Our Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Balancing our evolutionary and biological realities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where do we fit?

I’m interested these days in the relationship between human beings and other animals, how we fit into the fabric of nature, how we managed to get from a mediocre position in the food chain to top spot, and what we have done with that position.

Today I was thinking about two traits that seem to me distinctively human and wondered if I could disprove that theory or if they are indeed defining traits: greed and wastefulness. I found this very interesting article on wolverines that suggests greed, at least, is not limited to human beings: “Wolverines Give Insight Into The Evolution of Greed.”

I can find nothing about wastefulness among other animals, although there’s plenty about the appalling 30-40% waste in the human world. I imagine this either means that no one has researched this particular issue — or that there’s nothing to research, that is, animals don’t typically waste. If anyone finds an article or a report on some research, I’d appreciate knowing about it. You can email me at leslie@vegetatingwithleslie.org or share to my Facebook page. 

On the theme of more desirable traits, Sierra Club featured this beautiful article in their March / April 2019 issue: “Does A Bear Think In The Woods?”

A side note: in the past five years, there have been more than 190,000 publications about various aspects of animal intelligence.

 

All the world is a narrow bridge…and the main thing is not to be afraid

Tuesday evening the wind picked up in the wetlands where I live. As it grew dark, I heard it whistling around our home, shaking the windows. The back door was frozen shut. A lot of things come to mind on nights like this, but before there was time for my imagination to go to work, the coyote who live out in those wetlands started their shrilly jubilant yelping and howling when they caught some poor creature for dinner.

The sound of the coyote always terrifies me. As a person with an imagination that works overtime on picturing catastrophe, I can’t get the image out of my head of my little 12 pound dog accidentally slipping out the door to the wetlands. He must also picture catastrophe because his head always pops up when the coyote cry, and often he will retreat to a safe and snuggly corner of our home.

I try to counter the terrible things that go through my head by picturing coyote pups waiting for their mom and dad to come home with food for them. They need to eat too, I tell myself. But I wish things were as the first three chapters of Genesis describe them. I wish all creatures were vegan and that we lived in safe and loving harmony with each other.

In these moments I also think of the Torah portion Shelach (Numbers 13:1-15:41). The Israelites are poised outside the Land of Israel. Spies go ahead and return with their report, some describing it as a land of milk and honey, others describing it as a terrifying home of giants, all in terms that make clear that the Israelites, like their fellow creatures on the planet, can as well be prey as predator:

“ . . . the evil report of the spies is framed in terms of food: “The land, through which we have passed to spy it out, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof…” (Num. 13:32). The people pick up that motif and view themselves as “animal food” for predators: “And wherefore doth the LORD bring us unto this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will be a prey…’” (Num. 14:3) Joshua and Caleb reverse that theme, turning it on the current inhabitants of the land, when they say, “…neither fear ye the people of the land; for they are bread for us…’

“Finally G-d picks up the theme, returning to the idea of the Israelites as animal food: “…your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness.” (Num. 14:29) … and “…your little ones, that ye said would be a prey, them will I bring in…” (Num. 14:31), and then, “But as for you, your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness” (Num. 14:32) and “…until your carcasses be consumed in the wilderness (Num. 14:33).”

This acute awareness, that one can be prey as easily as predator, probably shapes a different perspective on things. Certainly part of one’s worldview would be a constant and profound sense of vulnerability. That is an environment and a worldview that doesn’t so much inspire as demand faith. And that turns out to be the message of that portion as G-d exercises some tough love with the Israelites, denying those who falter the opportunity to enter the Land, telling them their worst fears are self-fulfilling: as prey, they will become carcasses.

Ironically entering the Land is a first step in a journey toward greater security and away from vulnerability, a first step in the Israelites’ separation from the wilderness where they are both predator and prey and toward civilization.

Today we are far down that path. Most of us have never worked on a farm much less lived in the wilderness. We are little connected to the sources of the food that sustains us. And it’s worth considering that as our sense of vulnerability decreases, as we are more alienated from our natural world and our food sources, faith is no longer a demand or requirement for forging ahead in a dangerous world but a choice. And because the easier choice is not to think about it too much — just as it’s easier not to think too much about life and death and our vulnerability in the economy of nature — we are perhaps less likely to experience the kind of profound faith described in the Torah.

