Gene Wilder and The Theology of Avram Belinsky

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Gene Wilder was not a religious Jew, but he once played one. In the under-rated classic The Frisco Kid (1979) Wilder plays a young rabbi, Avram Belinski, from Poland who is sent to America in the mid-1800s to transport a Torah to a San Francisco synagogue.  Belinsky ends up having a series of misadventures in the Wild West while befriending a tough but kind cowboy played by Harrison Ford.

Belinsky is presented as an un-armed man in a world armed to the teeth. As has been argued elsewhere, Belinsky is a holy shlemiel, a “wise fool” whose innocence and purity of heart (as well as his faithfulness to Shabbat, Torah and Jewish values) save him from pickle after pickle throughout the movie. All of this is somewhat surprising in a late 70s comedic Western. The film’s non-Jewish director, Robert Aldrich, surely deserves credit for this as well as the screenwriters- Michael Elias and Frank Shaw.

The Frisco Kid contains a hidden theological gem in a scene where Belinsky and a Native American chief discuss the nature of the Jewish God. In the preceding scene, which is excellent for its own reasons, Wilder and Ford are captured by a Native American tribe while trying to rescue Wilder’s Torah scroll, which has come into their hands. After they are tied up and brought before the tribe, the Chief comes to inquire who they are. Wilder at first greets him by talking in a condescending pidgeon english, prompting the Chiefly to comment wryly, “You don’t speak english very well.”

Ford breathlessly explains to the Chief, “He’s a holy man Chief, speaks to the spirits every morning and every night, and he’s so good and kind and gentle, just a sweetheart of a man. Why, even when we robbed a bank and the posse was chasing us, he wouldn’t ride on Saturday, no siree, because that’s his holy day he didn’t want to make the spirits angry.”

The Chief asks Wilder what he calls the scroll he has come to rescue, and after the Chief successfully masters Wilder’s yiddishe pronunciation of “Torah” he asks Wilder, “Will you trade your horse for Torah?” Receiving a “yes”, he continues,  “Your horse and your boots? And all of your clothes, and everything else you own?” Wilder replies “yes” each time, prompting the Chief to ask, “Even your knife?”

Wilder says he has no knife, eliciting gasps from the crowd and a curious awe from the Chief. “If I give you back Torah”, the Chief asks, wanting to test his captives spiritual mettle, “Will you purify your soul through fire?”

Wilder ascents and is lowered into the fire, preparing for his death. At the last moment, before he begins to burn, the Chief calls it off and returns to him his precious Torah scroll. “Rabbi With No Knife, you are a brave man”, the Chief concludes. To Ford he cannot resist the aside, “You who talk to Indians like little children, you have a big heart, though not as big as your mouth”. The chief lets them both free and later that night over a celebration where Wilder admires the Indigenous dancing for its freiliche qualities, the Chief pursues the question with him of whether “your God can make rain”. Wilder says his God can make rain, but doesn’t.

“Why not?”, the Chief asks.

“Because that’s not his department!”, cries Wilder in exasperation.

“But if he wanted to he could?”, the Chief presses.

“Yes.”

“What kind of God do you have?!”, the Chief says in bewilderment.

“Don’t say “my God”, he’s your God too!”

“Don’t give him to us, we have enough trouble with our own Gods!”

“But there’s only one God!”, Wilder replies.

“What does he do?”

“He can do anything!”

“Then why can’t he make rain?”

“Because he doesn’t make rain!”, cries Wilder. “He gives us strength when we’re suffering, compassion when all that we feel is hatred, courage when we’re searching around blindly like little mice in the darkness, but HE DOES NOT MAKE RAIN!” Wilder’s sentence is punctuated by a thunderclap and a downpour of rain.

“Of course,” says Wilder, “Sometimes, just like that! He’ll change his mind.”

This hilarious scene portrays a surprisingly deep and moral theology. The God Belinsky speaks of is not a God who is called upon in a quest for power or security. In Belinsky’s theology what is wanted is not land, not safety, not power, not even external peace, but rather moral courage, compassion, and wisdom, and these are the things that God grants.

In Belinsky’s theology the prayer that God answers is the prayer to be more of a mensch. In Belinsky’s view, the prayers that God wants are not those for peace, for protection, or even for healing, but rather those for being kinder, more brave, more wise. As another famous Jew once said, “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness,  and all other things will be added unto you.”

This post was originally featured on my Jewish philosophy website, Talis in Wonderland.

Darkness Descends on the American Election

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a Democratic candidate for President, speaks at Liberty University, Lynchburg, VA. Monday, September 14, 2015. Photo: Christopher Dilts/Bernie 2016

 

As the last few primary results come in, it is now close to certain that Hilary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee for president. Sanders’ accomplishment has been gargantuan- as well as transforming the tone and focus of the entire Democratic platform, he has come from so far behind in the race he was dismissed as a joke at the start to nearly dethroning Hillary. For many of us observers around the world, the descent of Bernie is the descent of darkness on this election cycle, leaving two singularly uninspiring contenders.

Bernie, despite being a Jewish socialist, has similar values to American presidents of long ago, and would have represented a return to the radicalism and deep egalitarianism of America at it’s best. He also would lead a return to a less socially, internationally and ecologically violent country on many fronts. Sanders is on the NRA’s enemy list, is more prone to education than incarceration, more confrontational towards police abuses and racism, critical of fracking and the fossil fuel industry, and is much less supportive of military intervention on the international stage.

Why is Sanders losing? Well, no doubt it is largely because many voters are attracted to Clinton’s positives: she is a woman; she is experienced in the highest echelons of power; she will protect the interests of the neoliberal status quo. No doubt some truly believe she is progressive or a feminist or has some other ethical principles they admire at her core. That her core is none of these things but rather the pursuit of power itself- equally true of her opponent, Trump- will no doubt be clear to discerning historians of the future.

Calling the election “stolen” or “rigged” is probably an overstatement. It is reasonable to note, however, that both the mainstream media and the Democratic establishment had stacked the decks against Bernie from the beginning. The super delegates who were committed to Clinton before the primaries began also cast a long shadow over the last several weeks.

Sanders’ supporters are angry, and some have become belligerent and abusive. No doubt today the media will begin drawing parallels to Trump’s violent supporters. This is a somewhat overwrought comparison, of course. Sanders’ supporters and Trump’s supporters are angry, yes, and it’s true that they share some of the same grievances- poverty, corrupt politicians, a feeling of disenfranchisement. Trump’s supporters want to rid the US of immigrants and Muslims, to push back against what they see as damaging progressive values, and to solve white America’s problems by re-asserting white supremacy. Sander’s supporters want medicine and education for all, an end to political bribery, an end to subsidies for the super-wealthy, reduced militarism, and justice and equality for all, including non-white Americans. These are important differences.

Sanders himself is reportedly feeling bitter and acting  irritably and combatively in the final days of his campaign. This is surely understandable. Sanders has been slogging away on the Senate floor for decades fighting for the same issues. Videos clearly showing him relentlessly hammering away for justice and reason in the halls of power, saying the same things year after year after year. Since running for President, he has seen a massive grassroots movement rise to support him- witness the massive crowds at his rallies in California, reportedly topping 60,000 people. His campaign has been marked by both principle and beauty- has anyone ever made campaign ads like his? An incredible roster of artists, academics, and activists rose to stand with Bernie, and despite his advanced age for a candidate- 74- his followers were marked more than anything by their youth.

