How can the Jewish value of life imbue our spiritual and communal practices? How can we organize our communities and our thinking around our love for live? How can Lifeism and Life-Centered Judaism inform our views of Jewish law, practice, religion, consciousness, peoplehood, and tikkun olam? David Bar-Cohn’s proposal tells us more.
This is the 8th entry in the Bronfman Big Idea Series.
About the Author
Originally from Los Angeles, David Bar-Cohn now lives in Israel with his wife and four children. He holds an M.A. in Clinical Psychology and runs a private psychotherapy practice.
He is the author of a soon to be published book on Jewish prayer, conducts a Jerusalem-based discussion group on Judaism and science, and recently studied for Smicha (rabbinic ordination) in the area of Kashrut.
Please visit his website at the Torah Technology Institute to learn more.
The Premise of the Proposal
This entry proposes to advance the value of “life” as the driving force behind Judaism and explores its implications for Jewish unity, Jewish education and scholarship, as well as our role as “light unto the nations,” as encapsulated within a new philosophy of “Lifeism.”
This proposal puts forward two related ideas:
1. Life-Centered Judaism as a construct for understanding Jewishness
2. Lifeism as a general philosophy
Both systems of Life-Centered Judaism and Lifeism are based on a single ethic of “Life” to which all other values are secondary. The definition of “life” in this context includes both the state of being alive itself as well as vitality (physical, emotional, intellectual, economic, interpersonal, and so on).
That is to say, in a life-based system of ethics, “good” is defined by the protection, prolongation, and proliferation of human life, as well as by the increase in vitality and sense of aliveness within the individual and society. “Bad” is associated with the erosion or eradication of life, the diminishment of vitality.
The proposal for Life-Centered Judaism makes the case that Judaism is inherently based on the life-principle, whereby our task as Jews is to articulate and apply this principle. Lifeism comprises a new philosophy based on the same principle that can be applied to a wide range of social and political contexts.
Practical applications of Life-Centered Judaism/Lifeism fall into the following categories:
1. Scholarship and education
2. Models for evaluating religious & social structures
3. Social and political policymaking
4. Paradigms for dialogue and diplomacy
5. General consciousness raising
Keep reading to learn more about Lifeism and Life-Centered Judaism.
An Organic Model
“I have placed before you the life and the good, and the death and the bad… and you will choose life, so that you will live, you and your children.” (Deut. 30:15, 19)
The Torah gives us the formula for its own ethical system. Good is equated with life, and bad is equated with death.
There are countless examples in Judaism that underscore the sanctity and centrality of life. The Torah itself is referred to as the “Tree of Life.” It says regarding the commandments: “live through them” (Lev. 18:5), which the Talmud emphasizes “and not die through them.”
Thus, we learn that concern for life and limb takes precedence over all Jewish practices, including Sabbath observance and fasting on Yom Kippur. The life-oriented approach is therefore distinctly organic to Judaism.
Life-Centered Judaism is not a new denomination or an attempt to supplant existing beliefs or practices. It merely takes the primary operating principle of Judaism, that principle being life, and places it at the center of our focus. It serves as an overlay, a filter for understanding and evaluating Judaism and Jewish issues, suggesting that we ask questions such as:
* How does a particular Jewish value, belief, or practice advance the cause of life?
* How does it invigorate the individual and community right now and over time?
If answers to such questions suggest that a specific practice is having a devitalizing effect on a community (emotionally, economically, interpersonally, or otherwise), then something has gone awry in our implementation or understanding of the practice. Life-Centered Judaism thus provides a method for evaluating the health of communities and individuals by articulating benchmarks for health and success.
Given the great diversity within Jewish communities worldwide (religious, cultural, ethnic, political, ideological, geographic), the notion of “Jewish unity” has become somewhat of a pie in the sky aspiration.
Despite efforts to promote unity and tolerance, we still face tangible divides, whereby the goals of one group run in seeming opposition to other groups. So even when we endeavor to “love our neighbors” it is complicated considerably by our overriding agenda to defeat them. Thus unity remains elusive.
Life-Centered Judaism taps into the single value – the value of life – that Jews across the spectrum hold as sacred. The desire for life is in our very bones. We are intuitively attracted to sources of life and vitality, be they material, intellectual, or spiritual. We are drawn inexorably to situations where human life, liberty, and dignity are under assault.
We are a nation of healers and defenders (i.e. doctors and lawyers), teachers, scholars, pioneers, and peace-makers – champions of life and vitality! It is something which we know instinctively, but Life-Centered Judaism makes this explicit and defines it as our very mission.
When we act in the interest of life, we by definition act within the spirit of Judaism.
Thus, even while we may disagree strongly about religious or political policy, we can nonetheless remain unified around the larger mission. By acknowledging the shared passion for our great national calling as beacons of light and life throughout the world, Jews from opposite ends of the table can begin to view each other as members of the same team, working toward a common goal.
At the end of a debate, each side can say frankly to the other: I may disagree with your approach, but I respect your larger vision – because it is mine as well.
Renaissance in Jewish Scholarship
Aside from cultivating a greater sense of unity among Jews, Life-Centered Judaism stands to impact our understanding of Judaism itself. The shift toward a life-orientation opens the door to a new renaissance in Jewish studies, including the re-examination of such topics as:
* Jewish Law and Practice – How does the life principle localize in Jewish civil law and human relations, and in practices such as Kashrut, Sabbat observance, Mikvah, prayer, and others? In what ways are they intended to invigorate the individual and community, and do they succeed in actual practice?
* Biblical Narratives – What do the stories of Adam and Eve, the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, Moses, King David, and others tell us about the centrality of life? To what extent do their successes and shortcomings convey either the upholding or lapse of the life-orientation?
