Reaching Beyond the Religious: Seven Universal Wisdom Themes from Seven Thousand Years of Human Experience

Reaching Beyond the Religious: Seven Universal Wisdom Themes from Seven Thousand Years of Human Experience

by Elan Divon
Reaching Beyond the Religious: Seven Universal Wisdom Themes from Seven Thousand Years of Human Experience

Reaching Beyond the Religious: Seven Universal Wisdom Themes from Seven Thousand Years of Human Experience

by Elan Divon


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In a groundbreaking comparison between the Biblical and Hindu traditions, Reaching Beyond the Religious reveals a wisdom that transcends time, culture and creed, and which has the power to transform the way we think about religion in the 21st century.

Dispelling the idea that we can create our destinies by tapping into the power of our intentions, the book flips the paradigm on its head and challenges our basic assumptions about the world, God, and the human enterprise.

Weaving between mythology and reality, East and West, the book unearths seven universal wisdom themes from across the religious spectrum and maps these onto the complexities of modern day life. From Genesis, Job and the Hindu god, Shiva, to the dramatic Presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama; from the life stories of Biblical Patriarchs and Hindu icons to those of contemporary greats such as J.K. Rowling, Michael Jordan, and Warren Buffett, this is a book that charts the teachings of the past onto the present while exploring humankind’s most pressing and difficult questions. Supported by compelling examples taken from nature, pop culture, and religious text; prepare to be enlightened, entertained, and inspired by Reaching Beyond the Religious.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781450215336
Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date: 04/16/2010
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
File size: 599 KB

About the Author

Elan Divon is a religious scholar,
educator, and entrepreneur in the field of conflict resolution and personal development. He holds advanced graduate degrees from Harvard and Brandeis Universities and currently resides in Toronto. He teaches evening courses on Jewish Wisdom, is an avid photographer and poet, and is in the midst of writing his next book.

Read an Excerpt

Reaching Beyond the Religious

Seven Universal Wisdom Themes from Seven Thousand Years of Human Experience
By Elan Divon

iUniverse, Inc.

Copyright © 2010 Elan Divon
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4502-1531-2

Chapter One

Karma in the Torah

What a man turns out to be depends on how he conducts himself.

If his actions are good, he will turn into something good. If his actions are bad, he will turn into something bad by bad action. -Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, 4.4.8

Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers, for they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb. Trust in the Lord, and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.... But the wicked perish ...; they vanish-like smoke they vanish away. -Psalm 37.1-3, 20

"Instant Karma's gonna get you. It's going to knock you right on the head. You better get yourself together darling; pretty soon you're gonna be dead." These were the iconic lyrics sung by one of the most influential musical artists of our time, John Lennon. But the song's wisdom didn't begin with the former Beatle's infatuation with India and its prudent gurus. Oh no. The idea that our actions-whether good or bad, decent or dishonorable-have consequence on our future tomorrows has been around for a heck of a long time and can be found in almost every religious tradition under the sun. In Christianity, we are told that "you reap whatever you sow" (Galatians 6.7), while in Islam it is said that "whatever affliction may visit you is for what your own hands have earned" (Koran 43.30). The Yoruba, one of the great civilizations of Africa, have a saying that "ashes fly back in the face of him who throws them," while in Buddhism we are reminded that "an evil deed committed doesn't immediately bear fruit, just as milk does not curdle at once; but like a smoldering fire covered with ashes, it remains with the fool until the moment it ignites and burns him" (Dhammapada 69,71).

Wherever you turn, whichever religious specialist you ask, and despite all the great evils, perils, injustices, and tragedies of this world, you have people holding on to this rather questionable and ridiculous law of karmic justice. This begs the question why? Why are we so gullible? What has produced this universal fixation on the idea that somehow, "what goes around comes around," that "what you sow is what you reap"? Is it based on human experience? Common sense? The physical laws of nature? A mysterious, compassionate or wrathful God? Human psychology? The answer is yes, no, and all of the above.

You see, the problem with Karma is that it's paradoxical. It's problematic. It can be foreseen, yet it's entirely unpredictable. It's a law that we can always count on-but can seldom count on when or how it will work its way into our busy lives.

Why, you might ask? Because on the one hand Karma is based on human free will. It is founded on the principle that we all have the ability to choose between a course of action in the present and make decisions that will indubitably affect and impact our future. We are in control of our actions. We are the architects of our destiny. We can choose which ice cream we want at Ben and Jerry's or what type of side we want with our steak. But that's exactly the problem! If Karma steers or even minutely determines our future circumstances, it also diminishes our free will to act in the present by binding us to the actions and choices of our past. How, then, can we operate freely if our freedom is entangled with decisions we've already made and can no longer control?

In short, there's a major element regarding Karma that lies beyond our control, and this prompts the question, who is controlling it? Who's pulling the puppet strings and deciding when, how, and in what fashion we will receive our karmic dues? Herein lies the mystery, a mystery that I intend to untangle in the following chapter using examples drawn from a most unlikely source: the Hebrew Bible.

