The souls of peoples are revealed by what they collectively « forget », much more than by what they remember, what they dwell on and what they seemingly proclaim to the world.
Proof of this is the word oblivion itself, which in several languages seems to indicate in one stroke a vibrant part of the collective unconscious, emerging as if by accident, an indication of obscure depths…
The Latins use the word oblivio for ‘oblivion‘. It is a metaphor borrowed from writing over what has been erased: in the ‘palimpsests’ (from the Greek: « what one scratches to write again »), the copyists erased (or ‘obliterated’) theold text to write a new one.
The Greeks use the word λαθέσθαι, lathesthai, ‘to forget’, and λήθη, lethe, ‘forgetting’ , hence the famous Lethe, the river of the Underworld, which is known to make souls forgetful. These words derive from λανθάνω, lanthanô, whose first meaning is ‘to be hidden’. Greek ‘oblivion’ is therefore not a fatal erasure, but only a kind of withdrawal, of putting under the bushel, under a veil. Words with a priori positive connotations: ἀληθής, alethes, « true » or ἀλήθεια, aletheia, « truth, reality », are constructed with the privative alpha ἀ-, thus as negations. Truth or reality are not understood in ancient Greek as a dazzling evidence, but as a « not-hidden » or a « not-forgotten », then requiring a kind of work of extraction.
Arabic has the word نَسِيَ nassiya, whose first meaning is « to abandon, to neglect » and by derivation « to forget ». Nomadism cannot be encumbered, and on the long road of travel, many things are left behind, become negligible, and without regret, ‘forgotten’.
Sanskrit expresses the verb ‘to forget’ in many ways. One of them uses the pre-verb vi-: विस्मरति , vismarati, literally meaning « to come out of memory ». Another verb मृष्यते , mrisyate is built using the root मृष mṛṣ , whose primary meaning is ‘to forgive’. Forgetting is a grace given to the other, and even to the enemy…
The English and German languages use very similar words, to forget and vergessen, which are also built with preverbs (for and ver) connoting omission or failure, and comparable in this respect to Vi- Sanskrit. The English to get derives from the old Nordic geta and the Gothic bigitan, (‘to find’). German ver-gessen derives from the same root: *ghed-, ‘to take, to seize’. In both languages, ‘to forget’ therefore originally means ‘to divest oneself of’, ‘to throw away’, in an active sense, rather than just ‘lose’ or ‘misplace’. There is a kind of violence here.
In Hebrew, ‘to forget’ is שָׁכַח shakhah, as in « He will not forget the covenant of your fathers » (Deut. 4:31) or « And you forget me, declares the Lord God » (Ez. 22:12). But it is quite surprising that, with a slightly different vocalization, the verb שְׁכַח shekhah, has an almost exactly opposite meaning. Indeed, if שָׁכַח means « to forget », שְׁכַח means « to find » as in « I found a man » (Dan. 2,25) or « They were no longer found » (Dan. 2,35).
The fact of forgetting seems to carry in germ the possibility of ‘finding’, or conversely, the fact of ‘finding’ implies, in the word itself, the imminence of forgetting…
« To forget »…
What does this word really mean?
To erase (Latin) ? To hide (Greek) ? To abandon (Arabic) ? To forgive (Sanskrit) ? To throw away (Anglo-German)? To find (Hebrew) ?
Peoples are like diamonds, reflecting clean and changing shards… Their languages express much less what they think they feel, than what they are in fact blind to, what they remain astonishingly mute about, and forgetful deep down inside…
The origin of the name « Israel » is based on some passages of Genesis dedicated to Jacob, which ‘explain’ why he was first named « Jacob », and then how he was renamed « Israel ».
This famous story, commented on throughout the centuries, is briefly recalled by the prophet Hosea, in the following way.
« The LORD will therefore charge against Judah, and will execute judgment on Jacob according to his ways, and will reward him according to his works. From his mother’s womb he supplanted his brother and in his manhood he triumphed over a God. He wrestled with an angel and was victorious, and the angel wept and asked for mercy.»i
The LORD will do justice for Jacob, says Hosea. What has he done? He « supplanted his brother, » he « fought against God, » and he was « victorious, » reducing him to « weeping » and asking for mercy. Let’s look at these points.
Even before he was born, in his mother’s womb, it is written that « Jacob supplanted » his brother.
He was given the name Jacob because he had come out of his mother’s womb holding his brother’s heel. « The first one came out completely red like a coat of hair, and they called him Esau. Then his brother came out, and his hand held Esau’s heel, and he was called Jacob. » ii
In Hebrew the word « Jacob » is taken from the verb עָקַב ‘aqab, « he supplanted », « he deceived », « he defrauded ». « Jacob » seems to be a difficult name to bear, even if its proper meaning can be euphemised by giving it a derived meaning from the Genesis passage: « he who caught (his brother) by the heels », at the moment of his birth.
But Jacob again earned his name by supplanting Esau a second time, by « buying » his birthrightiii, and a third time, by substituting for him to obtain the blessing of his father Isaac on his deathbed.
Jacob is aware of the negative meaning attached to his name, and he is also aware of the significance of his actions. « Perhaps my father will feel me and I will be like a deceiver in his eyes, and I will bring on me the curse and not the blessing, »iv he worries to Rebekah.
Jacob fears being seen as a « deceiver ». Therefore, he does not really consider himself as such, despite appearances and facts. He no doubt thinks he has settled the legal aspect of frauding by acquiring the birthright in exchange for a « red soup ». He also relies on his mother Rebecca who says to him: « I take your curse upon me, my son. Obey me. » v
But these are minor concerns. Jacob ends up taking the fraud personally when his father, blind and dying, asks him, « Who are you, my son? » and he answers, « It is I, Esau, your firstborn. » vi
Isaac blessed him then, but seized by doubt, asked a second time: « Is that you, there, my son Esau? « Jacob answers: « It is I. » vii Then Isaac blessed him a second time, confirming him in his inheritance: « Be the head of your brothers, and let your mother’s sons bow down before you! Cursed be he who curses you, and blessed be he who blesses you! » viii.
Esau comes up in the meantime and asks, « Is it because they named him Jacob that he has already twice supplanted me? He has taken away my birthright and now he has taken away my blessing! » ix
We can see by this that Jacob’s name carried his whole destiny in a nutshell, at least for the first part of his life.
Now let’s see how Jacob changed his name during the night combat scene.
« Jacob was left alone, and a man struggled with him until dawn. » x
Jacob is alone, but a man is with him. How to reconcile this apparent contradiction? Is this « man » just an apparition, a mirage? Or is he an angel? A divine spirit?
I opt for a third track. It could be an inner presence.
But then how can we explain this mad fight against himself?
Night-time delirium? Mystical crisis ? You have to hold on to minute details.
« Seeing that he could not defeat him, he touched his hip and Jacob’s hip dislocated as he struggled with him. » xi
The Hebrew text says that Jacob was struck in the hollow of the « hip »: כַּף-יֶרֶךְ , kaf yérek. But this word can have several meanings. If one adopts the idea that it is a physical, virile struggle, it might be a euphemism for « genitals ». A good punch in these parts can give an advantage.
But if one adopts the interpretation of an inner, mystical struggle, one must find something else. Now, this composed expression can also mean, taken word for word: « the hollow (kaf) of the bottom (yarkah)« , i.e. the « bottom of the bottom », or the « depth ».
If Jacob has engaged in an inner struggle, he has reached the extreme depths of his soul.
