Jazz and Deep Wells

Jazz and Deep Wells

by

Howard Adelman

Today is Black Sunday. I know there is no such thing, but I wanted to convey how I see the day by playing off this past Friday of widespread deep discounts and sales and yesterday’s experience. Today I have not simply a two-for-one offer but a two-for-two-for-two offer. What could be better? On the other hand, what could be worse – not only receiving two long missives on the same day, but the second about two entirely different topics and each topic about two different events. The blog will clarify.

Yesterday morning as I was leaving for Torah study, I saw a peregrine falcon eating its prey on the front lawn. I presume that it was an unwitting squirrel. I had never seen a peregrine let alone one up close. I had read that they had been sighted in Toronto, but it was startling to see such a huge bird in front of me. I thought it was the male that I saw, for the mate which appeared was somewhat smaller. But when I read up on falcons this morning, I learned that it must have been the female for females are significantly larger than their masculine mates.

From the rear – the angle from which I watched it – it seemed to have a huge back of thick blue-grey feathers and a black head. The male – the smaller of the pair – had more distinct white markings on its chest. Did you know that the peregrine falcon is the fastest animal on earth, in a dive reaching over 200 mph? Its highest measured speed is 242 mph. But if peregrines now nest in tall buildings in urban areas, its nest must have been blocks away.

I took the sighting of the peregrine to be a sign – a sign of a positive tale on the human propensity to destroy our planet and other species. For the peregrines were once endangered because of the widespread use of pesticides, especially DDT. However, with the banning of DDT, their numbers have rebounded enormously. I also took the sighting in a different sense, for in Torah yesterday morning, before we even started our textual examination, I opened the volume to initially read the tale of Jacob’s ladder that comes immediately before Jacob met Rachel at the well.

Needless to say, I had never read the short account through the eyes of a falcon. If you recall, Jacob was fleeing towards his uncle Laban because he believed Esau was in hot pursuit given that he, Jacob, had deceived Esau out of his father’s blessing to double the act of treachery in the story when he got his brother to give him Esau’s birthright in exchange for a mug of soup. In his dream, (Genesis 28:12-15), Jacob envisioned a ladder or a stairway reaching upwards into the sky. Angels of God were traipsing up and down the stairs – if they were coming from heaven why not down first and then up? God then promised Jacob that his descendants would spread everywhere over the earth, north and west, east and west. God also promised to protect him wherever he went and “bring you back to this land.” Further God said, “I will not leave you until what I have done what I have promised you.” (28:15)

If God had made that promise to falcons, He clearly kept his word. Falcons, once on the verge of extinction, are now everywhere. Further, falcons are like angels rising on the upward drafts of the wind and then diving down for prey. Falcons have superb vision. An excellent capacity for survival has been intertwined with a theme of destruction, preying on other species necessary for survival and repeatedly being faced themselves with species genocide.

The story that was the subject of yesterday’s Torah study was the one that followed, Jacob meeting Rachel at the well. Jacob continued on after his visionary dream. What did he see first. Verse 2 of chapter 29 reads: “There before his eyes was a well in the open.” The vision was not a dream sequence, but a real sighting. It was not of soaring and diving angels, but of a “well in the open,” also translated as in the “field.” Vision is now grounded. It is focused on earthly things, not long-range promises. And the focus is a well.

As Rabbi Splansky pointed out in comparing three “well” stories, the one where Jacob’s father, Isaac, or his emissary, encountered Rebecca, and the one where Moses came to a well were the daughter of Jethro, the Midianite, had been chased away from watering their sheep until Moses’ intervention, in each case a well is a symbol of overcoming scarcity, scarcity of water and scarcity of progeny. For the women are barren, either because they are virgins or because they seemingly cannot bear children. In the case of both Rebecca and Rachel, the continuity of the generations through time, a necessary correlation to spatially spreading over the land, seems at first to be denied them. Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel are all barren when first encountered. In each case, the opening of the wombs of the women is attributed to God.

Hence, the well Rabbi Splansky introduced to the group as a basis for a dialectic of correspondence yet difference in all three stories. (The tale of the competition between the first-born and a younger brother was not a topic of focus.) Verse 2 in English and Hebrew reads:

And he looked, and behold! a well in the field, and behold! three flocks of sheep lying beside it, because from that well they would water the flocks, and a huge rock was upon the mouth of the well. בוַיַּ֞רְא וְהִנֵּ֧ה בְאֵ֣ר בַּשָּׂדֶ֗ה וְהִנֵּה־שָׁ֞ם שְׁלשָׁ֤ה עֶדְרֵי־צֹאן֙ רֹֽבְצִ֣ים עָלֶ֔יהָ כִּ֚י מִן־הַבְּאֵ֣ר הַהִ֔וא יַשְׁק֖וּ הָֽעֲדָרִ֑ים וְהָאֶ֥בֶן גְּדֹלָ֖ה עַל־פִּ֥י הַבְּאֵֽר:

בְאֵ֣ר

Be-ayr or Beer, as in Beersheva, is a well or pit. A well is a source, not simply of physical water, but of God’s word, of His spirit, of His promise. A well is not a natural spring. It is built by humans. It is an artifice of human labour and ingenuity. When Abraham confronted Abimelech after the latter’s servants denied him access to a well Abraham had dug, Abraham insisted on buying it back with money to define in contractural terms what had been promised by God in a covenant. When Moses travelled to Beersheva, he was promised water. “And from there to Beer, which is the well where the Lord said to Moses: “assemble the people that I may give them water.” (Number 21:16) And all of Israel sang a song: “Spring up oh well; sing to it.”

The well and the water in it offer a voice from God. It is not just a wishing well, but a well of promise. In particular, it is a promise of bringing waters to the womb and breaking those waters to deliver progeny. A well is a source of fecundity. It is from the waters of that well that the flock of sheep, that God’s flock of Israelites, though certainly not exclusively, are offered drink. However, in Jacob’s vision of the staircase to heaven, Jacob worried that it portended destruction and death. For he believed Esau was following him, intent on killing him in revenge for what he had stolen. A well is also a pit, that into which Joseph was thrown, that into which we are all tossed when we die. God in that sense is not only the source of life, but the deliverer of death and from death. When a hole lacks water, it is a pit. Which will it be?

In the Gospel according to John in chapter 4, Jesus was travelling north rather than east like Jacob. Outside the town of Sychar, he sat beside Jacob’s well. The story inverts the original. Jesus asked a woman to give him water from the well. She did, but wondered why he would ask a Samaritan girl? Was he proposing? Jesus then offered the Samaritan from whom he asked for a drink “living water.” The suggestion is that the water on offer had been dead, as dead as the water in the Dead Sea. It had become saline. Jesus was offering, not just to Jews, but now to everyone, to all human kind, “fresh water,” sweet rather than bitter water. The point is not to endorse the message of the Christian narrative as recorded by John, but to indicate and understand a well as a symbol.

The well is covered by a large stone. It will be moved by Jacob. It will be moved by Moses. They as founding fathers move the heavy stone that blocks access to the spirit of creativity, the spirit of procreation which itself is a structure constructed by humans. When a well runs dry, we find only dry bones and not the vital source of life. In Genesis, wells with water recur 25 times.

Wells are built by humans. Wells are accessed by human labour. Humans, as in the Moses tale, can also deny access to the well. In the Jacob story, to save the well from evaporation, the shepherds wait until all the flocks arrive and then remove the rock that covered the well. In the Moses story of the well, access was denied the Midianite women. Moses intervened to provide access. In the Jacob story, Jacob acts without the involvement of the other shepherds to move the stone and provide water for Rachel’s flock.

Why did Jacob do that? Why, when he saw Rachel, did he kiss her and break into tears upon meeting a relative he had never seen? Water flowed out from him instead of into him. It was tears of joy, of happiness. The serenity and unexpressed emotion of Abraham was now left behind. The reticence and passivity of Isaac had been left behind. In place we now have an openly emotional, and, as we soon learn, mentally scheming forefather who dramatically pushes the plot forward just as he intervened to move the stone.

Yesterday evening I went to hear jazz at Koerner Hall. The program featured the much younger Alfredo Rodríguez Trio in the first half and, in the second half, the brilliant jazz pianist, Danilo Pérez with Ben Street on bass & Danilo’s sister, Terri Lynne Carrington, on drums. It was a great performance, but it was akin to hearing the story of Jacob’s vision of the stairway to heaven after one had read the story of Jacob meeting Rachel at the well as our initiation into one of the greatest love stories in literature.

In the second half, the music of Pérez truly soared up to the heavens and back down to earth, but after hearing the Alfredo Rodríguez Trio, it sounded like dinner music. For the Rodríguez trio was truly brilliant. It took us down into the well of creativity in cyclonic waves of poetic repetition. For Pérez is correct in his comments about jazz. It is global music. It is about freedom. It is about improvisation on repetitive themes.

The most powerful structural element in the biblical text is repetition. But also, the riffs on that repetition. The Torah in the literary world is the foundation of jazz in the world of music and it too plays on sounds, on words, on phrasing and on clauses, and translates the combination into stories. The ingenious variations in each are about identity and difference. The parallelisms challenge us to compare and reflect and to do so at various levels. Both literally and figuratively, Rodríguez took the audience down into the deep well of creativity in one of the greatest jazz performances I have ever heard. Sometimes it was just a fascinating variation on a very familiar tune, and, in the case of the last number the trio played, on a very simple melody from his childhood in Cuba.

I write only about the most haunting number. I believe, if I caught him correctly, it was called Yoruba. His CDs were all sold out when I went to buy one or two, so I had to look it up. I believe it is the one called, “Oye Afra Yoruba-Son,” but I will only know when I hear the song again. The number came from the deepest well of all. I would call it haunting jazz, in-depth ethnic jazz rather than global jazz. Hopefully, in a future blog when I hear the trio again, I myself will write with greater depth.

