From the Great Chain of Being to The Tree of Life: Tikkun Israel is Tikkun Olam

One of the great gifts that the Jewish people have bequeathed to the world is monotheism and, today, a significant swath of the world sees monotheism as an evolved moral system that liberated us from the idolatrous or pagan world that preceded it. Most see this as a progression from a state of primitivism and sinfulness to one of piety and virtue; from ignorance to knowledge and understanding. In essence, however, this Jewish gift is a double-triangular star with razor-sharp points on all sides.

Monotheism also precipitated a shift from a world in which the divine was considered immanent to one in which God is transcendent. Many are now experiencing this historic shift as an imbalance dangerously tilting us towards impending disaster. Perhaps the new role of the Jewish people is to swing the pendulum back to an embrace of immanence by incorporating into our here and now the Jewish worldview that the earth itself is spiritual, is nature -based and integrates indigenous traditions. A movement of this sort is already seeping through and slaking the parched land of Israel.

The shift from immanence to transcendence as introduced by monotheism was a monumental (holy) shift in the way we ordered the world. The earlier immanent worldview created societies that lived in a perhaps precarious harmony with nature. But with the idea of a transcendent God we introduced the kind of hierarchical thinking that allowed agriculture to take root, cities to flourish and humans to proliferate on the planet. It also produced the medieval Great Chain of Being, depicting a universe with everything in it divinely arranged by rank and order: God and angels on top and then man positioned next and animals and the rest of nature below. This domination mindset today plays itself out in businesses, families, communities and the organized religions that serve to maintain this tiered structure. This mindset gives humans permission to dominate nature and also allows white people the authority to subjugate indigenous cultures, thus creating the conditions necessary for colonialism to exist. The way we conceive of God is the way we structure society.

There have been those within the Jewish tradition, however, who have questioned the model of a transcendent God. Baruch Spinoza was one such Jewish philosopher whose thinking was deemed so radical that he was excommunicated for his views from the Jewish community of Holland in 1656. Spinoza believed that everything that exists is God and that God exists in dimensions beyond those of the visible world. He based his great works Ethics on the view that “God is the indwelling and not the transient cause of all things. All things which are, are in God. Besides God there can be no substance, that is, nothing in itself external to God.” [I.17]

When the Divine is conceived of as immanent, then the societal structure that becomes possible is that of an egalitarian society. An egalitarian society is one in which men and women are equal and interact on the same level playing field in which no one person can have more than another: if one person within the community is in need or is lacking the basic necessities of life, this becomes a failure of the entire community and brings shame on everyone. Many indigenous cultures have lived in this modality for aeons. In this paradigm the image of the Great Chain of Being is replaced by the Tree of Life.

In contrast, as stated above, the concept of God as an authority over, as a transcendent being and man as submitting to His authority generates a society in which one group can subjugate another, one has authority over another, and one group can oppress a people and occupy a land. This suggests that the hierarchical model given to the world by Judaism and monotheism has now been taken to its extreme in the modern State of Israel.

However, the hierarchical colonial model in present day Israel seems ready to topple, perhaps even to implode. Israeli society of today is a society profoundly out of balance. Evidence of the lack of balance is the vast schism isolating Israel from world public opinion, the division that Israel’s policies is causing among those that generally support Israel, and the deep-seated violence that is permeating Israeli society like a toxin making its way through an organism. Certainly, Israel is not the only country in the world which is colonizing, or oppressing another people. There are many others acting within this paradigm and promoting domination, but I want to preempt the argument that asserts that “you can’t blame Israel because others are worse,” by stating emphatically that one evil does not justify another. The evil perpetuated in other parts of the Middle East – and indeed the world – does not excuse Israel from its own moral failings. This violence in Israel is not just being perpetuated against Palestinians, but also against the asylum seekers (often called mistaninim or infiltrators in the Israeli media) as well as within Israeli society where the left and those perceived to be liberal are being persecuted.

The violence within Israeli society stemming from the aforementioned lack-of-balance expresses itself in more mundane ways as well. The road rage and the school yard fights are all symptoms of the malaise permeating Israeli society. When harassment, cursing and verbal violence are constantly heard in parks, on buses and in the public squares, these are signs that Israel is experiencing a collapse of the civilized and humane. Another sign of imbalance is that many Israelis are either oblivious or dissociated from the consequences of such events, although many others express concern and dismay.

