Imagine all the people

If only people lived their happy, peaceful lives without concern over heaven or hell, then all would be fine.

The Imagine Peace Tower lit in the hopes of bringing peace to the Israeli-Arab conflict (photo credit: GRAY LINE ICELAND)
The Imagine Peace Tower lit in the hopes of bringing peace to the Israeli-Arab conflict
(photo credit: GRAY LINE ICELAND)
Recently the John Lennon memorial Imagine Peace Tower in Iceland was lit in the hopes of bringing peace to the Israeli-Arab conflict. As a kid I probably heard John Lennon’s Imagine hundreds of times but can’t remember thinking much into the lyrics… until now.
With news the tower was alit, I decided to take a closer look at the Imagine song itself. To read the lyrics and see if there is some secret waiting to be revealed and promoted to our generation. As you can well … imagine … my first thought was that here was a socialist (or communist) manifesto.
As many of you know, here is how it begins (full lyrics here):
Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today...
But when I researched more, I began to appreciate that the idea behind the song is to imagine a world not without religion, but to imagine a world where religion didn’t lead to death and dying. In short, it was a prayer book that inspired Lennon to write Imagine, not The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx.
So what is our question? As Rabbi Ginsburgh reiterated recently on Twitter, “the Israeli-Arab conflict does indeed boil down to a religious conflict. There is no way around it.” But what would Lennon say? Live your life and be peaceful whatever your belief. The problem is what if your belief is that all Jews should die (God forbid)? For Hamas, living a peaceful life means being able to kill Jews. So every time we stop them from doing this, we are depriving them of their peace and happiness.
Lennon was a pacifist and preferred a world without warfare. Where Jewish thought differs is that while we also await a “swords into plowshares” world, we also know that this won’t happen until the Messiah comes. What then is missing from Lennon’s song?
A church once contacted Lennon because they were interested in using the song to promote their own agenda. But while they were okay with most of the lyrics, they asked for the ability to change “Imagine” to “Imagine one religion” (i.e., their religion). Lennon responded that their request showed him that they didn't understand the lyrics at all. That it would defeat the whole purpose of the song.
But whereas Lennon was rightfully hesitant when responding to this church, there is one common belief that should be adopted by all nations of the world called the Noahide Laws, The Seven Laws of Noah. And yes, one of these is not to murder… not to murder innocents whether in the name of a jihad, crusade, or some other self-serving hatred.
What’s the hesitation with this approach? Because the world responds that you are a fundamentalist. You think that you have the truth? Shame on you! It’s people like you that cause all the bloodshed and killing in the world (God forbid).
Here is what Rabbi Ginsburgh writes about this (also from recent tweets): “If you have been given a secular upbringing then you may believe that all religions possess points of truth but that none is absolute truth. All religious fundamentalists say that I possess the ultimate truth and that you must submit yourself to it.
I believe that the Torah is the ultimate God-given truth to the world, but that no matter how much I study I will never fathom its depths. This is what distinguishes Jewish fundamentalism from that of others. A Jew is always open to learn more, to change his patterns of thought… I definitely believe that the Torah and its way are unique and is indeed the absolute truth that all of mankind has been waiting for forever.”
How would we positively interpret Lennon’s Imagine? That while historically religious fundamentalism has led to bloodshed--whether from the Christian crusades and pogroms, Islamic Jihad, etc...--we are different. That if only we had the opportunity to teach him Torah, to explain the Noahide Laws, then he would readily allow us to alter the lyrics to Imagine a bit.
Sad to say, but it seems that the greatest legacy for this song has been to think that religion leads to bloodshed and murder and that only a world without religion (God forbid) will be peaceful. As mentioned though, this was never Lennon’s intention. So where are people getting this from?
I’d like to suggest that the problem began from the song’s most problematic phrase. Not “imagine there’s no heaven” or even “and no religion too” as again, his intention was to show that religion shouldn’t be the thing that separates people and leads to bloodshed. Instead the only phrase that I personally was unable to reconcile was “Imagine all the people living for today…”
These are only my thoughts, but perhaps the reason the song has spurred such anti-religious sentiments over the years was because of these three words, “living for today.” That if only people lived their happy, peaceful lives without concern over heaven or hell, then all would be fine. I cannot fathom in the slightest how “living for today” jives with religion, especially Judaism and the Noahide Laws. We believe that there is a world to come-- reward and punishment for the actions that we do in this world.
And while we are expected to seize the day by performing many good deeds every day, by no stretch of the imagination do we “live for today.” What went wrong? Imagination corresponds to the world of creation. But there are clear visions like the prophecies of Moses, and then there are clouded visions that have some light to them but are envisioned from amongst much fog. Just to give you an indication of which level the Imagine lyrics came from, the original Imagine LP was entitled “Cloud Peace” and a fog-filled setting is indeed how the song was marketed.
There is something truthful to these lyrics. Some point of truth is beyond the cloud otherwise the song would have never taken off as it did. But while there is truth, there are also some very important points of light missing from the song. For instance, instead of “Imagine all the people living life in peace...” a more correct version would have been Isaiah 56:7 -  “I will bring them to My holy mount, and I will cause them to rejoice in My house of prayer, their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be acceptable upon My altar, for My house shall be called a House of Prayer for all nations.”
Let all people, all nations be united in peace. But please instead of the Imagine Peace Tower, let it be the Holy Temple. The House of Prayer for all nations.