On a day that started with renewed life diving down to earth and feeding on prey on the ground, I was taken deeper into the ground, into wells of feeling and emotion rarely touched. With Yoruba I went back earlier before my ancestors in the Middle East to the Yoruba in West Africa whose music I happened to hear there. It had the same resonance captured in Rodríguez’ number and offered an older oral history deeper than the written word even if Rodríguez probably got his inspiration from Lucumí/Santeria in Cuba from descendants of African slaves brought to that island. Yoruba culture is based on divination and a search for wells, for the invisible beneath us as well as the invisible above us in the air. It developed as a culture of art and beauty rather than a culture which emphasized ethics and law, but one which both complements and haunts the latter.

In Rodríguez’ interpretation, it does do so by a kind of cyclonic activity that thrusts you down into a powerful inward circulation of notes and phrasing and repetitions that rotate, first downwards and finally upward so that one can once again breath freely. Hearing his music was like being thrust into a low-pressure chamber. He not only moved the stone from the top of the well, but dived down into it. And took the audience with him.

From peregrine falcons to cyclonic trips down wells – what could be better? Especially when you emerge unscathed and still breathing.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Advertisements

Canadian Civil Society I

Canadian Civil Society I

by

Howard Adelman

At the conference in Ottawa last week on “Our Whole Society: Religion & Citizenship at Canada’s 150th,” the objective was to advance solidarity among faith groups by allowing them to operate within a broader framework of shared practices, in spite of diverse perspectives. I was there to address the role of faith groups with respect to immigrants and refugees and to help comprehend the role of faith groups in society more generally.

In my talk, I addressed each of these topics. On the issue of solidarity, I challenged such an objective on two grounds. First, a family resemblance existed among different faith groups on shared practices and values that required no solidarity on perspectives. They already had a common frame; they did not need solidarity on content. As John Borrows noted in his keynote address, the goal should not be to close the space and eliminate the gaps between and among groups. Nor should it simply be to allow space for others. Rather, those spaces should be used to encourage dialogue and debate, to facilitate exchanges that encourage respect for others.

Secondly, I addressed the conjunction between immigrants and refugees and suggested a fundamental difference between the two groups, not in terms of the traditional difference between one group who came of their own free will and the other who came because they were forced to flee. Free will and coercion are not dichotomous choices. Rather they are ideal poles and different immigrant and refugee groups arrive with different degrees of each motivating their quest for Canadian citizenship. I then suggested that the groups could better be distinguished by the different ways they integrated into Canadian society, a process that had important implications for future support of refugees and for the premise of the interfaith dialogue that led to the cooperation of faith groups.

Third, I challenged the conception of “exclusive secularism” that seemed to have been presumed by the organizers. This is a brand of secularism that insists that a hard line had to be drawn between the secular and the faith worlds, as hard a line as Kant drew between reason and faith in his Critiques. I challenged this proposition on two grounds. First, in many jurisdictions, especially in France with its doctrine of laicité, secularism itself is a religion and a relatively dogmatic one at that. It is a value-rooted system that prescribes conduct and especially dress, not just the banning of the hijab by school girls, but the wearing of speedos by males at public swimming pools. Second, it is a myth that faith groups are excluded from the political process. They enjoy in many areas, but especially in the sphere of refugees, an intimate partnership with the state as well as with the rest of secular society.

Fourth, I insisted that research had pointed to the important relevance of history rather than the primacy of faith in explaining the hand religious groups extended to refugees. That is why the Mennonites and the Christian Reformed Church were first to step up to the plate in a partnership with the Government to bring Indochinese refugees into Canada in 1979 and why more established churches, the United Church and the Catholics, had been stragglers. There was a hierarchy of commitment among faith groups, but the degree of commitment was not determined by faith, but by the historical experience imprinted in a group’s priorities concerning the effort to be devoted to refugees.

But the major part of the talk addressed the family resemblance among the different faith groups. I argued that the same family resemblance was shared with a significant part of secular society so that it could be said that most Canadians share a Canadian Civil Religion. It is a civil religion because it is not rooted in a singular faith and because it influences and prioritizes what governments do and, in particular, how government deals with strangers, how it deals with immigrants and refugees, how it deals with the most important question a polis faces, who to admit into membership. They shared core values. The values as articulated below were all expressed by various participants on the first day of the conference. I merely wrote them down.

The easiest way to explicate the Canadian Civil Religion was to contrast it with the American Civic Religion currently dominant in our neighbour to the south. I stress the phrase “currently dominant,” because most Americans do not decry the Canadian values depicted below. Second, the current dominant American values are also present underground in the Canadian collective psyche.

A set of ten values as follows indicates the contrast:

Canada                                        U.S.A.

  1. Civility                                         Incivility
  2. Compassion                                Passion
  3. Dignity                                         Indignation
  4. Diversity                                      Unity
  5. Empathy                                      Insecurity
  6. Impartial                                     Partisan
  7. Egalitarian                                  Inegalitarian
  8. Fairness                                       Ruthless & even Unfair
  9. Freedom as a Goal                    Freedom as Given
  10. False-consciousness                 Humans as Falsifiers

Let me explore each of these dichotomies in turn. In doing so, I will make reference to the brilliant and gripping Netflix documentary, Get me Roger Stone, in which the Stone-Trump doctrine of cynicism is explicitly articulated. Roger Stone has been depicted by Jeffrey Toobin as the “sinister Forrest Gump of American politics.” Whereas the movie Forrest Gump provided a story in which a naïve innocent was present in every key event since 1960, Roger Stone’s biography reveals a cynical disrupter present in everything from an indirect involvement in the McCarthy hearings through his mentor and hero, Ray Cohn (who was also Donald Trump’s litigation lawyer) from whom Stone adopted his dandyism, to his own actual involvement in everything from Watergate to the election and performance of Donald Trump.

Though not ever present in the Canadian sprawl, at the centre of the Canadian Civil religion is the quality of civility. For Canadians, it is the queen of virtues. It is what Americans refer to when they say, “Canadians are so polite.” Civility esteems reasonable behaviour that elevates courtesy to an art form. At the funeral of Ron Atkey, one could not ignore the civility that characterized this man during his life and the order and respect of the memorial service in his honour at Metropolitan United Church. For society to be civil, political engagement has to show reverence for civility in the conduct of those who practice the profession. Civility, relatively, is an outstanding trait of the Canadian Parliament.

In contrast, Roger Stone and Donald Trump raised incivility to a political art form by using discourtesy to others, innuendo, ad hominem attacks, personal insults, troll accusations and hate speech as the core of the political process. Whether Trump was telling the Russian ambassador that Comey was a “nut job,” or whether he and Stone were leading a mass crowd to shout, “lock her up” in reference to Hillary Clinton, Trump wallowed in libel and defamed his final competitor in the race for the Republican nomination, Ted Cruz, by referring to stories accusing his opponent of being a sexual gallivanter when Trump’s own operators had written the stories. This is not a core value of most Americans. It is a core value of the Trump regime currently in charge of the polis in the U.S.

A second virtue extolled in the Canadian Civil Religion is compassion, a concern for the sufferings and misfortunes of others. Compassion entails not just pity, but self-sacrifice for others. Compassion is not merely driven by the sight of the dead three-year-old Syrian refugee boy, Alan Kurdi, washed ashore on a Turkish beach, or abhorrence at the horrors of war itself, as Donald Trump was possibly motivated by the dead children killed in the chemical attack by Syrian forces that left 75 dead, including 20 children. Donald Trump called the behaviour an “affront to humanity” and castigated Bashar al-Assad for his heinous action. But his outrage was not based on compassion for it did not lead to sacrifice and the admission of Syrian refugees into the U.S. Rather, it led to blowing up runways, facilities and planes with tomahawk missiles.

For the ideology of the Trump brand extols passion for a cause rather than compassion for others. Zealotry, intensity and pugnacity are highly praised under a doctrine of “take no prisoners” and leave behind a scorched earth. For the object is not just winning, but winning at any cost and winning at great cost to the other. For politics is not a positive sum game or even a zero sum game. It is a negative sum game in which you lose, but your opposition must suffer even greater losses. Politics becomes provocation and the only response to criticism is to attack, attack and attack.

A third virtue of the Canadian Civil Religion is dignity. Dignity admires serious attention to a problem and self-control in dealing with it. But it is not only a virtue with respect to one’s own bearing and conduct, speech and self-regard, it is also the accord extended to others who one considers to be a being who is valued even as one disagrees with his or her opinions. The virtue is identified with respect for inherent and inalienable rights. Humans of all types must be treated with dignity. So must the dead.

The contrasting values of the Stone-Trump ideology esteem indignation in oneself and insults aimed at the other. The goal of the latter is to humiliate and lay open to scorn the character and conduct of others. Indignation demonstrates unconcern and indifference for the other and total absorption and care for oneself. The object is to debase the other and draw attention to oneself.  The irony is that indignation is seen to arise because of perceived unfair treatment of oneself. One is affronted and takes umbrage at the disrespect shown. But indignation does not normally result in the quest for fair treatment, but rather in a view that the world is inherently unfair and that the only response is fight if one does not want to flee the plane of battle. Indignation presumes a politics of resentment and uses that deep understanding to mobilize those suffering from indifference and disrespect.

A fourth value esteemed in the Canadian Civil Religion is diversity. Often, many think that this is the primary cultural attitude as we extol multiculturalism. But the curious question is why anyone would prefer monochromatic unity in opposition to diversity. We do not want to eat at the same restaurant every night. And we all do not love meat loaf and fast food. Canadians extol the richness of multiculturalism, the benefits to society brought about when multiple cultures live side-by-side and interact.

However, the reverence for diversity, the respect for pluralism, is not confined to civil society. It permeates the polis, its makeup, policies and priorities. Canadians do not favour assimilation; Canada has no melting pot. Canadians do favour integration. Canadians support strong multiculturalism, not simply tolerance and respect for differences, but a positive effort to promote diversity both in the political representatives of our society and in how the government deals with different cultural groups. This is a work in progress because the government has never been able to adequately address the status and role of aboriginal groups in Canadian society. However, John Borrows in his keynote speech offered a primer on how to do precisely that.

