Bronfman Big Idea Series: “Life-Centered Judaism: Bringing Life Unto the Nations”


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.

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.

Evaluative/Self-Corrective System

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.

Your Contribution

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.



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38 Responses to Bronfman Big Idea Series: “Life-Centered Judaism: Bringing Life Unto the Nations”

  1. […] “Life-Centered Judaism: Bringing Life Unto the Nations” by David Bar-Cohn– NEW! […]

  2. Maya Norton says:

    Dear David,

    I’ll start off the questions.

    I am inspired by the idea of “life” as a central tenet of Judaism and Life-Centered Judaism as a guiding philosophy for Jewish philosophy, but I am not totally clear on what this means in practice.

    Would you mind sharing with us some examples from your lists as to how our thinking could be reconfigured using Life-Centered Judaism. I am especially thinking about your top five categories:

    1. Scholarship and education
    2. Models for evaluating religious and social structures
    3. Social and political policymaking
    4. Paradigms for dialogue and diplomacy
    5. General consciousness raising

    Also, what are some scenarios or examples in which, as you say in the summary, the “principles such as justice, liberty, and truth– all great values of civilization” could be “understood in this system as secondary to the value of life”?

    I look forward to hearing your response,


  3. Patti says:

    The “Lifeism” philosophy is thought provoking. However, the guiding principle of “Lifeism” would not seem to support abortion, which is a contentious social and moral issue. I am curious how the author feels about that specific issue, and how those in favor of legal abortions could still feel comfortable abiding by the “lifeism” philosophy?

  4. Shai says:

    Very interesting, David. I look forward to your book.

    I found your approach to life as a supreme value fascinating, and the quotes you bring to life to support your view (because the “life” aphorism generally refers to Torah). I’d like to see more development of the idea in the context of societies and communities, because it is there in weighing the rights of individuals vs. communities that the theory finds its most severe challenges. If that can be achieved, I think that the idea has huge benefits – societies from the invention of fire have been trying to strike a balance between the needs of the individual vs. that of the group.

    Similarly, when we weigh the rights of whole communities of individuals to survive at the expense of individuals in other societies (thinking here of a first strike on Iran for example if they threatened Israel with nuclear annihalation).

    In your theory, at what point does the life of one person take priority over the lives of others, as sometimes happens in war, or abortion, or capital punishment, suicide, delivery of life-saving organs, or self-defense? At what point does something become Amnesty-International-Pie-in-the-Sky life affirming, vs. life denying (for example, whether it is legitimate to ask a fighter pilot to fly lower for better accuracy, though this puts his life at significant risk)? When can you act in favor of life in a situation when the threat is not immanent (such as in a “first-strike”)? When you are opposite an opponent who will treat you to be his breakfast if you follow this track because he doesn’t, how do you behave? Should you feel guilty? I appreciate the approach, but I think I’d want to see how these matters are addressed.

    My own approach is similar to yours in many ways but where it is different is that I don’t assert that any values are supreme. I prefer that all values be examined in each situation, because I think it’s the process as much as the value that develops our Jewish character.

    I do wish that it would be simpler, but after much thinking it seems to me that Judaism is what it is, and we Jews who we are, because we’ve been enriched by the wrestling with the conflicts of which values win out in any situation. Our edginess as a people is no doubt in part due to the hair splitting that we engage in as we try to get our arms around these situations – I think that that’s where we grow the most – in the wrestling.

    Of course, when the situation is amenable to it life is a supreme value but there are instances (I mentioned some) where I think simplification is a retreat from the “heavy lifting” ethically that we need to do, and that sometimes there are no easy or right answers.

    How the ideological movements are “evaluated” and by whom I think is germaine to all the questions I’ve raised. There are some ideological movements who see the life of Jews as supreme. To appeal to them, you’d have to make an argument to the quality of their lives, which you’d possibly claim might be worsened by making the lives of others miserable. Or not. How much of the discussion of “life” as a supreme value tied up in the quality of it, rather than its ontological value for us and those who see us as threats to their lives or beliefs (the latter being a large part of what they see as “quality”)?

    Also, it’d be interesting to trace your idea as a developing thought historically as well as within Judaism. For example, Rambam was exposed to Aristotle who thought that human beings were such only in potentia. To become truly human and not merely slightly above the level of apes, they needed to gain knowledge of their world and develop their intellect. There is doubt whether Rambam would envision children or mentally handicapped people as being able to enter “olam habah”, not to mention some of the rabbis who opposed him because, for example, they thought G-d was corporeal, because of his views. In many ways, his idea about Jews is the same, that they are Jews “in potentia” until they grasp the 13 ikkarim. At some point the thinking shifted from Aristotle to humanism. Why, and how? What did Judaism really have to do with it?