At that moment the man, or the angel, (or the depths of the soul?) begs Jacob: « Let me go, for the dawn has come. » Jacob answered, « I will not let you go unless you bless me. » Then he said to him, « What is your name? » He answered, « Jacob ». He said, « Jacob will no longer be your name, but Israel; for you have fought with God and with men and have triumphed. » xii
(Israel: ki-sarita ‘im elohim ve ‘im enoshim va toukhal)
According to this interpretation, « Israel » would therefore mean: « He fought against God », taking as a basis for the word Israel the verb שָׂרָה, sarah, to struggle.
But the « very learned » Philo of Alexandria, commenting on the same passage, is, for his part, of the opinion that the name « Israel » means « seeing God », relying on the verb רָאָה, raah, « to see, to have visions ».
Which interpretation seems the best?
If it was a mystical battle, Philo’s interpretation seems much better.
But for the way forward, we can also refer to Rashi, who does not deal directly with this question here, but addresses it in another way.
Rashi comments on the verse « Jacob shall henceforth no longer be your name, but Israel » as follows: « It will no longer be said that you have obtained these blessings by trickery and supplanting (עקבה, same root as יעקב), but in all dignity and openly. The Holy One, blessed be He, will reveal Himself to you in Bethel, change your name there and bless you. I will be there and confirm them to you. This is what the Prophet Hosea will say: He wrestled with an angel and got the upper hand, he wept and begged him (Hosea 12:5). It was the angel who wept and begged. What did he ask him? In Bethel He will find us and there He will speak to us (ibid.). Give me a delay until He speaks to us there. But Jacob did not want to and the angel had to, in spite of himself, give him confirmation of the blessings. This is what is meant here in verse 30, ‘He blesses him on the spot’. He had begged him to wait, but Jacob refused. »
Rachi relies for this comment on the authority of Hosea. Hosea himself simply quotes Genesis. God appeared again to Jacob when he returned from the land of Aram, to the place that was later to be called Bethel, and blessed him there, saying to him, « Your name is Jacob; but your name henceforth shall not be Jacob any more, but Israel.» xiii
In this new account of Jacob’s change of name in Israel, Rashi gives himself his own interpretation of the meaning of the name Israel : « ‘Your name will no longer be Jacob’. This name refers to a man who is on the lookout to catch someone by surprise ( עקבה ), but you will bear a name that means prince (שׂר) and noble. »
As can be seen, Rashi proposes here a third interpretation of the meaning of the name « Israel ». After the ‘struggle’ (against God), the ‘vision’ (of God), here is the ‘kingship’ (in God?).
Immediately after these events, the story resumes with a new, mysterious episode. « The Lord disappeared from the place where he had spoken to him. Jacob erected a monument in the place where he had spoken to him, a monument of stone.» xiv
Why do I say « a mysterious episode »? Because the great Rashi himself admits about this verse: « I don’t know what this text wants to teach us. »
Let’s take a chance. We read here yet another circumstantial expression of place: « in the place where he had spoken to him ».
In Bethel, God stands « near » Jacob, during his « battle » at the place called Peniel, on the bank of the Jaboc, and that the same time Jacob holds his opponent tightly in a close combat.
This is the first difference of « placement ».
But what is surprising is that God then disappears away « from him » (i.e. moves away from the place « near » Jacob) to go « to the place where he had spoken to him » (bi maqom asher diber itou).
It seems that God disappears, not just « from » but rather « into » the place where He had just spoken.
Let’s elaborate. We must distinguish here between the place where God stood « near » Jacob, – and the « place where God had spoken », which is not a geographical place, but more likely the very soul of Jacob.
What the text teaches us, therefore, is that God disappeared « in » Jacob’s soul, melting into it, blending into it intimately.
After this anticipatory detour by Bethel, let us return to the scene of Penïêl, close to the ford of Jaboc. Jacob has just been named there for the first time « Israel ».
He then wants to know the name of the one who just called him that: « He answered, ‘Why do you ask my name?’ And he blessed him on the spot. » xv
The man, or the angel, blesses Jacob, but does not reveal his name to him. On the other hand, one can infer from the text that he showed his face to him.
Indeed, we read: « Jacob called this place Peniel: ‘Because I saw an angel of God face to face, and my life was saved’. » xvi
Peniel means, word for word, « face of God, » which seems to support the fact that Jacob-Israel did « see » God in his nightly battle.
This is an opportunity to note a kind of inverted symmetry between Jacob’s experience and that of Moses. Jacob « saw » God, but was not given to hear his name. For Moses it was the opposite, God revealed to him one of his names, Eyeh asher Eyeh, « I will be who I will be, » but He did not show him His « face, » only His « back.
What is the most manifest sign of election and grace: seeing the face of God or hearing His name?
Interpretations of this difficult question are legion. I will not discuss them here.
There is another mystery, before which Rashi himself had to admit ignorance: why did God disappear where He had spoken?
Why is the place of His presence now the place of His absence?
One lesson of the text might be that only His ‘word’ may reconcile both His (past) presence and His (present) absence.
They spend a lifetime sailing between the ends of the world, aiming for the very high or the very low, the bright or the dark, without ever finding a way out. Everywhere dead ends, clogged skies, impenetrable mountains, high walls, closed seas, and bottomless abysses.
Tired of detours, perplexed by fences, impatient for open roads, some people try to seek direct help: « Where have you been hiding ? » they ask, as the poet once did, thrown into the bottom of a low pit in Toledo: ¿ Adónde te escondiste? i
But who will answer? In the game of worlds, silence can be heard, speech is rare. We call, we implore, we groan, in vain. The hidden remains consistent and keeps hiding. Why would He betray himself by a mad « here! » ?
All means are good, to whoever wants to find. With an acute eye, one can scrutinize the signs, detect traces, read between the lines. One can juggle endlessly, with the obvious (pshath), the allusion (remez), the allegory (drash), to continue trying to grasp the hidden (sod).
But is that enough? Sod is « mystery ». Barely touched, it suddenly discovers its nature, it is the abyss. It deepens unceasingly, as one throws in it furtive glances. Suddenly, a sinkhole collapses, bitter avens and swallowing ouvalas multiply. The more one brushes against the sod, the more it slips away, and sinks endlessly into its night.
Pedagogically, Amos has accumulated some clues in an ample sentence: « It is He who forms the mountains and creates the wind, who reveals to man his thoughts, who turns dawn into darkness, and who walks on the heights of the earth.»ii
Is the mystery hidden in the shape of the mountains, or is it at the origin of the wind?
Does it hide itself in the dawn drowned at night? Above all it is hidden in the man himself. Man, says Amos, doesn’t know what he thinks, he doesn’t know who he is, he doesn’t know what’s going on inside him. It is necessary to reveal it to him.
Man also is sod, therefore, and that even he does not see it, nor does he know it. So ill-prepared for himself, how could he face the « great mystery » (raza raba)?
Amos’ successive metaphors give an overview. Man can be compared to « mountains », in the moments when they « form » (orogeny, in technical style), or to a « wind » (ruah), shapeless but « created », or to a power that in an instant changes the dawn into darkness, or to the march of the spirit, above the heights of the world.
These metaphors are also understatements, which say, by antiphrase, that man ignores himself royally.
Mountain, wind, dawn, darkness, walking, world, height, all this man is in a way, and yet these prodigious images explain nothing yet.