Trump trumpeted unity in his victory speech. This past American Thanksgiving in late November, when Donald Trump was forming his government, he offered the following prayer: “It’s my prayer that on this Thanksgiving we begin to heal our divisions and move forward as one country strengthened by shared purpose and very, very common resolve.” From the most divisive force in the history of American politics, this prayer may have seemed like an expression of hypocrisy, but Trump has a record of engaging in fisticuffs and then inviting all those he beat up for a drink, while notably abstaining himself.

When he appointed South Carolina Governor, Nikki Haley, a daughter of Indian immigrants, as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, it was not done to highlight America’s multiculturalism, but to honour the success of its efforts in assimilation. When he gave his first address to a joint session of Congress, he extolled unity to end a toxic, partisan environment, ignoring totally that he was the prime source of the toxicity. When he is in charge, everyone should march to the tune of the pied piper even as he plays very different tunes at different times. Unity is a virtue as long, and only as long, as it means unity in “following me.”

That appeal did not last as divisions worsened in society at large, between Democrats and Republicans, within the Republican caucus and even within the White House itself. Trump does not invite or welcome dissident voices. He sees himself as the captain of dissent and difference, but a captain intent on winning the big prize and forging a regime of unity under his suzerainty. It does not work in politics or in society, and Canadians know why.

To Be Continued

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Arch of Justice

The Arch of Justice

by

Howard Adelman

Yesterday was Martin Luther King Jr. day. He was oft quoted as saying, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I only know this because Barack Obama loved to quote it and credit King. But he credited him with uttering the aphorism. Evidently, the originator was Theodore Parker in 1848 who offered it as a brief ode to hope and a belief in ethical progress. As Obama and others have recognized, however – this became a major theme of his final presidential address to the nation – the arc only bends if the people stand up and make it swing down and touch the earth. Without that effort, justice shoots off to the heavens to become an icon of aspiration instead of a practical reality here on earth.

Given the recent American election, can people still believe this is true? Can it be true of the Middle East? Of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? And what is the nature of that justice? And justice for whom?

Parker was a Unitarian, an abolitionist and, along with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, a Transcendentalist. Parker, like many before and after him, was especially influenced by the new Higher Biblical Criticism as those who followed were influenced by Source Criticism. He became convinced that the tales of dreams and prophecies of the Torah and of miracles and miraculous births of the New Testament lacked any truth value. He emerged from his spiritual quest as a naturalist, convinced that the divine was an intimate part of all of nature. What remained true in Christianity was its moral essence, the ethical teachings of Jesus.

Hence, he became a modernist. Religion required obedience to a higher Being. It required constructing a dependence on God and the institutions on earth responsible for conveying that message of obedience and even conformity with its rules. Morality, as Immanuel Kant had argued, was another matter and could not be reduced to religion. For moral principles were the sine qua non of behaviour without which there could be neither good nor bad. The basic principles of morality were a priori, as fundamental to the laws of human behaviour as gravity was to the laws of nature. They were transcendental preconditions of moral behaviour altogether and could not be distilled into religious directives. Morality requires right action and obedience to the conscience of the individual. Religion required obedience to an Other – God, the Church or an Authoritarian regime in a political system built on the same principles as religion while dispensing with God.

The attraction to authoritarian rule was almost as innate as conscience, but it was a propensity, not an a priori transcendental principle. “No feeling is more deeply planted in human nature than the tendency to adore a superior being, to reverence him, to bow before him, to feel his presence, to pray to him for aid in times of need.” But it was a planted feeling, one inculcated in both slave owners and their slaves, in religious leaders as well as their followers, in politicians who sought dominion and in citizens who sought an escape from the burdens and responsibility of freedom. When the heart is full of hope, divorced from personal effort, joy fills the air and a leader may be blessed. When that hope comes crashing down to earth, rejoicing turns to despair and the followers will seek to burn their fallen leader as an effigy. However, if one accepts that the whole world is divine, if one accepts that God lives within oneself, if one accepts that it is one’s responsibility and one’s responsibility alone to create the world as a living and vibrant moral universe, if one becomes convinced that this responsibility cannot be displaced onto another, then you have the premise for being both a moral and a responsible individual, two sides of the same coin.

It would be a theology that would be the counterpoint to authoritarianism so that even a religion as communitarian as Judaism would fall under its spell as liberal Jewish theologians became enamoured with the “autonomous self” as the only alternative to the authoritarianism of politicians and rabbis alike. The conviction of Theodore Parker became so pure that it even initially pushed him outside of even the pale of the Unitarian Church for a time before that church “canonized” him. Martin Luther King Jr. never went nearly that far. He was a communitarian in his heart and soul and believed in the power of his people, as Black Americans and as Americans of any colour or ethnicity. Individual conscience was never enough. One needed the power of the people to sustain oneself in battle and to provide the foot soldiers for that battle.

The issue was whether the people were to be lead by men of conscience or by reprobates, by liars, by those who were at base misanthropes, by men (perhaps even sometimes women) of no conscience, by men who fed off but showed utter disdain for the power of the people that they exploited in the name of attacking the institutional powers in place. Secular Protestantism was susceptible to seduction by the charms of a charlatan. And there were plenty around who offered to lead the people to greatness rather than to live under a brighter light, offered “our” power rather “theirs,” offered power at all rather than movement towards self-empowerment.

If the arc of justice is to be your guide, if it requires your effort to bend that arc towards the earth for the benefit of humanity, how does that help you in dealing with major international political problems like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? It is one thing to rely upon the metaphor as a guide for domestic politics and social organizing. It is quite another to use it in service of international negotiations. But it is very far from impossible.

First, it requires each party to recognize the Other, however inferior that Other may be in the power it holds, in fact, in spite of the weak position of the Other. It requires recognizing the Other as worthy of equal respect and dignity as humans. This applies as well to the recognition required by the weak party as well. They too must see the Other, not as an overbearing demon, but as a group driven by demons of insecurity and fears. But also driven by its own dreams and aspirations. Respect of each party of the other becomes a primary condition for reconciliation and peace.

Second, it requires not relying on outsiders to bring pressure and force to bear on settling the matter. Influence, certainly. But not external authority or power. The mantra that the Palestinians and the Jewish Israelis are the only ones who can make peace must be a fundamental building block.

Third, it requires realism. If the arc of justice is to bend towards the earth, then the justice required is the justice on the ground, the justice that takes into account the needs and desires and aspirations of all of those wherever they live in the territory of the conflict. The mistake in Gaza was not the military withdrawal of the Israelis, but moral withdrawal of the Israelis, the decision to abandon not just leave Gaza and, thus, also to surrender to an evil principle of Judenrein. Because the Palestinians made a contractual deal virtually impossible and told the Israelis, in effect, to get out without any arrangements, this does not excuse the moral lapse. I myself participated in that lapse in supporting the total withdrawal. In retrospect, it was wrong to say, “To hell with you, we’re leaving.” At the same time, the political practices that are moral must be as realistic as they are idealistic. Escape from responsibility will not allow a party to achieve freedom. It is a very tough balancing act.

How does one retain responsibility while surrendering authority to the Other and granting the Other the right to empower itself? That is the task, not a premise. That is the goal of a peace agreement, not the foundation for one. How does one create and continue to engage in a positive sum game wherein there is both true mutual recognition and where the power of the Other is allowed to grow as a release and expression of the energy of a people while ensuring that this energy is not a threat but a partner, a complement rather than an antagonist. Much easier said that done. That is why the task of peace is so difficult. But it will never be made easier with the intervention of external superegos which remove the ethical and political responsibilities from the parties themselves to forge a peace. And each party must recognize its own shortcomings in such a quest.

That is what is fundamentally wrong with Resolution 2334. It attempts to pre-empt that discussion. It raises the status of the Palestinians quite justly, but only by demonizing and derogating Jewish Israelis and their position. Not only are realities ignored, not only are established principles torturously arrived at set aside, but the supporters of the Resolution – quite aside from the myriad of deficiencies – have surrendered to the belief that external parties must not only be helpful to the parties, but weigh in on the debate so that in terms of power, the weight clearly still remains with the Jewish Israelis that cannot be offset by all the abstract moral weight and economic clout put on the other side of the scale.

When that is done in bad faith, when that is done without loving-kindness, when that is done in the name of helping the so-called underdog, it is done without respect of the power and recognition the Palestinians truly deserve as a self-governing people responsible for who they are and what they want to become. It is done by ignoring the authoritarian institutions and corruption which impede their self-development. It is done by ignoring the long strides Palestinians have made in managing their own security. And it is certainly done by ignoring the realities of Jewish Israel and denigrating its motives and its position.

Given these parameters, it is why the conclusions of the Paris Peace Conference are so superior to those of Resolution 2334. All states, including that of Israel, should recognize Palestine as an aspiring state. That is what Palestinians want. That is what they should have. That is what only a minority of Jewish Israelis let alone a minority of all Israelis want to prevent. The majority of Jewish Israelis accept the goal of creating a Palestinian state side-by-side Israel.

Let me offer a concrete example. If an outsider determines in advance that Jerusalem is Palestinian territory, a determination that was never previously made in either an agreement between the parties or even by an authoritative international body, that is an illegitimate move. If a country wishes to do so in recognition of realities that do not pre-empt the discussion – such a moving an embassy to West Jerusalem – that may be an imprudent act given the timing, but it is not an undercutting action. One can even argue such an act is needed to make a statement about reality.

That is why the Paris Peace Conference was far superior to the UNSC Resolution 2334 even as it endorsed that Resolution, but did so in a way that offered some re-balancing. It was an influence conference, not a peace conference. Neither of the disputants were represented or there. The participants reaffirmed their support “for a just, lasting and comprehensive resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” The conference endorsed negotiations between the parties as “the only way” to achieve enduring peace while recognizing that current trends (on both sides) on the ground, not only the expansion of settlements but “continued acts of violence,” impede progress towards peace. The conference endorsed “meaningful, direct negotiations.”