    In all, I loved the presentation and the forward thinking in your proposal. I think that any approach that focuses on values is pointed in the right direction, and I especially appreciate the thought you’ve given to spreading the idea, coming up with an idea that is cross-generational in scope (including the coming generations) and making an idea that is international in vision rather than just American. I do think that life as a value is already well-ensconsed in our culture, and that our survival would be greatly enhanced if others took it for themselves, too. But when they don’t, you face the dilemma of pacifists, where you must be willing to give your own life rather than take another’s, or make trade-offs in quality of life which inevitably ties you up in the relativism you’re trying to avoid. Or so it seems, no?

  5. Maya Norton says:

    Dear Patti,

    What an interesting perspective you’ve raised. I’m excited to hear how David will respond, especially given his combined background of Torah and the sciences.

    My understanding is that the Jewish tradition has not objected to abortion as the embryo (or collection of cells…) is not seen as viably human until the second trimester when it officially is classified as a fetus. Perhaps that explanation is a bit crass, but I think you will see what I’m saying.

    Of course, there is no question that an embryo is life at its most essential form.

    (As a side note, I studied at a Tibetan monastery in India and can report that Tibetan Buddhism aligns with Judaism on this one.)

    What is your opinion on this?


  6. Maya Norton says:

    Dear Shai,

    I tried to ease into my questions (which are along the same lines as yours), but I see that in true fashion, you jumped right in and threw down the gauntlet. Excellent reasoning. Can’t wait to hear David’s response.

    By the way, your comment does not sound anything like the response of a sick person. Does this mean that you are all better or that you are neglecting your rest. Hope it is the former. 🙂


  7. Shai says:

    This is how I respond when I’m sick 🙂

  8. Shai says:

    Regarding the comment on the 3rd trimester abortions, it seems clear that nevertheless fetuses are not given the same value as human life in halacha. See

  9. Maya Norton says:


    I am thrilled to announce that two more contest finalists have agreed to share their proposals with us. Look for them in the coming days.

    ~ “The Sacred Task of Rebuilding Jewish Memory” by Yehuda Kurtzer
    ~ “Bringing Judaism to the Mainstream” by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach


  10. Maya,

    First of all, THANK YOU for the opportunity to post, especially “post-facto”. It’s a good reminder to all those who didn’t make the final 5 that these proposal ideas can still be developed… Yes, even without a Brandeis faculty position!

    Now, to respond to your comments… (I’ll respond to each person’s comment in separate posts.) We’re looking for “examples of how our thinking could be reconfigured using Life-Centered Judaism. I am especially thinking about your top five categories…” Okay, let’s start with:

    1) Scholarship and education — On this, Life-Centered Judaism offers a fresh entry into Jewish learning. Let’s take the example of animal sacrifice as it is presented in the Torah. How is this typically approached? It is either taken as barbaric, or a transition from pagan worship, or in psychological terms as symbolic of taking one’s own life, or as a way of eating meat that is more respectful to the animal life, or as a way of coming close to G-d, doing what is asked of us even if we don’t understand it, and so on. All these approaches have their place. What we’re calling the “life-centered” approach starts with the assumption that when the Torah brings a Mitzva, it is designed in some way to enhance our vitality, to increase our net life-energy. When viewed as a system for dealing with “life-energy”, sacrifices take on a whole new meaning. For instance, it appears to overlap with principles of energy-flow found in Eastern medicine — releasing and transforming blocked energy, then recycling that energy for productive use. This is a longer story (which I’m happy to tell sometime), but suffice it to say that the life-centered approach has the capacity to transform the book of Vayikra from the big “snooze-o-rama” to the most exciting book in the Torah! (At least it has for me 🙂

    2) Models for evaluating religious and social structures — This has to do with how societal norms impart vitality (or lack thereof) to communities and individuals. Sticking with Jewish topics for a moment, let’s take the example of “modest” dress (i.e. conforming to Jewish law). Typically this is viewed in terms of right and wrong. The strict Orthodox view would say it is morally “wrong” to dress in such a way that the body is exposed. A more liberal view would say there is nothing wrong with the human body, and it is “right” to allow people to express themselves in whatever clothing they wish, within limits of public decency. The life-centered question once again is: What is the vitalizing effect that modest dress is supposed to have on a community and on individuals, and does it succeed in practice? Perhaps we find ourselves choosing between two types of vitality: that which comes with freedom and spontaneity and that which comes with stability and self-discipline. And here is the point — BOTH of these are important aspects of vitality! Therefore depending on the norm of the community, it may be important to find ways to supplement life with spontaneity or self-discipline in order to round out the communal vitality. What makes the life-centered approach distinct is that it is non-judgmental — the only judgment is that people should be invigorated, not deadened, by their norms, and to this everyone agrees.