Hidden, far below these figures, is waiting, patient and lurking, an ultimate image.
A unique topos. Buried within man is a secret place, which he does not know he possesses and which encloses « treasures », – as Isaiah tells us. « And I will give you secret treasures, hidden riches »iii.
Man possesses them in essence, these secrets and treasures, but he also ignores them. It has already been said: he doesn’t really know who he is, what he says, what he thinks. Nor does he know whether he really believes what he says he is or what he believes.
A fortiori, how little does he know his own abyssal depths, and their sealed secrets! For him to start guessing their presence, perhaps someone greater than himself must resolve to reveal them to him.
Climbing to the heights, flying in the winds, going to the ends of the world, is useless to discover what is already there, deep inside man.
As for the wind, really its flight is vain, in the dark.
And, on the highest mountain, the summit too is vain, if one must hide in the crevice (niqrat), like Moses, to take cover, – under a shadow thick enough to erase the fire of consciousnessiv .
In the crevices, in the depths of the night, perhaps the truth is there,baking in its own light, since it is nowhere else? One can hope in this shadow to catch a glimpse of the elusive silhouette, which is already slipping away.
The darkness, the obscurity, the night are somber and propitious premises, for the man who seeks.
They indicate to the researcher that one should hide « in the shadow of the wings »v.
What shadow? Which wings?
The word « wing » (in Hebrew kanap) has a double meaning. It also means « to hide ».
The wing « hides », « covers », « protects ».
Triple pleonasm: « to hide », « in the shade » of « the wing ».
Why all these hiding places, these blankets, these shadows, when we are in search of clarity and discovery? Isn’t it counter-intuitive?
Could it be a reaction to the fear of danger? There are indeed those who « hide » when enemies come running and attack the depths of the soulvi. But is death assured, if other enemies lie in wait, lurking in the hiding place itselfvii?
We must hide, not to flee, but because it is the only way to enter into the heart of the dark.
The inaccessible, the hidden, how to reach it other than by plunging into the dark shadows?
The mystery, the intelligence does not grasp it. It also evades the senses and is tasteless. Nothing emanates from it, it leaves cold. Hermetic, its depth, its opacity, its absence, put it out of reach, out of reach.
Unless, against all reason, one is obviously drowning in its shadow.
The more the mystery is opaque, the more it is revealed, by this very opacity. The more it resists openly, the more it opens in secret. It is the very opposite of ordinary logic.
The less you sense what is hidden, the closer you get to it. The less we grasp its meaning, the more we learn about our intuition.
The less one waits for its presence, the more it emerges.
One approaches, and the darkness deepens; one might think that one has taken the wrong road, that one is beating the countryside, that one is going astray. Paradox!
So close, so sublime is the knowledge of the mystery, it is still immensely far from its essence. But so far away are we lost in the depths of the unfathomable cave, we are already closer than in any light.
You can’t see anything. But it is blindness that we must see. It is blindness that reveals.
« If he comes I will not see him, if he withdraws, I will not notice. »viii
We see nothing, and it is that « we don’t see » that we must see…
Wisdom once said of herself: « From eternity I was established, from the beginning, before the origin of the earth.» x
From eternity, mé–‘olam. Fromtheprinciple, mé-rosh.
The Bahir reports a commentary on these expressions by Rabbi Bun:
« What is mé-‘olam? The word designates that which must remain hidden from everyone, for it is written : ‘He has also put the ‘olam in their hearts’xi. Do not read ha-‘olam (eternity) but ha-‘elem (the hidden) »xii.
The Hebrew word עָלַם lends itself to this play on words, since it is used as a noun (« eternity ») and as a verb (« hide »).
In the heart of man, « eternity » is hidden, and the « hidden » itself, under the shadow of its « wings ».
Hair has always had an anthropological, imaginary and symbolic depth. Literature, painting, sculpture, under all latitudes, have testified and still testify to the metaphorical (and metonymic) power of hair, and more generally of hairs.
An exhaustive analysis of the representations of hair in Western painting alone could yield some exciting material.
Where does it come from? One of the fundamental problems that painters face is to make forms and backgrounds blend together in a meaningful way. The restricted and highly organized space of the canvas allows to give meaning to graphic analogies and pictorial proximities, which are as many opening metaphors, as many potential metonymies.
How, for example, should a character’s hair, whether spread or held, mad or wise, meet on the canvas the background against which it is shaped? Should it contrast sharply with its immediate environment, or attempt a latent fusion?
For the painters who represent the metamorphosis of Daphne into a laurel, the hair of the nymph is a propitious place to present the fusion of forms to come, the transformation of the human figure into an evergreen shrub. The sculpture also takes advantage of these effects of metamorphosis. Bernini, with Apollo and Daphne, presents with precision the beginning of the vegetable transition of hair and fingers into foliage and branches, where it naturally begins.
The hair favors many other metaphors, such as that of the veil:
« O fleece, flowing down to the neckline! O curls! O perfume loaded with nonchalance! Ecstasy! To populate this evening the dark alcove With memories sleeping in this hair, I want to shake it in the air like a handkerchief! » ii
From this handkerchief, we can use it to wipe tears or tears, Luke attests it:
« And behold, a sinful woman who was in the city, when she knew that he was sitting at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster vase full of ointment and stood behind it at Jesus’ feet. She wept, and soon she wet his feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with ointment. » iii
There is also the metaphor of the waves:
« Strong braids, be the swell that takes me away!
You contain, sea of ebony, a dazzling dream
Of sails, rowers, flames and masts : A resounding port where my soul can drink. « iv.
Multiple, heteroclite, are the poetic or graphic metaphors of the hair: knots, linksv, helmets, breastplates, interlacing, clouds, and even the stars! The Hair of Berenice is a constellation of the Northern Hemisphere, named so because Berenice II, Queen of Egypt, sacrificed her hair, and that, according to the astronomer Conon of Samos, it was then placed by the gods in the sky.
Among the most widespread in painting, it is undoubtedly the metaphors of water and blood, which lend themselves very well to the supple and silky variations of the hair.
Ophelia’s drowned hair blends harmoniously with the wave, in which her body is bathed, in Eugène Delacroix or J.E. Millais. Gustave Klimt uses this effect to paint Ondines swimming lying down in Sang de poisson and in Serpents d’eau.
Bernardino Luini represents the head of John the Baptist, above a dish held by Salome, and his blood still runs in long dark streaks, prolonging the hair of the beheaded man.
Among all the countless metaphors of hair, there is one very particular one, that of fire and flame.
« The hair, flight of a flame to the extreme Occident of desires to deploy it, Poses itself (I’d say die a diadem) Towards the crowned forehead its former home »vi The image of a ‘hair of fire’ goes to the extreme indeed, and makes it possible to reach untold ends, and the Divine too…
The Ṛg Veda evokes a single God, Agni, named « Hairy », who is incarnated in three figures, endowed with different attributes. These three « Hairy » have the hair of a flamevii. « Three Hairy ones shine in turn: one sows himself in Saṃvatsara; one considers the Whole by means of the Powers; and another one sees the crossing, but not the color.» viii
The « Hair » connotes the reproductive power, the creative force, the infinite radiance of divine light. The first « Hairy » engenders himself in the Soma, in the form of a primordial germ. The second « Hairy » contains the Whole, i.e. the universe, again through Soma. The third « Hairy » is the « dark » Agni, the « unborn » Agni aja, which passes from night to light and reveals itself there.
