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Macro-cultures (ethnicities, nations, societies, global institutions) seek to clarify for its members and nonmembers all that are considered to be ‘cultural evils.’  The ‘Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics’ provides us a list to consider.  Here are some examples of cultural evils:

American Indian: ‘vice, crime, pollution, and even misfortune’

Babylonian: ‘an unconscious violation of the ceremonial regulations’

Buddhist: ‘folly, as a result of ignorance’

Celtic: ‘gods being offended by neglect’

Chinese (Confucius): ‘theft, perverseness, vindictiveness, vacillating weakness, being unfilial’

Christian: ‘The explicit or implicit claim to live independently of God, to put something else, be it the world or self, in His place.’

Egyptian: ‘murder, robbery, oppression, impiety towards the gods and the dead, disrespect for the aged and for parents, selfishness’

Greek: ‘all conduct which by omission or by commission, in overt act or inner meaning, is offensive to the supra-human Powers’

Hebrew: ‘the performance or neglect of certain external acts’

Iranian: ‘a refusal, on the part of the free choice of the human will, to conform to the divine will’

Japanese (Shinto): ‘breaking down the divisions of the rice-fields, killing the birds, performing witchcraft’

Muslim: ‘pride and opposition to Allah, ascribing partners to Allah, murder, theft, adultery, neglect of the Ramadan fast and of the Friday prayers, gambling, drunkenness, perjury, disobedience to parents, usury’

Roman: ‘enmity with superhuman forces’

Teutonic: ‘blasphemy, perjury, adultery’

It seems that the cultural definitions of evil are rooted in lived experience, in how the culture perceives the world, in integrated core values, and in the belief of ‘higher powers’ operating in their world.  For example, in the United States, we stress the freedom and the rights of the individual (versus the community); in other cultures this concept of the ‘individual’ is meaningless.  Even within our culture (i.e. the United States) there are significant differences: some folks believe that their destiny is controlled by external forces (e.g. predestination) while others believe that they are ‘masters of their own fate.’  Where does the ‘locus of control’ lie?  Some in our culture view life as a struggle, or that life is ‘war’ and they live lives rooted in reaction; others view life as a journey or an adventure or a spiritual quest and they live lives rooted in unconditional response-ability.  

Given the variety of what constitutes ‘evil’ in a culture it is no wonder that there is frequent misunderstanding, if not conflict, between and among macro-cultures (to say nothing of organizational cultures, sub-cultures and micro-cultures – when these are thrown into the mix then things become even more interesting). 

Given all of this, it seems to me that one of my major challenges is to seek to understand and in coming to understand to acknowledge that, given their understanding of ‘evil,’ macro-cultures behave quite consistently.  Moreover, if I am going to ‘live’ either ‘in their culture’ or if I am going to ‘live’ side-by-side with them (as members of the global community) then it is crucial for me to be at minimum ‘tolerant’ of them (given their cultural definitions of ‘evil’ this may or may  not be a ‘stretch’ for me or for us).      

We pray in order to open a door to God. –Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Hassidism inspired Rabbi Heschel’s faith and his social activism.  The Hasidic rebbes modeled for Heschel the depths of empathy and their lives demonstrated how to lift people out of despair and engender Hope.  In his writings Heschel reminded his readers, over and over and over, that ‘Empathy’ was central to the prophets.  He noted that the prophet’s ear perceives the silent sigh of human suffering.  The prophet’s word is a scream in the night.  While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven.

Heschel noted that in speaking on behalf of the silent, the prophet expressed God’s empathy, an empathy Heschel called ‘divine pathos.’  It is God’s profound concern for humanity that the prophet comes to convey: The prophet hears God’s voice and feels his heart.

I believe Heschel spoke with a prophetic voice when he said: Some are guilty, but all are responsible.  Faith and Hope are challenges that require a prophetic response from us and requires us to become involved in the lives of other human beings.  As Heschel noted: Man insists not only on being satisfied but also on being able to satisfy, on being needed, not only on having needs.  Personal needs come and go, but one anxiety remains: AM I NEEDED?  The prophet answers: YES, profoundly.