Conversely, I know from my own experience of depression that engaging with one’s own survival, that is with food (planting it, growing it, harvesting it and cooking it), is a strong antidote to depression. Yet any full time independent farmer knows the fear that accompanies a season when the crop fails from too much or too little rain or pests destroy it or fires ravage the land. In the hunter-gatherer life that preceded the agricultural revolution, perhaps symbolized by the wilderness, life was less dependable, sudden fears in the night closer, and faith an imperative to moving forward.

So back to the coyote who live behind me. I do work on a farm, and I’m very much aware of the sources of my food — all of it. I’m aware of how much work is involved in it. But I am not dependent on the farm to support myself or my family, and my engagement in this work is physically taxing but still a luxury. That has a different effect on my worldview than if my life and the lives of my family members were dependent on it.

Maybe the coyote are my reminder that under the veneer of culture and technology, there are more basic and primitive realities for all of us. That we too are vulnerable to becoming prey as much as we are predators. But for an accident of birth and through no merit of my own, I could have been a coyote in that wetland behind me — or the meal that caused such terrifying jubilation Tuesday evening. These are realities that for a human being drive not only fear but faith and a profound sense of gratitude.

These are also realities to consider when I make decisions about what I eat. To enter life as a human being is an unearned gift, just as it was an unearned gift to enter the Land of Israel. Our gift of humanity requires faith, humility, gratitude — and compassion.

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

Torah Ecology: Re’eh 2018 (Deuteronomy.11.26-16.17)

This portion, Re’eh, includes what I believe is a pivotal statement with regard to animal sacrifice and the relationship between humans and other animals. It is a significant next step in the biblical Story of the Animals:

Deut. 12:15-16
15
רַק֩ בְּכָל־אַוַּ֨ת נַפְשְׁךָ֜ תִּזְבַּ֣ח ׀ וְאָכַלְתָּ֣ בָשָׂ֗ר כְּבִרְכַּ֨ת יְהוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָֽתַן־לְךָ֖ בְּכָל־שְׁעָרֶ֑יךָ הַטָּמֵ֤א וְהַטָּהוֹר֙ יֹאכְלֶ֔נּוּ כַּצְּבִ֖י וְכָאַיָּֽל
But whenever you desire, you may slaughter and eat meat in any of your settlements, according to the blessing that the LORD your God has granted you. The unclean and the clean alike may partake of it, as of the gazelle and the deer.

16
רַ֥ק הַדָּ֖ם לֹ֣א תֹאכֵ֑לוּ עַל־הָאָ֥רֶץ תִּשְׁפְּכֶ֖נּוּ כַּמָּֽיִם׃
But you must not partake of the blood; you shall pour it out on the ground like water.

This modification of instruction is repeated in the portion:

Deut. 12:20-24
20
כִּֽי־יַרְחִיב֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהֶ֥יךָ אֶֽת־גְּבֽוּלְךָ֮ כַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר דִּבֶּר־לָךְ֒ וְאָמַרְתָּ֙ אֹכְלָ֣ה בָשָׂ֔ר כִּֽי־תְאַוֶּ֥ה נַפְשְׁךָ֖ לֶאֱכֹ֣ל בָּשָׂ֑ר בְּכָל־אַוַּ֥ת נַפְשְׁךָ֖ תֹּאכַ֥ל בָּשָֽׂר׃
When the LORD enlarges your territory, as He has promised you, and you say, “I shall eat some meat,” for you have the urge to eat meat, you may eat meat whenever you wish.

21
כִּֽי־יִרְחַ֨ק מִמְּךָ֜ הַמָּק֗וֹם אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִבְחַ֜ר יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ֮ לָשׂ֣וּם שְׁמ֣וֹ שָׁם֒ וְזָבַחְתָּ֞ מִבְּקָרְךָ֣ וּמִצֹּֽאנְךָ֗ אֲשֶׁ֨ר נָתַ֤ן יְהוָה֙ לְךָ֔ כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר צִוִּיתִ֑ךָ וְאָֽכַלְתָּ֙ בִּשְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ בְּכֹ֖ל אַוַּ֥ת נַפְשֶֽׁךָ׃
If the place where the LORD has chosen to establish His name is too far from you, you may slaughter any of the cattle or sheep that the LORD gives you, as I have instructed you; and you may eat to your heart’s content in your settlements.

