Inside Out

In the past, those figures who most represented the Jewish people’s universalistic thrust, such as the Pauline Jesus and Marx, soundly rejected Jewish specificity. But today, it is just that stubborn refusal to relinquish the layers of our communal, historical, and spiritual experience that can become the route through which to connect our experience with that of groups all over the world.

Trying to describe a direct encounter of the divine, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato compares the experience to the feeling of “being turned inside out.” I understand the RaMCHaL to mean that what is touched and confirmed by the absolute in the course of the mystical encounter is exactly what we thought was subjective and incommunicable, the wellspring of our person-hood and of our inner feelings and hopes. Our inside becomes our opening to the greatest beyond. The deepest layer, so it turns out, that which is most personal and seemingly most protected, is also the vessel through which the transcendent universal can appear.


As a people, we are always protecting our inside. Challenged by assimilation, we put up walls to protect us. We withdraw inward. We think of strategies and schemes to alleviate the encroachment of the universal, which is nibbling away at our unprotected margins. We look for ways to draw those of us whose Jewish identity is vulnerable into the inner circle. We wish to strengthen, to defend. To keep people close to the fire of the innermost, to the untranslatable experience of Jewish-ness.

And yet perhaps what we need is something else as well. Perhaps we need to encounter reality so deeply, so decisively, that we experience ourselves turning inside out. And in this turning inside out, we may well receive a gift more precious than survival. We may receive clarity of purpose—the knowledge of why we should survive. Everything else, I believe, will follow from that clarity.

..........

Jews and Judaism have traveled through the age of reason and nationalism in the West as something of a throwback, a primitive kind of beast with an archaic structure long abandoned by other Western groups. For most of human history, spiritual knowledge was passed down, like genetic characteristics, as part of a tribal or communal identity. To be part of a people meant being part of its spiritual tradition. But people-hood and spiritual tradition have been severed from each other, first through the spread of Christianity and Islam, and then through the advent of the modern nation-state. Judaism has kept on insisting on its tribal scheme, it’s refusal to draw a sharp line separating ideology and biology, spirit and flesh.


And yet Judaism, whose one God rules over all of humanity, is also quintessentially universalistic. The Torah opens with the idea of a single couple from which all of humanity descends, and reaches its apex in the prophetic description of a world united in the knowledge of God. And whereas other tribes—Native American, Australian Aborigine—have either been slaughtered, assimilated by force, or have retreated onto “reservations”, the Jewish fate—or is it some kind of instinct?--is to have gone on living right in the center of Christian, Islamic, Communist and Capitalist power. The twists and turns of history—but perhaps also our own predilection—turned us into bystanders while religions and ideologies which sprang from our loins attempted, often disastrously, to realize the universal aspect of our teaching which we had put aside until the Messiah’s arrival.


I was once rebuked by a Black Muslim in the United States in a way that remains etched upon my memory: “You Jews,” he said, in a deep bass voice, bitter with recrimination: “You know there is one God. But you keep it to yourself.” Another time, a Jamaican taxi driver volunteered this thought about the Jews, with admiration and a hidden sting: “You’ve beaten the white man at his own game, you have.” Isn’t it high time that we stop playing the white man’s game, or any other game? The hour has come to say what we have to say to the world. This means clarifying the nature of the relationship between our tribal identity and our universal teaching—first and foremost, to ourselves. Are we a people in service of a vision or a vision in service of a people? And is this vision meant for ourselves or for all of mankind. Like Esther in the court of Ahasverus, it is time for us to speak our piece, for if not, relief and salvation will come to humanity from another place, and we and our father’s house will be lost.

.............

I apologize for the dramatics. Doubtless every generation feels that the moment they are living in is crucial, a turning point. But let us, at least, make the case for the uniqueness of our times. For the first time in history—or at least since the Tower of Babel—virtually all of humanity is in the process of becoming interconnected. News and information travels to every part of the globe instantly, unimpeded, through satellite and internet: images, words, sounds, documents. Historical developments, such as the accelerating rate at which we are evolving into a single economy and culture, seems like old news, a tired cliche, even before we have fully absorbed their implications.


