Can society hold if one only takes care of the people one loves?
If Covid has taught us anything at all, it is that no one is safe unless everyone is safe. Whether we like it or not, we are all in this together, so politics in the sense of social consensus regarding rules and practices for living within a communal structure, is just as important as science or art in addressing the present moment.
Over the past year, I have had the opportunity to study the history of European and Jewish culture and ideology with exceptional professors, lawyers, judges and Rabbis at Lockdown University. Lockdown University is an open and free website prompted by the pandemic, which has enabled thousands of subscribers worldwide to tune in for daily Zoom seminars. As a result, we have all had the opportunity to learn in-depth about artists, kings, and ordinary people. They have covered the conflict between Christianity and Judaism over the last two thousand years, the history of England, the Hebrew Bible, philosophers, artists and musicians. Recently, the focus is on the period of the Hapsburg Empire and the surrounding culture of several hundred years in Europe, the government, the arts, and politics. It is a fascinating story.
The Hapsburg dynasty moved from 1438 through the enlightenment, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars and only broke up after the defeat of Austria in 1918. They dealt with many of the same issues we are dealing with today, such as:
- the Bubonic plague,
- religious wars between Protestants, Catholics and Jews,
- the enlightenment – i.e. the philosophical attack on religion through reason
- conflicts over sovereignty and influence between the Pope, the monarchs and princes of England, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Austria, Germany and Russia,
- how to raise money and taxes
- who will do the work and who will wield power and how,
- and the growth of the printing press and general education.
All of these issues continue to impact our current reality.
It is a truism that if we don’t know where we came from, it will be challenging to assess where we are today, or where we may be headed
The Rabbis of the Talmud often debated whether wisdom comes from the heart or the brain, emotion or reason. They were fully aware of this dichotomy and analyzed it thoroughly, as they addressed real-life issues of marriage, anger, war and politics. Finally, they decided that both are important and need to work together.
The sages of the Talmud also believed in a democratic process of majority rules, especially when it came to religious rituals. This is beautifully illustrated by the tale of the argument among the Rabbis about whether a particular oven was “kosher.” Even divine intervention is “outvoted” by the majority, and G-d is recorded as enjoying the fact that his children have bested Him.
On the other hand, they always acknowledged and were eager to learn technical knowledge from any source. For example, one of the first sentences in the Talmud is “where do the rains come from?” The scholars of the Talmud answer this question to the extent of their knowledge, drawing on all available sources of their time. This may be one reason why Jews have always been fearless in learning from everyone and tackling all subjects.
The Torah also neatly resolves the contemporary and enlightenment political dilemma of how the particular and the universal can live together in social organization. The laws necessary for creating universal civilization in the Torah are known as the Seven Laws of Noah.
The Noahide Laws are the rules that all of us must keep, regardless of who we are and where we come from. These are the seven primary institutions required for humanity to live together in harmony. G-d communicated these laws to Adam and Noah, ancestors of all human beings. That is what makes these rules universal for all times, places and people.
- Acknowledge a Single Divine Creator, a Singular Divine Essence that cares about our actions and desires to care for His world.
- Do not curse your Creator. Instead, no matter how frustrated or angry you may be, take ownership and responsibility for what is happening around you.
- Do not murder. We cannot measure the value of human life. To destroy a single human life is to destroy the entire world because, for that person, the world has ceased to exist. It follows that you are sustaining a whole universe by supporting a single human life.
- When eating, do not tear off the limb of a living animal. As intelligent human beings, we have a duty not to cause undue pain to any creatures.
- Do not steal. Whatever benefits you receive in this world, make sure that none of them arrive at the unfair expense of someone else.
- Harness and channel the human libido. The family unit is the foundation of human society. Sexuality is the fountain of life, and so nothing is more holy than the sexual act. And nothing can be more debasing and destructive to the human being when abused. For this reason, incest, adultery and rape are forbidden.
- Establish courts of law to ensure justice. Human judges and courts are meant to restore harmony by synchronizing with a supernal just order. Just government and just laws establish stability and balance.
Laws made by humans may change according to circumstance. But, rules made by God remain the same for all people at all times. If we fulfill only those laws that make sense to us, we will change them according to our convenience. We would be our own God. But when we understand that they are the laws of a Supreme Divinity, we realize that they can not be changed, just as He does not change.
The Torah also has a method for harmony between particular societies living together. These are the beautiful laws for respecting and honouring the “ger toshav,” the resident-alien who is not of your specific culture. The Torah commands, “Ger lo tilhatz” (Do not oppress the stranger.) You must include him in all of your civil laws, but he is exempt from all religious laws.
So, where does this leave us in January 2022?
Here are some of my prayers and resolutions for the coming year:
- Keep learning. Find your teacher, your regular classes, and don’t let go!
- Let’s keep working together to uncover and cancel racism and prejudice of all kinds in all places.
- Let us strive to deal with empathy, respect, and love, i.e. justice for all sentient beings.
Happy New Year!
If you are interested in the classes offered by Lockdown University, e-mail the lockdown University Team at firstname.lastname@example.org and ask to be added to their list of subscribers. You will receive their weekly schedule with all of the descriptions of the classes and links for each week.