April 17, 2008
On Chametz and Kitniyot
The five biblically forbidden grains during passover (considered chametz) are wheat, oats, rye, barley, and spelt. Even though my Jewish heritage is Eastern European, I don’t follow the Ashkenazi custom of refraining from eating kitniyot, the additional category of forbidden grains that includes rice, corn, lentils, beans, and peanuts. Ashkenazi Passover dishes tend to be heavily egg and meat-based in order to compensate for eliminating the high-protein kitniyot from the diet. The year my husband and I tried to do a vegan Ashkenazi Passover, we experienced constant hunger, and by the end of the week felt constantly weak and irritable. For this reason, we decided that it is more important to remain vegan than to follow the Ashkenazi custom. Of course, we still refrain from eating chametz.
The Seder Plate
MAROR and CHAZERET
Horseradish, freshly grated or prepared, to symbolize bitterness, and a bowl of salt water, to symbolize tears.
A sweet mix of apples and nuts, to symbolize the mortar used by Jewish slaves to build for the Egyptians.
4 unpeeled Red Delicious apples, cored and chopped
2 cups chopped walnuts
4 tsp. sugar
2 tsp. cinnamon
Sweet kosher wine or grape juice
Mix the chopped apples and walnuts with the sugar and cinnamon, and then add enough sweet kosher wine or grape juice to wet the mixture so it hold together. This makes a lot of charoset!
Bunches of washed parsley to symbolize the spring vegetable.
A peeled red beet to symbolize the paschal sacrifice.
A very round white mushroom, thoroughly washed and with the stem popped off, to symbolize the festival sacrifice. If done right, this exactly resembles a slightly scorched egg.
OTHER ITEMS ON THE PLATE
An orange to symbolize women’s and queer presence and significance in the seder, the Exodus story, and Jewish life. Olives to symbolize peace in the Middle East.
There should be a separate plate with covered Matzah, from which the Afikomen is taken.
CUPS OF ELIJAH AND MIRIAM
A cup of wine on the table as an invitation for Elijah, symbolizing the coming of the messianic age, to join us. A cup of water on the table to symbolize the well which followed Miriam through the desert.
A fruit platter with pineapple, strawberries, kiwi, and orange slices.
A vegetable platter with mushrooms, carrots, celery, bell pepper, and radishes, and vegan dips like hummus, baba ghanoush, and black olive spread.
Miver (Mock Chopped Liver recipe by Sarah Kramer and Tanya Barnard in How It All Vegan, p. 89)
2 cups mushrooms, roughly chopped
2 large onions, roughly chopped
2 tbsp olive oil
1 cup walnuts
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
In a large saucepan, saute the mushrooms and onions in oil on medium heat until onions become translucent. In a food processor, chop the walnuts and add the mushroom/onion mixture and salt and pepper. Blend together for 30 seconds. Serve chilled. Makes approx. 1 1/2 cups.
Matzah Ball Soup (recipe by Isa Chandra Moskowitz in Vegan With A Vengeance, pp. 70-72)
Potato Latkes served with applesauce and vegan sour cream (recipe by Myra Kornfeld in The Voluptuous Vegan, p. 140)
Horseradish Green Beans (recipe by Myra Kornfeld in The Voluptuous Vegan, p. 107)
1 1/2 pounds green beans, trimmed and washed
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon freshly grated horseradish (or prepared horseradish)
Bring a large saucepan of lightly salted water to a boil. Add the beans and blanch for 3 to 5 minutes, or until they are cooked but still crisp. Drain and refresh with cold water. Drain again.
In a medium skillet or saute pan, heat the garlic and oil together until the garlic just turns color, about 3 minutes. Add the beans and toss to coat, cooking another 4 minutes and stirring to make sure the garlic doesn’t burn. Add the vinegar, salt, and pepper, then turn off the heat and toss in the grated horseradish. Serve immediately.
A simple tossed green salad with vinaigrette.
Chocolate-Cinnamon-Walnut Cake (recipe by Susann Geiskopf-Hadler and Mindy Toomay in The Complete Vegan Cookbook, p. 283) Note: substitute matzah cake meal for the flour in the recipe.
