Five years ago when I started my blog, I wrote:
“As we journey through our lives, we both eat and nourish, destroy and enrich. The great gift we have as human beings is that we can make conscious decisions about the balance of eating and nourishing, taking and giving, in our own lives. The challenge is to remain fully aware, making conscious choices on each step of our journey.”
Food interests me because it tastes good, it can be a source of vibrant health, and it is a creative activity. On the philosophical side, it interests me because it brings us face-to-face with the central paradox of life, in the words of Joseph Campbell, “life feeds on life.” For this reason, what we eat becomes the proving ground for finding a balance between taking and giving in our lives.
In the course of blogging, I have explored issues of life and death, how they play out in the “food chain,” and the basis for decisions we make about what to eat on a daily basis. Following an experience and conversation with my husband, which I reported in “Our Brain: All It’s Cracked Up To Be?”, I increasingly focused my attention on the relationship between humans and other life on the planet. I searched for a meaningful argument or rationale in support of an assumption that has shaped the world view of the majority of the globe’s citizens for thousands of years, that human life is superior to other life on the planet. Such a rationale would provide support for taking the lives of other living creatures either to eat or to sacrifice in our place to “pay” for our own wrongdoing.
Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens tells us the distinctive feature of humankind is the ability to create fictions and persuade others to believe them. This allows flexible cooperation in large groups, which in turn allows human beings to dominate over other life. But the fact of domination doesn’t provide the moral basis for which I searched, nor does Harari suggest that it should.
The Torah asserts the supreme value of human life, although in a nuanced way that simultaneously asserts the value of all life and suggests that without adherence to a code of behaviors, human beings are not in a superior position to other animals but are, like them, “prey.” Both humans and other animals are “basar,” flesh, and both humans and other animals are “nefesh,” that is, living beings, blessed with the life that G-d breathes into lifeless flesh (otherwise, a carcass). Only humans, though, are “b’tzelem Elohim,” in the image of G-d, a biblical concept I’m still working to understand better.
My own studies have not yet yielded satisfying objective evidence for statements of superiority. All are culturally shaped, anthropocentric statements of belief or, in Harari’s terms, fictions we have been persuaded to believe. Harari goes further, pointing out that there is no objective evidence underpinning any moral system — that all moral systems are, like our monetary system, fictions we create and persuade others to believe. Regardless of the foundation of an idea, though, onnce it becomes pervasive in a culture, it becomes an assumption, difficult to deconstruct. There are consequences in life that result from those assumptions, and sometimes it becomes a critical task to deconstruct those assumptions.
Charles Eisenstein deals with this kind of deconstruction, or paradigm shift, in The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, where Harari’s “fictions” becomes “stories.” He points out that we live in the story of Separation, only one story among many possibilities, and offers what he calls the story of Interbeing, a potentially radical paradigm shift that could make what seems miraculous in the world of Separation real and natural in the world of Interbeing. The justification or “truth”-basis of this story is inside each of us, our awareness of it a gift. It remains to us to choose the story that is true for us and live it with humility.
Choosing to live from within a paradigm that differs radically from the world in which we live is awesomely difficult, as Eisenstein points out. He says, “Belief is a social phenomenon. With rare exceptions . . . we cannot hold our beliefs without reinforcement from people around us. Beliefs that deviate substantially from the general social consensus are especially hard to maintain, requiring usually some kind of sanctuary such as a cult, in which the deviant belief receives constant affirmation, and interaction with the rest of society is limited. But the same might be said for various spiritual groups, intentional communities . . . They provide a kind of incubator for the fragile, nascent beliefs of the new story to develop. There they can grow a bed of roots to sustain them from the onslaughts of the inclement climate of belief outside.“
The Torah tells us this story, the story of *a paradigm shift in consciousness, revealed, I believe, in the first three chapters of Genesis, eventually setting a group, the Israelites, on a different course that requires incubation from the surrounding culture. And even with incubation, entering a new story is incredibly difficult and dangerous and, some might even say, unsuccessful in significant ways. Yet in one important respect, the Israelites’ effort to enter a new story succeeds: their new story gives birth to three religious civilizations, Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all deeply concerned with issues of life and death, the meaning and value of our time on earth, and conscious choice.
I believe, like both Harari and Eisenstein, that we have arrived at a time when our operating paradigms are severely challenged. Memes like “pro-life” or “pro-choice,” “democracy” or “socialism” or “capitalism” or “communism,” “Judaism,” “Christianity” or “Islam,” “liberalism” or “conservatism,” “Democrat,” “Progressive” or “Republican,” will not serve us in our time. These memes poorly represent the diversity of potential meanings and possibilities within each.
I remember years ago, someone to whom I was close demanded to know if I believe in G-d. I was hard pressed to respond to that question because that word, too, is a meme. I put a dash in the word to remind myself that it is completely inadequate to communicate anything meaningful about the reality behind it. Eisenstein quotes a beautiful phrase from Lao Tzu: “A name that can be named is not the true name.”
I think the Torah offers what Eisenstein calls the Interbeing Story, presented as vision in Gen 1-3, the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible, a world in which we recognize ourselves in “the other,” whoever the other is, and cherish the life in that other, whether fellow humans, other animals, trees, soil or water.
Harari reflects a similar consciousness when he describes animism: “When animism was the dominant belief system, human norms and values had to take into consideration the outlook and interests of a multitude of other beings, such as animals, plants, fairies and ghosts…Hunter-gatherers picked and pursued wild plants and animals, which could be seen as equal in status to Homo sapiens. The fact that man hunted sheep did not make sheep inferior to man, just as the fact that tigers hunted man did not make man inferior to tigers. Beings communicated with one another directly and negotiated the rules governing their shared habitat.” All shared the spiritual round table.