Resolution 242 was not superseded by another UN resolution, though all UN resolutions were acknowledged. Instead, the conference endorsed a negotiated two-State solution that would meet the legitimate aspirations of both parties for both sovereignty and security “and resolve all permanent status issues on the basis of UNSC Res. 242 and 338.” If a framework was helpful in such negotiations, the Conference tipped its hat to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. Palestinians as well as Israelis were urged to be governed by international humanitarian and human rights law. Instead of using international humanitarian law as a club, let alone the threat of economic coercion, the participants expressed a readiness to offer its support where needed, including economic aid and economic incentives as positive inducements.

One item emphasized was an offer to facilitate civil society dialogue between the two parties in contention. The focus was not on external pressures, but on strengthening civil society and direct dialogue between and among citizens from both sides. The conference was clear in its strictures against steps that would prejudge the outcome of negotiations on final status issues – borders, security, Jerusalem, refugees. Though Netanyahu could wave away the results of the Paris Peace Conference as irrelevant and futile, and the Palestinians could welcome the conclusion by ignoring the strictures against their own positions and practices, reassurance came for me from a surprising quarter. Though he did not express any regret for not vetoing Res. 2334, John Kerry reassured Netanyahu that there would be no further UN Resolutions before Trump took over and no international action following from the Peace Conference. The timing of the conference and the results seem more intended to send a message to Donald Trump rather than to either Abbas or Netanyahu.

As I interpreted the Peace Conference, it went some way to offset the destructive elements of UNSC 2334, but the concluding statement lacked the legal authority of the UN. There were also other efforts on the ground that proved to be more promising and could serve as a precedent for partial deals rather than a comprehensive one. After six years of negotiations, a concrete deal was made on sharing water resources between Israel and the West Bank, including of a Joint Water Committee to work out the details of implementation.

However, on the international stage, the fallout from Resolution 2334 inviting unilateral actions on the international stage can be very destructive of efforts to implement a peace deal. I will deal with those consequences in my next blog.

The Symposium: State, Society and Contemporary Competing Religions

  1. The Symposium: State, Society and Contemporary Competing Religions

I believe it will be helpful if I place myself within the context of the positions of the other participants of the symposium where this paper was initially presented.[1] As I will try to show, most of the other papers presented an aspect of one of the contemporary secular religions that I have dubbed HRH religious secularism.

Simone Chambers, who has previously written on democratic theory and secularism as well as the role of civility in public political discourse, in her paper “Towards Radically Inclusive Citizenship,” essentially offered four types of internalized values and rules that do or should govern conduct in the public sphere. They were:

  1. civility
  2. accessibility to others through the use of reason
  3. accountability by others by allowing for critique
  4. respect for and openness to outliers for inclusion.[2]

This was an attempt to codify the internalized norms of our contemporary liberal secular religion concerned with fostering reason, tolerance and accommodation in the public sphere. It has an appeal across many traditional religious lines, particularly traditional religions committed to universal humanitarianism – the Mennonites and the Christian Reformed Church. Like traditional religions, the HRH secular religion, which incorporates the above principles, internalizes a set of values and rules in a set of attitudes and practices. This is the religion of public reason that goes beyond individual human rights to try to define what holds us together as a collective. The rules enunciated and brought to the surface are based on a religion of secular liberal civility without any appeal to authority. I identify this as one of the contemporary secular religions.

This liberal secular religion is in competition with another secular religion that could be labeled as classical liberal, one that draws a heavy line between state and religion, or as conservative because within the private sphere it is wedded to the preservation of traditional cultures and senses of morality, or Machiavellian and manipulative because it empties the public sphere of any moral compass and allows the contention for power to be determined primarily by Machiavellian manipulation in the quest to acquire and hold power. Because of the latter characteristic, I have labelled it as MMP religious secularism. There is no presumption in this polar categorization that the religion of liberal humanitarian secularism that I have labeled the HRH secular religion is or should be the overriding catholic religion which unites us all or that its claims to universal validity are sound.

Phil Triadafilipoulos, whose scholarship focuses on immigration and citizenship policies that reflect and reconfigure boundaries of national belonging in liberal-democratic states (to which I will refer in more detail in my case study of Stephen Harper’s refugee policies), in his paper on, “Debates over Religious Accommodation and Competitive Group Formation: Evidence from Canada and Germany,” argued that such debates are not so much expressions of the implicit rules of a liberal society around which solidarity can be maintained, but the result of competing group formation and boundary construction. In that interpretation, the rules proposed by Simone are efforts to define the boundaries of “liberals” in Western societies, an effort characteristic of any religious organization in its effort to maintain a coherent group identity. The identity now sought is of those who support a liberal polity.

This means that the liberal community not only competes with the norms of some religious traditionalists, as in the abortion debate, but with the religion of secular conservatives, what I have called the secular religion of manipulation and mastery to acquire and retain political power, the MMP secular religion. It is the one contemporary secular religion that is most closely connected first to the idolatrous worship of an unbridled free market in the economy and a specific type of traditional religion, usually labelled evangelical.

Both secular religions (HRH and MMP), at the same time as they define their own identity, compete to win over the floaters, those wedded neither to a liberal nor a conservative view of the world. Simone’s rules really only represent the religious norms of a liberal secular religion. They are not the shared values of all of us. Further, within the ranks of HRH religious secularists, there are extremist puritans who constitute a distinct sect.

For example, in the case presented by Phil on the clash over male circumcision in Germany, the protesters took up the mantra that infants have the right to their own bodies and no one has the right to mutilate them. This position clashed with Jews and Muslims for whom male circumcision is a sacred right.  In this case, the protesters battling male circumcision “as a barbaric practice,” (a phrase Stephen Harper and his Cabinet Ministers used to characterize the wearing of the niqab in his campaign to retain office as Prime Minister of Canada), based their attack on a practice of traditional religions. They were joined by many very liberal clergy. Jews and Muslims were relegated to being traditionalists currently defending against the attacks of the believers in the liberal secular religion of rights, even though most Jews also belong to the secular religion of rights and humanitarianism. Freedom of religion was not protected by the puritanical proponents of the liberal secular religion, but absolutely subordinated to the values of the new system of beliefs when traditions crossed the puritanical red lines of the new religion.

In other words, I accept very definitively Phil’s suggestion that any religion defines itself in contention with other religions by specifying public practices that are acceptable or unacceptable. If one is a liberal humanitarian who largely rests his or her belief on rights, then this is normally an indication that the individual belongs to progressive religious secularism that I have dubbed the HRH religious secularism. However, if one is aligned with the other secular religion, the conservative one that relegates religion to the private sphere, if one holds that the public space is about who obtains and holds power and really not in the end about values, then these characterize Machiavellian behaviour. This is the secular religion of power politics that I have dubbed the central belief and practice of an MMP religious secularism. Further, both HRH and MMP as secular religions remain undeveloped and currently only consecrate norms that govern conduct and attitude. Neither has matured in developing a specific set of virtues or the rites and ceremonies that will reinforce the rules held sacred by that religion.

That problem is a general one for various types of both traditional and secular religion. The development of virtue has been largely left behind and relegated to the periphery by the contending secular religions and their sects, though different traditional religions retain an emphasis on different sets of values and practices still found in the most traditional of non-secular religions.

Many American universities were founded as religious institutions, explicitly designed to cultivate their students’ spiritual and moral natures. But over the course of the 20th century they became officially or effectively secular. Religious rituals like mandatory chapel services were dropped. Academic research and teaching replaced character formation at the core of the university’s mission. Administrators and professors dropped spiritual language and moral prescription either because they didn’t know what to say or because they didn’t want to alienate any part of their diversifying constituencies. The humanities departments became less important, while parents ratcheted up the pressure for career training.[3]

David Brooks, the well-loved New York conservative columnist, became a traditionalist Jew through the efforts of his wife, a convert to Judaism. As he describes himself and the workings of his conscious and unconscious existence, “Judaism’s powerful laws, customs and rituals — the understructure of life — [became] embedded in the mind,” his mind. And for Brooks, that embedding is valuable, whether that embedding is the result of secular or traditional religious sources.

But what happens when the secular religion of human rights, especially puritan members within HRH, clash with the values and norms of traditionalists, especially those who also consider themselves small “l” liberals even if they are, to some degree, social conservatives? For that is what happened in the debate over ritual circumcision in Germany. Political conservatives joined with many traditionalist religious followers to defeat the secular religious effort of the puritanical liberals lest they repeat what happened in Sweden and South Africa. There they succeeded in creating an alliance that banned ritual circumcision of boys before the age of consent.

The secular religions are not about virtues, but about those very rules of discourse and debate that Simone reviewed as the basis of what I call the new liberal religious secularism (HRH) to which contemporary universities largely adhere. For although universities have given up the task and obligation of teaching virtue based on the classics, they do concentrate on inculcating social rather than personal norms, such as tolerance and a respect for diversity. The religion of procedural liberal universalism based on rights and humanitarianism is generally supreme in universities. The classical religions of virtue are not generally taught in universities today. Neither is the doctrine of Machiavellian acquisition of power characteristic of the public sphere, for those who truly and deeply believe in the so-called relegation of traditional religion to the private sphere.

Ronald Kuipers, Director of the Centre for Philosophy, Religion and Social Ethics
and Associate Professor, Philosophy of Religion at the University of Toronto, wrote a very interesting overview on Richard Rorty (2013) that is particularly strong in analyzing his ironic liberal approach to philosophy and his anti-clericalism. In Kuipers’ paper, “Towards a Radically Inclusive Citizenship,” he offered one answer to the issue of various types of traditionalists either warring against the new dominant religions of secular liberalism within the body politic of the nation. He focused on the radical separation of science and religion rather than the private versus the public sphere. Each traditional religion forges its own partnerships with some secular ones. Ironically, the secular religion of rights forges partnerships with religious traditionalists, such as those with a very deep commitment to social justice, but is unable to form alliances with so-called evangelicals who focus much more on individualism and individual salvation more particularly. The secular religion of power, again ironically, defends and usually relegates the traditional religions to the realm of “private belief systems’ in opposition to secular religious norms that attempt to define the values of and for our public space to govern and provide boundaries to the quest for and distribution of power.