At the same time, Sanders has watched as Clinton misrepresented him, clearly and knowingly lying about his positions. He has seen his campaign undermined in key ways by the machinations of the Democratic party. No doubt Sanders always felt his walk to the Presidency was a fragile thing and felt these tremors keenly, whether they were substantially responsible for the collapse of his campaign or not. Loss, for Sanders, is not just about him- it is about the victory of the establishment and “the 1%”. No wonder Sanders is bitter.

It appears the next president will be another Clinton. Clinton, friend to the wealthy, militarist, in favour of the death penalty, a promoter of fracking and fossil fuels, an architect of America’s addiction to incarceration, a supporter of disastrous overseas interventions. Clinton who changes her mind with the political winds. Secretive, dishonest Clinton. Clinton, who last month gave a speech on inequality wearing a $13,000 Armani jacket. Clinton: business as usual.

Sanders supporters are now adopting one of three postures: 1) they are fiercely insisting Sanders can still win; 2) they are embracing the “Sanders revolution” and focusing on how to carry forward the movement without relying on an Oval Office win; 3) they are overcome with depression and anger. The first response seems tainted with delusion; the third response is understandable but unproductive; the second is surely the best one. It is time for all of us to reflect on the importance of community activism and grassroots change versus the questionable hope offered by big politics.

   

 

 

 

 

 

Seeing With Two Eyes: Thoughts on Israel-Palestine

Portrait of a boy with the flag of Israel painted on his face.

Today is Yom Ha’atsma’ut, Israeli Independence Day. My son went to his Jewish pre-school dressed in white and blue to celebrate, and I felt that feeling many Jews know at times like this, the strange mixture of pride, joy and aching sadness. It is tempting to try to simplify the hearts feelings and cancel out one of these clusters of emotions.  I could celebrate the triumphs of Israel and mourn it’s victimhood at the hands of Arab states and Palestinian Arab terrorists, denying that Israel shares any substantial guilt for the suffering of the stateless Palestinian Arabs and blaming it all on the violence of Palestinian Arab political culture; or I could declare Israel a “catastrophe” and blame it for Palestinian Arab and Jewish suffering, seeing the Palestinian Arabs as innocent victims of Israeli-Jewish nationalism and greed. Either choice would simplify my tortured emotions and also provide me with a custom built echo-chamber: either the “pro-Israel” community or the “pro-Palestine” community, where I could find tailor made biased news reports, inflammatory rhetoric, and the twin toxins of self-piteous victimhood and confident self-righteousness.

It is so hard to hold together in one mind the narrative and suffering and humanity of Israel and the narrative and suffering and humanity of Palestinian Arabs. So few people do it well. Those who understand the history of Zionism and Israeli political and social culture and defend Israel from the many unjust accusations hurled at her are so often dismissive of the real role that Israeli militarism, right-wing Jewish nationalism, and the settlements have played in perpetuating the conflict; so often emotionally numb to the extremity of the humiliation and suffering of Palestinian Arabs under the occupation of the disputed territories. Those who have listened intently to the Palestinian Arabs and their stories of human rights violations, poverty, suffering and death, often dismiss the role that Arab hostility to Israel, the cynical refusal to resettle Palestinian Arabs in Arab countries, Islamic anti-semitism, and the Palestinian choice of violence as the main instrument of liberation have played in perpetuating the conflict.

Dogen Zenji, the great Japanese Zen master, said that a person of wisdom must see “with two eyes, not one”. I have begun to find the one-eyed vision of so many commentators on this conflict incredibly tedious. It is so much easier to see with one eye. One can dine on the simple, pleasurable fare of an easy, smooth narrative with a side of sour self-pity and a sweet pastry of strident self-righteousness to wash it all down. Yet this narrative is not simple, and as the Israeli author Amos Oz said wonderfully in his How To Cure a Fanatic, “this is not a wild west movie where all we have to do is decide who the good guy is and who the bad guy is and then cheer for the right one.”

So there is no resolution to the feelings of my heart as I watch my son get ready for a classroom tour of  “Israel” in a pretend airplane. I refuse not to celebrate, and I refuse not to mourn.

 

   

 

The Other Jew at The Vatican

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Bernie Sanders’ acceptance of an inviation to speak at the Vatican drew a lot of attention this week.  J.J. Goldberg speculated in the Forward about Sander’s embodiment of the Jewish social justice tradition and the Vatican’s recognition of such implied in the invitation. Sanders was quoted in the NY Times saying that he thought Francis has played “an extraordinary role, and with great courage” in getting the world to think more about the “moral economy and how we have to deal with economic and environmental and social injustice.”  Sanders continued: “I would just be kicking myself for the rest of my life if I rejected this opportunity, so I’m delighted to be going.”

The Hill cited the perplexity many observers felt over Sanders’ decision to leave the campaign trail for the trip just days before the New York primary. But the trip is actually pure Sanders- he has chosen the sheer beauty and idealism of the trip over staying in NY to drum up support for his candidacy. And alright, alright, maybe he’s canny- after all, is there a better imprimatur on Sanders status as a real global force than an invitation to the Vatican?  Sanders’ main vulnerability is the perception that he is an ungrounded idealist. The more official affirmation he gets, the better. Nevertheless the trip does seem a gamble, at least as far as the NY primary goes.

Gathering less attention is the other Jew at the conference: Jeffrey Sachs. Economist Sachs is scheduled to give the keynote address, examining changes in the global economy since the writing of Centesimus Annus, and thus visioning how John Paul’s 1991 papal encyclical letter on the economy and worker’s rights can be applied now.

Sachs is a powerhouse.  Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, he is widely considered one of the world’s leading experts on economic development and the fight against poverty. Sachs is is special adviser to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on the Millennium Development Goals, a position he also held under Kofi Annan. He is director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network and a member of the International Advisory Council of the Center for Social and Economic Research (CASE). Sachs has authored three New York Times bestsellers: The End of Poverty (2005), Common Wealth (2008), and The Price of Civilization (2011). He was named one of Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” in 2004 and 2005, and was awarded the Blue Planet Prize in 2015 for his contributions to solving global environmental problems.  He is a heavyweight. And he’s on Team Sanders, acting as foreign policy advisor. When Paul Krugman , who has been consistently critical of Sanders, published a harsh piece in the NY Times last week, Sachs tweeted, “It’s incredible that a silly rant like this passes for commentary at the NYT.” Sachs’ pitch for Sanders before the upcoming primary: “We have a real chance for a President with great values, honesty, decency, experience & vision. @SenSanders for the NY Primary on April 19!”

Goldberg is right to argue that Sanders and Sachs represent a particular strain of Jewish values concerned more than anything with the stranger, the widow and the orphan, and critical of militarism and kings. That tradition is the prophetic tradition, as I’ve argued elsewhere.  

Bernie Sanders’ Speech at the Vatican

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Here is the text of his prepared remarks in full:

“I am honored to be with you today and was pleased to receive your invitation to speak to this conference of The Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. Today we celebrate the encyclical Centesimus Annus and reflect on its meaning for our world a quarter-century after it was presented by Pope John Paul II. With the fall of Communism, Pope John Paul II gave a clarion call for human freedom in its truest sense: freedom that defends the dignity of every person and that is always oriented towards the common good.