Racism and xenophobia have become the norm in Israel. Even those who are tolerant and consider themselves unprejudiced casually drop racial slurs against Arabs. Racism has become so endemic that very few can even conceive of a society in Israel in which Arabs and Jews are desegregated (there are exceptions, of course, and the Hand in Hand schools come to mind as a wonderful model of tolerance and acceptance). Another sign that the implosion is imminent is due to the fact that the Price Tag vandalism targeting Arab communities is met with indifference or shrugged off as “not my problem;” when even a so-called left-wing Zionist group embraces a slogan that trumpets the value of separation from Arabs and espouses segregation as peacemaking (nifradim meha’aravim b’shalom). The slogan suggests that Israelis separate from the Palestinians – proclaiming that only through such segregation can there possibly be peace; never mind that 20% of the Israeli population who live within Israel are Palestinians.

A society which ignores the reality of oppression and occupation that has effectively annexed the territories leaving millions disenfranchised, subject to settler violence and indifference from the rest of Israeli society is one that cannot remain intact. The cracks are beginning to show and those who read history know that repressive regimes are doomed to fall. To translate these events into historical or metaphysical terms it would seem that the monotheistic, transcendent model is reaching a crescendo and nearing the precipice of collapse. Thus, I want to suggest here that in this unfolding Tragedy, Israel has taken on the mythological role of Hero in the hero’s journey of global society. Should the imminent implosion be transmuted and should dominance and subjugation be transformed into equality and acceptance, perhaps then Israel’s shift could herald a new global messianic age of immanence and egalitarianism. Can we reinvent monotheism as a single deity within, not above, embedded and instantiated in the souls of humanity in our embrace of one another. What will get us closer to the messianic age in which the lion and the lamb – whichever role we think we embody – lie down side by side in peace? Is it possible that Israel will shift to a true pursuit of justice (zedek zedek tirdof)?

Perhaps the answer is “yes.” At the same time that the news is full of stories of violence, a new story is taking root below the rich soil and putting forth green shoots. This is not a story you will find in the news, nor will it be revealed in a google search. It is a grassroots story passed on by word of mouth and in the privacy of living rooms and one that flies under the radar for most of the café goers of mainstream society. This is a story of a powerful subculture in Israel emerging from the depths, from within the psyche, and the dreaming of the earth. It is a spiritual story but one rooted in many traditions. It is a merging and melding of various earth-based ways of life now called upon for the purpose of profoundly tilting the cultural axis towards balance.

Israel has become a magnet for spiritual transformation from a rainbow of different cultures, including Peruvian and Chilean indigenous traditions, Native American, Sufi, shamanic practices of all stripes and of course its own native Kabbalistic mystical traditions. These rituals and practices include drumming circles, and talking circles, sacred music ceremonies and sacred medicine ceremonies, Mother-earth festivals and rainbow-nature gatherings. From sweat lodges and medicine wheels from the Native American traditions to dancing and movement from the Sufi to shamanic journeying and vision quests from the world over. Other practices include solstice and equinox celebrations in which participants align their social and psychological selves with the rhythms of outer nature. There is a plethora of these spiritual practices springing up in many centers around the country – both expected and unexpected – but you have to know what you are looking for if you wish to find it. So much is still below the surface, where it takes root, finding rich soil in fertile imaginations in which it grows and expands and is brought to consciousness. And many feel called to find it. This new subculture is still in the shadows, but, like a shadow, it looms larger when the light grows brighter.

There are those who would dismiss such events as New Age or fringe-hippie wannabes. But these naysayers are missing the point and also oblivious to the power. To those few observing the movement, it seems as though the spiritual traditions of the world are being drawn to the Holy Land, carried there, surreptitiously, yet softly and gently; cautiously and quietly, yet resolutely,  imported by Israeli spiritual seekers and by concerned members of other cultures who are drawn to heal the imbalance, the rift, the imminent implosion. Israel must heal itself and we need their help. And, ultimately, it is the traditions of immanence, the earth and nature-based traditions – that don’t differentiate between ethnicities and skin color and rival histories and religious backgrounds – that will bring our long-awaited messianic days.  These nature traditions are the path to  overcoming the separation of tribalism where the kadosh (the separate) becomes profane and what might once have been profane is now our long sought after salvation. Repair the world, we are enjoined by the Talmud and now we are joined by the great healers and healing spirits of the world. Welcome. Aho. Amen.