    3) Social and political policymaking — This takes the type of vitality-oriented analysis used in #2 above and uses it to inform public policy. Let’s take the issue of income tax. As a gross generalization, let’s say… Conservatives will say it is “wrong” to tax high and take people’s hard-earned money. Liberals will say it is “wrong” to tax low and deprive people of needed social programs. A life-centered approach would say: Let’s take the conversation out of the frame of “right and wrong” and focus instead on what yields the greatest net vitality for the society — in this case financial vitality. Once again, this is not a simple thing to measure, and we may have to decide between several imperfect scenarios, but the strength of this approach is precisely in recognizing that there *are* imperfections in the policies we advocate, and that we can and should listen to the other side of the debate to find out how to cover that shortfall. Which is a perfect lead-in to…

    4) Paradigms for dialogue and diplomacy — The point here is about *how* we discuss issues. The way we conduct debate and dialog is too often an exercise in talking past each other. That’s because we have no intention of exchanging ideas and learning from one another. It is simply a question of discrediting the other side so that our agenda wins. But rather than dive headlong into the throes of disagreement, a life-centered framework for dialogue would start by going over the underlying point of *agreement* – namely that the goal of both sides is to maximize vitality, to increase life. So really, the disagreement is one of strategy, not ideology. And this makes a huge difference! If you differ over ideology, then it’s you against them, and whoever shouts louder (i.e. has the most money/power/influence) wins. But if you differ over strategy, then this is something that can be put on the table; there is room for give and take. And as we said above, it allows you the freedom to let your guard down and acknowledge the shortcomings of your own strategy. Point being, the life-centered process is much more conducive to problem-solving than the current brand of polemics. It can also be implemented on multiple levels — from couple therapy to mediation to organizational settings to community forums to political debate to international/diplomatic efforts. If two sides can agree to a greater shared vision, we have a substantive and secure place to begin the discussion!

    5) General consciousness raising — This is taking all of the above and putting it into the public sphere (via web, media, and literature), so that people start to employ more life-centered language and thinking, in personal life and when discussing issues. And… by using a universal language of life and uniting under a shared vision, we stand a chance at formulating solutions and making peace with one another.

    Ok, as for examples wherein justice, liberty, and truth are secondary to the value of life… I touched on this in the blog that when these values are taken to their limit they become absurd. So for instance, to grant a child complete liberty without any sensible rules and limitations runs counter to his or her welfare, counter to *life*. A world of absolute justice where each of us gets only what we deserve with no room for compassion is an utterly dreary, devitalizing proposition. If a would-be kidnapper asks a mother about the location of her children, what good is the value of truth-telling? All values become worthless if they subvert the greater cause of life. On the other hand, there is no point where the value of life/vitality becomes absurd. On the contrary, the more vitality, the better!

    That’s all for now. I will respond to the other questions/comments when I have the time… and the vitality 🙂


  11. Gary Kulwin says:

    This proposal was very interesting to read. Does anybody else think that the “sister” monotheistic religions also seem to be organized around a central, guiding principle? In Christianity, that principle seems to be “Love” (i.e. where the life and death of Jesus, as acts of sacrifice, express divine love for humanity). In Islam, that principle seems to be “Justice” (where individual and collective submission to G-d’s will is designed to establish a just and peaceful society).

    Indeed, all of the monotheistic religions seem to promote a teleology where all of human history is essentially one extended struggle toward enlightenment/Peace/Gan Eden/etc. The core difference may be on what each faith sees as the guiding principle in the struggle for a better world.

    BTW, I have often thought that “Truth”, and not “Life”, was the central guiding principle behind Jewish thought. This does not mean that we believe we “know the truth”. Indeed, quite the opposite; all of human learning (both secular and Torah learning) is guided by a desire to better understand G-d’s handiwork, and thus be able to participate as partners in creation/”Tikkun Olam”.

    I’m really not sure how much of this thinking is based on traditional Jewish thought, and I how much I have somehow made up on my own. I’m sure that the more well read commenters on this site will be able to advise me…

    Kol Tuv, GK

  12. Maya Norton says:

    Very interesting, Gary.

