Introducing Etz Chayim

Hi everyone, my name is Ri, and this is my inaugural post as a Lilith blogger. To find out more about me and my writing, check out my bio here.

Here’s the question that I hope to explore with you all here on the Lilith blog: What does Judaism — and particularly Jewish spirituality — have to do with activism?

To me this is a question about understanding the relationship between my tiny personal world and the “big world out there.” If I sleep poorly, or have a fight with a friend, or start keeping Shabbat — do these things have anything to do with race? Gender? Economic systems? International relations?

Sometimes I see myself as a magnet, being drawn back and forth between two poles. Sometimes I throw myself wholeheartedly into the political, only to be drawn back, sometimes violently, to focus on developing balance in my personal life (balance — which for me is at the core of spirituality). Inevitably, that focus only lasts so long before I am snatched back into political life with a bump. Is it possible to integrate these two aspects of my life, to acknowledge their intersections, to get beyond the feeling that they’re in conflict?

I’ve known for a while that my activism is inspired by my knowledge about how I fit into the big picture. When large-scale social injustice feels irrelevant to me (as it sometimes can, due to the insulation afforded me by my relatively privileged race, class, and citizenship statuses), or when oppression seems so big and overwhelming that I don’t know where to start — in those moments, it’s easy to throw up my hands and say “I can’t do anything anyway, so forget about it.” And yet I know that I’m implicated, and that even if I could “forget about it,” “it” will never forget about me.

I also know that when I work on these issues without understanding why they matter to me personally, I am not effective, and I don’t find the work sustainable. A quote attributed to Australian Murri activist Lilla Watson sums up this idea: “If you have come here to help me, then you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

I don’t think I’m alone in the experience of trying to figure out where I fit into large-scale social justice issues. I think that most activists spend time working out the relationship between our own lives and the broad movements in which we take part. I also think that the relationship between self and political issue differs depending on whether, in a particular context, we are working to end the oppression of an identity group to which we belong (for example, Jews working to end anti-Semitism) or are working in an “ally” capacity (for example, straight people working for LGBTQ rights).

As a white US Jew who cares about ending racism, one of my particular political commitments is organizing other white folks (including or perhaps especially white Jews) against racism. And I believe that the first step to organizing is education — and I believe that a key part of education, for white allies in particular, is coming to understand, in the words of Watson, why our liberation is bound up with the liberation of people of color, both in the US and globally.

I believe Judaism has a lot of insight to offer about the relationship between microcosm and macrocosm. In mainstream Western culture, to generalize broadly, we are often encouraged to compartmentalize. By contrast, in my experience, Judaism encourages integration: scholarly, legalistic texts provide insight for communal living, the pursuit of social justice is conjoined with the celebration of life’s pleasure, and everything in life is shot through with the search for spiritual vibrancy and ultimate meaning. This integrative model is well symbolized by one of the core organizing principles in Kabbalah: the Tree of Life, or Etz Chayim.

In addition to being a metaphor for the Torah (and, perhaps, a relic of ancient goddess worship — click here to read more about that), the Tree of Life is a diagram that describes the fundamental structure of the universe. Its graphical depiction often looks like something out of modern topology (click here to see an example), with edges connecting ten (or, controversially, eleven) nodes known as “sephirot.” Sephirot are sometimes described as emanations, or aspects, of G-d or divinity. The underlying structure delineated by the Kabbalistic Tree of Life unifies all things: not only do the sephirot describe the nature of divinity, they also describe the structure of the universe as well as the structure of the human body and spirit.

Thus, the Tree of Life is a key Jewish representation of the relationship between micro- and macrocosm, local and global — and spiritual and political.

Stay tuned to “Etz Chayim” for more explorations of the sacredness of activism and the politics of spirituality over the coming weeks and months.

–Ri Turner