Throughout it all, I will demonstrate that the universal argument pertaining to Karma still holds. Namely, that if you do bad things, you'll eventually be slapped on your backside; you spread good, and good will eventually come your way. The catch, the "spiritual disclaimer" if you read the fine print, is on the word eventually. For the beauty of Karma is that you never know when or how you will receive what is coming to you. The universe is unpredictable that way; it's what makes life meaningful and interesting. And it is this unpredictability which either compels or discourages us from our propensity to believe in a higher power that administers our karmic bank account.

Jon Levenson, my Judaism professor at Harvard University used to say: "The universe is not designed like a soda pop machine where you push into a slot a few shiny quarters, press a button, and get a Coke." It's not a mechanistic universe we live in where consequence follows directly and immediately from action and deed. Rather, the good we do today, or even in our entire lifetime, may often show up years and decades later, and sometimes in an alternate lifetime altogether. This is precisely why the Jewish Wisdom tradition tells us that the occurrence of righteous people suffering is only "a parenthesis in history," a temporary glitch in God's perfect judgment and a phenomenon that will be redressed and gently corrected over time. It's why sometimes we see wicked and malicious people succeeding and prospering in the world, often at the expense of those good, clean-cut honest folks that may not be doing so well. Think about Hitler during the height of his power or Saddam Hussein (or even Bernie Madoff). Where was Karma during their criminal rise to power or during their prolonged and destructive endurance at the top? But their day of judgment came. It just took some time. Far too much time for countless millions to find solace in, but nevertheless their wicked ways eventually caught up with them.

According to the laws of Karma, these kinds of injustices can only be temporary, whereby the effects of one's actions will sooner or later bear fruit-whether in a few years, a few decades, or another lifetime altogether. It's the law, and you had better yield to the full weight of its force.

Why is the universe created in this fashion? Why the unpredictability and seeming arbitrariness and unfairness that surrounds us? Why can't all the "good folks" be rewarded immediately for their good nature, kindness, and benevolence, while the wicked receive timely punishment in direct proportion to the gravity of their crimes and transgressions? Such is the question the Book of Job compels us to ask when the virtuous and blameless Job is afflicted by God for no apparent reason and as a result is forced to question the nature of God's justice. In addressing the Almighty, Job asks:

Does it seem good to you to oppress, to despise the work of your hands and favor the schemes of the wicked? ... The tents of robbers are at peace, and those who provoke God are secure.... Why do the wicked live on, reach old age, and grow mighty in power? ... Their houses are safe from fear, and no rod of God is upon them. Their bull breeds without fail; their cow calves and never miscarries.... They spend their days in prosperity, and in peace they go down to Sheol.

In Job, we are presented with the picture of a man who is described as the epitome of righteousness. "That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil." Heck, Job even performed sacrifices to cover up for any potential sins and mishaps his full-grown children might have inadvertently committed. He was the biblical Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi all rolled up into one magnificent mensch. And for a time, Job prospers as a result of his benevolent nature, receiving abundant wealth, happiness, good health and a warm home full of loving children-this until God (prompted by the notorious accuser, Satan) decides to test his character.

One day, after returning from one of his leisurely strolls across the limitless expanses of the universe, Satan, who has nothing better to do but pick on sweet, innocent folks, asks God a simple question: "You see this Job character down there behaving like the perfect mensch? I'll bet you I can make him curse the day he was born and become just as rotten and wretched as the rest of humanity. Just let him experience some good old-fashioned suffering, some tough love, and then you'll see the man's true colors." In other words, Satan asks for God's permission to test Job's character and the depths of his fidelity and devotion. He wants to see what kind of a man Job really is.

"Does Job fear God for nothing?" Satan asks. "Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face."

Tickled by Satan's irresistible provocation, God allows the latter to conduct, shall we say, a little experiment to determine whether Job's character will remain spotless in the face of travail and adversity. Bring it on, says the Almighty! At first, Satan removes and completely annihilates all Job's wealth and material possessions. From seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred oxen and a fleet of attentive servants (super rich in biblical lingo), Job is reduced to nothing. The man is left penniless. Yet Job bites his lip, tightens his belt buckle, and remains steadfast in his love of God. No problem. God then permits Satan to uproot and destroy Job's entire family through a series of freakish accidents. In an instant, all his sons and daughters are taken to the grave by a horrid twist of fate. A passerby who witnesses the calamity reports of the incident to Job: "Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother's house, and suddenly a great wind came across the desert, struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead." Now that's a bummer ... what an unimaginable tragedy. What devastation. But again, our friend Job persists in his uncompromising fidelity and humbly accepts the ghastliness of his fate, uttering the now legendary verse: "The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord" (1.20).

But Satan isn't quite finished. Not yet. Until now, he has only touched Job's possessions and family (only!). But what about Job himself? How will Job react if his own body is afflicted by sickness and nagging discomfort? In one final test of Job's character, God allows Satan to inflict upon Job leprous sores of the most treacherous and gruesome kind, a disease which causes considerable pain and soon chips away at the man's allegiance and devoted attitude towards the Almighty.

"So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.... After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth" (Job 2.7-8; 3.1).

Even Job had a breaking point.

But why, one might venture to ask, is God testing Job in the first place?

