Workshop in Lexington: “Reading the Bible Mystically”: Dr. Laurence H. Kant: Flood and Noah Narrative: Sunday, December 13, 2-5 pm

Reading the Bible Mystically continues on Sunday, December 13, 2-5 p.m., at 131 Jesselin Drive. Everyone is welcome, whether or not you were able to attend prior sessions. This time we will discuss developments in human history following the story of Cain and Abel (including the Nephilim/giants in Gen 6) and continuing through the flood narrative and the Noah saga: Gen 5-9. See more details below.
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READING THE BIBLE MYSTICALLY: Fall Series
Dr. Laurence H. Kant, Historian of Religion (Ph.D., Yale University, 1993)
December 13, Sunday, 2-5 pm
Genesis 5-9: Flood and Noah Narrative: Part 1
Location: 131 Jesselin Drive, Lexington, KY  40503

Everyone comes to the Bible with different perspectives. Lay people appeal to tradition, practice, belief, social justice, evangelism, literal interpretation, and opposition or apathy to religion. Scholars interpret the Bible from their own angles: history, literature, sources, language, theology, and archaeology. No one perspective, however, can encompass and fully explain biblical texts.

For me, a mystical approach to biblical interpretation entails the discovery and creation of profound meaning in the text. Integrative in nature, it uses a variety of perspectives to understand the contexts and multiple (often ambiguous and sometimes conflicting) meanings of passages. We start from the ground up, beginning with small details (word-by-word and even letter-by-letter) as we move through sentences and stories toward apparently hidden and esoteric readings. Usually what we regard as secret or mystical lies in open sight, but seeing it demands close attention and far-reaching awareness of all sorts.

IN THIS SESSION, we will study developments in human history following the story of Cain and Abel (including the Nephilim/giants in Gen 6) and continuing through the flood narrative and the Noah saga: Gen 5-9. This will take at least two sessions. Reflecting on the universality of flood myths and of tales of humanity’s role in them, we will explore what makes floods such a powerful symbol for human beings and what makes the Genesis narrative distinctive. As always, there are profound questions to consider: Where exactly did humanity go wrong? What makes Noah different from his ancestors? Why are there two flood narratives, and what does each contribute? How do these stories fit into the tradition of epic literature, with concepts of honor and courage? How can a compassionate, moral God commit an act of genocide and planetary destruction? Why is this story of global violence so popular in the religious education of children? Why does God promise not to flood the earth again? How can the mind of God change? What is different about humanity and the earth after the flood?

No previous background is necessary. Mutual respect is assumed in an atmosphere open to all spiritual, religious, and non-religious points of view.

The cost of the workshop is $35.00 per person (cash, or check made out to “Mystic Scholar, LLC”), Reserve a place by emailing Dr. Kant at dblk2@qx.net (with “Mystic Scholar” in the subject line). Payment may be made at the door before the workshop. Please read Genesis 5-9 beforehand. For further information on the presenter, see the attached CV and bio, as well as the brochure with photos.

Dr. Laurence H. Kant
dblk2@qx.net
859-278-3042
http://mysticscholar.org

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Workshop in Lexington: “Reading the Bible Mystically”: Dr. Laurence H. Kant: Fall Series: Sunday, November 8, 2-5 pm

Reading the Bible Mystically continues on Sunday, November 8, 2-5 p.m., at 131 Jesselin Drive. Everyone is welcome, whether or not you were able to attend prior sessions. This time we will discuss Genesis 4, the story of Cain and Abel (see some of the question topics below).
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READING THE BIBLE MYSTICALLY: Fall Series
Dr. Laurence H. Kant, Historian of Religion (Ph.D., Yale University, 1993)
November 8, 2015, 2-5 p.m.
Location: 131 Jesselin Drive, Lexington, KY  40503

Everyone comes to the Bible with different perspectives. Lay people appeal to tradition, practice, belief, social justice, evangelism, literal interpretation, and opposition or apathy to religion. Scholars interpret the Bible from their own angles: history, literature, sources, language, theology, and archaeology. No one perspective, however, can encompass and fully explain biblical texts.

For me, a mystical approach to biblical interpretation entails the discovery and creation of profound meaning in the text. Integrative in nature, it uses a variety of perspectives to understand the contexts and multiple (often ambiguous and sometimes conflicting) meanings of passages. We start from the ground up, beginning with small details (word-by-word and even letter-by-letter) as we move through sentences and stories toward apparently hidden and esoteric readings. Usually what we regard as secret or mystical lies in open sight, but seeing it demands close attention and far-reaching awareness of all sorts.

We will spend the bulk of our time this session engaging the text, particularly Genesis 4, the story of Cain and Abel, and ponder some challenging questions: What happens to first-born children in Genesis? Why? Why did God prefer Abel’s offering to Cain’s? How would you describe God’s treatment of Cain? Why did Cain choose to bring Abel to a field to kill him? Why did Cain kill Abel? What is murder? What do life and death mean to those who have never experienced death? What does it mean to be a wanderer? What is the mark of Cain? What does it mean that Cain and Cain’s descendants built cities, played lyres and pipes, and made tools of copper and iron? Who are the descendants of Cain? Who are the descendants of Seth and Enosh? If we have time, we will also consider Genesis 5-6:1-4.

No previous background is necessary. Mutual respect is assumed in an atmosphere open to all spiritual, religious, and non-religious points of view.

Our next date for the Fall Series is Sunday, December 13, 2-5 pm.

The cost of the workshop is $35.00 per person (cash, or check made out to “Mystic Scholar, LLC”), Reserve a place by emailing Dr. Kant at dblk2@qx.net (with “Mystic Scholar” in the subject line). Payment may be made at the door before the workshop. Please read Genesis 4-6:1-4 beforehand. For further information on the presenter, see the attached CV and bio, as well as the brochure with photos.

Dr. Laurence H. Kant
dblk2@qx.net
859-278-3042
http://mysticscholar.org

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Workshop in Lexington: “Reading the Bible Mystically”: Dr. Laurence H. Kant: Fall Series: Sunday, October 11, 2-5 pm

Reading the Bible Mystically continues on Sunday, October 11, 2-5 p.m., at 131 Jesselin Drive. Everyone is welcome, whether or not you were able to attend prior sessions. This time we will discuss Genesis 3: the story of creation, human origins, the quest for knowledge and wisdom, disobedience and deception, frailty and strength, gender symbolism, and the banishment from Eden.

