Live Together More: A Conversation With Craig Greenfield

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“Gustavo Gutierrez’s provocative words rang in our ears: ‘You say you care about the poor. Then tell me, what are their names?’

Subversive Jesus

Craig Greenfield is a man who has made a lot of remarkable decisions. A living embodiment of Jesus’ instruction to practice table fellowship with the poor, Greenfield has dedicated much of his adult life to caring for and empowering children, especially orphans of AIDS and systemic injustice. Greenfield decided to spend six years living in the slums of Cambodia, and then when he needed a break from having his family’s home demolished repeatedly by the Cambodian government, decided to spend six years practising fearless community in the infamous “drug ghetto” of Vancouver’s downtown eastside. Along the way Greenfield became the leader of Servants, an international fellowship of people dedicated to living in community with people in some of the world’s toughest places. Greenfield then went on to found Alongsiders International, an organisation which follows that mandate according to his own vision. More recently he wrote a bestselling book, Subversive Jesus; and has become a social media presence as a loving critic of mainstream charities. On Mayday 2016 I sat down at a Tim Horton’s, Canada’s iconic working class coffee shop, in East Vancouver, to talk with Greenfield.

The Tim Hortons on Commercial Dr is cramped, plastic, and opens into a mall. Inside Craig Greenfield was doing what he does, bringing life regardless of surroundings. I found Craig seated at a table with a friend, John Baird. John had tattoos on his face and hands, and his warm brown eyes paid close attention from under his scraggly grey hair. He was wearing a neck brace from a recent bicycle accident. John is a resident of the downtown eastside who became a member of the Servants community Greenfield co-founded in Vancouver more than a decade ago. “When Craig was here”, Baird said, “Craig and his wife, three days a week I went to the community for dinner there. We would sing songs just before dinner. It was the best time of my life, the best time ever.”

John stayed to join in the conversation, complementing it with his thoughtful presence. Craig looked like a friendly pirate, with goatee, broad, open face, and sunglasses perched on his greying hipster mohawk. In fact, Greenfield spent a few rare moments in the spotlight in Vancouver for his Pirates of Justice flash mobs where protesters decked out like swashbucklers shone a light on slavery-like working conditions on the cruise ships that pull into the city. Greenfield played Jack Sparrow to a tee, and you could see it wasn’t that much of a stretch.

Craig’s new book is doing well, #1 in it’s category on Amazon. “It’s been a really positive response. I’ve been waiting for the pushback.” He laughs, and adds, “There was a line in one of the reviews that I loved, ‘Greenfield  veers into leftist economics at times, but we can forgive him that’.” Craig points out that John is in the book too.

“Without Craig and his wife Nay I wouldn’t be here today”, says John. “I wouldn’t have lived.”

Greenfield’s work in Cambodia, which continues today, centres on empowering Cambodian youth to walk alongside younger children, forming mentoring relationships and offering love in a way that saves lives and changes futures. “The children’s needs are so great”, says Greenfield. “Half of their mothers are sex workers. They are thrilled just by the sight of a piece of bread. They will fight over slices of cucumber.”

Craig sees the root causes of poverty in Cambodia and Vancouver as both similar and different. “There is systemic injustice in both countries and poverty that flows out of that. The details are different- war there, the residential schools here (where the government attempted to forcefully integrate Indigenous children). The similarity is that poverty flows out of multiple generations of systemic injustice.”

Greenfield is critical of institutional charities. Echoing the sentiments of activists like Dorothy Day (founder of the Catholic Workers Movement) and Gustavo Gutierrez (Peruvian liberation theologian), Greenfield argues that instead of advocating for justice, a lot of charity work stops at taking care of the victims of injustice. “I critique it because I want us to go further”, he says, “It’s done with a good heart and I don’t want to discourage people,  I want them to think deeper and more structurally. What transforms lives is mutual relationship, not just hand-outs.”

I pointed out that a friend of mine who works at an institutional charity had said something almost identical to me. Well, I still have to critique those institutional charities, because they may say that, but within their policies the relationships they can have with people are limited. I believe we need to invite people into our homes. People long for change, people have a sense that they want to do things differently. But systems are there to stop us and set us up as benefactors and beneficiaries.”

Living in community with the poor, instead of hiring other people to be charitable for us, is at the heart of Greenfield’s mission. The scriptural heart of Greenfield’s vision is Luke 14:12, which reads:  When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.It’s so funny”, says Greenfield, “because, how clear is that passage? People don’t even try to reframe it or interpret it so it says something else, because they can’t. No one applies it!“

Craig frequently mentions a Cambodian proverb at the heart of Alongsiders:, “It takes a spider to repair its own web.” The vision at the heart of Alongsiders could be summed up as the intersection of Luke 14:12 and this Cambodian wisdom: it is about empowering others through fellowship, not practising charity toward them.

Greenfield says that he grew up with a domesticated image of Jesus. In his teenage years, he rebelled against that, walking away from the faith for years. His parents, though, practised radical hospitality and lived in “a very radical way”. Greenfield seems to have imbibed his parent’s way of life while rejecting the “Jesus meek and mild” of the conservative Church he grew up in. Greenfield prefers the Jesus overturning tables in the Temple.

Despite Greenfield’s passion for his own mission, he is not calling all people to imitate what he has done. “There is nothing prescriptive about the stories I have shared in this book”, he writes in Subversive Jesus. His advice for those inspired by his message is simple: community. “Wherever you are, find ways to bring people together. This is my advice: live together more.”

 

Is Bernie Too Among The Prophets?

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Bernie Sanders is now the first Jew ever to win a presidential primary and be seriously considered as a candidate for the American presidency. Recent polls have him tied with Hillary Clinton. Reactions from the Jewish community have been mixed, and mostly quiet. Many Jews have chosen, unsurprisingly, to debate Bernie’s record on Israel. Has he supported the state enough? Are his ties to J Street and other liberal, dove-ish groups a sign that he will not stand up for the Jewish state?

For myself I am not interested in debating Sanders’ record on Israel, and I think other North American Jews would also be wise not to focus on it. The reason is simple: Sanders is running for the US Presidency, and the primary issues that need to be considered are how he will run the country he might be chosen to lead. I also resist the idea that the primary consideration for Jews should be Sanders’ relationship to Israeli security concerns. I think that the primary consideration for a Jew thinking about Sander’s candidacy is his relationship to Jewish tradition and the degree to which he embodies Jewish values.  

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The progressive Jewish community has seemed hesitant to throw it’s weight behind Bernie, perhaps because until recently they saw him as unlikely to succeed. Or maybe there is a fear of jinxing him: “Shhh, they haven’t really realized that he’s Jewish yet.” As Sarah Tuttle-Singer wrote  a few days ago in The Times of Israel, one of the great things about Sander’s ascension is that his Jewishness has been so irrelevant to Americans- he has risen in the polls purely because of who he is as a human being. Meanwhile big Jewish financiers like George Soros, Donald Sussman, and several others have been backing Clinton, not Sanders.

