Did torture make America

Rabbi Arthur Waskow 5/18/2004

Dear Friends,

Have the photos of American soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners made America "tamei"? (A little further on in this letter, I will explore the meaning of this mysterious Hebrew word.)

And if so — what should we do about it?

Yesterday's Bible and prophetic readings for Shabbat addressed the question of how a priest becomes "tamei." In the Torah discussion of P'nai Or of Philadelphia, which I frequently weave, the community chose to focus on the spiritual state of "tumah" that emerges from contact with a dead body. The priest moves out of "tumah" by withdrawing from the community for seven days and them immersing himself in a pool of living waters.

By the end of the discussion, it occurred to me to ask:

"Has the shock of the photographs of torture by US troops of Iraqi prisoners made the whole American people 'tamei'? And if so, what should we do to reenter a more normally sacred spiritual space?"

I am writing to ask your views on both those questions. If a whole nation becomes tamei, what is the equivalent of the seven days of withdrawal and immersion that the Torah specifies for individuals who become tamei by touching death?

This is not a rhetorical question. In the rest of this letter I will share my own thoughts, but most of all I would like to hear yours. Please write me at Shalomctr@aol.com .

Please let me know whether you are willing for me to share your letter with others, with or without your name attached.

And if you are willing, please share my thoughts and your own with your congregants, and ask them to write me too.

First, what do I mean by the spiritual state of "tumah"?

Most translations convey "tamei" and "tumah" as "impure, impurity," or "defiled, defilement."

But recent translators have looked at the way the concept is used in the Hebrew Bible and have sought a subtler understanding, since it arises for a mother who has just given birth, for women and men who have made love, for a menstruating woman. Some have suggested "uncanny," or "taboo."

Everett Fox's translation of The Five Books of Moses refuses to translates these words at all, and just writes "tamei" in the midst of English.

Rabbi Phyllis Berman suggests it is a state of intense inward focus that arises from encountering an event like birth or death that is so intense, so soul-connected, that it severs a person's connections with community and shakes a person into a state of inner private holiness.

This kind of holiness is incompatible with the communal holiness of "kedusha," a sacred state that permits easy access to the Holy Shrine. To reconnect with the people as a whole and with the collective Holy Place of the people, it is necessary consciously to cross a threshold of time and rebirth in the oceanic, amniotic fluids.

(See her article on tumah as it appears in the Torah:)

So I am not asking whether the whole American people has been defiled, but whether we have been - or should be — shocked into a new spiritual state of heightened responsibility. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said over and over, "In a free society, some are guilty. All are responsible."

In order to think about what spiritual practices might take us beyond tumah, we must ask — responsible for what? Responsible — "answerable," the word means - for creating the systematic process by which some of our soldiers became torturers.

The systematic process is not new, or unheard-of. The psychologist Phil Zimbardo has written anew (see main article on this Home Page) about decades-old studies of simulated prisons where "guards" given absolute power over "prisoners" soon did exactly what the real-life guards of Abu Ghraib did. He added, this is a result not of tossing a few bad-apple sadistic soldiers into a good barrel, but of forcing good apples into a bad barrel - which turned them bad.

The "bad barrel" is this war, rooted in lies and itself a crime under international law.

A war rooted not in defending the United States but in imposing the will of the present US government on the nation of Iraq.

A war undertaken as part of a planned series of wars to guarantee US domination of the world into the indefinite future.

A war which the US entered while already holding prisoners that the Secretary of Defense said explicitly were not entitled to protection under any law - not the Geneva Conventions, not the Constitution. And though he now says prisoners in Iraq were different from prisoners taken in Afghanistan, no one told the guards or their teachers what Geneva says, let alone to obey it.

A war not undertaken to get rid of a tyrant - there are plenty of tyrants in the world, many supported over the decades by the US itself (including Saddam Hussein, when he was fighting against the US enemy du jour, Iran).

In short, this war would have been rejected by the American people, had they known what the real motives of the US government were.

So those who lied, who shattered international law, are the "some" who are guilty.

But the "bad barrel" into which we threw the good apples of our Appalachian youth was not just the war.

It was also the prison system of the United States, which is also set up with guards having almost absolute power and which also - as reported in the New York Times - produces rape, beatings, and torture as a result.

(See Fox Butterfield's article)

Many are the TV cop shows where rape of prisoners is treated like a reality - so well-known as to be a joke that's always worth a snicker. And a threat to frighten those in custody.

How many of us have walked away from those cop shows to say, "You mean that's normal in our prisons? Disgusting! - What can I do to prevent the rape of prisoners?"

We are ALL responsible - answerable.

That was why a shudder of horror ran through America as the torture photos sank in.

That is what, in my view, made us all tamei.

Not as individuals. - I do not think it would make sense for each of us to isolate herself, himself, for seven days, and then to soak alone in a body of living water.

How can a whole nation make itself "tahor" - clarify its relationship to what happened and to the rest of the world?

What follows are my own thoughts. As I said above, I welcome yours and if you are willing, I would be glad to share them with others.

The only way to make our use of power holy is rhythmically, periodically, to relinquish our power, to share it with the powerless. Sabbath. Hajj. The sabbatical year and the Jubilee Home-bringing.

A suggestion: Announce this week that next Sabbath or Juma, there will be a special time for getting in touch with the depth of feeling people have had about the revelations of torture.

At the sacred gathering itself, set aside an hour.

Begin with ten minutes of silent meditation focused on the breath and the joyful dignity of our bodies.

If you can feel you can do this without violating the community's sense of sacred time, you might arrange for grown- ups to see a few of the torture photos.

Whether you do the photo sharing or not, ask people to take ten minutes in a dyad - talking with one other person — to share their own reactions to the photos and articles about the torture of prisoners. Do NOT- at this time - ask them to share assessments, or proposals, or actions. Only the feelings they felt.

After this exchange, take ten minutes to absorb in silence what each dyad has said.

Then invite any who wish to stand and say to the whole congregation in one minute or less the central spark of what they learned.

End with a prayer to the Source of peace. Invite people to come on a weekday night to talk about what to do to repair the broken sense of American decency.

Announce that one hour of the next weeks service will be given over to much the same process, so that seven or eight days will be given to this time of communal reflection.

At this second gathering of reflection, end the special hour by asking the congregation as a "communal immersion" to reenter the sacred Ocean of the world, by seven minutes of chanting a melody with no words and then seven minutes of breathing along with all living creatures.

My own hope is that many many Americans will see that a full tshuvah or "turning" away from the patterns of absolutist top- down control that brought on these tortures must include -

    - ending this war abroad, moving toward a far more planetary community to address the real dangers of proliferating weapons and spreading terrorism

    - and transforming the present US prison system - aptly called the war at home — from one that often teaches and rewards sadism, to one committed to compassionate transformation of criminals into citizens.

Perhaps if we can actually share this process across our country, other responses will arise. I trust the process of reflection, especially when it is specifically connected with the spirit.

With blessings of shalom,


See: Reader Comments on "Did Torture Make America Tamei?"


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