Adam’s question yesterday about the redemption of the firstborn got me thinking about the whole biblical concept of redemption, and whether it’s relevant to reconstructionist Jews or their Christian counterparts, or to Pagans or folks of other faiths.

Redemption technically refers to either deliverance by payment of a price or ransom, or deliverance through power from oppression, violence, captivity, etc. In the Hebrew scriptures, the idea of redemption is directly expressed by the verbs ga’ál and padah, and by their derivatives to which the word kophér (ransom) is intimately related. Of these two verbs, ga’ál, refers to the redemption by price of an inheritance, or of things vowed, or of tithes; while padah refers to redeeming the firstborn of children or of animals. Outside the Torah, and in relation to YHWH, both verbs are used of simple salvation or deliverance by power.

Of course, the whole idea of Redemption has been really central to Christians for a long time, and forms the basis for most conservative theology. In the New Testament, redemption is specifically that of humankind by Christ’s death. One is both saved from something, such as suffering or the punishment of sin, and saved for something, such as an afterlife or participation in the Reign of God.

The concept of padah stems from this passage in the book of Exodus:

After YHWH brings you into the land of Canaan that was promised to you and to your ancestors, and gives it to you, you are to give YHWH the first offspring of the womb. All firstborn of your livestock are to be given to YHWH. Every firstborn donkey is to be redeemed with a lamb. If you do not redeem it, you must break its neck. Likewise, the firstborn among your children must be redeemed.

Now, when an animal or a person was “given” to God, it was designated as cherem, or dedicated so utterly that it was unfit for any other use. In general, what was given was sacrificed. People were not to sacrifice their children, however, so they were to pay a price—literally, a ransom or redemption price. Even today, many Jews “redeem” their firstborn sons on the thirty-first day after their birth, and give the money to a kohen, someone from the ancient Temple priestly lineage, or perhaps to charity. This ritual is called the Pidyon HaBen:

In Orthodox and Conservative circles, this ceremony is conducted as part of a festive meal. The kohen first washes his hands and breaks bread, then calls for the father and the baby. The baby is typically brought in dressed in white and bedecked with gold jewelry, which the women in attendance contribute to beautify this mitzvah. The kohen then engages the father in a formal dialogue, asking him whether he prefers to keep his money or his son. At the end of this exchange, the father hands over five silver coins . . . and the kohen blesses him and his son. Though this ceremony should be conducted when the child is 31 days old, a first-born male who was never redeemed via Pidyon HaBen may redeem himself later in life through a similar interaction with a kohen.

There is a debate about how much this should be in contemporary money. Originally the fee was five silver Temple shekels which, according to some calculations, would be equal to between 101 and 117 grams of silver. However, the custom is to use actual silver money for the Redemption. The government of Israel mints silver coins for this purpose, and they are carefully weighted to guarantee that five of them contain 117 grams of silver. They generally cost between $200 and $400 for the set. Then again, 117 grams of pure silver bouillon at today’s exchange rate is about $1500. Either way, I’m thinking that’s proof that life is cheap.

So the Jews redeem their firstborn sons so that God doesn’t consume them utterly on the altar of service and sacrifice. Christians trust that God has redeemed them from eternal damnation. But what if you don’t believe in a God of consuming fire, or in the concept of Hell? Is there any place for the concept of Redemption?

Certainly there’s room for redemption in the colloquial sense—finding a new start after one has been on the wrong path for a while. One often feels a new sense of freedom after entering rehab, for example, or when one leaves a destructive relationship: “I have my life back!”

The problem, I think is with the idea of preemptive redemption. Both Christianity and Judaism wanted to protect its adherents from the threat of danger, rather than simply rescuing them from current suffering. Which isn’t such a bad thing for a religion to do for its faithful; what mother wouldn’t rather keep her kids from getting into bad situations, instead of bailing them out after the fact?

But if you believe the Universe is essentially loving, and that we more or less create our own realities, can one be redeemed preemptively? Is there a way to escape the karma of our current actions? Isn’t that like wanting to dance without paying the piper?

Perhaps one can learn one’s karmic lessons quickly—learn from one’s mistakes without having to go to Hell and back. Perhaps redemption is about being open to course corrections along the way, about being aware enough to see one’s mistakes quickly and change direction before it’s too late.

Sounds good to me. Now, whom should I send these silver shekels to?

Thoughts? Comments?

Categories: Christianity, Judaism | 7 Comments

A New Year’s Sneeze

In many countries, a sneeze that occurs after making a statement is often interpreted as a confirmation by God that the statement was true. No word on whether more truthtelling occurs during cold and flu season.