The Absent Lamb
The shank bone, traditionally meant to represent the Pascal lamb, actually makes the lamb absent from the seder. The lamb is absent in three ways: literally, because the lamb is dead; linguistically, because the lamb is no longer an animal, but a piece of meat, a “shank bone”; and metaphorically, because the lamb’s experience is appropriated in metaphors in which it is used to describe our experience rather than his.
The lamb was made absent through objectification, dismemberment, and consumption. Objectification permits the oppressor to view another being as an object. The oppressor then violates this being with object-like treatment. Objectification denies the worth of brings in and of themselves, and instead assigns them meaning only in relation to their oppressor.
Dismemberment, fragmentation of a whole into parts, is the physical manifestation of objectification. The whole, living lamb is denied being-hood, and through slaughter and butchering is literally converted into dead objects.
Consumption is the fulfillment of oppression because it completely annihilates the will and separate identity of the oppressed. Metaphor is a particularly powerful way of consuming another reality. For example, the metaphor of the lamb as a symbol of death for the Angel of Death to recognize negates the reality of the specific form of violence in the story: the brutal slaughter of the lamb itself. Such a metaphor makes it difficult to recognize the connections between multiple forms of violence and oppression.
The Pascal offering on our seder plate is a beet, to commemorate the lamb’s blood smeared on the doorposts by the Jews and the death of the firstborn sons of the Egyptians. Our symbolic offering does not re-enact the violence to the lamb. In the Exodus tale, death was required from every family – either of a lamb or a son – and the Hebrews concluded, “better the lamb than the son.” In our day, there is no need for such a choice. We may let both the sons and the lambs live.
August 28, 2007
This is a continuation of yesterday’s post titled “Hatred is Bless-ed.” I got a bit off-track and didn’t manage to explain the title to my satisfaction.
I have said previously that pleasure is an extremely good guide to the universe. The pursuit of pleasure, limited by the pursuit of others, is a good. It is a good because it is pleasureful. Animals are hard-wired that way. If each animal’s pursuit of pleasure is limited by other animals’ equal right to the pursuit of pleasure, then the pursuit of pleasure has no outcasts (that is, assuming equality). No one is outside the fold. Each animal can pursue their bit of pleasure in life.
Sanctity, however, is not the same. The feeling of blessedness and sanctity comes from an idea of purity, sacredness, or alignment with an ideal. These ideas imply their opposite: the impure, the profane, and the unaligned. People motivated by the pursuit of sanctity do not measure the good of actions by asking themselves: Will it bring pleasure or harm? Instead, they ask: Will it be sacred or profane? Does it fit in with the ideal? If not, it is wrong, bad, profane, even if it brings pleasure and no harm.
Anything that brings pleasure and no harm should be considered a good.
I do not deny that the pursuit of sanctity is good: the feeling of sanctity is a pleasure. I argue that the question of good should be decided by the pleasure/pain rather than the sacred/profane question. Pleasure and pain should be paramount: any religion which has its adherents cause harm in the name of sanctity has in those instances become harmful rather than good.
Religions can shape what gives pleasure and what gives pain by assigning things which would, without religion, be pleasureful, harmful, or neutral, to categories of the sacred or the profane, the pure or the impure. This is good when an act which would otherwise be considered painful or neutral is made into a way to fulfill a religious covenant: the act is transformed into the sacred, the spiritual, and this way is pleasureful. Religions get people to give up their possessions and devote their lives to acts of charity and justice, and nothing could be better or more powerful.
But when religions assign pleasure to doing harm, and pain to doing what should give pleasure, the power of religion is like a shovel used to scoop out flesh rather than the earth.
For this reason, hatred towards others, the will to do harm to others, the will to bring pain to others, is often practiced as a form of sacredness. It gives a feeling of pleasure and righteousness to the religious person, secure in their own sanctity. Hatred, when condoned by religion, feels bless-ed.
Ask yourself, Is this action pure?, but also always ask, Will it bring pleasure or pain?
August 27, 2007
What matters in this world? Is there one right way to live? Many, possibly even most people say “YES!” but their answers naming the “one” right way conflict. Is there one essential source of truth or law that all of these people are tapping into, albeit imperfectly? Or is there nothing outside of ourselves?