In Judaism, hair does not burn, and it must be carefully maintained. ix
However, God chose a kind of vegetable hair, in the form of a « burning bush », to address Moses on Mount Horeb.
In Christianity, the flames of the Holy Spirit, at Pentecost, come to mingle with the hair of the Apostles. x
In Sufism, the « Hair » represents the Divine Essence as a symbol of multiplicity hiding unity. « Multiplicity conceals the non-existence of things, and thereby obscures the Heart, but at the same time as it veils, the Hair attracts Divine Grace and Divine Gifts. » xi
The hair represents here the « multiple », and thus nothingness. By its abundance and luxuriance, hair is an image of everything that is not the « unique ».
In absolute contrast to Sufism, John of the Cross chose precisely the metaphor of the « single hair » to represent the reciprocal love of the singular soul and of God, and to represent the fine and impalpable link that connects the soul to God. An infinitely fine link, but so strong that it has the power to link God himself to the soul he loves.
For John of the Cross, fundamentally, « the hair represents love ». xii
The initial inspiration for this metaphor seems, apparently at least, to come from the Song of Songs.
« Speaking of this wound, the Bridegroom of the Song of Songs says to the soul: You have made a woundin my soul, my sister, my wife, you have made a woundin my heart, with one of your eyes and with one hair of your neck (Ct 4:9). The eye here represents faith in the Incarnation of the Bridegroom, and the hair represents the love inspired by this mystery.» xiii
Vaporous lightness, evanescent subtlety, but also inconceivable power. Beneath the most feeble appearance, the single hair hides an extraordinary strength. A single, solitary hair has the power to hold God captive in the soul, because God falls in love with it, through this hair.
« God is strongly in love with this hair of love when he sees it alone and strong. » xiv
John of the Cross explains: « The hair that makes such a union must surely be strong and well untied, since it penetrates so powerfully the parts that it links together. The soul exposes, in the following stanza, the properties of this beautiful hair, saying :
« The soul says that this hair ‘flew on her neck’, because the love of a strong and generous soul rushes towards God with vigor and agility, without enjoying anything created. And just as the breeze stirs and makes the hair fly, so the breath of the Holy Spirit lifts and sets the strong love in motion, making it rise up to God. » xvi
But how can the supreme God fall in love with a hair?
« Until now God had not looked at this hair in such a way as to be enamored of it, because he had not seen it alone and free from other hair, that is to say, from other loves, appetites, inclinations and tastes; it could not fly alone on the neck, symbol of strength ». xvii
And, above all, how can the supreme God remain captive, bound by a single hair?
« It is a marvel worthy of our admiration and joy that a God is held captive by a single hair! The reason for this infinitely precious capture is that God stopped to look at the hair that was flying on the neck of the bride, because, as we have said, God’s gaze is his love ». xviii
God allows himself to be captivated by the « theft of the hair of love », because God is love. This is how « the little bird seizes the great golden eagle, if the latter comes down from the heights of the air to let himself be caught ». xix
The single hair embodies the will of the soul, and the love it bears to the Beloved.
But why a single hair, and not rather, to make a mass, a tuft, a fleece, or an entire head of hairxx ?
« The Spouse speaks ‘of one hair’ and not of many, to make us understand that her will is God’s alone, free from all other hair, that is to say, from all affections foreign to God. » xxi
But the case is more complicated than it seems.
The Song of Songs does not actually contain this image. In its chapter 4 verse 9, we read the following:
« You have captured my heart, O my sister, my fiancée, you have captured my heart by one of your glances, by one of the necklaces that adorn your neck. »
The word « necklace » correctly translates the Hebrew word עֲנָק, which actually has no other meaning, and certainly does not mean « hair ».
In Hebrew, « hair » is said to be שַׂעָר. This word is also used just before, in verse 1 of the same chapter of the Song of Songs: « Your hair is like a herd of goats coming down from the Mount of Gilead »xxii.
The metaphor of the « herd of goats » implies a play on words, which is not unrelated to our subject. Indeed, the Hebrew שַׂעָר , « hair », is very close semantically to שָׂעׅיר , « goat » and שְׂעׅירָה , « goat ».
This is understandable. The goat is a very hairy animal, « hairy » par excellence. But the verse does not use this repetition, and does not use here the word שְׂעׅירָה , but another word, which also means « goat », עֵז, and which allows for an equivalent play on words, since its plural, עׅזׅים, metonymically means « goat hair ». By forcing the note, verse Ct 4.1 could be translated literally: « Your hair is like a multitude of goat’s hairs coming down from Mount Galaad… ». »
If verse 1 multiplies the effect of multitude, in verse 9, it would only be a matter of a single hair, according to John of the Cross.
The problem, we said, is that this hair is not present in the Hebrew text.
So did the Vulgate, in a translation here defective, mislead John of the Cross?
The Vulgate gives for Ct 4:9: « Vulnerasti cor meum, soror mea, sponsa; vulnerasti cor meum in uno oculorum tuorum, et in uno crine colli tui. »
The Vulgate thus translates the Hebrew עֲנָק, « necklace » by uno crine, « a curl of hair », which seems a dubious equivalence.
Poets are seers, and outstanding visionaries, they see higher, further, more accurately. Perhaps the « hair » that God « sees » on the Bride’s neck is in fact a fine, precious thread, attaching to the neck a unique jewel? Hair, or thread on the neck, what does it matter, then, if both words fulfill their role of metaphor and metonymy, signifying the love of the soul for God, and God’s love for the soul?
In the film Call me by your name, by Luca Guadagnino, the hero, Elio Perlman, played by Timothée Chalamet, sees a Star of David hanging from a thin golden thread around the neck of Oliver, played by Armie Hammer. In the film, this precious object plays a transitional role in Elio’s budding passion for Oliver.
Perhaps we can imagine an extremely precious piece of jewelry around the Bride’s neck? In this case, one should not be mistaken: what attracts the gaze of God, as Bridegroom, is not this jewel, however precious it may be, but the very thin thread that holds it, and which the Vulgate assimilates to a « hair ».
In the eyes of John of the Cross, the unique necklace of the Bride of the Song of Songs is in any case a powerful metonymy assimilating the thread to a hair and the hair to a mystical link. This metonymy inspires him, and allows him to write his own original spiritual Song of Songs, whose stanzas 21 and 22 tie the metaphor tightly together:
viiiIncidentally, one of the attributes of Apollo, Xantokomès (Ξανθόκομης), also makes him a God « with fire-red hair ».
ixThe rules concerning hair are very codified. But only he who purifies himself must make them disappear completely, under the razor blade: « Then on the seventh day he shall shave off all his hair, his hair, his beard, his eyebrows, all his hair; he shall wash his clothes, bathe his body in water, and become clean. « Lev 14:9
x« On the day of Pentecost, they were all together in the same place. Suddenly there came a sound from heaven like a rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Tongues like tongues of fire appeared to them, separated from one another, and rested on each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them power to speak. « Acts 2:1-4
xxHowever, in Ascent to Carmel, John of the Cross uses the metaphor of ‘hair’ in the plural. He relies on a passage from the Lamentations of Jeremiah which he translates again from the Vulgate: « Candidiores sunt Nazaraei ejus nive, nitidiores lacte, rubincundiores ebore antiquo, saphiro pulchriores ». « Their hair is whiter than snow, brighter than milk, redder than antique ivory, more beautiful than sapphire. Their faces have become blacker than coal, and are no longer recognizable in public squares. « (Rom 4:7-8) John of the Cross uses here the word cabello, « hair, » to translate into Spanish the word Nazaraei (« Nazarenes, » or « Nazirs of God ») used by the Vulgate. And he explains what, according to him, Jeremiah’s metaphor means: « By ‘hair’ we mean the thoughts and affections of the soul which are directed to God (…) The soul with its operations represented by hair surpasses all the beauty of creatures. « (John of the Cross, The Ascent of Carmel 1,9,2. Complete Works . Cerf, 1990. p.611)
All languages have their own words for ‘secret’, which unconsciously reveal a part of it.
