Category Archives: Spirituality

New Light on Rosh Hashanah

For the coming month of Elul, I’ve decided to start a separate blog series on the Rosh Hashanah prayers, in coordination with a podcast that will make the same material available in a listening format on Spreaker.  I’ll continue posting here also, though perhaps lest often for awhile.

If you’d like to follow my new blog as part of your own preparation for the holidays, you can connect to the “Blog for Elul” at Rosh Hashanah 5778 by clicking here.

The Meeting of Sun and Moon

This coming Monday, August 21, a solar eclipse will be visible, partly or in its totality, over much of North America. The next day, we will celebrate the New Moon of the Jewish month of Elul, the last month of the year 5777.  Are these two astronomical events connected? And if so, what does it mean?

Yes, they are connected. The moon, in its dance with the sun through a month, always has a dark time when we cannot see it at all.  That followed by the “new moon” when a sliver of the moon’s sunlit side appears in the sky, shortly after sunset.  But the dark moon does not usually result in an eclipse; that only happens when the sun and moon are aligned from a certain earthly point of view (the “path” of the eclipse).  That unique alignment is happening just before Elul’s new moon.

What does it mean?  We are told that in ancient times people were awed by eclipses and feared them as omens. Not so in Judaism — our priests and rabbis knew that this was an astronomical phenomenon. Nevertheless, they also knew that the world is a divine creation, and that the connection between our own lives and the phenomena of nature can inspire us.  For example, the Torah tells us to set up our calendar by the moon. Our Sages then used the moon’s waxing and waning to help us understand the cycles of good and bad times for the Jewish people.

Our tradition also describes each lunar month as having its own unique character within the annual round of moons. The month of Elul is cherished as a time of teshuvah, “return.,” in preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. As we begin to look back on the past year and prepare for the new one, it is a time conducive to reflection and introspection.

Elul is also the month when “the King is in the field,” as a traditional parable puts it. Rather than having to approach God in the palace amid pomp and ceremony, one can experience God out in the fields, among the people, open to prayers in a different way, recognizing our trouble and pain outside the restraints of the great system of halls and chambers that organizes cosmic energy.  For us, it is a time of repentance because we are asked to be humble too, and step out of the frameworks that we use to organize our lives, to meet the king in the fields.

The word Elul is spelled alef-lamed-vav-lamed.  These letters also make an acronym for a famous verse in the Song of Songs (6:3):  Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li, which means “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” The relationship between God and us is like that of lover and beloved in that beautiful biblical poem, where also the two sometimes celebrate their coming together and sometimes are apart, yearning for one another.

This resonates with the traditional symbolism where the sun represents the divine and the moon the Jewish people. Astrologically speaking, sun and moon move in ways that are sometimes close, sometimes far.  They are closest together at the dark of the moon, but we cannot see it. Metaphorically, our relationship to God in this darkness is largely behind the scenes, even unconscious.

But in a total eclipse, where the sun is covered by the moon during the daytime, their relationship is out in the open, so to speak.  Yet the sky will darken, because the moon hides the sun’s light. In an uncanny shift of roles, the brilliant sun retreats, highlighting the moon and the darkness.

We can see, though, that the moon even in her “darkest” moment has within her the greatness that can cover the sun.  So with us: when the “light of day” is hidden, this is when we as human beings must become more aware of our potential, to bring forth what must be born from the darkness.

The month of Elul asks us to look back at the past year –  our personal lives, our communities, Israel, the world.  Certainly public life has been stunning for those of us living in the USA, where the eclipse will largely be seen; a dramatic eclipse is in many ways a fitting metaphor for the past year.

At the same time, Elul reminds us to look forward, to remember and anticipate our connection with God.  As the New Moon emerges we can ask how we can increase the light.  But also, remembering the eclipse, we can ask how to be shown the potential of the dark times, consciously encountering the hidden parts of ourselves, and liberating those resources for good.

Good Chodesh!  May you have a good month!






If it’s true that we each have to do our own “work on ourselves” – our psychological and spiritual work – how then do we deal with the flip side of that coin, that we have become a highly individualistic and even narcissistic society?

With that question, I feel a fear of loneliness and of eternal separation from others – each “just workin’ on ourselves.”  Then one of my internal voices waxes nostalgic over the days when family and neighborhood were closer – people who cared about you were close at hand.  If not in the same neighborhood, then a short drive away – an hour or two at most.  My parents moved back to their home state because a four-hour drive to their parents, from the next state over, was just too much!

But that is nostalgia. Nostalgia is a prod to imagination but also colors reality in false shades.

As I look at my own life and my children’s, I realize that today we form different networks of support. We probably have more separate networks where one set of friends doesn’t know another set. But still the close circle, the people you would call when you’re having a major personal problem, is a small one. Possibly more friends and less family – but it was always true that there was a special aunt or cousin you could turn to, or on the other hand someone you would never turn to even in your own family.