The Church’s social teachings, stretching back to the first modern encyclical about the industrial economy, Rerum Novarum in 1891, to Centesimus Annus, to Pope Francis’s inspiring encyclical Laudato Si’ this past year, have grappled with the challenges of the market economy. There are few places in modern thought that rival the depth and insight of the Church’s moral teachings on the market economy.

Over a century ago, Pope Leo XIII highlighted economic issues and challenges in Rerum Novarum that continue to haunt us today, such as what he called “the enormous wealth of a few as opposed to the poverty of the many.”

And let us be clear. That situation is worse today. In the year 2016, the top one percent of the people on this planet own more wealth than the bottom 99 percent, while the wealthiest 60 people – 60 people – own more than the bottom half – 3 1/2 billion people. At a time when so few have so much, and so many have so little, we must reject the foundations of this contemporary economy as immoral and unsustainable.

The words of Centesimus Annus likewise resonate with us today. One striking example:

Furthermore, society and the State must ensure wage levels adequate for the maintenance of the worker and his family, including a certain amount for savings. This requires a continuous effort to improve workers’ training and capability so that their work will be more skilled and productive, as well as careful controls and adequate legislative measures to block shameful forms of exploitation, especially to the disadvantage of the most vulnerable workers, of immigrants and of those on the margins of society. The role of trade unions in negotiating minimum salaries and working conditions is decisive in this area. (Para15)

The essential wisdom of Centesimus Annus is this: A market economy is beneficial for productivity and economic freedom. But if we let the quest for profits dominate society; if workers become disposable cogs of the financial system; if vast inequalities of power and wealth lead to marginalization of the poor and the powerless; then the common good is squandered and the market economy fails us. Pope John Paul II puts it this way: profit that is the result of “illicit exploitation, speculation, or the breaking of solidarity among working people . . . has not justification, and represents an abuse in the sight of God and man.” (Para43).

We are now twenty-five years after the fall of Communist rule in Eastern Europe. Yet we have to acknowledge that Pope John Paul’s warnings about the excesses of untrammeled finance were deeply prescient. Twenty-five years after Centesimus Annus, speculation, illicit financial flows, environmental destruction, and the weakening of the rights of workers is far more severe than it was a quarter century ago. Financial excesses, indeed widespread financial criminality on Wall Street, played a direct role in causing the world’s worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

We need a political analysis as well as a moral and anthropological analysis to understand what has happened since 1991. We can say that with unregulated globalization, a world market economy built on speculative finance burst through the legal, political, and moral constraints that had once served to protect the common good. In my country, home of the world’s largest financial markets, globalization was used as a pretext to deregulate the banks, ending decades of legal protections for working people and small businesses. Politicians joined hands with the leading bankers to allow the banks to become “too big to fail.” The result: eight years ago the American economy and much of the world was plunged into the worst economic decline since the 1930s. Working people lost their jobs, their homes and their savings, while the government bailed out the banks.

Inexplicably, the United States political system doubled down on this reckless financial deregulation, when the U.S. Supreme Court in a series of deeply misguided decisions, unleashed an unprecedented flow of money into American politics. These decisions culminated in the infamous Citizen United case, which opened the financial spigots for huge campaign donations by billionaires and large corporations to turn the U.S. political system to their narrow and greedy advantage. It has established a system in which billionaires can buy elections. Rather than an economy aimed at the common good, we have been left with an economy operated for the top 1 percent, who get richer and richer as the working class, the young and the poor fall further and further behind. And the billionaires and banks have reaped the returns of their campaign investments, in the form of special tax privileges, imbalanced trade agreements that favor investors over workers, and that even give multinational companies extra-judicial power over governments that are trying to regulate them.

But as both Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis have warned us and the world, the consequences have been even direr than the disastrous effects of financial bubbles and falling living standards of working-class families. Our very soul as a nation has suffered as the public lost faith in political and social institutions. As Pope Francis has stated: “Man is not in charge today, money is in charge, money rules.” And the Pope has also stated: “We have created new idols. The worship of the golden calf of old has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal.”

And further: “While the income of a minority is increasing exponentially, that of the majority is crumbling. This imbalance results from ideologies which uphold the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation, and thus deny the right of control to States, which are themselves charged with providing for the common good.”

Pope Francis has called on the world to say: “No to a financial system that rules rather than serves” in Evangeli Gaudium. And he called upon financial executives and political leaders to pursue financial reform that is informed by ethical considerations. He stated plainly and powerfully that the role of wealth and resources in a moral economy must be that of servant, not master.

The widening gaps between the rich and poor, the desperation of the marginalized, the power of corporations over politics, is not a phenomenon of the United States alone. The excesses of the unregulated global economy have caused even more damage in the developing countries. They suffer not only from the boom-bust cycles on Wall Street, but from a world economy that puts profits over pollution, oil companies over climate safety, and arms trade over peace. And as an increasing share of new wealth and income goes to a small fraction of those at the top, fixing this gross inequality has become a central challenge. The issue of wealth and income inequality is the great economic issue of our time, the great political issue of our time, and the great moral issue of our time. It is an issue that we must confront in my nation and across the world.

Pope Francis has given the most powerful name to the predicament of modern society: the Globalization of Indifference. “Almost without being aware of it,” he noted, “we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.” We have seen on Wall Street that financial fraud became not only the norm but in many ways the new business model. Top bankers have shown no shame for their bad behavior and have made no apologies to the public. The billions and billions of dollars of fines they have paid for financial fraud are just another cost of doing business, another short cut to unjust profits.

Some might feel that it is hopeless to fight the economic juggernaut, that once the market economy escaped the boundaries of morality it would be impossible to bring the economy back under the dictates of morality and the common good. I am told time and time again by the rich and powerful, and the mainstream media that represent them, that we should be “practical,” that we should accept the status quo; that a truly moral economy is beyond our reach. Yet Pope Francis himself is surely the world’s greatest demonstration against such a surrender to despair and cynicism. He has opened the eyes of the world once again to the claims of mercy, justice and the possibilities of a better world. He is inspiring the world to find a new global consensus for our common home.

I see that hope and sense of possibility every day among America’s young people. Our youth are no longer satisfied with corrupt and broken politics and an economy of stark inequality and injustice. They are not satisfied with the destruction of our environment by a fossil fuel industry whose greed has put short term profits ahead of climate change and the future of our planet. They want to live in harmony with nature, not destroy it. They are calling out for a return to fairness; for an economy that defends the common good by ensuring that every person, rich or poor, has access to quality health care, nutrition and education.

As Pope Francis made powerfully clear last year in Laudato Si’, we have the technology and know-how to solve our problems – from poverty to climate change to health care to protection of biodiversity. We also have the vast wealth to do so, especially if the rich pay their way in fair taxes rather than hiding their funds in the world’s tax and secrecy havens- as the Panama Papers have shown.

The challenges facing our planet are not mainly technological or even financial, because as a world we are rich enough to increase our investments in skills, infrastructure, and technological know-how to meet our needs and to protect the planet. Our challenge is mostly a moral one, to redirect our efforts and vision to the common good. Centesimus Annus, which we celebrate and reflect on today, and Laudato Si’, are powerful, eloquent and hopeful messages of this possibility. It is up to us to learn from them, and to move boldly toward the common good in our time.”

