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The World Trade Center and Pentagon Massacres: A New Kabbalah Perspective On International Terrorism

It is now nearly two weeks after the tragic event that has completely rewritten the meaning of being a New Yorker and an American. Not only has there been a hitherto unfathomable destruction of human life and property, but there has also occurred what in Kabbalistic terms can only be described as an eruption of the sitra achra, of raw death and evil, into the midst of our individual and collective psyches. The pictures of the "missing," thousands of them, many embracing their children, lining the wooden construction barricades as I enter work each day at Bellevue Hospital, is overwhelming—suddenly a holocaust is no longer history, or even an event in a distant place that years ago killed my mother’s family, but an omnipresent reality! It is as if a very concentrated dose of the evils that nearly destroyed the last generation, as well as those that spin the fantasies of the current one, has suddenly become the nightmarish reality that we awake to every day in New York. As the towers burned and crumbled, and as the pictures of them being struck, burning and collapsing were played over and over again on the newscasts, images of Kristalnacht, Hiroshima, London during the blitz, Dresden, as well as "Independence Day," the "Towering Inferno" and "Armageddon" were immediately called to mind. Not only, I thought, have the terrorists turned our own physical power against us (after all, their power was only that of the human body and mind, augmented by a few box-cutters and knives) but they have also turned the American psyche, and its fascination for fantastic destruction, against itself. We are all now living in a mega-disaster story; one that would break box-office records were it a Hollywood movie, but which has only served to break lives, families, hearts and hopes as a New York reality.

How are we to respond? Can the principles of the Kabbalah, or for that matter any philosophical or religious vision, provide us with any guidance whatsoever? At first glance it would seem not. In the first place, all theory, no matter how subtle, all-embracing and profound, is made ridiculous in the face of concrete human suffering—suffering that calls for a living, empathic response; for love and action, not for words; for humility and personal desolation, not for preaching, knowledge and explanation. Second, why turn to religion, when indeed it is religion, admittedly in its most fanatical and apparently perverse form, that apparently underlies the very evil we are trying to cope with?

Still, some guidance is needed. The president has cast the battle in terms of a threat to "freedom." I would like to explore one aspect of the notion of "freedom" for a moment, one that is clearly dear to American democracy, but which is, an essential aspect of Jewish mystical thought as well: the value of pluralism. According the 19th century Chabad Chasidic thinker, Rabbi Aron Ha Levi it is the fundamental divine purpose that the world should be differentiated and revealed in each of its finite particulars and yet united in a single infinite source. Rabbi Aaron states:

 ...the essence of His intention is that his coincidentia be manifested in concrete reality, that is, that all realities and their levels be revealed in actuality, each detail in itself, and that they nevertheless be unified and joined in their value, that is, that they be revealed as separated essences, and that they nevertheless be unified and joined in their value.

As I understand Rabbi Aaron’s view, it is the purpose of this world to reveal the fullest manifestation of individuals, cultures and ideas, what in contemporary terms has been spoken of as as the revelation of and respect for difference. Paradoxically, it is only through such a respect for difference that we can ever hope to have a truly united world.

Any response that we make to terrorism must be guided by Aaron ha-Levi’s principle of pluralism. We must not, at this point in time allow the threat to our own way of life be the impetus for an attack on the way of life of others, no matter how repugnant their ways may seem to us. This is a time to protect ourselves against terrorism, not a time to rid the world of governments, nations and people who threaten our own vision of "democracy."

Current psychological theories of "terror management" postulate that one will be inclined to aggress at those who challenge or derogate one’s world-view. This is because one’s world-view is the only buffer one has against the "terror" of mortality. The attacks on the World Trade Center can be understood as an aggressive form of "terror management" on the part of the terrorists, who rightly or wrongly see American culture and ideology as direct threats to their traditional religious and national existence. We must not respond in kind. We must not respond to the threats to our own "world-view" by aggressively attacking the world-view of those we believe to be responsible for that threat. President Bush’s defense of "freedom" and his comparison of the Taliban to Nazism came dangerously close to the kind of "terror management" that fuels terrorist attacks on America to begin with. We must act against terrorists and those who harbor and support them, not against cultures and world-views that threaten our own. By doing the latter, we not only violate the New Kabbalistic (and democratic) principle of pluralism and difference, but also increase the likelihood of further aggression by those who are in turn threatened by our derogation of their one buffer against terror and annihilation—their world-view.

 A second Kabbalistic principle is of signal importance in our current world situation: the principle of the Rachamim (Compassion), and in more general terms, the blending of the opposites. According to the Kabbalah, the world is sustained by a balance of forces, in particular the forces of the left-side: Judgment (Din) and Power (Gevurah) and the forces of the right side, Love (Chesed) and Greatness (Gedullah). The forces of the left and right are combined and harmonized in the "central pillar" which is manifest as Compassion (Rachamim) and Beauty (Tiferet).

All of our actions must be determined by the harmonizing principle, for it is this very principle that sustains the world. In the current international climate, this means that we must act both with judgment/power, and with love/greatness (of soul). We must not lie down in response to those who have attacked us; indeed we must prosecute, judge, and root them out with all of our might. However, we must also act with love and greatness of soul.

What is love and greatness of soul? It is a caring for the other that wishes for and nurtures the other’s development according to his or her own needs and goals. In the current situation, we must forge a coalition against terrorism through love as opposed to power; by offering those who help us in this task, assistance in achieving their own goals, and a security from the threat not only of terrorism but also from the threat that we, the United States, will seek to undermine their way of life. This will not only require a temporary diplomatic and political effort, but also a deep soul-searching with regard to the ways in which American politics, enterprise and culture are perceived as undermining the religious, national, economic and cultural ideals of those who attack us. Further, given the horrific poverty in many parts of the Islamic world, and in Afghanistan in particular (where many thousands subsist on boiled grass and cattle fodder) the United States must be willing to assume its share of the burden of eliminating the economic and social conditions that serve both as the breeding ground and rationalization for terrorist activity. In a world where cheap weapons of mass destruction are readily available, the world's impoverished masses cannot be expected to sit by idly and starve as the wealthy enjoy their riches.