So what is Sanders’ relationship to Judaism? Well, it seems that he is comfortable with his Jewishness and appreciative both of what he finds valuable in the tradition and of Jewish customs. Sanders has not been making much of his Jewishness, to the chagrin of people like Michael A. Cohen. Cohen recently complained in Tablet that Sanders was downplaying his Jewishness, saying that it “hurt”. Cohen seems to prefer Jewish identity politics to embodying Jewish ethical values. Sanders feels the opposite, and his evaluation is a perfect example of the moralism that is drawing people to him in the first place.

On Chabad,org Dovid Margolin recently defended Sanders’ connection to Judaism, citing his fight for the right for Chabad to light a public menorah on public property in a key court case which paved the way for the now common practice. Sanders was also appreciative of the Rebbe’s stance on education and declared the Rebbe’s birthday “Education Day” in Vermont with these charactarisic words:

The Lubavitcher Rebbe has democratized education by labouring tirelessly to establish educational institutions for the elderly, for women, for children, and whereas he has sought out the materially oppressed and disadvantaged thereby effecting their enfranchisement through education and by stressing the universal implications of education as a source of continuous creativity through which the human condition is perfected; and whereas especially in this same week marking the 850th birthday of Maimonides, binding the principle of reason to human liberation, now therefore I, Bernard Sanders, mayor of the city of Burlington, hereby designate yud-alef nissan as the day of educationNote Bernie’s use of the Hebrew “yud-alef nissan” to designate the date, as well as his interesting commentary on Maimonides. Margolin also notes that Sanders and the Rebbe corresponded and Sanders celebrated his re-election as mayor by attending a Purim party in Crown Heights. This writ, from 1985, does not establish Sanders as a Hosid, which clearly he is not. It does show him as sensitive to, and appreciative of, Jewish values and Jewish sages. As some have pointed out, Sanders is more of an old style Yiddish Socialist than a “Socialist”.

Sanders himself, when asked, had made it clear that he is not a religious Jew. When late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel asked  Sanders in October whether he believes in God, Sanders sounded more like Kurt Vonnegut, Jr than Abraham Joshua Heschel: “I am what I am….and what I believe in, and what my spirituality is about, is that we’re all in this together.”

Sanders does not strongly identify with his Jewishness, and his religious sentiments could better be described as a general reverence for life and humanity, a kind of secular, naturalistic spirituality. He and his Catholic wife Jane both say they believe in God but are not involved in organized religion, and that their faith backgrounds inform their moral sentiments. David Harris-Gershon has written in Tikkun, “For Sanders, socialism is Jewish. Ending income inequality is Jewish. Supporting black Americans as they struggle against continued oppression is Jewish. Which is not to say such things are inherently so, but rather that for Sanders, such positions are a direct extension of his Jewishness. His career-long drive for social justice is a central part of his political identity in the same way his being Jewish is a central part of his cultural identity, and the two are inextricably intertwined. Belief in God doesn’t matter. Going to synagogue doesn’t matter. Keeping kosher doesn’t matter. What matters is justice. And that mattering is Jewish.”

Jay Michaelson has written, “secular, progressive Judaism is, itself, a kind of religion. While dispensing with the God of the alte velt—if the Enlightenment didn’t kill him, the Holocaust certainly did—leftist Jews of the 20th century maintained a prophetic, religious zeal for justice… if we are asking whether Sanders is “religious” in Jewish terms, the reply must be that he is.” I would argue that the evidence supports that assertion with regards to Bernie, who may be the most prophetic politician in decades.

The prophets of Israel were relentless in criticizing the behaviour of Israel and calling it back to its highest ideals. Contrary to the popular vision of them as diviners of the future their primary job was calling people back to the ethical demands of God. Their vision had social justice at it’s core; for them this equalled fidelity to God. In the words of Jeremiah (22:13-17): “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice, who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing and does not give him his wages, who says, ‘I will build myself a great house with spacious upper rooms,’ who cuts out windows for it, paneling it with cedar and painting it with vermilion. Do you think you are a king because you compete in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He vindicated the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me?’ declares the Lord.”  Isaiah sums up the prophetic vision well (1:17): “Learn to do good; seek justice, fight oppression; bring justice to those without a protector, plead the cause of the vulnerable.” Or Zechariah (7:9-10): “Thus says the Lord of hosts, “Judge truly, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the vulnerable, those without a protector, the foreigner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.” Israel’s wisdom literature agrees: Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and the needy (Proverbs 31:8-9).”

Walter Brueggeman, a leading scholar of the Hebrew Bible, describes the prophets as follows, in words I challenge you not to associate with Bernie Sanders: “The prophet engages in futuring fantasy. The prophet does not ask if the vision can be implemented, for questions of implementation are of no consequence until the vision can be imagined. The imagination must come before the implementation. Our culture is competent to implement almost anything and to imagine almost nothing. The same royal consciousness that make it possible to implement anything and everything is the one that shrinks imagination because imagination is a danger. Thus every totalitarian regime is frightened of the artist. It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing futures alternative to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one.” (The Prophetic Imagination)

These are, of course, the very criticisms levelled at Bernie: that the future of justice that he fantasies is not thinkable, that it is indeed pure fantasy and cannot be implemented. Many would argue otherwise. Many would just like to see somebody really try for a change. That is why Bernie is so popular with millennials.

The Jewish Candidate

Bernie Sanders is relentless and consistent in his criticisms of the financial elite, his calls for a political system free of legal bribery, and his defence of education and the needs of the poor for fair wages, medical care and enough money to live. He wants to free Americans from debt and modern slavery and to pull America away from militarism and hatred of the stranger. All of these themes echo in dozens of verses and laws structuring the political vision of the Torah and running deep in Jewish consciousness, even when they are obscured by fear or effaced by our falls into chauvinism. Bernie Sanders may not be just the Jewish Candidate by ethnicity. Ironically this secular, non-observant Jew may be the candidate that best embodies the political values of the Torah, which is to say, the ethics of the Jewish tradition.

 

Some Thoughts On the Children Burnt Alive in Dalori In The Form of a Prayer

 

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Father in heaven, any words seem trite in the face of children burnt alive in their huts by Boko Haram two days ago, an unknown amount of children among the 86 people murdered. Yet we must keep speaking. We must keep finding meaning, we must keep speaking what truth we can, what solace and protest we can, because if we stop speaking, if we stop trying to understand, we will vanish into a horrible silence in which we say and do nothing.

