Rabbi Everett Gendler has long written passionately, incisively, and extensively about two of the issues currently roiling American society in this time of pandemic and civil unrest – how to define the relationship between faith and nature and how to achieve the ideal of social justice. As a thinker, Rabbi Gendler developed an approach to environmentalism that reconnects the modern practice of the Jewish faith to its ancient engagement with the natural world. As an activist, he marched in the 1960s with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and later worked for decades with the Tibetan exile community of the Dalai Lama on strategic non-violence. In late June, BJV editor Albert Stern spoke by phone with Rabbi Gendler, 91, who had just completed two weeks in self-quarantine with his wife, Mary, at their home in Great Barrington after returning from Florida.
This conversation was edited for space and clarity.
Berkshire Jewish Voice: Let’s talk first about this virus that has appeared, and has very much changed everyone's view of our relationship to the natural world. All of a sudden, nature seems menacing, like it's about to do us in. How do you see what's going on?
Rabbi Gendler: I guess I see it, as they say, through a glass, darkly, without the clarity and illumination I would appreciate. But I struggle with it at two levels. At one level, I see it as a warning that we've gone too far. Now, that warning has been sounding for quite a while now – the increasing global temperatures, the increasing excitability of the storms, the intensifying abnormalities. I think there is a strong indication that we have done more than be fruitful, multiply, and fill the Earth. I fear we are overfilling it both with our carbon footprint with our environmental destruction of habitats and species. And also in terms of population. The question of work, employment, for the now more than 7 billion on this Earth – that is a haunting specter. So, at one level, I do view this as an environmental storm signal, a signal of imminent distress. There have been articles speaking about the destruction of wild habitats putting humans and other species in closer contact, more constant contact. If it be the case that the origin of this world-felling pandemic was a market where bats were being sold for human consumption – oh, my! So at one level, I see it as this profound, perhaps final warning.
But there is another level, a deeper level, at which this is prompting me to have a fresh look as Genesis and the traditional creation epic and the whole question of the divine creation. We have for so many years read the story of Genesis with a kind of confidence that, here's this all-powerful God, omnipotent. And from nothing, God creates something and he does it by the word, the dibbur. And poof! Powf! Here it is, a neat, orderly, benign, humanly-supportive creation.
You know, that's a very nice picture, but in recent decades people have, for a number of reasons, questioned really our whole notion of God. Some of us who've been involved with process theology have struggled for decades against the idea that God was omnipotent, omniscient, and totally benevolent, because those [qualities] are logically unable to be sustained. And you have, interestingly, in the Bible, a sense that God actually had to struggle in the process of creation. For example, Psalm 74 “You God, my King from of old; You were the salvation of the earth. You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters. You crushed the head of Leviathan,” etc., etc. Here, let me just give you a sense of what Isaiah talks about in Chapter 51…wait, let me put on my glasses. Sorry to be so awkward, but aging has its effect and some of us are slow to concede. “Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, who pierced the dragon? Was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep ” etc., etc. So there is actually in our bible the sense that there is more to the creation story than that we have in the first chapter of Genesis.
Now, when you combine this with the fact that more recent translations of the Bible sometimes read, “When God began to create” rather than “In the beginning, God created,” that’s something people have discussed because the Hebrew does not actually permit you to say, “in the beginning God created.” It has set me pondering whether in fact creation, as we think of it, may have been the Divine Spirit intervening in this chaotic preexistence, a material brew, and setting loose sentience, an awareness, that shows development in various species and then finds yet more intense expression in the human being.
I am looking at this pandemic as possible testimony to a primordial matter in which there are various forces at odds with one another in struggle and into which the Divine Mind has intervened, making room for the struggle that has yielded us – but always against this background of the primordial and sometimes hostile matter. So I am looking afresh what I call the “augmented Genesis” and trying to make some sense of this divine drama of taming some of those elements as a more active than ever partnership between the divine and the human.