Ronald on his bio page wrote the following:

What is faith today? What does it mean to be a Christian in a secular age? In today’s world, the act of continuing to identify with an ancient religious tradition can seem outdated. Modern Western society demands that we answer the invidious question, ‘Do you believe in God, or Science?’ But what happens to religion and faith when we force them to fit within the frame of a scientistic culture, one in which all of reality is reduced to what may be discovered through the quantifiable methods of the physical sciences alone, while everything beyond that is understood as mere wishful human projection on an otherwise meaningless cosmos? In this picture, faith becomes readily understood as a form of intellectual assent to propositions whose scientific warrant is dubious at best…The reformational tradition has taught me that Christianity, if it is anything at all, is a holistic pattern of living, and not simply a matter of intellectual believing. More than that, Christianity remains a live option for those living in a scientistic culture because it can still fuel our ability to imagine relevant alternatives for contemporary human existence than those our scientistic culture affords. My work in the philosophy of religion takes up Wittgenstein’s challenge to speak an old language that yet belongs to a newer world. In so doing, I hope we may retrieve redemptive possibilities for our current existence, possibilities that our current culture has trouble envisioning.

Redemptive possibilities in Christianity are personal and do not define public space. Ronald’s response to the failed effort to hive off traditional religious practices and the alienation religious conservatives experience is to offer a set of strategies for reconciling the traditional and what I call secular religions, leaving aside the sects within each one of them[4]. In an effort at defining principles of reasonable accommodation that can be absorbed and imbibed by each religion, he tries to define the responsibilities of the secularists and those of the traditionalists who also had to adapt to assume and partake in the responsibilities of citizenship. Kuipers articulates the cultural factors in society that might help each of these faiths to engage in such accommodation rooted in the writings of Vico, Hugo Grotius, John Locke, Hegel and Charles Taylor.

He offers a set of overarching norms – accommodation and tolerance, inclusion versus exclusion, participation as opposed to passivity for all. I interpret him as simply advocating a larger view of the dominant liberal secular religion, selecting those norms governing the public space that are acceptable to most religions as well as the dominant secular one. But it is a mug’s game. For though the thesis deals with members who primarily define their religion in terms of affiliation, it leaves out those who define their religion in terms of beliefs, particularly beliefs that clash with the dominant culture. Though Ronald is clearly out to reconcile a life of faith with the dominant secular religion, yet one asks: what and where is the place for those who define religiosity in terms of commitment and giving witness to one’s beliefs? As adjuncts to the dominant secular religion? As supernumeraries to provide a traditional scaffolding for the new secular religion of human rights and humanitarianism?

Finally, Ronald omits the cultivation of virtue since the liberal secular belief system applies to public norms, usually norms governing discourse in the public sphere. This omission becomes acute when religion is defined as private and the public sphere is left as the space for the work of the devil where Machiavellianism holds sway. Though his thesis is compatible with, even if not integrated into, the secular religion of human rights and humanitarianism, it seems to have little to say to secular traditionalists who believe in the primacy of ensuring security for the public so that they may practice their religion peacefully and in private. Further, the virtues of honesty and telling the truth are bracketed. That demoralizes their liberal secularist allies, especially since the latter also claim to speak for one branch of religious traditionalists.

Ingrid Mattson, a Muslim religious leader and scholar, offered a complementary effort to resolve the impasse between the secularist religions and the traditional ones by stressing practices rather than beliefs and certainly not affiliations. What does she offer as the principles governing the public space where conservative secularists and liberal secularists, where traditional religious believers who retreat from the private sphere or reverse that propensity and try to recapture the public sphere, where these traditionalists war with both their alienated liberal traditionalists and liberal secularists, and where even puritanical versus tolerant liberal secularists clash with one another? Her suggestions for overarching norms include prohibitions against harming another and obligations to assist others in need, to do good rather than harm. These initially appear to be transcendent norms since both religious traditionalists and liberal secularists believe in them. But what about those religious traditionalists who uphold the radical separation of religion and state and believe that the public realm is the space for Machiavellianism and manipulation? How does one reconcile such norms with traditionalists who regard the public sphere as the realm for divisive rather than inclusionary politics? In the process, MMR religious secularism may undermine trust in government altogether and relegate legitimacy to a sideshow. The adherents also usually bracket inflicting harm on another when the “other” is regarded as alien and obligations to offer assistance to their own religious tribe and its allies in the secular world are taken to be primary. In the process, the whole idea of transcendent norms is undermined.

What seems clear to me is that my fellow participants in the symposium were simply advocates of one version or another of liberal religious secularism as the foundation for including religious traditionalism in the discourse within the body politic. Mary Jo Leddy, the closest approximation to a saint that I ever have known and a member of my own panel, complemented Ingrid Mattson’s stress on a caring culture and core values, but drawn from traditional belief rather than contemporary humanitarian liberalism. Sharing rather than ownership was the mantra. But this stance merely relegated economic conservatives to the sidelines and never directly dealt with the clash between and among the various beliefs systems and their respective sects. Mary Jo promoted the effort to promulgate a doctrine of accepting responsibility for our public space rather than having our private spaces of possessive individualism dominate and even have a virtual monopoly over the public sphere. As I understand Mary Jo, she wanted to relegate the religious secularism of business that favoured low taxes and minimal government, the antithesis to Mary Jo’s definition of the transcending religion governing our public space, to an inferior and even alien status.

Ben Schewel, the other member of my panel, delivered a very rich paper entitled, “Comparative religious ethics and the problems of forced migration” which intersected with an area of my expertise other than ethics. I have also written on the important role of traditional faith groups and their contributions to the protection and resettlement of refugees. Schewel focused on the ethical concepts originating from faith groups that permeate the discussions of forced migration. Through this route, Schewel sought another route to define the transcendental values and norms that purportedly embrace these traditional religious efforts as well as the norms protecting refugees in contemporary society. He did this by probing the realms of convergence.

He began by dividing academics who discuss religion and the public sphere into partialists and impartialists. Michael Walzer was an example of a partialist who contended that the public sphere is a realm of contention among various communities with different but overlapping norms and beliefs. Peter Singer was offered up as an example of an impartialist, that is, someone who bases his views on what are contended to be universal norms. Schewel would likely classify me as a partialist, I believe, the only one on the program in the symposium. However, I characterize myself as an impartial partialist, someone who sees the whole range of partialists and so-called impartialists, while speaking from my own perspective which I claim to be more encompassing than those normative advocates who are on the side of the angels defending caring and sharing, tolerance and rational discourse, rights and responsibilities. However, I would fit in with his thesis that in the dialectical interaction of secularist and traditional religions, each is transformed by the other in that interaction.

The last keynote speaker was Armando Salvatore. His keynote talk was too intricate and complex to easily summarize, except to suggest that he was arguing in the tradition of Jurgen Habermäs and Charles Taylor. But the main voice he reflected was that of Karl Jaspers, especially his conception of the Axial Age when many of the so-called world religions emerged out of the womb of history. He also dissected the idea of transcendence sought by traditional religious thinkers into three distinct meanings:

  1. A standpoint from which one can offer a critique;
  2. A second order kind of framing;
  3. The convergence of the cognitive and ethical that looks at the subject as a whole, but sacrifices any serious consideration of rites.

The combined result of this tripartite reach for transcendence was the construction of a disembodied self that became the foundation of a new axial age and ushered in modernity, not only in Europe, but also in the Islamic world and Asia. (The latter received only glancing attention, and then only in the discussion of developments in Japan focused on order and stability in an age of large scale migration and human movement.) This was followed by a detailed account of this emergence in the Christian world through the work of Franciscans and Dominicans, in which (from St. Thomas Aquinas) caritas, healing, compassion directed at the other, and the self-sacrifice of chosen poverty, became central themes, themes clearly compatible with the modern liberal religious secularist culture of humanitarianism and rights.

In Islam, the trajectory followed a different path because it was more differentiated as well as more cross-border. Further, the emphasis was not on caritas or self-denial, but on knowledge and developing a didactic formulaic and a dyadic relationship between self and other, stressing victimization, on the one hand, and innovation and change on the other hand. Charisma also took a central place in the process. But the goal was the same – to provide a ground for political legitimation as Islam became an urban religion and also became noteworthy for its extremism. Like its Christian counterpart, the process yielded the idea of a public sphere, however one that instantiated a social hierarchy in that realm instead of permitting traditional religion to be relegated to the private sphere.

When what we are actually observing is the rise of an idolatrous form of religion that treats a finite nation-state as an infinite good (2011), when religion no longer contains other spheres within its compass, but rather acts as a separate realm that demands influence from its own position of distinction, there is no transcendental foundation as much as liberal religious traditionalists and liberal religious secularists wish there was.

What is the alternative to a transcendent voice of reason and an underpinning in universal norms that does not surrender to Machiavellianism becoming the dominant ethic governing the public sphere?

[1] “Religion and Citizenship in a Post-Secular Society,” University of Toronto, 2 October 2015.

[2] As an aside, Stephen Harper, Canada’s soon to be former Prime Minister at the time of this writing, is not an observer of the rites and rituals, nor holds to the beliefs and practices, nor belongs to or validates the institutions of the HRH secular religion. His attacks on certain symbols are a clear indicator. Of the four principles above, he does adhere to the deep Canadian value of civility, but he has been a leading figure in undermining the other three in upholding the principle of accessibility – he avoids not only press conferences that are not under his tight control, but denies the press access to civil servants. Nor are civil servants accorded rights of free expression on even scientific issues. Through omnibus parliamentary bills and a host of other measures, including the firing of civil servants expressly put in place to guarantee accountability, he has done his best to destroy that principle and contributed to Canada’s current democratic deficit. Most of all, he has been a politician of divisiveness and exclusion.

[3] David Brooks (2015) “Politics, culture and the social sciences,” The New York Times, 5 October.