We all are now aware that whatever is alive on earth is part of a single, fragile environment—that the most basic resources of the planet—air, water, plant and animal life—are limited and vulnerable. And that the mad rush towards economic growth threatens the balance which allows us to all to live. We know that, in the guise of economic progress, the world’s wealth is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, while a new class of slaves is manning the Third World factories where most of the goods we consume are manufactured. We take for granted the extent to which all the markets in the world have been united into one global economy, although certain oddities can still shock. Like the fact that most of the knit kippot of the kind that teenage Bnai Akiva girls once crocheted for their brothers and boyfriends are now machine woven in China. But the big things—like the end of local banking, as multinational financial consortiums, backed by new international treaties, buy out the banks in country after country—merely confirm our numbness, pass as if unnoticed before our already glazed, unblinking eyes.


Each place has a flavor of distinctness still, to be sure. And conflicts based on religious and ethnic difference rage on in many corners of a brutal world. But the buzz of the global mass culture and economy is strong and growing stronger. Our fates are becoming interwoven and many things are at stake. Humanity has reached another infancy, and we don’t know if it a monster or an angel in this baby’s genetic code. Like an embryo or a sapling, it is particularly sensitive to influence, can still develop in diverse ways. What shape will the global culture take? What will be its ethical norms? What kind of face will humanity have in the near and farther future?


Half a century ago, communism represented hope for half the world. Thirty years ago, many people still believed that science and technology could solve all human problems. A decade ago, after the collapse of the communist bloc, many believed that capitalism would accomplish the same. But now, the slate has been wiped clean. No ideology reigns supreme. And yet it is a moment of great, perhaps unprecedented significance. A time in which mankind will either progress, in a great evolutionary leap, to consolidate our ethical insight with our technological prowess in order to create a better world, or will fall tumbling into an abyss of ecological, economic and political disaster.


That is why it is time for the People of Israel to release the vision they have been carrying, cupping close to their chest like a dove. What do we want to say to the world while there is still some chance of being heard?

.....

You may think that I am preaching a form of national altruism. You can relax. When I say that Jews should start thinking about saving mankind instead of just ourselves, you can also think about it as a strategy for Jewish survival in disguise. For to the extent that we can contribute something real to the world at this crucial moment, to that extent will we survive as a living people. If we have nothing to say, as the shape of our lives and of the human future are being determined, if we have no real voice or content which can resonate in human ears, no seed to release into the womb of mankind’s expectations, then who are we? What is it that will make our grandchildren Jewish? Their Made-in-China yarmkullas?


I moved to Israel so that I would not have to live with a dual identity: a Jewish identity that was private, familial and ethnic-communal, and a “general” human identity that was public, human, part of the majority culture. In that sense, I identify strongly with the assimilating Jew. Like me, he or she does not want to live with a double identity, Jewish and human. He experiences the duality as restrictive, as blocking his spiritual advancement, as impeding his connection with other human beings and his ability to contribute to the shape which humanity will take.


But what if mankind was, overtly, the central concern of Judaism? What if shaping the human future was what we were about? Wouldn’t the feeling of smallness that causes people to discard their Jewish identity be ameliorated? What if a person’s Jewish-ness became a gateway through which to conceive of the universal, of the human? A way to participate in a new discourse on what it should mean to be a human being?


Judaism, both in its sacred tradition and through its experience, has conceptual tools that could make a significant contribution to determining the shape the developing global civilization will take. Firstly, our tradition confirms that creation is good—something not to be taken for granted. Our belief in the possibility of human transformation, despite everything that we have suffered or witnessed, is important testimony for man.


We can also provide a living example of the possibility of reconciliation and even mutual reinforcement of tribal identity and a universal human conception. As an ancient tribal entity that brought the world the notion of a transcendent, universal God, we represent the possibility that minority cultures can play enduring roles in a universal human narrative. The ancientness of Israel is a symbol for the ancient roots of culture, for the idea that the old need not be sacrificed on the altar of the new. The world is desperately seeking political formulas that will move us beyond the rigid borders of the nation state so that our political culture can reflect the new reality that technology and economics have created. At the same time, many of us feel palpable fear that an impersonal and amoral empire fueled is gaining control of our future. Religiously as well, the strict borders isolating each faith behind doctrinal walls need to be made more porous—yet without threatening the integrity and depth of the various religious traditions.