22
אַ֗ךְ כַּאֲשֶׁ֨ר יֵאָכֵ֤ל אֶֽת־הַצְּבִי֙ וְאֶת־הָ֣אַיָּ֔ל כֵּ֖ן תֹּאכְלֶ֑נּוּ הַטָּמֵא֙ וְהַטָּה֔וֹר יַחְדָּ֖ו יֹאכְלֶֽנּוּ׃
Eat it, however, as the gazelle and the deer are eaten: the unclean may eat it together with the clean.

23
רַ֣ק חֲזַ֗ק לְבִלְתִּי֙ אֲכֹ֣ל הַדָּ֔ם כִּ֥י הַדָּ֖ם ה֣וּא הַנָּ֑פֶשׁ וְלֹא־תֹאכַ֥ל הַנֶּ֖פֶשׁ עִם־הַבָּשָֽׂר׃
But make sure that you do not partake of the blood; for the blood is the life, and you must not consume the life with the flesh.

24
לֹ֖א תֹּאכְלֶ֑נּוּ עַל־הָאָ֥רֶץ תִּשְׁפְּכֶ֖נּוּ כַּמָּֽיִם׃
You must not partake of it; you must pour it out on the ground like water:

25
לֹ֖א תֹּאכְלֶ֑נּוּ לְמַ֨עַן יִיטַ֤ב לְךָ֙ וּלְבָנֶ֣יךָ אַחֲרֶ֔יךָ כִּֽי־תַעֲשֶׂ֥ה הַיָּשָׁ֖ר בְּעֵינֵ֥י יְהוָֽה׃
you must not partake of it, in order that it may go well with you and with your descendants to come, for you will be doing what is right in the sight of the LORD.

In the JPS Torah Commentary to Deuteronomy, commentator Jeffrey H. Tigay describes the content of these passages in this way: “The need to permit secular slaughter eliminated the sacral dimension of meat meals.” This desacralization accords with the general content in Deuteronomy, which in limiting “sacrificial worship to a single place would inevitably remove a sacral dimension from the life of most Israelites.”

Tigay notes that this trend in Deuteronomy has sometimes been termed “secularization,” but he suggests the book is in fact profoundly religious in “seeking unceasingly to teach love and reverence for G-d to every Israelite and to encourage rituals which have that effect. Deuteronomy’s aim is to spiritualize religion by freeing it from excessive dependence on sacrifice and priesthood.” (p. xvii)

These comments were antithetical to my own first thoughts from my contemporary perspective. Initially I intended to write about how the desacralization of meat-eating is another (and major) step in a journey toward thoughtless consumption of animals as food.  This commentary, however, suggests how it might represent not a de-evolution but an evolution in consciousness.

What Is Sacred?
Tigay’s “desacralization” with reference to these excerpts refers not to holiness but to purity, two different biblical taxa. G-d is both holy and pure. Human beings are capable of holiness, associated with ethical commandments. In their natural state, they are impure, subject as they are to death, birth, menstruation, seminal emissions and organic decay represented in leprosy. Impurity is, however, a temporary state which can be changed through purification rituals for the purpose of approaching G-d.

Accordingly, these passages allow Israelites to share and eat non-sacrificial meat in the company of those who are in a state of impurity (without specifying whether this might include non-Israelites). Similarly, the meat is not sacred since it did not pass through the required rituals associated with presentation on the altar in Jerusalem. The blood prohibition, incumbent upon both Israelites and non-Israelites, remains in effect.

Context
These verses occur following a summary of the introductory chapters of Deuteronomy, climaxing in a ceremony at Mounts Ebal and Gerizim where participants are instructed to choose the path of life over death. Deut. 12, the chapter that contains these verses, begins the core of Deuteronomy, which continues through chapter 26. Specifically, Deut. 12 focuses on the place of worship and details “three basic rules: Canaanite places of worship must be destroyed; Israel may perform sacrificial worship at only one place, chosen by G-d; and non-sacrificial slaughter is permitted to those living at a distance from the chosen place.” (JPS Commentary to Deuteronomy,p. 117).

