Sunday, July 24, 2011

Jeremiah and Resilience

Resilience is the ability of communities, cultures, and social systems to survive major shocks. When we look around us, what social institution stands out as being resilient over a major span of time?

What stands out for me is the history of Judaism. What other religion, language, or people has survived in the face of repeated foreign conquests, forced exiles, and enslavement for 3000 years and counting? I would call the continued survival and prospering of Judaism the prime historical example of human resilience.

What is it then that made Judaism resilient? Strange as it seems, I believe that part of the answer to this question lies in the writings of the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah.

The lifetime of Jeremiah ( 655 -586 BCE) was a profoundly crucial time in Jewish history. Jeremiah had predicted that Jerusalem, the Jewish capital, home to Solomon’s great Temple, was about to be conquered by the Babylonians, a prediction which was not implausible given that at the time the Babylonian army was laying waste to most of the rest of the Middle East.

But the people of Jerusalem were in denial. Jeremiah was characteristically unrelenting, he unnerved them, as he would us today. They did not want to hear Jeremiah’s message and they rejected him and brutalized him, treating him as a pariah.

Unfortunately for the people of Jerusalem, Jeremiah’s prophecy came true. After a prolonged siege, which caused terrible suffering, the Babylonian army took Jerusalem and destroyed the Jewish temple, put to death much of the Jewish leadership, and enslaved the rest of the Jews and marched them off to Babylon. Jeremiah they spared, and he was left to live where he chose.

At this point the Jews as an identifiable people should have disappeared from history. But, in fact, just the opposite occurred. During the next sixty years of slavery, the exiled Jewish community thrived and developed a resilience that is maintained to this day.

Within a hundred years of the exile the Hebrew Bible had been compiled and gathered together, largely in the form we see it today, with Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Kings, Lamentations, Psalms, the Prophets, and the wisdom literature.

What role did Jeremiah, who was left behind in the ruins of Jerusalem, have in all of this? Because the Jews were in exile, and the Jerusalem temple was no more, the strategy, championed previously by Jeremiah himself, of basing Judaism on a centralized temple with its hierarchy of temple priests became unworkable.

But this went against the whole tenor of ancient Middle-Eastern religions, which was that any particular religion was based on location.

Jeremiah, at some point, realized that basing a religion on sacrificing at a temple created a fatal vulnerability. His innovation was to promote the idea of an “inner covenant” - an inner relationship between individual Jews and God best exemplified by the daily Jewish prayer from Deuteronomy called the “Shema”.

By reciting this prayer everyday any Jew could keep covenant without the need to make sacrifices in the holy temple. Thus permitting Judaism to thrive in exile, or in any place where there were a gathering of Jews, even where a Jew existed outside of any Jewish community.

The Shema is still recited twice daily by observant Jews. At the very beginning of the day and at the end of the day. It goes:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be upon thy heart...

The book of Deuteronomy, which contains the Shema, as well as a second retelling of the Ten Commandments, hence the name “Deuteronomy”, appears to have been “rediscovered” during King Josiah’s rein. Jeremiah was closely associated with King Josiah and there is good reason to believe that Jeremiah probably had a hand in writing Deuteronomy and in its “rediscovery”.

The centralization of Judaism in the sacrificial temple in Jerusalem had given the Hebrews the illusion of enduring power. But successive conquests by the Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans proved the folly of this idea.

When things fall apart, people often have difficulty facing and accepting the changes that are required to survive.The choices seem to be either to embrace expediency and abandon tradition altogether, or rigidly adhere to tradition and deny that anything has really changed.

But the first choice of abandoning tradition leads to dissolution and the eventual loss of identity. The second choice, of rigid adherence and denial leads to escape from reality and self-destruction as the familiar world falls apart around one’s ears.

This situation is a lot like the worsening ecological and economic crisis that confront us today. In the face of these crisis many people may recognize that there is a problem, but they will deny that we need to make any major changes to our comfortable way of life.

Like Jeremiah, modern environmentalists predict disaster but things still don’t seem that bad,so they are mocked and ignored as scolds and annoyances.

But, eventually this commonplace view will prove untenable, as the global economic and political crisis deepens. We may well have to adapt to severe economic shocks and the breakdown of social structures in the wake of these shocks. Our entire global civilization may be at risk of collapse.

In today’s world, political leaders have relied on the continuing prospect of economic growth to solve our most pressing problems - best exemplified by the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats. But the expanding global economy is rapidly drawing down our reserves of fossil fuels, while the global exponential increase in energy use is leading to the spectre of uncontrollable global warming.

The idea that we can continue growing our national and global economies in the face of finite resources and finite reserves of fossil fuels is a similar kind of illusion to the one in Jeremiah’s day that a religion could remain powerful only if it continued to be identified with a certain location.

. Our Industrial way of life, that is predicated on the massive utilization of cheap fossil fuels, appears to us as powerful and impregnable. But it is incredibly vulnerable to disruption once we reach peak oil, and the effects of climate change begin to overwhelm us.

The signs of these coming catastrophes are all around us, but, as in Jeremiah’s time, most people choose to ignore them or discount their relevance. The lesson of Jeremiah is that resilience - the ability to survive shocks and insults - comes not from economic or political power or advanced technology. Resilience comes from inside of us as we work together on achieving a sustainable civilization.