Sunday, September 28, 2014

Holiday Dreaming

        It is Erev Rosh Hashana.  The Jewish High Holy Days begin tonight at sundown.   For nearly a month now, since August 27, the 1st of the Jewish month of Elul, Jews (and not a few non-Jews like me) have been anticipating  “the holidays”.

Elul is called chodesh hacheshbon, “a month of accounting”. It is a time of taking stock of the previous year, repairing relationships, examining mistakes in order not to repeat them.  The month is also a time of preparation.  The two themes – accounting and preparation  - interweave.  How we account for the past is related to how we prepare for the future.

It’s a strenuous time.  Soul examination is something I would prefer to avoid.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reminds me that evading responsibility for our mistakes is a thing we humans do.  Still, wiser voices than mine remind me that going through the process of identifying mistakes, apologizing for them, moving forward with the intention of not repeating them again, are all part of the process of both creating and moving into a future more whole than the past has been.  I am glad I have many companions on the way.

As the 24 hour news cycle constantly peppers consciousness with the violence we humans are capable of inflicting on one another, it is tempting to wonder what difference does it make whether or not I try to make amends with others, whether or not I ask for forgiveness, whether or not I offer forgiveness when it is sought from me?  Searching and examining the dark shadows is exhausting - -a little like being in a dark cave and the flashlight batteries are giving out.  But the ever present news points to the necessity for this process of accounting and preparation - - and puts a glaring spotlight on what happens when humankind is unwilling to do the necessary work of seeking out and owning responsibility for the actions and attitudes that have brought us to where we are. What kind of miracle would it be if we created a moratorium on all violence for a month?  If as a species we agreed to do the accounting?  To face into our responsibility? To own all that we have contributed to the estrangement that results in so much of the horror that assaults us in the morning news?  What would we be like if we recognized that we have the ability to stop hurting one another, to refuse to make the same mistakes again?  What if we could take into a new year the intention to reconcile, to let go of hatred, to heal the wounds of the past.  What if we could summon a corporate will to create a more intentional and merciful future for ourselves as a species.

              A little nagging voice says “Dream on, fool!”   

        But I am not willing to give up the vision.   The traditions of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur  have carried the vision for untold generations – a vision of a humanity with swords beaten into ploughshares, a vision of justice, of love and mercy, of walking humbly with the Source of Life, a vision of accountability for the past, and of hope and forgiveness and reconciliation for the future.

If this is a foolish dream, then I will, indeed, dream on.

Vicky Hanjian

 60 Days –A Spiritual Guide to The High Holidays  by Simon Jacobson  Kiyum Press, NY.  p. 12.  

Sunday, September 21, 2014


It all started, as it often  does, with that book shelf just to the right as you walk in the public library.There always seems to be a good read there that I just can't put down. This time it was Mother of God by Paul Rosolie. That's the English title. It should be in Spanish, Madre de Dios, because it's a high adventure story about the Amazon.

It's not only high adventure, with the author riding on the back of enormous anacondas and sleeping in a hammock with a jaguar breathing on his neck. But at heart it's a summons to save one of the few remaining wilderness areas on the planet. Paul travels into some interior regions of Amazonia where it is unlikely any but isolated indigenous tribes have ever been. He sees and begins to understand the way everything works together for the sustaining of an immensely diverse ecosystem. 

Bill McKibben, an amazing naturalist himself and founder of says about the book, "A great adventure with a great and enduring point: we simply must protect these last, vast slices of the planet that still work the way they're supposed to."

As someone who actually believes in a higher power that set this whole creation in motion, there's no escaping the amazing diversity of life forms on the earth and the tenuous yet marvelous way it all relates and interacts. Even the smallest of organisms plays a role and can impact the largest ones, should it disappear or go on a tear. This is especially the case in the region of the Amazon Paul writes about, as man's smell and relentless quest for more has not yet upset the interrelationships. The delicate balance is still intact.

E.O. Wilson, a renowned naturalist, would like to set aside half of the earth's land mass for wildlife. He sees it as essential, a last ditch effort to prevent mass extinctions. Hundreds of species go extinct each year, primarily because of habitat loss and climate change. At present, about seventeen per cent of the world's land area is set aside for wildlife. Wilson wants fifty percent.

There are some who have taken Wilson's ideas to heart. M.C. Davis is a commodities trader who heard a talk on the disappearing black bear from the forests of Florida. He ended up giving the speakers enough money to continue their work for two years and started an educational program for himself that included understanding the longleaf pine forests of Florida, forests that once stretched all the way from Virginia to East Texas. That 90 million acre forest has been reduced to about 3 million acres. No forest, no black bear, or gopher tortoise, or ??? (Southeast longleaf forest is a biological gold mine with as many as 60 different species in a single square yard).

