Jews as the chosen people

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Maybe the Jews have been chosen for a very particular reason and for a very particular time. The reason: to end the centuries-old cycles of hatred and violence and fear and blame. The time: now.

–Mike Zonta, BB editor
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In Judaism, “chosenness” is the belief that the Jews, via descent from the ancient Israelites, are the chosen people, i.e. selected to be in a covenant with God. The idea of the Israelites being chosen by God is found most directly in the Book of Deuteronomy[1][2] as the verb baḥar (בָּחַ֣ר (Hebrew)), and is alluded to elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible using other terms such as “holy people”.[3] Much is written about these topics in rabbinic literature. The three largest Jewish denominations—Orthodox JudaismConservative Judaism and Reform Judaism—maintain the belief that the Jews have been chosen by God for a purpose. Sometimes this choice is seen as charging the Jewish people with a specific mission—to be a light unto the nations, and to exemplify the covenant with God as described in the Torah.

This view, however, does not always preclude a belief that God has a relationship with other peoples—rather, Judaism held that God had entered into a covenant with all humankind, and that Jews and non-Jews alike have a relationship with God. Biblical references as well as rabbinic literature support this view: Moses refers to the “God of the spirits of all flesh”,[4] and the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) also identifies prophets outside the community of Israel. Based on these statements, some rabbis theorized that, in the words of Nethanel ibn Fayyumi, a Yemenite Jewish theologian of the 12th century, “God permitted to every people something he forbade to others…[and] God sends a prophet to every people according to their own language.”(Levine, 1907/1966) The Mishnah states that “Humanity was produced from one man, Adam, to show God’s greatness. When a man mints a coin in a press, each coin is identical. But when the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, creates people in the form of Adam not one is similar to any other.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) The Mishnah continues, and states that anyone who kills or saves a single human, not Jewish, life, has done the same (save or kill) to an entire world. The Tosefta, an important supplement to the Mishnah,[5] also states: “Righteous people of all nations have a share in the world to come” (Sanhedrin 105a).

According to the Israel Democracy Institute, approximately two thirds of Israeli Jews believe that Jews are the “chosen people”.[6]

In the Bible

According to the Bible, Israel’s character as the chosen people is unconditional[7]“For you are a holy people to YHWH your God, and God has chosen you to be his treasured people from all the nations that are on the face of the earth.”Prophet Amos as depicted by Gustave Doré

The Torah also says,”Now therefore, if you will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then you shall be a peculiar treasure unto me from all the peoples, for all the earth is mine.”[8]

God promises that he will never exchange his people with any other:”And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you.”[9]

Other Torah verses about chosenness,

  • “And you shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation”[10]
  • “The Lord did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because you were more in number than any people; for you were the fewest of all people; but because the Lord loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your ancestors.”[11]

The obligation imposed upon the Israelites was emphasized by the prophet Amos:[12]“You only have I singled out of all the families of the earth: therefore will I visit upon you all your iniquities.”

Rabbinic views

Sometimes this choice is seen as charging the Jewish people with a specific mission—to be a light unto the nations, and to exemplify the covenant with God as described in the Torah. This view, however, does not always preclude a belief that God has a relationship with other peoples—rather, Judaism held that God had entered into a covenant with all humankind, and that Jews and non-Jews alike have a relationship with God. Biblical references as well as rabbinic literature support this view: Moses refers to the “God of the spirits of all flesh”,[13] and the Tanakh[14] also identifies prophets outside the community of Israel. Based on these statements, some rabbis theorized that, in the words of Natan’el al-Fayyumi, a Yemenite Jewish theologian of the 12th century, “God permitted to every people something he forbade to others…[and] God sends a prophet to every people according to their own language.”[15] The Mishnah states that “Humanity was produced from one man, Adam, to show God’s greatness. When a man mints a coin in a press, each coin is identical. But when the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, creates people in the form of Adam not one is similar to any other.”[16] The Mishnah continues, and states that anyone who kills or saves a single human, not Jewish, life, has done the same (save or kill) to an entire world. The Tosefta, a collection of important post-Talmudic discourses, also states: “Righteous people of all nations have a share in the world to come.”[17]

Most Jewish texts do not state that “God chose the Jews” by itself. Rather, this is usually linked with a mission or purpose, such as proclaiming God’s message among all the nations, even though Jews cannot become “unchosen” if they shirk their mission. This implies a special duty, which evolves from the belief that Jews have been pledged by the covenant which God concluded with the biblical patriarch Abraham, their ancestor, and again with the entire Jewish nation at Mount Sinai.[18] In this view, Jews are charged with living a holy life as God’s priest-people.

In the Jewish prayerbook (the Siddur), chosenness is referred to in a number of ways. The blessing for reading the Torah reads, “Praised are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who has chosen us out of all the nations and bestowed upon us His Torah.” In the “Kiddush“, a prayer of sanctification, in which the Sabbath is inaugurated over a cup of wine, the text reads, “For you have chosen us and sanctified us out of all the nations, and have given us the Sabbath as an inheritance in love and favour. Praised are you, Lord, who hallows the Sabbath.” In the “Kiddush” recited on festivals it reads, “Blessed are You … who have chosen us from among all nations, raised us above all tongues, and made us holy through His commandments.” The Aleinu prayer refers to the concept of Jews as a chosen people:

“It is our duty to praise the Master of all, to exalt the Creator of the Universe, who has not made us like the nations of the world and has not placed us like the families of the earth; who has not designed our destiny to be like theirs, nor our lot like that of all their multitude. We bend the knee and bow and acknowledge before the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be he, that it is he who stretched forth the heavens and founded the earth. His seat of glory is in the heavens above; his abode of majesty is in the lofty heights.[19]

Further interpretations

The following section contains information from the Jewish Encyclopedia, originally published between 1901–1906, which is in the public domain.