So with spiritual work: It’s not necessarily the case that we are alone in our individual search for meaning and purpose. In fact, I would suggest we can’t be alone for long.  The reality today is that, as with our family and neighbors, we aren’t required or expected to have the same group (e.g. the same church or even religion throughout our lives), the same teacher or mentor, the same personal companions on the journey, .  And that’s good.  When a group expectation is present, it’s difficult to avoid the traps of the collective ego, the voices that warn you are going “out of bounds,” that you’ve “crossed a line,” that you’ll make others feel uncomfortable.

But our fear of being alone often drives us to seek security in some kind of lasting commitment.  So what do I mean when I reassure you that we can’t be alone for long?

We have a fundamental need to be seen, acknowledged, by someone else.  We cease to exist unless we can look into the face of another and feel “seen.”  My son told me yesterday that his four-month-old gets fussy if, when awake, he is left too long separate from the goings-on of the household. “He needs to be seen,” he said.  Yes.  From infant development, to achievement in school, to the discoveries we make, all throughout life, of who we really are, a blessing comes with each moment of being seen.

Depending on our temperament and how strongly and healthfully we are seen when we are young, we may feel more or less independent.  Many of us need to be in the presence of a personal teacher; the Face gazing on us must be a flesh-and-blood person.  Yet some can feel the presence of a teacher through words, through a voice or even through books. Some do not need an authority or expert so much as a friend, someone who sees us and gives us honest and loving responses.  Some have teachers who are not living persons – they are guided by ancestors, angels, souls, or supernal guides conceived in different ways.  Some can be in the presence of angels through art – sculpture, music, light and color.  We often think we are seeing; but when the experience is deep, we are also being seen.

I like the teaching that each of us has an Angel Out Ahead.*   This Angel is a force in the Imaginal world which we also inhabit (remember: imaginal is not imaginary; it is a real existence in a different form).  When my children lived at home, I could sometimes perceive their angels.  I learned that when one of them was having a difficult time, about to explode in anger or tears at the dinner table, I would focus on the faint luminous presence that was just in front of them, just above their forehead.  Time stopped for a moment, long enough for the child to collect him/herself and move forward with more confidence.

So we are never alone. That light is always shining, just ahead, mysteriously seeing, absorbing who we are at that moment and illuminating the path forward.

That angel may be experienced in many forms.  As a guardian angel that warns us, like the voice that told my husband, “Move!” just before a car hit him, so he was moving with instead of resisting the energy; it probably saved his life. Or as inner angels of kindness that remind us to slow down, relax, soften our prickles.

Is it one angel, or many?  I suspect the latter – angelic dimensions of those around us in visible form, and invisible helpers, teachers and guides by the multitude.  And we can now see camps of angels among whom we move on a daily basis, communities we chose or landed in, with whom we now share an interdependence.  With good fortune, we may be in communities of people who agree to a rule of law, to basic respect for the bodily integrity and property of others, people who greet you pleasantly and serve you with a reasonable amount of grace at the market or the coffee shop, and whom you greet and serve in your turn.  These fundamental forms of civilized behavior are also graces, from the Angels Out Ahead in harmonic vibration together.

When we encounter the dark, we often feel alone because darkness is the thickening veil of separation from others. But when we begin to see the light at the edges, when we see through the clouds, then we also learn to “see through” the opaqueness of the world and of other people.  We can even see their angels.   I learned that when we see a person coming down the street, we should imagine him or her accompanied by angels, chanting “Baruch Ha-Ba!  Blessed is the one coming forth, made in the image of God!”

Bruchim ha-Baim!  Blessed are the Angels in this world and in all their forms, who ensure that we will not be alone.






* The phrase “Angel Out Ahead” comes from the work of Tom Cheetham on Henry Corbin, who was adapting the Zoroastrian idea of the celestial “twin.” See Cheetham, All the World an Icon, chapter 4, section 4.  The Talmud has a similar idea in the idea of guardian angels (which the Jewish Encyclopedia relates to the Persian idea also). The Midrash (Bereishis Rabba 10:6) extends this to the world in the saying from Rabbi Simon, “There isn’t one blade of grass that doesn’t have an angel in heaven who strikes it and says ‘Grow!”  (Most internet sources incorrectly attribute this to the Talmud and change it to the angel “bending over and whispering” to the grass. The actual quote is a little more striking.) The word used for heavenly angel is mazal rakia, which would usually mean an astronomical constellation or star, which would have its unique quality.  The word “strike,” while it at first sounds harsh, could be read as like striking a tuning fork, so the grass would vibrate in sympathy with its heavenly counterpart.

Imaginal Evil

It’s the eve of Tisha b’Av, the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av, commemorating some of the most nightmarish events in the history of the Jewish people.

As part of the exploration of Imagination as the activity of engaging with the “inner dimensions” of our lives, I am asking today:  How we can enter into the dark side of the Imaginal world?

