Thursday, May 28, 2009

Shoah, Kabbalah, Karma & Evil

Shoah defined as "whirlwind" reminds me of the Tibetan Buddhist green crescent as the "destructive wind" elemental to our imperfect world. Reading about Buddhist retreat from the pains of our earth, yet knowing of the "Engaged" movement of such as Thich Nath Hanh (who resisted the war as a Vietnamese monk) to bring the dharma into social justice as often pioneered by Jewish leaders, I figured I'd look for insight. How might those arguing for detachment face assaults of mass destruction? Who's to blame: innocents, Nazis, evil, karma, or a divine retributive force?

How do Buddhists take on theodicy, and macro-evil? I understand their dismissal on the personal level of the need to let go of our attachment to illusory power, fleeting attitudes, and vanishing emotions. Yet, how do you take on-- in an ideology set on separating the practitioner from a corrupt system-- those bent on destruction? Speaking of Tibet, are those who accept the Dalai Lama's advice to not resist with bloodshed correct as their nation and their people succumb to the PRC?

Furthermore, what about placing blame? If we're all complicit by our fallen nature and/or unenlightened state in perpetuating our bad karma, our sinful shortcomings, are we then, as sloganeers like to claim, guilty with blood on our hands? If we're all in this together, how do we disentangle ourselves from "samsara," life after Eden, exile from Shangri-La's Promised Land, post-lapsarian thumping in Cain's desolate, nightmarish, far from slumberingly comforting, condemned Land of Nod?

I'd vaguely heard about some Hasidim who argued that the Holocaust was a punishment to unfaithful Jews who'd fallen away from Torah. This drew me back to consult a book I read fifteen years ago, "The Jew in the Lotus," by Rodger Kamenetz. On the visit he and Jewish (mostly liberal at least) leaders made to visit the Dalai Lama, they learned about Buddhist contrasts. Geshe Sonam told Kamenentz that: "from the point-of-view of the Buddhists, the Holocaust itself is the result of past karma. Those people were not necessarily Jews in their past lives when they created the actions that they reaped in that form. But when your karma ripens there is nothing that can protect you." (122)

This reminded me of Martha Sherrill's "The Buddha from Brooklyn" (reviewed on this blog and Amazon US), wherein a Maryland-based New Age healer recognized by a guru as a Tibetan "tulku" or reincarnated holy woman insists to her cowed and cowled followers that karma indeed ripens and can rot, that is, can pull the practitioner back instead of forward by merit somehow used up rather than hoarded even if directed for good use. Sherrill avers such an interpretation may be unorthodox among Buddhists. But I clearly hear its Himalayan echo in Kamenetz' account.

Kamenetz feels these Tibetans are blaming the victim. Yet, he recalls Rabbi "Yitz" Greenberg's restatement of the Shoah as reminding humans they must bear more of their side of the "voluntary covenant" even if God let us down on His side. That is, people have to stop blaming God for all that goes wrong in our story, history.

The Tibetans asserted to their Jewish visitors how they cannot even blame only others. The Dalai Lama opined how the typical Jewish reaction of "never again" turned today's Jews reflexively against other nations, poisoning them into paralysis, aggression, self-righteousness, and xenophobia. They unleash chaos. To survive now, the Jews took on the qualities of their militant enemies. This may find parallels, however unintended or not, with the protesters who commonly equate Israeli actions with Nazi terror. (Of course, the irony that many who rage against Zionism also deny or diminish the horror of the Shoah, while wishing another "whirlwind," persists too.)

The Dalai Lama reminded the Jewish delegation that the real enemy remains inside us. The external foe, the communal karma, may exist and may destroy a nation, but in the longer-range Buddhist philosophical perspective, the angriest and deadliest danger lurks inside us. They tend to diminish the "innocent victim" idealization, insisting that responsible human beings must accept their share of culpability. They can't project it all onto even the enemy with the Zyklon-B ready to take awful action. As with many concepts in Eastern thought, the distorted, shocking nature of such a perspective may embody the Zen challenge of seeing the familiar only when it's been transformed into a shape or sight heretofore unthinkable or indescribable. That re-conception breaks our mis-conception and forces us into re-ception of truth.