Something like animism is the story of Genesis, chapters 1-3, where beings communicate with one another directly, negotiating the rules governing their shared habitat.
Eisenstein puts it this way: “The silence, the stillness, the soil, the water, the body, the eyes, the voice, the song, birth, death, pain, loss. Observe one thing that unifies all the places I listed in which we can find truth: in all of them, what is really happening is that truth is finding us. It comes as a gift. That is what is right about both the Scientific Method and the religious teaching of an absolute truth outside human creation. Both embody humility. This same state of humility is where we can source the truth to anchor our stories.”
A Hasidic saying puts it this way: when every Jew celebrates Shabbat in all it details three times in a row, Messiah will come. A paradigm shift for some is a paradigm shift for all, and suddenly what seems miraculous or impossible will be natural, a gift beyond our ability to imagine in the world of Separation.
Yet even if we are successful (this time) and enter a story that binds us with each other, with all creation and with transcendence, challenges will remain. Imagine humanity begins to live out the story of Interbeing, and everything changes. What if we develop the technology to solve, for example, our underlying existential challenge, the fact that we die? Russian scientists already 3D printed a thyroid with living tissue. It’s not hard to imagine a time when we can replace each body part that fails, in essence, a time when eternal life is possible.
But even this achievement won’t relieve us from the central paradox of life. Can we procreate limitlessly if no one dies? If our technology has not yet arrived at the point that we can utilize the resources of infinity, how do we make decisions about who lives and who dies, who gives birth and to how many? Who decides and on what basis?
The dilemmas that always confronted human beings will still be present: how do we decide issues of life and death, the balance between eating and nourishing, taking and giving, enriching and destroying? How do we deal with the central paradox of life, embedded in the food cycle, that sustaining life requires taking life?
These questions of life and death and the place of Homo Sapiens in the wider context of being are as challenging today as they were centuries ago, and they will be as challenging tomorrow even if the questions are framed differently. Our answers cannot come from memes or be captured in single words. We cannot make the decisions we need to make as a society by placing one person’s set of beliefs over another’s. That is a feature of the world of Separation, and that world has driven us to the brink of self-destruction.
It also doesn’t mean we need to put aside our different beliefs or customs or moral codes, all the things that make us different. Outlawing burqas or other forms of religious dress is a superficial “remedy” and will prove an ineffective way to “defeat” the story of Separation. As Eisenstein points out, the idea of defeating another story comes from the world of Separation. Banning burqas or other markers of difference mobilizes against the very things that serve as portals to the story of Interbeing.
We need to go to a deeper place, a place where we embrace difference, recognize with humility the gifts each life, from a prince to a frog to a mushroom, brings to the spiritual round table, the truth each embodies, and negotiate ways to share our habitat while we enrich it. Only in that space can we make difficult decisions about life and death, taking and giving, meaning and value.
* * * * *
*NOTE: It is difficult to understand a vision of a more beautiful world that includes animal sacrifice or an injunction to kill everything that breathes in a conquered town (a command delivered by the prophet Samuel) without confronting the reality of the backdrop to these practices and how it threatened the Israelites’ nascent vision. The Torah story represents a next step in a paradigm shift from a world that accepts child sacrifice to a world that vehemently rejects it but allows animal sacrifice while yet retaining a vision of a better world.
The most intense encounter with the profound difference between the story that opens for the Israelites and the story that prevails in their surrounding culture — a story that lures many Israelites — resides in a detailed glimpse of Moloch worship:
Plutarch writes in De Superstitione 171: “… but with full knowledge and understanding they themselves offered up their own children, and those who had no children would buy little ones from poor people and cut their throats as if they were so many lambs or young birds; meanwhile the mother stood by without a tear or moan; but should she utter a single moan or let fall a single tear, she had to forfeit the money, and her child was sacrificed nevertheless; and the whole area before the statue was filled with a loud noise of flutes and drums that the cries of wailing should not reach the ears of the people.”
Rashi comments on Jeremiah 7:31: “Tophet is Moloch, which was made of brass; and they heated him from his lower parts; and his hands being stretched out, and made hot, they put the child between his hands, and it was burnt; when it vehemently cried out; but the priests beat a drum, that the father might not hear the voice of his son, and his heart might not be moved.”
John Milton in Paradise Lost writes:
“First MOLOCH, horrid King besmear’d with blood
Of human sacrifice, and parents tears,
Though, for the noyse of Drums and Timbrels loud,
Their children’s cries unheard that passed through fire
To his grim Idol. Him the AMMONITE
Worshipt in RABBA and her watry Plain,
In ARGOB and in BASAN, to the stream
Of utmost ARNON. Nor content with such
Audacious neighbourhood, the wisest heart
Of SOLOMON he led by fraud to build
His Temple right against the Temple of God
On that opprobrious Hill, and made his Grove
The pleasant Vally of HINNOM, TOPHET thence
And black GEHENNA call’d, the Type of Hell.”
(These examples were provided in the Wikipedia article on Moloch).
According to the biblical story, the Israelites received a gift, a story of what Eisenstein calls Interbeing. The Sabbath actualizes the story of Gen 1-3. On the Sabbath, not only Israelites but slaves and animals rest from labor. The Sabbath is a “palace in time” that offers an opportunity to experience Interbeing, a vision of the world gifted to the Israelites.