Women?s Role in Healing a Fractured Earth: faiths working together


An address given at the ICCJ Women´s Conference, Sydney, Australia, July 2007.

Good afternoon, everyone, and my heartfelt thanks for giving me this opportunity to explore with you some of my ideas about our conference theme, Women´s Role in Healing a Fractured Earth: faiths working together. I´ve been pondering these issues for several weeks and must admit that the theme is challenging, and important and, again I admit, quite difficult.

Let me begin by summarizing what I see as the basic assumption in the theme- correct me if I´m wrong: the earth or world is fractured and if women from the different faith communities get together, we will be able to heal the fractured world.

I think we need to examine some of these assumptions: first, we assume that the earth can become un-fractured or whole; second, we assume that healing of ourselves and healing-of-the-world are integral parts of the ideology or theology of these faith communities; and third, we assume that women – whatever we mean by that culture-bound term – can get together to do this. I´ll try to take up the first assumption – that our world is fractured – and the second – what Judaism says about healing-of-the-world. The third – whether women, again, a culture-bound term – can work together – I´ll leave for us to debate.

I´ll begin with myself, just to give you a feeling of the composite person you see in front of you. Not in order of importance, I am a Jew, a woman, a social anthropologist and an expatriate American who has been living in Sweden for 40-some odd years. I am also a mother and grandmother. All these identities affect how I view our topic and what I will say today.

Now let me confess that I do not view my identities – even the ´woman´ one – as ´natural´; they are all learned and practiced. My social and even physical person have been constructed in and affected by particular times and places. No doubt that I have inherited some behaviour oriented genes from my ancestors and also have some biological qualities which define me as female, but the way I am a woman-mother-wife is an aspect of culture rather than nature. The same relates to my roles as a Jew; I view this as something I´ve learned rather than any kind of essential identity or innate competence.

The best one-liner I know about this idea was composed by Bronislaw Malinowski, one of the founders of modern anthropology who worked in the Trobriand Islands, not many miles from here. Malinowski said: “We are all born, we all die, we reproduce; all the rest is culture.” What he insisted upon was that these human universals – birth, death, reproduction and a few others – obviously exist but they are all interpreted, translated and practiced in particular places with particular ecologies and histories. They can thus be and are very different. Thus, how we explain birth and death, how we understand kinship and raise our children and what we consider ´normal´ in all these activities are all aspects of culture. This extends as well to our ideas about ´nature´ – our views of it and our relationship to it. As I see it, what we mean by ´nature´ and how we feel about it are at base, cultural or learned phenomena.

My main concern is what normative Jewish tradition says about ´the world´, about ´health´ and about ´healing-the-world´, and certainly how Judaism views ´nature´ and ecology. Fear not: these topics are too huge for this talk. But two pages from now, I ´ll say something about this…

But first I want to concentrate on the term, fragmented, and the phenomenon of a ´fractured world´ and whether it can become ´healed´ or whole. I´ve struggled with this idea. We have posited that the world is fragmented, we want it to be whole, and women of different faiths working together can do this. I´m not sure about any of these assumptions.

Fractures and modernity

Clearly I do not deny the presence of some kinds of splits or fractures. I´ ve experienced some very concrete examples of fragmentation or very serious splits in my work in Ethiopia.

Here´s one: we drive through the Ethiopian countryside, going south from the capital, Addis Ababa. And mile after mile after mile, we see the endlessly deep crevices, kilometre long gashes caused by erosion, caused in turn by denuding the earth of trees, caused again by (at best) a growing population and the need for firewood.

Example two: we´re standing on a hill on the campus of a teacher´s college in Addis Ababa, and I admire the misty beauty of the far-off hills. “Wrong, Judi”, say my student-friends, “They´re not beautiful any more, the trees are gone, the hills are bare, naked, dead…” Again, the splits: erosion, denuded forests, dead mountains.

Finally, I take a walk with a woman to gather wood near the town of Ambo, also in Ethiopia. She kneels, hacks at some tree stump and stops for a moment: “I know this is wrong Judi, using our few trees to cook, but how else will I feed my children?”

Enough of Ethiopia. We are all aware of how we are denuding our earth, using resources destructively. We can add any number of problems to our Ethiopian list – the destruction of the rain forests, the increasing pollution of our air and fields and, most horribly, global warming. My point is that we are not only fracturing, splitting the earth – that´s almost too kind; we seem to be destroying it, changing its very essence – its temperature, its air.

Who or what started all this? Who or what can we blame? What caused the fracture, the splits? Were we hit by something powerful?