Mother of spirit, my conscience tells me that those children, who a survivor heard screaming in the flames as their homes burnt down, must now be in your arms if you are worthy to be called the God of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekka, Jacob, Rachel, and Leah. As their bodies screamed their souls must have already been halfway out the window of this world into your waiting arms. This world created so we could learn to love, in which all of us everyday in ways small or big choose often, too often, to hate instead.

My conscience tells me this must be so, or else the world we live in worse than meaningless. Some will be offended that I contemplate a God at all in these circumstances, will wish that I only be angry, that I only mourn, that I do not seek any solace. Some take a curious refuge in meaninglessness, but I can’t see any strong solace there. How could pain plus meaninglessness be better than pain with meaning, pain with God? Does the world need more bald, unhealable rage and sorrow? Oh Lord, I think and hope that believing that Your loving embrace met those injured souls means that this world is not the way it is supposed to be, not the way you want it to be. Things are bleak because of the darkness in our human hearts, but things are not hopelessly that way. We must fight against the violence done to the innocent, not by doing violence to the guilty but by remembering and embodying the mercy you desire. We must not go silent, not go cold, not become comfortably numb. We must keep alive a heart beating and burning for what your heart desires, and the love you bear each one of us.

Creatorgive us strength to see above the fire and the water, and to walk with faith and hope towards your world.

The Tower of Babel: Bad Religion?

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I was recently listening to the punk band Bad Religion’s album Recipe for Hate. The song Skyscraper, whose passion and composition I’ve always enjoyed, centers around the metaphor of the tower of Babel (you can listen to it here: https://youtu.be/37Jlj0_FsZU). I can’t claim to understand the lyrics to the song in toto, but it does seem to be criticizing the destroyer of the tower (God), not the builders. In Greg Gaffin’s midrash, the tower builders are trying to reach God and God is afraid that if they find him they will abandon him (presumably because he doesn’t exist). Gaffin sings: I know why you tore it down that day, you thought that if you got caught we’d all go away, like a spoiled little baby who can’t come out to play, you had your revenge.  Gaffin sees the destruction as a bad thing: Well madness reigned and paradise drowned when Babel’s walls came crashing down. The song also seems to contain an implied criticism of the story of the tower itself- the last verse of the song characterizes the story as hardly understood and never any good.

Leaving aside Gaffin’s somewhat bizarre atheist fantasy midrash, this got me thinking about the story. How good of a story is it?

This question resonated in my mind more because of some reading I was doing lately, in a book called Ancient Near Eastern Thought and The Old Testament by John Walton. This book, which I recommend, strives to let people know what more than a century of intense archaeological investigation has uncovered about the cultures surrounding ancient Israel. It puts the Torah into context. Walton says, as many have before him, that the story of the tower of Bavel takes its central image from the Babylonian ziggurat.

In Genesis 11:1-9 a group of early humans settles in Shinar, probably Sumer, an area in southern Mesapotamia associated in the Torah with Babylon. The Mesapotamian building materials are foreign to Israelites, so the Torah describes them for us. The “city and tower” being built (see below), if true to history, would have been an urban area housing public buildings. In this case it was a temple complex. These structures, which began being built at the end of the 4th milennium BCE, were still visible in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon. The tower in the story is almost certainly based on the ziggurat temple complexes of Sumer, which are frequently described in Mesapotamian literature as”with head touching heaven”, as in the Torah as quoted below.

The story in the Torah is as follows:

The whole earth was of one language and of one speech.  It came to pass as they journeyed from the east that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and they dwelt there,  and they said one to another: ‘Come, let us make brick and burn them thoroughly.’  They had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar, and they said: ‘Come, let us build us a city and a tower with its top in heaven and let us make us a name lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ And YHWH came down to see the city and the tower which the children of men built. And YHWH said: ‘Behold they are one people and they have one language and this is what they begin to do.  Now nothing will be withheld from them which they aim to do. Come, let us go down and confound their language that they may not understand one another’s speech.’  So YHWH scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth; and they left off  building the city. Therefore was the name of it called Bavel; because YHWH did there confound the language of all the earth; and from there did YHWH scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

This enigmatic story seems to warn human beings about the hubris of using technology to storm the heights of heaven and make themselves secure from any danger. Sound familiar? Far from being a story that should irk Bad Religion, a band which continuously snarls warnings about human arrogance and self-deception, I would think this story might make it on to their “acceptable biblical stories list”. I suspect that such a list does not exist. In any case let’s look a little more at the story itself and its ancient context.

In the story YHWH confounds people’s languages and spreads them out over the world. The story then explains the existence of multiple languages: they are there to prevent the creation of a mega-mono-culture and the attendant human hubris and blindness, one in which people make themselves God and depend on their own technology and might.

The fact that the story appears based on ancient Israelite perceptions of Babylon is also interesting. Babylon was a sophisticated, expanding empire with technology beyond Israel’s. Israel, a society of farmers and shepherds, looked up at the urban megalopolis of Babylon and its temple towers and saw nothing but a symbol of human arrogance and, it seems, a force that threatened to destroy smaller cultures and impose it’s own hegemony on everyone. Babylon was an imperialist state whose leaders glorified themselves and exalted in their technology and military strength. The story criticizes what Israel perceived as Babylon’s dream of a monocultural, invincible empire.

One interesting thing about this story, though, is that the Israelite perception of the nature of ziggurats- temples reaching upwards to heaven- is wrong. As Walton points out, ziggurats had a different nature and purpose. Humans did not use them, did not live in them or climb up them. Ziggurats existed as stairways upon which the gods descended to bring blessing to the earth, and to receive offerings. The ziggurats were not for the use of human beings, but for the use of gods!

We can thus see that the Israelite story is not an accurate depiction of Sumerian or Babylonian religion but rather takes up an image from the civilization of their neighbours and riffs on it to make a point- a point that is both a shot at perceived Babylonian arrogance and a broader statement. Anyone familiar with the sourcing of the story of Noah and the flood in older Akkadian and Mesapotamian stories knows that this is not a singular occurence in Israelite literature. It appears that the crafters of Israelite literature took up motifs from the literatures and civilisations of their neighbours and ran with them in a completely different direction. The religious sensibilities of Israel were truly an anamoly in the ancient near east (see Created Equal by Joshua Berman or the excellent discussion in Fight by Preston Sprinkle, ch.3-5). 

To answer my own question: is the the tower of Bavel a good story? I think it’s a very good story.  The story’s lesson seems to me to be that cultural diversity is a divinely willed protection against human hubris. Think of this-when there is only one human culture, from where does diversity, criticism, and challenge come from? Israel seemed to intuit that an unchallenged culture possesses an unlimited potential for evil.