The Greek word for secret is ἀπόῤῥηθον, aporrhêton, which literally means « far, or away, from speech ». The secret is properly what is « unspeakable », either that which cannot be said, since the resources of language are insufficient, or that which must be kept silent, since words must be kept away. The emphasis is on speech and language, their limits or their impotence. This is why the idea of secrecy among the Greeks is well expressed in hermeticism and in the religions of the mysteries, where the initiate must swear to keep secret the things taught.
In Latin, the word secretum (from the verb seco, secare, sectum, « to cut ») etymologically evokes the idea of separation, of physical cut. The emphasis is not on language, but on place or space. The secret is what is separated from the rest of the world, what is cut off from it. The secret participates in a partition of the world into highly differentiated zones, exclusive of each other.
In Hebrew, the word for secret is רָז (raz). It is a word of Persian origin. In the Bible it is only found in the book of Daniel, then at a rather late date, where it takes on the meaning of « mystery ».
Sanskrit offers, among other words: गुप्त, gupta and गुह्यguhya. The word gupta comes from the root gup- , « to keep, protect, defend ». It first means « protected, hidden ». It also means « secret » by derivation. In Sanskrit, secrecy seems to be less an end in itself, to be kept for what it is worth, than a means to protect the person who benefits from it. As for guhya, it comes from the root guh-, « tocover, to conceal, to hide ». Guhya is what must be hidden, like a magic formula, or the sexual organs, of which this word is also the name. Here too, the emphasis is on the veil and the act of veiling, more than on what is veiled.
In contrast, the German word for secret, Geheimnis, precisely brings out the link between the secret and the interiority, the inner self. The secret is what is deep in the heart, or in the intimacy of the soul.
We could go on for a long time with this anthology of the word « secret » in different languages. But we already sense that each culture has a conception of the secret that corresponds as well as possible to what it agrees to reveal to itself and to what it agrees to show to the world, as for its (collective) unconscious .
This is also true of individuals, and of the secrets that inhabit them, or that found them.
In A Taste for Secrecy, Jacques Derrida declares that the secret is « the very non-phenomenality of experience », and « something that is beyond the opposition of phenomenon and non-phenomenon, and which is the very element of existence »i.
Even if everything could be said, there is something that will always resist, that will always remain secret, singular, unique, irreplaceable, « even without having to hide anything »ii.
This singular, specific secret is not even opposed to what is not secret. Nor is it ineffable. This secret is the secret of all that is said. The secret undoes what is brought forward by the word.
The secret « undoes the word », which is also the characteristic of deconstruction.
By undoing the word, the secret takes on an absolute significance. This secret that can never be shared, even at the moment of sharing, occupies a position of overhang: it is the very condition of sharing.
This is the absolute secret. The secret is an « absolute » that reigns above or within the existing, or is completely detached from it. Derrida says: « It is the ab-solute even in the etymological sense of the term, that is to say what is cut off from the bond, detached, and cannot bind; it is the condition of the bond but it cannot bind: that is the absolute; if there is an absolute, it is secret. It is in this direction that I try to read Kierkegaard, Isaac’s sacrifice, the absolute as secret and as the ‘other’. Not transcendent, not even beyond myself: a resistance to the light of phenomenality that is radical, irreversible, to which one can give all sorts of forms, death, for example, but it is not even death. » iii
« The absolute as a secret and as the ‘other’ ». But « not transcendent ».
A rather enigmatic formula, admittedly…. But how is Isaac’s sacrifice linked to the question of the secret, if the absolute is the « other » and is not « transcendent »?
We need a tighter analysis.
« Abraham took the wood of the sacrifice, put it on Isaac his son, took the fire and the knife in his hand, and they both went together.» iv
Rashi comments: « They both went together: Abraham who knew he was going to sacrifice his son, walked with the same goodwill and joy as Isaac who suspected nothing. «
Abraham kept the secret of what awaited Isaac. He told him nothing. The secret was absolute. Abraham did not let anything show on his face. He even walked cheerfully, according to Rashi, so as not to arouse any fear in Isaac. But some suspicion nevertheless arose and Isaac finally questioned his father: « ‘Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb of the burnt offering?’ Abraham answered: ‘God himself will choose the lamb of the burnt offering, my son,’ and they both went together. » v
The repetition of this phrase, « they both went together », suggests two different meanings. Rashi comments: « And though Isaac understood that he was going to be immolated, ‘they both went together’, with one heart. »
The first time, it is Abraham who took the emotional burden on him. The second time, it was Isaac. He did not show anything about what he had guessed to be his fate. He kept his emotion secret.
In both cases, for Abraham and for Isaac, – absolute secrecy of the heart, but a secrecy that was not transcendent, indeed.
It was only the secret of a silent father, in one case, and the secret of a son who was silent, in the other. It was a doubly absolute secret, one can imagine.
Or, perhaps, was the absolute also present, secretly, in these moments, in two different ways?
This absolute, so secret, so doubly secret, can also, in fact, be called the « other ».
One could even suggest that this absolute wasthe « All Other ».
But then why does Derrida insist on the idea that the Absolute which is the « other » is precisely not « transcendent »?
In the text of Genesis, however, transcendence does appear at this crucial moment in all splendor: « But a messenger of the Lord called to him from heaven, and he said, ‘Abraham… Abraham!’ He answered, ‘Here I am,’ and said, ‘Do not lay a hand on this young man, do nothing to him! For now I know that you fear God, you who did not deny me your son, your only son ». vi
One knows that the absolute is secret, that it is the « other ». As for being « transcendent », it is a question of interpretation.
Shortly after finding a ram embarrassed by its horns in a bush and sacrificing it as a burnt offering in place of his son, Abraham named the place where this whole scene had taken place: « YHVH will see. »vii In Hebrew: יְהוָה יִרְאֶה (‘Adonai-Yiré’)
The Targum interprets this verse as follows, according to Rashi: God will choose for Himself this place to make His Divine Presence reside there and to make offerings there. And it will be said about this place: It is on this mountain that God makes Himself seen by His people.
But if « YHVH will see » is to be understood as « God will be seen », the Targum should also explain why the active way (God will see) has been changed into a passive way (God will be seen).
The Midrach gives yet another interpretation, according to Rachi. « YHVH will see » means: « The LORD will see this offering to forgive Israel every year and to spare it the punishment it deserves. So it will be said in the generations to come: Today God shows Himself on the mountain. Isaac’s ashes are still there to make atonement for our sins. »
A Cartesian spirit will point out that the ashes of the ram offered as a holocaust are still on the mountain called « YHVH will see », but certainly not the ashes of Isaac, since the latter left, alive and well, with his father to Beer-sheba.
From all of this, it emerges that the initial secret, so opaque, unravels endlessly, in twisted insinuations, in down-to-earth or messianic interpretations, depending on different « points of view ».
