Jewish Values in the Face of Ecological and Humanitarian Crisis
Who Stole My Religion is an inspirational and prophetic book that explores the deep issues that are facing us today: how to heal the ecological world and save the soul of humanity.
The essential question Richard Schwartz is asking is, “Why has my Orthodox Jewish community moved away from following the deep God-centered and, consequently, moral and ethical way of life in which humanistic ideals and actions are an essential out-flowing of a God-centered way of life?” Why have they moved, as he suggests, toward a more self-centered, egocentric, ethnocentric way of life that they then dare consider as Jewish?
These are deep and powerful questions for the Jewish community to reflect on. Part of the answer, as he indirectly suggests, is that we have begun to confuse and misidentify ethnicity for a Torah-based moral, ethical, and spiritual way of life. Adding to this less-than-heartfelt shift has been the dominance of the Ashkenazic rabbinical focus, in which intellectual scholarship is heavily weighted over the holy, heartfelt piety of the Sephardic. This too has contributed to the shift from God to a mind-centered approach. Once one puts faith in mind over God, one may be easily influenced by the dark and banal forces of general societal pressures. As the Talmud puts it: “One who says: ‘I have nothing but Torah’ does not even have Torah!” (Talmud Bav’li, Yevamot 109b).
Unfortunately, many Jews, because they have also lost touch with the spirit, tend to rely on their leaders, who have lost touch with the Spirit of God that ensouls the Word of God, and therefore are unable to guide by the power of their faith and God-connection. In the process, God-centered ethics and morality become relative and lost along the way. A God-centered morality and ethics should not be confused with simplistic fundamentalism, which often arises from a lack of God-communion.
Schwartz reaches back into the essence of our tradition as exemplified by Abraham, the first Hebrew, who established through his own visionary shamanic way the teaching that Jews should not conform to society’s unhealthy values when they disconnect us from the Divine, as was the case with Nimrod, the first attempt at a one-world dictatorship (and whom Abraham confronted for this reason), and who his grandson subsequently killed in battle.
There are inherent Torah values that are meant to guide us to a higher level of understanding and toward a spiritually evolving way of life. The prophets have emphasized these values throughout time. It is in this sense that Richard Schwartz’s book is prophetic. In that tradition Isaiah 58:1-6 says: “Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet…. Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen?—that is, to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke of tyranny?”
Here, tyranny refers to anything that undermines our sovereignty and freedom to pursue health, happiness, wholesome ecology, and ultimately our relationship with God. Sovereignty is a fundamental Torah principle that affirms everyone is a unique expression of God and that this expression, aligned with Torah teachings, needs to be respected and supported.
Jewish Teachings on Food, Ecology, and Life
In the structure of this book, Schwartz has done a comprehensive job of highlighting the essential Jewish moral and ethical teachings around the questions of food choices, ecology, and human life. These teachings, which are always good to review, include:
1) The uniqueness and sanctity of each person as an expression of the Divine created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27). Following the path of this understanding has great value in itself that supports deveikut (God-merging) and chey’rut (enlightenment through liberation).
2) In Exodus 23:9, and additionally 35 other times in the Torah, it is said, “Don’t oppress the stranger.” In this we understand the principle of emphatic justice in connecting with the stranger.
3) The idea of freedom on all levels for ourselves and for others (Leviticus 25:10).
4) The individual and collective importance of clothing the poor and feeding the hungry (Deuteronomy 10:18-19 and 15:7-8).
5) Leviticus 19:11 and 14-16 say: “Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not deceive one another…. Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the Lord. Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly. Do not go about spreading slander among your people. Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the Lord.”