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READING THE BIBLE MYSTICALLY: Fall Series
Dr. Laurence H. Kant, Historian of Religion (Ph.D., Yale University, 1993)
October 11, 2015, 2-5 p.m.
Location: 131 Jesselin Drive, Lexington, KY  40503

Everyone comes to the Bible with different perspectives. Lay people appeal to tradition, practice, belief, social justice, evangelism, literal interpretation, and opposition or apathy to religion. Scholars interpret the Bible from their own angles: history, literature, sources, language, theology, and archaeology. No one perspective, however, can encompass and fully explain biblical texts.

For me, a mystical approach to biblical interpretation entails the discovery and creation of profound meaning in the text. Integrative in nature, it uses a variety of perspectives to understand the contexts and multiple (often ambiguous and sometimes conflicting) meanings of passages. We start from the ground up, beginning with small details (word-by-word and even letter-by-letter) as we move through sentences and stories toward apparently hidden and esoteric readings. Usually what we regard as secret or mystical lies in open sight, but seeing it demands close attention and far-reaching awareness of all sorts.

We will spend the bulk of our time this session engaging the text, particularly Genesis 3, and discussing its use in constructing meaning for our lives. We will explore the story of creation, human origins, the quest for knowledge and wisdom, the consequences of disobedience and deception, frailty and strength, gender symbolism, and the banishment from Eden. No previous background is necessary. Mutual respect is assumed in an atmosphere open to all spiritual, religious, and non-religious points of view.

Upcoming dates in this series are as follows (at the same time from 2-5 p.m. on Sunday afternoons): October 11, November 8, and  December 13.

The cost of the workshop is $35.00 per person (cash, or check made out to “Mystic Scholar, LLC”), Reserve a place by emailing Dr. Kant at dblk2@qx.net (with “Mystic Scholar” in the subject line). Payment may be made at the door before the workshop. Please read Genesis 1 and 2 beforehand. For further information on the presenter, see the attached CV and bio, as well as the brochure with photos.

Dr. Laurence H. Kant
dblk2@qx.net
859-278-3042
http://mysticscholar.org

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My Family, The Holocaust, and ‘Original Sin’

KastonowiczFamilyBelarus2a

 

I was recently discussing the concept of original sin in a workshop I was leading. I was explaining that I thought that this was a legitimate concept, even though I did not share it. If I ever did accept original sin, I would certainly apply it to the holocaust.

This photo was taken c. 1905 in Pinsk, Belarus. In the center is my grandmother, Leah Kaston (Kaplan). Standing behind her are my great-grandfather Ya’akov and my great-mother Rivka Kaston. To the far left is my Aunt Bunya, my grandmother’s sister. She tried to come to this country around 1915, but was turned back by immigration services at Ellis Island because of red eye (conjunctivitis). She returned to Belarus. Later her husband, and some of her children followed her, and they went to live in Babruysk, Belarus. Somewhere between 1941-1943, when the Nazis entered Babruysk, they shot my Aunt Bunya and her family and dumped them in mass graves.

When I was growing up, my grandmother cried frequently about her sister. There were always hushed tones and requests to me that I please not ask too many questions about this. I heard the sobbing, but I did not really get to ask or say much. I have always thought that this affected the upbringing of my mom and her sister. My mom felt neglected and unattended. Is it any wonder that my grandmother could not give more attention to my mom when she felt so deeply wounded by the murder and absence of her beloved Bunya? There are many families with holes and wounds like this, especially many Jewish families, and sometimes I wonder how we might close the circle and find a way to restore the gaping hole that persists to this day in my family and in many others who went through this.

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Everything is Forgotten — Nothing is Forgotten

We all will be forgotten at some point. The memory of us will disappear. 100,000 years from now who will know about us? Even recollections of Gandhi and Abraham Lincoln may vanish sooner than we might imagine.

Nothing is really forgotten, however, even the smallest, tiniest acts, because we are always affecting and swaying the world in some way. Ultimately we are not really things or objects, but waves of energy shifting, recombining, and transforming again and again and again. What we do and who we are therefore affects the energy of the world and the universe. The energy we have reshaped and the energy of who we constantly become remains forever. Everything we do affects others and the planet in some way.

So, while memory may be fleeting, our legacy, our impact, our influence are total and world-changing.

That’s why we need to play close, conscious attention to all of what we do and say. Everything enters universal consciousness in some way. For this reason, humans and all sentient beings have tremendous creative capacity and healing power.

For me this is what “spirituality” and meaning are all about.

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How to Respond to the Boston Marathon Bombings

Whoever did the Boston Marathon bombings, lets make sure we don’t demonize a group of people, lump people into categories, or try to close ourselves off from the rest of the world. That would be the worst possible outcome I can imagine. Of course, we should protect ourselves and seek justice, but let’s make sure we keep our hearts and heads present and realize that we are living in a fragmented, broken, wounded world. We are all wounded. While we defend ourselves and seek to defeat terrorists, we also need to reach out to one another. It’s difficult to engage in battle and to reach out to others at the same time, but that is the task we have before us.

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Environmental Prophets of Doom

There is something I want to say about many in the environmental movement. I hear a lot of people predicting “The End” and the collapse of everything. In fact, I understand their point of view, and I have some sympathy with it. We as a species certainly can destroy the earth through pollution, nuclear catastrophe, destruction of eco-systems, and other means.

However, I don’t really see the value in this. What good does such pessimism and hopelessness do? If everything is going to be destroyed anyway in the near future, then please shut up and live your life. We don’t need to hear prophecies of doom any more than we need to have it rammed in to us that we are going to die some day. Yes, I know, but I don’t need someone screaming at me about it every minute of the day.

I guess I place these environmental prophets of doom in the same category as I place fundamentalist Christian evangelists who speak of the coming apocalypse. Doom-saying, apocalyptic Christians can go to Jerusalem or Texas or Salt Lake or wherever else they have a vision to await the return of Christ; ultra-Orthodox Lubavitch Hasidim can await the return of Rabbi Schneerson to Brooklyn and Jerusalem; Shiite Muslims (like the current President of Iran and many others) can go to Damascus to await the descent of the twelfth imam (the Mahdi); and perhaps secular environmental prophets should go to Greenland or the Antarctic or Alaska or Polynesia to await the final collapse of civilization and planetary life.

Yes, we have problems, and they’re serious, life-threatening, even cataclysmic. We’ve been around for a little while now, and empires comes and go, as do societies and peoples. But the earth has continued, so has life, in spite of what human beings have done to the planet (and they’ve done a lot even before now). And the earth is certainly not the only planet with life, nor is this the only universe, and there are other life forms we on the planet have yet to encounter (or perhaps don’t recall).

While there is reason for an apocalyptic voice now and throughout history, sometimes it enters into pointlessness, even silliness. Often it reflects a kind of species narcissism, as if our problems, however difficult, portend the end of all that is. There’s much we don’t know or remember about our our own lives, the history of our species, and the origins and characteristics of our solar system, galaxy, and universe. Yet we presume to predict future outcomes and events based on our own limited knowledge and life-experience.