According to the Rabbis, “Israel is of all nations the most willful or headstrong one, and the Torah was to give it the right scope and power of resistance, or else the world could not have withstood its fierceness.”[20]

“The Lord offered the Law to all nations; but all refused to accept it except Israel.”[21]

How do we understand “A Gentile who consecrates his life to the study and observance of the Law ranks as high as the high priest”, says R. Meïr, by deduction from Lev. xviii. 5; II Sam. vii. 19; Isa. xxvi. 2; Ps. xxxiii. 1, cxviii. 20, cxxv. 4, where all stress is laid not on Israel, but on man or the righteous one.[22]Monument to Maimonides in Córdoba, Spain

Maimonides states: It is now abundantly clear that the pledges Hashem made to Avraham and his descendants would be fulfilled exclusively first in Yitzchak and then in Yaakov, Yitzchak son. This is confirmed by a passage that states, “He is ever mindful of His covenant … that He made with Avraham, swore to Yitzchak, and confirmed in a decree for Yaakov, for Yisrael, as an eternal covenant.”[23][24]

The Gemara states this regarding a non-Jew who studies Torah [his 7 mitzvot][clarification needed] and regarding this, see Shita Mekubetzes, Bava Kama 38a who says that this is an exaggeration.[clarification needed] In any case, this statement was not extolling the non-Jew. The Rishonim explain that it is extolling the Torah.

Tosfos explains that it uses the example of a kohen gadol (high priest), because this statement is based on the verse, “y’kara hi mipnimim” (it is more precious than pearls). This is explained elsewhere in the Gemara to mean that the Torah is more precious pnimim (translated here as “inside” instead of as “pearls”; thus that the Torah is introspectively absorbed into the person), which refers to lifnai v’lifnim (translated as “the most inner of places”), that is the Holy of Holies where the kahon gadol went.

In any case, in Midrash Rabba[25] this statement is made with an important addition: a non-Jew who converts and studies Torah etc.

The Nation of Israel is likened to the olive. Just as this fruit yields its precious oil only after being much pressed and squeezed, so Israel’s destiny is one of great oppression and hardship, in order that it may thereby give forth its illuminating wisdom.[26] Poverty is the quality most befitting Israel as the chosen people.[27] Only on account of its good works is Israel among the nations “as the lily among thorns”,[28] or “as wheat among the chaff.”[29][30]

Modern Orthodox views

Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, former Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue of Great Britain (Modern Orthodox Judaism), described chosenness in this way:

“Yes, I do believe that the chosen people concept as affirmed by Judaism in its holy writ, its prayers, and its millennial tradition. In fact, I believe that every people—and indeed, in a more limited way, every individual—is “chosen” or destined for some distinct purpose in advancing the designs of Providence. Only, some fulfill their mission and others do not. Maybe the Greeks were chosen for their unique contributions to art and philosophy, the Romans for their pioneering services in law and government, the British for bringing parliamentary rule into the world, and the Americans for piloting democracy in a pluralistic society. The Jews were chosen by God to be ‘peculiar unto Me’ as the pioneers of religion and morality; that was and is their national purpose.”[31]

Modern Orthodox theologian Michael Wyschogrod wrote:

“[T]he initial election of Abraham himself was not earned. … We are simply told that God commanded Abraham to leave his place of birth and go to a land that God would show him. He is also promised that his descendants will become a numerous people. But nowhere does the Bible tell us why Abraham rather than someone else was chosen. The implication is that God chooses whom He wishes and that He owes no accounting to anyone for His choices.”[32]

Rabbi Norman Lamm, a leader of Modern Orthodox Judaism wrote:

“The chosenness of Israel relates exclusively to its spiritual vocation embodied in the Torah; the doctrine, indeed, was announced at Sinai. Whenever it is mentioned in our liturgy—such as the blessing immediately preceding the Shema….it is always related to Torah or Mitzvot (commandments). This spiritual vocation consists of two complementary functions, described as “Goy Kadosh”, that of a holy nation, and “Mamlekhet Kohanim”, that of a kingdom of priests. The first term denotes the development of communal separateness or differences in order to achieve a collective self-transcendence […] The second term implies the obligation of this brotherhood of the spiritual elite toward the rest of mankind; priesthood is defined by the prophets as fundamentally a teaching vocation.”[33]

Conservative views

The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the main rabbinical seminary of Conservative Judaism

Conservative Judaism, views the concept of chosenness in this way:

“Few beliefs have been subject to as much misunderstanding as the ‘Chosen People’ doctrine. The Torah and the Prophets clearly stated that this does not imply any innate Jewish superiority. In the words of Amos (3:2) ‘You alone have I singled out of all the families of the earth—that is why I will call you to account for your iniquities.’ The Torah tells us that we are to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” with obligations and duties which flowed from our willingness to accept this status. Far from being a license for special privilege, it entailed additional responsibilities not only toward God but to our fellow human beings. As expressed in the blessing at the reading of the Torah, our people have always felt it to be a privilege to be selected for such a purpose. For the modern traditional Jew, the doctrine of the election and the covenant of Israel offers a purpose for Jewish existence which transcends its own self interests. It suggests that because of our special history and unique heritage we are in a position to demonstrate that a people that takes seriously the idea of being covenanted with God can not only thrive in the face of oppression, but can be a source of blessing to its children and its neighbors. It obligates us to build a just and compassionate society throughout the world and especially in the land of Israel where we may teach by example what it means to be a ‘covenant people, a light unto the nations.'”[34]

Rabbi Reuven Hammer comments on the excised sentence in the Aleinu prayer mentioned above:

“Originally the text read that God has not made us like the nations who “bow down to nothingness and vanity, and pray to an impotent god”, […] In the Middle Ages these words were censored, since the church believed they were an insult to Christianity. Omitting them tends to give the impression that the Aleinu teaches that we are both different and better than others. The actual intent is to say that we are thankful that God has enlightened us so that, unlike the pagans, we worship the true God and not idols. There is no inherent superiority in being Jewish, but we do assert the superiority of monotheistic belief over paganism. Although paganism still exists today, we are no longer the only ones to have a belief in one God.”[35]

Reform views

Reform Judaism views the concept of chosenness as follows: “Throughout the ages it has been Israel’s mission to witness to the Divine in the face of every form of paganism and materialism. We regard it as our historic task to cooperate with all men in the establishment of the kingdom of God, of universal brotherhood, Justice, truth and peace on earth. This is our Messianic goal.”[36] In 1999 the Reform movement stated, “We affirm that the Jewish people are bound to God by an eternal covenant, as reflected in our varied understandings of Creation, Revelation and Redemption […] We are Israel, a people aspiring to holiness, singled out through our ancient covenant and our unique history among the nations to be witnesses to God’s presence. We are linked by that covenant and that history to all Jews in every age and place.”[37]

Alternative views

See also: Kabbalah § Distinction between Jews and non-Jews

Equality of souls

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the “Lubavitcher Rebbe”

Many Kabbalistic sources, notably the Tanya, contain statements to the effect that the Jewish soul is qualitatively different from the non-Jewish soul. A number of known Chabad rabbis offered alternative readings of the Tanya, did not take this teaching literally, and even managed to reconcile it with the leftist ideas of internationalism and class struggle. The original text of the Tanya refers to the “idol worshippers” and does not mention the “nations of the world” at all, although such interpretation was endorsed by Menachem Mendel Schneerson and is popular in contemporary Chabad circles. Hillel of Parich, an early Tanya commentator, wrote that the souls of righteous Gentiles are more similar to the Jewish souls, and are generally good and not egoistic. This teaching was accepted by Schneerson and is considered normative in Chabad.[38]

Different in character but not value

According to the author of the Tanya himself, a righteous non-Jew can achieve a high level of spiritually, similar to an angel, although his soul is still fundamentally different in character, but not value, from a Jewish one.[39] Tzemach Tzedek, the third rebbe of Chabad, wrote that the Muslims are naturally good-hearted people. Rabbi Yosef Jacobson, a popular contemporary Chabad lecturer, teaches that in today’s world most non-Jews belong to the category of righteous Gentiles, effectively rendering the Tanya’s attitude anachronistic.


An anti-Zionist interpretation of Tanya was offered by Abraham Yehudah Khein, a prominent Ukrainian Chabad rabbi, who supported anarchist communism and considered Peter Kropotkin a great Tzaddik. Khein basically read the Tanya backwards; since the souls of idol worshipers are known to be evil, according to the Tanya, while the Jewish souls are known to be good, he concluded that truly altruistic people are really Jewish, in a spiritual sense, while Jewish nationalists and class oppressors are not. By this logic, he claimed that Vladimir Solovyov and Rabindranath Tagore probably have Jewish souls, while Leon Trotsky and other totalitarians do not, and many Zionists, whom he compared to apes, are merely “Jewish by birth certificate”.[40]

Righteous non-Jews

Nachman of Breslov also believed that Jewishness is a level of consciousness, and not an intrinsic inborn quality. He wrote that, according to the Book of Malachi, one can find “potential Jews” among all nations, whose souls are illuminated by the leap of “holy faith”, which “activated” the Jewishness in their souls. These people would otherwise convert to Judaism, but prefer not to do so. Instead, they recognize the Divine unity within their pagan religions.[41]

Isaac Arama, an influential philosopher and mystic of the 15th century, believed that righteous non-Jews are spiritually identical to the righteous Jews.[42] Rabbi Menachem Meiri, a famous Catalan Talmudic commentator and Maimonidian philosopher, considered all people, who sincerely profess an ethical religion, to be part of a greater “spiritual Israel”. He explicitly included Christians and Muslims in this category. Meiri rejected all Talmudic laws that discriminate between the Jews and non-Jews, claiming that they only apply to the ancient idolators, who had no sense of morality. The only exceptions are a few laws related directly or indirectly to intermarriage, which Meiri did recognize.