Deut. 12 concludes with an explanation, of sorts, for the harsh destruction the Israelites bring to the inhabitants of the Land and their altars: the Canaanites who preceded them performed “for their gods every abhorrent act that the Lord detests; they even offer up their sons and daughters in fire to their gods.” This juxtaposition, the focus on food, in particular animal flesh, and the explanation that concludes the chapter, highlights the relationship between Moloch worship, which lured the Israelites, and biblical animal sacrifice. (See postscript note in my post, Eternal Life).

Paradigm shift
It is hard to imagine that I have read and re-read this text as many times as I have and missed the searing implications of the direct and sometimes not-so-direct references to Moloch worship and the extent to which that particular cultural interaction, exacerbated by the guilt of participation (according to the text), shaped Israelite religion.

For a long time I’ve tried to engage with the text at a deep enough level to understand the human motivation behind animal sacrifice. What could possibly make taking an innocent, terrified and probably bleating or otherwise crying animal, slaughtering it and pouring its blood on the altar a religiously or emotionally significant act for people? And it seems stumbling upon descriptions of Moloch worship among the Israelites might be the key for which I searched.

With Moloch worship in the background, animal sacrifice was a step forward in consciousness. This paradigm shift is the focus of Akedat Yitzhak, the Sacrifice of Isaac story in Genesis. Here in Deuteronomy, it leads to another paradigm shift, allowing desacralized meat eating for the Israelites as a way to reduce dependence on the sacrificial cult.

Moloch worship might put not only animal sacrifice in a somewhat more positive light but might also explain the intense and repeated exaltation of human life. There are clear statements that set human life above all other life. In addition to those, in the course of my posts, I theorized that “pure” animals, animals fit to consume, are animals that don’t kill humans for food. I wondered why animals were also sentenced to death in the Flood story and suspected they participated in the generalized violence on earth by killing humans. Legal restitution for animal lives is monetary — for human life, blood. The adamant stance on the sanctity of human life is a vehement rejection of a cultural norm, child sacrifice.

The Passages: A Comparison

The instruction in Deut. 12:15-16 that allows desacralized meat eating is repeated in extended form in Deut. 12:20-24. Both versions of the revised instruction, though, include the same three elements:

  • References to desire
  • The changed instruction to go ahead and satisfy the desire, not delay gratification in order to sacrifice
  • The retained instruction not to eat the blood

In the first (more terse) statement, Deut. 12:15 says, “whenever you desire…” Deut. 12:20 and 21 amplify the theme with “for you have the urge…” and “…to your heart’s content.” This license is uncharacteristic in a text that is otherwise absorbed with restraining human impulse and regulating human behavior. Also uncharacteristic in a text that vehemently separates Israelites from surrounding cultures that might undermine their national task are the statements about “clean” and “unclean” eating together without specifying that should be only Israelites. Deut. 20 may attempt a clarification with “in your settlements” but not necessarily. Who’s to say that only Israelites live in a settlement?

The overall effect of the repetition of references to immediate gratification and an environment of impurity is to suggest gluttony — but only to an extent, since blood is prohibited to the “clean” and the “unclean” alike, encouraging some restraint. As a Noachide law, this prohibition extends to the world at large. This juxtaposition of satisfying desire and refraining from eating the blood accords with an ambivalent attitude to meat consumption I have noted on other occasions:

  • When meat eating is first allowed in Gen. 9:2-5 it is immediately ringed with prohibitions (see my post on Noach).
  • When the Israelites cry for the “fleshpots” of Egypt in Numbers 11:19-20, G-d rains an absurd amount of quail on them following irritated, even sarcastic commentary about their gluttony: “You shall eat not one day, not two, not even five days or ten or twenty, but a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you.“

On the other hand, as is so often the case, perhaps allusions to gluttony are simply biblical realism, a recognition of human characteristics and the requirements of the current environment. Biblical law looks not toward the perfection of humanity but its improvement.

The instruction not to eat the blood, given once in the first set of verses, Deut. 12:16, is repeated and elaborated three times in the second set, Deut. 12:23, 24 and 25. The latter section provides reinforcement for the instruction, its basis (“…the blood is the life, and you must not consume the life with the flesh”) and connects it to the ongoing wellbeing of the people (“…in order that it may go well with you and with your descendants to come, for you will be doing what is right in the sight of the LORD”). This returns us to a more prominent theme of the biblical narrative, recognition of the sanctity of all life and the connection between action that recognizes that principle and continued life and wellbeing of the people.