The answer here is yes: 150 years ago, we in the North and the West were hit and fractured by the forces of modernity – particularly industrialism and urbanization. These developments, among other things, broke up previous social collectives and forever changed a way of life and a view of life. At the same time – and clearly related to industrialization – we created the modern nation state based on – among other things – ideas of ethnicity and nationalism. Fundamental to these nation states are ideas – maybe doctrines – of us and them, ideas which divide. All nation states insist on territorial and cultural boundaries which infer very clear definitions of the ´other´ – who, more often than not, is seen as different and often threatening. For better or for worse – sometimes for the better, sometimes worse, these nationalist movements and their leaders fragmented the earth in a legitimate way with their focus on ´our nation, our people, our past´, most often legitimated by ´our God´. I repeat the word ´legitimate´ in this context: we were all proud and happy about our ´nations´. Lastly and most significantly, in the movement toward modernity, we must also point to the rise of the individual and the emphasis on his or her rights as opposed to traditional collectivities and the focus on obligations.

Positivist science and philosophy also legitimated the fragments, insisting not only on the value of the separation of the academic disciplines, but on the basic separation between, say, mind and body and soul, nature and culture, public and private. Probably, one of the direct consequences of modern science and characteristic of the so-called modern way of thinking was the rise of these contrasts – or several types of dichotomies or dualisms, a legacy of the philosopher Descartes.

Let me give you an example of a very divisive dichotomy – one that I confess that I really loved several decades ago when I began to study anthropology. In those days, the mid-1970s, we were intellectually drowned in dichotomies, what we thought were good analytic categories. The most useful dichotomy was that of traditional and modern societies: we argued that traditional societies were based on kinship, continuity and the past, and complex societies were based on individuals, on choice and on progress and the importance and the possibility of change. We in the West belonged to the second and all the people we studied to the first. The German sociologist Tönnies contributed to the discussion with his famous gemeinschaft/gesellschaft dichotomy – vaguely translated as ´communities´ and ´societies´ – the first traditional, the second, modern. These dichotomies and the distinctions they indicated influenced how we analyzed and compared and understood societies and systems of meaning – always the task of anthropologists – and it all seemed very scientific and correct and informative.

Global and local: together and apart

Now I´m not so sure that these dichotomies exist in the real world. I don’t think the world was ever quite like that – one way or another. Change has always been around – sometimes forbidden, sometimes necessary – and so has continuity. It´s almost banal to say this. But today we´re grappling with some new issues, a discourse of ´bothness´, if you will; we place tradition and change in the same context. Today we´re talking a second talk, we´re moving with a second dominant discourse, that of globalization. Here we have some problems: we might not like multi-national companies and we might not like the way they indeed exploit people and ´nature´ and we might not like MacDonalds, but we certainly like global actions against HIV and global warming and terrorism and indeed, conferences like ours where we talk about wholeness.

So we´re moving it seems in two opposite directions; we talk about finding ways of moving toward global understanding (globalization), and we remain very separate (nation states). Just think of the wording of the ´United Nations´ – united and separated. And this is not just the case with nation states and nationalism. Current research in the social sciences has pointed out time and time again that local issues, local interests, local traditions remain very much alive – sometimes even more pronounced in the context of globalization and the encounter with the global world. The term used to describe the meeting of the local and the global is rather good: glocalization.

This global-local interaction is rather tricky. I have searched for ways to understand how we – the world – can be together and separate at the same time. (You already understand at this point that I don’t think that we can get rid of the fragments, nor that they are necessarily bad). My particular professional interest in recent years interest has been ethnicity and nationalism and how ethnic groups function in plural societies. Let me begin by bringing up the work of the Norwegian social anthropologist, Fredrik Barth who has given us the important concept of ´ethnic boundaries´. (Barth 1969) His point is the following: ethnic groups become conscious of themselves as real actors only when they interact with others whom they see as others. He thus insists first, on the importance of interaction as the basis for the consciousness of identity, and second, on the maintenance of boundaries or difference in the context of interaction. These recognizable traditions are necessary for the perpetuation of ethnic groups; they differentiate ´us´ from ´them.´

A good example in the Jewish context is kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws. The text tells us that the purpose of kashrut is to ´be holy´, but we can also see that the kashrut laws keep us separate and ´say´ that we are Jews and – equally important – they allow others to say it. What Barth´s boundaries do is that they acknowledge – at one and the same time – the importance of separation and the importance of interaction and maybe – in some kinds of societies – some measure of integration. Barth lets us be together and stay separate in the same framework.

This is good as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. What about what we share` in our admittedly globalized world? Here the American-Indian anthropologist, Arjun Appadurai, (1996), gives us a useful model to understand what happens when we meet over the boundary, in other words, what we all willy-nilly share. Appadurai identifies five what he calls ´scapes ´; these are global movements or ´flows´ of 1. peoples, 2. of media and its messages, 3. of money, 4. of technology and 5. of ideologies. We all participate or live in all of these ´scapes´ to one degree or another; their messages waft over all of our heads and somehow or other touch us all. So we wave our national flags at football games, teach our children their national history, go to our separate churches, talk about the importance of ´identity´ and, at the same time, we speak about the importance of global action against some of our horrors, we talk about the importance of internationalization, in Europe some of us talk about the importance of the EU, and – right here in Sydney – we are trying to decide how faith communities can work together.