Courtesy of Time.com

Hilary Putnam: Secular Philosopher and Religious Jew (July 31, 1926-March 13 2016)

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“On March 13, America lost one of the greatest philosophers this nation has ever produced……there is no philosopher since Aristotle who has made creative and foundational contributions in all the following areas: logic, philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of science, metaphysics, philosophy of mind, ethics, political thought, philosophy of economics. philosophy of literature.”

Martha C. Nussbaum (Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics, The University of Chicago Huffpost March 14)

Hilary Putnam was born in Chicago and raised in a secular family with a left-leaning gentile father and a Jewish mother. One of Putnam’s fellow pupils at school was another left leaning Jew, Noam Chomsky, who remained a friend throughout his life. In fact Putnam’s last post at his blog Sardonic Comment was about a debate he was having with Chomsky. Putnam’s first teaching posts were in math and philosophy at Northwestern(1952-53) and Princeton (1953-61) and then as professor of the philosophy of science at MIT (1961-65) until his move to Harvard as professor of philosophy.

Putnam focused on philosophy of science, epistemology, and the mind. He was a critic of both Behaviourism and Type-Identity theory, each of which seek to reduce mental states to physical ones. Behaviourism claims that mental states are simply what we do, or are inclined to do, in certain circumstances (being in pain, for instance, is just the way we typically react to physical injury by flinching from its cause, crying out, etc.) and Putnam proposed a thought experiment: would stoic Spartans trained not to react to pain thus not be in pain?

He vigorously critiqued Type-Identity theory, which holds that  mental states will “turn out to be” particular types of brain states just as we have found heat is “just molecular motion” and water “just H2O”. Putnam argued that mental states are “multiply realisable”, i.e. the same mental state, for instance an experience of pain or desire, could be generated by different physical bodies- humans, cats, or whales. Therefore one can not be reduced to the other.

Putnam also famously argued that meaning was neither subjective nor objective. Meaning depends on external states of affairs; but the nature of these as we experience them are relative to language. “Thus the world is both ‘objective’ and not ‘objective’; we cannot ask what is the case without choosing some system of concepts (and no one system is uniquely fitted to describe ‘the world’); but once we have a system of concepts in place, what is true or false is not simply a matter of what we think.” Our linguistic system is thus like a fundamental axiom: once it is set, which statements within it are true or false are not subjectively so but objectively are so dependent on the rules of how our language and the external reality interact.

While revolutionising philosophy, Putnam was also involved with radical politics. At MIT in 1963 he organised against the Vietnam war, and at Harvard he organised campus protests and publicly burned draft cards. In 1965 he became a member of the Progressive Labor party (promoting, in his own words, an “idiosyncratic version of Marxism-Leninism”), and would stand outside factory gates to discuss politics with the workers. On campus he disrupted the classes of Richard Herrnstein (co-author of the allegedly racist Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life), and he lived in a commune with students. As Jane O’ Grady wrote in a recent obituary, “for a time his students had to spend his lectures twisted round to look at him because he refused to sit at the front; although, in his more dogmatic Marxist phase, he spoke on a podium and advised students to read Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book. The Harvard establishment was in despair”.

Putnam took intense pleasure in thought. After reading aloud from a philosopher’s work in a lecture, he would laugh with delight. Putnam valued the willingness to think in complexity and nuance, famously saying, “Any philosophy that can be put in a nutshell belongs in one.” As Martha Nussbaum recently wrote, “The glory of Putnam’s way of philosophizing was its total vulnerability. Because he really did follow the argument wherever it led, he often changed his views, and being led to change was to him not distressing but profoundly delightful, evidence that he was humble enough to be worthy of his own rationality”. In fact Putnam became so well known for changing his mind that the Philosophical Lexicon named a moment of intellectual time a “hilary”, as in, “That’s what I thought a few hilarys ago.” 

In 2008 Putnam published the surprising Jewish Philosophy As A Guide To Life, which analyzes the thought of Wittginstein, Buber, Rozensweig, and Levinas (a group he called 3 ¼ Jews). In the introduction to that book Putnam describes how he came to write it. In 1975 the older of his two sons surprised him by wanting a bar mitzvah. Putnam got in touch with a Rabbi he had met and been impressed with years previously, Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold. Gold had been Rabbi of Harvard Hillel when Putnam gave an erev shabbat talk there on his reasons for opposing the Vietnam war. Putnam and his wife agreed to attend services with their son for a year while the boy prepared for his bar mitzvah, and by the end of the year the service and prayers, in Putnam’s words, “had become an essential part of our lives”. Putnam davenned every day for the rest of his life. How did a self-described “naturalistic philosopher” reconcile with his newfound religiousness?

According to Putnam, for many years he simply did not reconcile them. The philosopher and the religious person lived side by side but did not enter into direct confrontation. This could not be the final resolution for a questing mind like Putnam’s, of course. In an attempt to explain his perspective, over which he said that he still struggled and expected to struggle, Putnam wrote:

“Physics indeed describes the properties of matter in motion, but reductive naturalists forget that the world has many levels of form, including the level of morally significant human action, and the idea that all of these can be reduced to the level of physics I believe to be a fantasy. And, like the classic pragmatists, I do not see reality as morally indifferent: reality, as Dewey saw, makes demands on us. Values may be created by human beings and human cultures, but I see them as made in response to demands that we do not create. It is reality that determines whether our responses are adequate or inadequate. Similarly, my friend Gordon Kauffman may be right in saying that “the available God” is a human construct, but I am sure he would agree that we construct our images of God in response to demands that do not create, and that it is not up to us whether our responses are adequate or inadequate.”

Ruth Anna Putnam has said, “If you would like to make a gift in Hilary’s memory, please donate to Southern Poverty Law Center, 400 Washington Avenue, Montgomery, Alabama 36104.”

A Season of Cooperation: The Good Interfaith News

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For the religious world, the last year has been a battle scarred one. The rise of ISIS has spelt the near-extinction of several Middle Eastern Christian communities as well as a severe threat to lesser known religious groups such as the Yazidis and the Shabak. Ahmaddiyas and the Bah’ai continue to suffer persecution in the Middle East, and Buddhist Myanmar continues it’s genocidal policies against Rohingya Muslims, even under new government of Aung San Suu Kyi. Meanwhile in the US and elsewhere there have been violent attacks against Muslims in response to terrorism in the US and Europe. Some Christian leaders in the West have responded with a recourse to militarism, such as Jerry Falwell Jr., who urged his seminary students at Liberty University to arm themselves. The 2016 Republican candidates have combined public avowals of Christianity with an embrace of militarism, xenophobia, and anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Yet the picture as a whole is not bleak. Taking the above example of pistol packing theologians for one, Falwell’s statements sparked massive criticism throughout the US Christian community, including from the leading  Evangelical pastor John Piper in the Washington Post.  Despite the fearful shutting of doors against Syrian refugees in many US states, the inspiring stories of nations and communities welcoming them far outshadow that show of inhumanity. In the US, leading centrist and right of centre Christian pastors and Academics (aside from the expected denunciations from the Christian left) like David Gushee, Max Lucado, Russel Moore and others have come out against Drumpf and the behaviour of the GOP.