Just because our efforts do not seem to have much affect, if any, does not mean that nothing is changing. When we assume we are failing or having no impact (and I’ve done that too), we are in fact acting selfishly, assuming the world depends on us, that we have some inherent right to see change, and that our individual lifetimes have a greater value than thousands upon thousands of generations that came before us and that will come after us–not to mention the millions upon millions of generations of every cell and life-form. Maybe we need to lighten up and enjoy the music. I know I need to do that.

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Mormon Women Protest by Wearing Pants

MormonWomenInPants1

In a move to assert their rights in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and to bring attention to gender inequalities, Mormon women put out a call to wear pants to church. We may think of women as having achieved parity in many sectors of American society, but in religious institutions women often find themselves caught in the backdraft of ancient traditions and historical precedents.

In my own Jewish tradition, for example, women have found themselves arrested by Israeli police simply for wearing a prayer shawl (talit) while praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. In fact, there is nothing in Jewish law that would prevent women from doing this: it’s simply a custom that men in authority don’t like.

This is another example of religious institutions trailing behind other sectors of society in promoting economic and social progress. In the modern world, organized religion has in fact mostly stood as an impediment to the expansion of freedom and to cultural advancement. In contrast, spiritual thought and practice is much more attuned to the unfolding consciousness that is very gradually bringing humanity to a higher state of awareness and living.

Thanks to these Mormon women for helping humanity move forward just a little bit further.

 

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/20/us/19mormon.html?_r=0

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/20/us/19mormon.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20121220&_r=1&

 

 

 

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Political Turbulence and the Coming World Transformation

I just saw Rachel Maddow’s program this evening. Did you know the extent to which Democrats have been winning unexpectedly in heavenly Republican districts? Obviously there’s the stunning victory in New York 26, but there’s much more going on.  Democrats are winning everywhere: for Jacksonville mayor, for Tampa mayor, in New Hampshire for a state senate seat, and in Wisconsin for a state assembly seat.  In a 50-50 Maine state senate district, the Democrat won by over 40 percentage points. In Ohio a Republican state senator who voted for the union busting bill resigned after relentless criticism for that vote. In Alabama, a state senator flipped from Republican to Democrat. The Republican governor of Florida (Rick Scott) has a 29% approval rating, while Republican John Kasich in Ohio is cratering in the polls and Republican Scott Walker is doing poorly in Wisconsin. In Ohio a poll showed an 18% lead for the opponents of the union busting bill.

What’s going on? I don’t think I’ve ever seen this quick of a political turn-around? This is more dramatic than what happened after the government shut-down in 1994-95. Now you never know what will happen down the road, but what were the Republicans thinking? Their strategy makes no political sense. It’s as if the end of the world were coming, and the Republicans tried to grab as much stuff as they possibly could before all hell broke loose. Busting unions, destroying Medicare, eviscerating social programs, offering tax-give-aways to the super-rich and corporations, gutting the environment, criminalizing abortion, and much more does not seem to be working out so well for them politically.

Honestly, I can’t make sense of what they’re thinking politically. It’s totally illogical and just plain bizarre. They could have caused a lot of damage and still maintained some semblance of political viability, but they chose instead to take a wrecking ball. The only thing that I can postulate is that Republicans were not thinking politically, but were instead doing the bidding of a few very powerful super-rich people such as the Koch Brothers. In other words,, Republicans had marching orders and happily walked the plank. Somehow, I guess, they think that these guys will rescue them or do something.  I’m not sure, but that’s all I came come up with.

They are handing the 2012 general election on a silver platter to the Democrats. Why?????  Do you have any ideas out there? It makes no sense. I’m perplexed.

Now, that said, I am concerned for our country. Yes, I want far-right-wing crazies, nut-jobs, and loony-tunes to lose, but our country needs at least two viable competing parties. Without that either party will probably mess things up even more. I can’t imagine that Democrats will know what to do with the massive majorities they might win in next election if things go as they seem to be going. We need two real parties with serious ideas that must compete with the serious ideas of the other party. Right now the Republicans are nuts, like invading locusts destroying everything in their paths, while Democrats are gleefully watching the self-destruction, but they don’t have any real ideas. Now Obama, I believe, has a vision, but the Democrats as a whole are pretty much empty.  So where does that leave us as a country?

What I wish for are two parties: one which is expansive, trying to move the nation forward by advocating expenditures that will improve our quality of life and develop a new strategy to keep our economic global prominence; and another party that stands for fiscal responsibility that creatively figures our ways to save money, keep taxes reasonable, and act as good managers and stewards of our resources.

What’s happened? Where are these parties? I consider myself a progressive independent, a strong supporter of Obama, who has no alternative but to vote Democrat in light of the madness that currently passes for Republican policy.  But that’s not what I want. I want a Democrat party that stands for something meaningful and hopeful and a Republican party that recognizes itself as a solid citizen watching over expenditures carefully and supporting change while also understanding the value of tradition. Instead, the Democrats just kind of float along living in FDR’s shadow, while the Republicans have gone off the deep end. Where is the imagination and creativity? Where is honor and responsibility. It exists with a few individuals, but it’s absent from political groups as wholes.

This is a wild time. Maybe we have to go through it as a country, but we are sure facing tremendous uncertainty and volatility unlike anything I can remember and really know about historically, at least since the Civil War. This is, I think, part of the great shift happening at a global level. We are entering a new period of history and consciousness, watching the collapse of old systems (including political ones) while new ones emerge.  Perhaps we should not get caught up in the day-to-day, political and social earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, but look through and beyond that to the world that is coming–for us and the globe. Perhaps nation-states will disintegrate as new forms of governance emerge that act at both global and local levels. A lot of people focus on up-and-coming countries like China, but perhaps we need to look toward the new structures that are emerging that have nothing to do with nations or political parties, but with movements–such as environmental activism or freedom movements in the Middle East or micro-financing or the post-religious “spiritual but nor religious” phenomenon or whatever –that are creating systems that we can’t even really seen just yet.

I have for a long time sensed a global shift and world transformation bubbling up from the depths, but experiencing it is completely different from envisioning it.

Any thoughts out there in the blogosphere and web world?

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Ethical and Spiritual Dimensions of Health Care as a Human Right

I could not agree more with Bernie Sanders. It’s also practical if we want our country to be able to compete effectively in the world. Right now our companies are saddled with huge costs, and patients face obscenely high payments and inadequate, uncertain coverage.

