by Rabbi Gila Caine
(July 2, 2020) – Before counting down the days to our return to “normal”, we should ask: How normal was the normal?
From “Blade Runner” to “Upload”, our culture is filled with dystopian storylines in which we go from maintaining an unhealthy status quo, to descending into apocalypse. Even much of our activist sci-fi and fantasy churn out unending gloom and doom fiction, and while some of it is quite wonderfully written, it only seems to send us down into a paralysis of frightened inaction. But, a few days ago I happened to listen to the “Radical Imagination” podcast, and was lucky enough to hear the episode titled: Visionary fiction. The conversation in the podcast suggested to us that when we try to change the social, cultural, economic, religious, environmental structures and behaviours in our society, it is better if we advocate for that by creating believable worlds for people to imagine themselves in. We can only work towards that which we can imagine, and if we want to make our world a more just and kind world, we need to create for ourselves images and imaginations of what those alternative realities might look like.
This is one reason why we started a Shemitah study group at Temple Beth Ora. Shemitah is the ancient Jewish/Hebrew practice of letting the land rest and releasing debt once in seven years, and some of us are very curious about this practice in our community. Traditionally Shemitah was only practiced in Eretz Yisrael, but over the past decade many Jews around North America and other parts of the world have found it to be an inspiring religious and environmental tool. Some of its power lies exactly in that it can be framed as a form of “Visionary Fiction”, or better still “Visionary Practice”.
When we study the laws of Shemitah we begin creating in our minds eye, a society that works in cycles of seven years, constantly aware of the fact that land never actually belongs to private people, but always to Adonai, and to itself. It teaches us also that even if we are fortunate enough to lend money to others, they themselves don’t actually belong to us, we learn there is a point at which human dignity is more important than our current financial rules.
Shemitah is not nihilism, it is rather an experiment of imagining what would happen if we took the ideals of Shabbat and spread those over the whole world for a full year. It is a trial in envisioning a less greedy and more dignified form of human existence, and this thought experiment is at least 2,500 years old.
For much too long the “Normal” has not been so normal, and our forced time of slowing down now is an opportunity to explore what other visions of reality are out there. You are more than welcome to join our study group, or create visionary groups in your own kehillot. We have been given a precious gift now, of being able to create a different human future and Earth future. Let’s not waste that gift.
Rabbi Gila Caine is Rabbi at the Temple Beth Ora (TBO) – Edmonton’s Reform Jewish congregation. TBO’s “Shabbat of the Land” sessions are held, over Zoom, every Tue. at 8pm. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.