In 400 BCE, the Athenian general Xenophon gave a dramatic oration exhorting his fellow soldiers to follow him “to liberty or to death” against the Persians. He spoke for an hour, motivating his army and assuring them a safe return to Athens, until a soldier underscored his conclusion with a sneeze. Thinking this sneeze a favorable sign from the gods, the soldiers bowed before Xenophon and followed his command. Their battles were a resounding success. Xenophon’s record of the entire expedition against the Persians and the journey home was titled Anabasis (“The Expedition” or “The March Up Country”). It is worth noting that the Anabasis was used as a field guide by Alexander the Great during the early phases of his expedition into Persia.

Another divine moment of sneezing for the Greeks occurs in the story of Odysseus. Odysseus returns home disguised as a beggar and talks with his waiting lover Penelope. She tells him that Odysseus will return safely to challenge her suitors. At that moment their son sneezes loudly, and Penelope laughs with joy, reassured that it is a sign from the gods.

So here is a New Year’s sneeze for you, a sign from the gods that the year will be wondrous, healing, and prosperous for all of us:

That said, I still feel that starting a new year on January 1 is the height of artificial construct. Although most cultures saw the year as beginning at the spring equinox, January assumed its position as the first month in 153 BCE simply because Rome’s consuls, or constitutional heads of state, were elected on January 1. The reason for this shift of the new year into the dead of winter was to allow the new consuls to complete the elections and ceremonies upon becoming consuls, and still reach their respective consular armies by the start of the campaigning season.

In Europe in the Middle Ages, the new year began on Christmas Day, with January 1 being designated the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus (Jewish law mandated that boys be circumcised eight days after birth, and January 1 is eight days after Christmas). The adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1582 fixed the start of the new year as January 1, but the religious feast days stayed the same.

Circumcision predates recorded human history, with depictions found in stone-age cave drawings and ancient Egyptian tombs. Circumcision was variously seen as a form of ritual sacrifice or offering, a sign of submission to a deity, a rite of passage to adulthood, a mark of defeat or slavery, and an attempt to alter aesthetics or sexuality.

So why does the Torah require circumcision precisely on the eighth day—even if that day falls on the Sabbath? The number seven symbolizes that something is complete; eight, then, is the number of new beginnings: new not only in the sense of fresh or unspoiled, but new as in strange, unknown, revolutionary. Noah saved eight persons from the Flood to start rebuilding life on earth. The inauguration of the Tabernacle as the new dwelling place for the presence of God took place on the eighth day, after seven days of preparation. When Israelites were healed of leprosy, they were to present themselves in the Temple on the eighth day as the beginning of their new life.

The number eight is a potent symbol in many cultures and traditions. It’s the basis for much of Chinese yin-yang philosophy. Buddhism has its Noble Eightfold Path, its Eight Auspicious Symbols, and its Eight Worldly Dharmas. Hinduism has its eight-pointed Star of Lakshmi, representing the eight kinds of wealth that the goddess Lakshmi imparts. The planet Venus was also represented as an eight-pointed star (“the Star of Ishtar”), because it returns to the same position in the sky every eight years.

Every eight years, the winter solstice sun falls on the day of a new moon; this is the shortest amount of time that lunar and solar calendars were in approximate alignment. The eight years from one such “meeting of sun and moon” to the next were called a “Great Year” and measured the life span of the sun, because at each of these “meetings,” the old sun died and the new one was born for the next cycle. Consequently, in many ancient cultures (particularly Greece), kings, for whom the sun was an apt symbol, served only for eight years at a time, after which their kingship had to be renewed. (The Greek mathematician and astronomer Meton of Athens introduced a more accurate nineteen-year lunisolar calculation, now called a Metonic cycle; an even more accurate alignment occurs every 334 years.)

Robert Anton Wilson—essayist, philosopher, psychologist, futurologist, anarchist—wrote a marvelous piece called “The Octave of Energy” which looks at the repetition of the number eight throughout human history, arguing that it’s actually hardwired into our DNA. As Antero Alli put it,

A message is the ordering of a signal. This message is the framework of an alternative education system, one which arranges living planetary signals into meaningful messages. These signals come in octaves, or cycles of eight. Languages throughout history have translated these signals as: The Overtones of Music Theory, The DNA Code, The I Ching, Computer Binary Notation, The 8 Mayan Calenders, The Game of Chess and other interpretations of the universal law of octaves.

To that list I would add the Medicine Wheel as a map of the human psyche. Many of Wilson’s ideas are based on The 8-Circuit Model of Consciousness proposed by Dr. Timothy Leary. I’ll be returning to discussions of their work, and similar approaches by Alli, Gurdjieff, and even Gene Roddenberry, in future posts.

So we start January with nods to brain circuitry, genital modification, religious symbology, and sneezing pandas. Not a bad way to start.

The ancient Saxons called January wulf-monath, or Wolf Month. According to Verstegan’s 1605 book with the delicious title A Restitution of Decayed Intelligence in Antiquities concerning the most noble and renowned English Nation, Wolf Month was so named “because people were wont always in that month to be more in danger to be devoured of wolves than in any season else of the year, for that, through the extremity of cold and snow, those ravenous creatures could not find beasts sufficient to feed upon.”

