Sunday, August 5, 2012

Morning again.

The first thing I do in the morning, after brushing my teeth and putting on clothes, is to sit on my heels with my palms cupped in my lap, close my eyes and do nothing for a while. The first thing I notice is my body, its aches complains because I eat too much the night before or I was up late and didn’t get enough sleep. Soon enough I get tired of my body lecturing to me and I let go of my body and focus on my breathing, not controlling it but just paying attention to the breath was it flows. Soon enough I let go of that as well and turn my attention to my thoughts. And as with my breath, I try not to control my thoughts or follow a thought, rather I let them pass like clouds overhead. If my meditations have been successful, I end up nowhere doing nothing, and it is in this place that I find the space to think.

Physicist now confidently tell us that the universe is 13.75 billion years old. I haven’t done the math myself but I’m impressed that they finally have it nailed down. I used to tell my students the universe was between 12 and 14 billion years old. And with equal confidence they now say that 25% of the universe if dark matter and a whopping 71% is dark energy. No wonder the dark side is so powerful! That leaves a scant 4% of the universe visible to us even with our most sensitive instruments. Look around, 96% of what is within your visual range is completely invisible, yet somehow has a profound impact on the shape and destiny of the universe. And then I wonder where do I begin and where do I end? What actually separates “me” from everything else? With the help of some hallucinogens, the answer is nothing. I’m no longer sure who I am or where I am, where I begin and where I end. Fortunately, my body always reminds me, for the longer I sit in suspended animation, the more I ache. 

Shabbos without Caryn is very difficult. First of all, she lights the candles and makes the miracle that creates the sacred space. I can light the candle, but I can’t quite make the miracle. So, like my identity during meditation, Shabbos without Caryn lacks clear delineation.

 Some time back Richard Lynn, a great admirer of Raymond Cattell, who serves on the board of the Pioneer Fund, sent me xeroxed reprint of a short review of his new book, The Chosen People. On the xerox, he scribbled his personal note and his private email. So, I ordered the book and sent him an email from my personal email to his personal email. I thanked him for bringing my attention to his book and apologized for taking so long to respond. And since my personal email is binyaminbenhaim, i.e. Binyamin ben Haim, my Hebrew name, I quipped to him, “now you know my secret name.” He just wrote back confused asking if I had changed my name, wondering if I had left Ferris and asking, “where are you?” The very question I had been contemplating. I was surprised he hadn’t understood me, thinking that after writing a book about the Jews, he might have learned something about Jewish culture.

 In his review of Cattell’s 1972 book on Beyondism, Cattell’s eugenic religion, Lynn wrote:

 If the evolutionary process is to bring its benefits, it has to be allowed to operate effectively. This means that incompetent societies have to be allowed to go to the wall. This is something we in advanced societies do not at present face up to and the reason for this, according to Cattell, is that we have become too soft-hearted. For instance, the foreign aid which we give to the under-developed world is a mistake, akin to keeping going incompetent species like the dinosaurs which are not fit for the competitive struggle for existence. What is called for here is not genocide, the killing off of the populations of incompetent cultures. But we do need to think realistically in terms of "phasing out" of such peoples. If the world is to evolve more better humans, then obviously someone has to make way for them otherwise we shall all be overcrowded. After all, ninety-eight per cent of the of the species known to zoologists are extinct. Evolutionary progress means the extinction of the less competent. To think otherwise is mere sentimentality.

 And it occurs to me that we all have a tin ear for something. I can’t make sense out sports that involve varied size balls passing some boundary or another. And just as I have a tin ear for some things, it is very common to find among scientists a tin ear for religion. Lawrence Kraus, the physicist is a good example. He thinks religion is the belief that the universe if 5,000 years old. He obviously has never heard of Robert Alter or Giorgio Agamben and has no idea what is going on across campus, where scholars are probing sacred texts and finding all sorts of revealing information, not about God, but about ourselves. And this led me to the thought that Europeans were incapable of understanding the Native American peoples because their civilization and cultures were constructed on different premises. When Abraham desired to bury Sarah, he went to Hittites and negotiated with Ephron for the purchase of land. He and Ephron settled on a price, Abraham paid in silver and acquired title to the land. We have no idea when or where this notion that land is a commodity that can be bought and sold, but it’s presence in Genesis makes it clear that it was understood by both Hebrews and Hittites and was probably and widespread conviction. The Torah opens famously with, “In the beginning God created...” and in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Torah written by rabbis in Alexandria in the third century BCE, that opening sentence is translated, “En archei...” The word archei, beginning is also the Greek word for command - for the Greeks and the ancient Israelites, the beginning commands. Thus our modern field of archeology - digging for beginnings to understand our origins. Giorgio Agamben speculates that a society based on this notion that our beginnings command, control, direct us, is the reason history and archeology are so important to us.