On some level these questions do not matter. I say they cease to matter not because I deny the reality of religious experience, but because I do not think that religious experience is a good guide to how to live. If nothing else, religions are too obsessed with the ideas of purity and uncleanliness. The search for purity often ends in a list of laws, enforced by the religious state, the church (or synagogue, or mosque, or temple, or other body). The feelings, the experiences of religion and the devout are real, but it is what you do, and not what you think or feel or experience internally, that changes the world.
Although I am Jewish, I believe in the power of Christian love – a love that sacrifices the self in order to better others. A love that is full of forgiveness. Too often the worship of Christ takes the form of a macabre worship of death, pain and suffering, and too often the symbol of Christian love is not the welcome hand but the sword. The same can be said of any religion that excludes people based on religious law. The idea of impurity, of uncleanliness, is at the root of much intolerance and hatred, and it appears especially often in religions. It is especially dangerous because the person who practices this intolerance feels, experiences, and has the righteous knowledge that s/he is Blessed, and is practicing divine worship in this way.
Is there one right way to live? If we accept that there is not, then what remains? Hasidic Rabbi Simcha Bunam said:
Keep two truths in your pocket and take them out according to the need of the moment. Let one be “For my sake the world was created.” And the other: “I am dust and ashes.”
According to the need of the moment, we should take courage and act, or humble ourselves. How do we know which is required of us? We must act according to whichever state of being will help the world and the living things within in. We must always act from a sense of kindness. Rather than set right the spiritual world, we should set right the material world, and in this way the spiritual world will be united. The divine sparks cannot be released through close-minded acts.
The Union for Reform Judaism’s siddur, prayer book, “Gates of Prayer” lists the following mitzvot, commandments, as obligations without measure, whose reward, too, is without measure:
To honor father and mother;
To perform acts of love and kindness;
To attend the house of study daily;
To welcome the stranger;
To visit the sick;
To rejoice with bride and groom;
To console the bereaved;
To pray with sincerity;
To make peace when there is strife.
And the study of Torah is equal to them all, because it leads to them all.
This list only includes acts of chesed, loving-kindness. It does not threaten; it does not damn; it does not judge. Tikkun olam, the repair of the world, will only be brought about through collective action. This collective will not be a unity – it cannot be a unity. It will be a diversity, a glorious multiplicity, with some simple ideas.
Tzedakah, justice, may be the root. No one is entitled to more than another. No being has the right to enslave, torture, or kill another living being. The earth and its resources must be shared and preserved. There is more of the divine in these statements than in most practice of religion.
Acts full of chesed and tzedakah, courage and humility, are required. They are required immediately and desperately by a world in pain, full of suffering. We can make this world into a garden, and the first step is to atone, to make teshuvah (turning), and to hold out an open hand to those who need help and companionship.
July 20, 2007
Often I find myself attempting to justify some principle using reasoning about how it benefits the actor to behave in such a way. For instance, “Go vegan because it is good for your health!” In truth, I wouldn’t really care about veganism nor advocate for it if I believed that going vegan benefited only humans. I am vegan because I believe that other species should be free from humans’ enslavement, imprisonment, torture, murder, and the mutilation and consumption of their corpses. In the vegan community, we tend to say that it doesn’t matter why someone goes vegan because as long as they do, they are saving animals. If we have to approach a potential vegan by telling them how going vegan will benefit them (not benefit animals), so be it.
This reliance on finding a rosy side, a silver lining in the dark cloud of “do what’s right,” is limiting. For one, it does not remove human happiness from its central place in most people’s minds. It is tempting to not have to say in response to a challenge about why someone should become vegan, “because it benefits the other guy!” Most people will shut their ears when they do not believe that something will serve their self-interest. I am using veganism as an example here because I have a lot of experience talking with people about it, but the same idea applies to other topics.
In writing my last post, I talked myself into a wall. I believe that speciation and biodiversity matter. However, I can imagine a world in which humans no longer depend on the earth for food, where sustaining the earth’s ecosystems is not a concern. If we don’t need plants for converting carbon dioxide into oxygen and we don’t need birds and bees to pollinate and spread seeds or worms to process dirt, then it really won’t matter to most people whether or not they exist. Most people think that the world was made for humans, so we can use anything in it any way we want, and discard anything in it that we don’t need or want. So when I get to the question of why – Why do speciation and biodiversity matter outside of human need and desire for them? – the answer is not based on the premise of humanity’s centrality and primacy.