In Canada there were several examples of inspiring interfaith cooperation in the last months. In BC synagogues raised tens of thousands of dollars to sponsor refugee families. Across Canada many congregations stepped up to sponsor refugee families as well. Jewish communities are also  working with the Blended Visa Office-Referred Program which matches private sponsors with people fleeing war that the UN Refugee Agency has “identified for resettlement.” This program matches support from donors (who agree to sponsor the refugee for six months) with a government pledge of an additional six months of support.

In Montreal, Jews and Muslims joined hands to help Syrian refugees together, and Pope Francis called for every Catholic diocese to house one refugee family. One of the season’s most inspiring stories came from Peterborough, where a Synagogue donated the use of its space to members of a Mosque destroyed by arson. In addition many cold Facebook feeds were warmed recently by the Israeli restaurant that gave a 50% discount on any meal shared by Arabs and Jews during the recent surge of Palestinian terror attacks.

There were also heartening stories from within the Muslim community. In Kenya, Muslims on a bus refused to separate from the Christian passengers, preventing their execution by Jihadis, recalling the protective ring formed around a Jewish synagogue by 1,000 Muslims in Norway earlier in the year. In New Jersey, Muslims for Peace organized a Christmas Party for youth at risk, and in Montreal Muslims, Jews and Sikhs joined hands on Christmas to serve food to the homeless at the Old Brewery Mission.In Vancouver students from RJDS joined with students from Al-Zahraa Islamic Academy to feed the homeless, continuing a tradition the two communities have developed.

Meanwhile in Jewish-Christian relations the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II document which radically changed the Jewish-Catholic relationship arrived. Two important documents were released to coincide with it, one by a colloquiam of Orthodox Jews and one by the Vatican. The Jewish statement used the boldest language yet in a document of this kind, asserting that Christianity is “not an error” and is an intentional part of God’s plan to redeem the world. The Vatican document discouraged institutional evangelization of Jews and affirmed that Jews are saved by their own covenant with God outside of accepting the historical Jesus as saviour.

Reason for hope exists on all fronts. The real religious war is not between the religious and the irreligious, or between one religion and another. The real “holy war” is between those who live their religion as a way to love God and human beings, walking in humility, love and the a quest for ever growing understanding and those who pervert their traditions to serve the causes of nationalism, war, fear and hatred. Religion becomes a weapon when the human passions are idolized above the wisdom of God, of whom “all Her paths are pleasant and all Her ways peace (Proverbs 3:17)”. May we have the wisdom and courage to listen to the “still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:12) urging nonviolence, justice and humility.

 

Zaida: Remembering My Grandfather

Meyer Gindin photo obit

This is an unusually personal piece. I wrote it last October while my grandfather, or “zaida” in Yiddish, was dying of cancer and finished it shortly after he passed away. My zaida was a holocaust survivor and an amazing man who was an inspiration to the whole family and beyond. There are few survivors left. In a few years there may be none left, aside from a few people like my Dad who were children during the Shoah or in the DP camps after the war and can remember very little of what happened. 

I.

It is 1951. My zaida is a greenhorn just arrived in New York City. He has spent the last 12 years trying to survive and save his family from pain and death at the hands of their foiled executioners, millions strong and armed with guns, warplanes, radios, and all of the resources of the most advanced country on earth. He has succeeded.

He cannot speak english. He is looking for his one surviving brother, who is much older than him. Because this one brother left the old country for America when my zaida was a child, my zaida was later kicked out of the Russian army for having American ties and sent to a Siberian labour camp. He survived that too. My zaida’s name, Myer, means “light”. His wife, my baba, has a name which means “beautiful”.

Myer is following another Jew down the street. They are speaking Yiddish together, and Myer has gone from being lost to being found.

II.

My zaida Myer is led into a room where the voices add Russian to Yiddish. An old man sits among the others playing cards. It is his long lost older brother, the only other survivor.

His brother and the other New York Jews set Myer up with a room to stay in, money, food, and friends. He has never had it so good. After a few weeks he begs them to find him some work but they are not in a hurry. They know what he has been through.

Myer has been arguing with his wife about whether they should stay or go to Winnipeg, Canada, where her parents Gedala and Hyitl have been resettled, having gotten out of Europe sooner. She wins, which he will complain about for the rest of his life.

III.

1935. My grandmother’s father, Gedala, has put all of his money into sending his daughters Rya and Sarah to a tarbut, a new kind of Zionist Jewish school where they will learn the emerging modern style of Hebrew and get a secular education as well as education in Jewish culture. On the way to school every morning my Baba Rya and her older sister Sarah walk fearfully, their eyes peeled for non-Jewish Poles who gather to throw stones at them, spit on them, call them dirty Jews. My Baba will acquire Hebrew with a modern sefardit pronunciation. She will weather the humiliation of being pulled out of school one year because Gedala can’t afford it. She will learn to play the mandolin, and will do so until a nervous condition developed during the holocaust scars and disfigures her hands.

IV.

My zaida is late for shul. His older brother, who is an atheist and a marxist, slaps him for being late to the religious service. “Show papa some respect!”, he barks. Papa, Reb Shmuel, is an orthodox litvak, a non-Hasidic but pious Jew who teaches Talmud and Rashi in the synagogue and acts as a cantor during the high holidays. Myer will follow in his brother’s footsteps, join a Jewish socialist group, and hang out with the Red Army soldiers stationed in his town of Glemboka. It’s those soldiers who will tell him that the pact between Russia and Germany will fail and the Germans will come. They tell Myer to leave with his family before the Nazis get there.

When Myer tells his family he is leaving and why they are unmoved- they do not believe the stories of the Germans could possibly be true. Myer is adamant, already showing the prescience and cunning which will serve him so well later. He begs to be allowed to take one of his brothers, but his parents are firm that he will not break up the family. His father touches his head and bensches (blesses) him. Myer leaves alone and heads for Russia.

V.

1941. My baba Rya is taking food and clothing into a detainment complex where her father is kept. Drafted into the Polish army, Gedala is now a POW. His wife Chayitl and his two daughters are staying near the camp and doing what they can to take care of him. One day the family meets a handsome young Russian officer, a Jew, who is helping to get some basic amenities to the many migrants and refugees who need it- firewood, boots, bread. The young officer takes an interest in Rya, who is a beautiful, diminutive teenage girl of 17. Eventually they will marry in a back alley somewhere in Russia, secretively, hurriedly,  with a hastily put together minyan (quorum), Myer and Rya Gindin.

VI.

Through a series of unlikely events Myer has a key position in the leadership of a Russian munitions plant in Siberia. Months before he had been called before a committee of three men from the Party, one of them a Jew, to be examined as a possible candidate for helping with the plant. The men asked Myer a few questions and dismissed him. Myer took a shot. He had spotted the Jew. Figuring he might play on the man’s compassion, as he turned around to leave he faked a limp (which would mean he as useless as infantry). The man stopped him. “Amcha?”, he asked in Hebrew.Who are your people?

Yisroel, Myer replied in his ashkenazi Hebrew. He was given the position. Through superhumanly hard work he rose in the plant hierarchy, gaining the trust of the upper managers. They put him in charge of finding resources- scrap metal, industrial materials- to be turned into the weapons of war against Germany.