    Can you say more about Judaism and Truth (either in comparison or opposition to Judaism as Life)?

    I think you hit the mark directly with your assessment of Christianity as Love and Islam as Justice. Now if only we could figure out what to do with these ideas in better organizing and conceptualizing our world.


  13. Chico says:

    The word Islam means “submission”. I think that better describes the religion than “justice”.

  14. Maya Norton says:

    Dear Chico,

    But “submission” cannot be independent of another thing. Submission to what ideal?

    Thanks for your comment,


  15. Chico says:

    Submission to “Allah” according to wiki. If Islam was based on justice then there would be much more justice in the Islamic world.

  16. Shai says:

    Chico, Gary, Maya, interesting observations. I think that in its most threatening form, Islam is about everybody submitting to their specific view of Islam. The problem in their view is that if only everybody would agree with them, there would be “peace” and “justice”.

    Problem is, everybody has a different ideal and approach ot achieving it, and Lifeism seems to be suggesting that as long as we share the common denominator of “life” and its “vitality”, it’d almost automatically enduce an atmosphere of tolerance that respects all approaches. The “submission” is to this common view. To bad Islamic fundamentalists (and other fundamentalists) won’t grasp this.

    But that they won’t grasp it has consequences for David’s idea. To what degree are you willing to accept the legitimacy of fundamentalist and non-Lifeism perspectives when these perspectives literally undermine your own? What do you do about it?

  17. Shai says:

    David, I read your response.

    I still don’t understand how the “life” approach is so different in the examples you gave to what happens today, say, in most democracies and communities in wrangling about policy. In American politics, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” means different things to different people, and that’s why you see the arguments you described in the fashion you described them. What makes you think that similar arguments won’t develop in a society ruled by “Lifeism”? Why do you believe that you can avoid the “relativism” that such arguments devolve into?

    At some point we have to get down in the pits and watch how the sausage is being made, and it seems you’re trying to avoid this by giving a single value that is held supreme, which would automatically be a catalyst for agreement. It’s not my expeience that people that people agree about what “Life” is and should be, and therein lay the rub. There wouldn’t be an ethereal hall of justice where these arguments are weighed, it’d be in legislatures, community boards, at the family dinner table – everybody’s idea of what “life” is and how it can be optimized is different, sometimes radically so, and I’m wondering how you propose to shepherd whole populations and specifically our Jewish population (the objective of the competition) into your view.

    Let me give you a few challenges. Yossi tells his parents he’s gay, and is having a relationship with a man. Against the Torah. But isn’t it life affirming to allow him that choice? Or, should we have a view of “life affirming” that is different than he has?

    Another. Feiga has been told by her parents that they are divorcing. Divorcing is not against Torah. Feiga is upset because her parents’ divorce will damage her marriageability prospects. Would it be more life affirming for her parents to stay together for her sake, or split for their own sakes?

    Another. Sean is a young man, poor, but very smart. He’s likely according to his teachers to achieve a great deal for the benefit of humanity. He’s very kind and considerate, and has worked in the neighborhood soup kitchen for years. Feivel is an old man, very wealthy. He’s a slum lord, known for dishonesty and stinginess. Both are in need of a single available heart transplant in order to survive. The halacha as I understand it is that whomever can pay for it gets it, that it was intended for whatever reason that Fievel should have the money and Sean not. But your theory would go against that. Surely there would be a net vitality gain if we saved Sean’s life. But to conclude this we’d have to discount the possibility that Fievel will mend his ways if he survives. Do we have a right to deny that possibility? How does your theory deal with the time dynamic and probabilities? Does it account for the fact that people will deal with these probablilities differently?

  18. Patti,

    You asked whether Lifeism would necessarily rule out abortion. I can see how it might appear that way. It turns out that by using a life-centered approach, both sides can be understood to express “pro-life” positions. The anti-abortion side is concerned with the extinguishing of nascent life inside the womb. The pro-choice side is concerned with the effect on life outside the womb, the decrease in vitality of a society where women are forced to bear unwanted children. The problem is that it’s like a tablecloth that’s too short for the table — you pull it one way, and you leave part uncovered on the other side. Pull it the other way, the opposite side is left uncovered. Point being, if both sides are truly coming from a place of wanting to protect life, they should be genuinely concerned about covering the position of the other side — because it is their issue as well!

