After a long absence, a return to the pages of Elephant Journal with a brief yogic satire.
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.
If there are a “chosen few”
then I am not one of them
if an “elect”, well then
I have not been elected.
I am one who is knocking
at the door. I am one whose foot
is on the bottom rung.
But I know that Heaven’s
bottom rung is Heaven
though the ladder is standing
on the earth where I work
by day and at night sleep
with my head upon a stone.
-Wendell Berry, from “Leavings: Poems” 2010.
A recent article by Mark Oppenheimer in the NY Times, and a more detailed follow-up by him in Tablet, have sparked a lot of conversation in the Jewish world and beyond about the Jewish “spiritual teacher” Marc Gafni. Gafni teaches an approach to Judaism which is uniquely his own, and combines elements of Ken Wilber’s “Integral Theory” with what you could call a kind of “Hasidic Tantra”.
I first came across Gafni when I was taking a DVD course on Jewish spiritual healing in 2005. The CDs were a melange of Hasidism, Eastern philosophy, Buddhism and Shamanism put together by various Jewish teachers including Tirzah Firestone (see below) and Gafni. As I listened to the Gafni CD I was at first impressed by a sophisticated midrash he was giving about the Keruvim in the Temple, and then it began to sour. What was it? Something about his delivery, his tone, put me on edge. Earlier in my life I had experiences with “bad gurus”, spiritual personas who were masking serious problems with emotional and sexual predation. I picked up a kind of radar for it, and later even taught a course on the “bad guru” phenomenon as part of Yoga Teacher Trainings. I sensed the sickness in Gafni. I cut the CD short, unable to get beyond about 15 minutes for nausea.
A year later, in 2006, I was doing a 3 month summer spiritual retreat at Elat Chayyim, the then flagship of the Jewish Renewal movement, with the woman I would later marry. To my alarm I found out that among the various teachers coming that summer- including mature luminaries like Norman Fischer, Alan Lew, and Dovber Pinson- Gafni would be coming. I discussed this with the Rabbi in residence, David Ingber, who was also unhappy about the impending visit. Unhappy is actually an understatement- Ingber was sick over it- in a state of severe distress. Gafni had been his spiritual teacher and was one of the Rabbis who ordained Ingber but Ingber had realized that Gafni was emotionally manipulative, deceptive, and possibly a sexual predator, and had withdrawn from him. Ingber had discussed his concerns with the Elat Chayyim board but the board held to their decision to invite Gafni.
To make matters worse, a young, charismatic and talented spiritual practitioner in the community who was close to Ingber was planning to be ordained by Gafni during his visit. Ingber and I both expressed our concerns with this person- I told him not to accept the ordination- but the individual decided to go ahead. In the end both Ingber and I participated (along with many others) in the ceremony. I was nauseous throughout, and Ingber was crying what I didn’t think then were pure tears of joy.
A few days before I had witnessed Gafni in action. It took place in a room full of excited students. They were all pursuing some kind of credential with Gafni, I forget what it was. We all waited in the charged room singing a niggun- a wordless spiritual melody. A beautiful female assistant of Gafni’s- who I think was his girlfriend at the time- revved up the audience, telling us to prepare for the “Rebbe” ( a term of veneration for Hasidic masters usually reserved for revered elders). Gafni finally arrived, 20 minutes late, rushing and looking “aflame” with some kind of passion. He was still wearing his tallit (prayer shawl) and his teffilin (phylacteries). Normally any self-respecting Jew would have kissed and carefully put away these items before appearing in public. Walking in with them on was brazen- a way of advertising both that he had been praying in the Orthodox manner and that he was somehow “above” respecting these ancient Jewish sacred objects. Even worse Gafni took off the tefillin without rolling them up or putting them away in their boxes, simply dropping them in a messy heap on the table. Ironically the tallit was an unusual colour- black, and gave Gafni the appearance of some kind of Tantric Darth Vader, which may not be that far from the truth.
Gafni launched into an impassioned teaching, moving restlessly around the room like a wrestler, his eyes scanning the crowd constantly measuring people’s reactions to him. I sat silent as a stone, frozen, refusing to respond to what felt like a psychic groping. At the first break I left and was unable to continue the weekend of “teachings”. A friend of mine in attendance, a psychologist, later told me that based on what he had seen he thought Gafni had a clinical personality disorder of some kind. Within a few months the allegations against Gafni exploded.
