Part III: Political Activism and Bereshit

Note, the original Part III, “A Possible Platform for Progressives on Israel,” will appear Monday as Part IV. It will be followed by a final Part V dealing with Israel and the diaspora.

One of the important points I omitted with respect to the JSpace conference on 2-3 November titled, “From Indifference to Making a Difference,” is the vigorous new approach to young people who will be leading some of the sessions in a spirit of tikuun olam, mending the world. As Bernie Farber wrote in the Canadian Jewish News, speakers “will look for ways to put words into actions” (and, I would add, forge words to propel action) to change the Jewish-Palestinian relationships in Israel (Part IV) and re-build Israel-Diaspora relations (Part V). New beginnings as a pre-condition of doing both is the focus of this blog.

For mending the world is at the core of renewal. The function of new beginnings is to reset the effort of confronting chaos, and, hence, calamity, by giving increasing order to events. The beginning of Bereshit reads, “In the beginning of God’s creating…” Not to be translated as, “In the beginning, God created…” Because there is no beginning point. Change, not stasis, is stressed. In the beginning, that change from chaos to order was already underway. It is that primal principle of creation, of imposing order on chaos, that is the foundation for change.

In the beginning of God’s creating heaven and earth, the world lacked form, lacked organization. Creation entails the imposition of order. And the first item of business entails the creating of two modes of dealing with the imposition of order, a heavenly or idealistic one and a grounded or earthly one. Creativity arises from the interaction of the two, but not in a simplistic way one might suppose, such as choosing an Aristotelian middle road between the two.

The roles of Adam and Eve provide examples. Have you ever asked yourself why the God of the Torah in creating the first man did not create a Hobbesian creature with his fundamental insecurity and having as a prime goal the quest for power? Or why not a Lockean possessive individualist with the prime goal of acquiring wealth ad infinitum, unless, of course, he fell back, as most men do, to accepting bare survival, resigned to being a worker bee destined to engage in drudgery his entire life. Instead, God created a nerd.

For Adam is a nerd par excellence and in all dimensions. For one, he sees himself as a primitive scientist, in effect, a taxonomist, who imitates God in giving order to the world by naming different classes of entities. This is a cow. This is a cloud. These are feet. But there is a second dimension to his nerdiness. He does not recognize that he himself is embodied. He thinks he is just a brain and, in that way, imitates God. In failing to recognize and take note that he is embodied, he does not recognize he is mortal and conceives of himself as immortal, though he gives no real thought to the issue or he would recognize how ridiculous that thought is. In visualizing himself as a disembodied brain, he does not recognize he has a penis, that he has a sex drive.

The third, and I believe most important dimension of this nerdiness, of this failure to recognize that he is an embodied creature, is that he projects as other his most demanding passion, his desire for sex. His penis is viewed as an independent being dictating behaviour with no recourse to his own brain. The penis is an erect snake who talks, who cajoles, who seduces. His penis is Other. Further, though he and woman are both created out of the dust of the earth, as embodied creatures, he sees woman as an extension of his body, as an Other who is really himself. Adam others himself by seeing his penis as an independent Other and his Other, his soul mate, as a mere extension of himself, but himself as an embodied creature.

That is why it is not he but the erect snake that seduces Eve. Even though God warned him. He failed to absorb the message that if he and she both ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, if he and she knew one another, if he and she had sex, both would discover they were mortal, that they were embodied, that they would know they would surely die. With sex comes the recognition of one’s mortality. With adolescence we discover that we will not live forever, that we will not be able to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Life.

Was Adam’s sin eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge? Was Eve’s sin eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge? In fact, they learned to love eating that fruit. Adam was thrown into a tizzy. He thought he was a nerd, that he was essentially a brain with a body useful only as an instrument for allowing him to think. Who was he? Adam suffered from extreme cognitive dissonance. He thought he was one thing. His actions showed him that he was another. But instead of becoming enthralled in that discovery, he denied it. He wanted to hide it. He insisted on covering it up in an attempt at disguising it with a fig leaf. The fig leaf was totally incapable of providing that cover-up.

Eve’s sin was not in seeing that she was, and knew she was, an earthly creature. Her sin was not in being seduced by that erect penis, but falling into Adam’s self-denial and also, under his influence, covering up. The sin both committed was the sin of failing to take full responsibility for what they did and for failing to recognize who they were. No longer the innocence of children. With sex, they had to go out into the world, to leave what was perceived to be a world of plenty without scarcity to learn to discover that the world was truly opposite to that, that one had to work for a living, that one would go on to procreate and Eve would give birth to her children in pain and Adam would become enslaved to his labour and suffer from the burden of having to work by the sweat of his brow.

Only the propensity to sin would persist, the propensity to suffer from cognitive dissonance, the propensity to fail to take responsibility, the propensity to cover-up. That is why it is insufficient to classify all things, to subsume everything under objective scientific laws, Know thyself. Own up to who you are. Then see what you do not want to see.