VII.

My zaida arrives cold and exhausted in Glemboka. He has gone back to see what has become of his family, and to tell them of his marriage. He rode the rails all the way there, a huge distance which took a weeks travel. The Jewish area of his village, the largest part of the village, is a ghost town. His family home is empty. In a shack erected outside of the home he finds the family’s shabbes goy- the gentile housekeeper they hired to look after the farm and house without the restrictions Jewish law placed on them. She tells him the story.

The Nazis did come, and they exterminated the town’s Jews. Myer’s family was lined up by a giant grave and gunned into a pit. Shmuel, his wife Bluma, Yankl, Shepsl, Yehuda, Baruch, Avraham, Zerah, Mendel, Ephram, Raphael, their wives and children….The shabbes goy saved some of their things in a locked room in case Myer came back. He takes a pair of boots for Rya and leaves the rest for her. He walks back to the train, back to Russia. For the rest of his life he will search phone books for Gindins. Maybe one of them escaped. Maybe.   

VIII. 

1943. My zaida is standing trial before an army tribunal, court-martialled. He is on trial for black market racketeering. He was turned in by a man, a barber, who he helped get a pair of boots. Someone planted whisky in his room, and he is being accused of hustling resources and moonshine. His government appointed defence lawyer is useless and Myer is sentenced to ten years in prison.

That night his dead father, Shmuel, comes to him in a dream. Make an application, my son, he says, and you will be freed.  Myer awakes to see a white bird tapping on his window, and then it flies away. Myer follows his father’s advice and gets an acquittal.

IX.

Myer and Rya cross European borders underground, looking for safe haven.They end up at one point in Ural, Siberia, where their first child is born. They name him after Myer’s father Shmuel. Myer refines his hustling abilities, making one potato become, after a day of trading among the poor, a small meal- maybe a loaf of bread and condensed milk for his wife and child.

A Jewish organization called bracha (blessing) gets them into Austria as the Allies win, and they end up in A DP camp on the river Danube where they will live in squalid, cramped conditions with other holocaust survivors for five years awaiting a country to immigrate to. The camp is near Linz, where Hitler was born. My Dad, whose Hebrew name Yehuda derives from one of Myer’s murdered brothers, is born there and lives there until the age of five.

My baba and zaida tell me of their flight into Austria, walking through snow covered forests with broken shoes, my baba’s pregnant belly poking through her undersized dress. They sneak across the border at night, my zaida begging one year old Shmuel to be silent, which, miraculously, he is. As soon as they step into the warmth of the safehouse Shmuelke begins to wail.

XI.

After my baba and zaida moved to Winnipeg my zaida took several jobs: a denim cutter, laying floor tiles, cutting glass. They lived in the poor part of Winnipeg’s North End. Myer eventually bought into a convenience store, and then borrowed money to invest in real estate. Working constantly, figures dancing in his brain, forming alliances and cultivating connections, Myer eventually bought and sold dozens of hotels and parcels of urban real state and became a wealthy man. He supported his sons, buying them property, paying off their debts, buying them businesses, making investments on their behalf. He helped put his grandchildren through school, financed their housing, flew them to Florida to visit him and Rya in the Winter or Winnipeg to visit them in the summer. Nights he did not sleep. He read voraciously, mostly about WW2 history, Jewish history, European history, understanding what happened in ever finer detail, spreading out through trajectories of historical space and time.

XII.

It is 2003 and I am a Buddhist monk. I am sitting on a wooden platform in hand-dyed burnt orange robes, with a shaven head and eyebrows. My Zaida Myer, and my uncle Sam are there, in an impossible and surprising gesture of solidarity. They are sitting across from me on a wooden bench peppering me with questions. They will ask me more questions in 20 minutes about the logic and intricacies of Buddhist monastic life than I have received in the previous two years. They head back to their motel room after agreeing to return the next morning to spend the day together.

The next day Sam, Myer and I go to a bookstore for coffee. Sam goes to the bathroom and my zaida leans in toward me. “Mettyu”, he says in his Yiddish accent, “I want you to know something. I might have my ideas about what you should do. And you might have your ideas. But whatever you do, and wherever you go, I will always love you.”

XIII.

2015: My father’s voice sounds lighter on the phone now. He has had a night and day to digest his father’s diagnosis with terminal cancer, and his natural philosophical optimism is kicking in. “I gave him the Feldman argument”, he said, citing the good death of his friend Bill Feldman a decade earlier, “People die all the time without knowing it’s coming. This way you get to put all of your affairs in order, say goodbye to everyone.”

In the background I can hear my zaida talking, then singing. My Dad holds up the phone so I can hear his amused, Russian-Yiddish sounding singing voice intoning, “I’ve got plenty of nothing….and nothing is plenty for me!”

IV.

 A week later My zaida gets the prognosis: 3-6 months. “What if I want to make it quicker?”, he asks. The doctor changes the subject. We visit him a couple of weeks later. My son lies in bed with him and they make funny noises.We talk privately. He says to me, “70 years of work, what did I accomplish?”

Thinking he is fishing I say, “What did you accomplish? You built an entire family! Everything we have is because of you. You built everything.”

“Did I?”, he asks, “Maybe it was God. I don’t know.”

The next day I am asking him questions about the war, clearing up parts of the story. He tells me my Dad got him a book about Jesus (Killing Jesus) a couple of months before. “Do you believe Jesus existed?”, he asks.

“Sure”, I say.

“Who killed him?”, he asks.

I am not sure what to answer with, so I choose what seems safe: “Pontius Pilate.”

“Both sides played a part”, he says correctly, making a matching hand gesture. “So we both have blood on our hands.”

I nod.

“He was a socialist”, he says dismissively. “If they hadn’t killed him nobody would remember him.”

I don’t say anything. He begins talking about God, denying his existence. My baba told me in the night he was asking her why God was punishing him. “He doesn’t talk like that”, she said. I begin asking him about his father, who came to him in a dream and saved his life after his death. I want to do a small something to turn his thoughts that way. Where did his father come from? Might there be something beyond the grave? Family members come in and disrupt the conversation. I make one last attempt: “Your father, he came to you….where did he come from?”

“He was dead!”

“I know…”

He loses the thread, starts talking about his trial. About going back to Glemboke during the war. He begins weeping. “When I walked into the forest, blood came up through the soil.”

We talk a little more, and then it is time to go. We exchange gestures of affection and I tell him I will call him the next day from Vancouver. When I call from Vancouver after that he is not well enough to talk. Two weeks later he is moved, at his own request, into hospice care. Before he goes to sleep that night he turns to his wife and asks, “Do you want to come with me?” That night he dies during his sleep, like a heavy, broken tree falling finally to the earth.

 

Four Thoughts of Dogen on Time

clock-01

Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) is widely considered one of Japan’s greatest philosophers. He was a monk in the Soto Zen tradition and a poet and religious essayist. He left behind him a body of writings called the Shobogenzo which contains almost 100 essays which resemble what in the West would be called “theology”, except that they deal with Zen Buddhist preoccupations. The essays are bold, labyrinthine, beautiful and profound. Today they are a major inspiration for contemporary Soto practitioners and have spawned a small academic industry of interpretations. One essay, Uji (For The Time Being), deals with the nature of time. Below I’ve posted a contemplation on four of Dogen’s thoughts in Uji, from a collection of Dogen’s writings co-edited by my friend and teacher Peter Levitt.

