Monday, November 17, 2008

The Akeida: Of Sacrifices and Paradigms

For years, the Left has said I'm Right and the Right has said I'm Left. I'm dyslexic to matters of Left and Right," said Israel Beiteinu MK Yisrael Hasson on Thursday, hours after he announced he would join Kadima and run in the faction's upcoming primaries. (The Jerusalem Post 6/11/08)

I don’t remember the first time I started having trouble with the story of the Akeida – when Avraham silently accepts God’s decree to take his one and only son (who he loves) and sacrifice him as a burnt offering. The event and the price paid for it (his wife's death and estrangement from both his son and God) is stranger still when one considers Avraham's previous argument with God over the fate of the city of Sdom.

What I do remember though is actively searching for a commentator arguing that Avraham had failed the test, that instead of agreeing, his job was to refuse; a parshan a la Kant who believed that a commandment which flatly contradicts morality can’t ever be from God, even if it seems that way; Someone who would affirm my intuition that there are certain sacrifices that we should just not have to make…that one’s family comes before all else.

The contrasting stories of Sdom and Akeida are adopted as paradigms for how we should serve God. Those emphasizing Sdom believe that moral autonomy is integral to religious consciousness and call on us to bring our subjective sense of dignity and justice into our relationship with God. Others who see the Akeida as the ultimate reflection of divine worship emphasize self sacrifice – that at its core, religion demands ‘heroic withdrawal’ from what we believe to be good and right in the service of the Divine.

As a modern Jew who values his autonomy and rationality I knew which model I preferred…

Then I read a fantastic article by Israeli educator Shai Zarchi (which I blogged about last year) on the comparisons between Avraham and the founders of the State who all made sacrifices for an ideal they believed in. I came across a beautiful Dvar Torah suggesting that however uncomfortable we may feel with Avraham, many of us, in our own small way, make sacrifices for, or coerce our children into the service of certain values. (Unlike me, my children will not be Israeli citizens by choice [with all the consequences and responsibilities that come with that]).

And while I still preferred the Sdom paradigm, I wondered whether a post ideological society unprepared to make sacrifices could ultimately survive.

Yet perhaps the most powerful idea on this hauntingly frightening story comes from the commentary of the Hasidic Rabbi Mordecai Joseph Leiner of Izbica. For the ‘Izbicer’, the origin of the voice commanding Avraham is unclear and he must therefore look into his deepest self to understand what he should do. In the meantime, his test is to be able to act within the uncertainty of not knowing what the right thing is, to act without clarity in the face of ambiguity.

And I began to think that maybe the story comes to break the idea of a single paradigm; the concept that we can ‘model’ how to act before God in all situations – to always surrender ot stand our ground.

Because the reality we're faced with is more complex than overarching theories of right and left, on being able to rely on ideologies to tell us how to act.

And maybe in the face of such uncertainty the only genuine response is to be 'dyslexic'.

Monday, November 03, 2008

The Tower of Babel: Globalization and its Discontents

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech…. And they had brick for stone, and slime for mortar.

Once upon a time, major developments in technologies and computer software allowed individuals to connect with almost anyone on the face of the earth.

This web-enabled platform for sharing knowledge and work, irrespective of time, distance, geography or even language leveled the playing field and allowed people unprecedented access to information and knowledge.

As people experienced increasing global connectivity and interdependence in the economic, social, technological, cultural, political, and ecological spheres, the world began to integrate and grow smaller at an accelerated pace.

Every individual - created in the image of God - now had the potential to ‘plug and play’, join the global game and fulfill his potential. The genius born in China had as many opportunities as the average guy born in Poughkeepsie.

From Shanghai to Silicon Valley, from Beijing, Bangalore and Bethesda, more people in more places could play in more ways.

The whole world truly was of one language, and one global speech.

Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves…

And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower…and said, "Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them"

The opportunities for this new world were endless:

Furthering the fight against poverty and disease in the developing world;

Promoting children's education, women’s rights and proper working conditions;

Ensuring fewer people lived below the poverty line; that everyone had adequate shelter and access to safe drinking water;

That no one went malnourished or died from preventable diseases.

Yet this world of fantastic opportunities also provided fantastic dangers. As Nassim Taleb noted, Globalization 'creates interlocking fragility' A world in which the big can act small and the small can act big can be used for different purposes. The options are frighteningly endless…

And if rather than alleviating the suffering in the world, society decides to use its technological potential to 'make a name for themselves,' then a time will come when money (or bricks) are more important than people;

Or where the supply chain that facilitates Dell and Wall Mart will also facilitate Al Qaida and dirty bombs.

So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.

(Last Year's Blog on the Tower of Babel - On Towers and Totalitarianism)