I think there is a deeper issue here as well. Giving everyone access to basic health care means they many more individuals will have the opportunity to embark on building start-up companies and on accepting higher risk jobs without fear of losing their health insurance coverage. I see universal coverage as an issue of freedom. When you don’t have to stay in a job in order to have your health problems covered, then you are free to take on careers and jobs that are more meaningful and rewarding. Universal health care adds to our liberty, because it gives us more choices and more mobility.

I wonder sometimes whether opposition to universal coverage stems from a fear of allowing people too much freedom. Universal coverage would take leverage from those in power (in corporations and in government) and put it into the hands of working people and our creative class. Denying individuals this opportunity concentrates power in the hands f those who already have it.

Thus, there are ethical and politco-spiritual dimensions here: ethical in that a civilized society needs to insure basic health care for its citizens; and politico-spiritual in that universal health coverage increases the level of human freedom, putting more decision-making power into the hands of more people. Universal health care coverage is a global, transformative movement of the human species toward greater freedom and independence.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/may/10/healthcare-congress

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Delphi

I have been to Delphi three times, twice with other graduate students, faculty, and archaeologists, and again later with Dianne, my wife, who was then a graduate student herself.  In 1986, Dianne and I visited Delphi so that we could share travel in Greece together.  It was that third time that Delphi became a magical place for me, full of wonder and deep feeling.  We spent three days there, enjoying great food and scenery, with Mount Parnassus majestic in the background.  Yet it was during our visit to the archaeological site, with our Blue Guide (and other guide books), methodically going over as many stones in as much detail as we possibly could, when we encountered the sacred character of this site.  Anybody who watched us would think we were somewhat compulsive, trying to figure out the location of as many details in the Blue Guide as we possibly could.  We spent hours and hours identifying the monuments, thinking about their organization and layout, and reflecting on the religious nature of the place (including the Sybil who apparently ingested hallucinogenic gases to open her up to cosmic forces).  Somehow, as we read painstakingly through this rather dry book, the Dephic energy arose almost out of the ground itself suffusing us.  We did not go there looking for something, seeking some kind of mystic message,  Rather, it was by studying and observing, and relating to each other that (even when we did not fully understand things) we unexpectedly felt what it was to be in a holy place.

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A New Day

A NEW DAY
© 2010, Dr. Laurence H. Kant
Essay for the Evolutionary Envisioning Circle of the Annual Great Mother Celebration, September, 2010

A new day emerges, as so many have in millennia past. Once, after we foraged and gathered, we became hunters. Once, after we hunted, we became farmers and shepherds. Once, after we lived in villages and small enclaves, we became city dwellers. Once, after priests and kings ruled, leaders came from the people. Once we did not know what was on the other side of the ocean; now we can not only travel there by boat or jet, but we can be virtually present on other continents when we’re secure at home half a world away. Once we thought that mass violence and genocide were normal; now we don’t. Once we did not even have a word for genocide; now we do.

Each time we move a few steps closer to the land of Eden, where, amidst friendship, dance, love-making, study, and work, we will dine again with God, the Source of All That Is. The sparks of fire that scattered at creation slowly come together to create a flame that lights our world in times of dissolution and chaos. We move from confusion toward knowledge, from fear toward courage, from despair toward hope, from separation toward unity, from pieces toward wholes.

What is wholeness? In Hebrew and Arabic, shalom/salaam connects to a Semitic root that means “whole” and “complete.” Some say “peace,” but that’s only part of the story. In its mystical sense, shalom/salaam really means interconnected oneness. It is that place where difference and oneness coexist, where each being finds its own unique purpose and self-expression as part of one planetary tableau, one eternal poem, one cosmic body, one collective consciousness, one Source.

During the shift, the ego (the I) recedes, and the authentic person emerges from its mother’s womb. The true self, the person You truly are, takes its place in the chariot palace, near the blazing wings of the multi-headed cherubim and the flashing heat of the serpentine seraphim. There it dines with other new-born true selves to seek wisdom in the new Temple of Knowledge and Love. Feminine and masculine energies, whose significance we assumed we understood, reveal unexpected meanings to thinking bodies and heart-filled minds. Days of pleasure and collective communing finally allow a slumbering species to shed its ego hide and put on a healing garment of shared awareness.

What will wholeness mean for evolving human culture? “Conformity” means a mass of individuals forming a collective mega ego (an I). Genuine “community” means a critical mass of individuals building a whole that transcends the individual egos and creates a collective Higher Self.

The events we see on our television sets and computer monitors—boiling, jittery delirium and tumult accompanied by earth’s eruptions, swirling storms, and disappearing ice—signal a shift from one age to the next. There will be many more such shifts in the future. But, for now, at this moment, our twenty-five-hundred-year sojourn at the inn of familiar habits, nations, and institutions has ended. Dying structures make way for new. Another day of travelling begins toward another inn on the road circling back and forward from and toward Eden. Here, in another time long, long ahead, we will be able to eat of both trees—of life and knowledge—but with experience enough to do so as humble partners of the Source, adult co-creators, sharing in the miraculous birthing of new worlds.

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The Power of Symbolism

Here is my dissertation:  “The Interpretation of Religious Symbols in the Graeco-Roman World:  A Case Study of   Early  Christian Fish Symbolism” (3 vols):  Yale University, 1993.  Please note that the pagination in the PDF files, though close, is not exactly the same as in my original dissertation (due to formatting issues).

I originally intended this as part of a comparative study of ancient symbols, including the menorah for Jews.   Given the length of the project, this was not practical.  However, I regard my dissertation as comparative project whose goal is to understand the nature of religious symbolism.

There are many things that I would now change, including writing style.  Of note is the Avercius (Abercius) inscription text, which has several errors; for a correct edition, see http://mysticscholar.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/AverciusText1a.pdf.  I also wish that I had  included a section on the use of fish and fishing symbolism in the gospels.  If interested, take a look at the text of a talk I gave on this topic in “Essays and Talks” in “Larry Kant” (http://mysticscholar.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/FishNTTalk1.pdf).

I have also somewhat changed my views of Freud and Jung.  I always appreciated them, but my dissertation is more critical of them than I would be now.

Diss1Diss2Diss3Diss4Diss5Diss6

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Ultimate Questions

What is death? A transitional period of life.

What is life? Becoming.

Where are heaven and hell? Right next to each other, like the back and front of a door.

What is hell? A place in which we decide to reside until we decide to live elsewhere.

What is heaven? Home.

Who are we? No/thing, energy, crossing time and space, but not confined by them.

Who is the Source? Pure no/thing, raw energy out of which form emerges.