So this is the other direction that the pandemic has moved me to focus on. At the immediate level, certainly the environmental, the warning signs. And, at a more profound level, a reevaluation of precisely what creation is about and what the nature is of this marvel, this amazing experiment that we are part of.
Let me ask, as I haven't articulated this before – was that even semi-comprehensible?
BJV: What I'm hearing – and you can tell me if I'm misinterpreting what you're saying – is that you don't see what's going on now as just a simple occurrence. You see it as something very profound. You see theological implications that go back to the root of our faith and our understanding of the universe, and God's role in it and our role in it. And it's not a small thing – it’s something that forces us to re-evaluate not only our own lives and our own society, but really something even more profound than that. Close?
Rabbi Gendler: Yep, close. Wow. Meanwhile, I'm glad you have it on tape.
BJV: I'm glad, too. Let me ask another question related to the pandemic and then use it as a segue into the next broad area I want to talk about. So what I have seen is that there are many people who are just very, very afraid. The High Holidays are coming and the rabbis around here, of course, are planning and worrying, trying to figure out the best thing to do. What message might you have for people who are contemplating returning to their congregations, returning to the social aspect of worship, but who may be afraid?
Rabbi Gendler: Oy.
Look, we're all together in that. I so very much want to be fully present with others on Friday night who affirm that we are beneficiaries of the gift of creation. And yet, I'm denied this. So-called “virtual” ain’t reality. And the thought of a virtual High Holidays – oy, vey. It's painful and I do not see a responsible alternative. I mean, not that the Saudis are exemplars in most respects, but the limits the haj attendance this year to 1,000 rather than the usually two-and-a-half million. I mean, who could have imagined?
So there are adjustments that we all have to make. I don't know what I would do or how I would manage if I still had the responsibility and the incredible privilege of planning and contributing to the religious life of an active community. In the old days, I was one of the grumps who would not permit videotaping of weddings or bat or bar mitzvahs. At this point, I would certainly be making my humble peace with whatever electronic devices have to offer. But it will be a real serious reduction in the fullness of the experience as we know it. How do you think it is that we retain our sense of what that full faithfulness to human encounter represents?
We mustn’t let this take us further down the substitution of the electronic for the intimately interpersonal, but use it creatively as a help during this period of suspended intimate contact.
BJV: What is it going to take, socially or spiritually, for people to overcome their fear of one another? Even of your close friends, persons you would give a hug to every Shabbat, but who you now fear might give you a virus that either causes grievous illness or possibly even your own death.
Rabbi Gendler: Well, I think the first step is coming to grips with this fear – that existed, really, through the millennia and that we felt quite immune from until ever so recently. You know, earlier generations had a much stronger sense of insecurity; but we grew up and lived in an age when it did seem that so many threats had all been overcome. So I think this recurrence of fear is the first shock of recognition.
I think our fears will be reduced and our confidence strengthened as vaccines are developed for the new viral strains. I think we'll also read some of the Psalms asking for protection in a very different spirit, and I think what we'll come to recognize is that never has life been risk-free, and that the quality of lives will depend on the balance that we strike between warranted fear and the courage to live despite it all and in the face of it all. There again, I can tell you that people will begin to look at the Book of Psalms in a fresh way and find some of them personally encouraging in the most basic sense.
BJV: Part of the fear we have of the other revolves around our attitudes about the virus. The other big issue that's dividing us, that's causing us to fear one another, to look askance at one another, is the issue of race in this country. We’ve gone from the virus causing a lot of fear to a point not very long down the road of violence, which I always believed was inevitable given the level of fear so many are experiencing. Especially in light of your lifelong commitment to civil rights, progressive causes, and social unity, how do you see what's going on in our country at this time?