One way, the most prominent in Jewish tradition, is through the poetry of the lament. The biblical book Eicha or Lamentations describes the disaster after the destruction of the First Temple and attributes the events to the sins of the people and especially their leaders. Eicha means “How?!” as in “How can it be, that such a thing happened!” American slang, with its customary vulgarity, has an expression that captures the idea.

Tisha b’Av has its own darkness.  In its origins – the refusal of Jews to follow God’s command or listen to His prophets – we find the same archetype of self-alienation from God that we encounter in the “fall” from Eden.  But today we are not promised a renewal, even a difficult one like that of Adam and Chava. We mourn and pray in the face of complete darkness, when God “hides his face.” We say Kinot, dirges or elegies, remembering how we were promised only that “your carcasses will fall in the wilderness” (Numbers 14:29) for forty years. We remember also the devastation of the Holy City, exiles and murders throughout Jewish history, and destruction eventually coming to the world (with World War I, which began on Tisha b’Av). The prophet does say, “Daughter of Zion, He will no more carry you away into captivity” (Eicha 4.22), but on Tisha b’Av we do not know when that promise will be fulfilled.

If we don’t like this version, the fall or rebellion of humans followed repeatedly by darkness, penitence and return, we do have other choices. A different mythic framework is a cosmic battle between good and evil:  evil occurs because a force in the universe, operative in humans but also beyond us, perpetually destroys or distorts good works. Humans can only pray, with penance, to be delivered from it. They may experience some gratification in life, but true goodness only after death. This is the message of religions of salvation in an afterlife.

In another form, such as the stories of the Olympian gods of ancient Greece, the gods struggle among themselves, and the sad events on earth are largely the effects of their quarrels. Occasionally a human hero will rise above the fray, but while his efforts are admirable and virtuous, he usually meets a tragic end. The greatness of a human being is the effort of valor (the warrior) or force of character or thought (the ethical man or philosopher), even if it is doomed.

Another version:  Evil or chaos is a force in the world, but good triumphs as the individual follows Spiritual Truth (or an Angel or Teacher as in Sufism) to rise above it, not only for himself but to spread the light to others by example or teaching. Traditional Buddhist teaching is also in this mode, although the usual word is “suffering,” rather than evil.  In its psychological dimension, suffering is caused by humans, not by specific sins but by craving, desire, attachment. When we realize the truth of non-attachment – attaching ourselves only to the Light or enlightenment – we disarm and dispel suffering.

The full Jewish teachings of returning to God combine penitence (like the prayer of a suppliant as on Tisha b’Av), the good deeds of a valorous person (like the hero, not necessarily with a tragic end), and the inner work of striving to conquer one’s ego. The Hasid is somewhat like the Buddhist, determined to “nullify the ego,” and at the same time like the Sufi, to “cling to God.”

Yet the Jewish tradition is not entirely satisfied with this because it’s an individualistic solution. Christianity and Islam also speak of the redemption of the world, not only of individuals. So the “problem of evil” remains, because these myths imply that only as individuals can we escape, and perhaps not for long or not till after death.  (Group salvation might come then, in some religions.)

Perhaps there are other myths that take account of our interconnected state?

How about this?   Evil is relative, and some people are more evil than others. Almost everyone agrees that the most evil are those who willfully dominate others to extract benefit from them.  In this situation, “good” becomes rebellion to correct the imbalance of power, overthrowing domination.

A familiar line representing this orientation is that of Cassius, from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “The fault … is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” Evil triumphs, he is saying, because of human fear or passivity; he advocates assassination. The playwright does not support Cassius, however; murder and overthrow of government is no solution.

Yet, the purity of righteous revolution remains part of modern collective mythology:  the “revolt of the proletariat” in Marxist thought, or “liberation theology.” The idea is that those who have been downtrodden, or the leaders they choose, will rule more beneficently. Even American democracy was established on this foundation:  “When in the course of human events” tyranny triumphs, it is the right of the people to rebel and establish a new government based “on the consent of the governed.”  But in practice, “the governed” meant free, property-owning white men.  Elsewhere, the revolutions have not stayed “pure” either.

The opposite view would be that those who have experience in ruling, whose families have ruled, or who have ruled in other realms like finance or military, will rule best. The idea seems more plausible to the modern psyche than mythic figures, but it is no less imaginal by which, again, I do not mean “imaginary”: they express reality seen in a different light, through the Imagination.  These masters of the universe have replaced good and evil angels, or gods and demons. And like the old gods, they have their “powers” – war instead of thunder, finance instead of fertility. Their losses and gains filter down to other earthlings.

