God and the Democratic Party
The soul-searching on the part of the Democratic Party after the 2004 election focused to a significant extent on the question of “values;” specifically why it was that 80% of the electorate for whom values was the primary issue in the election voted Republican.
While at the ’04 Democratic
National Convention Barack Obama’s
declaration that "we worship an awesome God in the blue states" and
John Kerry’s affirmation that it is more important for us to pray that we're
on God's side than to proclaim that we are, were received to thunderous
applause, the numbers showed that the Democratic Party clearly failed to
provide the electorate with an inspiring ethical and spiritual vision. It
would seem that progressive politics had ceded the whole question of values
to that part of the electorate for whom “values” are a matter of conforming
to a certain agenda regarding issues of sexuality, reproduction and the
“family.” Conservative politics, in the
My impression is that the majority of progressively minded Americans are either uncomfortable or embarrassed to talk about God, lest they be seen as naïve, unscientific, credulous or dogmatic. The result is that progressive politics no longer has God on its side, and without any other simple and appealing foundation for its values (its hard, if not impossible, to compete with God) it has lost the battle for the high moral ground.
I think that God needs to be brought back into progressive and democratic politics; not the limited God of a particular people, church, race, and agenda, but the infinite, all encompassing, open-minded, anti-dogmatic God, who is blind to race and prejudice, accepting of difference, encouraging of dialog and multiple points of view, appreciative of the infinite array of peoples and cultures, committed to the preservation of the environment as a home for humankind and all species. Such an infinite God, it seems to me, can never be fully known and understood, and, to the extent that he/she can be known, will only emerge through the process of human dialog, inquiry, and creativity, on the one hand, and a deep reverence and respect for the created world on the other. Such a God is the expression of the highest values and ideals that we can derive from and give to life, and such a God can be found amongst the more enlightened adherents of every faith.
The conception of God I am about to present derives from my personal reading of the Jewish, especially the Jewish mystical, tradition, but I am certain that a similar and equally viable and progressive understanding of a religious absolute can be derived from Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam or any of the world’s great religious traditions. I will, for the moment, leave these important tasks for others, and focus on providing a modest exemplar from my own tradition.
In the Kabbalah, God is generally referred to as Ein-sof, literally “Without End,” but the Kabbalists also made use of a variety of other terms, such as “the concealment of secrecy”, “the concealed light”, “that which thought cannot contain” etc. (Gershom Scholem, Kabbalah, p. 88) to suggest that the infinite God is beyond human knowledge and comprehension. Because such an infinite God can never be completely known, He/She is subject to an infinite range of interpretations, and can only be approached via a infinite dialog; a dialog that recognizes God’s infinite significance and value, and which is infinitely tolerant and inclusive. I believe that such “infinities” must be the first and guiding principles of a progressive and democratic God, a God that cannot be claimed by any particular church, religion or creed. If one could provide a full and certain account of God, the divine view of the world, and humanity’s role within it, such an account would be of some limited thing, and would not be about God at all. “We comprehend only that He exists, not His essence” (Maimonides). Indeed God himself declared to the people of Israel only that “I am that I am (or will be that which I will be” (Ehyeh asher Ehyeh).
It is the idolatrous claim to know with certainty what God is, believes and wants for the world that fuels the fanaticism and dogmatism of most of the world’s terrorists, and it is a similar, if somewhat muted, claim that fuels much of the rhetoric of the religious right in many corners of the world including our own.
So the first principle to be derived from the infinite, all-encompassing God, is that our views about God and all other things, including of what is right and the means to its implementation, must always be open to dialog, criticism, reinterpretation and revision. “God is One,” but our own point of view on the Absolute is but one of an infinite array of perspectives taken by different religions, cultures, political parties and individuals. (“In many shapes do men Thine image frame”—Hymn of Glory). We should take the commandment “You shall not make a graven image,” to mean that we shall not set in stone any of our views about the “Absolute”
Such considerations, should not, however, make us throw up our hands in ignorance and relativism. We should be prompted to ask whether there might not be certain specific values that follow from or can be derived from a consideration of God as the source of infinite dialog, interpretation, significance and value? Here, the Kabbalists again provide us with a measure of guidance, via their doctrine of the Sefirot, the vessels that were emanated by Ein-sof, and which are said to serve as the archetypes of creation. Each of the Sefirot define a related group of values, which provide a guide both for the development of human character and the “repair and restoration” (Tikkun) of the world. While I believe that the values described the Sefirot follow rather directly from the “infinities of Ein-sof” I will not, in this brief essay, attempt to show how this is so. Rather, I will simply describe these sefirotic values in general terms, briefly relating them to what I understand to be the essential values of progressive political thought and action.
