Category Archives: Thoughts

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.

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.

I focus on food because…

What we eat shapes ethical consciousness. It is a key to social and environmental justice and to restoring harmony in our relationships with our world and with G-d. It has the power to dull our senses or stir our sense of joy and gratitude. What we eat contributes to vibrant spiritual and physical health or burdens us with illness and an unnamed heaviness and dread. I focus on food because it’s something I can do. With every mouthful, we have an opportunity to choose life for ourselves and for all sentient beings.

“…choose life, that you may live, you and your children…” (וּבָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים–לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה, אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶךָ).  Deut 30:19

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

Our Not-So-Intimate Connection To The Earth

My grandfather in his back “yard” in front of the chicken house. He was also a community college founder and president.

The biggest change the Industrial Revolution brought was opening the flood gates to a disconnect between human beings and the rest of creation.

We approach a time when we will experience the devastation that results from that disastrous disconnect, when we will experience what happens when our attitude toward creation is one of colonization instead of interdependence.

I believe the primary element in the education of every child in school today must be learning of our intimate connection to the land, other life on the planet and the food that sustains us.

Until we reestablish that connection, solutions to the many problems that face us will remain elusive. Reestablishing that connection for every child, no child left behind, can restructure our moral perspective as a society from the ground up. Solutions will begin to emerge on that restored foundation.

I’ve thought a lot about my own political engagement or comparative lack of it. I always come back to the same thing. I feel overwhelmed by the flood engulfing us. For me, slowing down that flood means engaging with its cause.

I believe its cause is the failure, on a massive scale, of our ethical foundation. When money and power drive our decision-making process rather than working cooperatively and respectfully with each other, our fellow creatures and the planet, any solutions are patches.

Slowing down the flood requires me to do what I can to deepen and enrich my connection to our planet, our fellow creatures and our food and where I can, help others to do the same.

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.

Thoughts On Failed Societies And Hope

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A great calm settled itself on me this week after weeks of feeling completely overwhelmed by events, frantically trying to figure out what I can do to stop the flood, what I can do to stop the world from dissolving around me. What brought me this calm feeling is my weekly Torah study as I realized we have been here before.

I read the Torah as an extraordinary, powerful and poetic account of human experience in the real world, human experience within creation that recognizes a connection to the transcendent dimension beyond it. It is a statement of our interdependence — on each other, with the rest of creation and with transcendence. It describes how the relationships between these domains should work, must work for our own survival.

The Torah teaches, through its “ordinances,” the attitude of humility we should maintain in relation to transcendence, the attitude of care and compassion toward the rest of creation, and the requirement not only for care and compassion in relation to our fellow human beings but for justice.

Torah also relates the consequences of failing to maintain correct relationships, putting forward the case that all is interdependent. Failure in one realm inevitably brings catastrophe in others. Rules or guides for social relationships and a correct relationship with nature are as immutable as rules that guide our relationship with transcendence, and the consequence of repeated and widespread choices to ignore the guides in any dimension causes a roll back of creation, a reversal of the story in the first three chapters of Genesis.

As I read these powerful words each week, I find that they speak to me of my life experience in these times. They speak to me about what happens when a society fails to maintain correct relationships (Torah Ecology: Va-era/Bo). They speak to me about trying it again within a fourth, perhaps more intimate, domain, “neighbors,” about how relationships should work between these neighbors, between all human beings, the rest of creation and transcendence (Torah Ecology: Beshallach and Torah Ecology: Mishpatim).  And they speak to me about what happens when a society fails to live in right relationships. They speak to me about an economy of consequences (in a section of Vayera, Gn 18:16-33), where the righteous actions of 10 could have saved a corrupt civilization.

In Mishpatim, Moses brings down from the mountain a series of regulations that governs relationships within the community of Israelites.  While we don’t read the end of the story in this portion, we know it: the society will fail, as any human institution does that fails to recognize the freedom not only of human beings but of our fellow creatures and all of creation in a relationship with transcendence. The prophetic reading for Mishpatim, the Haftarah, associated with this Torah portion tells us of that failure:

“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 judgment Jeremiah pronounces is inevitable, irrevocable: “So the Lord said to me, “Do not pray for the welfare of this people. When they fast, I am not going to listen to their cry; and when they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I am not going to accept them. Rather I am going to make an end of them by the sword, famine and pestilence” (Jer 14:11,12).