The answer is that other species exist in their own right and matter for themselves.
Sustainability is not important just because humans may wipe ourselves out if we continue on our present path of environmental destruction. The possibility of a human-created mass extinction is not important just because it may leave humans more vulnerable to disease and famine. The lives and deaths of members of other species are not just metaphors for the human experience. Humans need to find a lifestyle that is sustainable so that other species are able to live in addition to our own. This reasoning is not based on the benefit to humans of other animals’ lives, but on the benefit to the other animals themselves.
After all, the world was not made purely for human benefit.
July 20, 2007
In the last post I wrote about how the condition of abundance creates motive for mutualism – giving to others does not reduce one’s own lot. So, how can this condition be created?
1. Technology. There are many different science fiction stories about how technology might be used to make humanity’s basic needs free and universally accessible. Probably the most common idea is somehow incorporating photosynthesis into human skin, to either replace or supplement food. (For instance, see “The Green Leopard Plague” by Walter John Williams.) Another common idea is having cheaply made household units that can re-arrange molecules to turn any matter, such as garbage, into different matter, such as food and medicine. If we consider that humans require relatively few basic things to survive – clean air, water, and food – then focusing technology on making clean water and food as free and abundant as air might be one way of completely transforming the economy.
2. Checks on population growth. A quantity need not be unlimited to create the condition of abundance. There just needs to be enough of it relative to the population such that one can gain no benefit from denying it to others. To put it another way, society has figured out a method of denying use of land to people who need to use it, even when it is not being used. This method is possession or ownership of private property. Society has not figured out a method of denying use of air to people who need to use it. (Although I might add that the quality of air could go down enough in the future that people would have to use supplemental oxygen tanks or special indoor air systems to breathe, and this would allow a method of denying use of air.) Currently there is enough breathable air relative to the population that breathing air is free and universally available. Your breathing air does not impinge on my breathing air. Society hasn’t yet been able to divide air up and privatize it.
Similarly, once there was so much land that food was abundant – with a few hours of work a day, there was enough food for people to gather that everyone could be fed. The world was literally like a garden filled with fruit, and all it needed was the plucking. One of the conditions that has changed since that time is the unchecked population growth of the human species. Intensive agricultural production has not led to conditions of abundance, although it has led to population growth. As the amount of available food increases, the population also increases, and because there is no check to growth, both intensive agriculture and human population continue to increase. A planet overrun by billions of humans is not ideal. What is ideal is a stable human population that remains stable even with an increase in food. This requires checks on population growth.
How is this to be accomplished? There are a lot of bad answers and not so many good ones. A bad answer would be for the Western world to attempt to forcibly sterilize people in the developing world, as was attempted in some parts of India. Another bad answer is to use governments to enforce a regime of Zero population growth. A possible answer for checking population growth is artificially limiting food supply, although it is not the most desirable method because it would most likely be done by governments and leave the system of private property (or government-owned property) in place. Another possible bad answer is letting population growth run unchecked until the interaction of environmental destruction and intensive agriculture tops out and the maximum amount of food is produced. After a famine, the population would reach equilibrium. Yet another bad answer is voluntary human extinction, for which a movement exists.
A Vision of Unchecked Growth
In order to check a population, one can limit births or increase deaths. Factors that affect births include food supply, medicine, and reproductive capacity. Factors that affect deaths include food supply, medicine, predation, disease, danger of accidents, addiction, killings, suicide, war, and crowding stress. Human society is engaged in the project of increasing access to factors that increase births (and the number of children who grow into adults) and decreasing factors that shorten the human lifespan and cause death. This project, while coming from the best of intentions, is fundamentally flawed. The goal of this project is to increase the number of humans and the length of human life, but is not concerned about the environmental quality of life. It will lead to a crowded planet, full of humans, and not very full of other species. Without biodiversity, the ecosystems that humans depend on for survival will be very susceptible to disease and collapse. This problem can be mitigated if we as a species advance technologically until we no longer depend on cultivating the earth for food (we all have those nifty household units I mentioned above, for instance) – we advance past the point of needing agriculture. In this case, the problem of human dependence on the earth is mitigated only for humans and not for non-human animals, and the problem of commodification is not addressed.
