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Monday, October 29, 2012

Moral Empowerment
"Justice, only justice shall you pursue,"  -- Deut. 16:20

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a massive nuclear arms race.  The Soviet Union was aggressively pursuing an effort to bring a significant part of the world under its power.  The United States was struggling to block that expansion.  The nuclear arms race was a tactical means of achieving the Soviet's strategic goal.  If they could build a large enough nuclear arsenal, the threat of a nuclear apocalypse could block other nations from deterring them from achieving their strategic goal.

Both could choose to arm or disarm.  Disarming, while your opponent continues to arm, would have led to military inferiority and possible annihilation.  If both sides chose to arm, neither could afford to attack each other, but at the high cost of maintaining and developing a nuclear arsenal.  If both sides chose to disarm, war would be avoided and there would be no costs.  If your opponent disarmed while you continue to arm, then you achieve superiority.

Although the 'best' overall outcome is for both sides to disarm, the rational course for both sides is to arm.  This is indeed what happened.  The United States adopted a strategic policy of mutually assured destruction (MAD). Ultimately, the economy of the Soviet Union collapsed under the pressure of the arms race.  Although there were localized wars during this period, there was no nuclear exchange.

This is a global demonstration of the validity of the "repeated prisoner's dilemma" in the science of game theory.  It has led to a dozen Nobel Prizes.  It has been applied to conflict resolution and economics.  The principal behind this goes back to the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (1780 BCE) - "an eye for an eye".  It later appears in a revised, more humane form in the Biblical codes of justice. 

Robert Aumann, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, pointed out that simplistic peacemaking can cause war, while arms race, credible war threats and mutually assured destruction can reliably prevent war.  History, science and religion have joined in establishing the moral value of "peace through strength".

From a kabbalistic point of view, an eye for an eye and the prisoner's dilemma evolve from a single concept, reciprocity.  In this context, "an eye for an eye" takes on the broader meaning of "measure for measure".  Reciprocity, in turn, rests on the principles of balance and connectedness.  Once again, we arrive at the bedrock of justice and morality.

These examples are global; applied on a grand scale.  You would be right to ask, how do they affect me at a more personal level?  Let's try to answer that through the following parable.  Suppose you were an alien anthropologist studying one of Earth's cities.  You have no knowledge of the language.  Your assignment is to determine if this is a just/moral society.  Your only tool is behavioral observation.  What would you look for?

The observer might start by determining if people left the doors of their homes and cars unlocked, day and night, with no fear for themselves, their families or their property.  Are they able to walk the streets, day or night, without fear?  Can they be comfortable in knowing that, if something untoward happens, people will hurry to assist them?  Do the merchant and customer both receive value for value in any transaction?  Clearly, human beings do not meet these standards.  However, these are not absolute measures, but are set against a scale to determine how close the society has come to achieving these goals.

Take note that the answers to all of these are based on reciprocity.  If I am going to leave my home unlocked, I must have reasonable certainty that no one will violate my property or me.  On the other hand, every other person must have the same confidence that I will not violate what is his or hers.  This means that the moral force acting on the society must be strongly directed toward achieving this outcome.  Morality can only be determined by outcomes.

The kabbalist recognizes that the human being is not intrinsically moral, but has been created with the capacity to be moral.  Furthermore, it makes clear that the achievement of morality is entirely our responsibility.  This is the essence of moral empowerment.

Original content copyright © Secular Kabbalist

Sunday, October 21, 2012

"No Man is an Island"

"In nature we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with something else ..." -- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Humanity has lived under an illusion.  Many believe that we have unlimited independence of choice.  Reality demonstrates otherwise.  What is it that restricts choice?  It is connection, connection across space and time.  Connection creates the need for moral/ethical behavior.

In the United States, we often hear social commentators state that the American mantra is "What's in it for me?"  The consequence of this is a disconnected America drawing closer and closer to anarchy.  Wouldn't we be better served as a nation, if we changed that question to "What's in it for us?"

My father was a dentist.  In his office, he had a cutaway picture of a human body showing the potential effect of one cavity on various parts of the body.  Virtually every part of the body could be affected by that one cavity.

The human body is a system.  A system is a set of interacting or interdependent components forming an integrated whole.  The nature of a system is such that any action taken by one element will affect every element in the system.

The universe is a system.  Everything in it is connected by fields, such as gravity, electromagnetism, etc.  Nothing changes in the universe without the entire universe being affected.  The changes may be infinitesimally small and beyond measure.  However, over time the changes may produce cosmic effects.  Those who are familiar with the "butterfly effect" of deterministic chaos theory are aware that the fluttering of a butterfly's wings off the coast of Africa could lead to a hurricane in Florida. 

[Another dramatic example of global connectedness is the Worldwide Web.  In less than two weeks, these essays have reached six countries beyond the United States.]

If this is so for the universe, can this principle also apply to human society?  Is society a connected system?  Do our individual choices ripple out to affect those around us?  Conversely, do the acts of others impact on who we are?

Epidemics, not just of disease, but also of fear, hate and greed can spread through nations and the world.  Epidemics also spread across generations, as we have learned with regard to alcoholism, drug addiction and AIDS.  The Bible declares "... visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, to the third and to the fourth generation" (Ex. 34:7).  A parable from the world of mysticism illustrates this with regard to the individual.  Everything we say and do creates an angel.  It can be a good angel or an evil angel.  Remember that angels live and act long after we are gone. 

The Torah repeatedly asserts that the well-being of a society rests on the moral/ethical behavior of the individuals within that society.  It declares that the immoral acts of one person, or a few people, can corrupt an entire society.

This confirms the words of John Donne that "no man is an island".  Our very existence depends on the acts of all those around us.  This is demonstrated by history itself.