One more modern myth seeks to explain why someone would seek power, even to the point of cruel dominion over others. I have used it myself in these pages.  More specific than “craving” and deeper than “pride,” this myth seeks the origin of both, and finds it in trauma. Trauma of birth, of infancy, of childhood, of a terrifying experience later in life like war, rape, or torture – these are the sources of evil.  A perpetrator of evil must have suffered abuse, and we are seeing the after-effects, sometimes transferred down through generations.  And yet this too reminds me of an ancient imaginal pattern, expressed in the biblical verse from God’s great revelation at Sinai, “I take account of the sin of the ancestors upon the children, to the third and fourth generation of those that hate me, and showing mercy to the thousandth of those that love me…”(Exodus 20:4-5).

Trauma, of course, is also a sprite bursting forth from the imaginal world. Memory, preserved in story, is its vessel.  Which is not to say that the story of trauma is false.  Or that it is true. Neither is the story of sin and iniquity. Such stories are the stuff that we are made of.

Whether the story is about our “inside” or larger forces “outside” probably doesn’t matter much either; only that we are accountable to it.  Truth, after all, is the accumulated result of imaginal tellings to which we have all agreed.  At some point most of us stopped consenting to leprechauns and faeries, and instead became fascinated with quarks and photons.

The natural world is of God’s presenting and the creatures’ consenting.  The creatures also present, to one another and to God, and She consents (or not).

Does it matter which myth you choose?  Yes it does, but not because one is better than another, or because anyone knows “how it will turn out.”  What matters is that it thrills you and energizes you in love of the world and God, and sustains you in courage to resist those who would destroy that love.

Is this not another individualistic choice?  Yes, but it relies on love, and love is inherently shared. That is a discussion for another post.

Tonight and tomorrow we face the darkness.  See your darkness for whatever it is – what terrifies you, stops you dead in your tracks, leaves you desolate, raging, or falling through what seems like an endless abyss.  Feel it:  let the darkness both stir within you, in your heart and your body as well as in your mind.  Speak to it, within it.  You will find its boundaries – for it is not endless – and beyond that you will begin to sense light.  Daughter of Zion, you will sing again.

In the Wilderness

This particular post takes some leaps that may be difficult to absorb. On the one hand, it builds on the psychological insights discussed in the last post. On the other, it takes up a very different subject, the biblical story of the ancient Israelites particularly in the book of Numbers (BaMidbar, which means “In the Wilderness). Biblical scholar Avivah Zornberg has explicated both Exodus and Numbers in a way that bridges psychoanalytic theory and the collective experience of the Jewish people portrayed in those books. I’m adding an additional leap to use this perspective in understanding our modern situation.

I’m asking my readers to follow patiently as I make these links. I don’t claim that this is a “correct” interpretation of the Bible; rather it is a work of imagination, to engage in thinking about our situation in a different perspective, and feeling our way out of the impasse between utopia and apocalypse.

In a sense, the Bible’s story of redemption of the ancient Israelites represents a utopian project. Although it is God’s idea rather than a human one – the plan having been prophesied to Abraham in the book of Genesis – it depends on the cooperation of the people, and eventually on their persistent effort in settling the land promised to their ancestors. It does fit with the idea of utopia as expressing a desire to “reconcile with that from which we have been estranged,” the estrangement of the intervening generations of slavery in Egypt. But even with God being the chief promoter of this new development, it ran into several stumbling blocks from the people who were to be the beneficiaries of the promise.

Zornberg elucidates the dynamics of the situation, by focusing on the Jewish people’s inner conflicts. These take the form of doubts, complaints, idol worship in violation of God’s commandment, and outright rebellion against their leaders Moses and Aaron. As she says early on, the Israelites’ behavior and attitudes suggest that they were not “ready for redemption.”

For our purposes, we join the timeline at a point after the famous revelation at Mount Sinai and the golden calf episode, for which God has forgiven them (in the book of Exodus). Now in the wilderness, scouts are sent on a reconnaissance mission to spy out the land they are about to enter and settle.

God has promised they will inherit a land of “milk and honey,” and indeed the spies discover it is rich and fertile; they confirm precisely that it “flows with milk and honey.” However, its cities are also well fortified, and the spies see some descendants of an ancient mighty people. In delivering their report, ten of the twelve spies express doubt about their ability to conquer it. The other two spies, Moses’ right-hand man Joshua and his nephew Caleb, counter their fellows’ opinions and strongly advise moving ahead. But, the story continues, the ten spies “spread an evil report,” turning from the simple facts to exaggeration: “The land eats up its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature.” “We were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.” A difficult proposition has turned into a vision of monsters.

This sends the people into paroxysms of despair. They refuse to move forward. “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt, or in this wilderness!” they moan.

They see only death ahead. “Why did the Lord bring us to this land to die by the sword? Our wives and babies will be prey. Isn’t it better to go back to Egypt?” They murmur against Moses and Aaron, ultimately saying to one another, “Let’s set up a leader and return to Egypt.”