America has profited monetarily, but it may also pay a stiff price for its efforts to export American desire; a desire that turns others into consumers of American products, services and entertainment, but which is in may ways destructive of foreign culture. To rectify this we might invoke another Kabbalistic principle, that of contraction or Tzimtzum, the very contraction of God’s presence that permitted an "other," i.e. humankind to exist independently to begin with. The principle of Tzimtzum reminds us that it is only when a great power contracts itself that smaller powers can flourish. Without such contraction, the small is threatened by an unwanted dissolution into the large. Such withdrawal does negate one's obligation to provide assistance, but it does oblige one to assist in a manner that does not remake the assisted in the helper's image.

The final Kabbalistic principle that seems apt under the current circumstances is that of the Breaking of the Vessels (Shevirah ha-Kelim). According to the Lurianic Kabbalah, the creation and development of the world inherently involves shatterings and ruptures, the destruction of old forms, structures and ideas that pave the way for new orderings, emendations and restorations. Indeed, according to the Kabbalah the world requires the vessels to break in order that there might be Tikkun ha-Olam, the world’s emendation and repair. It is only through this process of rupture and restoration that the world can be perfected. The principle invoked here is by no means a justification for human destructiveness—the world already has more than enough broken vessels without humanities’ inhumanity to humankind. What the Breaking of the Vessels does suggest, however, is that a time of great destruction, must be utilized as an opportunity for reflection, restoration, and positive change. We have already seen the beginnings of such Tikkun in the heroism, love and unity that so many have exhibited in response to the WTC and Pentagon tragedies. We must, however, further this Tikkun, by reaching for goals, which may never have been possible before, but which now seem within reach as a result of the shattering of the towers. It is only by engaging in such Tikkun, by using this opportunity for positive change, that those who died so cruelly in this tragedy can be honored, and their deaths and lives be made fully meaningful.

The full potential for Tikkun in the wake of the WTC and Pentagon tragedies has yet to emerge. However, a number of possibilities have already been manifest. These include the opportunities to:

  1. Create a word-wide coalition against terrorism, making efforts to include those nations who have harbored terrorists in the past. Clearly an intensive and unremitting show of judgment and strength, including targeted miliatry action is necessary to respond to further terrorist threats. Such a response, however, should include the broadest coalition possible, and express the outrage of the world rather than simply the vengeance of the United States. To that end, we must work towards forging understanding and alliance with all but the most radical elements in the Islamic world, i.e. all but those who participated in or who celebrate the attacks.
  2. Work towards understanding those issues that foment hatred towards America amongst broad sectors of the Islamic and international communities, taking the appropriate degree of responsibility for America’s own role in that hatred, and finding means of addressing those concerns so that America shows a more compassionate face to Islam and the rest of the world. (One consequence of this would be the reduction of public and governmental support for terrorism.)
  3. Work towards forging and enforcing a true peace between Israel and the Palestinians. This will obviously continue to be a monumental task—but the WTC tragedy has demonstrated that the issues at stake are no longer the survival of Israel, but include the survival of the United states as well. The same international alliance that is convened to fight terrorism should also be convened to address its underlying causes: chief amongst which is the Palestinian question. The same principles of pluralism, respect for difference, balancing of opposites, Tzimtzum and breakage and restoration that guide our approach to the terrorist problem should also guide our approach to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
  4. Take all necessary steps to guard ours (and other) nations against further terrorist attacks—including airline, biological, chemical, and nuclear threats. The creation of a virtual anti-terrorism industry could incidentally have a salutary effect upon the economy. The moneys that might otherwise be spent on an anti-missile shield could be redirected in this direction. These steps should, of course, be taken in the context of widespread public debate regarding the impact upon civil liberties and other aspects of our society that they will inevitably entail.
  5. Mature as individuals and as a nation, first by coming to understand what is genuinely valuable in American life, and reflecting upon the limitations as well as the strengths of our politics, economics, and culture. To take but one example, I imagine that in the aftermath of the WTC attack American cinema and television will be transformed, and that its past focus on the destructive, the frivolous and the spectacular may cede to a more reflective attention to the nuances of human relationships.

The WTC tragedy should not only prompt us to action, but should also cause us to reflect deeply. As painful as this is to recognize, the enemy has held a mirror up to America, and in the process of seeking appropriate justice and retribution, we should not avert gazing into the speculum of our own souls.

The following letter by the author appeared in the New York Times, Wednesday, September 27 (Yom Kippur):

To the Editor:

Re ``Bush Steps Up Appeal to Afghans to Rid Their Country of Taliban'' (front page, Sept. 26):

The terrorists responsible for the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks confounded America by turning peacetime commercial aircraft into deadly weapons of war. The United States now has an opportunity to confound Osama bin Ladin and the Taliban by turning aircraft of war into vehicles of sustenance and peace.

Why not use B-52's to drop food, medical supplies and other necessities in areas of Afghanistan that ours and others' intelligence show to be in the greatest need? Let these supplies be wrapped in American flags to show the Afghans what kind of Satan America actually is.

If we must attack Aghanistan as part of our war on terrorism, let us show the Afghans and the world that we mean it when we say we have no quarrel with the Afghan people.

SANFORD L. DROB New York, Sept. 26, 2001

The writer is director of psychological assessment at Bellevue Hospital.

As always, comments and criticisms are welcome.




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