Peace is Catching: Dialogue in Your Community

Having recently returned to Israel after spending nearly a decade in the U.S. , I find that my observations of the country reflect both its changes and my own. My awareness has grown, but so too has my perplexity. The paradoxes and complexities of Israel are what I notice now more than ever. Although these may have always existed, they are in sharper relief against today’s pessimistic political reality – a far cry from the heady days of optimism created by the Oslo peace process of ten years ago. But also the paradoxes are sharper for me because of my own growing awareness in light of my doctoral research on Arab-Jewish dialogue groups in the United States. Despite some of the issues I discuss here I want to begin and end on an optimistic note that the reality calls out for opening channels of communication and promoting dialogue between Jews and Arabs in the United States and all over the world.

Of the many social incongruities causing dissonance in Israel, relations between Arabs and Jews in Israel is a troubling case in point. On the one hand a significant majority of Israel’s Arab citizens live in villages (some say 85%) but those who leave the villages to become educated at Israel’s universities often become integrated and play an important role in a multi-cultural Israeli society. There are Arab doctors in hospitals who are heads of departments, there are Arab psychologists, Arab professors at the institutions of higher learning and many have attained respected positions in Israeli society. And yet despite some of these impressive gains, racism against Arabs in Israel is explicit, blatant and unabashed.

Many who follow the Middle East on the nightly news have an image in their heads of the Palestinian villager oppressed by settlers and this image is unspeakably appalling. But it is not the whole picture. A drive through for example the Israeli-Arab village of Kfar Yasif in the Gallilee reveals other layers and nuances. There the houses inhabited by Arab citizens are large and impressive mansions. But scratch the surface and you realize that here too contradictions abound. Sometimes three generations live in the spacious home (not so spacious when you consider how many live under the same roof) . Also, basic infrastructure provided by the authorities is often scanty or lacking in these villages. Is the lack of civic services a result of discrimination and persecution and the specter of second class citizenship as the Arabs claim or is it because of the difficulty of collecting taxes in these villages as claim the Israelis? Why wouldn’t anyone refuse to pay taxes though to a state that discriminates against them – isn’t that civil disobedience as celebrated by our Henry D. Thoreau? So the argument goes around in circles.

Of course most Israeli Jews don’t drive through these Arab villages. Most don’t even know they exist, or seem to have sprouted blinders when driving past. When asking the typical Israeli what population centers he would pass on a drive from, say, Netanya to Nahariya, he would certainly mention Hadera and Caesarea and Zichron Yaakov to the east of the Coastal Road, but would he mention Faradis which has a population about the size of Zichron? Haifa is impossible to miss, but what about Shfar’am with a population of 35,000?  If they were to take Road number 70 which avoids the traffic of Haifa and the Krayot, they would certainly mention Yokneam and Akko but screen out Tamra and B’ilin. How has a society so successfully managed to hide 20% of its population in plain sight? Poe’s story re-written as the “Purloined People.”

The reality is that prejudice against Arabs is blatant, flagrant and unconcealed by veils of political correctness. There’s no attempt even to hide this ugliness. A prominent Arab psychologist recently related how, returning to Israel from an overseas conference , he hailed a taxi back home from the airport. He reports that the taxi driver told him he refuses to pick up drunks and Arabs in his cab. When my friend observed with barely concealed irony that a drunk might be easy enough to recognize but how does the driver distinguish an Arab from a Jew, the driver replied, “I can smell them.” Needless to say, the taxi driver’s olfactory sense must have been malfunctioning that day because he never suspected the psychologist was Arab.