Notice how Egypt suffuses their fantasies – and this was not the first time. When they complained about the manna from heaven, they remembered Egypt — “the fish and cucumbers we had in Egypt, melons and onions and garlic.” Suddenly, the future seems bleak, while the past — back-breaking and heartbreaking slavery — is idealized.

The promise of a land of milk and honey, the land of their illustrious ancestors, had resonated in the minds of the Israelites like a return to Eden. But Egypt still hung in the air. Leaving Egypt was like separation from their more recent “mother,” even though a harsh and cruel one. Now, the promised land seems even more cruel. The story echoes those folktales where the children leave the wicked stepmother only to fall into the hands of a witch.

We see the people leaping from one projection into another, from the lost edenic past to a future that is threat rather than promise. Then God condemns the faint-hearted generation to remain in the wilderness for forty years and die there. Faced with failure of the enterprise, they fall into resigned silence. As Zornberg notes, despite all the rebellious talk, most of the generation that marched out of Egypt disappears without a trace in the text. One challenge to the leadership arises, but after that, there is no sign of creative effort or solutions to challenges. A few chapters later, we read of the death of Miriam, and suddenly realize we are near the end of the decreed 40 years. Has anything of import happened? The people complain about lack of water. This is exactly what the previous generation had done when they arrived in the wilderness.

We have here a paradigm for an unresolved inner conflict. The future ideal – the promised land – now seems impossible. The horrific past begins to seem like a refuge. But these are fantasies, projections, which in social and political life then appear as different factions and opinions.

We can see this happening in social movements today. A “return to nature” is proposed as an ecological utopia. But others tell us that nature is becoming terribly distorted. (I just read a review of a book on the Great Lakes that talks about the monstrous – yes, that word is used – species that have been invading the Lakes and destroying their ecology. This is like the people spying out the land and saying, “all the inhabitants are giants.”).

On the other hand, we hear that technology will continue bring more and more wonders. That utopia has for a long time been presented as giving us “labor-saving devices.” Most people still work as much as ever – but many find their labor less valued. Solutions? Return to the values of the rugged frontiersman, or the economics of the Reagan era. Back to Egypt?

Many people have fallen into resigned silence, worried but not feeling effective. Will we soon, like the generations in the wilderness, be crying, “Give us water”?

Zornberg’s observations diagnose this kind of dilemma as the human state of being “unable to mourn,” that is, in the fundamental case of early childhood, unable to accept the loss of the original mother or parent. What happens in healthy development is that the child gradually acquires the ability to accept, invent, and creatively use substitutes. In symbolic play, and later in increasingly rich languages, the child develops imagination. The process can also include episodes of fear and anger connected to the original trauma. Those feelings are often repressed, and can be triggered again when the person faces a threat to their stability.

In the biblical example, after the first trauma of the disappearance of Moses, the people had created a golden calf. This was a inappropriate direction from the biblical point of view, going back to pagan practices like those of Egypt. We might say it was an immature substitute for Moses. God gave them instead the tablets of the law in a portable tabernacle that was also a object of beauty and symbolic potential. This was an object in which they could and did invest their creativity – we could call it a good substitute or “sublimation,” a stable representation of the Divine that did not depend on Moses.

After the “sin of the spies,” the rejection of the land that God had promised them, the situation was more difficult to repair. The people exemplified not only an emotional attachment to a fantasized past (“let’s go back to Egypt”) but lack of faith in God’s vision of the future. One might say that the golden calf had a certain ‘spiritual’ dimension, even if misguided. The later sin had no such dimension. Only with the arising of a new generation – by waiting for time to pass – would there be movement forward.

The deeper meaning of our current situation is illuminated here. Over the last two centuries and increasingly in the past several decades, our cultural moorings have been badly shaken. For generations our societies were anchored to God by strong religious ties; our daily lives were relatively predictable and changes were slow. With the rapid growth of technology and global change, we found ourselves in a new world. It was exciting at first. Like adolescents who couldn’t wait to leave home, we turned our backs on both our “parents,” God and nature, and didn’t speak to them again.

We embraced utopian visions of society and of technology. As we observed, most of those collapsed. Many voices are saying, “Let’s go back to Egypt” — to the traditional religions, to political eras where we vaguely remember some success. On the other hand, the future has become full of unknown monsters, giants in the land. Many voices are frightening us with the threat of apocalypse or ecological collapse.

The utopian vision of technology still amazes us, but as it has gone global and created a new elite, the outlines of the future are no longer clear. Is this an empty, ultimately sterile utopia full of gadgets but no meaning? We are in the Vacant Space, from which God withdrew (or we pushed Him/Her out).

What human development teaches us is that we must reach deeper within ourselves, freeing up the channels of creativity again. We need to bridge the gap between ourselves and God, ourselves and nature; but not in the same old ways. If the climate is changing, our spiritual climate has to change too. And that is in our hands.



Why We Can’t Go Home Again

In examining utopian thinking, we discovered an inner contradiction:  The goal of establishing an ideal society must be happiness, that is, the fulfillment of people’s desires, but success requires that people accept limitations on their desires.