Technology tends to empower empire and its accompanying arrogance. The technical-industrial explosion of the last 300 years has not only allowed us to touch the heavens. We have also exterminated more than 50% of the cultures and languages of the world, reducing ethnodiversity as well as biodiversity. We have pierced the atom and the gene and are quickly approaching the doleful day when “there is nothing they cannot do”.

I am reminded of a verse from the Daodejing, the ancient classic of Daoism by the Old Master (Laozi) which describes the ideal civilization (translation by Red Pine):

Imagine a small state with a small population

let there be labor-saving tools

that aren’t used

let people consider death

and not move far

let there be boats and carts

but no reason to ride them

let there be armor and weapons

but no reason to employ them

let people return to the use of knots

and be satisfied with their food

and pleased with their clothing

and content with their homes

and happy with their customs

let there be another state so near

people hear its dogs and chickens

and live out their lives

without making a visit.

 

Loving The Alien: David Bowie and the Leper Messiah

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The world reels this week from the loss of it’s leper messiah, David Bowie, the man who fell to earth. Bowie positioned himself consciously as a spaceman, an enigma, a “blackstar” which emitted not light but mystery. Bowie gave hope and consolation to outcasts throughout the world- especially artists, LGBTQ people, musicians and poets, and even bookish Jewish misfits like me (as discussed by Jay Michaelson here).

David Robert Jones, aka David Bowie, was more than anything a brilliant musician and lyricist and that was what I loved him for. Yet contemplating his career one cannot help but meditate on the power of his persona. Bowie’s greatest creation, apart from his art, was “David Bowie”, an alias which itself had so many aliases that it was practically Talmudic in its self-referential hypertextuality. In actual practice the two went together, persona and logos, and Bowie created a legacy of intertwined words and images which shed light on each other.

Bowie contemplated spiritual matters throughout his artistic career, though this often came through in subtle, enigmatic ways. Songs like Sex and the Church, Saviour Machine, and  Loving The Alien explored Christian themes, and Station to Station even references Jewish Kabbalah when Bowie sings, “here we are, one magical movement from keter to malkhut”, ie. from the unmanifest down the pathways of the tree of life. On top of that “station to station” is, Bowie said, a reference to the stations of the cross. On his brilliant last album this becomes even more pronounced, as Christian imagery plays out in at least three of the songs (Blackstar, Lazarus, and I Can’t Give Everything Away).

Blackstar muses on the enigmatic presence of God and Bowie’s own identity as an icon soon to live beyond his own lifetime; Lazarus and I Can’t Give Everything Away explore the theme of resurrection (“the pulse returns to prodigal sons” in the latter). Lazarus contemplates Bowie’s own impending death. It opens “Look up here/ I’m in heaven/ I’ve got scars you can’t see” ( a clear contrast to Jesus who after his ascension has visible scars). In the song Bowie indeed pictures himself ascending to heaven (and amusingly losing his cellphone along the way) and then becoming free “as a blackbird, ain’t that just like me?” The video, which ends with Bowie disappearing into a dark closet also depicts him as a blind prophet on a hospital bed cavorting in movements halfway between levitation and crucifixion.

Messianic imagery appeared early on in Bowie’s career and has been a staple. The album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars depicts an androgynous alien rockstar messiah ultimately destroyed by the masses he came to save. Bowie tellingly refers to Ziggy as a “leper messiah”, a saviour who is himself a frightening outcast. In one of the album’s songs, Starman, a child hears a late night transmission on the radio about a “starman/waiting in the sky/he’d like to come and meet us/but he thinks he’d blow our minds”. The child tells a friend (“don’t tell your papa or he’ll have us locked up in fright”). The starman’s message to the children: “He’s told us not to blow it/cause he knows it’s all worthwhile/He told me:let the children lose it/ let the children use it/ Let all the children boogie.”

Messianic imagery continues to haunt his lyrics and iconography right up to his last two albums. On his penultimate album The Next Day he featured a song (and even moreso a video) which is a daring and disturbing midrash on the messiah and the institutional church. The song is narrated from the perspective of an aging Bowie, who sings “Here I am/ not quite dying/ my body left to rot in a hollow tree/ its branches throwing shadows/ On the gallows for me”. He tells a story of a hunted prophet/christ figure who is chased through the alleyways with whips by a “gormless (i.e. foolish) crowd” who bring him to a sadistic priest for death. The demonic priests  “live upon their feet and they die upon their knees/They can work with satan while they dress like the saints/They know god exists for the devil told them so.” The unsettling video (which is not for young viewers or the faint of heart) depicts a shady, worldly club frequented by Catholic priests. One of the priests, played by Gary Oldman, assaults a poor beggar on the way in. Once inside the priests enjoy the company of prostitutes and the spectacle of a flagellant whipping himself. Bowie, dressed like a Franciscan Friar, denounces the crowd from the stage. In the bizarre denouement one of the prostitutes, who has been dancing with Oldman, suddenly develops stigmata and begins spouting blood from her hands.

This controversial video, which understandingly upset Catholics a fair bit, seems to me to make a valuable point that is consistent with Bowie’s use of messianic and prophetic imagery throughout his career. In this video the institutional priests are pharisees and hypocrites. The true form of Christ appears in the prostitute who is a scorned outsider being humiliated and exploited, giving up her body and blood for others.

In Bowie’s art the messiah is an outsider, an alien, who comes from outer space. This messiah affirms the outcast and outsider, and is himself “leprous”- strange and frightening. It is clear to everyone that to some extent this reflects Bowie’s self-understanding, and to some extent is a mission statement for the icon he was trying to create in Ziggy Stardust and the persona of “David Bowie”. What made Bowie strange, frightening and liberating was his radical affirmation of art and freedom of self-expression (including cross-dressing and using the male body as a canvas for art) and his open-ness about his bisexuality.  As comedian Sara Benincasa wrote, “I do not believe it is a wild exaggeration to say that there are on this earth today many people who would not be here without David Bowie….he gave them a reason to stay alive when perhaps they did not want to. He was the patron saint of all my favorite fellow travelers: the freaks, the fags, the dykes, the queers, the weirdos of all stripes, and that most dangerous creature of all: the artist.”

While today we may take for granted the freedom in much of Western culture, it was not always so and still isn’t so in much of the world. Bowie started off as a tall, strange looking artist walking around London in a dress being sweared at. By the mid-70’s he had changed the landscape. We may not agree with everything he stood for at times (like promiscuity, drug use, or for some the gender-bending sexuality itself) but aside from the power of art and the mind Bowie’s legacy still stands for something else even more important: loving the alien.