The prophet Jeremiah lived through the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 576 b.c.e. His career, lasting more than 40 years, spanned the reigns of five kings: Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoaichin, and Zedekiah. Jeremiah’s opposition was unrelenting, and he was even imprisoned at one point — yet he persisted in his message.

Jeremiah’s prophecy proclaimed the coming destruction and the reasons for it.  When the people’s relationship with their neighbors is wrong, out of balance, when they deny fundamental freedom and justice to their neighbors, their relationships with all other realms are disrupted. Failure in one realm inevitably brings catastrophe in all.

The nation as a whole, not in part, was declared guilty of:

  • Love of other gods
  • No love for the truth
  • False prophets
  • Kings and princes who do not seek justice
  • Adultery, theft, and murder among the people
  • Exploitation of the poor

The nation brought inevitable consequences upon itself, and these consequences are described in cosmically cataclysmic terms, a roll back of creation, like the destruction that came to the Egyptians in the Ten Plagues, a reversal of the creation stories in Gn 1-3:

“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).

We live in times like Jeremiah’s. The crimes he lays at the feet of his nation are in our headlines every day.  They form the slogans on banners and in political campaigns. Like the ancient Judahites and the Egyptians before them, we live in a failing society. I contemplate these specifics of our own imbalanced relationships:

  • We disdain religions, science, expertise of any kind, any perspective not our own.
  • We reject truth claims and accept fake news.
  • We follow people who claim they will save us.
  • Our leaders do not have as their primary goal seeking justice.
  • Serious crimes go unpunished, crimes against humanity and crimes against creation, while many are falsely imprisoned (Approximately 12–13% of the American population is African-American, but they make up 35% of jail inmates, and 37% of prison inmates of the 2.2 million male inmates as of 2014 (U.S. Department of Justice, 2014).
  • We exploit the poor and disadvantaged. The “richest 1 percent in the United States now own more additional income than the bottom 90 percent”.[6] The gap between the top 10% and the middle class is over 1,000%; that increases another 1,000% for the top 1%.

Further, Americans constitute 5% of the world’s population but consume 24% of the world’s energy. Worldwide we kill to eat more than 150 billion animals every year and 90 billion marine animals. Of those, the average number of animals killed for food per year per American is 280, while the average number for each human being on earth is about 21. Even as we guzzle the earth’s resources, we waste 40% of our food and create who knows how much material waste? Walking distance from me, a new bank building was razed to the ground to make way for newer construction.

We not only continue to guzzle but anticipate sucking even more life from the planet without cessation as the president signs resolutions that trample on the rights of people, allow pollution of our water and air and decimation of our fellow creatures, domestic and wild. We see our leaders, with an absence of humility, wield narrow religiously motivated regulations like weapons instead of encouraging discussion, understanding and respect for the values of others and of their religious and secular traditions and commitments.

We watch as the government hides what we are doing in order to relieve citizens of their moral complicity, which might otherwise cause them to speak out. Legally entering refugees are quickly sequestered in hidden rooms at the airport for deportation, and those who came over the southern border, some here for many years, some with permission, are rounded up at night. EPA and animal welfare records disappear from the internet. Daily our government erases our modern Bible, our record of the ways in which human activity has devastated creation. The process will hamper future efforts to hold back the flood waters.

When I watch a president carelessly guzzle hamburgers made from the flesh of farmed animals, killed out of sight to separate us from the moral responsibility of taking life; when I see his trophy-hunter sons proudly displaying a beautiful but lifeless animal they killed and offering trophy-hunting opps through the White House; when I see that our society has coughed up a Steve Bannon or a Stephen Miller to positions of prominence in our nation; when I see a president more intent on bragging about his election victory than on honoring the men and women who serve us every day; when I watch the gates close to desperate people seeking compassion and safety; when I hear of mounting attacks on minorities and disadvantaged; when I watch unrelenting attacks on truth and fact day after day; when I see policies that deprive citizens of their basic rights and continue the trend of sending money to the top 1%; when I see us utterly neglecting the less advantaged as we slash programs for them, I feel as though a flood is rushing in upon us. And it is.

This flood is the inevitable consequence of what our society has become. Whether or not we believe in a supernatural deity, it is an inevitable consequence. We are not at the end of those consequences yet.

Our system of justice will see further perversion. Human rights will see further erosion. The innocents and those without the resources to resist will suffer more. We will devastate the creation that surrounds us even further, oblivious to the life that is in it while proudly marching with pro-life banners. Our neighborhood, our nation, is failing. We are profoundly out of balance.