[4] Think of John C. Calhoun writing in the years before the American Civil War demanding that the rights of minorities – those who believed in slavery – and of states within the federal system, be respected and protected by the majority.

Religion: A Philosophical and Historical Overview

Religion, Solidarity and Power

 

  1. A Philosophical & Historical Overview

In the ancient world, politics was the means of expressing the will of God and/or the nature of man. The principles were given. The issue was to interpret that will and/or nature; there was no separation of the religious and the secular. Further, horizontal solidarity and the vertical distribution of power were complementary. One enjoyed solidarity within one’s allotted class and a stable order as long as the “natural” distribution of power was recognized.

The enlightenment changed all that. Instead of the will of God or the nature of man, the foundation became the will of man and man’s mastery of nature in the construction of the social and political order. Nature was no longer regarded as a problem of custodial care. Humans saw themselves as entitled to an unbridled use of labour and thought allowing an unhampered exploitation of nature and its conversion into art-i-facts and possessions. The unnatural laws of the economic market provided the governing norms, not divine sanction. The inversion that made human will primary was accompanied by the separation of the secular and the religious, the separation of state and church. Politics became an issue of possibility, of change. Even for conservatives, the issue was and remained who could manage that change to best maintain stability. In the process, art itself was revolutionized; it became a construct rather than an imitation of reality or the icons of a holy world. Self-creation replaced mimesis as the modus operandi.

This was as true of the sciences as the humanities. Science was not discovering “natural laws,” but patterns and laws that best explained nature. Science itself became a process, a methodology of providing a disciplined way to sort out competing claims or constructs. Religion was relegated to the realm of personal belief and faith while science became the expression of reason and art the expression of the imagination unleashed even from the boundaries of nature.

Kant wanted to give a boundary to the natural world to make room for faith. Further, epistemology, knowing the world itself, was based on universal premises that were preconditions for any scientific knowledge rather than products of science. Thus, in the realm of science, the proposition that every event has a cause is not a scientific conclusion, but a universal principle without which there could be no science whatsoever. In the realm of practical as distinct from pure reason, of prescription rather than description, the universal premise that one should treat every other human as an end and not as a means was not a moral proposition itself, but the necessary condition of having and living in a moral world at all.

Hegel turned Kant on his head and inside out. Religion, the path of spirit, was to be found in the development of science, even in the development of classical and ancient belief and thought that brought us to the realm of reason. But the realm of reason that did not recognize the historical revelations of spirit, the premise of the enlightenment based on the separation of religion and the state, of faith and science, of unreason and unreason, was to be discovered in the reason of irrationality and the irrationality of reason, of the quest for mastery over self and an Other in the quest for recognition. With the re-emergence of the realm of spirit and the realm of nature, of faith and of reason, the seeds of the post-enlightenment had been sewn. The highest achievement and realization was not the realm of reason, but the realm of spirit, in what we now refer to as post-secularism that Schewel has dissected so well in his writings (2014).

In politics, reason was embodied in and expressed through the state; the state was supposed to be the highest expression of reason. Spirit was expressed through the nation and the sinews that kept people of the same nation wedded to common values. The spirit of a nation trumped even the commanding heights of the state. In the end, the state was not there simply to serve instrumental reason, which in turn served the functioning of the state. It was the expression and protector of that national spirit. That vision differed radically from Fichte for whom the spirit of a nation became the ultimate measure; for Hegel, the spirit of a nation was bounded by reason and subjected to its critique.

In this nascent postmodern vision, man was no longer viewed as having an intrinsic nature but, instead, was viewed as a “product of his time” and a person through whom that time received expression and articulation. In this sense, in history we began witnessing the marriage – not the merger – of traditional religion and the secular which finally characterizes the nascent stage of the new post-enlightenment order that we are all living through.

Instead of reading a sacred text: “In the beginning of God’s creating the heaven and the earth,” instead of reading a scientific treatise about the objectification and evolution of the natural world independent of any spirit, the sprit was viewed as a place where this new non-natural evolution took place as spirit tries to recognize itself in his or her own actions. The most significant element in this process of self-recognition of oneself, and oneself at one with the world, was language. In the classical age, God said and there was. Language, whether used by God to create the world or by humans to identify different species, was the vehicle for the world coming to be and to be known.

That shifted with the enlightenment. Language was reduced to describing rather than determining the world. The job came to be checking the degree to which our words corresponded with the “facts” out there, and then whether our categories and our laws did. Instead of Truth being determined by an all-knowing, all powerful deity, the world decided what was and what was not true. However, in our current post-modern world, God doesn’t decide, nor we as the instrument for God’s will. Neither does the world decide. Practice, convention and custom make that determination. In that case, the realm of the political becomes much more about the boundaries of practice and belief acceptable to the rest of the community. We observe the birth of secular religions.

In 1912, secularism was consecrated as the official religion of France (Baubérot[1] 1990; 1994; 1998; 2007a; 2007b). The notion of secular (laïque) of course emerged much earlier, even before the French Revolution. In the gestation period, laïcité consisted of the gradual disassociation of state institutions from the Roman Catholic Church. In his blog on 29 September, Baubérot reiterated his long-held view that, “since Durkheim, a sociological literature shows that there is a social sacred, which may very well be secular.” He has also differentiated between laïcité as political secularism and secularization which entails the protection of individual political choice. Even though Jean Baubérot, to the best of my knowledge, never directly called laïcité or political secularism a religion, his writings on laïcité are invaluable in understanding it as a religion.

Quebec more recently has tried to follow the example of France. The English world was more tolerant. In Canada as a whole in 2015, the target was the niqab being worn when one joined and pledged allegiance to the modern extended family, the state. In that part of the country much more influenced by French beliefs and practices, much more determined to define the national family as Quebeçois rather than Canadian, one would be banned from wearing the niqab when conducting any transaction between the public and the state. The prohibition would not simply be restricted to when one swore an oath of citizenship.

The fewer these matters affected – 200 school girls in France, two Muslim Canadians who insisted they wear the niqab for the portion of the ceremony of oaths that was public – the greater the importance seemed in the life of the nation and the greater the public controversy over the practice. Those who swore their allegiance to the secular religion of human rights labelled such bans intolerable and a challenge to human rights and freedom. But those who sought to define the re-marriage of the secular and the religion in more classical terms of rites rather than rights, seemed to have the greater sense of what is missing in the modern enlightened world. They appeared more sensitive to the epidemic of alienation, to what it meant to define an individual separate from his or her community as the foundation for society.

The religious secular battles took place over symbols and practices about covering the head and/or the face. However, since we had already left the historical period of modernity when the world would decide which secular religious practice would prevail, the attitude of the community rather than a realm of universal rights and freedoms would determine the outcome, not via a court of law which consistently ruled in favour of a secularism based on the sacred state of human rights and protection of the individual. Secularization itself became a secular religion which divorced itself from religion altogether and was consecrated by the courts. I call that secular religion founded on the sacred priority of human rights and humanitarianism HRH secularism.

However, in the court of public opinion in deep need of costumes and colours and uniforms to decide the fracture lines that divide one community from another, the secular political religion became a variety of versions of laïcité. Political state clerics took over responsibility from church clerics for determining acceptable public costuming in the name of the separation of church from state. By relegating morality to the private sphere, the public arena allowed, no, was encouraged to become the realm for manipulation and mastery of the instruments of power and authority. I call this competing secular religion MMP secularism.

If we speak, rather than having our actions governed by universal natural rights and freedoms, if the words we speak, especially the oaths we swear, cause us to determine the beliefs we have, then subjectivity reigns and is reified by modes of costuming that declare the primary community to which we owe our allegiance, whether that costuming be the colours and styles of a biker gang, the style of dress of one sect in a high school versus another, the costumes of sports fans and their idols, or the minimal standards of dress of a whole nation. So just when the language of rights and freedoms had ostensibly achieved legal supremacy as the epitome of modernity, it was being undermined by the new wave of post-modernity and all in the name of “conserving” our values. In this new world that was being created by defenders of the old “old” world, reality was what we made through our language, and not by a reality independent of the words we use, the language we adopt and the practices we deem to be “sacred”.

In the Greek classical world, an outcome was best determined by those who argued best. In the classical Hebrew world, it was determined by those who interpreted text best. In the modern enlightenment, those practices were determined by a natural world independent of ourselves. But in the post-modern world, conventions were ordained by the will of the community. “We” determine who we are and nowhere and no time is that determination made clearer than when “we” invite “they” to join our community, to join our family. MMP secularism tries to bury modernity and make “we” rather than the transcendental “I” of modernity the trump card for self-determination.

We determine how we should be responsible and to whom we should be responsible. That responsibility was no longer determined by God or by the nature of who we are as humans. For that “nature” itself was subject to the self-determination of the “we”. The criterion for determining the boundaries of the world and its subdivisions was no longer to be determined by its adequacy in describing the world – whether that adequacy be determined by a pseudo-biological classification of race or of our nature as human beings as a whole or even by our nature as sentient beings in a world where even animals have rights – but by ourselves as unfettered divine creators. The height of irony in the contemporary world is that this vision of the world has its greatest proponents in those who contend that they live in a traditional world, a world where a non-secular world ostensibly still reigns supreme. That, of course, is an exemplification of the ironic nature of human self-transformation á la Richard Rorty.

No longer is the core determinant an external divine or even natural force, nor a divine core being within each and every one of us, but what we believe according to the latest opinion polls. Some people think that the mushrooming of opinion polls in the last forty years was about giving us greater knowledge of the external world and the society in which we live, or, at least, an understanding of trends so that our choices can be strategic. Though on the surface they are both of these, at a much deeper level they are the new sacred rites for instantiating the process by which “we” are defined as the source of that which is sacred in defining ourselves.