Reading Oppenheimer’s recent piece in Tablet, I am struck by how many spiritual teachers have defended him or continued to work with him. Some of them had quite a lot of information, like the late Zalman Shachter-Shalomi must have, and some had very little. The obvious question that strikes me is- why didn’t they do more research into Gafni when they heard allegations against him? I am not a fan of witch hunts, and I certainly don’t think schools and teachers should fire someone merely because allegations have been made. But surely when allegations have been made they need to be carefully looked into. The evidence against Gafni available on the Internet is enough to raise very serious concerns. Why, though, didn’t they get in touch with the people who knew him and gather more information? Why not reach out to some people close to the allegations?
Some Jewish teachers were admirably canny about what was going quickly, including the revered Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who rescinded Gafni’s ordination early on, and Rabbi Ingber. Joseph Telushkin, Arthur Green and Tirzah Firestone all seem bizarrely over-concerned to defend Gafni, but all later at least took back their support. Ken Wilber and Sally Kempton are interesting cases among Gafni’s supporters in the wider world. Wilber has a bad track record in terms of which teachers he supports- which famously include the deluded megalomaniac and serial sex abuser Adi Da Samraj, and also sex predators Gempo Roshi, Osho, and others. I once warned a female student of mine that she should avoid any teacher lauded by Wilber as a matter of principle. Kempton was herself a disciple of Swami Muktananda, a Hindu Tantric teacher guilty of massive self-enrichment at the expense of students and serial sex abuse of several students in India and the West, including teenage daughters of his own students. I suspect that Kempton may have used a similar defense of Muktananda that she uses for Gafni- that he had difficulty controlling his “shakti”.
A salient aspect of the discussion around Gafni that keeps coming up is talk of the power of his Eros, or Shakti, and the claim that this is a spiritual energy that he is tapped into. The implications are that this energy is a beneficial, desirable one, and it is unfortunate that Gafni is not a perfect master of it. Poor master, it overwhelms him so that he is forced to manipulate, deceive, have sex with, and assault others. “Eros” is just a fancy word for sexual desire, of course, though Gafni wides it’s use to include a kind of pleasurable embodied presence in the world. “Shakti” just means energy, but implies transformative, or creative energy. Usually, in Hindu Tantra, it is used to communicate that the teacher has a super-human power to transmit a beneficial, transformative energy to his students. What kind of excess energy is it exactly that Gafni suffers from? I find it incredible, to put it mildly, that there is a kind of beneficial spiritual energy which, when too strong, inspires irresponsible, immoral, predatory and destructive behaviour. As the saying goes, Detras de la cruz esta el diablo (Satan hides behind the cross).
I would submit that there is only one kind of beneficial, transformative energy. That energy is love, and one can’t have too much of it. It refuses to use other people, refuses to put them in what Buber called an “I-It” relationship. Love regards the other, seeks to really see, to really cherish, and to really celebrate the other as other, both in what they are and what they can become. I have met spiritual teachers with that energy. Most often they were not famous, not rich, and not particularly charismatic. Yet they saw me, and when I spoke with them I felt like they and I were the only two in the world. They saw things in me with a precision and speed that astonished me, yet they didn’t use these things to their own advantage. They used their sight to give me good, loving counsel and to mirror me back to myself in my potential. They did not seek to make me dependent, but rather independent. They didn’t try to make me like them, but more like myself. They did not in any way have their eye on my wallet and they didn’t try to have sex with their students (excuse me, help them “tantrically”).
There are teachers like that, and the sad thing is that the Gafnis of the world convince some people that there aren’t. One colleague once said to me, “Spiritual teachers- they’re all fakes. Exploiters, predators and crooks.” That’s not true (which I attempted passionately to explain to her). As Rumi said, Without real gold there would not be counterfeit.
Why, though, do some teachers defend and befriend the likes of Gafni? Some of it is, no doubt, naivete. Some of it is a well-intentioned desire to avoid a witch hunt. Some of it, though, I think, relates to a simple desire for capital of one kind or another. Why did Elat Chayyim act as a venue for Gafni despite the concerns of their Rabbi in residence? Could it because he was a money-maker? Could it be because his fame and charisma increased the fame and charisma of Elat Chayyim? Some people, at least, are attracted to Gafni because, simply put, they like money or power. Associating with Gafni brings the same pleasure that many would find associating with any celebrity, conman or garden variety mafioso. This is the pleasure of associating with the resource that person has- which could be sex, money, talent, intelligence, or charisma- and the power that confers. Gafni’s friends all assert something along the lines of this: “He denies the allegations. He has great ideas, great energy, great power. I haven’t looked into this in detail, but he denies the charges. I trust him.” Listening to some of the defenses of Gafni reminds me of the reaction Trump had when he was praised by Vladimir Putin, the Russian autocrat. Trump, who loves a good compliment and the friendship of powerful people, expressed pleasure at Putin’s words. When he was challenged about Putin’s well known involvement in silencing free speech in Russia- even assasinating troublesome journalists, he said: “He denied it. I mean, it’s not like anyone found him with a gun in his hand or anything.” Maybe look into it, Trump. Maybe look into it, Jewish and non-Jewish teachers and community leaders. I’m glad Oppenheimer did.