Can such awful truth set us free, as adepts promise? I entertained a similar notion that a few New Age promoters (Louise Hay's positive thinking cadre?) averred that such events as the destruction of millions by a totalitarian regime could be blamed more on the negativity of those involved than, say, the union of high-tech killing machines and low-tech atavistic prejudice. Looking so far, not very diligently given the type of sites and sources I may encounter along that dark way, I have not found much illumination.

There remains a fundamental distinction. For Jews (and Christians & Muslims more or less), there's a conceptual gap with Buddhists. The reality for the monotheists: we need redemption. We blew it early on. We, lacking sufficient faith, totter about on earth in desperate straits. Until we straighten up and fly right (as my dad used to say, and used to annoy me by saying), we'll always keep crashing in the same car (as Bowie & Eno titled a song on "Low," speaking of Berlin's environs. No karma puns.) God's there making the rules of the road-Torah-Gospel-Qu'ran-Good Book of the Law, giving us the keys, enforcing the code, locking us up, letting us out if we behave.

Buddhists insist the problem's in our conception. Pain will come, and our liberation from attachment to what we perceive as solid and permanent depends on recognizing that it's neither quality. Our freedom emerges not by changing the world to what we want it to be, but adapting to its unpredictability. You can see the clash with liberal Judaism, progressive politics, and social justice campaigners.

Lacking the superstructure of God, relying on individual struggle to regain illumination, for Buddhists, people aren't the victims of original sin imposed by jealous God; instead, they're bound by their own grasping, which extends their entanglement in karma and forces rebirth. This teaching compliments (as Kamenetz' colleagues agree) Kabbalistic conceptions that we're shattered vessels leaking out bits of light otherwise denied us by our Fall from grace. We try to recover union with "Ein Sof," the divine power without name or substance. That's a primordial form to which we aspire. Differences? Buddha dismissed theological frameworks as ultimately, like gods themselves, illusory. Jews seek reunion with their Godhead.

Leaving aside theodicy, perhaps not coincidentally my feeble meditations aligned with an undated post I found at the Philadelphia Shalom Center run by Jewish Renewal (as in "graybeard hippie" Zalman who went with Kamenetz as elder statesman, straight out of an Edward Koren cartoon) rabbi Arthur Waskow. He'd be familiar with both Kabbalah and Hasidim, Buddhists and post-Holocaust philosophy, and a likely source of wisdom. He left what I cite below as a rather ragged set of notes. They may convey a similar shock in their reconfiguration of the awesome, terrible power of a "Godwave," as modern men take on what once was only a divine source of energy.

Not sure if these thoughts'd make much impact to a crowd less versed than Kamenetz' or his Ju-Bu comrades, but here 'tis. Reading about their common application of Martin Buber's familar I-Thou/ I-It distinction into how God relates to us and vice-versa, and considering Rabbi Waskow's disturbing conception of how the "Godwave" gets used and abused as we technologically take on the powers of the universe, it makes for talking points; the rabbi expands them, he notes, in a book "Godwrestling: Part 2."

Here's most of Rabbi Arnold Waskow's: "God & the Shoah":

First: I see the Shoah as an outgrowth of one aspect of Modernity: the ability/power to DO, MAKE, PRODUCE. Before modernity, pogroms but not the Shoah were possible: It was a giant leap in both physical technology & administrative technology that made the Shoah do-able. Turning murder into a grotesquely high-productivity industry.

These same leaps forward in technology also make possible world-wide intercultural communication, women's control over their own reproduction, etc. AND the H-bomb. ozone destruction, global scorching, burning the Amazon.

Second: I see this leap in CONTROL & Power to DO/ Make etc as a leap in the 15-billion-year process of the infusion of more and more Divine Power into the world. This power to DO and COHERE and CONTROL is what turns space-dust into galaxies & stars & planets; what turns carbon compounds into proteins, DNA, life-forms; what turns amoebas into humans, redwoods, and mosquitos; what turns human hunter-gathering communities into agricultural, commercial, industrial, & informational societies. What turns tiny clans as independent politico-military units into continental super-states and global corporations.