The “we” that decides and the decision about who belongs to and constitutes the “we” becomes the most sacred act of all. And it is most often done, not in any direct challenge to the sacred foundation of modernity, the nature and rights of the individual, but by those who claim to be most rooted in tradition. Further, the result is not the greater reification of that tradition, but the consequence that the sense of ourselves as fundamentally protean is reinforced. Polls simply and most fundamentally tell and instill in us that we can no longer define ourselves in reference to one pole rather than its opposite, but in terms of the nature of fluid polls. We have come to recognize that we are quarks, perceived from one view as bundles of energy that completely fill the space available or, from an opposite perspective, as solid particles that concentrate the energy into a compact space of the individual entity. Post-modernity, unlike one of the oldest traditions, has still not been able to integrate the heh of openness and self-transformation with the yud that together constitute the sacred deity Yahweh.

Twentieth century philosophy has been described as the era in which Aristotelian insights into language as a mode of equivocation and the era in which language was the most instrumental of tools and the medium through which we could best reach out to the truth of the given world, has moved us, and we have moved ourselves, into an era where language itself defined that world and defined the “we” who defined who the “we” is. Language was not just a medium. Rather, the medium had become the message – and we all recognize the source of that insight. Just as the radical divide between the secular and the religious characteristic of modernity was now being overthrown, so was the radical divide between the self and the object, between the self and the other, between oneself as an actor in the world and the transcendental self which allowed that self’s thoughts to cohere and its practices to be rooted in a continuing identity. “I” had become “we”.

In the terms of Friedrich Nietzsche, the greatest nineteenth century prophet of the contemporary age and the most reactionary advocate against it in reverence for the individual, we are the “mobile army of metaphors”. We are not simply the community, but the crowd and the mob. We are at heart protean, which means that we have no heart at all. Nor head for that matter or even gut. We are the collectivity of ones that make the we that makes ourselves.

Next 3. Religion, Solidarity and Power in the Context of the Symposium

[1] A specialist in the sociology of religions, Baubérot was the founder of the sociology of secularism and has held chairs in both fields. He not only understands religions, but also understands important aspects of secularism as a de facto religion. Of the 19 members of the Stasi Commission in France that studied the headscarf issue, a commission that included a number of prominent French philosophers, he was the only member who abstained from banning headscarves in French public schools, but, in fact, he was a supporter of laïcité and really either wanted headscarves to be differentiated from bandanas which showed the neck or “ostentatious” to be defined, not in terms of the size or prominence of the religious attire or symbols, but only as a way of defining items used for proselytism, as he claimed that they disrupted the educational process and put pressure on other students.

Religion, Solidarity and Power: The Contemporary Scholarly Landscape

Religion, Solidarity and Power

by

Howard Adelman

This article is divided into two major parts. Part I is divided in three beginning with a prologue that sets the article amongst contemporary discussions of the relationship of the secular to the religious. The second section of Part I adopts a diachronic rather than synchronic perspective. Instead of orienting the reader within contemporary intellectual space, it offers a sketch of how our new secular religions that characterize our post-modern age emerged out of the trajectory of the past. The third part then sets this paper within the context of other papers discussed at the symposium where this paper was first presented.

Part II gets to the core of what this paper is about – the relationship of solidarity to power in the contemporary world and, more specifically, within the context of traditional religions in competition with contemporary secular religions, and all in competition with each other and with the only secular perspective that is truly idolatrous and not a religion at all. Part II then offers two very specific case studies which are seemingly peripheral to the central issues at stake in the Canadian 2015 political election, but which exemplify the nature of the contemporary struggle between the two dominant secular religions.

Part I: Framing

 

  1. Prologue: Locating this Article in Contemporary Scholarly Landscape
  2. A Philosophical and Historical Overview
  3. State, Society and Contemporary Competing Religions

 

Part II: Case Studies

  1. Solidarity: Coercion, Influence and Authority in Contemporary Society
  2. The Issue of the Niqab in the 2015 Canadian Election
  3. The Issue of Syrian Refugees in the 2015 Canadian Election

 1. Prologue: Locating this Article in Contemporary Scholarly Landscape

Studies of the role of religion and religious symbols in public life have been legion. Some of my own writings (2011) on Quebec and French divisive debates over the hijab and niqab (Adelman blog, 12 October 2015) fit into this classification. The writings of Chidester (1991), Green (1996), Hams (1999), Miller (2005), Lambert (2008) and Fowler et al (2010), as well as many others, have covered the role of religion in political life in America, and certainly peaceful accommodation in civil society (Putnam and Campbell, 2010). We have always had studies of the role of religion in violent conflict by historians (Underdown 1986; Harris 1990; Wilson 1995; Shugar 1997; Martinich 2002) where profound conflicts over fundamental values were at the root of violent clashes. In our time, religious differences have been at the centre of violence in Yugoslavia (Babel 1992), Sri Lanka (Tambiah 1992) and Northern Ireland (Jordon 2013) as well as at work in the peace process itself (Brewer et al 2014).

Religious values, symbols and concepts permeate our secular politics as well (Sung 2007). In fact, if I interpret him correctly, Schewel (2014), who is part of this symposium, claimed that Christ was indirectly the first secularist. For if reconciliation between man and God could not be obtained in one’s lifetime in this world, then, “This created the idea of an autonomous and wholly secular plane of political existence and taught religion to abandon its claim to worldly power.” (p. 50) Nevertheless, even as modernity ushered in what were perceived to be the final stages of shoving religion to the periphery of political life, Elshtain (2008) and Gillespie (2008) documented how deeply religious conceptions underpin the very basis of contemporary politics.

We have also had writings on secular society, especially modernity, as also having its own religious and ethical foundations that provide the basis for cohesion and the peaceful operation of the polity. Traditional religion has also provided the foundation for contemporary culture. The studies of Bellag (1967) and Cristi (2001) try to document that this is not just an influence on secular culture, but has itself produced a civil religion on its own. On the other hand, there does seem to be an increasing trend towards the importance of religious strife in violent conflicts (Bibby 2001) and a wider and broader conviction that our contemporary culture is increasingly divorced from a belief in an unchanging sacred social order that is so characteristic of traditional religion.

On the one hand, religion seems to be everywhere; on the other hand, our society has become increasingly secular (Taylor 2007). Secular in this context refers to the privatization of religion as initially just another distinctive realm among many (usually focused on institutional attachments), a set of beliefs and practices that entail value priorities and even fundamental commitments, and then, in the case of traditional religion, its ostensible exile from the public sphere. For some, this also implied a trend towards extinction of religion from any influence in the public sphere at all.

Religions historically and currently have been a major source of both prejudice and warfare, as well as tolerance, the latter illustrated by Putnam and Campbell (2010). “America peacefully combines a high degree of religious devotion with tremendous religious diversity.” (1) And where is that religion to be found? Not just in churches, synagogues, mosques, Buddhist and Hindu temples, not just in civil society institutions, but as foundation stones for civil religion and for our most fundamental political institutions.

In this paper I try to do something somewhat different, though clearly complementary, analyzing not just a portion of civil society as a civic religion, but secular society as a whole as itself made up of several competing secular religions, each allied with different variations of traditional religion. They attempt, as religious and political theory have in the past, to reconcile cooperation and solidarity as the foundations for unity in tension with coercive power in a polity. Like traditional religions, the various secular religions include institutions dedicated to its operations, a set of beliefs and even an obligation on the individual to pay attention and participate in certain rituals and rites, including often forms of speaking.

I adopt an international studies perspective even when undertaking very specific case studies of conflicts. For although the contention for power is restricted largely to states, the real competition is global; the debate often becomes most heated over transnational issues even when the discourse is about one woman wearing a niqab at a ritualistic public ceremony when an immigrant is becoming a Canadian citizen. Sometimes those clashes are related to war. Sometimes only which and how many refugees will be received. But in all cases, conflicts over fundamental values are at stake that cannot be resolved by reference simply to empirical data.

At an annual meeting of the International Studies Association (ISA) in 1996, Andy Knight opined that the time was ripe to examine the role of religion in world politics. He stressed focusing on the connection between modern specific conceptions of world order and those embedded in various religious traditions in order to understand the way religious ideas could influence the shape of the international system on the premise that religious and spiritual forces shape our cultures and human institutions, not just political, social and economic forces. I myself have written on the conceptual relations with a focus on eschatology (Adelman 2004; 2011e), but more about the effect of religious conceptions in restoring peace than in bringing about conflict and violence.

Fox and Sandler (2004) articulated the importance of culture, religion and identity in understanding international relations. Just over a decade later, this sentiment was echoed this past year by Janice Stein, former Director of the Munk Centre for Global Affairs at the University Toronto. “Religion has become a major construct that needs to be seriously considered when intervening in cultural wars in foreign lands.” This is a very different conception of the role of religion in political life, for it is not about how religious ideas and concepts permeate current politics, but about how religion is an integral part of contemporary politics in the international sphere.

“Seventy years ago we made a deep mistake in thinking about the world; we didn’t foresee the importance of religion in politics. The post-war consensus was rather that secularization would continue to grow as societies developed and became more educated. As religious beliefs became a respected private matter, the secular liberal order would deepen and strengthen around the world. We now need to understand the important role that religion plays in large parts of the world, and build that into our foreign policy.” (Lynch 2015) Janice Stein reminds us that religious ideas, that the teachings of Lao Tzu, Confucius, Buddha, Zoroaster, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, the Bab, and Bahá’u’lláh, have not only influenced our conceptions of world order, but have also impacted on the organization of political battles on the ground in the contemporary era.

There is a third way to examine the relationship between religion and culture by pointing within civil society to a civil religion that mediates between secularism and religious tradition as we generally identify it. That civil religion exists alongside of and clearly differentiated from the churches, synagogues and mosques (Bellah 1967; Cristi 2001).

A fourth way looks at the secular non-religious sector as itself consisting of religions (Levinson 2013). In other words, whether encompassing only part of secular civil society or all of it, there exists a collection of values, beliefs, symbols, and rituals that are considered sacred for a particular segment of society and that are institutionalized within a collectivity that can contribute to fostering tolerance or intolerance.