Conclusion

Deuteronomy’s move to desacralize meat eating, thereby reducing dependence on the priestly cult in Jerusalem and the sacrificial ritual, could be viewed, then, as a step forward in consciousness with an accompanying recognition of the reality of the environment. The Israelites as sheep herders (and former semi-nomads) depended on animal flesh as part of their diet — and human beings can tend toward gluttony.

Deut. 12 offers a modification of the original instruction that required sacrificing a portion before eating meat. The new instruction supports the view of scripture that all life is “sacred,” that is, comes from G-d who breathes in the breath of life (nefesh), animating flesh (basar) but that human life is superior (b’tzelem Elokim, “in the image of G-d”). At the same time, it takes into account a current existential status (living in the Land sometimes at considerable distance from Jerusalem) and needing, sometimes even coveting, meat.

Additional evolutionary possibilities this paradigm shift suggests is that the Israelites will not be tempted to view animals as divine beings but as creatures with the breath of life like themselves (ref. Golden Calf). And without the possibility of running to an altar to sacrifice an animal in their place for sin, they may begin to build a larger sense of responsibility within themselves.

If the Torah represents a step forward in consciousness in its vehement assertion of the superiority of human life in a context where child sacrifice is the norm . . . and Deuteronomy represents another step forward in consciousness as it attempts to wean the Israelites from a dependence on a sacrificial cult and the idea that human beings can transfer their sins to another living being who pays in their place, is it not possible we are required to continue our evolution of consciousness in our own changed circumstances?

Most of us have options other than killing animals that will allow us to live healthy lives — and our wanton use of animals, our commoditization of them, has had negative effects on our own health and a devastating impact on the environment we share with animals. As the Israelites were urged toward a deeper consciousness of their own responsibility in creation, perhaps we are as well.

Torah invites us to not only constantly reimagine it but to reimagine it in this specific case: as Torah shows within itself an evolution of consciousness with regard to the relationship between the Israelites and animals in a changed situation, so we are required to do the same in our contemporary environment.

The Meaning of Life

My grandson loaned me his copy of Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson. I’m struggling to understand it — not because the words don’t make any sense or because of complicated calculations but because of the vastness of time and space and possibility it describes.

In fact, the book is simply and beautifully written, and I understand the words as I’m reading them . . . I just can’t grasp the immensity. It’s the same incomprehension I had as a five-year-old kid when my Dad and I talked about infinity. I insisted space had to have an edge or an end, and my Dad asked me what would come after that? Or what number comes after the highest number in the world? What came before the universe?

And yet, this moves me: the universe had a beginning. We are made of the same substance as it: “Every one of our body’s atoms is traceable to the Big Bang and to the thermonuclear furnaces within high-mass stars that exploded more than five billion years ago…stardust brought to life…” We are part of everything, and everything is part of us. It is so awesome and immense that it literally brings tears to my eyes.

It is miraculous that we are here, a fortuitous series of events, a “Goldilocks moment,” with not too much and not too little. One could regard it all as accidental . . . Yet there are universal physical laws. Ponder that for a moment. In the context of infinity, isn’t one possibility that there could have been no universal laws? And conversely that the Goldilocks moment was not completely serendipitous?

The thought occurs to me that in the context of such incomprehensible vastness and awesomeness, it is as crazy to say there is no G-d as some think it is to say there is. Are we an accidental occurrence, an infinitely small speck of chemical dust in time and space so vast it’s impossible to comprehend? Is our joy and suffering utterly meaningless? Or was there a reason for the series of events and reactions that brought us into being?