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We Are Not Our Habits

We think we know who we are based on the activities in which we normally engage, by our personalities, by our hobbies, by our socio-economic statuses, ethnicities, and religions, by the ways we hold and move our bodies, or by the personal and professional roles we acquire in our lives. But do we? Are these what ultimately define us? I’m sure that these contribute to our development as beings and to our self-understanding, but they comprise only part of a much larger framework and foundation. We often focus on the easier-to-identify elements, but we don’t notice what may be even more illuminating and revealing.

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A New Day

“A New Day”:  © 2010, Dr. Laurence H. Kant, Essay for the Evolutionary Envisioning Circle of the Annual Great Mother Celebration, September, 2010:  © 2010, Laurence H. Kant, All rights reserved:  NewDay1

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Who Are We, You and I: Meditations on Death and Afterlife

See my talk:  Laurence H. Kant, “Who Are We, You and I: Meditations on Death and Afterlife”: Late Life Concerns: The Final Miles, Newman Center, Lexington, Kentucky, August, 2010: © 2010, Laurence H. Kant, All rights reserved:  Who Are We

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Fish Symbolism

Here is my dissertation:  Laurence H. Kant, “The Interpretation of Religious Symbols in the Graeco-Roman World:  A Case Study of   Early  Christian Fish Symbolism” (3 vols):  Yale University, 1993.  Please note that the pagination in the PDF files, though close, is not exactly the same as in my original dissertation (due to formatting issues).

I originally intended this as part of a comparative study of ancient symbols, including the menorah for Jews.   Given the length of the project, this was not practical.  However, I regard my dissertation as comparative project whose goal is to understand the nature of religious symbolism.

There are many things that I would now change, including writing style.  Of note is the Avercius (Abercius) inscription text, which has several errors; for a correct edition, see above.  I also wish that I had  included a section on the use of fish and fishing symbolism in the gospels.  If interested, take a look at the text of a talk I gave on this topic in “Essays and Talks” in “Larry Kant.”

I have also somewhat changed my views of Freud and Jung.  I always appreciated them, but my dissertation is more critical of them than I would be now.

Diss1Diss2Diss3Diss4Diss5Diss6

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The Mistakes the Spies Made in Numbers 13:30-33

What was the mistake the spies made when they scouted the land of milk and honey?  They allowed fear to overcome trust.

What was another mistake the scouts made?  They focused on what others thought rather than on what there were to do.

What was another mistake?  They assumed that size was more important than wits.

What was another mistake? They acted like slaves rather than free persons.

What was another mistake? They were there to figure out how, not whether.

What was another mistake?  They exaggerated rather than coolly assessing.

What was another mistake?  They could not leave the past and move forward.

What was another mistake? They could not envision an alternative to their current situation.  They preferred the familiar and the customary to change.

What was another mistake?  They quit.  They just gave up.

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Translating “God” and “Lord”

Because of the anthropomorphic connotations of the English words, “God” and “Lord,” because of the human tendency to use “God” as a thing or object (thereby objectifying “God”), and because of their inherently gendered meanings (”Lord” as opposed to “Lady” and “God” as opposed to “Goddess”), these words have too much baggage to use in current translations of the Hebrew Bible. Therefore, I often replace “God” with “THE ALL” and “LORD GOD” with “ALL THAT IS.” For “LORD,” I simply use “SOURCE.” This will no doubt prove strange for many readers, but de-familiarization is part of the process of reacquainting oneself with the deeper meanings of the biblical text.      These translations also have the advantage of preserving the actual significance of the Hebrew words which have become ossified in English (and other modern languages) translations and consequently lost their original meanings.

YHWH comes from the Hebrew word, “to be” (hayah), and is explicitly associated with being, becoming, existence, etc. By using a verb to describe the Divine, early Jewish writers imply that the Divine is fundamentally not an object or a thing, but rather that it is relational in nature. One might describe it as “energy,” because it is a force, not an object. The English word, “Lord,” reflects the Hebrew vowel pointing of YHWH as adonai (a – o – ai), used by Jews from antiquity to the present day to avoid saying the Divine name. There are other circumlocutions used by Jews to avoid saying the Divine name:   e.g. “the name” ( hashem) and “the place” (hamaqom). By using “SOURCE” or “ALL THAT IS,” I maintain the original meaning of the word without using the Divine name.

Elohim  is the word that normally translates “God” (from El, the chief deity of the Ugaritic pantheon), but it is a plural form that naturally implies a multiplicity of deities. In the Hebrew Bible, it normally indicates the deity of the Jewish people: the One God, the Eternal. Occasionally it directly indicates more than one god (such as in Genesis 1:26 and 3:22), but even there the notion of oneness persists. As a plural form, Elohim suggests that one cannot limit the Divine to a single thing (which a singular form would connote) and actually implies that the Divine is so all-encompassing that no thing falls outside of its compass. Elohim means unity. From a metaphorical perspective, one might see the Divine as a choir rather than a soloist; here the many become one. This is why the term, “monotheism” (which implies singularity rather than oneness or unity) is inadequate for describing the Jewish and Christian concepts of Divinity. “THE ALL” preserves the all-encompassing character, relationality, unity, and oneness of the Divine.

See how I do this in “translations of Genesis by larry” in “about mystic scholar”: http://mysticscholar.org/about-mystic-scholar/translations-of-genesis-by-larry/

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“Some Restorative Thoughts on an Agonizing Text: Abraham’s Binding of Isaac and the Horror on Mt. Moriah (Gen. 22)”

By Laurence H. Kant

1) “Some Restorative Thoughts on an Agonizing Text:  Abraham’s Binding of Isaac and the Horror on  Mt. Moriah  (Gen. 22)”: “Part 1,” Lexington Theological Quarterly 38 (2003) 77-109; “Part 2”  Lexington Theological Quarterly 38 (2003) 161-94

2) “Arguing with God and Tiqqun Olam:  A Response to Andre LaCocque on the Aqedah,” Lexington Theological Quarterly 40 (2005) 203-19 (this was a response to an article by André Lacocque, “About the ‘Akedah’ in Genesis 22:  A Response to Laurence H. Kant,” Lexington Theological Quarterly 40 (2005) 191-201)

AqedahArticlePart1a; AqedahArticlePart2a; and AqedLacocqueResp1

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Mystic Scholar study in spirituality

I am reflecting on the fundamental shift away from institutional religion. It affects every religion and every religious community globally: churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, etc. It cuts across the ideological and political spectra. As educational attainment increases, so does disaffection with traditional religious modalities. Yet the vast majority of people still seek to explore the fundamental questions of existence, matters of ultimate concern (as Tillich says), interconnectedness, community, ethics, and love and relationships. Why are so many religious institutions unable or unwilling to address the hunger for meaning and purpose that so many yearn for?

Looking forward to commenting in the future on these topics.

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Are Religions Different Paths to the Same Wisdom?