Rabbi Gendler: First of all, I should say in 1995, following my so-called retirement from regularly-scheduled commitment, [my wife] Mary and I were guided toward involvement with the Tibetan exile community of the Dalai Lama. For 22 years we commuted regularly to India doing educational work on strategic nonviolent struggle. That pretty much consumed my attention until very recently, so I was a dropout, you might say, from the active engagement of black and Jewish communities.
From a larger perspective, what I see happening is an unprecedented, broad awareness of the pain to which our fellow citizens have been subjected because of the color of their skin. And I think it was the clarity of this confrontation with what we cannot accept as decent human beings. It was the confrontation with this stark reality that really shocked us into a largely creative affirming response. Which is to say, in the same way back in 1963, when we were at the Rabbinical Assembly convention, and the front page of The New York Times had those photographs of the police with a fire hose and the gas masks and the batons and the cattle prods, and you saw the little kids in the lines of those high-pressure hoses... I mean, we saw that at the Rabbinical Assembly and we just couldn't sit idly by. And I led a group of 19 of us down to Birmingham.
So on the large scale, that's what we're seeing now with that unbelievable, interminable eight-minute-and forty-six-second strangulation of a fellow human being. This stark confrontation with evil has really mobilized the good instincts in people in the US and all over the world.
It's a little bit parallel with the contrasts between the Evian Conference in the late 30s or early 40s, where the question was which countries would take how many Jews. The bottom line message from that was most countries would take few if any – that included the United States – Hitler got the message that Jews’ lives don’t matter. Contrast that with the world[‘s subsequent] confrontation with the Holocaust and the different place of the Jew in the eyes of many parts of the world. I think of the Talmudic wisdom of the ayin roah or the “observing eye.” You know, the rabbis discuss, maybe in Pirkeh Avot, the restraining effect on human behavior if one took seriously the notion that God is observing your actions. Well, wow. Suddenly, electronic devices as an extension or participant in this divine observation has a telling effect.
What's so important is that we recognize the slow, steady, dependable effects of conscience when unsullied by hostility, hatred, and violence. What's most remarkable is the small amount of violence which must not be accepted and the overall affirmation of human decency in all of this – by the way I want to be sure that we keep in mind also, and I will say it explicitly: Policemen's lives matter. The specter of the two policemen murdered in New York not so long ago by a gunman who invoked Eric Garner’s killing as justification – we have to be sure that we give no sanction to that. But it is a testament to the existence of human sensitivity and to the function of conscience in human life – it reminds me also of an amazing poem by Robinson Jeffers in which he says, “I have learned that happiness is important, but pain gives importance.”
I believe that this confrontation with undeserved pain has really awakened our unaware consciences.
BJV: So how do we tap into that new awareness? It's almost the same question I asked about how we're going to overcome dealing with each other in view of the virus. What do we need to do in a practical sense to overcome this suspicion, the hostility that has been unearthed during this period of time?
Rabbi Gendler: A great deal of personal workshops. Way back, way back in the 60s, when I was serving a congregation in Princeton, New Jersey, I was close to a Quaker friend, Ross Flanagan, who in those years was doing sensitivity training with the Philadelphia police force. How's that for ahead of the curve? I think we need a lot of that. We need legislation because as Dr. King pointed out – and as Jewish tradition always exemplified – in the world at large, love expresses itself through justice and specific rules. So we need to be alert and support meaningful legislative reforms.
Now, there's a lot of hard work to be done. You know, the day that the Montgomery bus boycott was successfully ended by a court's decision, King and the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) ran workshops on what’s next – how do you behave on a bus, what do you look out for, etc., etc. Because the implementation is long, arduous, and aggravatingly detailed. But that comes next. And what we have is that reservoir of conscience in support of this, which will take a long time.
A collection of Rabbi Gendler’s essays, Judaism for Universalists, (Blue Thread Books), is available for sale at jewishcurrents.bigcartel.com, Amazon.com, and other outlets. Rabbi Gendler's most recent book is A Passionate Pacifist: Essential Writings of Aaron Samuel Tamares, (Ben Yehudah Press, 2020).