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Speak if you have understanding. Do you know who fixed its dimensions Or who measured it with a line? Onto what were its bases sunk? Who set its cornerstone? When the morning stars sang together And all the divine beings shouted for joy? Who closed the sea behind doors When it gushed forth out of the womb, When I clothed it in clouds, Swaddled it in dense clouds, When I made breakers My limit for it, And set up its bar and doors, And said, “You may come so far and no farther; Here your surging waves will stop”? Have you ever commanded the day to break, Assigned the dawn its place . . . “ (Job 38:4-12)

As I read this little book about astrophysics and contemplate these things, it is impossible not to be humbled. It is impossible not to appreciate the contemplations of our ancestors on the planet, those who produced great bodies of spiritual teachings. These teachings are stories told to remind us of the miraculousness of our being, to tell us life has meaning. It is an audacious claim. This is the story I choose to live within during the infinitely tiny part of a second I have in incomprehensible vastness.

“This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live…” (Deut. 30:19)

Eternal Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do justice, love goodness and walk humbly…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat: Stop. Drop the Map and Look Around.

I’m reading a wonderful book recommended by a friend for soul restoration in these times, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible by Charles Eisenstein. After I picked up the book, I realized he is also the author of Sacred Economics, which another friend mentioned to me some time back and which I hope to read soon as well.

In a chapter called “Sacred Activism,” Eisenstein writes, “At some point, we are just going to have to stop. Just stop, without any idea of what to do. As I described with the examples of disarmament and permaculture, we are lost in a hellscape carrying a map that leads us in circles, with never a way out. To exit it, we are going to have to drop the map and look around.”

The comment immediately brought to mind Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, which I used to enjoy weekly in a very traditional way when I lived in West Rogers Park. Every week, for 24-26 extraordinary and beautiful hours, I stopped, dropped the map and looked around.

Once when I had some non-Jewish friends to dinner, one of them said to me, this is so amazing! I wish I could do this myself — I just can’t imagine how I would carve out the time. To which I responded, you don’t need to carve out the time. Just do it. Just stop. And you will quickly discover that the space in time becomes so precious to you that everything else will fall into place around it. Your whole world will look and feel different.

The verses in the Torah that establish the concept of Shabbat are these, Genesis 2:1-3:

וַיְכֻלּ֛וּ הַשָּׁמַ֥יִם וְהָאָ֖רֶץ וְכָל־צְבָאָֽם׃

The heaven and the earth were finished, and all their array.

וַיְכַ֤ל אֱלֹהִים֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י מְלַאכְתּ֖וֹ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֑ה וַיִּשְׁבֹּת֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י מִכָּל־מְלַאכְתּ֖וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשָֽׂה׃

On the seventh day G-d finished the work that He had been doing, and He ceased on the seventh day from all the work that He had done.

וַיְבָ֤רֶךְ אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־י֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י וַיְקַדֵּ֖שׁ אֹת֑וֹ כִּ֣י ב֤וֹ שָׁבַת֙ מִכָּל־מְלַאכְתּ֔וֹ אֲשֶׁר־בָּרָ֥א אֱלֹהִ֖ים לַעֲשֽׂוֹת׃

And G-d blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that He had done.

G-d’s action is mirrored in the fourth “commandment,” Exodus 20:8-11, establishing the observance:

זָכ֛וֹר֩ אֶת־י֥֨וֹם הַשַּׁבָּ֖֜ת לְקַדְּשֽׁ֗וֹ

Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy.

שֵׁ֤֣שֶׁת יָמִ֣ים֙ תַּֽעֲבֹ֔ד֮ וְעָשִׂ֖֣יתָ כָּל־מְלַאכְתֶּֽךָ֒

Six days you shall labor and do all your work,

וְי֙וֹם֙ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔֜י שַׁבָּ֖֣ת ׀ לַיהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑֗יךָ לֹֽ֣א־תַעֲשֶׂ֣֨ה כָל־מְלָאכָ֡֜ה אַתָּ֣ה ׀ וּבִנְךָֽ֣־וּ֠בִתֶּ֗ךָ עַבְדְּךָ֤֨ וַאֲמָֽתְךָ֜֙ וּבְהֶמְתֶּ֔֗ךָ וְגֵרְךָ֖֙ אֲשֶׁ֥֣ר בִּשְׁעָרֶֽ֔יךָ

but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God: you shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements.