For us, who respect grammatical values more than lyrical flights of fancy, we will remember above all that « He will see » may also mean « He will be seen ».
Ultimately, it is the grammar itself, the foundation of the language, that must be deconstructed if we want to unlock the secret, not of the language, but of the one who speaks.
iJacques Derrida, Maurizio Ferraris. Le goût du secret. Hermann. 2018, p.69-70
According to Gershom Scholem: « Hebrew is the original language »i. For the sake of a sound debate, one could perhaps argue that Sanskrit, the « perfect » language (according to the Veda), was formed several millennia before Hebrew began to incarnate the word of God. However, such historical and linguistic arguments may have no bearing on the zealots of the « sacred language », the language that God Himself is supposed to have spoken, with His own words, even before the creation of the world.
Where does this supposedly unique status of the Hebrew language come from?
A first explanation can be found in the relationship between the Torah and the name of God. The Torah is, literally, the name of God. Scholem explains: « The Torah is not only made up of the names of God, but forms in its entirety the one great name of God. » In support of this thesis, the opinion of the Kabbalistic cenacle of Gerona is quoted: « The five books of the Torah are the name of the Holy One, blessed be He.» ii
How can this be? Here and there in the Torah, we find various names of God, such as the name Yahveh (YHVH) or the name Ehyeh (« I shall be »). But there are also many other (non divine) names, and many other words, that are perfectly profane in the Torah. The four letters aleph, he, waw and yod (אהוי), which are present in Yahveh (יהוה) and Ehyeh ( אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה) are also the letters that serve in Hebrew as matres lectionis (the « mothers of reading »), and as such, they are spread throughout the text, they structure it, and make it intelligible.
From that consideration, some Kabbalists, such as Abraham Aboulafia, draw the conclusion that the true name of God is neither Yahveh nor Ehyeh. Aboulafia goes so far as to say that the true original name of God is EHWY (אהוי), that is, a name composed of the four fundamental letters, without repetition. « The tetragrammaton of the Torah is thus only an expedient, behind which the true original name is hidden. In each of two four-letter names there are only three of the consonants that make up the original name, the fourth being only a repetition of one of them, namely, he (ה). » iii
It was, without a doubt, a thesis of « unheard-of radicality » to affirm that the name of God does not even appear in the Torah, but only some of his pseudonyms… Moses Cordovero of Safed rose with indignation against this maximalist thesis. Yet a similar idea resurfaces elsewhere, in the Kabbalistic work entitled Temunah. It evokes « the conception of a divine name containing, in a different order these four letters, yod, he, waw, aleph, and which would constitute the true name of God before the creation of the world, for which the usual tetragram was substituted only for the creation of this world.» iv
Not surprisingly, there are many more other ideas on the matter. There is, for example, the idea of the existence of seventy-two divine names formed from the seventy-two consonants contained in each of the three verses of Exodus 14:19-21. « Know that the seventy-two sacred names serve the Merkavah and are united with the essence of the Merkavah. They are like columns of shining light, called in the Bible bne elohim, and all the heavenly host pays homage to them. (…) The divine names are the essence itself, they are the powers of the divinity, and their substance is the substance of the light of life.» v
There are also technical methods « to expand the tetragram, writing the name of each of the consonants that make up the tetragram in full letters so as to obtain four names with numerical values of 45, 52, 63 and 72, respectively ».vi Far from being a simple set of letters and numbers, this is a mechanism that is at the foundation of the worlds. « The Torah is formed in the supreme world, as in this original garment, only from a series of combinations, each of which unites two consonants of the Hebrew alphabet. It is only in the second world that the Torah manifests itself as a series of mystical divine names formed from new combinations of the first elements. It has the same letters, but in a different order than the Torah we know. In the third world the letters appear as angelic beings whose names, or at least their initials, are suggested. It is only in the ultimate world that the Torah becomes visible in the form in which it is transmitted to us.» vii
From all of this, one may be tempted to draw the fundamental idea that Hebrew is indeed the original language, the divine language. « Hence the conventional character of secular languages as opposed to the sacred character of Hebrew. »viii
However, there was the catastrophic episode of the Tower of Babel and the confusion of languages, which spared none of them – including Hebrew! « But to the sacred language itself have since then mingled profane elements, just as profane languages still contain here and there elements or remnants of the sacred language.» ix
One is always happy to learn, when one has a somewhat universalist sensibility, that « remnants » of the sacred still exist, « here and there », in other languages. To lovers of languages and dictionaries then comes the thankless but promising task of discovering these sacred snags, which are perhaps still hidden in Greek or Arabic, Avestic or Sanskrit, or even Fulani, Wolof and Chinese, who knows?
From a perhaps more polemical point of view, one may wonder whether this is not a kind of idolatry of the letter, — an « idolettry » , then, or a « grapho-latry »…
We may need to go up to a higher level of understanding, to see things from a higher perspective. « Wisdom is contained and gathered in letters, in sefirot and in names, all of which are mutually composed from each other.» x
We need to broaden the vision. These tiny sacred traces present in the languages of the world are like living germs. « All languages derive their origin by corruption from the original sacred language, in which the world of names immediately unfolds, and they all relate to it in a mediated way. As every language has its home in the divine name, it can be brought back to this center.» xi
All languages then have a vocation to return to the divine « center ». Every word and every letter contain, perhaps, by extension, a tiny bit of sacredness…
« Each singular letter of the Kabbalah constitutes a world in itself » xii, Gershom Scholem adds in a note that in the Zohar (1:4b) it is said that every new and authentic word that man utters in the Torah stands before God, who embraces it and sets it with seventy mystical crowns. And this word then expands in its own motion to form a new world, a new heaven and a new earth.
Let’s be a little more generous, and give the goyim a chance. When the poet says, for example, « O million golden birds, O future vigor! » , is there any chance that these inspired words, though not present in the Torah, will one day appear trembling before God, and that God will deign to grant them one or two mystical crowns? I do not know. But maybe so. In the eyes of Aboulafia himself, « the knowledge that can be attained by following the path of the mysticism of language prevails over that which follows the path of the ten sefirot. xiii
So let’s make a wager that all languages have their own « mystical » way, certainly well hidden.
Scholem concludes: « What will be the dignity of a language from which God has withdrawn? This is the question that must be asked by those who still believe that they perceive, in the immanence of the world, the echo of the creative word that has now disappeared. It is a question that, in our time, can only be answered by poets, who do not share the despair of most mystics with regard to language. One thing connects them to the masters of Kabbalah, even though they reject its theological formulation, which is still too explicit: the belief in language thought as an absolute, however dialectically torn, – the belief in the secret that has become audible in language. » xiv
For my part, I believe that no human language is totally deserted of all creative speech, of all sacred flavor. I believe that poets all over the world may hear the disturbing echoes, may perceive infinitesimal vibrations, guess the celestial chords present in their languages.
Whether they are whispered, spoken, dreamed, revealed, words from all origins only approach the mystery. It is already a lot, but it is still very little.
There is much more to be said about silence than about words.
« It is indeed quite striking in view of the sacramental meaning that speech had in a decisive manner in contemporary paganism, that it does not play any role in the Israelite religion, nor especially in its rite. This silence is so complete that it can only be interpreted as intentional silence. The Israelite priest fulfills all his offices entirely without any words, with the exception of the blessing which he must pronounce aloud [Numbers 6:24]. In none of his ceremonial acts is he prescribed a word that he must pronounce. He makes all sacrifices and performs his duties without uttering a single word »xv.