This universal connection creates the need for balance.  In addition, as we have said before (10/15/2012), balance is essential for justice.  If we, as a nation, deny our connection to each other, this is the root of the destruction of national identity.  The loss of national identity creates divisiveness and loss of balance.  Abraham Lincoln prophetically warned us about 150 years ago: "America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves."

Original content copyright © Secular Kabbalist

Monday, October 15, 2012

One Nation Indivisible

"Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others."  --  Thomas Jefferson

The United States suffers from a plague of divisiveness.  Each interest group seeks to maximize its own benefits, no matter what the cost to others.   Kabbalah teaches that balance is the hallmark of a just society.  This principle is embodied in the Sinai Covenant and in the "Miracle of 1787" - the Constitution of the United States.

The principle of balance appears in many religions.  Maimonides taught that "The right way is the mean in every one of a person's character traits".  He extends this by stating that a wise nation strives to maintain equilibrium among its citizens.   St. Thomas Aquinas asserts that "it is evident that moral virtue observes the mean."  In Greece, we find the Doric saying carved on the front of the temple at Delphi: "Nothing in Excess".  Buddha taught the "Middle Way".  Confucius wrote of the way of living in the mean.  In our society, the symbol of justice is the balanced scale.

Science applies the balance of forces to achieve stability.  Consider the stable flight of an airplane.  The upward force generated by the airflow over the wings balances the downward force of gravity.  Similarly, the stable orbit of the space station is determined by the balance of gravity with the rotational force acting on the satellite.  Further, the stability of planets and galaxies depend on these forces.  Science sees all of creation as exquisitely balanced.

Balance is a universal principle that applies to the cosmos and to us.  When we speak of social cohesion, we mean balance.  Our Founders understood that the nature of people is to strive to maximize their own interests.  They also recognized that this is the path of destruction for a nation.  As students of the history of governments, they knew that this was demonstrated by the rise and fall of the great nations of the past.  In response, they put forth a profound concept of governance: "The Balance of Powers".  Our Constitution seeks to balance competitive policies in order to achieve cooperative results.  The practical solution was to create a government in which no element, President, House of Representatives, Senate or Judiciary, would have absolute power over the others.  Furthermore, the Bill of Rights provides that the federal government shall not have absolute power over the states.

Over time, the balance has been eroded by political manipulation.  Now, there are elements of government that seek to divide the population into competing, non-cooperative castes. 

The historical motto of the United States is  E pluribus unum  - "Out of many, one".  It now appears to be "Out of many, chaos".  The balancing forces that once held the United States in balance are dissolving.  For the sake of our survival, how can we restore the balance?  Possibly, the answer to our survival as a unified and balanced nation lies in a variant reading of a familiar biblical injunction: "Respect your neighbor as yourself".


Original content copyright © Secular Kabbalist


Tuesday, October 9, 2012

In the Beginning

"Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind." -- Albert Einstein

Recent evidence appears to reveal that the earliest beginnings of civilization were stimulated by religion. This is based on the archeological discovery of a 12 thousand year old temple that was erected for burial rites1,2. This occurred during the hunter-gatherer period of human history. Its construction required social organization and local agriculture. This led to the creation of cities and the beginning of civilized society. From this beginning, we see the intimate relationship between civilization and religion, for better or worse, through the history of the ancient nations of Babylonia, Egypt, Israel, Greece and Rome. And, this relationship continues until today. In its essence religion evolved from three essential issues: death, social cohesion and humanity's place in creation.

Death rituals raise the question of the value, meaning and purpose of an individual's life. Morals, ethics and justice address the individual's role within a connected community. Questions of humanity's place in creation have given birth to science.

Religion gave birth to science? In our age, when religion and science appear to be in opposition to each other, how can this be? The need for fixed and dependable agriculture became essential for the evolution of cities. This required the ability to predict the cycles of the seasons. People soon discovered the correlation between the seasons and the cycles of the sun, moon and constellations. In studying these heavenly bodies, they came to realize that their very existence depended on mysterious forces. These forces were far removed from them and, humanity had no control over them.

The response to these mysteries was both science and religion. Science sought to understand the processes involved in these mysteries. Religion sought to understand the effects of these mysteries on the human condition. The two were complementary paths to the same objective. Then, came the great breach, and they became contending paths.

Despite the contention, the reality is that science and religion are complementary. The revelation of the mystery of our true place in creation depends on a balanced approach to both. This begins when we recognize that there is no separation between the material and the spiritual. They are an overlapping continuum. Each affects the other.

There is a parable that illustrates this. There was once a cruel king that that built an extremely complex maze below his castle window. Whenever a criminal was brought to him for sentencing, he would send him into the maze with the promise that if he came out the other end he would be rewarded with great wealth. None ever survived to collect the reward. Until a tall blind man and a lame man were brought before him. The king thought it would be very amusing to send both of them into the maze together. The king watched with great amusement as the two helplessly stumbled and staggered. Then the two came together. The lame man climbed on the shoulders of the blind man. Being able to see over the hedges, the lame man was easily able to guide the blind man to the exit of the maze and a shared reward.

To demonstrate the validity of this approach, it is necessary to connect the realities of life in the here and now with the "spiritual realities" of religion. The challenge is made more complex when we realize that our scientific knowledge today is only a small fraction of the total knowledge required to understand the material creation. Similarly, Maimonides teaches that the perfection of humanity is in the acquisition of knowledge of God. This implies that we are far from complete knowledge of God and God's governance.

The sages tell us that we are not required to complete the task, but neither are we permitted to refrain from it. This is the purpose and mission of the Secular Kabbalist.




Original content copyright © Secular Kabbalist