Third: AND -- There is another aspect of this constant infusion of more and more God-energy into the world. (Constant but it comes in leaps and floods, not smoothly). This is the infusion of Love & Community, which are ALSO aspects of God.

In short, God is BOTH I-It and I-Thou.

The infusion of both into the world in greater and greater doses comes about because the world is itself an aspect of God, that aspect which is a finite left-over of God-energy, left-over from the great Tzimtzum or inward contraction of the Eyn Sof (Infinite One) to leave space for a world.

This finite aspect of God-as-Universe exists because the Eyn Sof wanted a Mirror for Itself -- was deeply characterized by self-reflectiveness. So the universe is constantly seeking to emulate and mirror the Eyn Sof. The result is a continuous dynamic double spiral of It-It/ I-Thou/I-It/I-Thou etc. Each step in one arena calls forth and demands the analogous step in the other arena. More ability to kill requires more ability to love -- otherwise, the killing takes over and the system breaks down from an overwhelm of death.

So the Shoah -- painful to say this -- was an authentic result (though not a necessary one) of a surge of God as I-It into the world. It demands from us openness to a similar surge of God as I-Thou into the world.

All this has precedents on a smaller scale in human (and pre-human) history, The only unprecedented element is scale: All this now applies on the planetary level. I-Thou must now extend to the whole human race and to all species and "organs of Gaia" (like ozone, etc).

We need to invent new forms of community to do this. Just as the invention of Rabbinic Judaism (and of Christianity and later Islam) were I-Thou responses to the great Divine I-It wave of Hellenism into the world, so we need now to create new I-Thou forms in response to the great Diivine I-It wave of Modernity into the world.

Jewish renewal, and Christian renewal (e.g. MLKing, Dorothy Day, Pope John XXIII) and Buddhist renewal (e.g. the present Dalai Lama, Thich Nath Hanh) and Muslim renewal (Sadat), and feminist spirituality, and others, are efforts to express and shape these new I-Thou forms, these waves of divine energy into the world.

We ourselves are one part of the I-Thou aspect of the Godwave. We can choose to shape the Godwave into ourselves.

The Shoah was one part of the I-It aspect of the Godwave. We (i.e. some humans) chose to shape the Godwave into the Shoah.

Trepidation and trembling.

Blessed is the One Who shapes light and makes darkness, Who makes shalom and creates ALL -- which, when it is not shaped by our mitzvah/connection making into the harmony of shalom, comes thru as evil.

P.S. Me again: This link emerged after I wrote my entry. I cannot link to a specific URL, but if you scroll down the month archived to May 26, 2009, look up "Bad Things, Good People" by guest columnist "Tamerlane." He has a fascinating exchange (with typically heated commentary appended) on Rabbi Harold Kushner's book with dissenting remarks (relying on Pema Chodron, the Western psychologist and Tibetan Buddhist nun, as a non-theistic counterpoint) on theodicy. Kushner separates God from Nature as forces, and puts God on the side of the victims of the Shoah and other "bad things" while admitting that "s--t happens" that God has no, or chooses not to exercise, control over: those "acts of God" perhaps we can't explain. Not very comforting, but neither was the Book of Job. He got his riches back and a new family-- but they weren't the loved ones he buried, were they?

Illustration: Back to me and neither rabbi. Was my Uncle Jack right (whom I wrote about on Memorial Day in Irish and English, regarding his death on the shore of Saipan) and these figures wrong in the same war? We start so young learning the ways of evil that we admire. Contrast this cartoon with "this photo" from last Monday's entry. If the uniforms were reversed to those my uncle and my cousins wore, would my reactions change towards this image? Would yours? Should they? What would Buddhists do if faced with such a force? What has Tibet's genocide, or China's success, taught us sixty-five years after the Shoah?

"When the Soldiers March Through Town": popular 1942 book of children's verse. From 1936, military preparation was mandatory for the Reich's boys. At ten, those tykes could have joined Deutsches Jungfolk; Hitlerjugend followed at 14.

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