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.
As a Jew, I thoroughly share the sentiments of Rev. Jim Wallis. The TaNaKh and rabbinic tradition command us to take care of the poor and marginalized. That why we are told not to plough the corners of our fields. When the Hebrew Bible and the rabbis talk about caring for the needy, they refer to communities and governments. The structures envisioned in those texts are governmental, and they *require* (not merely suggest) a society take the needy into account. This tradition does not focus on voluntary acts and association, but on political structures that create a just society. Those who try to convert these into free-market scenarios, which advocate economic commitments that are solely private, do not understand what the texts actually say. Those who know the Hebrew and the history should start articulating the true nature of this tradition, which demands that governments protect those in need.
Neal Boortz says that people have a right to be angry and use whatever imagery they wish as long as they do not resort to violence. Of course, there is no legal question here. Free speech is guaranteed by the first amendment to the US Constitution. But is it wise to use such imagery? I’m angry about many things in our culture and politics, but I would try not to use imagery that others can misinterpret or take literally. When we talk about targeting a political opponent with gun imagery, or taking second amendment remedies if we lose at the ballot box, or publicly describing our opponents as evil, unamerican, or alien, or musing or joking about assassinating politicians we don’t like, we have crossed the moral line.
Further, metaphors and symbols are not simply colorful ways of speaking, but the core elements of communication and expression which human beings use to articulate ideas and give voice to feeling. They express our most deeply held worldviews and values. When we use them, we are tapping into powerful currents of visceral emotion. By using war and combat imagery, we are not merely offering persuasive rhetoric, but we are appealing at a visceral level to a deep need for aggression that is latent in all us and part of the biological memory of our species. It is not surprising or unexpected that there are those who would take the metaphor literally, because the distance from violent language to violent action is not all that great.
The vast majority of us would not do so, but there are those who are disturbed or unbalanced who could well do so. Now no one has responsibility for this assassination attempt and mass murder except for Jared Lee Loughner. But what we say and do influences others, both directly and indirectly. Whatever Loughner’s particular motivations, it is unlikely that he would have acted in this way without living in a culture of violence, including violent language and symbolism.
Whether or not Loughner listened to particular radio shows, belonged to specific groups, or was conservative or liberal is not the most important factor here. What matters is that the language we use sets a tone that affects the behavior of others, especially the mentally ill and disturbed. Those of us who speak and write in public venues have a great responsibility because others are watching us and following us. Gabby Giffords understood the violent context in which she worked and many (including her) have rightly noted that “words have consequences.” Indeed they do, because they are not “merely” words, but images and symbols that connect to primal, archetypal emotions.
It is not a question of assigning blame to the right or left or to any group, but rather of understanding the context in which our politics take place. There is a sense that it is legitimate to dehumanize others by using violent metaphors about them. Those on all sides of the political spectrum have done this. We don’t need to aggravate the hostile climate further by focusing on individuals who have made poor use of language and imagery, but we simply must ask them to stop doing it.
Let’s find other words and symbolism to express our anger and frustration.
The decline of educational quality in the US is part of the reason for this.
The other is cheap labor in developing countries. Corporations are able to take advantage of this labor without suffering financial consequences in the US. However, corporations should contribute sufficiently to the national community that makes it possible for them to exist and thrive. Otherwise we will not be able to maintain our standard of living and quality of life.
The rise of transnational actors like multinational corporations and the decline of the power of nation states has negative consequences such as this, but it also promises new kinds of structures through which humans will govern themselves. Corporations have their own interests, and communities have theirs. Just as corporations protect themselves, communities will have to do the same. Corporations are driven by economic goals, but communities have moral concerns. This divergence in interest will inevitably force communities to find others ways of asserting themselves, as national governments find themselves unable to act. These communities may exist as places, but they may also form as virtual entities. Instead of looking at a global map with nations, we may be beginning to see the emergence of another kind of map with different governing entities.
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/
One further positive on government: the environment. If we didn’t have federal mandates, Lake Erie would still be burning, chemical and other toxic waste producing companies would be doing more damage to our soil and water, I and lots of others would be suffering from more severe asthma-induced air pollution (I’m personally still waiting for more restrictions on air particulates–it would help me to breathe), we’d continue to enjoy the benefits of DDT in our food, etc. Sometimes the mandates are too strict (I’ve seen that with our own small family property in the Boston area), but all in all I prefer to be able to eat, drink, breathe, and live on a healthy planet. If you want it the other way, take a look at Love Canal and other similar locations: that’s what we have to look forward to without government “improvements.”
Again, government (WE) sometimes does the job well and sometimes badly. That doesn’t mean we should either rely on government or remove it, but frankly we need to look to ourselves and ask ourselves what we’re doing wrong or not doing at all. It’s up to us. Government ineffectivenss, impersonalness, and bloat are just smptoms of our own attitudes and behaviors.