Below is an interesting piece by Stephen Prothero. I agree with a lot of what Prothero says. The goals of different religions are not the same. Eliding the differences inevitably leads to misunderstanding others. For example, talking about who will be saved is a Christian question, which most in the world do not even share, because they are not interested in salvation at all. Christians are focused on the person of Jesus Christ, while Jews and Muslims are focused on texts and words. Talking about God makes no sense to many Buddhists. Many influenced by New Age approaches desire reincarnation, but Hindus want to liberate themselves from it, and Buddhists view it as ultimately an illusion. Confucians uphold political and social order, while Daoists are political and social minimalists. Plus the goal of sameness is not a goal that all share. Jews view themselves as different, and Christians and Muslims want others to be like them.

Where I disagree with Prothero is his idea that “God” or “wisdom” is not one. The fact that there are different goals and multiple truths does not negate the oneness in which we dwell. Oneness does not mean that we don’t share fundamental values (e.g. the Golden Rule) and share important spiritual outlooks. Further, the fact that we have different goals and purposes does not negate oneness. It just means that our definition of “oneness” and “unity” is too limited and narrow, since it does not make room for multiple truths, paradox, and contradiction. There are not two choices–difference or sameness. That’s a false dichotomy.

Idolatry is making an object, a person, or an idea into a fetish. That is what both sides of this debate do. The “lumpers” privilege commonality and sameness, while the “splitters” privilege separation and difference. In so doing, they end up defining “God” or a “higher power” or the ultimate energy or “nirvana” or “heaven” or “nature” or “wisdom” in simplistic and objectifying language. They cannot envision unity as complex, multivalent, or chaotic. But perhaps that is what the oneness of “God”–or whomever or whatever you prefer call it–is.

There is not one path or one truth, but many paths and many truths held together in a paradoxical unity.

In this regard, mystical approaches offer a lot, because, with the loss of the ego/self, paradox is not a problem to be solved, but a dynamic energy in which to live.

©Laurence H. Kant

http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/04/25/separate_truths/?page=full

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God and the Self as Nothing

The Source is nothing. Nothing does not mean a vacuum, but no thing (no/thing). No/thing is pure energy.

A favorite quote of mine in this regard is from Dov Baer of Mezrich as translated in Lawrence Kushner,The Book of Words, p. 96 (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 1993): “You need to think of yourself as nothing. Forget yourself entirely. Pray only for the sake of God’s presence. Only then will you come to transcend time and attain the ‘World of Thought.’ No contradictions. No distinctions between life and death or sea and dry land. All the same . . . This can only happen if you forget yourself entirely. But it cannot be the case while you are attached to the tangible reality of this world. Fixated on the distinctions between good and evil and mundane creation. How otherwise could one possibly transcend time and attain ultimate unification. Thus, as long as you remain convinced that you are ‘something,’ preoccupied with your daily needs, then the Holy One cannot be present, for God is without end, that is, ‘nothing,’ no vessel can contain the One. But this is not so when you think of yourself as nothing.”

Here, “nothing” really means without boundaries and limits.

Dov Baer expresses his ideas more dualistically than I would (e.g. “attached to tangible reality,” “mundane creation,” and “World of Thought”), but his message is beautiful: To feel the presence of the Source, one must drop all categories, especially the self.

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God

I don’t see God as an entity at all, as a thing. God is not a being, but an energy that pervades the universe and transcends the universe. For that reason, I don’t even use the word, “God,” but instead use “Source,” or sometimes “Source of Being.” To relate to the Source, one must transcend all categories (which are, by definition, finite and limited). The Source is neither personal nor impersonal, but the sacred energy/breath that underlies all existence.

This is not an easy place for me to reside. I only get there at moments. Often I am deluded by my own self and its desires, which get in the way. But I do get there at times–certainly more now than when I was younger. And that makes all the effort worthwhile.

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Surrender

The greater the stress, the more you need to let go and surrender.

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Decline of Human Violence

Decline of Human Violence

http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_is_there_peace/

This article by Steven Pinker (from Dianne Bazell) briefly reviews the substantial evidence for the decline of human violence over the millennia (see also the excellent book by Gwynne Dyer, War: The Lethal Custom). When I would get up in a front of a class (including my classes on the holocaust, genocide, and violence) or in front of public groups, I would explain to people that, as horrifying as these events are, we are less murderous toward one another than at other times. The most violent cultures, in fact, have been hunter-gatherer societies. I would explain that groups have committed genocide throughout all of human history, and there has been precious little criticism of it. Religious texts (including scriptures) frequently sanction it. People generally refuse to believe me, but the evidence is very clear about the increasing value of life for human beings. Sometimes I use this as an example to explain the validity of the Enlightenment notion of human progress, but many just close their ears to this. I think what is difficult for people to comprehend is that human beings can be so hideous to one another and that, ever though we often treat one another in repellent ways, we now treat one another slightly less repellently than we have in the past.

From a spiritual point of view, I see this as an part of the unfolding evolution of human and planetary consciousness (Teilhard de Chardin would have a lot to say about this). This is a good thing, but it reminds us of our shadow side, and we don’t like it and cannot accept that we still have it with us. So part of the process involves recognizing our shadow components, accepting them while not indulging them, and moving toward a more harmonious level of awareness.

The best way to do this is not to deny the our nature as aggressive beings, but to harness our competitive impulses to make the world a better place

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Heinrich Harrer, “Seven Years in Tibet”

Heinrich Harrer, “Seven Years in Tibet”

I am almost finished reading Heinrich Harrer’s “Seven Years in Tibet.” A superb mountain climber, sportsman, geographer, and adventurer, the Austrian Harrer escaped from an internment camp in India and managed with a companion to make his way to Tibet in the 1940’s. Even though Tibet closed itself to foreigners, Harrer was able to navigate incredible physical obstacles and bureaucratic impediments to see rural Tibet and eventually make his way to Lhasa. Over time he became an important figure in Tibetan life and one of the Dalai Lama’s best friends. He learned to speak fluent Tibetan. Harrer was not a scholar or a religious leader, but a practical man whose humanity and spirituality overflow in spite of his apparent skepticism. It was that practicality and his love of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism which made him such a beloved figure in Tibet. Because he knew Tibet and Tibetans intimately, he did not idolize Tibet, but could love it for all its wonder and greatness and its flaws. He criticized the Tibetan resistance to adaptation to the modern world, a view which the Dalai Lama seemed to share. At the same time, Harrer deeply respected the emphasis on spirituality and ritual in Tibetan life. His stories of Tibetan workers who, upon seeing a worm in a shovel full of dirt, stop all their labor in order to preserve the worm’s life, is powerful and inspiring.