God is testing the nature and very basis of Job's relationship with Him, the reason which motivates Job to worship God and perform his good deeds day in and day out. You see, if we were to submit to God and behave accordingly only because we seek reward and good favor (i.e., good Karma), then our relationship with God would be conditional; it would be based on profit and returns, just like a calculated investment. "I do good because I want good to come my way; I worship God because I want to go to heaven," and so on and so forth.

But God is not the stock market or your friendly investment banker. God is not that transparent. For if the reward or good Karma from our actions is not so immediate to arrive, if the good we do today does not bring us dividends or a return on our investment tomorrow, well, that really works to test the nature of our relationship with the Divine. Will you still believe in a God, let alone his "sublime grace," when you are on the verge of desperation, in complete shambles, when pitted against tragedy, loss, and misfortune for no apparent good reason? Now let's see what you are really made of!

So Karma, in short, is a law that operates consistently, albeit unpredictably, upon all of us. We know it works, we know it's coming, we just don't know when and where and how. Details you know. And this unpredictability is exactly what makes life so interesting, since otherwise we'd know the script and would not be required to believe in anything at all. The outcome would be way too obvious, foreseeable and secure. Life would be stagnant and devoid of mystery. Boring!

To use a wonderful metaphor about Karma depicted by Hinduism Professor Diana Eck: "Our actions are like arrows we impel into motion. Once they are set off, once the arrow is launched into airy flight, it cannot be retracted." There's simply no stopping it. The effect will be inevitable, and our action, like the arrow, is going to hit someone or something. Yet one can never quite anticipate or predict exactly when and where the arrow will fall and what its piercing effect will ultimately be; that, I'm afraid, is up to God or-if you are otherwise inclined-the proclivities of chance.

Judaism, believe it or not, has a great deal to say about Karma. But in contrast to the Hindu tradition, Jewish wisdom does not speak of Karma in explicit, clear-cut terms or attempt to define it. Karma is not described as a law or as a type of reality that is constant in the universe. There's no magical word in the biblical vocabulary to account for it. Instead, the law of Karma is shrewdly concealed within the narrative of the Hebrew Torah, in the ebb and flow of the lives of its heroes and villains and in the history of the people of Israel. All it takes is for the reader to pay close attention to the sequence of events that occurs in the Bible, particularly in the book of Genesis, in order to realize that there is a consistent law at play in the world, and that law is Karma. In the following sections I intend to make this point very clear.

The Jacob Cycle

We begin our journey with the story of Jacob, a biblical character who, perhaps more than any other, serves as the quintessential example, the poster boy, for Karma's manifestation in a single patriarchal life cycle. Before his transformation into Israel, a name bestowed upon Jacob following his divine encounter in the wilderness, Jacob was not the kind of guy you would want to bring home to your parents for a Shabbat meal or a Christmas dinner. He wasn't the all-American jock or Hebrew hero. Rather, he was a trickster, a cheat, and a prankster.

After all, this is the guy who lied to his ailing father on his deathbed and cheated his older brother out of birthright and blessing on two separate occasions. In fact Jacob's very name is derived from the root akev meaning "heel" in biblical Hebrew; it was given to him because already at birth Jacob exhibited the kind of unsavory qualities of one who might try to challenge and subvert his older brother's rightful dominance and authority as firstborn. For "he clung to Esau's heel" when leaving his mother's womb, hence the name Jacob (Ya'akov) or "heel clinger". Genesis 25:26 states it thus: "Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau's heel; so he was named Jacob."

Later on in life, this heel clinger takes advantage of his brother's raging appetite and manipulates it to his own advantage in order to steal Esau's birthright: "Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, 'Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!' ... Jacob said, 'First sell me your birthright.' Esau said, 'I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?' Jacob said, 'Swear to me first.' So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob."

Now that's chutzpa! Esau is quite literally dying from hunger the Bible tells us-he's just returned home from a hard day's work in the field-and instead of giving the poor guy some food (we're talking about family after all, mishpucha), Jacob asks his brother to make an oath which would ensure the transfer of the latter's birthright directly to him. He wanted to capitalize on his brother's momentary weakness and apparent naiveté.


Excerpted from Reaching Beyond the Religious by Elan Divon Copyright © 2010 by Elan Divon. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Preface Before God Spoke in Words....................xiii
Introduction Why Hinduism and Judaism?....................xxiii
Chapter 1 Karma in the Torah....................1
The Jacob Cycle....................9
Abraham and Sarah-Foreshadowing the Future....................18
Chapter 2 The Chosen and the Unchosen: Dharma and Duty....................32
Chosen versus Unchosen-Good versus Evil....................44
Chapter 3 The Lessons of Dharma and the People of Israel....................58
Lesson Number 1: Humility through Testing....................61
Lesson Number 2: The Necessity of 'Evil'....................69
Chapter 4 On the Nature of God in Light of Karma and Dharma....................96
Chapter 5 The God of Job and the Hindu God Shiva....................105
Chapter 6 Being and Becoming: Moving Beyond the Symbols....................128
Male and Female He Created Them....................141
Chapter 7 Sacrifice, Nonattachment and Liberation....................148
Chapter 8 Returning to the Garden....................160
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