Category Archives: Thoughts

Do justice, love goodness and walk humbly with your G-d

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 is that we do it with humility, gratitude and compassion.

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.

Animals in the Bible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Potential payback and a conundrum

I watched a video this morning that amplified my growing understanding of how much that we do is shaped by our evolutionary history. That, in turn, is shaped by the drive to survive: http://www.ynharari.com/role-scientists-debate-animal-welfare/

Evolution is a topic that first interested me tangentially, in relation to food choices. The more I read, though, the more questions it answers…and raises.

This morning I heard a discussion about AI (Artificial Intelligence), the pros…and the concerns raised by some, including Stephen Hawkings, that these machines may become more intelligent than we are and behave in destructive ways or ways we don’t choose for them to behave. Could they ultimately destroy us?

This is not a fantasy concern. A scientist who supports research in AI points out that human beings succeeded as they did because they are smart. While I think this point is debatable — and in fact Yuval Noah Harari, the author of the video I link to here, suggests something different that makes more sense to me: humans beings survived and prevailed over all other animals because of their ability to imagine and persuade others to buy into a fiction. This ability allowed them to organize and cooperate in large groups, larger than any other species.

But back to the concerns. In this context, I wonder about the power of evolution and the desire to survive that drives it — and how that desire shapes “intelligence.” I wonder if a machine can ever show the same kind of intelligence as a human without having implanted in it that same drive to survive? Without that, a machine’s intelligence will evolve very differently.

At least two possibilities suggest themselves to me. And I’m sure there are more. Without the drive to survive, machines can’t be particularly intelligent. With it, they could well decide it is in their interest to destroy us. Isn’t that what we have done to other species and even other human beings? Destroyed them because of a perceived benefit to our survival?

Seems to me we face both potential payback and a conundrum.

A new practice for Yom Kippur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vegetating on snakes, black holes and food

In “A Starting Thought” for this blog, I said:

“This thought occurs to me about meals: as we gather raw ingredients, prepare food and eat, we embrace the central moral paradox of human existence, that it requires taking life to sustain life.  How we respond to that paradox defines us as human beings.

“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.”

Joseph Campbell, in his interview with Bill Moyer, “The Power of Myth,” said about the snake of myth: “…the serpent represents the primary function of life, mainly eating. Life consists in eating other creatures. You don’t think about that very much when you make a nice-looking meal. But what you’re doing is eating something that was recently alive. And when you look at the beauty of nature, and you see the birds picking around — they’re eating things. You see the cows grazing, they’re eating things. The serpent is a traveling alimentary canal, that’s about all it is. And it gives you that primary sense of shock, of life in its most primal quality. There is no arguing with that animal at all. Life lives by killing and eating itself, casting off death and being reborn, like the moon. This is one of the mysteries that these symbolic, paradoxical forms try to represent.”

And who can forget the plant in The Little Shop of Horrors? “Feed Me Seymour…

This morning, I was reminded how this paradox goes way beyond the tiny world in which we find ourselves, that the paradox of eating points to the core of the formation of our universe, of many universes. Eating is the foundation of being.

In this article from Science: How Stuff Works, I learned there are feeding frenzies at the foundation of universe creation in those universes where black holes exist, ravenousness, satiation and picky eaters:

“Some galaxies contain supermassive black holes that are voracious eaters, consuming gas, dust and anything else that strays too close, including light. In their feeding frenzy, these behemoths generate a lot of energy in the cores of their host galaxies, dazzling the cosmos with powerful radiation…

“…Although they’re often viewed as insatiable devourers of all matter, even the supermassive black holes have their limits. “There’s a maximum rate at which a black hole can feed – if you try and stuff more material than the maximum, the black hole basically rejects it; it’s a picky eater…”

Now THAT is food for thought.

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

Two Models to Feed the World: IFS & Torah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sapiens means “wise,” but are we?

This morning, as so often happens, I was alerted by @JewishVeg, to an excellent book by Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli historian and a tenured professor in the Department of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  The book is Sapiens:  A Brief History of Humankind, companion volume to his more recent Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Because I’m preparing to teach a class and suspected it might provide some good background material, I downloaded a summary of Sapiens to read this morning.

This is a book I recommend for anyone interested in the development of humanity and in particular, our relationship with our planet and other life on it. This relationship is my focus in my own study project as I work my way through the Torah this year and probably for a number of years to come as I begin to add in interpretive traditions.

The statement that first drew my eye was in the image with the @JewishVeg post (please visit the JewishVeg website at jewishveg.org for lots of great information and resources:

In reading the summary version of the book this morning, I discovered other thoughts and ideas that I’m excited to explore further with Prof. Harari, among them:

  • His thought that wheat domesticated humans and not vice versa, reminiscent of Michael Pollan’s idea about apples in his book In Defense of Food.
  • His statement that religion is a fundamental feature in the development of humanity and that it unifies, not the reverse. He says that the ability to imagine a reality is what creates and binds social groups. This corresponds to my own thought that everything is a construct including language itself, and our existential reality is that to become fully human, we must choose what will shape our perception  or risk being shaped willy nilly without our participation.
  • His statements about capitalism, based on the idea that the future will be better than today, and that capitalism is a “religion,” positing that economic growth is essential because freedom, justice and happiness need growth in the economy. As I challenge assumptions and constructs in other areas of my life, I’m inspired to challenge this one.

Most of all, I was drawn back to the quote @JewishVeg highlighted, and I went to read more. These two articles focused on Prof. Harari’s idea that human beings are catastrophically destructive to life on the planet, utterly contrary to what the Torah prescribes for us:

http://www.ynharari.com/topic/ecology/

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/sep/25/industrial-farming-one-worst-crimes-history-ethical-question

If time is short, read the summary, but consider the important information and perspectives Prof. Harari brings to the decisions you make every day.

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

Modesty

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

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

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

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

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