UPDATE: Aleph, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal, as just released a statement condemning Gafni’s behaviour and making it clear that as far as they are concerned he should not be teaching (see their Facebook page). They point out that Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi revoked Gafni’s ordination in 2006.
UPDATE (Jan 5 2016): A petition attracting the signatures of many Rabbis and Jewish leaders, including Avi Weiss (the founder of Open Orthodoxy), Joseph Telushkin and Tirzah Firstone, is now circulating calling for Whole Foods and others to cut ties with Gafni. The petition has gone above 2500 signatures. New articles have appeared in several papers and magazines. See here. Meanwhile, in an utterly classless move, non- Jewish “spiritual teachers” Ken Wilber and Sally Kempton are on record comparing the Jewish community leaders who are trying to shut down Gafni-which include some of the most important Jewish spiritual teachers and Rabbis alive today- to “neonazis”. Nice. Apparently Wilber and Kempton are specializing both in aiding and abetting abusers and in provoking other people’s most horrific traumas if it helps their friends. So tell me, if a rape victim goes to the police, does that make her a neonazi? Would that only be true if she was Jewish?
Two narratives. The one you’re likely to read in mainstream Canadian media: a group of First Nations people have set up a protest camp in Northern BC to block proposed pipelines. The other, which you will find championed on sites like unistotencamp.com, says that the Unis’tot’en camp, created by a clan of the Wet’suwet’en, are not a protest camp. They are camping on their own unceded land to protect it from invasion and abuse at the hands of corporations and the Canadian government. There is a world of difference between these two stories. One sees the Wet’suwet’en as having sovereignty over their land as an equal treaty partner with Canadians and the other sees them as First Nations resident in Canada and blocking public roads and waterways to protest a Canadian business venture. If the difference seems anything but momentous you have not yet grasped the new era of Indigenous politics in Canada.
As the clan website states, “The Unist´ot´en homestead is not a protest or demonstration. Our clan is occupying and using our traditional territory as it has for centuries….. Our traditional structures of governance continue to dictate the proper use of and access to our lands and water. Today all of our Wet´suwet´en territory, including Unist´ot´en territory, is unceded Aboriginal territory. Our traditional indigenous legal systems remain intact and continue to govern our people and our lands. We recognize the authority of these systems as predating and independent of Canadian law.”
The Unis’tot’en “camp” is not really a camp, it is more like a homestead. Freda Huson, one of the main spokespeople for the camp, has lived there for three years. Several cabins, gardens and other structures have been built specifically to act as obstacles to pipeline construction, and there is currently a project underway to build a healing centre. In accordance with Wet’suwet’en law, entry into Unist’ot’en territory is controlled by checkpoints at two locations on Unist’ot’en Territory. “Free, prior and informed consent protocol”, a concept enshrined in the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, is conducted at checkpoints leading into the camp. Visitors must in effect pass through customs before they can move what from a government perspective is simply one piece of crown land to another, but to the Unis’tot’en is a passage from Crown land to Wet’suwet’un territory.
Support for the camp is not unanimous among the Wet’suwet’en, whose five elected chiefs are in favour of some degree of pipeline construction. The opposition is being lead by the hereditary chiefs of the five Wet’suwet’en clans and particularly the Gilsehyu (Big Frog) clan, within whose territory the Unis’tot’en camp appears to fall (there are some internal disputes over land boundaries). The Unis’tot’en represent a movement within the Wet’suwet’en to lay claim to the authority and heritage of their people in a way which will preserve the land they live on and stop the pipeline projects.
The BC government is considering 6 different pipeline projects which would cut directly through Wet’suwet’en land. The Wet’suwet’en, like most other BC First Nations, never signed treaties relinquishing title or land rights. And while the Supreme Court has recognized that these territories are unceded in the landmark Delgamuukw v. the Queen the government continues to issue permits on land whose jurisdiction is disputed. According to the Unis’tot’en, the pipeline projects threaten the land and water of the Wet’suwet’en. There is particular concern over the ecology of the salmon population, as fishing is an essential livelihood for the Wet’suwet’en.
