Reader Comments on "Did Torture Make America Tamei?"

Nancy Robinson and Phil Anthony, 05/09/2004

Below is a conversation that happened between two readers, Nancy Robinson and Phil Anthony, in response to Arthur Waskow's piece "Did Torture Make America Tamei?

Comments by Nancy are in blockquotes.

On Sun, 9 May 2004, Phil Anthony wrote:

Dear Friends,

R. Waskow goes deeper than I have on this. I wouldn't expect it to speak to those (of any denomination) without a firm spiritual sense, however. The sense of "tamei" that I have, BTW - though I would hardly presume to match my understanding to Arthur's and Phyllis' - would be of the order of "spiritually dangerous to contact". It raises a number of questions that I'll appreciate others' insights into. Perhaps the greatest is the nature of the spiritual danger involved in lovemaking, menstruation, birth, and contact with death; and whether our contact as citizens with the torture in Iraq rises to that holy/separated level.

I suspect it may. On the other hand, tamei doesn't seem to me to involve shame, and the feeling I have over Iraq is overwhelmingly one of being profoundly ashamed. Or maybe that's just the easiest sense for me to be in touch with in myself? Grace, peace - Phil.

Phil Anthony, Coordinator, Salem Quarterly Meeting

Nancy A Robinson wrote:

Hi Phil,

Many thanks for offering this meditation. This question makes me want to jump off the planet. I find the thought of trying to "re-enter the sacred ocean of the world" very agonizing, because it seems impossible to disentangle oneself from the web of lies, murder, acquisitiveness, power games, when I know that these kinds of corruptions are alive and well in my own heart and soul; they seem part and parcel of what it is to be human, AND, I support what the US is doing every time I pay tax on a 50-cent candy bar! I am in despair.

The distance between the real and the ideal is a chasm infinite in its depth and width. Going to another country helps not at all, because these issues are systemic, we all seem to have blood on our hands. What a piece of work is disappointed the Holy One must be..........yes, I know that despair is not the answer, but I'll need help with this one.

Peace, Nancy

On Mon, 10 May 2004, Phil Anthony wrote:

Dear Nancy (et al.),

The help you need isn't mine, of course. But perhaps something I sent off to one of us who replied personally (so I'm not going to include that person's message) might add something to R. Waskow's meditation and my immediate response. The sender started by asking: "Please explain the spiritual danger involved in lovemaking, menstruation, birth, and contact with death; I consider these to be natural phases of existence." I wrote back:

Big question in your first paragraph. I'd want to run my response past a rabbi - maybe several rabbis, of different traditions (Orthodox, Chasidic, and Reconstructionist at the very least) - for insight and guidance. But here goes -

All of the activities/actions mentioned encroach on the boundaries of the Divine, the ever-Creating and ever-Destroying Being who marshals the stars in the heavens, gives us increase on earth, and establishes the conditions under which life can take place. The cycle of life and death is God's, and not ours; that sense underlies the tithing of the first-fruits and the dedication of the firstborn to the Lord. "The earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein. For he hath founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the floods" - Ps 24:1.

We're invited (Tony Prete's interpretation of the Priestly creation story, Gn 1:1-2:3; not "Light, be!" but "Let there be light!") to share in the process of creation and sustaining the universe. In being co-creators, however, we pass the limits set at the foot of Sinai:

"And the Lord came down upon Mount Sinai, on the top of the mount: and the Lord called Moses up to the top of the mount; and Moses went up. "And the Lord said unto Moses, Go down, charge the people, lest they break through unto the Lord to gaze, and many of them perish. "And let the priests also, which come near to the Lord, sanctify themselves, lest the Lord break forth upon them. "And Moses said unto the Lord, The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai: for thou chargedst us, saying, Set bounds about the mount, and sanctify it. "And the Lord said unto him, Away, get thee down, and thou shalt come up, thou, and Aaron with thee: but let not the priests and the people break through to come up unto the Lord, lest he break forth upon them." - Ex 19:20-24.

Judaism certainly recognizes that humans need to be close to G-D, but also that this G-D our G-D is a chancy G-D, one whose prerogatives can't be treaded upon lightly lest G-D break forth among us. Remember that the Hebrew word for "holy", qodesh, derives from a stem that means "separated", "dedicated/consecrated", "apart", "other", "different".