    So… How does the life-centered approach come down in terms of actual policy? The answer is that it has no preset answer. What it does is create a healthier *process* of policymaking, so that by working together without all the noise of hateful back-and-forth rhetoric, we will hopefully end up with a policy that takes all vitality-related factors into account, one that is designed to maximize life on *both* sides of the equation.

    Regards, David

  19. ARB says:


    Thanks for your comment on my blog. I appreciate you thinking of my project.


    I really enjoyed reading yoru proposal. I think that the abortion question is an interesting one in relation to your idea.

    I know quite a few pro-life people, and their opinion is that if you concieve a child, the child then has a right to live- i.e. the mother and father should have thought about that beforehand. That is regarless of what the mother wants or what is best for her life. I also know quite a few pro-choice people, and they value choice over the life of the unborn child. Neither side is willing to compromise if they believe they are right. You may get some pro-choice people willing to support a ban of abortion after a certain number of months, and some pro-life people may be willing to support birth control, but that not much give on either side. So who is right according to lifeism?

    When both sides think they are advocating the right position, and when both sides think that their position values “life,” what do you do? Why decides? Should there be a lifeist judges who make the decisions on these issues? This is just something to think about.


    Please write a book! I would love to read it.

  20. ARB says:

    Obviously my spell check isn’t working! LOL.

  21. Gary Kulwin says:

    Hi, Chico –

    You wrote:

    “If Islam was based on justice then there would be much more justice in the Islamic world.”

    I agree that there doesn’t seem to be lots of justice around (at least as we would understand the term) in the Arab/Islamic world today. However, the rhetoric of “Justice” seems to be everywhere, all the time. I was watching an Israeli current affairs show yesterday (the London et Kirshenbaum show, on the Israeli Network in the Diaspora or Channel 10 in Israel). They often show clips from Arab television on their show, and yesterday they profiled “Al-Aksa Television”, the official TV outlet of

    the Hamas leadership in Gaza (now broadcast via satellite throughout the Arab world, with the help of Iran). Every single statement on that station (whether news reports, kids shows, the weather, etc.) deals with the themes of “oppression” and “justice”. Of course, in their world view, we are the world’s leading “oppressors”, and their role is to struggle for “justice” (presumably by getting rid of us).

    IMHO, their main problem is a complete lack of introspection about the real demand of “Justice” – i.e. not just justice for oneself, but even for one’s enemies. For example, there are plenty of Jews and Israelis who sincerely care about reaching “a just settlement with the Palestinians”, but I haven’t heard too many on the other side seeking “justice for the Jews” (although they may want to “deliver justice TO the Jews”, which unfortunately is an entirely different concept). 😦

    If you look at offshoots of Islam – notably the Bahai movement – they also similarly elevate “Justice” as a central concern of their faith. Indeed, I think that Bahai in some ways is really more like “Reform Islam” (an evolution from its parent faith community) than a competely separate religion – but, of course, that’s for the Bahais and Muslims to decide, not me. I think that if we saw more real democracy in Arab countries (which will probably only happen when the oil economy diminishes in importance), then I think you might actually see a more “just form of Justice” emerging in the Arab world.

    BTW, I don’t think that the “Justice problem” (i.e. caring about justice for everybody, not just oneself) is certainly not a Muslim/Arab challenge alone. Whenever I see the slogan “No Justice, No Peace” I wonder what the sign-holder would think if he saw somebody on the other side (his opponent/”enemy”) holding the same sign. I also wonder why we never see signs saying “No Love, No Peace” or “No Truth, No Peace” (although I have seen bumper stickers reading “No Jesus, No Peace” – which presumably could be translated as “No (Christian) Love, No Peace”).

    Anyway, regarding us and Truth – doesn’t it seem that this prevades every essense of our culture – from Israeli egalitarianism (i.e. the view that pretensiousness is just another way to mask the truth), to our self-deprecating humor, to our most serious religious rituals (think about Yom Kippur confessions)? Indeed, the whole rhetoric of the Arab-Israeli conflict seems to be between advocates of “Justice” versus advocates of “Truth”. They demand “justice for the refugees” (which, of course, would mean the end of a sovereign Jewish state). We, in turn, demand “recognition of our character as a Jewish state” (which doesn’t even ask them to accept our reality as their own – it simply asks that our perspective be acknowledged as a valid version of the truth, which is apparently too much for most of our opponents). Indeed, our enemies love to taunt us with their flagrant disregard of the truth (the Iranian Holocaust Conference is perhaps the most blatant example of this); always done, of course, in the name of “Justice”.