6) Judaism teaches that we should do all we can to create a better society: “You shall eradicate evil from your midst” (Deuteronomy 13:6, 17:7, 21:21, 24:7). This exhorts us to actively resist injustice and evil. Evil is paradoxically a way to inspire us to deepen our character and to evolve spiritually. “Justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20). It is fundamental to the ways of Judaism. “Learn to do well…. Seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow….The city of righteousness, a faithful city, Zion, shall be redeemed with judgment, and those that return to her with righteousness” (Isaiah 1:17 and 27). Isaiah 5:16 says, “But the Lord of hosts shall be exalted in the judgment, and God that is holy shall be sanctified in righteousness.” In summarizing the fundamental humanistic and spiritual principles in general, the basic teachings are about justice (Deut. 16:20), peace (Ps. 34:15; Talmud Bav’li, Gittin 59b), kindness (Prov. 11:25), love (Lev. 19:18), sustainability (Deut. 20:19-20), and inspiration (Isaiah 42:6).
7) Judaism proclaims a God that is the creator of all life, with attributes of kindness, mercy, compassion, and justice (Exodus 34:6; Deuteronomy 4:31; Psalms 86:15; Lamentations 3:22; Micah 7:18).
8) Every person is created in God’s image and therefore has innate value and is entitled to be treated with respect (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5).
9) We are co-creators with God in preserving and improving the world (Genesis 2:15).
10) Judaism teaches that nothing of value may be wasted (Deuteronomy 20:19).
11) Judaism mandates that we seek and pursue peace, justice, and a society in which each person through creative labor may obtain the means to a dignified life. It teaches us to find the subtle balance between individual sovereignty and national sovereignty, with the balance tilting toward individual sovereignty (Numbers 9:6-12; 27:1-8; Deuteronomy 20:5-8).
12) Judaism teaches that God’s compassion is over all his works (Psalms 145:9), and that the righteous individual considers the wellbeing of animals (Proverbs 12:10).
13) Judaism stresses resistance to oppression and injustice (Exodus 23:2) and the constant struggle against idolatry (Exodus 20:3-4).
14) Judaism focuses on the preservation of our natural environment and the improvement of social and economic systems of the whole planet (Leviticus 19:9-10; 25:3-6 and 10-13).
15) Jews are exhorted to be God’s loyal opposition to injustice, greed, immorality, and to rouse the consciousness of humanity (Talmud Bav’li, Shabbat 133b).
Vegetarianism as a Dietary Expression of the Torah
Richard Schwartz is also a major leader in discussing the importance of following a plant-based diet as the best dietary expression of the Torah, as it teaches in Genesis 1:29. While an animal flesh based diet is allowed (Genesis 9:3), it is not fundamentally aligned with the great Torah way. This is because, as he points out, the results of plant-based diets are much more aligned with the basic Torah values of morality and ethics as expressed in the following plant-source-only Torah teachings:
1) Protection of human health (tikkun ha-nefesh), preserving our bodies and health (sh’mirat haguf), and protection of life and the soul (v’nishmartem m’od l’naf’sho’chey’chem [Deuteronomy 4:15]).
2) Non-cruelty and compassion for animals (tza’ar ba’alei chaim [Deuteronomy 22:4 and 10;Talmud Bav’li, Baba Metzia 32b and Midrash Devarim Rabbah 6:1]).
3) “The earth belongs to God” (Exodus 19:5 and Psalms 24:1). We are therefore to partner with God to preserve and uplift the world (tikkun ha’ olam).
4) Preserve and protect the ecology (bal tash’chit). Do not waste anything unnecessarily. Clearly the consumption of animal-source protein is built on a seriously thoughtless and irresponsible wastefulness of resources. A meat-centered diet is as much as 10-22 times more wasteful of the resources of water, air, earth, and energy as compared to plant-source-only nutrition.
5) Provide for the poor and feed the hungry (tzedakah). If the whole world were plant-based, we’d be able to feed the entire world population seven times over and nourish the estimated 20-60 million people who starve to death each year.
6) To seek and pursue peace (shalom). Taking in of animal food agitates the mind because we take in pain, cruelty, and misery into us. It affects our consciousness and our minds. Diets high in animal protein are also a hording of resources, which may activate social unrest, violence, and ultimately war.