Humans transgress the boundaries in the normal, good, blessed course of their lives; love-making, menstruation, birth, and death bring us intimately into the presence of G-D and should not be undertaken lightly. When our contact with G-D rises to that level of intimacy, though, a means must be provided to remove the "difference" we've taken part in, and overcome the "otherness" we have been touched by, so that we can rejoin the community.

Is this a primitive understanding of godliness and humanness? Well, maybe. I don't know, really; parenthetically, I've gotten very cautious about labelling anything primitive just because my modern, scientific understanding is different. I remind myself that until the 1970s in the United States the use of infant formula was "scientifically" proven to be better than breast-feeding, and that when I grew up in the 1940s/1950s a "healthy, balanced" diet contained large amounts of eggs, milk, and red meat. Nevertheless, we aren't 2nd-century-BCE seminomads in the Sinai Peninsula.

So let's look at this. What might it mean to me? The first spiritual danger that I see is assuming, because we take part in God's holy work, that we are God. "I have gotten myself a man," Eve said at Cain's naming - and then, almost as an afterthought, "with the help of the Lord." I can be tempted, because of my involvement in the process, to take unto myself the credit for creating life - and the privilege of destroying it.

Second, the Jewish view underscores the reality that God is God and I am human. My getting close to God changes me, transforms me. Inevitably and (should it be ha-Shem's will) permanently. I can't escape that even if I wanted to. Still, I run the danger of being destructive to my community rather than helpful. "Oh, I could never be like her!" says one, and gives up in discouragement. "He's done it, so I don't have to," replies another complacently.

Among Quakers that's most likely to happen in the context of works - either resting on the laurels of previous generations (think underground railroad), or giving up in the face of overwhelming evils in the world. But it applies to our spiritual lives as well, our being as much as our doing.

So there needs to be a means to remind our community as well as ourselves of our common humanity. Call it if you want to a balance in our spirituality: "I, I am the Ishmael, I am the Esau," George Fox cried out. "Nihil humani mihi alienum est," wrote Tertullian - "Nothing in the human condition is foreign to me." Humility saves us, and it also saves our fellows by preserving them from reflections of either pride or despair. Both of which, of course, are sin.

Mind, I don't follow R. Waskow all the way. Does torture at Abu Ghraib fit into that matrix? The conditions that make one tamei which Arthur cites are good, and holy. They express God's love, and they're both personally and socially necessary for us as humans, quite unlike torture and humiliation.

But there are other conditions that make one tamei, which are not good and holy and which don't bring us close to ha-Shem. Many of the rest (seminal discharges, for example, sexual contact with animals) do seem to involve creation/destruction at least in a subverted - a literally unhealthy - form. But one thinks of the long passages in Leviticus and Deuteronomy that speak of "purification" after certain skin conditions, for instance, and the rules of "clean" and "unclean" foods.

I can't see how they have anything to do with what I've been talking about. (Which may only show my ignorance.) The critical scholar in me suggests that originally diverse laws with quite different spiritual purposes were conflated as the Jewish cultic practice developed and became fixed.

Actually, those passages might fit the Abu Ghraib situation better. We might recognize that the United States has eaten the food of uncleanliness, or speak of a leprosy on the body politic.

As for the rest of what you wrote ... of course you're right. We might take R. Waskow's question and apply it to domestic prison conditions and police procedures as well. That wouldn't be at all bad if it were accompanied by a resolve to cast out the uncleanness among us there as well!

I'd be cautious about abdicating personal responsibility, however - I didn't do it, I have an alibi, it was him, and her, and him! I wrote yesterday to another Friend about the differences between blame and responsibility. A great insight of the Jewish tradition (which sometimes gets lost in the praxis if not the theory of Christianity) is that whether we like it or not, whether we agree with it or not, even whether we've fought as hard against it as we can or not, we're still part of the community. Isaac's sacrifice avails nothing if we cut ourselves off from the seed of Israel. We can't escape our part in the greater community's activities, even when we're in no way to blame for them.

We're affected by the actions of our clan, tribe, nation, and we suffer their consequences, whether or not we took part in the actions. You mentioned some of the consequences, the political and social ones. They apply to you and me as much as to George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld. Beyond them, though, there seem to me to be spiritual consequences; and they're longer lasting and more irreparable than a breach between the Muslim and Judaeo-Christian worlds. The shame you mention feeling, I think, is part of that. For me personally, both individual and national mourning and repentance seems rightly ordered. Ashes and sackcloth. I, I am the Esau and the Ishmael. We pray You, Lord, turn Your fierce righteous anger from us for our collective sin.