So I feel this deluge, I feel its inevitability, and I suffered from my unspoken awareness. Until I was able to fully identify my profound sense of inevitability and name it, I rushed about trying to plug holes in the great dam, engaging in frantic activity that would never stop what was coming.

We are, indeed, in very literal ways, experiencing a rupture in the fabric of creation, a roll back. And here’s the unlikely idea that brought me peace this week: In a strange way, it is reassuring to know it has happened before, others have experienced this cosmic cataclysm and preserved something of value.

In addition to naming this cataclysm I was reminded that Jeremiah’s message has another aspect to it. He brings not only the message of the inevitability of consequences but the inevitability of restoration, not a restoration of what was but of what might yet be: “See, I have appointed you this day over the nations and over the kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jer 1:10). It was futile for that small nation to fight the armies of Babylon, but even as the walls of Jerusalem fell, its inhabitants could plant trees and build. They could preserve the great principles that should have guided their society. They could get their society ready for a better day that would come.

Although we live in times that pronounce a judgment on us, times when pre-creation darkness descends on us, the inevitable consequence of our failure as a society, we also have an opportunity to build and plant. We have an opportunity to preserve something that will guide us in a restart. When we restart, things may not look the same as they do today — but they shouldn’t.

If our nation produces and chooses leaders who value successful competition above all else; if we moment-by-moment absolve ourselves from the moral responsibility we have for life on the planet, whether our fellow human beings in Syria, our “neighbors” in minority communities in the U.S., or farmed animals bred as commodities to be killed after short lives of abuse; if we fail to protect wildlife, showing compassion and respect for all our fellow creatures on the planet; if we indulge our impulses and greed; waste our precious resources; deny facts or the possibility of truth; or arrogantly insist on our ideologies whether left or right, religious or secular, we will fail. We are failing.

So what to preserve? What to plant and build? When I read Torah, its words speak to me of life in these times, of preserving life in these times, of what we must hold onto going forward. These powerful narratives tell me what I need to do as the destructive forces reach the walls of the city:

  • They tell me that the values at the base of our society are wrong. They may once have been reasonable, even inspiring ideas, but they are now completely corrupt, a progressive process that culminates in our time. Values which discount everything but individual self-interest, values that put us completely out of balance with every thing outside ourselves, cause a roll back of creation. Within our lifetimes, without a course adjustment, we may see that happen literally.
  • They tell me our task is so much greater than voting in a different government. We must, rather, replace the values that drive our country today with different, sustainable values, values of interdependence, cooperation, compassion and justice.
  • They remind me to be humble in the face of transcendence, humble in the face of what others might know that I don’t.
  • They tell me to love truth, reject ideologies that obscure truth, and resist following leaders who say they will save us.
  • They tell me about an economy of consequences. If Americans on average eat 280 animals per year, some of us must eat none, and I see the number of those doing just that growing. If Americans usually participate in a food supply mechanism that supports waste and injustice, I need to do my best to support ways of doing food that create a different narrative. I can support my local food coop and work in the fields at my CSA, planting and harvesting, supporting local farmers and putting my body into the work of a different way of doing food.
  • They tell me that all change begins at the local level. G-d created…then brought a flood to destroy it all and start over. In the new creation, G-d focused on a local group. That local group, the “neighbors” of the 10 Words or Commandments, Israelite society, also failed. Apparently G-d thought that was still a good plan, though, because the ongoing story tells us that G-d was ready to try again with that local group. We may be limited in what we can achieve nationally right now, but we can do a lot in our neighborhood.

We need wisdom from every source to address this transformation of our society. I have unique insights to share based on my life experience as does my Muslim neighbor as does a secular humanist or political activist or individual experiencing life in the coal belt. Subsistence farmers bring as much wisdom and experience to providing food as does Big Ag. Someone who simply sits and watches the sun rise and set each day has unique wisdom. We need it all, every bit of wisdom and expertise from every person on this earth, to not only pass through these times but to discover the seeds that will let us plant, the stones that will let us build.

We can and must build a society that inspires in its citizens a capacity for humility and radical amazement in the face of the wisdom throughout creation, a society that teaches its citizens how to live in harmony with their fellow human beings, fellow creatures and the natural world, a society that teaches that each citizen can make a unique contribution to building a meaningful life for us all on this planet and that includes each citizen in that project.

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.

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