I have spent decades in Jewish and LGBT community work, learning about and employing all sorts of revolutionary programs that brought in great amounts of money and offered a wealth of promised results, only to repeat the cycle of programming year after year, decade after decade while the problems either remained the same or morphed into something even more toxic. Eventually it seemed to me that there must be an error in how we are thinking and acting in our attempts to ease social pain and inequalities. How was it that the same situations that we read about in the Bible are still with us today; we remain burdened with hunger and homelessness, the poor treatment of the widow and orphan, economic slavery, spotty healthcare, and environmental destruction. Ecclesiastes was right, there’s nothing new under the sun, and no matter what we do we are fated to do it over and over with the same results, like a mashup of the Matrix and Groundhog Day.
And then I remembered that I am God’s creation and in this way being linked to Eternity. I asked myself, how can someone linked to Eternity be limited to one understanding of how the world worked.And then I remembered what we are taught about the Torah; the Sages tell us there are many valid interpretations to the Torah. The Midrash writes that there are 70 “faces” (interpretations) to the Torah (BamidbarRabbah 13:15).With this many ways of interpreting verses in our sacred literature, I became convinced there had to be more than one way to interpret the world. This idea gave me hope, because it seemed to me that since humanity started keeping recordsthousands of years ago that we have interpreted the world through the lens of Gevurah, the sefirahof Divine Judgement.
Jewish mystical literature describes a series of 10 traits or characteristics that bridge the gap between heaven and earth. It is said that these traits are in a dynamic relationship with one another, and if any of them become out of balance the effect is felt in heaven and earth. Gevurah is understood as God's mode of punishing the wicked and judging humanity in general. It is the foundation of stringency, absolute adherence to the letter of the law, and strict meting out of justice. This means that we qualify the worth of an issue in front of us depending on where it falls in our system of judgement. For example, we think it is terrible that someone had a car accident. Then we learn they were driving at night, and we starting wondering whether they had good night vision, they should have known better than to drive at night. Or maybe they were speeding and lost control, and you feel a little less bad for them since they really did it to themselves. And then they need time off from work and extra help at home, and really why should you be responsible for helping someone who should have known better and damaged themselves. Or the many excuses for sexual assault, where the perpetrator defends themselves by claiming the victim asked for it by the way they dressed or walked or just appeared. Or we think that it is terrible that a person was gunned down in the street, until we learn that it was a black man who was shot and the police pulled the trigger, and all of a sudden it is maybe not so terrible since the guy probably deserved it.
We all accept the concepts of kindness and forgiveness, love and acceptance. However, despite the fact that our sacred scriptures insist that we are all equally deserving of love and care by our Creator, we force our fellow humans to stand and bowin supplication before us so we can determine whether they truly merit our love and care.
This attitude isin oppositionalcontrast to Chesed. It is the quality of grace, of lovingkindness, of giving without concern for the worthiness of the recipient. It is said that God created the world through Chesed. Another example is going to a funeral, since the person whose death you are marking will never be able to return your kindness. Thus in viewing the world through the lens of Chesed we are only concerned with the need at hand. If you are hungry, then we feed you, rather than ask why you can’t feed yourself. If you are sick, we heal you, rather than tell you to figure out how to pay out of pocket. The essence of Chesed is that it is not earned, and cannot be earned. You are not ever entitled to Chesed, since entitlement assumes a judgment that you are deserving.According to this worldview, every person on the planet, every plant, rock, and drop of water, exists due to God’s Chesed.
Studying these two traits it seemed to me that we are out of balance when it comes to the relationship between Gevurah and Chesed. We have organized ourselves around Gevurah. As a result,we are always judged and judging others, whoare typically judged lacking and thus are punished. Despite our system of assuming innocence before proven guilty, we have literally made ourselves into the judge, jury and executioner of others. If you want to know what a “law and order” world looks like, you are looking at it now.
I am calling for a turn to Chesed. I believe others are turning to it as well. I see how we in the U.S. and around the world are responding to the death of George Floyd. Of course, it’s not just George Floyd, it’s hundreds of years and tens of thousands worth of George Floyds. The marches and protests have continued for weeks, even in the face of social distancing. There has not been any (or much) co-opting crowds for the benefit of either the left- or right-wing movements or organizations. Blessedly and with humility, left-of-center organizations that have routinely accused each other of impure politics and nefarious intent have essentially remained silent except to voice support to the idea that black lives matter. Messages of support that black lives matter have poured in from all expressions and denominations of religious communities. Folks who are bitter opposites on issues like abortion or immigration can hold hands together in the belief and practice that black lives matter. Public and private companies are issuing statements of support, such as the one from Ben & Jerry: And it’s clear, the effects of the criminal justice system are not color blind… Rather, we believe it is due to the systemic racism built into the fabric of our institutions at every level, disadvantaging and discriminating against people of color in ways that go beyond individual intent to discriminate. For this reason, we are not pointing fingers at individuals; we are instead urging us to come together to better our society and institutions so that we may finally fulfill the founding promise of this country: to be a country with dignity and justice for all.
I believe we have arrived at where we are now due to our attachment to Judgement. The time is now to give Loving-kindness a chance.
Graphic via Etz Chaim.