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Do not think that time merely flies away. Do not see flying away as the only function of time. If time merely flies away, you would be separated from time. The reason you do not clearly understand the time being is that you think of time only as passing.

We often think of time as something people are losing. Time flows by, and we lose more and more time. It is as if time were sand in an hourglass flowing away, or as if we were all leaking time.

Dogen is pointing out that just as all things have a spatial dimension, all things have a temporal dimension. Just as the space of a thing is not separate from it but part of it, so the time of a thing is not separate from it but a part of it.  Time is not just something “passing away”. Time is being, and being is time. We do not lose or gain time. We are time.

Mountains are time. Oceans are time. If they were not time, there would be no mountains or oceans. Do not think that mountains and oceans here and now are not time. If time is annihilated, mountains and oceans are annihilated.

Time is as much a part of me as breath, skin, bone, or thinking. Time is actually even more fundamentally a part of me: I can live for moments without breath, skin, bone or thinking, but not for one moment without time. Not just without time: without being time. When we resist time we become divided against ourselves. We should love time, because time is our most intimate friend. Our intimacy with time is our intimacy with ourselves. To resist time is to resist being a creature. Yet we only exist as creatures. We only exist as limited beings. Those limitations are not limitations on our being but conditions for existing at all.

The way the self arrays itself is the form of the entire world. See each thing in this entire world as a moment of time.

The self- you or I- arranges itself as a world. We exist always as a world, and that world has flowing through its fabric both space and time. Every thing is thus a moment of time. A car is a moment of time. A word is a moment of time. A cloud, a coffee, you, me, are all moments of time.

Spring always flows through spring. Although flowing itself is not spring, flowing occurs throughout spring.

I flow throughout myself. Although flowing itself is not me (since we all flow) flowing occurs throughout me. In my very nature I flow, just as a river or, as Dogen would say, a mountain flows.

Is there any part of me that doesn’t flow? Most Buddhist philosophers have said that there is. Dogen’s view on this is controversial. I believe he would say that there is, and that part is what is experienced when “body and mind drop off” (shinjin datsuraku). Dogen says that when this happens “the original face appears”. Thus something appears. It is not the cessation of experience.

Some traditions, notably Hinduism but also some Buddhists, refer to this that appears as “the self”. I think this is misleading, while also in a certain way pointing to a truth. What is misleading is that what appears is not our individuality. It does not have spatio-temporal characteristics. It is not what makes Jane Jane or Franco Franco. That self, which is what we normally mean by “self”- the bundle of body, mind, experiences, knowledge, choices, etc which make me different from you, includes time within its being and experiences itself as time as it flows.

The original face is not a self in the sense of something that lasts (it does not last as an object in a world since it is not an object in a world). It is also not a self in the sense of something that confers individuality. Yet in a way it does last, and in a way it does confer individuality. This is because it is the ground of our experience. It is an open space which allows us to be. In the words of the Dzogchen practitioner turned Catholic theologian Stratford Caldecott, this ground of our being spoken of by both Buddhist and Christian mystics is both gift and grace. When we meet it we meet that without which our flowing self of time and space could not exist.

In the thought of Jewish kabbalist Isaac Luria (1534-1572), when God created the universe S/he first created an empty space in herself where a universe could go- like a womb. This space is called the halal panui, the empty place. As Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi pointed out, this is actually a space where God appears not to be. It is actually bristling with divine energy- it is an empty fullness. This may be sounding familiar to Buddhists, though of course most would reject the idea that this empty fullness (tathata/shunyata) was created or exists within God.

However you look at it, the fact remains that this “empty space”, this urgrund, this empty fullness-full emptiness, is the gift that comes to us and allows us to be.

The time being has a characteristic of flowing. So-called today flows into tomorrow, today flows into yesterday, yesterday flows into today. And today flows into today, tomorrow flows into tomorrow.

Each moment flows into itself and flows as itself. All moments are also interconnected and interdependent. Hence they are always already flowing through each other. How you experience anything depends on your position in time and space, and the rate of your flow, as Einstein showed. Those who have studied Indo-Tibetan Madhyamika philosophy know all of this relative interdependence is necessarily true for their to be “times”, for there to be “spaces. This is because if an object were defined by itself it could not change or interact with other objects. The same is true of a moment of time.  If anything solid were found anywhere it would gum up the works, and the luminous gears of the cosmos would grind to a halt.

The way the self arrays itself is the form of the entire world. See each thing in this entire world as a moment of time.

The way the self arrays itself is as a moment of time. Time is not our destroyer, for time loves us into being within the space that God gives us within Herself.
-All quotations are from: Kazuaki Tanahashi, Peter Levitt. The Essential Dogen. Shambhala, 2013.

Other sources:

Caldecott, Stratford. The Radiance of Being. Angelico Press, 2013.

 

  

The Faith of Abraham (Revised 2015)

The story of Abraham and Isaac, known as the Akedat Yitzhak (binding of Isaac), or Akedah in Jewish tradition, has long haunted the imaginations and consciences of Jews and Christians. The Torah recounts in suspenseful, harrowing prose God’s request to Abraham that he slaughter his beloved son Isaac as a ritual sacrifice. Abraham famously acquiesces and takes Isaac up Mt. Moriah to a makeshift altar. He is stopped by an angel of God at the last moment. Do not stretch out your hand against the child, the angel says, you have passed the test.

What exactly is the test? How could God ask such a thing? How could Abraham agree? Are we supposed to applaud Abraham for the seemingly horrifying willingness to kill his own son? In the days of ISIS and other forms of violence across the religious spectrum these questions gain a new urgency. I want to suggest that the point of this story is somewhat different than most of us take it to be, and that there is still something important to learn from it 3,ooo years or so on from the events it purports to describe.

Growing up in a Jewish context I was told that this story has two main points: 1) Abraham’s incredible faith in God; and 2) God’s lesson that Israel was not to sacrifice its children in religious ceremonies, unlike the tribes that Israel would later dispossess in the land of Canaan. I agree that these two points are among the lessons of the story. But they still leave many questions which Jewish and Christian thinkers have struggled with.

Kierkegaard famously opens his masterpiece Fear and Trembling with several re-imaginings of the story. What really happened? In one harrowing version Kierkegaard imagines Abraham indeed carrying Isaac up the mountain but before drawing the knife confessing to Isaac that he, Abraham, is in fact a fraud- an idolater and a violent man, and he intends to sacrifice Isaac to an idol. Better he not believe such a thing true of God and believe me evil instead, Abraham reasons.

In some Jewish versions the Rabbis notice that Abraham is described returning from the mountain but Isaac is not mentioned. He remained alone on the mountain, scarred by what happened and unwilling to descend, say some. Others, more shockingly: Abraham did kill him.

Mainstream Jewish tradition has always affirmed Abraham’s virtuousness in the story, though the horror of it continued to surface in Jewish midrash. As an old man Isaac was blind because His eyes were weakened by the sight of the angel that saved him. Or: His eyes were ruined by tears shed because his father was willing to sacrifice him.