My point is that we live with this contradiction or perhaps challenge: yes, the world is both fragmented and together, we are glued together by trouble and ideology and separated by trouble and ideology. This is the existential contradiction of our world, whether we like it or not – separate fragments and global put-togethers.

Healing-the-world in Judaism

Now I´ve taken up fragmentation and globalization and modernity. That´s my meta-framework, the context for my next round of comments on Judaism and healing and women. Back to the theme of our conference: How can the faith community to which I belong – Judaism – help us heal or at least deal with our fragmented global village?

I´ll work with two key words: first, Judaism. I dare to assume that Judaism, the Jewish religion – is a system of beliefs and actions created by millennia of Jews attempting, among other things, to understand God and his laws. Perhaps even less politically correct, I suggest that some of these laws keep us separate (“holy”) as a particular people ´chosen´ to seek and understand and follow God´s commandments. But – and this is a significant ´but´ – this same Judaism is also promotes some universal values – that we are all created in the image of God and are thus the children of God and are related, and that in accordance with ethical monotheism, God cares about what we do. Judaism also holds that the world is as yet incomplete; all of us are God´s partners and must work, hopefully together, to complete creation.

Here is a good midrash which goes even farther and insists that we also share the universe:
"In the Midrash it is stated that the falling of rain is an event greater than the giving of the Torah, for the Torah is for Israel only, but rain is for the entire world. According to the Mekilta (legal commentaries on the Book of Exodus, a halachic midrash), however, even the Torah is for the entire world: 'The Torah was given in the wilderness and in fire and in water. As these three are free to all the inhabitants of the world, so are the words of the Torah free to all the inhabitants of the world." Milton R Konvitz. Thus, Jewish tradition is both particular and universal – keeping a ´we´ in the context of a ´they´ and acknowledging a larger ´we´ – humankind.

My second key world is healing – both at a personal and societal level. I think this is a rather new discourse in Judiasm. When I was young 50 years ago, healing wasn’t part of a vocal discourse. Today healing is in; it has become a major narrative in Jewish circles. I typed in healing and Judaism on Google and I got 1,000,000 hits. The web sites referred to healing as everything from reciting traditional prayers to paramedical healing centres to seminars on Jewish shamanism and kabbalah. I understand this to mean that we believe – indeed are convinced – that something is wrong, both with ourselves and our world and that healing is needed.

I´ve tried to get to the essence of the ´discussion on Jewish healing by identifying the following three foci: r´fuat ha goof, r´ruat ha nefesh and r´fuat ha olam or tikkun haolam, healing of the physical self, healing of the soul, and healing or correction of the world. What I see here – and what I think Jewish tradition maintains – is that healing takes place on three levels and includes the human being´s three basic social persons – as individuals, as members of a community and as members of the human family. The individual and communal I place in the Jewish inner context, the third, I place in the international or universal context.

This theme of the threefold person or person with three basic identities is mentioned – though not quite this way – in several classic Jewish texts. In the Sayings of the Fathers, (1:2) Shimon the Righteous points out the following: Al shlosha devarim haolan omad – al hatorah, al haavodah v´al g´milut Chassadim. The world stands on three pillars: Torah, the divine service and deeds of loving kindness. Here is my midrash, my interpretation of the saying: Torah here refers to the individual and her or his obligation to learn; avodah, the divine service, refers to two things, the need for the spiritual, the soul or the nefesh, and how the soul´ s needs are supported by those one is praying with – the immediate community; the third, g´milot chassadim, the deeds of loving kindness, obligates the person to give to randomly undefined others – a kind of universal category.

When I move to Jewish law and look at the specified obligations of the Jewish woman, I see three again (see Mishneh Shabbat 2: 6): there is first nidah, the commandment to go to the mikvah after menstruation; second, hadlakat nerot, the obligation to light the Shabbat candles; and third challah, the commandment to reserve a bit of unbaked dough for the priesthood. I have to admit that the context here is far from nice; according to the text, not doing these mitzvoth is a reason for dying in childbirth – apparently a great danger in 200 CE. The mitzvoth then were probably a good example of human´s desperate search for rituals to avoid danger and win God´s favour..

But more importantly for my argument here is that I again see the emphasis on our three selves – and the obligations we have to each: there is a focus on our physical selves (nidah), there is a focus on our family, our primary networks and closest communities (hadlakat nerot), and there is a focus on our larger political-religious world (challah). I am quite comfortable with all of these identities: my own physical and emotional self, my relationships with my community and family, and my obligation to the larger polity. Put in the context of healing, I will argue that to be whole people, we must give attention to all three: we must heal the self, our immediate communities and the undefined but very present larger world. .