In the past, those figures who most represented the Jewish people’s universalistic thrust, such as the Pauline Jesus and Marx, soundly rejected Jewish specificity. But today, it is just that stubborn refusal to relinquish the layers of our communal, historical, and spiritual experience that can become the route through which to connect our experience with that of groups all over the world.

We need to take this idea one step further by making it conscious, as Rabbi Yakov Lainer, a 19th century Hasidic thinker and scion of the Izhbitz dynasty suggests in his commentary on the Torah called “Bais Yaakov”. Lainer describes three kinds of human societies using a model taken from the Kabbalistic account of the creation of the cosmos. According to the Kabbalah, the Ein Sof’s first attempt to hold some of His light in containers, or sefirot ended in a shattering called “The breaking of the vessels”. Because each vessel was composed of only one quality—Hesed was only Hesed, and Gevurah was only Gevurah—they had no give, and the expansiveness of the light burst them. God then created a new set of containers, “the vessels of tikkun”. Each vessel had a primary identity, but also included the qualities of the others. The Sefirah of Hesed now also contained Gevurah; Gevurah also contained Hesed. Within these vessels, which had accomplished what the Kabbalah calls integration (hitkalellut), the light of the infinite could be contained.


Human society in the period before the flood symbolizes for the Bais Yaakov the pre-tikkun form of consciousness. Each person wants only to be himself, to expand in his desire or his will without taking the other, and the light he has to offer, into account. In terms of cultures, this state would represent a xenophobic society that is unable to integrate the insights or wisdom of another culture into their own structure and behavior, and wishes to expand its power and its borders at the expense of other groups.

The architects of the Tower of Babel-culture that emerged next thought that the integration of all humankind into one society would protect them from the fate of flood generation. But they were mistaken. The problem with their society, the Bais Yaakov says, was that their integration was “unconscious”, meaning that each individual component lost the awareness of his own individuality and uniqueness. What was left was a mass consciousness that was ultimately corrosive to each of its individual members. This would be equivalent, in terms of cultures, to the development of a global mass culture so overwhelming in its presence and demands that it precludes the possibility of each individual culture continuing to live and develop.


What God wants, the Bais Yaakov says, is what he calls conscious integration. Each person, or in terms of our discussion, each culture, must have a secure feeling of its own place, and at the same time be able to “see the light of his friend shining within his own “merchav.” As a model for globalization, the notion of conscious integration would emphasize the positive value of each culture sustaining its own unique identity as a basis for intercultural communication and the sharing of knowledge and resources. The Jewish emphasis on the religious value of our specific ethnic identity needs to be turned inside out. We need to be able to see our own scrappy defense of our unique heritage as a confirmation of the value of the history and culture of the amazing kaleidoscope of human societies which are being drowned in the global mass culture flood.


But cultures can be preserved only if local economies are given the opportunity to survive as well, and in this sense, the notion of conscious integration is a fitting complement to the Jewish concept of social justice. Unlike communism, the Torah, whose utopian ideal is the God bequeathed “nachala” that returns to each family every fifty years, recognizes private property. Unlike capitalism, however, Judaism does not worship economic growth. The market is understood as a tool for serving human beings, not an independent quasi- natural phenomenon that human beings are doomed to serve. Strict rules forbidding interest and setting limits on profit prevent the extensive concentration of capital in the hands of the few. The idea that every human being is created in the image of God thus provides us with an important principal we should try to plant in the field of human meaning. The goal of the global economy should be the distribution of wealth, not its consolidation.


The idea of a universal ethic that leaves space for the specificity of other cultures is already part of the Jewish tradition in the form of the seven commandments of the Children of Noah. The commandments leave a surprisingly large amount of latitude; they demand, for example, that every society develop and maintain a system of justice, but leave the details relatively open. Even more dramatic is the fact that the founding monotheistic faith does not include belief in the One God on its list of universal commandments—only the negation of idolatry. This would seem to imply a broad respect for the varieties of human religious experience, paving the way, for example for a modus vivendi with Buddhism, which considers God-worship itself a form of idolatry.


Right now, human culture is crystallizing around our lowest common denominator. All that is shallow and visceral is guaranteed a place around the global campfire. The question we need to explore is how to unite humanity around the deepest common denominator, where the specific and the universal meet.