    I personally think that Life stands out as a Jewish value, not necessarily because it is the central Jewish value (I still think that Truth is), but because it is such a clear differentiator with “the competition” – our sister monotheistic religions. In both Christianity and Islam, the afterlife seems to play an even bigger role in their theology than it does in ours; and the willingness to sacrifice one’s life plays an important role in their religious thought. Some obvious examples: the crucifixion and resurrection as the defining moments in Christianity, and the “shaheed” (Jihadi martyr) in current versions of Islam.

    Of course, we also have a concept of kiddush ha-shem, but I don’t think that it plays as central a role in our theology as it does in the sister religions. Of course, I readily admit that I’m no great religious scholar, so I welcome any disagreements and corrections…

    Kol Tuv, GK

  22. Gary Kulwin says:

    P.S. Sorry about the weird line breaks in the preceeding post – I edited my comments in TextPad and then copied them over before posting.

  23. Shai,

    I’m responding to both your comments. On the first…

    Regarding communities vs. individuals, I’d also like to see the development of the idea! But I don’t think there is any “out of the box” solution that can address the subtlety of all such dilemmas. Each case still needs to be evaluated on its own.

    About a first strike on Iran, and all “it’s either us or them” scenarios, all I will say is that the very core of the life-principle is the duty to protect one’s own life. As Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” I believe this applies on the societal level as well.

    About examining all values in each situation rather than following one supreme principle, I don’t think it is an either/or proposition. Yes, certainly we should take other values into account. All I am saying is that the litmus test for any value is whether it is life-imbuing or life-diminishing in that particular case. The idea is not to oversimplify complex matters but to act as a guiding light so that the complexity doesn’t cause us to lose sight of the larger goal.

    Regarding the paragraph about appealing to Jews who see themselves as supreme, I am not sure what you meant. If I haven’t answered your question feel free to clarify.

    In terms of tracing the idea historically, I think that’s a great idea.

    And In response to your second posting…

    About similar political arguments developing in the life-centered society, once again the idea is not to dissolve arguments but to make those arguments more productive, more directed. I’m not sure what you mean that such arguments devolve into relativism, but I will say there is a place for pluralism where it manifests as multiple strategies to the same end of increasing life/vitality.

    Regarding disagreements as to what “Life” is and what it should be, I would make the distinction between life and vitality. Life (one’s being alive) is an objective and quantifiable state, notwithstanding the gray area of where exactly does life begin and where does it end. Vitality is harder to quantify, and I think the case can be made that societies (and individuals for that matter) can function with very different definitions of what is vibrant and healthy. One person can have a great deal of vitality and have very little if any intellectual life. For someone else, abandoning the intellect would be deadening.

    On the idea of shepherding whole populations and specifically our Jewish population as being the objective of the competition… Honestly, I don’t anyone can pretend to boast such a proposal – I certainly don’t!

    About “Yossi” – Here we need to distinguish between the theoretical and the practical. In theory (life-centered theory, that is), the Torah only prohibits what it deems to be devitalizing, sapping of life-energy. One can speculate about what this means in terms of homosexuality, but the point is it is only a speculation. In real life, people make choices, and with those choices come trade-offs. Either Yossi is devitalized by leading a life of self-deprivation, or he is devitalized by the negativity from his parents and community, and possibly by his own guilt with respect to Torah observance. A person must weigh this for him/herself. The Torah is saying that, all other things being equal, homosexual relations should be avoided because they have a devitalizing effect. But all other things are not always equal!

    About “Feiga”, as you say there is no Halachic imperative to divorce or not to divorce, even where it affects a child’s marriageability. So then there is no saying that the parents “should” or “should not” stay together because it is life-affirming in any objective way. The issue depends entirely on what they *feel* is life-affirming. If the vitalization of staying together for their daughter’s sake outweighs the de-vitalization of having to put up with one another, that’s what they will do. Otherwise, not.

    About “Sean and Feivel”, this is a very important point. With all the “vitality assessments” you’d want to make, the life-centered model NEVER EVER EVER (is that emphatic enough?) makes a value judgment to say that one person’s life is inherently “worth more” than anyone else’s. Once you go in that direction, what starts as “life” centered will soon corrupt itself into a cult where the less “vital” are demoted and oppressed – under the guise that it is to “maximize life” for the benefit of all… I have gotten this sort of vibe in certain new age circles, where the talk is all about becoming “evolved”, yet there is a distinct undercurrent of self-righteousness and disdain for those “less evolved” – i.e. people who do not subscribe to their thinking.

    Thanks for all the thought-provoking comments and questions!


  24. Maya Norton says:

    In response to ARB’s comment:

    You heard the man, Shai. Get to it.