Meiri applied his idea of “spiritual Israel” to the Talmudic statements about unique qualities of the Jewish people. For example, he believed that the famous saying that Israel is above astrological predestination (Ein Mazal le-Israel) also applied to the followers of other ethical faiths. He also considered countries, inhabited by decent moral non-Jews, such as Languedoc, as a spiritual part of the Holy Land.[43]


Tractatus Theologico-Politicus

One Jewish critic of chosenness was the philosopher Baruch Spinoza.[44] In the third chapter of his Theologico-Political Treatise, Spinoza mounts an argument against a naive interpretation of God’s choice of the Jews. Bringing evidence from the Bible itself, he argues that God’s choice of Israel was not unique (he had chosen other nations before choosing the Hebrew nation) and that the choice of the Jews is neither inclusive (it does not include all of the Jews, but only the ‘pious’ ones) nor exclusive (it also includes ‘true gentile prophets’). Finally, he argues that God’s choice is not unconditional. Recalling the numerous times God threatened the complete destruction of the Hebrew nation, he asserts that this choice is neither absolute, nor eternal, nor necessary.

More at:

Everything Is Waiting for You

Written and read by David Whyte

After Derek Mahon

Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone. As if life
were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice. You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.

Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the
conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.



Image credit: Pei-Ying Lin

JUNE 17, 2016 (

Finding the words to express our feelings helps us make sense of ourselves.  And connect to others.

We know this because an unlucky few (10% of the population) suffer from a condition called Alexithymia – an inability to identify, distinguish or express their emotions.   And with this comes social detachment, alienation and decreased life satisfaction.  

But even without this difficulty, finding the right words to articulate our feelings can be difficult. Luckily Dr Tiffany Watt Smith has written the wonderful ‘Book of Human Emotions’ to help us. I’ve picked 10 feelings that I was delighted to find a word for.  See my other blog on this subject for more of my favourites.

1.  Ruinenlust:  A German word to describe feeling irresistibly drawn to crumbling buildings and abandoned places.  This is me all over, where I live has largely been dictated by this feeling.  I just didn’t know there was a word for it.

2.  Mututolypea: (Pronounced mah-tu-toh-leh-pee-a) an English word meaning an overbearing morning sorrow.  This word comes from the Roman Goddess of dawn ‘Mater Matuta’ and the Greek word for dejection ‘lype’. 

3.  Malu: This is one of those many experiences that we mistakenly think only we have or that signifies a lack of our own worth.  It’s an Indonesian word to describe that flustered feeling when we are in the presence of someone we hold in high esteem…when ‘the brain fogs over’ ‘sentences come out scrambled’ and ‘We may feel the overwhelming urge to run away’.

4.  Greng jai:  This is a Thai word meaning a reluctance to accept the offer of help from another because of the bother that it might cause them.

5.  Dolce Far Niente:  I love this one, it’s such an antidote to the dizzying imperatives to do more, achieve more, be more.  It’s an Italian expression translating as ‘the sweetness of doing nothing’ or the pleasure of doing nothing. 

6.  Cyberchondria:  This is the growing, but unfounded sense of concern about our symptoms that is fuelled by online ‘research’.

7.  Ringxiety: otherwise known as ‘phantom vibration syndrome ‘or playfully ‘fauxcellarm, this is the sense that your mobile phone is ringing when it’s not.

8.  Basorexia:  it’s not a romantic sounding word, but it means a sudden urge to kiss someone.  ‘Orexia’ stems from the Latin orexis meaning appetite.

9.  L’appel du Vide: From French, this literally translates as ‘the call to the void’ and describes that terrifying urge to leap of the cliff, the balcony, the platform.

10.  Abhiman:  (pronounced ab-ee-man) this is a Sanskrit word describing when the sorrow and shock from being hurt turns into a sense of self-pride or wounded dignity.

Our emotional lives can be bewilderingly complex, and although this complexity can’t be reduced to a few words, finding language means finding company.  And knowing that someone else, somewhere has felt it too, can be extremely comforting.

(Contributed by Suzanne Deakins, H.W., M.)

Thoreau on Nature and Human Nature, the Tonic of Wildness, and the Value of the Unexplored

By Maria Popova (

“We call it ‘Nature’; only reluctantly admitting ourselves to be ‘Nature’ too,” Denise Levertov wrote in her revelation of a poem “Sojourns in the Parallel World” a generation after history’s most poetic piece of legislature termed that parallel world “wilderness” and defined it as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man* himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Those of us who visit wild places the way others visit churches and concert halls visit because we return transfigured, recomposed, exalted and humbled at the same time, enlarged and dissolved in something larger at the same time. We visit because there we undergo some essential self-composition in the poetry of existence, though its essence rarely lends itself to words.artyoung_treesatnight1.jpg?resize=680%2C1074

Art from Trees at Night by Art Young. (Available as a print.)

That ineffable essence is what Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) — who saw nature as a form of prayer — articulated with uncommon lucidity and splendor of sentiment in the final pages of Walden (public library | public domain), the record of the radical experiment in living he undertook a week before he turned twenty-eight.

He writes:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngWe need the tonic of wildness, — to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable.


Spring Moon at Ninomiya Beach — one of Japanese artist Hasui Kawase’s vintage woodblock prints. (Available as a print.)