The clan is building a network with dozens of other First Nations protesting the coal mining, tar sands extraction, oil drilling, and natural gas exploration that have become major forces in the Canadian economy. Other clans of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, as well as the Gitxsan and St’at’imc Nations, have established occupations, or better “re-occupations”, this year.Throughout BC there are similar stories of small groups of Indigenous Canadians standing up against International energy giants who have been given permits and support from the provincial government. Lax Kw’alaams members voted earlier this year to reject a $1.15 billion benefits package with the Pacific NorthWest LNG project, which is led by Malaysian energy giant Petronas, over environmental concerns. The Lax-Kw’alaams are one of the allied tribes of the Tsimshian people, the largest Indigenous group in Northwest BC. They have set up protest camp on Lelu Island, where Pacific Northwest wants to create a port which would endanger the local ecology. More recently the Lax Kw’alaams went to court to claim title to the land in order to block the project. “The greatest threat to our traditional territories is that we forget that we own it”, said Christine Smith-Martin, who is identified by the band as a leader in their “reoccupation” camp.
Close to Vancouver a confrontation has been taking place for months between Kinder Morgan and various protesters, including prominent Indigenous and non-Indigenous players, on Burnaby Mountain. The City of Burnaby itself has been fighting the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion which would go through the Burnaby Mountain conservation area. The dispute dates back to Dec. 16, 2013, when Trans Mountain asked the energy board for a certificate for the expansion project. The City of Burnaby’s bylaw battle against the Trans Mountain pipeline was recently dealt a blow by a B.C. Supreme Court judge who declared that the National Energy Board rulings take precedence over that of the municipality.The Metro Vancouver city has tried to obstruct the laying the 1,100-kilometre-long pipeline between Alberta and coastal B.C. The expanded pipeline would ship almost 900,000 barrels a day of crude oil. Burnaby’s fight against Kinder Morgan and the Trans Mountain Pipeline now appears destined to go all the way to the Supreme court as Mayor Derek Corrigan intends to appeal the BC court decision. On Nov 20 Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, the president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, was arrested by RCMP, joining more than 100 others who had been willingly arrested since police began enforcing a court injunction issued a week before ordering protesters to stand down.
“I don’t know who Kinder Morgan is, they are not lords of my land,” Vancouver Metro news quoted Phillip as saying before his arrest. Squamish Nation Chief Ian Campbell told a crowd of protesters that his nation doesn’t consent to Canada issuing rights to third-party interests with no regard to Indigenous sovereignty, rights and title. Here too on Burnaby Mountain the word of the Chiefs is clear: this is their territory and they are not being consulted.
That these claims are being made in a Metro Vancouver jurisdiction is no longer surprising: last year, the Year of Reconciliation, City Council, headed by Mayor Gregor Robertson officially declared that the city of Vancouver exists on unceded aboriginal territory. “Underlying all other truths spoken during the Year of Reconciliation is the truth that the modern city of Vancouver was founded on the traditional territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations and that these territories were never ceded through treaty, war or surrender,” reads part of the motion.
“These lands belong to us,” Toghestiy, a hereditary chief of the Likhts’amisyu clan of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, recently told Yes! magasine. “They’ve never been ceded or surrendered to anybody. This place is not Canada. It’s not B.C. It in particular is Unist’ot’en territory, and it is occupied and protected.”
The new Trudeau government has said that it will implement the UN Declaration on The Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Article 32 of the declaration requires obtaining from indigenous peoples “free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories”. For some non-Indigenous Canadians the prospect is frightening. Tom Flanagan, professor emeritus of Political Science at the University of Calgary and chair of the “aboriginal futures research program” at the Frontier Center for Public Policy, warns that endowing aboriginal peoples with too much power could “handicap Canada’s resource industries”.
For some non-Indigenous Canadians, the prospect of handicapping at least some of resource industries (like mining, oil and gas) is actually an attractive aspect of increased power for Indigenous peoples. As Canadian public intellectual John Ralston Saul recently wrote in his 2014 book The Comeback, “There is already a consensus between Aboriginals and the environmental movement.” That being so, some Canadians are slow to recognize the claims that Indigenous peoples have in accordance with the treaties on which Canada was built, treaties which view them not as subjects but as partners. As Saul recently argued in the same book, the Supreme Court has recognized that the “honour of the Crown” demands that Indigenous peoples be treated not only from a legal-technical perspective but from an ethical one which recognizes the history of Canadian violence and treachery towards Indigenous peoples and treats them in accordance with the original intent of the treaties. From this perspective economic concerns must take a back seat to the more fundamental question of honourable relations between the Canadian government and First Nations peoples. Yet the habit of seeking to limit Indigenous power and control resources is old and well entrenched in Canadian policy and public discourse, both consciously and unconsciously.