One can soften the tension of contradiction by agreeing to less than perfect success, but still, when we recognize how disastrously some utopian experiments have failed, ranging from horrifying totalitarianism to mindless consumerism, we may suspect there’s more than just a moderate amount of tension here.

So we came to the conclusion that we must explore desire.  Why are human desires apparently endless?  Why do they often become destructive?

Espen Hammer gives us a clue when he cites Ernst Bloch’s argument that “all utopias ultimately express yearning for a reconciliation from which one has been estranged. They tell us how to get back home.”

The ultimate “back home” is, of course, our origin in the primal family.  Home and family with all that it might have meant – security and stability, with love and encouragement supporting our growth – is the ideal utopian situation. But virtually none of us experienced the complete fulfillment of our desires.

It was Sigmund Freud who pointed directly to this issue, locating the source of inner psychic conflict in those original desires.  He named the force of desire “Id,” meaning essentially IT, an anonymous vital life force that had to be tamed. But he also created a storm by associating this force with sexual impulses in infants and children.

Still today, many people find Freudian theory hard to accept because of this dimension. If you’re one of them, it may help you to know that I also was resistant to much of the theory, and found it all the more annoying because my resistance could be diagnosed as denial – a double-bind that I thought was extremely unfair.

Not until I began studying the work of the extraordinary biblical scholar  Avivah Zornberg  did I return to considering Freudian theory in a different light. Zornberg also had at her disposal a century of clinical work, research based on close observation of infants and children, and insights from other disciplines that contributed to deeper understandings of the phenomena of desire.  When she demonstrated how to read biblical narratives wearing the lenses of psychoanalytical insight as well as Hasidic commentaries, I came to see how this work on Desire could be helpful in understanding human psychosocial dynamics.

Here’s a summary of what I have been able to understand and integrate, simplified for the present purpose.

Humans experience almost intolerable frustration of desire before we are emotionally able to manage it. We are born totally dependent, needing almost constant presence and attention, and even the temporary disappearance of the mother is potentially traumatic. This is unlike most other mammals that are able to walk and feed themselves shortly after birth. Even when the mother is physically present, our emotional dependence on her, other early caretakers, and a supportive social environment continue to be essential to psychological stability. This level of emotional fragility is unknown in the animal kingdom.

When the infant or child experiences loss of this care and sustenance, stability is undermined. On a temporary basis, the psyche can tolerate this “missing.” But if it is too much – and individual variability is high in defining what is too much – natural desire becomes painful longing and yearning. Disappointment of desire generates irrational anger and hatred – irrational simply because it arises long before reason has any place in the psyche. Unfulfilled desire generates a search for substitutes that will replace the lost presence, and rage at substitutes that are ineffective (as eventually they all will be).

I could now see this dynamic in my experience as a mother and, watching with less involvement, as a grandmother. I write from the maternal perspective, with the understanding that this can apply to any early caretaker(s). I now understood Eros, desire, as that magnetic realm where one being extends itself toward another – the infant with radiance and with need; the mother with wonder and generosity; their gazing at one another. Through sheer energy they leap over the distance between them.

Yet she is also an independent being, while her child is not. She has thoughts that pull her away. Sometimes the baby’s desire is not met. At that instant, a chasm opens and the leap of desire becomes a fall into loneliness, abandonment into empty space. Hopefully the space is filled again, soon, so that the infant can learn that the movement from presence to absence is like the in and out of breathing, or perhaps more accurately the pleasure of eating but the discomfort of digesting, to be followed again by presence / eating.

But at some point it will become more difficult. Some accidental separation that is too long, or some willful anger or rejection, will create unbearable trauma. Or the child will experience the mother’s grief or terror, beyond his capacity to understand. Or the child will begin to sense there are other objects of the mother’s Eros, different and mysterious. (Sexualization of desire here often becomes confused with our associations from adult sexuality, so I will not use that language.)

The variants on the narrative are of infinite variety but generate the same dilemma: She is gone. Will I find her again? Must I lose her forever? How will this empty space be filled?

And when she returns — if I could put words to, say, an 8-month old’s feelings, they might be: I am so sad but – now, what? there she is, unbearably beautiful. I want to fall in her arms and weep. But will she leave again? How could she have done this? I am angry. I will not look at her. But I need her. …

The older child’s feelings become more complicated, as mirroring begins to yield some sense of “the other” with her own feelings. But they can easily be confused: Did I cause her to go away? I don’t want her to get angry at me. When I am angry she turns away. She looks sad when she sees me sad.

Virtually all of us carry some version of these traumas of dangerous and fearful absence — and some version of healing from them, or we would not be alive. Yet most of us can be triggered into trauma again, later in life. That’s when fear and rage arise, along with actions that are destructive to ourselves, to others, or both. To the extent that they were unbearable to us as children, to the extent that we were not helped to bear them, these feelings will still lurk under the surface, and may again become unbearable. Then we will turn them on ourselves (as in addiction), or outward on an enemy.