In Harrer’s memoir, the humanity of the Dalai Lama also comes through, and my respect for the Dalai Lama has deepened, as his Buddha nature appears not because of his lofty intellect or power, but because of his genuineness and authenticity. That seems to me what connects both Harrer and the Dalai Lama. They are first and foremost fully human, with very little posing or posturing. They are who they are. Harrer’s writing style is very matter-of-fact, which makes readers feels a sense of participating in the events described. I found the book gripping.

The Dalai Lama escaped Tibet in 1959, and he and Harrer remained close friends until Harrer’s passing in 2006 at the age of 93. I recommend this book highly.

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War and Peace in Middle East

I wrote this this to a friend who was very upset with Avigdor Lieberman’s statement, “those who want peace should prepare for war.”

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I know that this sounds awful and that Lieberman has used racist language toward Arabs.  This is certainly true, and that part is wrong.

At the same time, I agree with his statement that there is no peace without preparing for war.  That is a part of Jewish thought for millennia and is encompassed in the Jewish notion of “shalom.”  Shalom means “wholeness,” not peace.  In this case, “wholeness” includes both the retreating and assertive sides of human nature and of nature itself.  I did not like Ronald Reagan’s domestic policies, but he was right in the way that he dealt with the Soviet Union.  And, in the Middle East, that is even more true.  You have to be tough, and you have to take into account that those who hate you will use various means at their disposal to annihilate you.  That’s the way it is, and anyone who wants peace also has to understand this fact.  Otherwise, you invite aggression and violence.

If I were in Lieberman’s position, I would not say what he said publicly about preparing for war, but preparing for the possibility of war is what I would do.

I am attaching an article by Yossi Klein Halevi who understands the Middle East as well as anyone that I know.  He wrote a wonderful book called “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden:  A Jew’s Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land.”  He is a political centrist, very realistic, but very much wanting peace.  This article expresses much that is in my view true:
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123846458281572307.html.  The idea right now of negotiations toward a two-state solution is naive and foolish.  I believe in a two-state solution, but the Palestinians are at this time nowhere near in a position to have a functional, democratic state.  The best that we can hope for is movement in the Palestinian and Arab world toward a civil, democratic, tolerant society.  That is a precondition and prerequisite for a meaningful peace settlement.  Olmert and Livni (and Barak in the past) did everything they could to engage in dialogue with the Palestinian leadership about an agreement.  They failed primarily because the time was not yet ready for them to succeed.  Palestinian society needs to change in order for peace to even have a chance.

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The Text of the Hebrew Bible Was Not Permanently Fixed

Recently Oxford University Press published a book, which looks of great interest.  Though I have not yet read it and cannot vouch for it, the author presents a thesis that alerts us all (scholars and lay both) to the proverbial elephant in the room:  B. Barry Levy, Fixing God’s Torah:  The Accuracy of the Hebrew Bible Text in Jewish Law (New York, Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2001).  For text critics (those who work with the original manuscripts) and those who read them, knowledge of the biblical text’s fluidity comes as no surprise.  From biblical versions found at Qumran (the Dead Sea Scrolls) and from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible), from the second century BCE to the first century CE, we know that the biblical text varied from source to source.  Yet, most of us still work and study  “as if” the Masoretes got it absolutely right in the Middle Ages:  we have the correct text.  Now Barry Levy apparently shows that the rabbis of antiquity did not even agree on the notion of an immutable text and recognized the need to “correct” the text.  He provides a plethora of evidence.  Wow.  That’s kind of an earthquake.  Even the very traditional rabbinic tradition seemingly acknowledged that the text of the Torah was not permanently fixed.  Should provide for lots of lively discussion.

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Free-Range Chickens and Ethics

This is in response to a group discussion in our congregation on organic foods.

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Something positive and good has come out of this discussion of chickens.  We have learned that people are deeply responsive to the issue of meat consumption.  Unlike abortion, stem cells, capital punishment, even war, this topic strikes all of us at a gut, personal level.  We may not all have the unfortunate experience of dealing with a murderer or an unwanted pregnancy, but obviously we all to have to eat on a regular basis.  So this is a dilemma we cannot avoid facing.  And nobody wants to feel like a bad person; we all want to think we’re good, decent, nice people.

Yet, the reality is that we are all–everyone of us–implicated in the cultural activities of the broader society in which we live.  There is no getting around that.  Torah has long explained that every Jew sins not just as an individual, but as part of the greater Jewish and human community.  No matter what we do, we are engaged in activities that are harmful to other beings and to the earth itself.  That’s simply the nature of humanness.  What we should do, I think, is not try to be perfect (that’s plainly impossible), but to try to reduce the harm we do and to transform negative actions into positive ones.

Historically, laws of kashrut slaughtering were much more humane than slaughtering practices found in neighboring cultures.  And part of the motivation (though not all) for these laws probably stemmed from concern for the well-being of animals.  But times have changed, and we live in a different world since the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century.  Like others today, kosher butchers engage in the factory industry of chicken slaughtering (though kosher butchers are more humane than the large corporate industry giants).  It is this assembly-line, industrial system that has caused new, inhumane practices to be adopted by most large slaughtering houses.  Our dilemma is:  Do we pay more for humane slaughtering practices, or do we pay the lowest possible price?  Of course, we all have to make that decision for ourselves, and no one is wrong who decides to pay a lower price.  Every day we make these kinds of decisions in countless, little ways, and I imagine that each one of us comes to different conclusions, depending on the issue.

For me eating free-range chickens means that we are inflicting less pain and suffering on other sentient beings.   We are also forcing poultry producers to adopt more humane and healthy practices. This is tikkun olam.   Do I always do this?  Honestly, no.  Do I try to?  Yes.  Why?  Because it is the right thing to do.  We all do the best we can, knowing that we can still cause harm.  That’s the complexity of our human existence.

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Name of God (not G-d)

The name of God in Hebrew is yod-heh-waw-heh, with no vowel points, i.e. the Tetragrammaton (“four letters”).  Originally, that word would have had vowel points, but we don’t know what they are for sure.  In order to avoid saying the name of God, the Jews of antiquity changed the vowel points and said “adonai” (“Lord”) instead.  Now we have others who simply say “ha-Shem” (“the name”) which makes sense because yod-heh-waw-heh is in fact the name of God.  But the name of “God” for Jews is “yod-heh-waw-heh,” not “God.”  The word for “God” in Hebrew is “Elohim.”   Thus:  “Elohim” = the concept of God; “yod-heh-waw-heh” = the name of God.  Some have started to spell the word, “God” in the form of “G-d,” equating this with the Hebrew.  This is English, however, and “God” is not a Hebrew word.  There is no need to use the spelling, “G-d,” which in fact communicates the misimpression that “God” is also a Jewish name–it’s not.  The name of God is and has always been “yod-heh-waw-heh.”  The word, “God” is not the equivalent of “yod-heh-waw-heh,” but rather “Elohim.”  In my opinion, “G-d” is a misnomer.