Nor is this issue limited to Canada. As Saul writes, “The relationship between the environment, indigenous people and commodities extraction is on the agenda everywhere.” It is clear to anyone breathing fresh air as opposed to sand that the future belongs to the environmentalists if it belongs to anyone. It will need to. This can only bode well for the hopes of those clans and bands who are linking their claims as Indigenous peoples to the defense of the land. It is also true, however, that recognizing Indigenous sovereignty is not inherently a means to protect ecologies. There are many in the Indigenous communities who wish to profit from resource extraction themselves, and recognizing their self-government in their own territiories necessarily means them making decisions which might or might not be ecologically sound. Only time will tell whether Indigenous peoples will be leaders in transforming the resource sector into a sustainable industry or not. Those who say that recognizing their sovereignty is a matter of justice, however, argue that taking a risk on increasing Indigenous power is not only reasonable but is required by conscience.
Meanwhile at Unis’tot’en winter is settling in. Indigenous and non-Indigenous volunteers are tending the permaculture gardens, hunting, and staffing the checkpoints and lookouts across the land.
It was widely reported in the last couple of days that a group of Kenyan Muslims stood against Jihadi terrorists at the risk of their lives on a bus in Northern Kenya. The bus was travelling from Nairobi to Mandera with 60 passengers when militants believed to be affiliated with the Somalian group Al-Shabab stopped the bus by shoooting through the windsheild. Before the militants boarded the bus some of the Muslim passengers gave Christians riding on the bus headscarves to try and conceal their identity as non-Muslims. They may have been recalling a similiar attack last year in the same region where terrorists killed 28 non-Muslims on a bus.
One of the terrorists boarded the bus and demanded that the Muslims and non-Muslims seperate. One Christian passenger tried to run and was shot in the back, according to eyewitnesses. The Muslim passengers refused to seperate from the Christian passengers and one man reportedly declared, “Kill us all or leave them alone”. Another man deceived the militants by claiming a police escort was not far behind the bus, and the Jihadis, apparently faced with a more complex situation than they had anticipated, left.
This heroic and beautiful story is being widely shared, and rightly so. It comes as a timely reminder of the divisions within Islam and should act as a curative against generalisations rooted in fear and anger over Jihadi terrorism. There are two mistakes I think we could make in hearing this story. The first is use it as proof that Islam is entirely a “religion of peace” and the supposed widespread problems in contemporary Islamic fundamentalism are a fiction in the minds of paranoid westerners. That is not the case. There are serious problems in today’s Islamic fundamentalist world, not the least of which are widespread violence towards women and homosexuals, rampant anti-semitism, and hatred of “infidels”, all of which are well demonstrated by polls and studies. These are dangerous sicknesses and to call them by any other name or pretend they don’t exist is unjust and deceptive. It would be nice not to get involved, to say that non-Muslims should not study or speak about these things, but the Muslim community is a large and inportant part of the global village and we are all now far too interconnected to turn our eyes away. We need to get used to being in eachother’s business, because that’s the way of the future as the human family gets every closer and closer. For a good discussion of this perspective from an insider, see this video by Toronto based Sunni Muslim activist Raheel Raza.
The second mistake would be to think that these Muslims were not inspired by Islam but were acting against it, some kind of “rebels against Islam”. That is also clearly not the case. Islam also has lofty ethical teachings and traditions that respect the humanity of all beings. Islamic spiritual practices and meditation on God inspire wisdom, love and courage in untold numbers of Muslims every day. If we see the al-Shabab attackers as Muslims, we must also remember and emphasize that the bus passengers who resisted were also Muslims.
I would argue that one of the greatest mistakes we can make in our era is to paint all Muslims with the same brush. It is surely at least as great a mistake as whitewashing the problems in Islamic fundamentalist culture and politics, and probably in the end a bigger one. It is imperative that any critique we engage in of Muslim culture should be informed, empathic and loving critique. We must reach out and befriend those Muslims who live the teachings of love, peace and tolerance which are also part of Islamic tradition (see here for one example). Now more than ever we must be their friends, allies and, if needed, protectors.
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.
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 Towers, North Miami Beach.