Heschel wrote: It takes three things to create a sense of significant being: God, a soul, and a moment. And the three are always present.  Heschel wants us to always remember that God needs us, that we are an object of God’s divine concern. 

Modernity promised us that we could live by reason alone.  Today we know that we cannot live by reason alone.  Auschwitz and Hiroshima confirmed this.  Heschel wanted to know what happened to our sense of wonder, of mystery, of the ineffable, all of which have been suppressed as unnecessary to the modern age and to our post-modern age – and yet all are essential to our humanity. 

Heschel provides us with an example.  He notes that we look at nature and see its power, beauty and grandeur.  How, he asks, do we respond?  We respond by exploiting nature, we do not stand in awe of nature.  Without awe, our lives, he notes, are impoverished and our society decays and hope becomes resignation, if not despair.

Hope is nurtured by awe and by prayer.  Awe and prayer challenge us to commit ourselves to being fully human, to truly become the face of God on earth.  Heschel fled Nazi Germany with hope.  His hope was challenged when he discovered racism running amok in a country that espoused equality for all.  He spoke, again and again, against racism.  He reminded us, again and again, that racism is not just wrong, it diminishes our humanity, it denies God as the creator, and shatters every principle of Scripture. 

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel did not write for one faith-tradition; he wrote for all of us.  Over and over and over again he reminded us that we are truly in this together.  Together we have to face all that dehumanizes us, all that engenders fear and kills hope, empathy, compassion and love.  He reminds us that the opposite of good is not evil – it is indifference.

I leave us with some of what Heschel spoke in an extraordinary lecture, ‘No Religion Is an Island.’ 

What is urgently needed are ways of helping one another in the terrible predicament of here and now by the courage to believe that the word of the Lord endures forever as well as here and now; to cooperate in trying to bring about a resurrection of sensitivity, a revival of conscience; to keep alive the divine sparks in our souls; to nurture openness to the spirit of the Psalms, reverence for the words of the prophets, and faithfulness to the living God.

I will not die an unlived life; I will not live in fear. –Dawna Markova

It may be that you yourself are not luminous, but you are a conductor of light. –Holmes to Watson

Rabbi Heschel believed that God needs us; that God is waiting for us.  God is waiting for us to find God and to be a Witness.  Abraham (the Father of the People of the Book – Jews, Christians and Muslims) found God by contemplating Nature.  We, too, can search for and find God by contemplating Nature (in this sense, contemplating involves ‘experiencing’ Nature and ‘reflecting upon’ our experience). 

For the People of the Book we can also come to awareness of God by studying our scriptures (and the scriptures of other faith traditions).  Then, Rabbi Heschel reminds us, there are sacred deeds.  Deeds become sacred when they help reveal God to ourselves and to the other(s).  When Rabbi Heschel returned from marching in the 1965 civil rights march in Selma he said: ‘I felt my legs were praying.’  Marching for justice was a sacred deed. 

Awareness of God and being a Witness are, to say the least, challenging.  Being Aware and Being a Witness are both a gift and a mandate.  Our lives bring God into our world – or, sadly, they keep God out of our world. 

Consider: If to be fully human means that I-You-We are created in God’s image then I-You-We are mandated to live a life that reveals God to others by living a life that bears Witness to God’s love, compassion, caring, forgiveness, healing and reconciliation. 

In one of his talks, Rabbi Heschel asked: ‘When did God break one of the Ten Commandments?’  The audience was a bit puzzled by this question.  Consider this: One Commandment says ‘Thou shall not make an image of God.’  Yet what did God do?   God created us humans in God’s image.  Rabbi Heschel noted: We are the only image of God that we have.  He noted that to live as an image of God is to live so that those who come to know us are reminded of God.  Talk about a daunting challenge.