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Judaism and Social Action I

This is an email response to a friend of mine:

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I enjoyed your essay. There’s a lot there that makes sense. I think you’re right about the importance of “separation” and binary opposition. Have you read the work of the structural anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss, on this general subject? He bases his theory primarily on the work of structural linguistics and its application in the study of kinship patterns. The anthropologist, Mary Douglas, has a lot to say as well (particularly in her book, “Purity and Danger”). Most recently, Saul Olyan has written a book that you might find interesting and relevant: “Rites and Rank: Hiearchy in Biblical Representations of Cult” (Princeton, 2000). I have not seen or read it, but he apparently deals with these issues in detail.

On the issue of polarity in Christianity, you definitely make a good point about the centrality of evil, the consequent concern for preventing it, and the resultant tragedies that have occured. Yet, it is also true that Christianity is fundamentally different from Zoroastrian religion in at least one respect. Christianity does not posit an equal force of evil (the devil) in the universe that is on a par with God (good). Gnostics, Mandaeans, and even some Jews (Elisha ben Abuya) may have done this, but not the mainstream Christian tradition as it has come down. Original sin is a human creation (Adam and Eve), not directly part of the original creation of God. So Christian views of evil are actually rather complex.

At the same time, Judaism was certainly influenced by Zoroastrian religion. The notions of an afterlife, physical resurrection, and paradise may all have part of their origin in Zorastrianism. And the Christian idea of a “devil” figure comes from Judaism! Satan occurs in Job, and in later intertestamental Jewish texts, Satan appears as an opponent of God. Many Jews have had, and continue to have, a preoccupation with evil forces in the universe. Evil is not an exclusively Christian concern, though I think you’re right that Christians may emphasize it somewhat more than Jews, especially as an abstract concept or force in the universe. You’re also right that Christians tend to place evil outside of ourselves and the world than have Jews. And your point about entropy and original sin is excellent.

Yet, I do believe that we Jews have had our own preoccupations as well and that this has led to our own process of externalization: unclean and clean, pure and impure, especially. While traditional Judaism has not posited “sin” as an outside force, we have tried to keep “impurity” and “uncleanliness” outside of our environments. Some have gone to great lengths to achieve this. Judaism has tended to envision these disturbing elements not in theological terms, but rather in ritual terms.

As for “gemilut hasadim,” I think “acts of mercy” or “acts of compassion” is a translation that does not quite catch the depth of this phrase. “Rahamim” usually translates “mercy,” and that’s what most translators have used. “Hesed” can mean “kindness, “love,” “affection,” “piety,” and more. “ahabah” refers to the concept of love, particularly between human beings (whether that of friendship or family). It’s a very common word in Hebrew. “Lovingkindness” is an English attempt at trying to convey two of the connotations of “hesed”: “love and “kindness.” I think “hesed” includes the quality of humaneness associated with the Yiddish word (from German) for a real human being, “Mensch”: Somebody who goes above and beyond their apparent obligations to take the pain, suffering (and joy!) of others into their hearts. It is a concern for others that includes an awareness of our fundamental connectedness to one another.

The noun, “gemilut,” comes from the Hebrew verb, “gamal”: “to do good/evil,” “to reward,” “repay,” “ripen,” “wean.” “Gemilut” is not used in the Bible, however, and we are not certain of its original meaning. It is my hunch that “gemilut” conveys a sense of “ACTION,” EDUCATION (broadly speaking), and also of “MORAL OBLIGATION`.” So “gemilut hasadim” is a moral imperative to love your neighbors, helping them when they need it and sharing in their joy: clothing the naked, feeding the starving, healing the sick, comforting the bereaved and the depressed, celebrating weddings, rejoicing in other’s successes, adding positive energy to the world. It’s that force of goodness in the world that maintains our existence, as Simeon the Righteous implied when he said, “On three things, the world stands: the Torah, worship, and acts of lovingkindness.”

So “gemilut hasadim” definitely calls us to act on behalf of others, including social action. As to the specifics of “sweatshops,” you have made some very good points. This is not an easy issue. Even so, I think, for example, we have an obligation to stand up for what we believe. If we believe that it is inappropriate and immoral for children to work full-time for low pay at factories which produce our clothing, we have an obligation to say so and work toward another means of production. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, industrialists and free market theorists offered the same arguments when they faced popular opposition to child labor. Yet, though the content of the arguments had changed, the assumptions have remained more or less the same since antiquity: cheap labor allows the production of more goods at a lower cost and greater profit.

But we decided to pursue another course, eventually resulting in a system of compulsory education for children. In fact, this gave us the skilled labor that allowed us to create the powerful economic engines characteristic of Western nations. I think we have the obligation to encourage other countries to take a similar course–to use the incentives at our disposal in order to produce more just societies. Do we want societies riven by the division of the population into small wealthy classes and large poor classes? I don’t think so. What threatens our national security? I believe it is no longer large armies, but rather unstable nations, much of whose populations live in poverty, illiteracy, poor health, and consequent despair. This produces terrorism, jingoistic nationalism, mass emigrations, environmental disasters, population explosions, drug economies, antagonism to the U.S. and the West, etc. It’s not just a moral or economic issue, but one of national security. By discouraging child labor and by encouraging education, we have the chance to see the formation of nations with dynamic middle classes and more powerful economies. In other words, we will have a more productive and safer world. At least, I hope so.

I’m by no means an expert on this, but it seems to me that the moral call to social action and economics actually conspired to create what we have now. Does it always work out this way? No. Do good intentions sometimes lead to bad results? Yes. Can bad intentions actually at times produce good results? Yes. Can good people disagree about a moral course of action? Of course. In fact, the discussion itself may produce an awareness and a plan of action that would not have otherwise existed.

I believe, however, that “Gemilut hasadim” does call us to take action on behalf of others, including those we don’t even know in parts of the world we may never have visited. We may make mistakes, but that does not mean we should avoid putting ourselves in the world. Not to do so is (in my opinion) an error and misses the thrust of “gemilut hasadim.”

Thank you for thinking about these issues so deeply. Your essay should help us all. I know it’s helped me. I think you’re absolutely right about God and the holocaust. We spend too much time thinking about God’s intentions and not enough looking at our own actions and foibles. Also, I had never thought about entropy in such positive terms as you put it. You really changed my view there Perhaps entropy is a gift that God has given us. Hmm . . .

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