The battle among religions, both traditional and secular, is international. It is domestic as well (Keating and Knight 2004). In my 2011 essays, I documented the differences between the Stasi Commission in France and the Bouchard-Taylor commission in Quebec over Muslim women wearing headscarves. Those differences reflected contradictions between the two dominant secular contemporary religions and the interpretation each gave to liberalism. Much of the French debate, unlike the Quebec one, related to a perceived threat of international Islamism; what was the proper balance between persuasion and protection? In the 2015 Canadian elections, that perspective was introduced into Canadian politics in a major way by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. So did the issue of humanitarianism versus security concerns in the differences over the issue of the Syrian refugees in Canada. (The niqab issue and the Syrian refugee issues will be discussed at the end of this essay to illustrate the warfare between two contemporary secular religions, each with a different set of traditional religious allies.)

Those four different approaches to examining the relationship between the secular and the sacred in contemporary society as it relates to international and domestic politics and particularly those events related to and involving violence are:

  1. The influence of religious concepts on modern secular society and politics;
  2. The role of religion in contemporary international and domestic politics as core religious tensions within that play out in contemporary religious/political wars as well as facilitating peace;
  3. A civic religion that exists between traditional religions and the state;
  4. Secularism itself as a religion and the interaction of traditional religions and various forms of religious secularism.

I am interested in the fourth approach, but one which subsumes the other three as part of the analysis.

Next: 2. A Philosophic and Historic Overview

A Rabbi Who Believes in God

Introduction to a Rabbi Who Believes in God

by

Howard Adelman

Last week, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Yael Splansky spoke at Holy Blossom Temple. I was there. Because of the courtesy of the internet, you too can be partially there. You can hear her words, but you cannot and will not be able to experience the spirituality of the congregation as they rose to their feet at the end to applaud. I have never before heard applause during a religious service in a synagogue – or in any other sacred temple for that matter. But you can at least hear her.

http://www.holyblossom.org/2015/09/sermon-rabbi-yael-splansky-second-day-rosh-hashanah-5776/

Rabbis, like ministers and priests, like Imams and Sikh or Hindu clergy, offer sermons on the holy days of their faith. I have attended many, and from many religions. In my second year of university, every Sunday I went to a different church service of the many different branches and expressions of Christianity in order to try to understand various versions of that faith. In all my time in sacred services, I have never heard a sermon like the one I heard on the second day of Rosh Hashanah 5776 at Holy Blossom Temple as delivered by Rabbi Splansky.

I was going to write about it the next day. But I did not. Not because I did not have time. Not because I did not know what to say. I often start writing without being very clear what I would be writing about. I do not know why. It was not because what Yael said was so upsetting. Though emotional, her talk was not disturbing at all in the ordinary sense. She did not rattle the congregation like the stereotype of a Torah or Old Testament prophet. But the address was certainly moving.

Yael Splansky did not deliver a fiery or even a terribly memorable oration (terrible in both opposite meanings of the word), where you walked away with a sentence that you could not get out of your head. “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” For her talk was not really an oration. It was not even a lesson. It was just a talk. And it was not a talk based on a passage from the Torah or one theme discussed in the Torah. She weaved together many themes, contrary to the advice Rabbi Gunther Plaut once gave me as a critique of my lectures; he said they were too crowded with ideas. Splansky’s talk was crowded with a myriad of experiences and responses. For she gave a talk based, not on a biblical text, but on the text of her own life, particularly over the last year as she went through treatment for her cancer.

One quip I heard about the overwhelming positive response to her talk was: “Isn’t it strange and unusual that the only time Jewish congregants love their rabbi is when they are sick.” But the solidarity of the congregation on that day, the applause at the end, was not for her courage and strength in facing cancer, not for her suffering and pain that she endured, but for the spiritual, for the religious message she offered. It was not a message about the interpretation of text or about the source and meaning of a Talmudic law. It was not even about being a moral person in a specific way. It certainly was not about theology. But it was about faith.

After the service, I offered my own quip as I struggled with the overwhelming effect of her talk. [My wife knew it was overwhelming because, in my own trivial bow to its power, and the specific message that we have a duty to care for our bodies so that we can serve others, I started on a strict diet right after I came home.] I told my wife that was the first time I had heard a talk by a religious leader, by a rabbi, where I was absolutely convinced that the individual on the bima believed in God.

I think I did not write about my reaction right away because I could not yet sort out my thoughts. Further, it could have been a One Trick Pony. So I waited. On erev Yom Kippur, Rabbi Splansky again delivered a talk. This time, her text was not on herself as Torah, nor on a specific passage of Torah – she cited many prayers based on various passages and many other thinkers. It was a talk on religion in general. No, not exactly. More on being religious in general. Once again it was a five star sermon, though not with the power to arouse a congregation to its feet and applaud. On Yom Kippur, that would have not just been surprising. It would have been shocking.

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Splanky set aside the Yiddish proverb, “If God lived on this earth, we would shatter His windows,” and instead began with another:  “If things are not as you wish, wish them as they are.” Was she being a fatalist? Stoics were fatalists. Pythagoras had written: “Whatever sorrow the fate of the Gods may here send us, bear, whatever may strike you with patience unmurmuring. To relive it, so far as you can, is permitted, but reflect that not much misfortune has fate given to the good.”

This was not Splansky’s perspective. She is not a fatalist. For one, she did not depict her experience over the last year as simply accepting what happened with “patience unmurmuring.”  Instead, after she had experienced the exhilaration of carrying through the transition of the congregation to a new stage the previous year, an effort she had previously considered the hardest thing she had ever done, after she gave last year’s address in the afterglow of that experience, she learned she had cancer. Fighting that cancer became the hardest thing she had ever done. Instead of remaining unmurmuring about that experience, in spite of her being a very private person, she shared that experience with us.

It could have been a maudlin performance, full of sentiment, even if genuine. But it was not. Not at all! Further, she was not a fatalist because her message was not that we have to surrender quietly to the cards delivered to us. The issue was how you play with the cards God gives you. Not only was her talk not “unmurmuring,” but she never claimed that her condition even ranked high in the world of comparative suffering. She knew too many of her congregants whose life of hard knocks was far more arduous than her own. They had suffered much more and for a much longer time.

Nor had she suffered in patience. Shocked but not surprised at her diagnosis, she greeted the verdict, not as fated, but as both lucky for what she might and could learn from it, and unlucky for no one wants their body ravaged in that way. As a rabbi who had ministered to the unwell, she was prepared. But she was also unprepared for what she faced and had to go through. She felt both unlucky to have been stricken and lucky to have the prayers of her congregants to uplift her. She sustained her hope that all would go well, but felt extremely vulnerable. She hated the machines that examined her and the needles they stuck into her, but, in and through her hatred, she was totally grateful they were there. But most of all, she was not a patient stoic who greeted such a disaster with equanimity even if entirely alone. For though she ended each day fully aware that she alone inhabited her particular skin, nevertheless, she had a husband, her boys, and she was surrounded by her congregation. So when she felt crushed under the weight of her illness, she had a source of strength to reinforce her resolve to emerge triumphant.

Like a fatalist, she recognized that you do not get to choose what happens to you. But unlike a stoic, she could choose how to respond, whether with patience unmurmuring or with impatience that both shouted at the disease and heard the echo of her family and friends. Nor did she buy into the Stoic belief that, “not much misfortune has fate given to the good.” For misfortune struck both the good and the bad with NO sense of proportion to the behaviour. Instead, Rabbi Splansky focused on the importance of a sacred community, and this was the message she followed up with in her erev Yom Kippur talk about the nature and character of a sacred community. In its daily acts of goodness, that community becomes a holy order.

But most of all, the talk was about the power of prayer. In the end, she advised people that when they met someone who was suffering from an illness or a loss, do not ask how they are feeling let alone what they are thinking and experiencing. Simply say, “We are praying for you.” For Rabbi Splansky believes not only in prayers, but in the power of prayers. In my head, I responded: how could I ever say such a thing when I share no such conviction about the power of prayer?

Her message did not mean she is or ever was either a mystic or a Jewish version of a Holy Roller. Because faith for her was not about belief that was and is indubitable. Rather, faith occupies the no-man’s land between what is known and what is mysterious. For God is the knower of secrets. In this narrow piece of terra firma, Rabbi Splansky not only experienced God through her body, through its white cells and the tendrils of her nervous system. She not only experienced the wonder and mystery of God’s world. She conveyed that experience to us. She communicated that this had been an authentic and real experience. She – broken shard that she is, a piece of withering grass, a wilted flower – was attached at the hip nevertheless to God, determined to offer herself in a life of meaning and purpose.

As such, she was determined to do all she could to protect herself so she could continue to be of service to her family and community, determined to move on but also upward like a bird on a mission. For the first time, I had heard a rabbi who believed, and I believed that she believed, a rabbi full of trust in God’s spirit convinced that God’s love would never leave her, a God who gave strength to her body as well as her soul, but more than that, a rabbi who convinced me that she truly believed.

I write this, not because I share Yael’s experience or her conception of God. For I participate in worship full of criticism and scepticism. My God does not sustain me. I spend my time arguing with God. Not just arguing, but determined to set Him straight.  God follows us. God shadows us. Contrary to the very text I read in synagogue, I am convinced we do not live in God’s shadow.

This is not the time and place to write about the God of my experience, only to say that I was not convinced by Rabbi Splansky’s performance because she confirmed my experience of God. I sat in awe of Rabbi Splansky’s talk because it was nothing I had ever experienced in myself or in any other. I not only had never trusted a person of faith because they believed. I just never ceased to doubt whether they were really believers. This is not, of course, to say that they were not believers, men and women who expressed a life of faith. But I had never glimpsed that faith. In people like Sister Mary Jo Leddy, I was convinced that it was there. But I had never touched it, never really sensed that faith. It is probably my obtuseness, my stubborn conviction that God exists only to have a partner in one’s struggle and fight for meaning. But that meaning comes to me, not as a gift, but as a residue of the battle.

On Rosh Hashanah, I met a woman who not only had faith, but could communicate that faith to me even as I lacked it.

Tomorrow: Yom Kippur.