No wonder utopias don’t work. They promise a way to fulfill desire, but inevitably they fail in some dimension, and the disappointment is like losing one’s parents. Of course we would fantasize “reconciliation” with that from which we have been “estranged.” But do we really want to walk into that dangerous ground again, where we have been wounded to the heart? Or, if we take the risk to build community with others, are we always walking on eggshells, waiting for the chasm to open?

So communities degenerate into jealous factions, people become suspicious of neighbors. Authoritarian governments arise to administer the “utopia” — to manage rage and to displace one’s own rage on those lower in the hierarchy.  And “government” becomes an object of resentment too, but that is only one dimension of the frustration of desire.

I could go on.  The point is, we can’t talk about utopia or even seriously about social improvement unless we understand the volcanic dimensions of desire.

Zornberg treats these issues in her exposition of the biblical book of Numbers, entitled Bewilderments, where she follows the ancient Israelites in their wanderings in the wildness – the wilderness – of desire. We will look at her thinking more specifically in the next post.






Utopia, Anyone?

In recent posts, we rejected apocalyptic thinking for its tendency to play on fantasies of destruction, as well as for encouraging polarization and an “us vs. them” mentality. But another futurist vision perhaps should be considered — namely, utopia, the ideal society.

You might think it’s the reverse of apocalypse, the flip side of a negative vision. But looking more closely, we see it’s a different phenomenon. Utopia doesn’t require a disruptive collapse. And, although some apocalypses might prophesy a utopia at the other end (with the saved remnant or a new race), the two aren’t necessarily connected. Utopia can emerge gradually and grow toward perfection. Moreover, utopia doesn’t necessarily divide humanity into good and evil parts; it can be inclusive.

Yet oddly, the attempt to put utopian thinking into action often had destructive results.

In a recent essay, “A Utopia for a Dystopian Age,” political philosopher Espen Hammer, summarizes the modern  history of utopian thinking. He says there have been three main types of utopia — utopias of desire (pleasure), of technology (ease), and of justice (socioeconomic equality). All of them inspired new social programs and planning, but also demonstrated serious weaknesses.

The utopias of desire make little sense in a world overrun by cheap entertainment, unbridled consumerism and narcissistic behavior. The utopias of technology are less impressive than ever now that — after Hiroshima and Chernobyl — we are fully aware of the destructive potential of technology. Even the internet, perhaps the most recent candidate for technological optimism, turns out to have a number of potentially disastrous consequences, among them a widespread disregard for truth and objectivity, as well as an immense increase in the capacity for surveillance. The utopias of justice seem largely to have been eviscerated by 20th-century totalitarianism. . . .

The great irony of all forms of utopianism can hardly escape us. They say one thing, but when we attempt to realize them they seem to imply something entirely different. Their demand for perfection in all things human is often pitched at such a high level that they come across as aggressive and ultimately destructive. Their rejection of the past, and of established practice, is subject to its own logic of brutality.

I would add that another type of utopia has been tried, namely the spiritual or moral utopia, guided by either religious inspiration or an overriding value such as “Love” or “Enlightenment.” The nineteenth century saw the emergence of many such communities founded either by a charismatic leader, such as the Shakers, and/or by a group adhering to higher principles, such as the Transcendentalists’ “Brook Farm” or Theosophist communities. Most of these did not survive beyond the 1920s. They demanded a high order of behavior and most believed in the perfectibility of humanity.

Interestingly, unlike the secular utopias, most did not become outwardly aggressive (perhaps because they lacked the machinery of state; perhaps because they believed in voluntary adherence). Most failed for economic reasons or the normal processes of social groups — their ideals did not appeal to new generations, their leadership weakened, etc. A few adapted sufficiently to survive, for example as religious denominations such as the Latter-Day Saints (Mormons).

Utopias of justice are, we should note, also moral utopias, focusing specifically on socioeconomic issues. One that did not become totalitarian was the kibbutz movement in Israel, inspired by socialist ideas, which made outstanding contributions to the development of the land and the early state. Many kibbutzim do still exist, having adjusted some of their original practices over time. But they are no longer foundational to the Israeli economy; they did not succeed in competing with capitalism.

In any case, Hammer believes that two factors are relevant to understanding the difficulties faced by utopias: one, the utopians’ demand for perfection is so high that they “come across as aggressive.” Hmm. No, the non-religious utopians of “justice” actually were aggressive; it wasn’t simply a matter of perception. Most used coercive force (such as violent revolution) to create their societies.

Another problem was their rejection of the past which had “its own logic of brutality.” This seems to mean that people resented forced change, which is probably true; but in these social experiments many people also agreed to it. I think, for example, of the anti-religious tendencies in socialism and communism in Russia, China, and Israel. Yes, they were emotionally brutal; and yet the ideology that saw religion as delusional required submission on that issue.