An email response to a friend of mine:
A couple of points. You’re right. There is a distinction between government-sponsored social action and social action in a Jewish context. But the distinction is NOT between “government” and the “individual.”
For one thing, “government” is composed of individuals–just like you and I, they’re members of our communities. There is no “us” and “them” (i.e. goverment and people). That’s an illusion. The government is “us”; if we don’t like it, that’s our problem, and we should elect new reps who will change it (obviously campaign finance reform may be necessary, but that’s ultimately in our hands too). Posing government as some kind of demonic bogeyman is just another form of scapegoating. It tries to fob off our problems on some other entity or group of individuals. It’s another component of the victim mentality prevalent in Western culture. Usually we think of ethnic groups as engaging in the discourse of victimiziation, but those who blame the government for all of our ills do exactly the same thing.
Government does good things, and government does bad things. It built our highway system. The Voting Rights Act allowed African-Americans to vote in the South. It gave us the GI Bill of WWII, which allowed a whole generation of GI’s to attend college and buy homes and helped to produce the modern American economy from which we still benefit. For all its faults, affirmative action and diversity have produced work forces that include women and minorities–I think of universities where I have worked, and I know that they would look very different without the pressure of government (probably hardly any women or minorities). Of course, government does bad things as well. Look at our tax code. Look at the huge bureacracies. Look at the welfare system. Look at the Post Office. Look at the mess we have for an educational system. In the end, what government does well and what government does badly simply reflects on US. Good or bad, in the end we are responsible. Instead of blaming government or the “system,” we need to take a good, hard look at ourselves.
As to Judaism on social action. Judaism does not view individuals as completely separate from their communities. That’s why at Yom Kippur we atone for sins that we ourselves as individuals may not have committed. And Judaism always views indidiuals as part of a larger Jewish community. And the rabbis wrote the Mishnah, Talmud, and Responsa for the express purpose of governance. They always envisioned a Jewish society in which these laws (civil, criminal, and religious) would run a nation. That’s because Judaism isn’t solely a religion, but also a culture, a people, and a nation. It’s both indidivual and group. The two go together. Tzedakah, etc., are OBLIGATIONS that Jews have both as indviduals and as a community. The rabbis viewed those who did not do their share not only as making an individual error, but as disturbing the harmony and well-being of the larger group and even the cosmos. And there were penalties when such behavior got out of hand. I’m not personally a big fan of a rabbinic government, but, when we refer to the rabbis, we should be clear: THAT’S WHAT THEY THOUGHT. It’s fine to emphasize the individual over the group (though I myself prefer a more balanced and integrated approach), but in any case that’s not how the rabbis thought or think even now in Israel.
The individualism that some in our country emphasize reflects a very different tradition from the rabbinic one. It’s a wonderful tradition that has helped to make our nation what it is today, but (in my opinion) it owes more to the Enlightenment than to any earlier religious traditions. As for myself, I believe that we can exist both as individuals with our own personal goals and needs and as members of larger communities with whom we share group commitments and oblgations. It’s always a balance, but that’s the challenge we have to acknowledge and face.
This is in response to a group discussion in our congregation on organic foods.
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.
This is an email response to a friend of mine:
We both agree then: The Government is US, and there are appropriate and inappropriate uses of government (federal, state, county, city). And you’re right that the GI bill and the federal interstate highway system are projects WE commisioned government to implement. That’s exactly my point: “They” is “us.”
But here’s where we disagree. The very projects that changed our lives are “improvement” projects. They are a form of “social action.” The GI Bill allowed a whole generation of people to move into the middle class. The interstate highway program (even though it began as a defense project) made it possible to truck goods quickly and efficiently all across the country and helped to unify this county by making it accessible to a much larger percentage of the population. Social Security and Medicare helped to transform the economic and social status of our elderly population. Affirmative Action (flawed as it is) made it possible for large numbers of women and minoirites to enter into careers and companies from which they would otherwise have been excluded. Etc. This all involves improvement. If you call that “socialism,” then I guess we’re stuck. I call it intelligent public policy. And nothing is value-free.
Further, “improvement” is related to “stability.” Look at Cincinnati and what happens when a city fails to deal with deeply rooted policies of racial prejudice. City government in Boston did something different. When confronted with the same problems, the mayor and council adopted a plan that changed the ethnic and racial makeup of its police force. Guess what? The problems diminished, and Boston (once synonymous with racial tension) has developed a reputation for decent community policing and relative ethnic harmony. In other words, if you want stability, you also need “improvement.” I don’t see how you do this without government (WE), though private corporations and non-profit groups are equally important. Cliched as it is, “private-public partnerships” is an excellent and apt phrase. By its very definition, government is involved in forms of social action. Otherwise, I guess we’re back to the state of nature.
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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