To return to the beginning, if we want to create conditions of abundance to promote mutualism, we can begin to do that on a small scale if we remember that an abundance can be limited in quantity, as long as it exists in greater quantity than is desired. The voluntary simplicity movement, for instance, is predicated on the idea that humans don’t need to live lifestyles driven by consumption of commodities. By reducing demand for commodities and increasing desire for valueless activities and objects, conditions of abundance are created on a microcosmic scale. Dumpster divers do the same thing – they find uses for food and objects that are free and available, that have so little value that they can’t be sold and are literally thrown into the garbage. While creating conditions of global, sustainable abundance is going to take a social revolution, there already exist communities that subvert market economics and work through mutualism. Spreading these communities and creating more opportunities for interactions that aren’t commodified may be the next step.
July 19, 2007
Once a formerly abundant quantity has been commodified, assigned value, it becomes subject to market economics. It is not that the abundant quantity itself is unlimited, but rather that the amount that is available surpasses the need for it. There is always enough. Commodities are by definition scarce. As an example, consider the air that we breathe: it is free, available for each person, and there is enough. Supply is greater than demand to the point that air has no value as a commodity. It is, literally, priceless. Contrast that with land, a resource that is scarce. Land has become commodified – it has been assigned value, and has become property, owned. It is bought and sold. It is no longer freely exchanged, used based on desire. Land was once, in some times and places, abundant, but it is no longer.
Woody Guthrie wrote about this in the last two verses of “This Land Is Your Land”:
- In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
- By the relief office, I’d seen my people.
- As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
- Is this land made for you and me?
- As I went walking, I saw a sign there;
- And on the sign there, it said, ‘No Trespassing.’
- But on the other side; it didn’t say nothing!
- That side was made for you and me.
When land has become private property, people who could use the land to live on and off of are pushed off and forced into the money-making economy. The process of commodification alienates people from social relationships based on abundance and pricelessness, and encourages social relationships based on value and the market. Once desire for access to abundant resources has been replaced with demand for scarce resources, people no longer ask “What do I want?” and instead ask “What can I get?” Any kind of sharing or giving of resources becomes a zero-sum game – if you give scarce resources away, you have less for yourself. Competition, rather than mutual aid, becomes the way that people relate to each other.
Even social relationships become reified, thingified. When romance falls prey to market economics, then love becomes something to “have” and “possess.” Consider the Western cultural narrative about the love of a woman: the more limits on supply of a woman’s love – the more exclusive she is – then the more valuable that her love is and the more virtue she possesses. The more a woman gives freely of her love, the more she is considered cheap and the less she is considered virtuous. Women are expected to command a high price for their love. In this cultural narrative, both men and women look to maximize their value when choosing partners. After a choice has been made, partners are thought to possess each other. Love in turn gives control and exclusive rights over one’s lover’s body and heart. The idea of monogamy reinforces the scarcity of romantic love.
Sexual desire encompasses any pleasure that is not connected to physiological need, and is something humans seek constantly from many different sources. This desire is distinct from sexual expression, which is channeled through cultural discourses of power. Desire threatens gender identity and positions of power or status within society. It does this because it is based off of a sense of abundance and possibility. Why should we play along with the narrative that tells us that resources are scarce because it must be so?
As far as I know, the relatively small number of people in the world who do own the vast majority of the resources are not looking for ways to make those resources abundant and available to every person. They are more interested in tightly controlling those resources, making them scarce enough that they have the most value and produce the most profit, and in the process are gradually destroying the remaining abundant resources of the planet. The reason that resources are scarce is not because it must be so, but because the few in power benefit from it being so, at the detriment of the many. It should be the project of the world to create ways to regain abundance, to destroy the value of commodities until they are once again priceless, free, and universally available. We will have to learn how to live again in such a society. We will have to re-write our cultural narratives, and re-learn what “human nature” means when the motive that drives us and benefits us is not competition, but mutuality.
Desire is our guide to the world. People should be able to experience as much of what they desire as possible, limited by others’ equal right to fulfillment of desire.