Leonard Felder: The Ten Challenges (The Second Challenge) Review

The Talmadic Second Commandment, or First Commandment in the Philonic or Augustinian traditions, is phrased "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:3). Felder notes that this is usually, and incorrectly, interpreted as an edict against building and worshipping idols. Interestingly, the Commandment does not deny having other gods, which strikes an accord with the famous Jewish Kabbalist mystical text, The Zohar, which argues that the opening lines of the Torah ("Bereshit Bara Elohim") should be interpreted should be understood in their exact order: "In the beginning it created Gods". There is an implicit polythesism which is neglected and suppressed.

It must be pointed out that Felder has engaged in an incomplete reading of the Second Talmudic Commandment. To be sure, it is a more universal, humanist and modern selection which it undoubtedly preferred for contemporary times. However reference must be made to the subsequent verses: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments." (Exodus 20:4-6)

This said, Felder takes up this point by noting that there are many idols that people have their life who are, for all intents and purposes, "gods". Certainly not in the supernatural sense of course, but Felder does not really take that path even if his work is ovewhelmingly expressed, at first glance, in such a manner. What Felder claims that the second challenge is really asking is that we must not put, to quote Rabbi Ted Falcon, our inner Divine presence second to "a guru, an ideology, a romantic obsession, a stressful job.., an unhealty habit [is a "healty habit" OK?] .. we have modern-day addictions and prssures tha cause us to forget our purpose here is to be a vehicle for Divine energies".

It brings some pleasure to acknowledge that yours truly, in numerous addresses, has made similar comments. In particular railing against those who place their loyalties to criteria other than truth and justice. Those who, through other commitments, adopt partisan positions, who treat moral practise and factual report with a particular ambiguity are subject to a some displeasure. If I may quote my own address to the Melbourne Unitarian Church in in January 2011 on Wikileaks:

"A search for truth that is free is one that is not hindered by censorship or by allegiances to all other principles than truth itself. A search for truth that is responsible is one that is committed to unearthing those crimes against humanity that others would prefer were not known. But there are people who do not have such responsibility; their idea of responsibility is to hide the truth if it damages those powers that they worship. For some it is their state, for others their nationality, for others their religion or church, for others their political party, for others to company their work for."

The "powers that they worship" are, of course, 'other gods', or false idols - note that churches and religions are also included in that list. Most people of a largely neutral or good intention do not engage in such wilful maliciousness of course. Their idols of money or various material pleasures are more accidental, unthoughtful, ignorant. The unfortunate human tendency to orientate oneselves towards 'quick fixes' is illustrated by Felder by the story of the golden calf, a understandable reaction to difficult circumstances and a remarkable moment where Moses argues with God and convinces the deity that their opinion is incorrect (so much for omniscience). The image is so famous in the Judeo-Christian world that it seems almost bizarre to discover that during the financial crisis in 2008 a group of somewhat speculative Christians descended on Wall Street and prayed to Jesus through a golden coloured (bronze) bull statue to bring a "Lion's Market" to the world.

Felder argues that it takes a certain degree of self-discipline to engage in both not worshipping false idols and the complement, staying on track to the internal calling. A number of spiritual steps are proposed that should help this process:

(i) Coming to an understanding on what's holding a person back or distracting them from their inner calling. One particular method that is recommended is the purification ritual common to indigenous American practises and the Vision Quest; the author only hints on the physical and mental difficulty of the ordeal. Other shamatic practises (cf., Znamenski, Levi-Strauss, Stafford) are even more challenging and relevant in this particular context; at the end of the spiritual journey one must confront the worst elements of oneself and their fears, an often harrowing experience that leaves a person spiritually broken (consider Room 101 from Orwell's 1984), rather than improved.

(ii) Engaging in daily rituals to remind oneself of their core purpose. For Felder this includes morning and evening reflections, meditation before meals, regular referral to inspirational texts, attendence of religious services, the practise of a martial art and so forth. Whilst undoubtedly these rituals are helpful to many to remember their core purpose rather than the oft-necessary distractions of living in the social system itself, the author does not explore the regular use of such rituals by many in an empty and thoughtless manner - perhaps by this stage of the book there's a fair assumption that such behaviour would not apply the reader.

(iii) Discover ways that one can share their Divine presence and live with purpose. This includes engaging in challenging internal questions, working backwards form desired ends (similar to Stephen Covey's principle of "begin with the end in mind") and actively seek opportunities and moments of passion and purpose. The examples presented by Felder of people engaging in various forms of volunteer work are certainly heartfelt and inspiring, and serve as excellent examples of how people can reintegrate themselves into a community spir

The prohibition against false idols and its complement, the dedication to the inner Divine, are certainly handled competently by Felder, but perhaps not a convincing as one could. Strictly interpreted, the challenge means that the Divine must take precedence among all activities. Whilst this is possible for a person who is in a full-time occupation where such activities are catered for, is it really opportune for the impoverished manual worker or domestic servant with a family to feed? At best they simply do not have the time to place such thoughts and activities in the majority of the life or even as their primary motivation. Mental time is as finite as any other time, and for many the "gods" of family, work and and home must take precedence over the inner Divine.