The opposition thus made by Benno Jacob between « Israelite worship » and « paganism » may be be easily contradicted, for that matter. During the Vedic sacrifice of the soma, the high priest also remains absolutely silent throughout the ceremony, while his acolytes chant, sing, or recite the hymns.
It is true, however, that the Veda is certainly not a « pagan » religion, since more than a millennium before Abraham left Ur in Chaldea, Veda was already celebrating the unspeakable unity of the Divine.
iGershom Scholem. The name of God and the Kabbalistic theory of language. Ed. Alia. 2018, p. 100.
Some words are like solitary gems, waiting to be re-discovered, in order to reveal some strange resonances. They sometimes indicate constants of the human nature, which travel through passed millennia, vanished empires, linguistic basins, linking together distant cultures and old civilizations.
For example, in English, the words: « medecine, meditate, mediation, moderate, modest, mode », all actually originate from the same Indo-European root MED-, in Sanskrit : मद्. It is a very rich root, which is also reflected in Latin (medicus, meditor, modus) and Greek ( μἠδομαι, medomai: ‘to meditate, think, imagine’ ; μῆδος, mêdos: ‘thought, design’).
What is more surprising is that in its plural form, this latter word reveals a latent, but significant ambiguity. The plural of μῆδος is μἡδεα, médéa, which means « thoughts » but may also mean « human genitals », establishing thereby an unexpected link between two different aspects of human experience.
There is something even more surprising! The ambivalence between « thought » and « genitals » embedded in this Greek word is found almost identically in Arabic and Hebrew, even though these two semitic languages do not belong to the same linguistic and cultural Indo-European sphere as Greek. How can this happen ? Pure coincidence ? Or symptom of a deeper constant of the human mind ?
The primary meaning of the Arabic verb ذَكَرَ , dzakara, is : « to touch, hit or hurt someone in the virile member », and its secondary meanings are : « to remember, to tell », and « to pray, to say one’s prayers ». We also find a similar ambivalence in the nouns that derive from it. For example, ذِكْرً , dzikr, means « reminiscence, remembrance, recollection » and also « invocation, prayer, reading the Koran ». The same root with different vowels,ذَكَرً , dzakar, means « male », and its plural ذُكُورً, dzoukour, is the « male organ ».
In Hebrew, the verb זָכַר, zakhar, means « to think, to remember, to mention », but also, in a derived sense, « to be born male ». The name of the prophet Zechariah takes his name from this verbal root, and means : « The one God remembers ». The noun זַכֶר , zakher, means « remembrance, name » and זָכָר, zakhar, « that which is male, masculine ».
The word zakhar is, for example, used very crudely by Maimonides in the Guide for the Perplexed(Part I, Chapter 6), which deals with « man and woman » (ish and ishâ)i: « The term zakhar v-nekebah was afterwards applied to anything designed and prepared for union with another object » ii Note that the Hebrew word nekebah literally means « hole », and that zakhar v-nekebah thus literally means « the member and the hole ».
I find it extremely astonishing that languages as different as Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic should share such analogies, by creating direct verbal links between the male organ, mind, memory, and even the sacred.
Even more surprisingly, similar analogies and links can be found in Sanskrit !…
The Sanskrit root MED-, मद् is associated with the idea of strength, vigor, energy. It gave words like medas, « fat, marrow, lymph », medin, « vigor, energy », medini, « fertility, earth, soil », medah, « fat-tailed sheep », or medaka « spirituous liquor ».
As for the root MEDH-, मेध् , it gave words such as: medha: « juice, sauce, marrow, sap; essence; sacrificial victim; sacrifice, oblation »; medhā: « intellectual vigor, intelligence; prudence, wisdom »; medhas: « sacrifice »; medhya: « full of sap, vigorous; strong, powerful; fit for sacrifice; pure; intelligent, wise ».
We see in all these meanings the same kind of metonymic thinking at work. Marrow and sacrifice, sap and power, physical strength and mental energy, intelligence and wisdom draw semantic orbs where the vital energy (sap, fat, seed) is, by its abundance, conducive to sacrifice, and rises to signify man’s higher functions.
If we dig deeper the relationship between fat, sex and mind, we find some amazing leads. In fact, the sanskrit root MED- is a strong form of MID-, « getting fat » or MITH- « understanding » and « killing ».
How can « understanding » and « killing » have the same root, the same etymology? MITH- has as first meaning « to unite, to couple » and as derived meanings « to meet, to alternate », and also « to provoke an altercation ».
It seems that the idea of « meeting » is fundamentally twofold: one can meet as a friend or as an enemy, as a couple or as an antagonist, hence the two meanings derived from this very deep, very primeval intuition: that of « understanding » and that of « killing ».
One can go back even further to more originary sources with the root MI- , « to fix in the ground, to found, to build, to plant pillars ». Hence the derived meanings: « to measure, judge, observe » and « to perceive, know, understand ». Thus the word mit means: « pillar, column », and more generally « any erected object ». It is close to mita, « measured, metered; known ».
Let’s summarize. Every « erection » is a « foundation », and a preparation for future « knowledge »; to « erect » is to prepare oneself to « know ». Memory is rooted in the very foundation of one’s being.
For these ancient languages, « to be manly » is to be pegged to one’s own body, and thus rooted in the entire memory of the species, but it also means projecting oneself entirely into the future.
iCuriously enough, the French edition of the Guide des égarés published by Editions Verdier (1979) left entirely over the sentenceAs can be seen on page 39 of the 1979 edition, but it is indeed present in the English translation dating from 1919.
iiMoses Maimonides. The Guide for the Perplexed. Translated by M. Friedländer. Ed. George Routledge & Sons, London, 1919, p.19
« Let us make man in our image, after our likeness » (Gen. 1:26).
What exactly do these words refer to? What is this divine « image »? What is this Godhead’s « likeness »?
Hebrew has a dozen different terms that express or connote the idea of image. But in this verse, it is the word tselem (צֶלֶם) that is used. Its primary meaning is « shadow, darkness ». It is only in a figurative sense that tselem means « image, figure, idol ».
As for the idea of « likeness » or « resemblance », it is expressed in this verse by the word demouth (דְמוּת). The root of this word comes from the verb damah (דָּמָה), « to resemble, to be similar ».
From this same verbal root derives the word dam (דָּם), « blood »; and figuratively « murder, crime ». Another derived meaning is « resemblance », probably because people of the same blood can have similar traits.
There are several other words, quite close etymologically to damah, that are worth mentioning here, for their potential resonances: דֻּמָּה , dummah, « destruction »; דְּמִי, demi, « destruction, annihilation »; דֳּמִּי, dami, « silence, rest » ; דָּמַע, dama, « to shed tears ».
There is also the word dimyon, whichmeans « demon », and which seems very close to the Greek daimon (δαίμων). Is this a coincidence? Perhaps the Hebrew term was borrowed from the Greek daimon, and transformed into dimyon? Or was it the other way around? I would tend for the former option. It is a fact that the word daimonwas used by Homer to mean « divine power ». Moreover, the Greek word daimon etymologically comes from the verb daiomai, « to share, to divide ». Its initial meaning, taken from this verb, is « the power to attribute », hence « divinity, destiny ».
One can usefully compare the same shift in meaning with the old Persian baga and the Sanskrit bogu, « god », which give in Avestic baga-, « part, destiny » and in Sanskrit, bhaga, « part, destiny, master ».