Several months ago I sat at a Shabat dinner table with a childhood friend who claimed stridently that that Avigdor Lieberman is the only honest politician in Israel. Such a statement is shocking considering not least the corruption charges that have been leveled against him and his indictment for fraud. But this statement is even more deplorable considering Lieberman’s virulent anti-Arab rhetoric. Is it better to have racism out in the open rather than swept under the rug of political correctness as some claim occurs in the United State? Personally, I think that the attempt to hide racism is an acknowledgement that it is a shameful thing or at the very least indicates an awareness that it is wrong, which is the first step toward rooting it out.

I’ve also had dinner this year – the Pesach Seder at my home in Karkur  – year with a genuinely lovely Arab family from Akko whose daughters have grown up in the Israeli Jewish school system. My friend’s 12-year-old was excited to come to our Seder because – as she told her mother – this is the first time she would get to see what a real home Seder looks like and not just the ones they do at school. Should I be shocked to learn that despite her 29 Jewish classmates and myriad Jewish neighbors she had never before been invited to anyone’s family Seder? Most of my Jewish Israeli friends were not surprised by this.

Despite the accusations out of Europe these days, Israelis are not Nazis and Israel is not an apartheid state. I know we are a people which generally cares about tikkun olam and doing right in the world. It is time to ignore the stalled out top-down peace process and start making peace for ourselves. If we have learned anything from this past year’s social protest movements both in the Arab world, in Israel and now in the U.S. it is that we do not need to wait for government to make the changes we want to see.

In this season of soul searching as we approach the High Holy Days, I urge every one of you to join the social movement toward peace. This movement is already growing strong with countless organizations striving for peace and social justice in Israel, with innumerable Arab–Jewish dialogue groups in the US and in Israel. I encourage Jews everywhere in Israel and in the US  to join the movement by taking the time this upcoming Sukkot holiday to invite an Arab friend or an Arab family  into your Sukkah or to your Passover Sdarim in the spring and to open a dialogue: one on one, family to family, and in small groups. Reach out, listen to the other’s stories, make a friend. Peace is catching. Pass it on.

Buber and Pixar: Going to the Movies with Martin Buber

(Written June, 2009)

What does Martin Buber have to do with Pixar films? A lot, actually. Cars, The Incredibles, WallE, and the latest, Up are rife with dialogic moments and extensively promote I-Thou encounters. Martin Buber describes genuine dialogue as a silent or spoken exchange in which each of the participants turns to the other with the intention of establishing a living, reciprocal relationship between them. Although we tend not to take children’s animated films too seriously, the subtleties and complexity of Pixar’s animation actually provide an ideal vehicle for conveying genuine dialogue.

In dialogue, participants achieve connection through communication. This connection allows for each party to potentially change the other, or be changed by the other.

In Cars – a film in which all the characters are, what else? cars – Lightning McQueen begins the movie as an arrogant, rookie race car whose greatest aspiration is to beat The King (the reigning race car champion soon to be retiring) and capture the lucrative and prestigious Dinoco sponsorship. Over the course of the film Lightning McQueen’s dialogic encounters with the denizens of the town of Radiator Springs transform him and the transformation leads him to make the correct ethical choice in the final race between the three top race cars.

In Buber’s thought, there are two types of relationships: the I-Thou and the I-it. In the I-Thou relationship we produce dialogue, engaging the other as a whole being. In the I-it relationship parties relate to and experience each other as objects or means to achieving goals. Dialogue cannot occur in the I-it relation.

In the beginning of Cars, the hotshot Lightning McQueen, on his way to race-car supestardom, is immersed solely in I-It relationships. He treats his pit crew with disdain calling them by the wrong names and when they quit in disgust over his lack of team spirit, he dismissively retorts “like it’s so hard to find someone to change my tires.” When his manager (a humorously Jewish character whom we never see) says that he has tickets for the race for him to give his closest friends, Lightning McQueen cannot name a single friend.

Mikhail Bakhtin, another philosopher of dialogue says: “I become myself only while revealing myself for another, through another and with another’s help…Cutting myself off, isolating myself, closing myself off, those are the basic reasons for loss of self (Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Politics, 1984)

Clearly Lightning McQueen is a soul in isolation. His life is closed off, lonely, empty of relationship and self. Yet, both Lightning McQueen and the movie progress as Lightning McQueen gets entangled – literally in barbed wire – in the one-traffic-light hick town of Radiator Springs. He is sentenced by the judge Doc Hudson to do community service to repair the damage he has wreaked. In the days he spends carrying out his sentence Lightning McQueen slowly emerges from his isolation and becomes an “I” through the I-Thou moments first with the rusted tow truck Tow Mater who befriends him, but later with each and every one of the residents of Radiator Springs.