A century before Rachel Carson observed that because “our origins are of the earth… there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity,” Thoreau adds:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngWe can never have enough of Nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and Titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.

We can never have enough of Nature because Nature is not something to have — it is something we are. Epochs after Thoreau, when we wade into the wilderness with our bodies and our minds, with a walking stick or a poem, we witness more than our limits transgressed. We witness our boundaries dissolved, in turn dissolving that most limited and damaging foundational falsehood upon which the whole of the consumerist-extractionist complex is built: that the rest of the living world is a parallel world, a place to visit and mine for experiences and resources with which to adorn and enrich our separate human world.PraiseSongForDawn_by_MariaPopova.jpg?resize=680%2C851

Praise Song for Dawn by Maria Popova. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

It is naïve and impracticable to insist that course-correcting our presently catastrophic trajectory of nature-destruction — that is, of self-destruction — requires reverting to the rugged naturalistic self-reliance that even Thoreau himself could not sustain beyond his short-lived experiment at Walden Pond, a life without consumption or companionship. Whatever it does require must begin with the elemental recognition that these are not separate worlds existing in parallel, that there is no “environment” surrounding the centrality of the human animal in nature, that there is nothing that can be bad for nature yet good for us — an elemental fact rendered achingly countercultural every time I walk into my local grocery store and see the organic produce, the good-for-us stuff, plastic-wrapped over styrofoam trays that will take tens of thousands of years to decompose in the landfill, leeching unfathomable toxicity in the process. It is a small act of resistance to contact store management with an appeal for change — small but not negligible, and certainly not naïve. As Thoreau himself put it in the conclusion of Walden:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngIf you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

Complement with Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris’s lyrical illustrated rewilding of our relationship to nature, ornithologist and wildlife ecologist J. Drew Lanham on the spirituality of science, and poet Diane Ackerman’s lovely notion of the “Earth ecstatic,” then revisit Thoreau on the true value of a treethe long cycles of social change, and how to use civil disobedience as an instrument of change.

Citizen Science, the Cosmos, and the Meaning of Life: How the Comet That Might One Day Destroy Us Gives Us the Most Transcendent Celestial Spectacle

By Maria Popova (

On July 13, 1862, while a young experiment in democracy was being ripped asunder by its first Civil War, The Springfield Republican reported a strange and wondrous celestial sighting in the undivided sky, as bright as Polaris. Within days, two astronomers — Lewis Swift and Horace Parnell Tuttle — independently observed the phenomenon and determined it to be a colossal comet. Comet Swift-Tuttle — the largest Solar System object to periodically pass near Earth — is now known to return every 133 years, dragging in its long wake a dazzling annual gift: Each summer, as our lonely planet crosses the orbit of Swift-Tuttle and the debris shed by the icy colossus burn up in our atmosphere, the Perseid meteor shower streaks across the common sky, washing the whole of humanity with wonder.ellenhardingbaker_solarsystemquilt1.jpg?resize=680%2C564

19th-century Solar System quilt featuring a comet, designed and embroidered by Ellen Harding Baker over the course of seven years to teach women astronomy when they were barred from higher education in science. (Available as a print and a face mask, benefitting the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory.)

For millennia, the Perseids have lit up the summer sky in an annual celestial spectacle — one of the most staggering on Earth, with as many as 200 vibrant meteors per hour — that just befell the awestruck human animal without known cause or cosmic correlation. Some thought the streaks of light were debris from volcanic eruptions in faraway lands falling back to Earth. Others, including most scientists well into the nineteenth century, believed they were atmospheric phenomena like rainbows and lightning. Their cometic origins were unknown and comets themselves were a mystery. For astronomers — even for Caroline Herschel, who became the world’s first professional female astronomer thanks to her prolific and perilous comet-hunting — they were little more than a diversion, a flexing of tenacity, a competitive game of discovery that advanced personal reputations rather than elemental truth. More than a century before Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan shed light on the still-unsolved science of comets, very little was understood about these mysterious visitors from outer space. The poetic science writer Emma Converse — the Carl Sagan of her epoch — prophesied that someday, “with a powerful grasp, like that of Newton, some watcher of the stars shall seize the secret of cometic history.”meteors1.jpg?resize=680%2C891

One of French artist and astronomer Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s stunning 19th-century paintings of celestial objects and phenomena. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory.)

That day began dawning in the small hours of November 13, 1833. Neighbors awoke neighbors with shouts of excitement as people gathered in the street to watch a rain of fire from beneath the invisible umbrella of the night. Shooting stars blazed across the dark sky at the breath-stilling rate of thousands, tens of thousands per minute. All of this was puzzling: It was November, not August; the meteors were falling at manyfold the rate of the annual summer Perseids; and, at so high a density, they seemed to be streaming from a single source far from Earth, challenging the accepted notion that meteors were atmospheric phenomena.DenisonOlmsted.jpg?resize=680%2C890

Denison Olmsted (Portrait by Reuben Son of Moulthrop. Smithsonian Libraries.)