I. Keter (Crown): The Values of Being and Welfare. The highest of the Sefirot, Keter or Crown, is almost indistinguishable from Ein-sof itself. The Kabbalists, however, regarded Keter as the beginning of all existence in desire or will (Ratzon), and saw within it the first stirrings of pleasure or delight (Tinug). Keter is the limitless energy of an infinite God. It represents the fundamental value or right that each thing (genera, species, individual) on earth has to exist, to take pleasure and happiness in its existence, to have wants and desires, and to seek their fulfillment. (“That every man should eat and drink, and enjoy pleasure for all his labor, is the gift of God” Ecclesiastes 3.12). As the Kabbalist Moses Cordovero informs us, the Sefirah Keter implores us to be pleasant to and seek the welfare of all creation.
II. Chochmah (Wisdom): The Values of Knowledge. Chochmah, the second of the Sefirot it is emanated from the divine will and represents knowledge and wisdom as these are manifest in all spheres of human endeavor. Chochmah represents the fundamental value and right that society and each of its members has to pursue research, knowledge and wisdom unconstrained by prejudice and dogma.
III. Binah (Intelligence, Understanding). The Values of the Reasoning, Understanding and the Creative Process. Whereas the Kabbalists held that Chochmah exemplified the “paternal”, masculine ideal of knowledge, Binah was equated with the feminine “mother” and thus the values of the creative and reasoning process. Binah also represents the process through which one compassionately and empathically comes to know another and the environment. It therefore stands for the fundamental value that society has to promote creativity, education and mutual understanding amongst its members and in relation to members of other civilizations and cultures.
IV. Chesed (Loving Kindness). The Values of Benevolence. For the Kabbalists, Chesed is love, benevolence, goodness, kindness and bestowal. It represents the fundamental value that society has to promote acts that give to others, both in our own society and throughout the world, who are less fortunate than oneself, to consider the welfare of others to be at least on a par with our own and to give back to the environment and the wider world at least as much as we extract from it.
V. Din (Judgment) and Gevurah (Power): The Values of Justice, Equality, Ethics and Responsibility. Din (Judgment) and Gevurah (Power) are alternate names for a Sefirah that embodies values of justice, fairness, responsibility, limitation, restraint, power and freedom. These values, which are manifest in codes of morality, ethics and law embody the fundamental beliefs that all people, regardless of their origin and station in life, be provided with equal opportunity, be treated justly and equally under the law, and be permitted to exercise the maximum degree of personal privacy and freedom compatible with justice to others.
VI. Tiferet (Beauty) and Rachamin (Compassion): The Values of Beauty, Compassion and Dialectical Harmony. The Kabbalists held that the Sefirah Tiferet/Rachamim creates a dialectical harmony between the values of benevolence and strict justice, modifying the excesses of each through compassion for the individual and his/her personal circumstances. Such harmony between opposites is a fundamental principle of Kabbalistic thought and it is to be found not only in the sphere of ethics and morality, but in aesthetic contemplation, which involves a blending and harmony between the objective world and one’s inner, subjective experience. The Kabbalists held that such a blending of opposites reaches towards the highest form of truth. It is a truth that involves more than a balancing of interests, but rather involves a recognition that viewpoints that are seemingly opposite to our own contain an element of validity and must be acknowledged and integrated rather than ignored or eliminated.
VII. Netzach (Endurance): The Values of Commitment and Community: With Netzach we enter into a group of values that transcend the interests of the individual and enter into the realm of fellowship, community, culture and the world at large. Netzach can be said to represent the enduring forces of commitment, friendship, family, society, culture, and civilization and the notion that these “institutions” have value that transcends the welfare of the individuals through which they are comprised. A progressive understanding of these values, however, is one that recognizes the extraordinary range and variety through which these institutions can be established both within and beyond our own cultural horizon.