“Man can become whole not in virtue of a relation to himself, but only in virtue of a relation to another self” (Buber, Between Man and Man,1965a, p. 168).

Real life is meeting, is relational connection and Lightning McQueen continues to learn this lesson during his stay in Radiator Springs. A significant turning point in Cars is in the I-Thou dialogue with Doc Hudson. Although Lightning McQueen and Doc Hudson do not like each other, their dialogue is real. Doc Hudson too is in isolation, seen by the Radiator Springs folk only as his function – the old judge – and no one knows or bothers to inquire into his illustrious but long forgotten past as race-car champion. Lightning McQueen is the first to see him, learn from him, to respond to him.

The responsibility to respond to the Other is the ultimate responsibility. According to Emanuel Levinas, another dialogue scholar, “only in response to the Other does the I find a sense of formation” The construction of the I emerges from the encounter with the Other.
Lightning McQueen becomes the “responsive I” in his meeting and relational connection with Doc Hudson. The responsiveness to Doc Hudson leads LM to do the ethical thing in the final race when he gives up winning the Piston Cup to make sure that – despite a devastating crash – the ruling champion, “the King,” finishes his last race. In engaging with the other Lightning McQueen becomes truly himself. Finally, only when his I is truly formed through his encounters with the others, is Lightning McQueen capable of making a love connection with the beautiful and intelligent Porsche, Sally.

In another Pixar film, The Incredibles, there is a dialectic between the two “superhero” characters – Mr. Incredible who is a family man first, superhero second, trying to lead an ordinary life and Syndrome the super-villain who would like to be perceived as superhero, though he has no superpowers of his own. Syndrome’s I-It relationship with his girlfriend, Mirage, is contrasted with Mr. Incredible’s evolving I–Thou relationship with his wife and family.

At one point in the movie, Mr. Incredible is held captive by Syndrome and has been told that his family has been killed. He threatens to harm Mirage if Syndrome does not release him, snarling: ‘Release me… or I’ll crush her … like breaking a toothpick. ’ Syndrome responds with an “aw go ahead” shrug and when Mr. Incredible cannot carry through with the threat, Syndrome taunts him saying “I knew you couldn’t do it. You’re weak…” Although she is hurt and angry, Mirage attempts a dialogue with Syndrome saying: “valuing human life is not weakness and disregarding it is not strength.” But he cannot relate, instead equivocatingly says “I had the situation under control… I called his bluff.” When this pseudo-apology does not – unsurprisingly – appease her, there is a priceless look of incomprehension in Syndrome’s eyes (the miracle of Pixar), denoting his complete inability to transcend the I-It even at such a moment of intense emotion.

Syndrome’s submersion in the I-It is set in stark contrast with Mr. Incredible’s growing awareness and evolving ability to achieve I-Thou with his wife, daughter and son who turn out to be very much still alive. A remarkable I-Thou moment occurs when – although captured again by Syndrome, this time with the whole family – Mr. Incredible apologizes and confesses: “I’m sorry, this is my fault…I’ve been blind to what I have, so obsessed with being undervalued that I undervalued all of you…you are my greatest adventure and I almost missed it…” Buber demands authenticity in our relationships with others and Mr Incredible’s moment of self realization and self revelation is – I would hazard – one of the most authentic moments in all of celluloid.

In the universe of Buber and Levinas we are our brother’s keepers. In Cars, Lightning McQueen takes care of the smashed up King. In The Incredibles, Dash literally becomes his sister’s keeper, going back to save her from Syndrome’s henchmen screaming “don’t touch my sister” and in WallE, the retro robot WallE and the sleek modern robot Eva take care of each other.

