February 23, 2006 -- La Canada Valley Sun


By Anita Susan Brenner

Our daughter Rachel called via the Internet to talk about her college friends.

Last quarter, she lived in a cooperative residence hall where 50 students, all undergraduates, cooked for one another. The rules were simple. The meals were "vegetarian with a vegan alternative." In plain English, this means that some of the food was made of vegetables, grains, pasta, eggs or cheese. The rest of the menu had neither eggs nor dairy and was the "vegan alternative."

Rachel came home last December with new recipes, mostly for lentils and garbanzo beans. One night, she used all of our martini olives to make "Garlic Olive Humus." It tasted pretty good, until I noticed that she had also depleted our supply of olive oil. Then she left for South America.

College is a good lifestyle choice.

The vegetarian cooperative residence hall is governed by consensus. They do not vote. There is no majority rule. Before a decision is made, everyone has to agree.

There are decisions about how many avocados they need and which kind of ice cream to order. As a result, the meetings often last hours.

The Quakers use a similar method, described in a book called "Beyond Majority Rule: Voteless Decisions in the Religious Society of Friends." The idea is that everyone shares in the experience. Concerns and information are shared until the sense of the group is clear. This builds a sense of community and allows everyone to be part of the decision-making process.

I was reminded of this recently, on a day when snow dusted our foothills. Under the mountain named for Gabriel near the crest of angels, my friends and I continued, bit-by-bit, to read an ancient text.

The text was a small but important part of the Book of Exodus. It was called "Yitro," which means "Jethro" in English.

The scene: Moses and his people are on the other side of the Red Sea. It is after the Exodus from Egypt.

In the first half of the text, Jethro, the father-in-law, gives advice to Moses. Jethro notices that people are waiting in long lines to see Moses because Moses is doing it all. He decides every inquiry and every disputed case. The people wait for hours at a time for their audience with Moses.

Jethro suggests that Moses establish a system of lower courts to settle community and religious disputes. He instructs Moses to delegate his authority to judicial officers, but to save the few important decisions for himself.

At first, Moses is not sure that this is a good idea. Moses does not want to interact vicariously with his people. And, he wants to make all the decisions. But soon, Moses recognizes that the communal model does not always work with large groups.

In the second part of Yitro, we read of a true communal experience, where nothing is delegated.

In the second part, the people are at Sinai. God speaks the Ten Commandments. The experience is not vicarious. Everyone hears God. Everyone "hears" the lightning and "sees" the thunder. They are all witnesses.

Sinai is a true communal experience. There are no delegated representatives. There are no judicial officers. The event is witnessed by all. What they witness will resonate down through the generations.

The juxtaposition of these two events is jarring. The first part of Yitro describes a vicarious system, where activities are delegated. There is a hierarchy. Not everyone gets to participate. The second part of Yitro records a communal experience, an important event where everyone is a witness and nothing is vicarious.

It is interesting that the two experiences, the vicarious and the communal, are recorded together in Yitro.

Perhaps we need both.

copyright March 1, 2006, Anita Brenner, Los Angeles Times La Canada Valley Sun