I'm writing, of course, from the depths of my own shame and sorrow. A Chasidic saying that Martin Buber cites says: Every man should have two pockets, to dip into at need. In one it should be written, For my sake was the world created, and in the other, I am dust and ashes. At the moment at least, I'm looking at the piece of paper that says the world was created for my sake. And I'm deeply, thoroughly ashamed of what I as a member of humanity have done with the gift we've been granted. Lord, I am dust and ashes.

Yet beyond the mikvah and the Temple sacrifices, God has provided another means for cleansing ourselves:

"When ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood. "Wash you, make you clean [is this a reference to the mikvah?]; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; "Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. "Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool." - Is 1:15-20.

Does this help?

* * *

Nancy, I hope this speaks to you as well. Grief is Godly. For myself, I cry with you. There's no other country to go to, no star where we can hide. Your message made me think:

"Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? "If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. "If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; "Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me. "If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me. "Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee." - Ps 139:7-12.

While mourning is from God, despair is not. You were speaking loosely, I know. And God isn't the ideal, I've learned. God is the utterly, inescapably, reliably Real, even if I forget to treat God that way a good part of the time. God, the infinitely distant, is also the Ground on which we rest. Out of God's own Nature, God loves us, you and me and George W. and Donald and Saddam.

I personally believe that God goes so far as to grieve with us. The divine Abba never seems to be saying, "Dammit, the children have messed up again," but, "Oh, those poor children!" - and God cries. That's part of how I understand Jesus' teaching, "God is love," and I've experienced God's pain, just a little, but enough to know it's there. (And if I seem to detect a hint of exasperation in the holy Voice, all I can say is that I've been there, too.) Alongside the charge to the people - "And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them, Ye shall be holy: for I the Lord your God am holy" (Lv 19:1-2) - stands the charge to the prophet: "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God" (Is 40:1).

You might want to read all of Second Isaiah, chapers 40 through 55. Not as penance or sacrifice for sin, but as the unchanging, sometimes hard, but always loving words of our God - "The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever" (Is 40:8). Read lightly. Let the words drift through your consciousness, pausing where a passage speaks to you and allowing time to go where it takes you. Cry. Grieve. Repent (in Hebrew as in Greek, the word is simply, "Turn"). You may want to write down what you find. Then, in a week or two, when you're ready, go back and do it again. That unknown prophet in Babylon has a lot to say to God's people in grief and exile.

* * *

Dear Nancy! (saith the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel).

Maybe the chasm is infinite. I certainly can't get over it by myself. God - mysteriously and wonderfully and incomprehensibly - can, and does. "When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved? But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible" (Mt 19:25-26). "In this is love, not that we love God, but that God loved us..." (1Jn 4:10).

In his Journal, George Fox wrote of his experience of feeling as if he was drowning in an ocean of darkness. But then he was lifted up by the ocean of light that overcame it. "And God said, Let there be light."

Grace, peace; my human, limited, imperfect love and prayer - Phil.

Dear Phil,

Thank you for your very thoughtful and helpful response. Thanks too for noticing that I spoke of despair 'loosely.' Yes, despair is sin - perhaps the ultimate sin of refusing to continue on in the human journey. Some understandings teach that despair is the 'sin against the Holy Spirit' the only unforgivable sin. No, I really don't want to go there. To return to the question of 'tamai;' yes, I do feel 'unclean' and responsible because I am part of the Community of Americans. I keep hearkening back to the service on the Day of Atonement when the people stand together, confess the various sins that humanity involves itself in, and together they say: "We have sinned." There is wisdom in this because we all swim in Holiness and none of us can stand in that great light without seeing our own brokenness.

The Shoah wasn't about Germans - it was about humanity. The Gulag wasn't about Communism - it was about humanity. The Inquisition wasn't about religion - it was about humanity. We keep doing the same things over and over and over again; placing various guises on the will to power. So, yes, I shrink before the Holy One and long to be clean - I see myself in these horrors and beg the mercy of God. I will gladly accept your suggestion and spend time with Isaiah and know that the Prophets call us to holiness- -knowing what we're capable of; that is a very great mystery! "What is man that Thou Art Mindful of us?"

Blessings to all,



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