The delightful irony of WallE is that the robots are the ones who have the authentic I-Thou relationships while the humans on the space ship literally and figuratively do not see each other, do not look at each other and do not speak to each other except through screens and electronic devices. It is only when WallE and Eva – symbolically Adam and Eve characters who nurture the forbidden tree – lead John and Mary, two of the humans, to each other by knocking them off their moving chairs and away from their computer screens do they actually look at each other face to face. After this moment of meeting, John and Mary symbolically and with a sexual reference immerse themselves in the ship’s swimming pool saying “hey, I never noticed this pool was there.” The I-Thou encounter leads to more nuance, variety and complexity in relationships.

WallE asks the question: can we have an I-Thou relationship that is not reciprocated as WallE and Eva take care of each other when the other is unresponsive and shut down. Buber and Levinas give different answers. For Buber, reciprocity is important. You cannot be a Thou for me unless I am also a Thou for you; however, you also cannot demand reciprocity. It has to emerge organically between persons without insistence or demand. But WallE seems to accept Levinas’ construct. For Levinas, ““I am responsible for the Other without waiting for reciprocity, were I to die for it. Reciprocity is his affair.” Levinas says we have no choice, but to be in dialogue because there is no I without Thou. You must continue to dialogue, continue to attempt to “see” the Other, even if the Other does not see you.

The latest Pixar film, Up, also addresses the question of reciprocity. In Pixar’s world, Nature is anthropomorphized sending a clear and unequivocal message that we must dialogue with nature and that, if we listen carefully, Nature will reciprocate. Pixar puts it succinctly in the boy Russell’s wilderness explorer motto: An Explorer is a friend to all, be it plants or fish or tiny mole.” Or, to put it in Buberian terms: there are three levels for dialogue: between individual and nature, between individual and individual, and between individual and God (Buber, Ecstasy and Confession, 1909).

Up is about 78 year-old ex-balloon salesman, Carl Fredricksen, who ties thousands of balloons to his house to escape the retirement home and to fulfill a lifelong dream of adventure by flying away to Paradise Falls, a mythical South American waterfall. Along the way he meets first fatherless eight-year old Wildness Explorer Russell, who stows away on the front porch of the house when it takes off; then, when he lands his house near but not directly at Paradise Falls, they meet a gigantic, colorful flightless bird that Russell names Kevin and finally a talking dog named Dug.

When the movie opens, Carl is a grouch. At first, he refuses to let Russell into his house, and then deceives him by sending him off to find a made-up bird called a Snipe. When Carl first meets Dug the talking dog, Carl growls at him to learn how to bark like a real dog and dismisses his speech as just a “weird trick.” Kevin, the bird, he calls a “feathered freak” and tries to chase away. The deception and ill will toward the trio of boy, bird and dog are evidence of the inauthenticity of Carl’s relationship with the world.

However, as we have come to expect from Pixar, and proving that it’s never too late to begin to dialogue, Carl undergoes a transformation over the course of the film. At first, Carl blames Russell and Dug for involving him in an adventure with Kevin and getting him off track toward his goal of arriving at the Falls. By insisting on carrying his house to the Falls, Carl ignores the true ethical mission of helping Kevin (who turns out to be a female bird) return to her chicks. When Carl finally rids himself of the baggage of the house, which he is carrying on his back in oh so symbolic fashion, preventing him from truly being in dialogue with the world, that’s when he begins to be authentic with the boy, with the bird, with the dog. Getting rid of things to be in relationship with others seems to be the theme of this film. Fittingly, the first thing to go is Russell’s GPS, an electronic device that distances person and nature. The dialectic between things we own and the authentic encounter is powerful here. Sometimes it may take a lifetime to let go of possessions and realize the value of intangibles.

Just as The Incredibles offers a super-villain foil to the hero, in Up too there is a contrast between Carl who learns to dialogue and Charles Muntz the celebrated explorer and adventurer for whom the fame and prestige mean more than the adventure. And perhaps as a direct result of his I-It mentality, Muntz has never been able to find the 12-foot high, brightly colored, flightless bird that he has been seeking for so many years.

Up shows us that it’s never too late to begin to dialogue. All the Pixar films demonstrate that we are never too young or too old to learn to dialogue, to listen, to practice I-Thou. These films are powerful modern-day myths that teach us that by dialoguing we transform ourselves and by doing so, the world. All real living is meeting. And within that living, that encounter with the world, do we find the encounter with the Eternal Thou, with God.