Among the stunned spectators was the esteemed Yale mathematician, astronomer, and “natural philosopher” Denison Olmsted. (He couldn’t yet be called a “scientist” — the word was coined a year later for the polymathic Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville.) Like most of his colleagues, Olmsted had largely ignored meteors as uninteresting minor curiosities, irrelevant to astronomy and better left to meteorology. Now, he was seized with the sense that they might have cosmic origins and might therefore hold clues to the celestial mechanics of the universe. But he knew his personal observations that night hardly constituted data.

The following morning, two years after the polymathic astronomer John Herschel — the era’s most venerated patron saint of science — made his pioneering case for citizen science, Olmsted drafted a letter and sent it to the local newspaper in New Haven, appealing to ordinary people to help him “collect all the facts attending this phenomenon… with as much precision as possible” by reporting anything they could recall about the time, orientation, and speed of the shooting stars they had witnessed. The announcement was quickly reprinted in newspapers across the country and responses began pouring in.thomaswright_galaxies3.jpg?resize=680%2C977

Art from Thomas Wright’s revolutionary 1750 book An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory.)

Drawing on these observations, Olmsted was able to ascertain that the spectacle in Earth’s sky had cosmic rather than atmospheric origins and to locate its point of emergence — poetically known as radiant — in the constellation Leo. And so the Leonid showers ushered in the dawn of meteor science as a field of astronomy rather than meteorology.

But even with the origin point located, the cause of meteor showers remained a mystery. It took another generation to discover that fiery pageants like the Perseids and the Leonids are the debris of passing comets. Today, the Leonids are known to be the flotsam of Comet Tempel-Tuttle, visible from Earth every 33 years. It was independently discovered in 1865–1866, on its next passage after the 1833 triumph of citizen science, by the astronomers Wilhelm Tempel and Horace Parnell Tuttle — the same Tuttle who two years earlier had co-discovered the cometic originator of the Perseids, so named because in 1835, the Belgian astronomer and statistician Adolphe Quetelet — founder of Brussels Observatory and creator of the Body Mass Index scale — had located the radiant of the annual summer meteor showers in the constellation Perseus.IYCTE.Comet2000.jpg?resize=680%2C415

Art by Sophie Blackall from If You Come to Earth.

That fateful July of 1862, when newspaper reports of the strange celestial apparition that became Comet Swift-Tuttle interrupted for a moment the stream of death-tolls from the battlefields of the American Civil War, a young comet-hunter in another revolution-torn country elsewhere on the globe was also following the bright light advancing across the common sky — the Italian astronomer and historian of science Giovanni Schiaparelli, born the year the Perseids got their name.

Within a few years of obsessive scholarship, Schiaparelli arrived at a startling hypothesis: meteor showers might be the tails of passing comets. With astrophotography newly born and the instruments of science advancing rapidly in a Golden Age of telescopic astronomy, his hypothesis was proven correct, conferring upon comets a new aura of interest for science.comet5.jpg?resize=680%2C847

Art from Kometenbuch [The Comet Book], 1587. (Available as a print.)

As more and more came to be understood about these icy boomerangs from the outer reaches of the Solar System, the enormous and proximate Comet Swift-Tuttle — which comes closer to the Earth-Moon system than any other: a mere 130 kilometers at its perihelion, less than twenty times the distance between Europe and America — took on an ominous air, looming larger and larger in the popular imagination as a potential destroyer of Earth, invoking the same instincts that had prompted our Medieval ancestors to view comets as demonic omens before the birth of the scientific method and astronomy as we know it.

A calculation in the 1990s suggested that the comet’s passage on August 14, 2126 could result in a collision with Earth. By the end of the decade, Comet Swift-Tuttle was deemed “the single most dangerous object known to humanity,” given the damage it would inflict in case of actual collision — an impact many times more powerful than that of the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, with a trillion times the energy of the Hiroshima atomic bomb.thomaswright4.jpg?resize=680%2C1019

Our Sun and Moon in proportion to their diameters, alongside two comets, from Thomas Wright’s An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory.)

But the threat turned out to reveal more about the workings of the human mind than about the workings of the universe, more reflective of our instinct to fear what we don’t fully understand than of a scientific reality. The 1990s were the dawn of a new Golden Age of science — one driven by digital computation and rapidly advancing data technologies.

Calculations of Comet Swift-Tuttle’s orbital period and tilt have been continually refined since its discovery in 1862, as scientists have peered backward in time with the telescope of scholarship to identify sightings and positions as early 69 BC, and have telescoped forward in spacetime with computational astrophysics to predict when and how close to Earth it will come in the future. We (“we,” if our species survives its plurality) can expect a close encounter with Comet Swift-Tuttle when it returns to the inner Solar System in the year 3044 — “close” being a relative proximity on the cosmic scale and a distant one million miles in the absolute.

Should these calculations too prove to be incorrect — for science is always improving and, as Richard Feynman astutely observed, “it is impossible to find an answer which someday will not be found to be wrong” — and should the comet one day shatter our lonely planet after all, it will have given us millennia of wonder and transcendence, slaking the human soul with its summer spectacle of otherworldly beauty.edmundweiss_leonid.jpg?resize=680%2C987

The Leonid meteor showers of 1833. Art by Edmund Weiss from Bilder Atlas der Sternenwelt [Image Atlas of the Star World], 1888. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory.)