Men are resistant to change. Because their mind becomes set, their mindset becomes comforting and a source of security. The more they are frozen in their ideas, the more they reinforce that way of being. In the extreme, they become troglodytes. Troglodytes are awash in their own ignorance. They refuse to see the reality in front of them. They refuse to acknowledge who they are. They refuse to accept responsibility for what they do.

Ideologists can live on the right or on the left poles of the political spectrum where one burrows into a seeming security in the comforting embrace of a set of dogmas. However, if they are to see truly, if they are to see the world as it is and themselves as they are, they have to throw off the fig leaf of dogma and its supposed heavenly status.  

Allow me to offer two very different examples. The first is a reference to Dr. Andrew Rehfeld, President of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) – the first non-rabbi in that role. As a political scientist, his focus has been on institutional design, that is how ideals of equality and justice interact in a democratic system with the need to protect one’s nation and one’s state. His stress as a progressive was on the good, the right and the just. But within an institutional context. And in Israel, as distinct from Hebrew Union College, the context was that of state institutions whose primary function was to ensure safety and survival while pursuing justice and equality. It should come as no surprise that the concentration of Rehfeld as head of a non-state institution would be on an almost exclusive focus on ethical ideals.

The role of non-state institutions, of NGOs, is often to take up the issue of ethics and norms, but unless one does so responsibly, one engages in a cover-up and a failure to recognize that a major function of institutions is survival, preserving life via work and progeny and in defence of both. The latter cannot in the end be accomplished without boundaries of ethics and law. But a stress on ethics and law to the exclusion of the needs of survival is a recipe for irrelevance and pie-in-the-sky thinking.

Let me offer a second and very different example, The Sveriges Riksbank Prize is the Nobel Prize for Economics, officially the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel created first in 1968. In 2019, it was awarded jointly to Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo, both at MIT, and Michael Kremer at Harvard. The unusual aspect of the award was that it went, not to ideologists of the right who have prevailed so much over the last few decades, but to three development economists. But development economists of a very different stripe than those who proceed from abstract models. Their approach to alleviating poverty was experimental. That means that their work focused on very specific and well-defined problems and creating field experiments to test which of several different hypotheses might best contribute to a model that might offer solutions.

There is a premise underlying all their theoretical work – humans are not exclusively nor even primarily self-seekers of material goods driven by self-interest. Instead, they are inclined towards cooperative and pacific behaviour to advance the public good, a public good that begins with their own families but extends to one’s larger “tribal” group and eventually to the nation and then the world. The foundation stone of the world is NOT fraternal conflict.

The animosity between Cain and Abel, between settled agriculturalists versus nomadic hunters and gatherers and then herdsmen, of one way of economic life and another, which translates into territorial disputes between different tribes or tribal groupings, begins, however, with an internal conflict between thinking divorced from reality, from the recognition of passions and interests versus abstractions, both ethical and scientific. We have a propensity to favour the latter, that is various types of abstractions, and deny our passions and interests. One of the great benefits of modernity was to place a major stress on the latter, but in doing so, covering up that insistence with another set of abstractions, ones supposedly rooted in nature rather than in ethics and law.

That is why awarding the economic prize for experimental development economists committed to everyone’s survival in the tradition of Albert Hirschman is so important. For the very point of experimental science is to prevent abstractions from ignoring reality. And whether we come from the left or the right, we have an inherent propensity to ignore reality, the real importance of both sets of ethical norms and scientific laws as well as the quest of groups for survival.  

New beginnings always represent a return to this basic insight. That is why a new beginning on the progressive side of the divisions over Israel has to start with our own efforts to ignore reality, to ignore our propensity to cover-up that reality with lofty slogans and aspirations. War, organized violence in the name of an ideology (civil war) or a group (inter-state wars) result when we fail to undertake this effort in self-recognition and not because humans are natural born killers that need to have their basic instincts suppressed and re-addressed by an authoritarian order. Humans can and do kill. But the lesson of the Torah is that they do not have to, that a return to understanding the self-denial that leads to war offers a formulation for the effort of avoiding war.

Identity politics can be a source of violence. Humans can be beasts in a way that beasts never are. The very idea that we are “beasts by nature” is itself an abstraction, one defining humans as engaged in a war of all against all. We set on the path of war when we become obsessed with abstractions – ethical ones as well as supposedly scientific ones. Abstract symbols (idols) rather than concrete aspirations, ideological doctrines rather than generalizations based on experiments, a focus on appearances rather than on underlying forces and tensions, lead us to actions based on ignorance untouched by experience. We were thrust out of the Garden so that we could and would learn from experience. And the first lesson we learned is that communal identity – I know that I am getting ahead of the story – is developed and preserved over time and provides the foundation for ethics and is not the antithesis to ethics and the rule of law.

Procedural rules rooted in institutions – whether in experimental science or in the rule of law – entail foundational process rules that have been discovered and reified over time. Due process and egalitarian goals are necessary counterpoints to any communal quest to survive and thrive. We need a communal ethos. We need formal structures and institutions to ensure continuity. But we need critique, we need critical self-examination, to ensure that neither the quest for survival nor its necessary and complementary norms become reified as abstractions that leave reality behind.

With the help of Alex Zisman

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