    I’ve never met anyone else with more on his mind. Your readers eagerly await your upcoming (we hope) publication.


  25. Maya Norton says:

    Gary, I fixed the formatting in your post. These comment boxes aren’t very forgiving. Are yours any better?

    I want to add a widget so you can subscribe to comments. I think it would make it so much easier and user friendly to have a conversation like this.


  26. Gary Kulwin says:

    Thanks for the fixes, Maya! I also agree that WordPress needs to implement some sort of subscription mechanism for commenting, so that we could more easily engage in “conversations” like this one (or even cross-blog postings & rebuttals/comments).

    Kol Tuv, GK

  27. Maya Norton says:

    I know, it’s so silly. There is a widget to download and install, but clearly that is not my forte.

    At the very least, WordPress bloggers should get the comments mailed to them that they make on each other’s blogs, much like there are network benefits between users of the same cellphone service.


  28. ARB says:


    You revealed that I am not a woman! My secret identity is blown. =) jk.

  29. Maya Norton says:

    That’s funny. I actually thought about it before I did it and decided that maleness is not much of a narrowing factor when accounting for online identity.

    On a sidenote: I would like to see a breakdown of bloggers by gender. Many more male, don’t you think? I often see female authors of blogs, especially successful ones, get referred to by male pronouns as a default.


  30. Shai says:

    Maya, ARB, you give me more credit than I deserve. But thanks.

    I’m more interested in collaborative projects. There is a collective wisdom in our People and its literature and culture that is more powerful, creative and true than anything I’ve got to offer, and personally I very much want to benefit from this collective wisdom, too, as well as contribute to it. It was that engine I had hoped to put to work in my Jewish Community Incubator idea.

    But my voice has interest to me only when gathered with all of yours in a form of a community-building anthology. I don’t mean that in a touchy feely way – I mean it in a get down and get your hands dirty way.

    I’d be interested in volunteers for participating in a blog on such a matter – not sure exactly how to structure it, but I’d see it as sort of a follow up on the Bronfman contest the same way that there are now follow ups for Birthright. It’d be my own way to add “stickiness” (to use a term Maya introduced to me via her blog) to the ideas I think are important, but if it were just me pounding at the keys I’d become bored of it very quickly as I imagine readers would, too.

  31. Maya Norton says:


    First of all, au contraire on the credit.

    Secondly, the question of “Where do we go from here?” is one that I’ve been thinking a lot about. If I may, the series is still in active publication (three new proposals next week, almost a 30% increase!) and I’d love it if we could have this conversation as a collective.

    If you don’t mind waiting, I will be e-mailing all the authors together once it looks like the series is nearing an end. In the meantime, feel free to e-mail me or comment here with ideas on how to get this going or next steps to take along these lines.

    I think we will see strong activity on the proposals throughout February as the symposium is on the 24th and we are bound to have ripples and waves from there.

    IF (only if) interested, I would be happy to moderate such a blog or forum if we decide that’s one of the avenues we want to take. I am really excited to explore the possibilities further.

    We’ll talk soon– or feel free to call or e-mail when you get a chance if you’d like to discuss it even sooner.

    Hope you are feeling better,


  32. Shai says:

    David, thanks for your responses.

    I thought “Lifeism” was meant as a means for untangling conflicts.

    Conflicts require others. So, the question was whether “Lifeism” is proposing a pallette of solutions we don’t already have for dampening conflicts between us and others (individual and society), that could help us avoid through consensus the necessity to find ourselves responding to an “us vs. them” conflict such as we may have with Iran.

    The lack of an agreed definition of “life”, what defines its quality, and the degree which the latter (vitality) should be sacrificed in favor of the former seems to be a source of the conflicts that threaten life. It seems it should be of critical importance to your idea to define how we get from here to there. If you aren’t proposing a way (I thought you were proposing it through education) to shepherd it to wide acceptance, aren’t you condemning your idea to theory?