VIII. Hod (Majesty, Splendor): The Values of Wonder, Awe and Respect for the World Environment. The Sefirah Hod encompasses the sense of wonder and awe, and the experience of the numinous that is embodied by the terms spiritual, reverent, holy, and sacred. Our awe at the wonders of creation, both divine and human, our experience of the sanctity of human and all life, and our reverence for the environment bring us beyond personal interest and to an encounter with divinity.
IX. Yesod (foundation), Tzaddik (Righteousness): The Values of Self-Transcendence. In Judaism the Tzaddik or “saintly one” is an individual who has transcended his or her own desire, achieved a state of humility and even self-nullification, and who devotes his or her energy to the betterment of humanity and the world as a whole. While complete Tzaddekes or saintliness may not be possible for each individual in any given lifetime, the goal of transcending oneself, one’s desires, and one’s individual welfare is essential for one’s moral, psychological, and spiritual development. Indeed, self-transcendence through the identification of one’s being with a cause, community, or ideal beyond the self is the one means afforded to us of transcending, and thereby making peace with our own mortality. Rather than simply appealing to self-interest, progressive politics ought also appeal to self-transcendence as a central value for the preservation and enhancement of both our species and the world at large.
I. Malchuth (Kingdom), Shekhina (Feminine Presence): The Values of Integration and Actualization. Associated with Assiyah, the world of action, Malchuth channels all of the values embodied in the nine other Sefirot and integrates and actualizes them in space and time. The Kabbalists associated Malchuth with repentance, redemption, and the divine presence (the Shekhina) and thus sovereignty of goodness. It is the value of “walking the walk” rather than “talking the talk.” On the political level, it is the value of taking action towards the realization of one’s ideals.
According to Kabbalistic theology, the values embodied in the ten Sefirot were meant to be both the archetypal and actual constituent elements of the world. However, as a result of the cosmic catastrophe known as the Shevirat ha-Kelimk, or “Breaking of the Vessels” the Sefirot were either displaced or shattered, and the world of Assiyah, within which we now reside, is comprised of the broken shards of the vessels that were meant to contain these values’ light. Further the light of the values themselves is encased and entrapped in these broken shards such that all things which human beings encounter in this world have their value obscured and imprisoned by a lifeless “husk” or “shell.” It is incumbent upon each individual in each of his/her encounters with the people and objects that cross his/her world-path to “raise the spark” of value inherent in that encounter and moment, thereby facilitating the restoration, redemption and perfection of the world.
One need not “believe” in God, in any traditional or non-traditional sense of the word, in order to recognize the inherent worth of the “map” of values I have briefly described here. (Indeed the Kabbalist’s own conception of the infinite God was so broad as to be able to accommodate and even embrace the opposites of faith and unbelief). Nor, as I have already said, need we necessarily derive or coordinate these values with the Kabbalah or any other particular religious tradition. Indeed, the importance of these values is, I believe, self-evident, as is the importance of appealing to them (or something quite like them) as a foundation for a progressive, multicultural, humanistic, and environmentally conscious form of political action. I myself have never had a problem with speaking about God, for at the very least the word “God,” if it represents anything at all, represents the highest ideals that humanity has for itself and the world. Certainly, we should not abandon “God” and the power it generates to those who wish to use it for unicultural, parochial, bellicose, divisive and idolatrous ends.
Sanford L. Drob holds doctorates in Philosophy and Clinical Psychology.
He is the author of Symbols of the Kabbalah: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives, and Kabbalistic Metaphors: Jewish Mystical
Themes in Ancient and Modern Thought (both published by Jason Aronson, 1999).
He is currently completing a book on Carl Jung, Jewish Mysticism, and
Anti-Semitism, working on studies on Kabbalah and Psychotherapy and the
Kabbalah and Postmodern thought, and developing a Kabbalistic "Tree of
Life," "axiology" or "firmament of values" (progress
on which appears periodically on this website). Dr. Drob served as head
psychologist on the Bellevue Forensic Psychiatry Service from 1984-2003 and
was for many years the Director of Psychological Testing at
Click here for Dr. Drob's CV in clinical and forensic psychology.
Click here for a description of Brownstone Brooklyn Psychological Services, for which Dr. Drob and his wife, Dr. Liliana Rusansky Drob are co-directors.
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