In a moment, I´ll come to the Jewish woman´s obligation to the larger, non-Jewish community, particularly in the context of tikkun olam. First, I want to focus for a moment on the first two – the individual Jew in his or her community and the healing techniques or traditions which are part of normative everyday Jewish tradition. Here I thank Rabbi Rachel Cowan who has given us a list of the various healing techniques which are performed very often in a Jewish religious context. Note that in typical Jewish ways, they fuse or ensconce the individual in his or her community; it´s as though being part of a community is in itself a source of healing.

What do we do? We recite psalms, sing niggunim (as we did before I began this talk), recite blessings or berachot, visit the sick, bikur cholim, read a misheberach prayer for the sick at the service, and give tzedakah. Each of these traditions is worth a speech in itself but let me just mention a lovely comment on the prayer for the sick which I found in one of the websites: “We pray and give voice to our hope for a "complete healing" (r'fuah shleimah).. [T]his includes a healing of body (r'fuat ha-guf) and a healing of spirit (r'fuat ha-nefesh)´”. I need to add here that Jewish healing does not promise a physical cure, although there is the belief that spiritual care can indeed facilitate physical improvements. Jewish healing usually accompanies medical, social, psychological and complimentary care. But I think the unknown author´s last line is worth remembering: “Whether or not there is a physical cure, tending to one's spirit can create pathways to experience wholeness (shleimut) and peace (shalom).” I want to remember this last phrase – “tending to one´s spirit creates pathways…”. What I hear here is the hope that tending to the spirit, the soul, both anchors us in our selves and moves us to others. A well-known Swedish psychoanalyst wrote recently that we give too much to our physical and intellectual selves and far too little time to our spiritual selves. Can “tending to one´s spirit create pathways…” to others? Let´s think about that…

Now I will move outward, away from Jewish individuals and the Jewish community and begin to concentrate on the healing of the world. Here we come to the concept or phenomenon of tikkun olam, derived from the practices and theories of Rabbi Isaac Luria and his Lurianic kabbalah, active in 16th century Sfat. The idea is that doing the mitzvoth will collect the sparks which fell when God created the world and gathering together these fallen sparks will ultimately lead to the correction or improvement of the world. The belief is that the doing of each mitzvah will bring us closer to the messianic era – the time of ultimate healing, of wholeness, shleimut, of the world.

What is very crucial here is that in addition to the traditional 613 spark-collecting mitzvoth, modern Judaism has added mitzvoth directly related to the environment. These are seen, certainly in Reform and Conservative Judaism, as equally important as the original 613. Thus, environmental issues which I maintain are at base ethical and existential issues and are value-centred should be seen as obligatory mitzvoth. Seen this way, driving less and flying less and turning off the lights can well be considered mitzvoth.

There are several similar tikkunei olam, environmentally-sensitive traditions in classical Judaism: the seventh year when the land should be left fallow, the rule forbidding the wanton destruction of animal and vegetable life, the prohibition against rearing ´small cattle´, that is, goats who graze so closely that the soil is ruined. Tikkun olam also refers to being sensitive to the needs of members of the whole community – both Jewish and non-Jewish: there are rules regarding the disposal of human waste (Kings 6:14,15) and – in the Talmud, prohibitions against building tanneries too close to settlements, and washing oneself in a public well.

A caveat is important here: we must avoid pessimism. The tikkun olam discourse encourages us to move not only from bad to good but from good to better, to view the world as incomplete rather than wrong, and to announce and acknowledge joy when we experience the good. This is important: joy is healing, heralding and lauding the good and acknowledging the beautiful is healing. I remember the words of a Swedish priest who once warned me that dwelling on the bad and not acknowledging the good “allows evil to master our thoughts and in a sense to win”.

A short summary: I have suggested that in the throes of modernity, we are both fragmented and together – glocal beings. Being together and being apart is our human condition. I have also suggested that healing takes place in three contexts – within our individual selves, within our local communities and within our global community. In each of these spheres, if you will, we are obligated to heal – to make whole – our selves, our communities and, yes, our fractured, hate-ridden world.

I ´ll end with the pathways metaphor. How can we “create pathways to experience wholeness (shleimut) and peace (shalom)”? That seems to me to be the challenge of this conference: women and healing and faiths working together. Are we really walking together? Are we comfortable with each others´ otherness and not angry about it? Are we convinced that, with our differences, we are singing some of the same songs, acknowledging our common obligations to the ailing world and thereby “creating pathways to experience wholeness (shleimut) and peace (shalom)?”

I want to conclude with singing a niggun, a wordless melody, a Jewish tradition as well as a source of healing. Let us sing together…

Shabbat shalom.