world council of churches

Globalization and Religion
Naamah Kelman

The Jewish people have been "globalized" since our ancestor Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. He worked his way up to chief of staff in Pharaoh's court. Thrust out from the comfort of his family in the Land of Canaan and forced to rely on his spiritual resources, Joseph triumphs. This story, while taking place in biblical times thousands of years ago, rings true today. How does one withstand the temptation, excitement, the mere "otherness" of a different culture. Whether it was a simple literary device or moral tale, Joseph in Egypt remains the paradigm of acculturation and success. He never forgot his Israelite roots. When he was finally tested, he recovered his family and reconciled with his brothers.

What is most interesting about the Joseph story is the later rabbinic interpretations. Hundreds of years later, the Rabbis, themselves faced with the challenges of living in foreign cultures, took comfort from Joseph. They told themselves and us, through their textual interpretation, that he maintained his Jewish identity within the Egyptian court.

Globalization, to the naysayers, is the tidal wave of mass marketing, western capitalism and consumerism gone unchecked, CNN in every village and city. These are certainly the dangers of a shrinking world run by capitalist interests. But what about the idea that we are indeed all connected? "It takes a whole village to raise a child," says Hillary Clinton. It is now clear to all of us that it takes the whole world to guarantee the future.

The monotheistic religions, from their conception, had global messages. In today's free market of ideas, religions have a lot of competition. Yet our message is the same as always. Judaism hopes to mend the world. One who saves one life saves an entire world, say our Jewish sources. We are not afraid of the other or the new. This is what fuels us.

Maybe it is because we are a wandering people that we have been forced to adapt, change, re-organize. The Jewish people's secret of survival has been our ability to find our place in so many places, while steadfastly holding onto our inner center. Our history has taken us all over the world, and in that process we have taken in a little of each piece of the world. You can do that when you know who you are.

Globalization has forced us to relate to each other in ways that were previously unthinkable. From the comfort of our living rooms we in the West can watch the "East" (the Middle East or eastern Europe) on our TV screens making war and wreaking destruction. Paradoxically, we are more enmeshed and responsible for each other's well-being than ever before.

Our children no longer sit passively at their screens, their fingers connect them to the world with the click of a "mouse." They communicate and interact with each other. They are and will be in touch for better and for worse, faster and more profoundly than any generation before them.

I do not bemoan globalization; the industrial revolution, the feminist revolution, and now the information revolution, have made the lives of human beings all over the planet profoundly better. The challenge is not change but sharing fairly and justly. The problem is not western consumerism, it is the compassionate allocation of resources.

Since the times of Jeremiah and Amos, to name a just a few, Jewish tradition has always spoken this truth: God has created a world of plenty to be shared by all. In other words, religion has always been the answer to the evils of globalization, the dangers of a homogenized world. If every human being is created in God's image, that spark of holiness is what protects us from uniformity, cynicism and despair.

Religion gives hope and offers comfort; not the quick fix of the sound bite and the split- second flash of video cameras. We have to be mindful of our expanding consciousness and not let it be dulled by overexposure. We must remain sensitive to and concerned for each other, not bored by endless replays of this and that catastrophe or trauma.

This is indeed the challenge as we head for a new century. We need to take with us the wisdom of our traditions as we embrace the new. We need to be sure of our own traditions so we can reach out to others.

Globalization will keep us connected. May we take on this awesome responsibility with humility and caring.

Rabbi Naamah Kelman is one of the first women rabbis in Israel and is particularly active in education.

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