Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Rami's Reply to Mike's June 2nd Post

I would like to make three comments in response to your post, and then pick up on something you said earlier.

First, I think your point about never really living in full accord with these commandments is important. At the heart of all authentic spirituality must be a reality–based humility that recognizes our capacity for sin. The most dangerous person I can imagine is one who is “without sin.” Jesus and his mother being exceptions, of course.

Second, like you, the ancient rabbis made a distinction between the image of God and the likeness of God. God intends to create humanity in both the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26), but when the creation actually occurs we are made only in God’s image; likeness is left out (Genesis 1:27). The rabbis taught that this means we are born with the capacity for godliness, that is the image of God, but only our own will determines whether or not we actualize that capacity and thereby achieve the likeness of God.

Third, I agree with you that we must deal with the shadow-self. In fact, not dealing with it is one of the greatest failings of contemporary religion and new age spirituality. We imagine all is light and love, and that we are all light and love, but this is false and frightening. Our inability to accept our Yetzer haRah (capacity for evil in Jewish terms) or our Fallen Nature (in Christian terms) leads to the projection of sin and evil on to others. The more we imagine God is all love, the more we have to imagine a Devil who is all evil. The more we imagine that we are all love, the more we have to imagine an Other (be it Jews, African Americans, Asians, homosexuals, liberals, conservatives, etc) who is all evil. This is the madness of binary theology that results in the religiously sanctioned violence that floods our daily news.

We need a more sophisticated understanding of God and nature, human and otherwise, which brings me to your reference to Rabbi Saul/St. Paul.

Paul says, “While we were living in the flesh our sinful passions, aroused by Torah, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death… What then shall we say? That Torah is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for Torah, I should not have known sin. I should not have known what it is to covet if Torah had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, finding opportunity in the commandment, wrought in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from Torah sin is dead,” (Romans 7:5-8).

Compare Paul’s teaching to that of Lao Tzu, the founder of Chinese Taoism. In the 19th chapter of the Tao te Ching (the “bible” of Taoism) Lao Tzu writes,

Banish learning, discard knowledge, and people gain a hundredfold.
Banish benevolence, discard righteousness, and people return to duty and compassion. 

Banish skill, discard profit; and there would be no more thieves.
Yet such remedies treat only symptoms so they are inadequate. One more is needed:
Reveal your naked Self, embrace your original nature, and ego dwindles and desire fades.

Lao Tzu and Paul agree that law and sin go together. Where they disagree, and do so profoundly, over the implications of this connection. Lao Tzu says that law corrupts our true nature, and that if we would abandon law and take refuge in that true nature we would return to our natural state of selflessness, duty, compassion, and simplicity. Paul seems to make the opposite claim— that our true nature is itself corrupt:

“So Torah is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good. Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, working death in me through what is good… (Romans 7:12-13). We know that Torah is spiritual but I am carnal, sold under sin… for I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh” (Romans 7:17).

Paul, if I am understanding him correctly, says Torah isn’t sin, but the principles of Torah define sin and thereby make sin possible. This is true. If we didn’t define speed limits on our highways we wouldn’t have people arrested for speeding. The law creates the outlaw.

More profoundly, however, Paul is also claiming, contra Lao Tzu and Judaism, that human nature is fundamentally sinful. The Pharisaic system in which Rabbi Saul and I were raised, and which St. Paul rejects, takes a middle position between Lao Tzu’s faith in human nature and Paul’s fear of it.

Where Paul seems to condemn the flesh and root evil in biology, his fellow rabbis, following the Torah, root evil not in the flesh but in the human imagination (Genesis 6:5), and therefore articulate a more psychological approach to good and evil.

As I mentioned a few moments ago, people are created in the Image and Likeness of God. Because God has the capacity for good and evil (Isaiah 45:7), humans too have both capacities, what the rabbis call Yetzer haTov (the capacity for selflessness and good), and Yetzer haRah (the capacity for selfishness and evil). Both are necessary, and each must act to set limits on the other. An excess of either selflessness or selfishness can lead to societal breakdown. Society needs the creative interplay of egoism and altruism. The ideal, the rabbis taught, is to harness the egoic energy of Yetzer haRah to the altruistic energy of Yetzer haTov and in this way achieve true human fulfillment and holiness.

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