Davis then set out buying land for a nature reserve, 51,000 acres at this point. Davis has cleared thousands of acres of pulpwood pines (more profitable for harvesting than longleaf pines but not home to black bears) and planted millions of longleaf seedlings.

When asked about the construction zone quality of much of the acreage, Davis replied, "I tell people we're in year 13 of a 300 year program. I could easily make 1,000 acres look beautiful but the extinction clock's ticking, so I decided to take on the bigger challenge."

Irony of ironies, Davis made the money he is spending lavishly on environmental restoration, as a commodities trader in timber and oil and gas rights, leading industries for habitat destruction and climate change. Would that more such wealth would be invested in restoration.

Closer to home, we have milkweed growing in our backyard garden. It's essential for the life cycle of the monarch butterfly. This year some of those stalks were home to the monarch chrysalis. Monarchs are now fluttering around the neighborhood gathering enough flower power to help them make that long journey to Mexico.

Our garden is a monarch way station. Development (I call much of it de-development) in this country consumes monarch and other wildlife habitat at 6,000 acres per day. Pesticides and genetically modified crops have reduced monarch habitat by another 80 million acres according to Monarch Watch. And the mowing and use of herbicides in roadside ditches has further eroded the growth of milkweed. No milkweed, no monarch butterflies!

The reality is, we're doing ourselves in. In our arrogance and greed and our pervasive mantra of "economic development and growth," we're destroying the very balance that makes life on earth possible.

Gandhi said. "What  we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another."

And John Muir. "Thousands of tired, nerve shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity …"

Loren Eiseley tells us that religious thought back to it's very origins, has always seen wilderness, away from other humans, as the place for visionaries and insight. For an age with few we might recognize as insightful, wilderness becomes essential.

Carl Kline

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Way to Prophetstown

I am fascinated by the highway sign, rather non-descript, green with white letters, as familiar in appearance as all those other markers of place and distance that we see along the way of our automotive journeys. This one is for Illinois Route 73, Exit 33. One of our synagogue members knew I would be fascinated by it so she stopped and photographed it as she drove cross-country this summer. It is the announced destination, coming up in just half a mile, that intrigues me, a place called “Prophetstown.”

Would that such a place was so close, I thought, just a slight turn off the highway. As I looked at the photograph, I wondered from where and why such a name came to be. I mused about who it was that might have been the prophet for whom the town was named. Or were all the founders and early citizens of the town of such noble quality, touched by something in the air, perhaps; moved so deeply by human experience, by a sense of God’s love within themselves, that the name refers to all of them? Whether one or many came to be regarded by others as a prophet, it gives beautiful challenge to a sobering rabbinic maxim: lo navi b’iro/one is not a prophet in their own town! If the name refers to all who lived there at the time of the town’s founding and naming, then it affirms the gracious hope of Moses, Would that the entire people of God were prophets (Numb. 11:29). 

The photograph of the road sign pointing the way to Prophetstown came to me this week, the week of the Torah portion Shoftim (Deut. 16:18-21-9). Parashat Shoftim concerns civil administration and the pursuit of justice, that both should go together. In this portion is the exhortation, tzedek, tzedek tirdof/justice, justice shall you pursue. The ways of government and the pursuit of justice are meant to be as one strand for the sake of the commonweal. Too often at odds, the two become so easily frayed, the thread of social justice as a dropped stitch upon the floor. So enters the prophet, to remind of what is meant to be, ready to speak truth to power. In this portion that speaks to matters of social and civil administration, therefore, God tells the people, I will raise up for them a prophet. The way of the prophet is given, not as one who will tell the future, not in the way of the soothsayers and diviners we have just been told to shun, but as one who will remind the people of God’s path, the way to Prophetstown.

As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches, the prophet is one who feels God’s pain for human suffering. God’s pain is the pain of human beings, pain that is felt in the bodies and souls of God’s children. As a parent feels the pain of their children, so God feels our pain, and the prophet cries out with God’s anguish. In his own prophetic voice, Rabbi Heschel speaks of the prophet as one who is “thrown into orations about widows and orphans, about the corruption of judges and affairs of the market place. Instead of showing us a way through the elegant mansions of the mind, the prophets take us to the slums…. Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profaned riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the prophet’s words…” (The Prophets, pp. 3-5).

With Rabbi Heschel’s teaching, it becomes clear why the nature and role of the prophet is presented in Parashat Shoftim, the portion of Judges, judges and officers shall you appoint for yourself in all your gates. The prophet is needed to speak truth to power, to challenge those very judges and officers when they forget God’s call for justice and fairness and no longer see the needs of the people, becoming deaf to their cry. The prophet is needed to remind society and its leaders of when we have lost the way and to call us back. As in a town where all are prophets, justice depends on all of us. The way to Prophetstown is in the end not on a map or in big letters upon a road sign, but in the way that we feel and respond to God’s pain for human suffering as our own. The way to Prophetstown becomes clear, tzedek, tzedek tirdof/justice, justice shall you pursue

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Nonviolence as a Way of Life

“Be kind because everyone you meet is carrying a great burden.”  Philo

Aligning one’s thoughts, words and actions with an ethic of non-harming is a life long process. 