I Measure Every Grief I Meet: Emily Dickinson on Love and Loss

By Maria Popova (

Grief is the shadow love casts in the light of loss. The grander the love, the vaster the shadow. So much of who we are — who we discover ourselves to be — takes shape in that umbral space as we fumble for some edge to hold onto, some point of light to orient by.

Because the price of living wholeheartedly (which is the only way worth living) is the heartbreak of many losses — the loss of love to dissolution, distance, or death; the loss of the body to gravity and time — and because loss leaves in its wake an experience so private yet so universal, the common record of human experience that we call literature is replete with reflections on grief: from Seneca’s 2,000-year-old letter to his mother about the key to resilience in the face of loss to Lincoln’s spare and melancholy consolation to Meghan O’Rourke’s memoir of mourning to Nick Cave’s soulful meditation on the paradox of bereavement. And yet, as Joan Didion wrote in her crowning classic on the subject, “grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.”

No writer, in my reading life, has charted the fractal reaches of grief with more nuance and precision than Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886) — the poet laureate of love and loss, of the interplay between the two, the interplay between the beauty and terror of being alive as we drift daily toward “the drift called ‘the infinite.’”emilydickinson.jpg?resize=680%2C814

Emily Dickinson, daguerreotype, circa 1847. (Amherst College Archives & Special Collections)

In her 561st poem, included in her indispensable Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (public library), Dickinson considers grief as an experience both profoundly intimate and profoundly universal. She composed it in 1862, as a tidal wave of grief was sweeping her war-torn country and as Dickinson herself was wading through the deepest, most mysterious mourning of her life, the shadow of some unnamed “terror” of the heart she underwent the previous year — a mystery that still puzzles scholars and one that animates a sizable portion of Figuring. The poem gives voice to the continual syncopation between these two scales of being, both absolute and relativistic, as we burrow in the hollow of our private losses and pass each other in the public square of human suffering:


2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngI measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, Eyes —
I wonder if It weighs like Mine —
Or has an Easier size.

I wonder if They bore it long —
Or did it just begin —
I could not tell the Date of Mine —
It feels so old a pain —

I wonder if it hurts to live —
And if They have to try —
And whether — could They choose between —
It would not be — to die —

I note that Some — gone patient long —
At length, renew their smile —
An imitation of a Light
That has so little Oil —

I wonder if when Years have piled —
Some Thousands — on the Harm —
That hurt them early — such a lapse
Could give them any Balm —

Or would they go on aching still
Through Centuries of Nerve —
Enlightened to a larger Pain –
In Contrast with the Love —

The Grieved — are many — I am told —
There is the various Cause —
Death — is but one — and comes but once —
And only nails the eyes —

There’s Grief of Want — and Grief of Cold —
A sort they call “Despair” —
There’s Banishment from native Eyes —
In sight of Native Air —

And though I may not guess the kind —
Correctly — yet to me
A piercing Comfort it affords
In passing Calvary —

To note the fashions — of the Cross —
And how they’re mostly worn —
Still fascinated to presume
That Some — are like My Own —

In her 793rd poem, composed sometime the following year, Dickinson revisits the multifaceted nature of grief with a personified taxonomy — grief, the skittish mouse; grief, the surreptitious thief; grief, the juggler of fragilities; grief, the self-indulgent reveler; grief, the grand silence:


2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngGrief is a Mouse —
And chooses Wainscot in the Breast
For His Shy House —
And baffles quest —

Grief is a Thief — quick startled —
Pricks His Ear — report to hear
Of that Vast Dark —
That swept His Being — back —

Grief is a Juggler — boldest at the Play —
Lest if He flinch — the eye that way
Pounce on His Bruises — One — say — or Three —
Grief is a Gourmand — spare His luxury —

Best Grief is Tongueless — before He’ll tell —
Burn Him in the Public Square —
His Ashes — will
Possibly — if they refuse — How then know —
Since a Rack couldn’t coax a syllable — now.

In another poem written in 1862 — Dickinson’s most creatively fertile year, in which she processed her unnamed “terror” through her art, as all artists do — she dilates the contracted consciousness of mourning into a perspectival reminder that there is an other side to even the deepest pain; that everything, even the most all-suffusing emotion, passes and is overgrown with new experience; that the ache of loss is the twin face of love, each an equal and inseparable part of aliveness:


2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.png‘Tis good — the looking back on Grief —
To re-endure a Day —
We thought the Mighty Funeral —
Of All Conceived Joy —

To recollect how Busy Grass
Did meddle — one by one —
Till all the Grief with Summer — waved
And none could see the stone.

And though the Woe you have Today
Be larger — As the Sea
Exceeds its Unremembered Drop —
They’re Water — equally —

Complement with Elizabeth Gilbert on love, loss, and how to move through grief as grief moves through you and a tender animated field guide to the counterintuitive psychology of how to best support a grieving friend, then revisit Dickinson’s stunning ode to resilience and the electric love letters in which she honed her dual capacity for love and loss.

Book: “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics”

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

by Carlo RovelliSimon Carnell (Translator), Erica Segre (Translator) 

All the beauty of modern physics in fewer than a hundred pages.