Rabbi Heschel placed no limitations on this mandate to live as a Witness to God; there is no singular path of a particular religion, nor is there a single way to live.  In his powerful book, Man Is Not Alone, he shares with his reader an old rabbinic teaching that divine revelation is an experience of God that is different for each person.  There is a revelation of God that I receive in my unique way.  Thus no single path leads to God because my religion, my faith, my belief must be authentic to who I am.  Because each of us is, indeed, unique, each expression will be unique as well.  I, for example, cannot be ‘Christian’ as my grandparents were Christian – that, Rabbi Heschel notes, is spiritual plagiarism.  He notes that authentic faith is more than an echo of a tradition; it is a creative situation.  Being a Witness entails awareness, deeds/reflection, and a commitment to spiritual growth. 

I grow old while always learning. –Solon [Age 66 in 572 B.C.]

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. –Charles Dickens

Some say that we live in the ‘Age of Technology.’  True.  It also seems that technology has not delivered on its promises.  Some say that we live in the ‘Age of Information.’  True.  It also seems that this age has not provided us with clarity and has, continues to, whelm us over with an over-abundance of information and mis-information.

Some also say that we live in an ‘Age of Despair.’   These folks seemed justified when considering what is whelming us over – the compounding crises that are washing over us.  Consider just a few: the world-wide economic crisis that engulfs so many of us; the pandemic that continues to run amok amongst us, the many political crises that polarize us and the global environmental crises that put us in harm’s way. 

Yet, embracing despair is to deny that God is present, with us, caring for us, and that there is no challenge we (think: we human beings as a collective) are provided without the resources to cope with it, if not conquer it (we actually do more coping than conquering). 

As I have been reflecting upon this topic I have been returning to the writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.  In his many writings, this wonder-full Rabbi speaks to us in the prophetic tradition of embarrassment, witness, and hope.  Like a number of us, Rabbi Heschel trusted that prophetic voices are always speaking to us; the question is: Do we have ears to hear and hearts to heed? 

The prophets knew, and know today that unless we seek to understand the very depths of despair that hope is superficial and fleeting.  The prophet that gives voice to the silent agony, who rages against injustice, whose passion encases every word offers us the hope that ‘evil is never the climax of history.’

Rabbi Heschel invites us, challenges us, to consider that the many crises we face today are also a religious challenge (‘religion’ is rooted in ‘religio’ which means to bind together; to heal; to make whole). 

Rabbi Heschel believed that ‘Religion’ begins with a sense of embarrassment.  He writes in ‘Who is Man’: ‘…the awareness of the incongruity of character and challenge, of perceptivity and reality, of knowledge and understanding, of mystery and comprehension.  …God begins where words end.’  In order to pray, he notes, we need a recognition that ‘prayer is action, an event.’ 

The Bible often states that the beginning of wisdom is awe of God.  Rabbi Heschel translates: Embarrassment is the beginning of faith; it will make room within us.  Religious people ought never be self-assured or complacent; they are charged with constantly striving.  Rabbi Heschel writes: ‘I am afraid of people who are never embarrassed at their own pettiness, prejudices, envy, and conceit, never embarrassed at the profanation of life.’ 

‘Embarrassment’ is meant to be productive.  An end to embarrassment, Heschel notes, would bring a callousness that would threaten our humanity – our being truly human.

Rabbi Heschel did not stop with embarrassment, as we will see next time.

While there is life there is hope. –Cicero

Yesterday, Gentle Reader, I was thinking about a wise man’s legacy.  I hold his legacy in three words that, for me, Count: Consciousness, Character & Conduct.  The first two directly and indirectly impact and determine the third.  On the 14th of March, 2010 I was sitting in the ‘Waterfall Lounge’ located in the Furama Riverfront Hotel in Singapore when the following poem emerged into my consciousness.  I decided this morning to share this poem with you today.  Here is my poem:

CHARACTER COUNTS! [©Richard W Smith 14 March, 2010]

Care, what motivates me

Hospitality, what welcomes you

Altruism, what transcends us

Responsibility, what challenges me

Awareness, what disturbs me

Compassion, what touches you

Tolerance, what honors you

Empathy, what connects us

Reconciliation, what heals us

———————————–

Contentment, what nurtures peace

Openness, what connects hearts

Understanding, what opens possibility

Needs, what stimulates us

Trust, what frames us

Sacred, what defines us