May this year keep the wolf in your heart, but away from your door.

Thoughts? Comments?

Categories: Body and Mind, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Psychology, Time and Space | 12 Comments

The Shaman’s Vision

by Jason Godesky, The Anthropik Network

I’m dazzled by so much that Jason Godesky has to say, but this article is, to my mind, one of his best. I hope you find it as intriguing and stimulating as I do.

Imagine, for a moment, what the world might be like if there was only one religion. Not a dogmatic creed you were forced to comply with, but a sort of “open source” interplay of visions and ideas that not only encouraged, but demanded your active participation in creating an organic, evolving vision of the world. Imagine what such a religion might be like, if you were forbidden to simply take another’s word for it, and you were required to experience the divine for yourself—a religion that required no faith in anything but your own experience of it. Imagine a religion based on dreams and visions, a religion that saw a world that was simultaneously sacred and profane but above all, alive. Imagine a world where you were not just an empty elite separated from your domain by the aloofness of power, but irrevocably enmeshed in a network screaming with life, a world where every stone and stick and blade of grass pulsed with a sacred spirit all its own. Imagine what such a religion might be like.

We don’t need to use too much imagination to conjure up such an image, because not only did it once exist, it is humanity’s natural state. That religion is today often called “shamanism,” for the Tungus word for their most religious individuals. It is the root of all our modern religions—all of them are the descendants of the shaman’s vision. It is the genesis of art, music, theater, philosophy, mathematics, science, and all those abstract things that we so often look to as the very best of our species’ achievements.

Defining “the Shaman”

In Shamanism: The Neural Ecology of Consciousness and Healing, Michael Winkelman puts forth a case so dense it is nigh unreadable, but if you can make it through such intense verbage, you will be rewarded with an incredibly unique point of view that is supported by an exhaustive set of evidence, pointing to the idea that shamanism had a role to play in human evolution. The reductionism of the scientific mindset is certainly bolstered by the nature of waking consciousness. The “shamanic state of consciousness” (often abbreviated “SSC”) is less a reductionist state, and more an integrative state. This boosts the mind’s integrative abilities, allowing it to make connections between various ideas on analytical, metaphorical and other levels simultaneously. The value of non-analytical thought to make intuitive leaps that may be impossible through analysis alone has been evidenced at several points in the history of science. One striking example might be Friedrich August Kekulé von Stradonitz, who added a new chapter to every high school chemistry textbook with his discovery of the benzene ring—a structure he discovered only thanks to the inspiration of a dream he had, wherein he encountered the ancient symbol of the snake eating is own tail, the ouroboros.

Winkelman shows that in the shamanic state of consciousness, the body’s natural healing processes are activated in a significant manner. This is related to the placebo effect, in that the body is, in general, very good at seeing to its own treatment. For example, both the placebo effect and the shamanic state of consciousness result in the release of opioids. The placebo effect is well-known, but rarely given its due. Too often, we refer to “just” a placebo effect. Approved drugs must do better than placebo, but even our very best drugs—such as aspirin—can only narrowly edge out the placebo effect. Very often, up to 75% of a drug’s effectiveness will be due to the placebo effect. The shamanic state of consciousness does not try to denigrate such a powerful healing function, but instead tries to use it to still greater effect. The SSC exacerbates the same self-healing processes as the placebo effect. When combined with the shaman’s traditional role as resident ethnobotanist, this makes the efficacy of most shamanic ethnomedicine roughly equal to our own biomedicine. Continue reading

Categories: Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Psychology, Shamanism, Worthwhile Reading | 3 Comments

Shards of Light

One of my big challenges is how to get (and stay) Unstuck. I’ll have a little breakthrough, and think I’m finally able to make substantive changes in my life, to break free from old habits, old (and failed) approaches to problems, old ways of seeing things. But after a brief taste of freedom, there I am, doing the same old things in the same old ways, and I feel Stuck once again.

Yesterday my brilliant acupuncturist and fellow shaman, Jennie, came over to work on some computer stuff, and we started talking about what makes us want to run away. shards.gifWhen we want to avoid responsibility for something, when we are experiencing fear or mental paralysis, what’s really going on there? And why don’t we feel it all the time? Why, when she treats a patient, is it always easy? Why don’t I ever have that block when I do shamanic work with someone? Why isn’t it that smooth and easy when I do my client work?

We concluded it was all about expectations. When I am doing a job for someone, my expectation (and theirs) is that I will complete the project in a timely manner, with results that are up to my rather high standards. It’s all about the outcome. But when I shamanize, I have no such attachment to the results. My job is to show up, to sense the movement of spirit, to journey, to report what I see, to counsel, to heal. And even this last is without expectations: I don’t expect someone to be healed; I only do whatever I can to effect healing, and then we see how things work out. Continue reading

Categories: Judaism, Shamanism | 2 Comments

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