Bowie’s understanding of the Messiah has in the end a surprising depth. Bowie’s saviour figures are not figures of power or awe. They are strange and unsettling and they come “to seek and save what is lost” (Luke 19:10) and “not for the righteous but for sinners” (Mark 2:17, Matthew 9:13, Luke 5:32). The Talmud asks, “Where now is the Messiah?” and answers, “He sits outside the gates of the city, changing the bandages of lepers (Sanhedrin 98a).”  Bowie’s alien messiah is the saviour of the lost sheep, whose stigmata appears not in priests who protect boundaries but in hookers, addicts, and yes- artists.

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Update (Jan 14): In a pleasantly surprising move,  Christianity Today, which is the #1 mainstream Christian magazine (and was made what it is mostly by Billy Graham) has published an authentically appreciative and thoughtful eulogy about Bowie here.

 

What Is The Human Way? A Report From Martin Buber

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The following is a lecture I wrote and gave at Shaarey Zedek Synagogue in Vancouver last Shabbat (Sabbath). In it I attempt to hit some of the main points of Buber’s classic work “The Human Way (Der Weg Des Meschen)”. This work was based on six lectures Buber gave where he attempted to present Hasidic insights on the human way to an audience of Dutch Quakers.

At a time when Hasidic life is dominated by legalism, insularity, outward religious observances, and a thick layer of customs it is increasingly difficult to recover what it has to contribute to humanity. Buber’s lectures, which were given in the late 40’s, are a window into the rich inward life and deep insights of this tradition at it’s best.

Martin Buber was an Austrian-born Israeli Jewish philosopher best known for his works in existentialism and his popularisation of the inward aspects of Hasidic spiritual practice. He was also an important figure in the early Zionist movement; translated the Bible into German, and played an important role in the transmission and development of Jewish culture both in Europe and in modern Israel.

Buber came from a family of observant, if liberal, Jews. Buber joined many Jews from Observant families in pursuing secular studies- in his case philosophy In 1923, Buber wrote his famous essay on existence, Ich und Du (later translated into English as I and Thou), and in 1925, he began translating the Hebrew Bible into German.

In 1930, Buber became an honorary professor at the University of Frankfurt Am Main, but resigned from his professorship in protest after the Nazis came to power in 1933. He then founded the Central Office for Jewish Adult Education, which became important after the Nazis forbade Jews access to public education. In 1938, Buber left Germany and settled in Jerusalem, receiving a professorship at Hebrew University. Buber died at his home in Jerusalem in 1965, where there is now a street named after him. 

Perhaps the most condensed and potent of Buber’s spiritual writings is the small book “The Human Way According to the Teaching of Hasidism”. This book originally consisted of six lectures given to a group of Dutch religious socialists in Holland in 1947. The Woodbrookers were a Christian group who has been persecuted by the Nazis during WW2 and had ties to English Quakers. Their leader had known Buber for some time and had been influenced by Buber’s philosophy. Buber delivered the popular lectures as requested, and a German edition called Der Weg Des Menschen was published in 1950.

Each of the six lectures is based on a Hasidic story, though Buber in fact touches on many Hasidic sayings and tales in each lecture. Time constraints will not allow us to ponder insights from all six lectures here. What I will do is share the essential lesson of each lecture, giving particular attention to the first two.

Heart Searching

The first talk opens with the following tale: Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, was jailed in Petersburg because the mitnagdim had denounced him to the Russian government. He was awaiting trial when the chief of the gendarmes entered his cell. Impressed by the Rav’s demeanour, the man entered into conversation with him and brought up a number of questions he had about the Bible. Finally he asked him, “how are we to understand that the omniscient God asked Adam in the garden, “Where are you?”

“Do you believe”, answered the Rav, “that the scriptures are eternal and address us all?”

“ I do”, the man said.

“Well then”, said the zaddik, “in every generation God calls to every man, ‘where are you?’ God says something like this, ‘You have lived 46 years. How far along are you on your way?’’

When the man heard his age mentioned he pulled himself together and said to the Rav, “Bravo!” but his heart trembled.

What happens in this story? asks Buber. He points out that it is similar to some Talmudic tales where a Roman challenges Jewish doctrine by pointing out a seeming contradiction and has his point refuted or resolved by a Rabbi. The difference here, points out Buber, is that true to Hasidic discourse in general the answer is given on a different plane than the question is asked on.

 Buber says, “‘Where are you?’, whether the question be addressed to Adam or some other man- in so asking God does not learn something he does not know; what he wants is to produce an effect in man which can only be produced by just such a question, provided that it reaches man’s heart- that man allows it to reach his heart.”

 Why does every person run from this question?

 “Adam hides himself to avoid rendering accounts, to escape responsibility for his way of living. Every man hides for this purpose, for every man is Adam…..To escape responsibility for his life, he turns existence into a series of hideouts.’”

 There is always a Voice seeking us, asking us, “Where are you?” But we spend much of our days in hiding, whether we are outwardly religious or not.

As Buber points out, however, “Man cannot escape the eye of God, but in trying to hide from Him, he is hiding from himself. ’” We cannot, of course, hide from God. Who are we hiding from them? We hide from ourselves. Yet in hiding from ourselves, we do not face where we are, and so we are lost.

Buber writes, “….the Voice…is a ‘still small voice’, and easy to drown. So long as this is done, man’s life will not become a way. Whatever success and enjoyment he may achieve, whatever power he may attain and whatever deeds he may do, his life will remain way-less, so long as he does not face the Voice.”

Buber points out, however, that the Gerrer Rebbe teaches that Esau also asks questions. Esau asks Jacob, “Where are you going?” Buber writes, “There is a demonic question…which apes God’s question, the question of truth….it does not stop at ‘Where are you?’ but continues, ‘From where you have got to, there is no way out.’ There is a Voice that offers a liberating confrontation, and there is a voice that accuses and interrogates so as to kill. In Jewish tradition that voice is, of course, the voice of Hasatan, Satan, whose name literally means “the accuser”. Our problem is that we are confused about what voices are from God and which from Satan. To quote another Hasidic teaching: the devil clothes his demands as mitzvot. Some of God’s commands to us we mistake as satanic. How ironic that sometimes, in trying to escape the accusing voice of Hasatan we unwittingly run from the liberating voice of God. That must be one of the Devil’s most diabolical tricks. How then are we to find our way?

The Particular Way

Rabbi Baer of Radoshitz once said to his teacher, the ‘Seer’ of Lublin: ‘Show me one general way to the service of God.’ The Zaddik told him that it was impossible to tell men what way they should take…Everyone should carefully observe what way his heart draws him to, and then choose that way with all his strength.” The way to find our way is to know what we love. We should do that, yet pursue it not as an end in itself, but as a way to God.