The real religious war is not between one religion and another or between believers and nonbelievers.
I am Jewish. A few years ago I read a great book called Yiddish Civilisation by Paul Kriwaczek, which is a wonderful history of the yiddish speaking Jews of Europe over the last thousand years or so and the civilization they created- a civilization wiped out by fascism in the first half of the 20th century. This book changed my understanding of Jewish history in many ways, and in one way particularly. Growing up in the Jewish community I was taught that our time in Europe had been one long stretch of persecution by Christians, followed by the climax of the Holocaust and the triumphant creation of the modern state of Israel. I often wondered what Jews had done between the 2nd century CE and 1939, but I had no clear idea other than vague notions of shtetls in Poland. But how did the Jews get from Roman occupied Palestine to Glemboke, the northern Polish village where my grandfather grew up?
Reading Kriwaczek’s book I learned of the way that Jews had moved outwards away from Israel to fill the boundaries of the Roman Empire and beyond, and had often followed the movement of new frontiers as merchants. I learnt how they had eventually settled in Germany, Hungaria, Poland, Galicia, Lithuania, and Russia, forming the Yiddish Civilisation that my father descended from. I also learned three new and to me amazing things. The first was that the Jewish trek through European history was not one of unmitigated suffering. Jews had also thrived and contributed to the various Christian civilisations of Europe- politically, scientifically, medically, philosophically, and artistically. Jews had also created their own civilisation and culture with its own languages and dialects, its own art, mores, institutions, and literature. The second was that Jews were far from the only persecuted minority. The fact is that European culture was often brutal and marked with almost constant inter-communal violence. Prior to the Reformation in the early 16th century violence tended to be along ethnic, political or geographical lines or directed towards minority religious movements. After the Reformation the previous list of targets continued, adding the multinational fight between Protestants and Catholics and the fight against the Anabaptists, with everyone else doing the killing and them doing the dying.
It began to dawn on me that, as the author of YC argues, to a large extent the violence against Jews does not stand out. It is part of this larger pattern, not an anomaly. Many Jews, habituated (again, like other persecuted minority groups) to a narrative of victimization, will find that a shocking assertion. All I can say is: check the history books.
The third realization was that although it is a horrible truth that Christians, both individually and as government policy, discriminated against and persecuted Jews, it is also true that Christians, both individually and as a matter of government policy, protected, cooperated with, and supported Jews. It was this last realization which brought me to the insight I want to share here. It will not be new to many of you, I’m sure, but it bears repeating and disseminating.
It has become a commonplace bit of “flat-earth” philosophy today to say that religions cause wars. This is not true: historically only about 7% of wars have been religious in nature, and explicitly anti-religious societies have in fact been much, much more violent, which suggests that religion, even when the cause of war, may actually curb the amount of violence perpetrated over-all. In any case, it is certainly true that religious leaders and followers alike have committed acts of violence for what they have described as religious motives. It is also true that religious people have used religion to defend morally heinous ideas and practices like slavery, male superiority, colonialism, violence against LGBTQ people, and even capitalism. What is often overlooked is the other side of the coin: religious people, claiming religious motivation, have run hospitals, fed the poor, reformed the justice system to make it more humane, advocated for feminism, against slavery, against war, against colonialism, against social injustice, in favour of greater access to education and literacy, for human rights, for the ecology, for the rights of LGBTQ people, and even for freedom of religion itself. Which brings me to my point: the real “holy war”, the real “religious war” is not religious people against non-religious people or members of other religions. It is within religions themselves, between those who heed the wisdom those traditions have accumulated in their centuries of pilgrimage through history and wield the immense transforming power of religion for the soul and the community from a heart of love, and those who are lost in ignorant and malformed fundamentalisms or are busy fashioning religion into a weapon to use against others, driven by anything but religious motivations whatever they may claim.
This war has raged throughout history in every religion without exception, and continues to do so today. As a Jew I realized that the true history of European Christendom was not a war of Christians against Jews, but one between Christians who wanted to persecute, exploit, or eliminate Jews and Christians who wanted to treat them like human beings or even, occasionally, to treat them like Jesus would want them to be treated.
Today it is imperative that we understand that there is a similar war within Islam, as in other religions like Buddhism and Hinduism. I would argue that attention, friendship and community should be extended to those within all religions who teach and embody the values of justice, kindness and peace for all people. To those who don’t we should extend love and honest, respectful attempts at communication. Mockery, hatred and dehumanisation will not serve us- they are just sophisticated forms of revenge and subtle violence.