A civilization that was not based on this conjunction between beginning and commanding, would be less concerned with history and origins. In the beginning of Native American culture, there was no such conjunction. Native Americans had a different original idea. They believed the earth was their sacred mother and they belonged to the land, the land did not belong to them. As one of the standard American history texts (Nash) points out, this led to a society with far less stratification than European society where a small number of individuals “owned” large tracts of land and the common peasants owned nothing. So, in Europe you have abject poverty alongside immense wealth. You also had the fundamental notion of capitalism, that everything is a commodity and that the earth and all its fruit belong to man to exploit. The societies that developed out of these Western notions created social orders, laws, literature and philosophy aimed at upholding and increasing that disparity. In the world of the Native American, however, the earth was not a commodity, she was our sacred mother who nurtured us and commanded us to be generous as she was generous to us. The Europeans typically thought the Indians without religion, culture or science. When Lewis Cass, Andrew Jackson’s Secretary of War wrote to justify the brutality of Indian removal, he said in our defense that we were spreading “religion, science, freedom and industry.” By religion, he meant Christianity, by freedom he meant our political system of democracy, from which Indians were excluded, and by industry he meant our exploitation and commodification of the land. The Europeans could no more understand how Indians thought than they could understand how bears think. Wittgenstein explained this in his Cambridge lecture - to image a language is to imagine what their world is like and Europeans could not imagine what the world was like for Native peoples.

They completely missed the extraordinary fact that Indian societies had no prisons, judges and police. The Europeans were sure that their religion and culture was superior. In a generic sense most of us understand that we are superior and they are inferior. If you have any doubts watch the Youtube videos of Walmart shoppers. I am teaching a small seminar on the history of racism and everyone agreed that, take away race or gender, human beings can be divided between superior and inferior. So, I explained to them that according to the Talmud and deeply embedded in the Jewish soul is the idea that humans are images of God, each one completely unique. Jerry Hirsch, a man of science with a very tin ear for religion summed up this Talmudic view by calculating the odds that any two human beings would be genetically identical at some astronomical number greater than the estimated number stars in the universe. He concluded that each one of us is completely unique. Our genetic code is one of a kind and it will never be repeated. The Talmud puts it this way, every human being, no matter how stupid and ugly, in a word, inferior, is an image of God, completely unique and of infinite value. Two times infinity is only infinity. An infinity of Einstein is no more valuable than an infinity of a crack addict. In the realm of the sacred they are equal, but for those who have no sense of the sacred, there is usually only the commodity. And if you look at people as commodities, there are really valuable people and people who are of little or no value.  And that was the calculation Cattell made. He concluded that the majority of the human population was pretty much worthless and some means had to be found to make way in the future for superior people. Thus, he coined the term, “genthanasia” to characterize programs that would assist “moribund” societies in preventing the incompetent from being born.

 Chris Hedges, author of such books as Empire of Illusion and War is a Force that Gives us Meaning has just published, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. Bill Moyers quotes Hedges in a recent interview: “We stand on the verge of one of the bleakest periods in human history, when the bright lights of civilization blink out and we will descend for decades centuries into barbarity. Hedges concludes: “Revolt is all we have. It is our only hope.... We don’t have a lot of time left.” My view is that our time ran out long ago, long before we were even aware that it was running out. Still, I agree that revolt is all we have. We need to rise up against capitalism and by extension the whole idea that the earth is ours and we are in charge. Agamben points out that for the ancient Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek grammarians, one cannot command oneself. The commander and the commanded must be separate. We have been warned lest we turn our hearts aside and worship other gods that the heavens will close and the rains will cease and the earth will no longer produce sustenance and we shall surely perish off the face of the good earth that God has so graciously given us. Our death was decreed before our birth. It is inevitable, but surely there is time to repent, if not collectively, at least individually. We need to be as passionately committed as the suicide bombers, people willing to self-destruct in order to stop the machine that has turned our sacred mother into a commodity. Of course, not by blowing themselves up and killing innocent people. We can’t change our destiny, but we can, at least, descend into the next century of mass species extinction with dignity, defending human the sacred nature of human dignity.

 It is time for me to put on my tefillin not because God actually exists and rescued my ancestors from the land of Egypt, but because it was commanded in the beginning. Who commanded I cannot say. That it was commanded I can say with utter confidence. The parchment with the command is sealed in the box I wrap around my arm and place upon my head. And while the text is hidden from my view, still, I have no choice but to obey.