We are to revere the sages of the past, but not to imitate them. “God’s all-inclusiveness manifests itself in the infinite multiplicity of ways that lead to him, each of which is open to one man. When some disciples of a zaddik visited the Seer of Lublin and expressed surprise that his customs differed from those of his teacher, the Seer replied, “What sort of a God would that be who has only one way in which he can be served!” God says, whatever you do may be a way to me, provided you do it in a manner that leads you to me.”

A zaddik once said, at the end of Ecclesiastes we read: “At the end of the matter, the whole is heard: “Fear God.” Whatever matter you follow to its end , there, at the end, you will hear one thing: “Fear God”. The point, says Buber, is that “Any natural act, if hallowed, leads to God, and nature needs man for what no angel can perform on it, namely, its hallowing.”  The word “hallowing” here, refers to sanctification. Any way if taken in order to reach God, is a way that reaches Him. In following that desire, that natural inclination of the heart, but seeking to do so in a way which leads to God and answers God’s call, that desire and the heart which desires are both sanctified.

Resolution

In the third talk Buber clarifies that in all of this heart searching and seeking one should not become a creature blown around by internal winds, irresolute and conflicted, obsessed with introspection. Rabbi Nahum, the son of the Rabbi of Rishyn, entered the house of study at the wrong time and found his disciples playing checkers. “Do you know the rules of checkers?”, the Rabbi asked his embarassed disciples. “ The first is that one must not make two moves at once. The second is that one must go forward and never back. The third is that when one gets to the other side one may make any move one likes.”

As the poet Theodore Roethke wrote, “We learn the way by walking.” In seeking to hear God’s voice and to follow our own particular way we must not be paralyzed by introspection but must act resolutely and keep moving forward.

Begin With Oneself

The primary answer to the conflicts of our lives is found in knowing ourselves and bringing our own selves into harmony. Buber here quotes a Hasidic saying that “if a man makes peace in himself he can make peace in the world.” Satirizing the way that we get lost in externals, trying fruitlessly to put other people in order,  to control our lives, and to amass cherished things while losing the one thing most essential, Buber tells a fable of Rabbi Hanokh: “There was once a foolish man. When he went to bed at night he was afraid that he would not remember where he had put his clothing. So making a great effort he took a paper and pencil and noted down where he put everything as he undressed. When awoke in the morning he took the slip of paper in hand and read “cap”- there it was; “shirt”- there it was; and so on until he was fully dressed. “That’s all very well”, he exclaimed, “but now where am I myself?” He looked and looked but it was in vain, he could not find himself. “And that is how it is with us”, concluded the Rabbi.

 Not To Be Pre-occupied With Oneself

Rabbi Hayyim of Zans married his son to the daughter of Rabbi Eliezer. The day after the wedding he visited the father of the bride and said to him, “Now that we are relatives I feel that I can confide in you.” My hair and beard have grown white, and I have not yet atoned!”

“O my friend”, replied Rabbi Eliezer, “you are thinking only of yourself. How about forgetting yourself and thinking of the world?”

At first glance, points out Buber, this seems to contradict everything he has just said. He has just said that everyone should search his own heart, find his particular way, unite his being in action, and begin with himself, and now we are told a man should forget himself. This is not a contradiction, however. Buber says, “One must simply ask, what for? Why am I to search my heart? What is my particular way for?”.  Not for my own sake. You begin with yourself, yes, but you do not end with yourself. We put ourselves in order so that we can turn outwards toward the world.

That is not yet the final point though. Why do we search our hearts, find our way, unite our beings, put ourselves in order and turn toward the world?

Here Where One Stands

For this final lecture I won’t offer any commentary, but let Buber’s lyrical voice speak for itself.

“Most of us achieve only at rare moments a clear realization of the fact that they have never tasted the fulfillment of existence, that their life does not participate in true, fulfilled existence, that, as it were, it passess true existence by….in some measure we strive to find-somewhere- what we are seeking. Somewhere, in some province of the world or the mind, except where we stand, where we have been set- but it is there and nowehere else that the treasure can be found…..It is said of a certain Talmudic master that the paths of heaven were as bright to him as his hometown. Hasidism inverts the order: It is a greater thing if the streets of a man’s hometown are as bright to him as the paths of heaven. For it is here, where we stand, that we should try to make shine the light of hidden divine life.”

 “Once they told Rabbi Pinhas of Koretz of the great misery among the needy. He listened, sunk in grief. Then he raise his head. ‘Let us draw God into the world,’ he cried, ‘and all need will be extinguished.’

Buber tells a final story:

 “Where is the dwelling of God?” This is the question with which the Rabbi of Kotzk surprised a number of learned men who happened to be visiting him. They laughed at him: “What a thing to ask! Is not the whole world filled with his glory?”

Then he answered his own question: “God dwells wherever man lets him in.”

“This is the ultimate purpose”, says Buber, “to let God in. But we can let him in only where we really stand, where we live, where we live a true life. If we maintain holy intercourse with this little world entrusted to us, if we help the holy spiritual substance to accomplish itself in that section in which we are living, then we are establishing, in this place, a dwelling for the divine presence.”

 

 

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.

Genesis 1,2 as Protest

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The Creation of Adam by Samuel Hardridge

The story of the creation of humanity, as presented in the opening verses of Genesis, is luminous and profound. Its profundity is sometimes overshadowed by cryptic elements, by the Torah’s concise and understated manner of expression (by our standards), and by inherited cliches about its meaning. For me a curative has been the study of other near eastern creation narratives. Below I’ll take a look at one aspect of the narrative of the creation  from this perspective, through which it is revealed as a narrative of protest and radical revisioning of the human being.

Why Was Humanity Created?

We are fortunate to possess records of the creation of humanity as conceived in the Egyptian Hymn to Atum (2500-2100 BCE in origin though our version dates from 400 BCE); the Enuma Elish cycle (compiled in Mesopatamia 1100 BCE from Sumerian and Amorite sources in order to glorify the rulers of Babylon, the Mesopotamian capital); and the Atrahasis Cycle (18th century BCE; Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian). The Genesis stories date from as old as 2300 BCE-1400 BCE and were likely written down in their current form around 400 BCE (these dates are hotly contested, of course).

My contention is that the narrative of anthrogenesis in the Torah is a remarkably humanistic one (it is also remarkably earth-positive but that’s a subject for another time). According to Genesis 1:26: “And Deity said, “Let us make the human in our image, as our likeness. They shall rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, over the animals, the whole earth, and every thing that creeps upon it. And Deity created the human in his image; in the image of Deity he created them; male and female he created them. Deity blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and rule…And Deity saw all that he had made, and behold! It was very good.”

Later on we read (Genesis 2:7; 15): “YHVH Deity formed the human of soil from the earth, and blew into his nostrils a living soul, and the man became a living soul. YHVH Deity planted a garden in Eden, to the east, and place there the human he had formed….YHVH Deity took the human and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to serve it/work it (l’avodah) and to look after it (l’shomrah).”