* Ethical Monotheism – How do we relate to G-D from a life-centered point of view? Is there a parallel between a single G-D and a single value of life? In what ways does this open up the tradition to believers and agnostics alike?
* Language – Do our translations from Hebrew do justice to these concepts? Perhaps using a life-based approach we can develop a new lexicon that will enrich our understanding of Jewish literature as well as the experience of Jewish prayer.
* Concepts of Energy & Ecology – Focused as it is on life and living systems, how does Judaism relate to topics such as ecology and energy? Can we glean insights from the tradition to help us grapple with current environmental challenges?
* Concepts of Life & Consciousness – What is the true nature of life and human consciousness? Can an investigation of Jewish sources relating to the mind and soul help to answer humanity’s greatest unresolved questions?
* The Nature of the Jewish People & Our History – Are we a religion, a nation, a culture, a civilization? Perhaps using the life-orientation, we might conclude that we are a living, breathing, conscious organism alive now for over 4,000 years. If so, what are we growing into? How does the ebb and flow of Jewish history represent phases of our development?
* Tikkun Olam – What does the life-orientation tell us about the role the Jewish People has to play in the world? Are we properly fulfilling that role?
Launching Life-Centered Judaism
How, practically speaking, will we implement a proposal for Life-Centered Judaism? Specific initiatives include:
* Development of Literature – The goal is to publish a book detailing the concept of Life-Centered Judaism, including communal, social, and philosophical implications, targeted to the general Jewish audience. From there, more scholarly works may be written which apply the life-principle in various areas of Judaism.
* Jewish educational modules – The aim is to develop and implement course curricula for Jewish day schools and Jewish studies departments that emphasize the life-orientation within Judaism.
* Public awareness/Media campaigns – The objective is to increase awareness of Life-Centered Judaism and its potential to unify Jews, through use of advertisements and articles (print and web).
* Online communities – The goal is to create a central website for Life-Centered Judsism, with articles, e-learning modules, resources for teachers, and on-line communities for discussion and social networking.
Why Promote a Life-Centered Judaism?
* It is authentic to the tradition, has function of clarifying Judaism.
* It gives Jews a clear sense of identity and mission.
* It holds the hope of attaining a viable Jewish unity.
* It opens up the field of Jewish studies to a fresh wave of scholarship.
Lifeism – the Larger Picture
Life Unto the Nations
A natural outgrowth of the mission of championing life throughout the world is to bring the system of ethics articulated by Life-Centered Judaism into the realm of greater public discourse. This may be encapsulated within a philosophy of Lifism.
Lifism is exactly what it sounds like – an ideology based on life, where (as we described above in the Jewish version) the value of life is held above all other values.
That is to say, other principles such as justice, liberty, and truth – all the great values of civilization – are understood in this system as secondary to the value of life. We already know this to be true intuitively.
Consider pure justice unmitigated by compassion, freedom entirely without bounds, truth-telling under all circumstances (e.g. telling a would-be kidnapper where a child is hiding); when taken to their limit, these values become absurd. That is because they reach the point when they cease to be life-imbuing and start to become life-diminishing. Thus, it is the life-factor that gives value to our values.
The same is true of ideologies – capitalism, socialism, feminism, liberalism, etc. Where they serve to upgrade the level of life and vitality within society, they have a place. But where they degrade, devitalize, they lose their value.
Practical Benefits of Lifism within a Given Society
* It provides a system of checks and balances for ideological movements, such that any ideology and resulting policies are evaluated by their ability to achieve greater life and vitality. This allows us to better implement corrective measures where necessary.
* It characterizes other ideologies as means to ends, strategies for increased life. Whereas ideological focus leads invariably to impasse, strategic focus is dynamic and leads to cross-pollination of ideas and to the development of solutions.
* It raises the level of public discourse. Once we recognize that the other side of the debate shares the same underlying goal of life, albeit with a different strategy, we can take the energy otherwise invested in discrediting the other side and attend to the business of problem-solving.
* It stands as an ethical guidepost. With the objectives of life and vitality in mind, we can bring greater clarity to issues and formulate the most productive social policy.
Practical benefits of Lifism at the Inter-Societal Level
* It evolves the concept of multiculturalism. In Lifeism, it is not difference per se that is celebrated but rather the common thread of life that expresses itself uniquely throughout the cultures of the world. In this way, it promotes tolerance and respect without devolving into cultural relativism.
* It highlights the common ground among religions. Judaism after all does carry exclusive ownership of the life-orientation. Indeed, what a better world we would have if all faiths looked to life as the basis of their beliefs, the ultimate goal of their system. We could then join together as champions of life, despite our theological differences.
* It provides a conceptual framework for peace. The desire for peace is a beautiful thing, but it is not enough. For peace to be meaningful and lasting, we need to be aligned with one another in pursuit of a common goal. Although there exist some unfortunate aberrations to the rule, life is the one value common to just about all peoples, cultures, and religions. It is the implicit universal objective. Because it is built around that objective, Lifeism may hold the best hope for a substantive and viable model for peace.
Launching the Lifeism Movement
Specific initiatives for promoting Lifism would likely begin with a seminal book outlining the principles, and be followed up by developing a website and online community. If the idea gains proper momentum, in time we could see the establishment of institutions, academic departments, think tanks, and other bodies influential in policy-making.
So what do you think of these ideas? Are they valuable? How could they be further developed to meet your needs more fully? What are your reactions and thoughts?
We can’t wait to hear your comments.
Images sourced from here, with thanks.
Like what you are reading? Please subscribe by e-mail or feed reader by clicking the sidebar icons.