    My question about Jews who see themselves as supreme is, I thought, coming from an obvious place. It’s the same place that you referred to when you said in an “us vs. them” scenario everyone has a right to protect their own particular “us”. In the process of a nation protecting its citizens, some countries (especially Israel) find themselves under attack by forces that consider themselves “life affirming” for what they consider the disproportionality of our defensive measures. Even putting enemy populations into situations that are for months on end inconvenient to save Jewish lives is seen by them as “collective punishment” and invalid, illegal and immoral. Some Jews take the responsibility of Israel to its citizens even further, and provide an overlay of spiritual superiority ala Yehuda Halevi – that there is a unique value to Jewish life that in all circumstances trumps the lives of others, so kal v’chomer the lives of enemy populations. My question is where you draw the line on “life affirming” in such situations. Does Lifeism ascribe special value to Jews? Does it ascribe special value to each group’s “us”-ness, for their group members? I ask these questions because to the degree they do you give rise to the forces that defeat your view of human life as superior. On one hand you protest that all lives are equal (Sean and Feivel), and on the other you allow for defense of one’s position even at the expense of the oppositions’ life or life-vitality. It seems that the idea comes down to the following: “if we keep in mind that life is a superior value, we’ll have a much better chance of not blowing each other to bits”. If that’s your view, I don’t see how different that is from where we are with our current situation. In what substantial ways is a world under “Lifeism” different from the world we live in today? If you could explain that, I think I’d better be able to grasp where you’re coming from.

    I offered some examples you responded to, to try and flush that out. With “Yossi”, you don’t offer the possibility that society and his family should change their perceptions so that there is no devitalization. I want to know why that’s not an option in Lifeism, when it seemed a natural outcome of a process of putting individual life vitality as a supreme value (and your family’s and society’s opinions are not).

    Regarding Feiga, I see here that “objectivity” is defined as being in compliance with halacha, and halacha offers no opinion on divorce being required (though there are some very specific instances where this isn’t so). So, you say their decision is based on their “feeling” about divorce’s devitalizing role. But my point was to address the conflict between the vitalizing role it would play for her parents, vs the devitalizing role it would play for her. I want to know how you deal with such conflicts within Lifeism.

    It’s encouraging that your view is universalist enough not to encourage the kind of new age approaches that demean people who are not like minded. But I think when you make Life and vitality of Life the most supreme of values, and based on your other comments that you aren’t interested in over-simplifying thigns, you’re dancing at two weddings at the same time. I think matters are complicated and always will be, and wonder whether the supreme value you are seeking is not Life but is rather diplomacy, quiessence and harmony. Perhaps because these lead to the prospect of Life and its vitality, you see them as important means to propping up Lifeism, but you don’t say so explicitly, but rather expect that acquiesence on the matter of Life-as-value leads to these automatically. I don’t see how it leads automatically to it because people define life’s quality/vitality differently and in ways that sometimes gets them into life threatening altercations.

    That was the intent of my question about relativism. Chief Rabbi Sacks addresses this in his book on Rebuilding Society and I recommend this book highly. Summarizing his view, we’ve forsaken toleration (agreeing to disagree) with tolerance (accepting all ideas as equally agreeable), and such approaches have led to the dissolution of commonality with wrinkles, in favor of chasms in the community cloth. I was wondering how Lifeism can reverse this.

  33. Shai says:

    Maya, I’m with you all the way!

  34. Shai,

    I think we can say *in general* that in a scenario where it is a case of life (being alive) vs. vitality (quality of life), we should side in favor of life, but there are situations where people simply do not wish to live below a certain level of vitality – e.g. “give me liberty or give me death”, and I think we need to allow for that.

    About the seeming contradiction between the notion that “every person’s life is equally valuable” and the duty to protect one’s life even at the expense of another’s life, two points: 1) By killing another in self defense, I am not saying the other person is less “valuable”. I am simply opting to stay alive. 2) If I allow a killer to end my life because I do not wish to kill, am I not allowing anti-life forces to proliferate in the world?

    About peace and diplomacy being the supreme value, we know from experience that diplomacy does not always lead to greater life. However the Mishna says (the last one in all of Shas): Peace is a “kli” (vessel) for blessing. It is the context where life can best thrive. So even while we do what we must to defend ourselves, we must continually try to build this vessel!

    When you come down to it, we are really talking about a shift in language. Like in mathematics where we try to establish a common denominator so that we can work with the variables in question, so too here we’re trying to establish a common language so that we’re not always talking past each other. So the place that a life-centered approach is really the most effective is where we *don’t* already look at the issue from a life/vitality perspective.

    Like any shift, the goal is not to transform whole “populations” but rather to affect enough people that it has a positive and tangible impact.

    Regards, David

  35. Shai says:

    OK – I think I get it. If you want, take a stab at judging my proposal. I’d be interested based on where you sit on your own, how you’d stand on mine. It’s visible at

  36. Shai,

    I didn’t put it together that the “incubator” proposal was yours — outstanding!

    Ok, give me a bit of time and I’m happy to give you my thoughts. Look for a comment on your discussion thread.


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