The vision here is of the human as created to “rule the earth” benevolently and to tend and take care of God’s garden. The strong implication here is that the human is created for its own sake. God does not say, “I will make me a servant”, or “one to glorify me”, or even “one to know me” (later Jewish and non-Jewish theistic traditions often envision God’s purpose as one of these). The later Jewish idea that God created “because he wanted to have someone to give to” (Hasdai Crescas; Ramchal) comes closest to the vision of Edenic life. The Human is created for no other purpose than to enjoy the nourishment and beauty of God’s creation, to grow in numbers (be fruitful and multiply) and exercise a benevolent sovereignty (“serve and look after”). In a sense the human is created as an ideal benevolent King below, ruling by the decree, grace, and good will of the true Ruler above. The vision of Genesis is echoed in the structure of the political state imagined in the later parts of the Torah: a confederation of tribes with no king where everyone is protected from debt or loss of land, limits are placed on slavery, and everyone, including servants and animals, gets one day a week off to rest (a truly radical idea in the ancient world and becoming radical again in our day). Even more radically, every seven years the earth gets a year off to rest. One shift from this over arching vision of egalitarian protest occurred later when Israel insisted on “having a king like the nations around us”. After warning them that it will lead to their exploitation YHVH grudgingly acquiesces, than proceeds to try to work with Israel through their Kings (which is mostly a failure, see the books of Samuel, Kings 1 and 2, Chronicles and most of the Prophets).

The vision of Genesis, and its radical implications, are highlighted in comparison with other Near Eastern creation myths. Whereas Genesis pictures the human being as formed of earth and divine breath, the Hymn to Atum takes a much more existentialist position. Says Atum (after masturbating into his own mouth and spitting and sneezing out gods):

“I wept, and human beings arose from my tears….”

Surely we can hear the hardships and arbitrariness of poor agrarian life in this Egyptian hymn (especially in a totalitarian state where most of the populace were worker-slaves). The hymn to Atum doesn’t state a purpose for human life. It appears as a result of Atum’s fervent desire to create, a desire which is presented as sexual, almost riotous, and without particular purpose.

The Enuma Elish, by contrast, does state a purpose for the creation of humanity: After a protracted battle for rulership of the Divine Assembly, Marduk, god of Babylon, wins. He dismembers his rival, Tiamat, and uses her corpse to create heaven and earth. Having won the fealty of the Divine Assembly by defeating her, he then creates human beings as slaves to work for the gods and so “set the divine assembly free.” Marduk forms humans from the blood of another Divine rival, Kingu, after killing him. In contrast to the riotous creativity of the Hymn of Atum, the Enuma Elish conceives of the world as created out of death and conquest- out of military prowess- expressions of the power of Marduk. That this mythology represents a theology of Empire should require no extensive argument.

The Atrahasis cycle posits a purpose for the creation of human beings similar to that of the Enuma Elish. When the Divine Servant Class refuses to work for the Divine Overlords, the gods create human beings to work for the Gods as irrigators and farmers of the earth instead. Eventually they multiply too greatly for the gods comfort, and their noise disturbs the sleep of the great god Enlil, who thus conspires to have the Divine Assembly control their numbers with plagues and famines. When this doesn’t reduce the numbers of their human slaves effectively enough the gods unleash the flood and eliminate them save for a Noah-like survivor, who is saved by a god who is partial to him for unstated reasons (because of his good service?).  This flood narrative is also in meaningful contrast to the Genesis narrative, which has God bringing the flood because human culture is filled with aggressive thievery and violence (“hamas”).

In both the Enuma Elish and the Atrahasis Cycle, then, humans exist to serve their divine masters. As Joshua Berman has masterfully argued (“Created Equal”), this narrative seems to echo the political structure of Mesopatamia, Egypt, and Assyria, structures the narratives and laws of the Torah were in rebellion against (see also Yoram Hazony, “The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture”).

In Genesis the human being is not created to serve the Divine, and is not made of tears, semen, or a dismembered enemy. The human being is made of the good earth and the breath of God, and our proliferation is not a threat- it is an expression of divine blessing. Last but far from least, the human is made ” b’tselem Elokim (in the tselem of Deity)”. The word “tselem”, when it occurs elsewhere in the Torah, is used most often to refer to idols used in the worship of false gods (Amos 5:26, 2 Kings 11:18; 2 Chronicles 23:17; Ezekiel 7:20, 16:17, Numbers 33:52 ). This common usage should not be overlooked: as shocking as it may seem, the Genesis narrative goes so far as to imagine human beings as representations of God, formed in God’s likeness and serving as the only legitimate clay idol. This leap in sensibility that happened in the ancient near east- the leap required to go from imagining human beings as slaves of the gods or random expressions of divine fertility to imagining them as sacred images of God created to enjoy the divine garden of the earth and to rule over it benevolently- is an awe inspiring moment in the literature of humanity. 2,500 years later we are still struggling toward fulfilling it, with failure a deadly peril.  

 

Learning To Love Donald Trump

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Donald Trump. A few years ago  many of us had heard little of him, and he was easy to avoid (a desire even scant acquaintance inspired). When I visited my grandparents in North Miami Beach, a hell of over-development and rampant consumerism against a backdrop of magical beaches, I would grimace at the Trump Towers. They are an opulent and wasteful cancer on the coastline (one of many, admittedly), pumping ocean water 24 hours a day into elaborate fountains ornamenting massive driveways leading to a kind of hyper-real excess of the obscene, grandiose cartoon towers jutting preposterously into an innocent sky.

Recently Trump has become hard to ignore. His hate speech, pompous posturing, and fascist, fear-mongering rhetoric are by now well known. His popularity makes him terrifying to increasing numbers of people throughout the world, a living, breathing, billionaire obstacle to the progress, even the continued survival, of human civilisation.  Which brings me to my question. Can we learn to love Donald Trump?

Why do I ask? Not because I think he is inevitable, or that he will win the presidential race. I don’t think that is the case. For the record, I think the miraculous is in the offing and Bernie Sanders will win. I am curious about loving Trump because many of the beloved teachers of humanity tell me too. The Buddha advised us not to harbour hatred or animosity for any human being. If you think that does not apply to Trump, consider the following quote:

“Even if bandits were sawing you limb from limb with a two-handled saw, if you entertain any hatred in your heart on that account you are not my disciple.” (Kakucadapamma Sutta)

Then there’s Jesus. He’s also pretty clear: “Love your enemies…..anyone who harbours anger in his heart is a murderer….anyone who calls his brother “Fool!” is liable to judgement….judge not lest you be judged.” (Matthew)

The Rabbinic Jewish tradition states, “Anyone who gives into anger is an idolater….every thought of anger generates a thousand demons, even if the anger is over an ethical matter.”