Surely in all of our imaginings the shadow that haunts us is this: how could Abraham have been willing to sacrifice his son, and what kind of faith is this willing to do such a thing? Is this faith actually commendable? Let’s look at the story in more detail.

God calls Abraham personally and unequivocally. Abraham responds: Hineni!, “Here I am!” a phrase which in Hebrew suggests total availability. At this point in his life Abraham has shown himself to have deep faith in God. God has been at times inscrutable and God’s time frame in delivering promises has tested Abraham’s trust, but Abraham has trusted and has thus far followed God’s voice, and his trust has proven trustworthy.

God opens without preamble to a shocking request: Take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac…..God’s wording is strange. Why does he not just say “take Isaac”? God’s wording bears within it explicit reference to the intense meaning of Isaac for Abraham. Isaac is his son (his first son Ishmael is lost to him now). Isaac is his “only one”, his only son, who carries the whole weight of Abraham’s life into the future. Whom you love. Isaac is not just the bearer of Abraham’s legacy; Abraham dearly loves him.

Why does God speak this way? It is as if he is affirming Abraham’s feelings and signalling that He understands them. I think God speaks this way, counter-intuitive as it might at first seem, to evoke Abraham’s trust. In other words, at the moment that supremely tests Abraham’s faith he speaks in such a way as to simultaneously support it. As we shall see, it is essential that Abraham be reminded of what we could call the humane nature of God.

Most amazing is Abraham’s response to the request. Early the next morning Abraham woke up and loaded his donkey. Abraham indeed responds with trust. What, though, is the exact nature of that trust? Does Abraham believe that whatever God ordains is good, and so he must comply? Is Abraham’s trust a simple submission to God’s inscrutable but always authoritative will? That was the way the text was presented to me as a child, and I think it is a very common reading. I also think it is wrong. Is this not the same Abraham who argued with God over the punishment of Sodom? The same Abraham who called out the challenge, will not the judge of the world deal justly?

I believe the text itself tells us the nature of Abraham’s trust in the next harrowing moment in the story, surely one of the most spine tingling in all religious literature.

Abraham and Isaac proceed up the mountain together alone. Isaac seems to intuit that something strange is going on. Perhaps Abraham’s hand trembles. Perhaps Isaac has heard stories of Canaanites who offer their children as sacrifices. Father? he asks.

Yes, my son?

The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?

Abraham’s answer holds the key to the whole story. YHVH himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, he replies. Adonai yireh, he literally says, God will see to it.

When I was a child I thought this answer was evasive and meant to reassure Isaac. It wasn’t until I read Yoram Hazony’s discussion of it (in The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture) that the scales fell from my eyes. Hazony argues simply that Abraham is here saying exactly what he means. God will see to it. Abraham does not believe that YHVH will actually require him to sacrifice Isaac. This is likewise why Abraham explicitly tells his servants not just to wait, but says, “we will return to you.”

To believe that YHVH will in the end truly ask that heinous deed of Abraham would contradict everything Abraham believes about Him. Abraham’s trust is not just about trusting in God. It is about trusting in God’s character. The point of the monotheism of Israel is not just that there is one God. It is not a religion finally about the nature of divine authority- about its singularity. Judaism is not a numbers game. Israel’s monotheism is the belief that the universe is ruled by one good God, that any God worth worshipping is a God of love and justice.

The fact that what is central to Abraham’s trust is his trust in God’s character is proven by his reaction when God does indeed send an animal in Isaac’s place. Abraham names the spot to commemorate the wonder of what has happened. He does not name it “test passed.” He names it, “God will see to it (adonai yireh).” God will provide the sacrifice. That is the central meaning of what has happened to Abraham: He, Abraham, was right. Right about God’s character. Right about God’s justice. Right about God’s promises and faithfulness. Right about God’s intelligibility.

The test that YHVH set for Abraham is significantly different than we might have thought. It is not in the final analysis a test of Abraham’s submissiveness. It is a test of Abraham’s faith: its nature and its object. It is as if God is speaking through the test to Abraham, and he is asking the question, Do you know me?

God is not interested in mere submission. What God wants is for Abraham to know His heart. God does not want Abraham just to trust Him, but to trust Him for the right reasons. God wants Abraham to know who He is trusting. In the story of the Akedah God does not just test the nature of Abraham’s faith, He also vindicates and reveals His own character.

Imagine that you wake one night to find your house on fire. You grab your sleeping infant and turn around to find your wife trapped in a part of the room that is becoming engulfed in flames. “Hand me the baby!”, she says.

Your reaction will tell us everything about your opinion of your wife. If you trust her with your life (and the life of your baby) you will hand over the baby to her even though it seems that this is a homicidal act. So you do, and she then passes the baby out the window into the arms of waiting firemen you couldn’t see.

If you believe your wife to be irrational or even delusional you will not pass the baby to her. Your trusting aquiescence, or lack of it, tells us about your understanding of her character and your consequent faith in her (or lack of). This is the meaning of the last line of the story of the Akedah: now I know that you revere YHVH, because you have not withheld your only son from me.

In CS Lewis’ The Final Battle a cunning ape named Shift convinces a gullible, weak donkey named Puzzle to dress up like Aslan the lion, the spiritual ruler and creator of Narnia. The Narnians are well aware that Aslan is “not a tame lion” so when he begins making questionable, even violent requests many Narnians go along with it. Their instincts rebel and they feel sick, but who, after all, can understand the inscrutable Aslan?

Lewis brilliantly depicts the trap of perceiving God as above morality, a God of absolute power beyond good and evil. If God is not “tame”, i.e. does not conform to human demands and expectations, then who are we to judge his actions? In the end God may request anything of us, which means that his “representatives” may request anything of us.

Kierkegaard’s analysis approaches the truth of the story but also obscures it. In Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard correctly asserts that Abraham surrenders his son, his family obligations, his ethics and even his very self in a transcendent trust of God. His brilliant insight is that Abraham does not do this merely as a “knight of resignation” who acquiesces out of his sense of nothingness before God. Abraham acts as a “knight of faith” who against all rational evidence trusts that since God has promised him Isaac God will deliver- Isaac will somehow be returned to him in this world.

Kierkegaard is right in thinking that the nature of Abraham’s faith transcends normal reasoning and is based in a trust that he will not lose Isaac because God has promised him Isaac and will not himself be unfaithful. He is wrong though in considering this a “suspension of the ethical” or a trust which is entirely irrational or absurd. This line of thinking actually obscures the nature of Abraham’s faith as routed in an apprehension of the supremely ethical nature of God.

The Akedah teaches us about what Abraham believed of God’s character, and what God wanted him to believe. The point is not submission, not obedience beyond reason. Abraham trusts God not just because He is God, but because Abraham knows God. Abraham has seen God’s character and believes in Him as a God of grace and justice. Abraham trusts that God will not ask him to do something unjust, capricious, or immoral. If it appears that that is what God is asking than the reality must be otherwise, and Abraham complies and trusts, waiting to be proven right. God Himself will see to the lamb for the burnt offering, son. And He does. Abraham proves the nature of his faith, and God proves the nature of His faithfulness. The kind of faith that God wants is not simple obedience to pure authority, but a knowing and intelligent trust in His nature as love.