כִּ֣י שֵֽׁשֶׁת־יָמִים֩ עָשָׂ֨ה יְהוָ֜ה אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם וְאֶת־הָאָ֗רֶץ אֶת־הַיָּם֙ וְאֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁר־בָּ֔ם וַיָּ֖נַח בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֑י עַל־כֵּ֗ן בֵּרַ֧ךְ יְהוָ֛ה אֶת־י֥וֹם הַשַּׁבָּ֖ת וַֽיְקַדְּשֵֽׁהוּ

For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it.

The word “Sabbath,” Shabbat in Hebrew, is the same as the word “ceased,” shavat, italicized (bold in Hebrew) above. Shabbat, the Sabbath, is the only ritual action instituted in the 10 “Commandments.” The primary ritual activity is enshrined in the name of the day: Shabbat/shavat. Cease. Stop. Drop the map and look around.

This essential and eternal wisdom reminds me of another biblical verse from Ecclesiastes 1:9:

וְאֵ֥ין כָּל־חָדָ֖שׁ תַּ֥חַת הַשָּֽׁמֶשׁ׃

There is nothing new beneath the sun!

And that brings me again, back to Eisenstein and The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible: “A Chinese saying describes it well: ‘As far away as the horizon, and right in front of your face.’ You can run toward it forever, run faster and faster, and never get any closer. Only when you stop do you realize you are already there.’ That is exactly our collective situation right now. All of the solutions to the global crisis are sitting right in front of us, but they are invisible to our collective seeing, existing, as it were, in a different universe.”

We have known the solution to our human predicament for thousands of years. It is before us and in us, expressed in different ways in every religion and philosophy the world has known. Stop. Allow ourselves a space to fill up with beauty and a sense of gratitude. Do our part to be certain all human beings and other living creatures in our vicinity can do the same.

The rabbis teach that if every Jew observed the Sabbath in all its details three times in a row, the Messiah would come. This means, the world would be radically transformed. I believe that with all my heart. It seems to me that Eisenstein does as well.

Ethics in a Machine

I’ve been taking another religion class online through Harvard recently (an excellent — and free — program, btw). In addition to an NPR segment I heard the other day, this class caused me to think more about the abortion issue.

I wondered how abortion legislation had evolved, and I did a little reading on its history. I found it wasn’t really that much of an issue until the 19th century, and even then, the tendency was toward little or no restriction until the fetus moved in the womb. As more regulation came into place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, England’s regulations were generally more permissive than U.S. regulations, about which one source reports:

“Abortion was common in most of colonial America, but it was kept secret because of strict laws against unmarried sexual activity.

“Laws specifically against abortion became widespread in America in the second half of the 1800s, and by 1900 abortion was illegal everywhere in the USA, except in order to save the life of the mother.

“Some writers have suggested that the pressure to ban abortion was not entirely ethical or religious, but was partially motivated by the medical profession as a way of attacking the non-medical practitioners who carried out most abortions.”

I was listening to another show this morning on NPR about AI, and the speaker commented that although human beings like to think they are extremely ethical, in reality, their ethics are superficial and very inconsistent. He explained that ethics can be programmed, and that this kind of programming (for machines) will ultimately prove deeper and more reliable for ethical decision-making and will inspire us (human beings) to become more ethical.

The thought occurred to me that I, personally, would like to see this eventuality — and an agreement within and among governments to abide by final decisions on ethical topics presented to the machine. Get the politics out of it.

I’d like to see us submit this abortion issue in the U.S., which has become so fraught and devoid of common sense, ethics or intelligence, to such a machine with an agreement to abide by its recommendations.

The machine could account, much better than any human, for all extraneous but relevant facts, for different religious and philosophical perspectives, for otherwise unanticipated results from a particular decision and for the various genuine ethical dilemmas at the heart of the discussion. And after accounting for everything, could make the best decisions unburdened by considerations of an upcoming election.

Those religions, like Judaism, that have legal traditions as part of them served this function in the past. One way I understand the separation between rabbinic Judaism and post-Enlightenment human beings is that the first submits to the authority of the tradition and the latter exalts the authority of the individual.

In my mind, “the tradition,” is not merely a consensus among scholars laterally but vertically through history. As such, it is a vast store of information and precedents which it can bring to bear on a particular contemporary situation. It is a filter (albeit through a particular cultural/religious lens) that can render a decision without personal concerns like a concern for reelection.

I think the future holds amazing possibilities if we use them to make us better, more ethical human beings.