How We Should Respond to a Pro-Nazi Teaching Assignment

This teaching assignment that compelled students to take a pro-Nazi position against Jews was obviously a bad mistake, but it is one in which we all of us (especially those in the Jewish community) need to demonstrate compassion and forgiveness to the teacher. Justification of hatred is not something that is legitimate in a class teaching students how to think, especially in a classroom of teenagers. Yes, we can justify any horrible action or idea through reasoned argument, but humanism and our ethical principles have to intervene at some point. At the same time, the teacher was probably not intending to promote antisemitism and hatred, but rather the opposite. Further, all the time we permit actors in theater and film to portray Nazis (think Ralph Finnes as Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List or Bruno Ganz as Adolf Hitler in Downfall [Der Untergang]), and we want them to do so in a convincing fashion. In fact, we applaud them for it and give them awards. This is not an easy topic, and it’s one where all of us can go astray. Let this event not be an opportunity for recrimination and shouting, but a teaching moment.


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.


Theory and Practice: China Has an Economic Plan — The US Does Not

Robert Reich notes the fundamental difference between the economies of the US and China:  China has a plan, and we don’t.  This hands-off approach has characterized both Democratic and Republican presidential administrations.  In general, the US relies on faith in the free market place, while China assumes that the government must make careful plans to advance its interests.  Consequently, the Chinese invest heavily in green industries, even when there is no immediate profit and cost is high, because this technology is the future.  Whoever controls it will have an enormous advantage in global competition.  The US engages in talk, but not much action.

The US has an almost magical faith in the free market.  It’s almost as if the US believes that simply reciting an ideological creed will guarantee economic success.

The US still has one advantage:  the deep creativity and inventiveness that marks our culture.  Americans do not rely on the past and on tradition, but look for new and original ways of doing things.  This has always carried the US through before, and I hope it will continue to do so.  But can the US rely on this, while others make plans?

The whole issue relates to an even more fundamental matter.  Will human beings rely on ideology or on practical, integrative approaches to solve problems?  Ideology is  pure theory, ideas separate from concrete reality.  Communism, Marxism, radical free market capitalism, absolute pacifism, religious fundamentalism, and postmodern theory all fall into that category.  They are ideologies rather than evidence-based methods. Significantly ideologues exist on both the left and right. among both the secular and the religious.  Even when something contradicts the theory, followers of the theory simply ignore the data, because fundamentally day-to-day life is messy, confusing, ambiguous, contradictory, and therefore too difficult to interpret.

While the US has recently been primarily concerned with ideas about what should work, the Chinese and others are approaching matters pragmatically, testing for what actually does work.  The US would do well to return to its historical roots in pragmatism and develop more of a balance between theory and practice.


Judaism and Social Action I

This is an email response to a friend of mine:

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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