This is a book about the joy of discovery. A playful, entertaining, and mind-bending introduction to modern physics, it’s already a major bestseller in Italy and the United Kingdom. Carlo Rovelli offers surprising—and surprisingly easy to grasp—explanations of general relativity, quantum mechanics, elementary particles, gravity, black holes, the complex architecture of the universe, and the role humans play in this weird and wonderful world. He takes us to the frontiers of our knowledge: to the most minute reaches of the fabric of space, back to the origins of the cosmos, and into the workings of our minds. “Here, on the edge of what we know, in contact with the ocean of the unknown, shines the mystery and the beauty of the world,” Rovelli writes. “And it’s breathtaking.”


4 Books You MUST Read According to Schopenhauer

Weltgeist Deep within an essay On the Art of Thinking for Oneself, Schopenhauer has four novels to recommend his readers. Of course, they are each in a different language… He also gives us objective, measurable standards to judge the artistic merit of a novel. Schopenhauer looks at how much a novel deals with the inner life — the more it deals with the inner life of the protagonist, the more artistic a novel becomes because it’s the inner world that excites our interest – not the outer world of representation. Schopenhauer’s recommended reading list: 1) Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne ( 2) Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloïse by Jean-Jacques Rousseau ( 3) Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe ( 4) Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (

Walking for Peace with Satish Kumar

UPLIFT How the Simple act of Walking can bring us Inner Peace. Satish Kumar commemorates the 50th Anniversary of his Peace Walk from India to Washington D.C. with a 50 mile walk along the River Thames to Oxford for the Resurgence 50 ‘One Earth, One Humanity, One Future’ event.

Satish Kumar – films to inspire the change-makers of the future

Fern Smith 

30th April 2015 (

Satish Kumar

Satish Kumar, peace walkA landmark 6-part documentary series is planned with Satish Kumar – peace and environment activist, religious philosopher, teacher, writer and broadcaster.

The Resurgence Trust is joining forces with Emergence in association with Schumacher College, Culture Colony and Volcano Theatre to make a landmark documentary series with Satish Kumar, editor-in-chief of Resurgence & Ecologist magazine and The Ecologist website.

Why? Because we live in extreme times, yet we lack the political leadership we need to bring our planet back from the brink of ecological, social and economic crisis. Many of us feel isolated or disempowered in the face of this.

But the message at the heart of Satish’s powerful teaching is that individuals can change the world for the better. Satish is a living example of ‘being the change you want to see in the world’.

Born in India in 1936, he became a Jain Monk aged nine, joined the Gandhian land reform movement aged eighteen, and in his twenties made an 8,000-mile, penniless Peace Walk from Delhi to all the nuclear weapons capitals of the world.

After settling in the UK, he became Editor of Resurgence Magazine championing ecology, art and spirituality, and then founder of Schumacher College, the worlds leading college for activists and change-makers, now celebrating its 25th anniversary.

Satish Kumar – activist and change-maker

As Tony Juniper, Former Director Friends of the Earth, puts it, “Satish Kumar is one of the greatest thinkers and doers of our age.

“He combines a rare kind of personal energy with a fearsome intellect and a deeply philosophical perspective with the kind of real world pragmatism necessary for achieving real change. His contribution has been and continues to be immense.”

As a result of his teaching and writing Satish has changed countless lives. He has given two TED Talks (Whitechapel and Exeter), been the subject of a BBC documentary Earth Pilgrim, and featured on Desert Island Discs.

But never before has there been an in depth record of his life, work and teaching that deeply interrogates all that he stands for. Satish is a speaker who shines with debate and challenge as he enters his 79th year at the peak of his powers and learning.

In these films, we will challenge him to communicate his philosophy as never before to a wider audience. This series of films will represent an invaluable resource for years to come – a document, a legacy, a gift to inspire the change-makers of the future.

“Satish remains resolutely unworldly – in the best possible way!” says Jonathon Porritt founder of Forum For the Future. “What most people describe as ‘the real world’ is to him a world of pain, deception and devastation.

“Happily, there is another world in the making, and Satish stands at the heart of that all-important endeavour.

Bringing alternative ideas to the mainstream

To ensure rigour of debate, we have chosen as our interviewer Jane Davidson, former Minister for Environment and Sustainability in Wales and the woman behind the radical One Planet One Wales initiative.

Jane will tackle Satish on ways of bringing his ‘alternative’ ideas firmly into the mainstream. The two of them together will really dig into the issues of ecology, economy, spirituality, education, business, optimism and activism making this a unique and important series.

These six hour-long films will be filmed over six days in summer 2015 and released in 2016 – Satish’s 80th year and the 50th Anniversary of Resurgence.

Supporting the film

Emergence is raising the production costs for the films by crowd funding via the website Indiegogo. The campaign runs from Monday 27th April to Friday 29th May and has 33 days to raise the £33,000 needed to make the documentary series.

We are seeking support from the Resurgence & Ecologist community to make this documentary project possible.

As an investor in the project you will be able to choose from a range of benefits including having your very own copy of the entire series, signed books, the chance to attend a live recording and meet Satish himself, or even to become a co-producer.

To watch a short film about the project, find out more about the campaign, pre-order your copy of the films or bag one of the exciting perks on offer visit our crowdfunding campaign page.

Fern Smith is a performer, teacher, therapist and founder of Emergence – an arts and sustainability collective based in Wales. “We make art with one agenda: to change the world.”

Satish Kumar – Being an Earth Pilgrim Trailer from Philip Ralph on Vimeo.