7) Protection and preservation of the community (k’lal yisra’el).
8) Thou shalt not murder (Leviticus 17:3-4).
9) Thou shalt not steal (i.e. life, fur, milk, skin, and flesh).
10) Holiness and enlightenment (kedusha [especially in eating, which is the essence of kosher] and deveikut/chey’rut).
In this whole picture we have a clear delineation of the issues, with a clear statement that the Ten Speakings (Commandments) can guide us to live a righteous life and create the self-reliance and character development that allow us to evolve spiritually. The Torah makes a point that freedom must be earned (except for that one time in Egypt we call the Exodus).
No One Can Steal Our Religion
This book subtly points out an obvious ethical and moral corruption amongst the Orthodox (and perhaps all denominations and religions), in their expansion into the secular humanistic world in ways that appear to be obvious but, paradoxically, don’t appear to be obvious. For example, one deliberately confusing opinion piece taken from the Jerusalem Report says, “We’ve always been a people of the book, the question is which book, and how do you know when to turn the page, end the chapter, or read on…. Just how should a good Jew adhere to laws that may not appear relevant or humane?” This is the interesting psycho-spiritual problem that Who Stole My Religion addresses. In order to address the question raised by the Jerusalem Report, at least two ideas need to be appreciated:
1) You cannot lose what you never had.
2) You cannot attain what you already are.
No one can steal our religion. Poor leadership can confuse people, but people can only be confused to the extent that they are out of touch with the deeper realities of the Divine experience (ruach ha-kodesh) and Torah teachings. A shift away from Torah-based morality and ethics creates a relative humanism that may look good externally, but internally can be very misleading. As the ancient rabbis taught us, a pig looks kosher on the outside (it has cloven hooves), but on the inside, it is treif (non-kosher, because it does not chew its cud) (Midrash Bereisheet Rabbah 65:1).
What is the problem in the world that people are going around “stealing our religion”? This is happening in all the traditions. Idol worship, murder, adultery, greed, slander, and stealing are rising in most religious communities and are somehow being justified. Where have people lost their way? Keeping in mind that we cannot lose what we never had, I’d like to return to the provocative question of Who Stole My Religion? If our religion cannot be stolen, what is wrong? Why is it that people are choosing not to follow the morals and ethics that are reasonably laid out in the Torah? It is well beyond one’s political views, which can be misleading as a direction for an answer.
A Kabbalistic Perspective on Electoral Politics
This brings us to the one weakness in this book, which is not honoring the legitimate differences between Republicans and Democrats. From the kabbalistic perspective, the healthy liberal orientation of the Democrats reflects the unconscious and wonderful power of chesed moving into conscious understanding and action. The restraining, limiting, and intellectually discriminating unconscious aspect of gevurah may rise into conservative consciousness through the way of healthy Republicanism. People are not necessarily voting Republican for selfish reasons, but because of unconscious gevurah concerns over the perennial dangers of liberal (chesed without boundaries) humanitarianism.
The potential danger of a liberal humanitarianism is that it can become linked with short-term, “good” humanitarian goals. For example, Hitler’s National German Workers Party, Maoism, and Stalinism were easily turned by the Dark Side into the justification of the State to kill millions for the sake of the “greater humanitarian good.” Along with these humanitarian-sounding agendas comes the complete sacrifice of individual sovereignty to the one hundred percent sovereignty of the state. The healthy play of chesed and gevurah to create tiferet (the healthy compassionate balance of both), creates a space for a legitimate integrated role for either.
Unfortunately, what is happening today is nowhere near this, as both Democrats and Republicans have become corrupted. There may not be much real difference between the parties as illustrated just recently by the passing of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which the president strongly advocated and Democrats and Republicans voted to approve. The NDAA basically did away with the Fifth Amendment and the concept of Habeas Corpus, which has been with us since the signing of the Magna Carta. NDAA gives the government the authority to designate American citizens as terrorists and indefinitely detain them without recourse to court or due process of law and without a specific charge. Since both Democrats and Republicans voted for this, how fundamentally different could they be?