So…..how do we love Donald Trump? Are we supposed to find something loveable in him? Are we supposed to rationalize away his ignorance,  malice, and self-indulgent opportunism? Are we supposed to accept him as he is?

I think not.

I think the key may lie in understanding better the nature of love. What is love, and what does it do? George Macdonald, a favorite mystic and theologian, offers some help.

Macdonald explains that 1) love is not acceptance. Love wishes to make more lovable what it loves. In other words, love wishes the loved well- not to be as he or she is. 2) Love does not abandon. Love never gives up, never closes it’s heart.

Thinking this over I was reminded of the amazing story of the conversion of Larry Trapp. Trapp was a “grand dragon” of the Klu Klux Klan who became badly disabled. When a Jewish family, the Weisslers, moved into his neighbourhood he threatened and harassed them. The Weisslers responded by reaching out to him and challenging his views, though not hatefully. They  then pursued him with kindness. They offered to bring him groceries and treated him with love. One night they visited him at his house and he begged them to take away all of his Swastika rings, telling them he wanted out of the Klan. The Weisslers took the rings and gave him one they had bought by chance earlier as a gift. Weissler left the Klan, became an informant for the police, and eventually- in a truly stunning move- converted to Judaism in a synagogue he had once planned to blow up. He died two months later holding the hands of the Weisslers, may he rest in peace.

The Weisslers demonstrated true love. They did not accept Trapp as he was, but they did love him with an ultimately redeeming love. I don’t personally know Trump, of course. Yet I am considered about the condition of my own heart, that cavernous mansion of which many rooms are unknown, and even more in disrepair. Trump is, of course, not the only issue there. In fact he’s a bit player compared to some others: ISIS, for one. Human traffickers. There’s no need to multiply the list. Yet what’s true for Trump is true for others: to love them is to hold on to their humanity even when they seem to have let go of it. It is to love them, which means to pray for them. To pray that they awaken to love, that they fill themselves with humility and wisdom, that they repent. That they go from villains to teachers.

Whether this seems true and important to us or not depends on the value we place on the cleanliness of our own hearts, and whether or not we recognize the danger of letting strange and dangerous beasts breed there. To do this is not just (or shouldn’t just be) “virtue signalling”, a technique by which we signal our superiority to others by claiming to be free of hatred and anger. I for one am not free of either: my natural propensity is to have disdain, hatred and anger for people of the moral quality of Trump or Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. To work to let go of these emotions and replace them with love, as defined above, is an act of protest in the days of the “outrage machine” known as the Internet. It is to protest common humanity and the priority of love in the face of hatred, dehumanisation and polarisation. I think it is an internal move which is essential to both our future and the wellness of our souls.

So will you join me in prayer for Donald Trump?

If prayer is not your practice, try metta bhavana. You might just find that some part of you feels inexplicably better afterwards.   

 

Trump Tower One -Trump I
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Trump Towers, North Miami Beach.

Isaiah pt. 3: Leadership

the-poor

What is a Biblical idea of leadership? As you might expect if you’ve been reading my previous posts on Isaiah, it is different than some might think. In the 32nd chapter of the book of Isaiah he begins to spell out a vision of leadership:

 

See, a king will reign in righteousness,

   and princes will rule with justice.

2 Each will be like a hiding place from the wind,

   a covert from the tempest,

like streams of water in a dry place,

   like the shade of a great rock in a weary land.

 

Isaiah’s vision of a leader is centered on “righteousness and justice” (tsedek u’mishpat) and results in the leader being a dramatically safe place of refuge for the endangered. S/he is pictured as saving from wind, tempest, desert and deadly exposure.

 

3 Then the eyes of those who have sight will not be closed,

   and the ears of those who have hearing will listen.

4 The minds of the rash will have good judgment,

   and the tongues of stammerers will speak readily and distinctly.

5 A fool will no longer be called noble,

   nor a villain said to be honorable.

 

When the leader embodies these virtues the people suddenly acquire the ability to hear, see, and speak clearly. Villainy and nobility are called by their true names. Jeremiah (5:21) uses the same image of having senses but not using them to castigate those who don’t perceive the presence of God in nature and recognize his presence and power. The common theme here is not recognizing the reality of God and responding appropriately. Those who do recognize the reality of God are those who can use their eyes and ears to see what is right in front of them. What Isaiah thinks is the proper response to recognizing God’s power is laid out in the next verse first by negative example:

 

6 For fools speak folly, and their minds plot iniquity:

to practice ungodliness, to utter error concerning the LORD,

to leave the craving of the hungry unsatisfied,

   and to deprive the thirsty of drink.

7 The villainies of villains are evil;

   they devise wicked devices

to ruin the poor with lying words,

   even when the plea of the needy is right.

8 But those who are noble plan noble things,

   and by noble things they stand.

 

What is it to practice “ungodliness”? What is it to “utter errors concerning the LORD”? It is to “leave the craving of the hungry unsatisfied and to deprive the thirsty of drink”, to “ruin the poor with lying words”. Isaiah’s assumption here is that recognizing the reality of God entails feeding the hungry and being a refuge to the endangered, defending the just cause of the poor and protecting them from being defrauded and exploited.

The Psalms use this same image of ears and eyes to refer to idols who cannot see or hear (115:6; 135:17) and warn that those who worship idols will become similarly deaf and blind. Those who worship dead things- money, possessions, land- will themselves become spiritually dead and insensitive.

There is only one idol whose “worship” is allowed in the Bible, and that is the idol of other human beings. In the Genesis creation account this is hinted at by the word used to describe the human being (ha’adam). The human is created “b’tselem elohim”, in the image of God. The Hebrew word used here, tselem, is used several times elsewhere in the Bible to refer to idolatrous statues (Numbers 33:52, 2 Kings 11:15, Ezekiel 7:20, etc) . The tselem in Genesis is the icon, the idol, of God. The only thing in Creation which images God in this sense is the living human being. Those who love idols become themselves dead. Those who love human beings, whether neighbour or stranger, love God and do his will (Leviticus 19:18, 19:33).

Who are the noble, the leaders? Those who “plan noble things, and by noble things they stand”. Their recognition of the reality of God leads them to plan noble things, and by these noble things they themselves stand in life- they live before God.

There is a barometer here not only for those of us who seek to recognize “godly leaders” but also for our lives. The degree to which we have ears that hear and eyes that see, mouths which speak truth and hands that work to defend the endangered is the degree to which we are really, truly recognizing the reality of God and not just worshiping what’s created by the “idol factory of the heart”. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “To meet God is to change.”