With regard to utopias of desire, Hammer’s issue is not so much brutality as the cheapened versions of pleasure that modern society has come to adopt. The brutality, again, is moral and aesthetic rather than physical. I would suggest that we actually achieved, through capitalism and technology, a certain utopia of desire – but as he suggests, one that unintentionally mocks our philosophers’ greater visions of human potential. We became instead a society of accumulating material things for self-gratification.

Hammer holds that only one candidate for utopia is viable today, a particular version of a utopia of desire, namely a human society that is integrated and balanced with the natural world:

That candidate is nature and the relation we have to it. . . . As the climate is rapidly changing and the species extinction rate reaches unprecedented levels, we desperately need to conceive of alternative ways of inhabiting the planet. . . . The German thinker Ernst Bloch argued that all utopias ultimately express yearning for a reconciliation with that from which one has been estranged. They tell us how to get back home. A 21st-century utopia of nature would do that.

Hammer observes that industrial and capitalist society would have to make changes to accomplish this “reconciliation.” Of course, many have been saying the same for decades, without claiming to be promoting utopia. The underlying problem is lack of willingness to change.

In reality, despite the cheap consumerism, we in the West we already possess many of the qualities of utopias of desire – healthier and longer lives, material plenitude, creative endeavors. Why should we change except for the fear that it won’t last (here we lean suspiciously toward apocalyptic)? Why should we do anything that interrupts our current pleasures, on the questionable premise that we’ll feel better if “reconciled” with nature? Utopia is always a vision toward which people strive if they feel strongly enough about it.  But the idea of getting back “home,” finding that from which we have been “estranged,” doesn’t appear to be strong enough to overcome our addiction to immediate pleasure.

The mistake, as Hammer himself points out, is in the premises. Utopians wanted to find a formula that would satisfy human desires so fully that conflict would cease. The classic Utopias of desire (like Sir Thomas More’s) presumed unlimited resources, with the world always able to meet the breadth and depth of human desire. But in the real world, resources were still limited.

Enter technology. Extracting matter and energy from the natural world, we hoped to overcome the limits of our resources. Transportation and communication vastly expanded our reach. We even seemed to be able to solve the problem of scarcity by applying technology to agriculture. (Does anyone remember the apocalyptic prophecies of the 1970s that we would be starving within a generation?) Technology has done amazing things, but we now seem to be approaching intractable limits. We consider colonizing other planets, but that is even less likely to attract a genuine following than is a project of reconciling with nature.

Logically, we must conclude that utopia is possible only if desires are limited. Precisely this was recognized in religious utopias, where personal discipline was demanded, and social justice utopias also recognized the necessity of personal sacrifice for the sake of the greater whole. As Hammer well knows, virtually every social thinker in modern times recognized that a functioning society requires some individual sacrifice, at the very least through compromises and deals (in democracies) and often through giving up personal freedom (in autocracies – where, if people don’t want to limit their desires, they will be forced to do so). Of course, this seems counter-intuitive to the idea of utopia, which promises fulfillment without hardship.

I spent some time reflecting on whether any program demanding the limitation of desire has been successful on a broad scale over a long period of time. The only one I could come up with is the promotion of monogamy. One can argue that it succeeded only in the legal sense, with a multitude of private breaches. Even so, it would not have been as successful as it was, had it not been that women were generally happier with it, and it provided economic relief in that a man had to support only one woman.

Celibate communities also succeeded on a voluntary basis, in both Christianity and Buddhism. And in both cases, restriction on sexual desire was accompanied by the limitation of desire for personal property. Both of those have been historically successful, with the surrounding societies picking up part of the tab by supporting these communities through charity. Dedicated communities were seen as a moral benefit to all.

Religions in fact have been primary voices speaking out about the limitation of desire. Buddhism declared craving to be the source of suffering. Christianity put avarice, lust and gluttony among the seven deadly sins. Other religions may be less dogmatic on the issue, but all recognized the dangers of untrammeled desire and the necessity of personal discipline (for example in Judaism, the necessity of taming the “evil inclination”). Admittedly, convincing people that the dangers were greater than the pleasures required some heavy theologizing about divine punishment or other future disasters.

But we don’t need to turn to theology. We can now document that greed, jealousy and competitiveness have been the downfall of even the most promising utopian societies. We also know that restrictions on desire usually repel people, and they must be heavily persuaded or even forced to submit to limitations.

What is this problem? Animals don’t eat gluttonously, demand sex out of season, or accumulate stuff they don’t need. Indulgence and restriction have no meaning in the natural world. Yet we, as a species, seem thoroughly unwilling and unable to control our desires. And now we are at the point that if we don’t, we may see the end of civilization and even earth as we know it.

Now we’re getting to the crux of the matter. Why inordinate desires?

More to come.