It is motivated by the desire to alleviate pain and suffering, one’s own and others, and an ongoing awareness of the countless ways we participate, both individually and collectively, in causing harm. 

The web of relationships in which each of us finds ourselves is the place this harm occurs, ranging from a simple act of unkind speech, to often deeply ingrained biased and prejudicial attitudes, to complex lifestyle choices (though, for many, there may be few, if any, choices) related to food, clothing, shelter, education, health, leisure, employment, governance, transportation, money/investments, etc.

Awareness of the harm we cause directly and indirectly can be heartbreaking and overwhelming and discouraging and numbing. It can lead to resignation, paralysis, and cynicism, and is often resisted. 

Yet, it is precisely this awareness that lights up the many places where we can make choices that lead to less and less harm, while at the same time planting the seeds for and/or strengthening less harmful habits. 

Here are a few examples.  Acknowledging feelings of anger and speaking kindly and firmly is possible, and requires practice. Feeling afraid and making a sincere effort to understand and get to know those who are different is possible, and requires practice. Choosing to get from home to work on a bicycle or by bus instead of driving one’s own vehicle is possible. Shifting one’s investments away from corporations that exploit their employees and the environment and avoid paying their share of taxes, to one’s that do not, is possible. 

Entering into this process more and more completely requires courage, commitment, patience and, especially, a light and wise touch so that efforts to bring about justice and peace don’t themselves cause harm in the short term and sew the seeds of injustice and violence for the future, e.g., waging war to bring about peace.

Support from others who are also committed to the path of a less violent way of  living and being can be very helpful.  Check out the livingnonviolence links for other groups and organizations that might be useful in your experiment.

Chris Klug
Guest Blogger

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Notion of Civilian

It’s time to let go of the view that some work for the military and others do not. In this heavily militarized society, we are all military. There are no civilians.
Understandably, most of us are not eager to part with this distinction. Those who regard themselves as military embrace the military-civilian divide because it serves the narrative of distinction: those in the military are set apart from civilians for greater work and greater risk. The military-civilian divide also builds camaraderie among warriors: the rank system, the restricted areas, the secrecy, the protocols, all serve to create a culture apart.
Those who regard themselves as civilian embrace the divide because it provides comfortable distance from the uneasy work of militarism. Coercion and harm are the defining responsibilities of this system, and most folks find such business unpalatable. (Of course, the military takes on other work from time to time, such as construction projects, refugee assistance, and disaster relief. But the essential work of the military is to exercise coercion and harm to serve our interests. Take away the construction projects, and the military continues. Take away disaster relief, and the military continues. But take away the business of coercion and harm, and there is no military.) The military-civilian divide provides civilians with a buffer to separate one’s conscience from one’s support for distasteful activity.
Even within the military, there is a civilian-like divide. Very few military personnel ultimately engage in the specific actions of coercing or harming others. Most personnel can claim to be behind the scenes, providing administrative, technical, or logistical support. In other words, most military personnel can effectively feel like civilians when they want to. If they are ambivalent about the business of coercion and harm, they can find relief in simply being an office worker, a medic, a researcher, a mechanic, and the like.
While the notion of civilian provides many of us with solace, it is an illusion. We might not be on the military payroll, and we might not wield arms or threats on the front lines of conflict, but we are all vital players in maintaining the military ecosystem. The front line warriors are able to function only because the rest of us do our part.
Taxpayers offer the ultimate support, agreeing to provide all the necessary resources to ensure that we can wield effective force when it serves our interests. Legislators direct this wealth into the vast economy of military contractors, subcontractors, and ancillary businesses. Civic leaders readily equate patriotism with militarism. And citizens offer unflagging devotion to the entire enterprise, reliably electing legislators to maintain and expand this system. Even in our daily lives, we see clergy linking the obligations of faith to support for the military, we see educators promoting military life as a way to fulfill civic duty, we see academics devoting their intellect to developing weapon systems, entertainers rallying support for the latest military operation, toymakers selling combat as play, and so on.
In short, civilian is indistinguishable from military. Civilians are essential and full-fledged participants in the business of militarism. If civilians failed to do their part, militarism would unravel quickly: resources would dry up, morale would drop, logistics would falter, and missions would cease.

The notion of civilian is a notion of separateness. If we have any desire to move toward a demilitarized society, we will need to abandon this notion. In other words, we will need to acknowledge the uncomfortable fact that we all directly and substantially support militarism by the choices we make in our daily lives. As we pay more attention to the extent of this connectedness, more options become apparent for how to demilitarize. The business of coercion and harm will not subside until we reduce our cooperation. In the meantime, we are all military.

Clark Hanjian
Guest Blogger