While it is clear that the Democrats have a very strong environmental protection ethic, as compared with the Republicans, our overall fundamental rights are being voted away by the current Democratic and Republican parties in a way that makes it hard to tell the difference between the two. I do not know that many Republicans, but as a general principle there exist today an ever- increasing number of spiritual people who are no longer willing to vote as a result of these serious questions. These people deserve to be honored for their sincerity. I call this the “menorah principle,” which states that while the menorah has seven branches, all of them need to be carved out of the same singular mass of gold. The idea is that each branch represents a unique sharing of the Divine All. It is our obligation to become that unique expression of the Divine, and to preserve and honor this sovereignty as a support system for being that expression of the Divine.
Returning to the Source of Our Ethics
Torah values, as Richard Schwartz teaches, are consistent and basically uncomplicated, no matter the specific charges of relativism as implied by a recent Jerusalem Report editorial. The comments in that editorial were secular humanistic attempts to make the Torah teachings so relative that any position may be taken, rendering the Torah teachings “relatively” meaningless. The Ten Speakings are eternally relevant. People only believe they are irrelevant because they are not experiencing the divine source behind the Ten Speakings, and it egocentrically serves them to take that “relativistic humanitarian” position. This is the bottom line of this book. If you are not connecting to the Divine through your prayer and meditation (also part of the Jewish way exemplified by Yitzchak meditating in the fields [Genesis 24:63]), you are unable to access the eternal truth from which the Ten Speakings emanate. When we are able to access them, then we begin to experience non-causal love, joy (simchah), peace, compassion, and oneness, which is the source of the Divine from which the Ten Speakings emerge and from which the high level of ethics and morality of Judaism has emanated. When we are divorced from that source and do not balance the forces of gevurah and chessed within ourselves, we create polarity and an informed synthesis. Consequently, even the Torah can then become easily distorted by a play of relativity and words, and values and teachings become compromised by the “leaders.” It is in this way that “our religion has been stolen” by those in leadership capacities who have distorted it. Not surprisingly, many people who understand this have chosen to leave Orthodox Judaism. But the process of teshuvah (returning to a Torah and God-based morality and ethics) is always there for us to turn to. At the deepest level, as it says in Habakkuk 2:4, “the righteous live by their faith alone,” and will never be confused by misguided, imbalanced, disconnected, emotionally based (rather than Torah-based) leadership.
One of the big questions that Who Stole My Religion points to is, “How do we return to the ways of God that bring us to the direct apperception of the eternal truth which is the foundation of Torah ethics?” If we do not have that connection, then morality and ethics become a rational, relative humanitarian discussion. This relativity ultimately has given rise to the “morally justified” genocides of Hitler’s Germany, Darfur, Armenia, Rwanda, Mao’s China, and Stalin’s Soviet Union, etc. As a prelude to these atrocities, people have lost touch with the truth of our oneness.
“Halachah without compassion,” taught the ancient sages of Israel, “is like a man coming to buy a pint of wine. Says the wine seller: ‘Give me your flask’ and he gives him a cloth pouch. Or like a man coming to buy oil. Says the oils seller: ‘Give me your jar’ and he gives him a corner of his cloak” (Talmud Bav’li, Avot D’Rebbe Natan  32:8).
This book, therefore, raises the subtle prophetic clarion call of how important it is to return to the source of our ethics and morality. It is the eternal truth emanating from the source beyond time and space that brings health and wellness into our society. I agree with Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Shalom Center, who eloquently stated, “No one has been more creative, committed, or consistent than Richard Schwartz in arguing for a Judaism that can address in all its depth the world crisis that all of humanity and all life forms face today.” I honor Schwartz for raising these questions for Judaism and the world’s other great religions, and for helping the world to awaken to and reconnect to the Divine so that we may naturally be the expression of love that the Ten Speakings and the rest of the Torah teaches.