Taking into account all these resonances, I’d like to propose alternatives translations of Genesis 1:26:
« Let us make man out of our shadow (tselem), and out of our tears (dama). »
Or , more philosophically:
« Let us make man out of our darkness (tselem), and out of our annihilation (dummah). »
New questions would then arise:
What does that (divine) darkness refer to? What does this (divine) annihilation really mean ?
A short answer: darkness (´tselem´) is a metaphor of the (divine) unconscious, and annihilation (´dummah´) is a metaphor of the (divine) sacrifice.
In a famous passage from the Acts of the Apostles, Paul recounts his rapture in paradise in a strangely indirect way:
« I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago – was it in his body? I don’t know; was it outside his body? I don’t know; God knows – … that man was taken up to the third heaven. And that man – was it in his body? Was it without his body? I don’t know; God knows; I know that he was taken up to heaven and heard words that cannot be spoken, that a man is not allowed to say again.»i
Augustine commented specifically on the « third heaven », where Paul was delighted.
According to him, there are indeed three « heavens » corresponding to three different levels of « vision ». There are the heaven of the body, the heaven of the mind and the heaven of the soul.
In the third heaven, at the third level of vision, one can « see the divine substance ».
Augustine exercises in passing his critical mind about the « rapture » of which Paul was apparently the beneficiary. Quite acid is his comment:
« Finally, even though the Apostle who was taken away from the bodily senses and then was taken up to the third heaven and into paradise, he certainly lacked one thing to have this full and perfect knowledge, such as is found in the angels: not knowing whether he was with or without his body. »ii
The body seems to be a hindrance to the full consciousness of the delighted soul. If one can access through ecstasy or rapture to the contemplation of divine things by the soul, what is the use of the body in these exceptional circumstances?
« Perhaps the objection will be made: what need is there for the spirits of the dead to recover their bodies at the resurrection, if, even without their bodies, they can enjoy this sovereign bliss? The question is undoubtedly too difficult to be perfectly dealt with in this book. There is no doubt, however, that the intellectual soul of man, both when rapture takes it away from the use of the carnal senses and when after death it abandons the remains of the flesh and even transcends the similarities of the bodies, cannot see the substance of God as the holy angels see it. This inferiority is due either to some mysterious cause or to the fact that there is a natural appetite in the soul to rule the body. This appetite somehow delays it and prevents it from reaching for that supreme heaven with all its might, as long as the body is not under its influence. »iii
The delighted soul, therefore, sees the substance of God, but in an incomplete way, in any case less than that which the angels enjoy. The body corrupts and burdens the soul, and binds it.
These limitations come from the special relationship (« the natural appetite ») that in men, is established between the soul and the body.
We can deduce that death brings deliverance and gives the soul a power of transformed vision.
But then, if this is the case, why desire the resurrection? Won’t finding one’s body bind the soul again?
Augustine answers that « mysterious » transformations of the glorious body will change its relationship with the soul after the resurrection. The soul will no longer be hindered, but on the contrary energized, and perhaps even capable of contemplating the divine substance in a more active or perfect way, surpassing then that of the angels. iv
In an epistle to the Corinthians, Paul gives his own explanation.
« Other the brightness of the sun, other the brightness of the moon, other the brightness of the stars. A star itself differs in brightness from another star. So it is with the resurrection of the dead: one is sown in corruption, one resurrects in incorruptibility; one is sown in ignominy, one resurrects in glory; one is sown in weakness, one resurrects in strength; one is sown in the psychic body, one resurrects the spiritual body.
If there is a psychic body, there is also a spiritual body. This is how it is written: The first man, Adam, was made a living soul; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that appears first; it is the psychic, then the spiritual. The first man, who came from the ground, is earthly; the second comes from heaven. Such was the earthly, such will also be the earthly; such will also be the celestial, such will also be the celestial. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly, so shall we also bear the image of the heavenly. »v
The first Adam is made a living soul. The last Adam is made a life-giving spirit, for Paul.
For Augustine, the vision of the « spirit » reaches the second heaven, and the vision of the « intellectual soul » reaches the third heaven.
Strangely enough, everything happens as if Paul and Augustine had switched their respective uses of the words « soul » and « spirit ».
Perhaps a return to Biblical Hebrew, which distinguishes neshma, ruah, and nephesh, (breath, spirit, soul), will be helpful?
In Gen. 2:7 we read precisely two different expressions:
The French Rabbinate offers a French translation, of which I propose this translation in English:
« The Eternal-God fashioned man from dust detached from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils a breath of life, and man became a living soul. »
The Jerusalem Bible gives :
« Then YHVH God molded man with the clay of the ground, breathed into his nostrils a breath of life and man became a living being. »
Rachi comments on this verse as follows:
« HE FASHIONED (the word is written וַיִּיצֶר with two יּ). Two formations, one for this world, one for the resurrection of the dead. But for the beasts that will not appear on Judgment Day, the same word has only one י (verse 19).
DUST FROM THE GROUND. God has gathered dust from all the earth at the four cardinal corners. In every place where man dies, the earth agrees to be his grave. Another explanation: it was dust taken from the place where it says, « You will make me an altar OF THE EARTH » (Ex. 20:24). God said, « May it be an atonement for him, and he will be able to remain ».
AND HE BREATHED INTO HIS NOSTRILS. He formed it from elements from below and elements from above. The body from below; the soul from above.
For on the first day the heavens and the earth were created. On the second day He said, « Let the earth appear beneath. On the fourth day He created the lights above. On the fifth day He said, « Let the waters swarm and so forth, below. On the sixth day, He had to finish with the world above and the world below. Otherwise there would have been jealousy in the work of creation.
A LIVING SOUL. Pets and field animals are also called living souls. But man’s soul is the most living soul, because it also has knowledge and speech. »
We can see that what matters for Rashi is not so much the distinction between nephesh and neshma, but the life of the soul, which is « more alive » in the case of man.
It is not enough to be alive. It is important that life be « as alive » as possible.
And there is a connection between this « more alive » life and God’s vision.
In a note by P. Agaësse and A. Solignac – « Third Heaven and Paradise » – added to their translation of Augustine’s Genesis in the literal sense, there is a more complete analysis which I summarize in the following paragraphs.
If the third heaven that St. Paul saw corresponds to the third kind of vision, it may have been given to Paul’s soul to see the glory of God, face to face, and to know His very essence. This is Augustine’s interpretation.
But if we make the third heaven one of the celestial spheresvi, among many others, we can in this hypothesis, admit a hierarchy of spiritual and intellectual visions with numerous degrees. Augustine, rather dubious, admits that he himself does not see how to arrive on this subject at a knowledge worthy of being taught.
If most modern exegetes adopt Augustine’s interpretation, the history of ideas is rich in other points of view.
Ambrose affirms that man « goes from the first heaven to the second, from the second to the third, and thus successively to the seventh, and those who deserve it to go to the top and to the vault of the heavens ». vii
He admits the existence of more than three heavens. And he criticizes the idea that Paul only ascended to the « third heaven », which would be only that of the « moon ».
Origen also evokes Paul’s vision to show that man can know heavenly things. But, he says, it is not man by himself who accesses this knowledge, it is the Spirit of God who illuminates man.viii
Origen also says that the friends of God « know him in His essence and not by riddles or by the naked wisdom of voices, speeches and symbols, rising to the nature of intelligible things and the beauty of truth. » ix
Origen also believes that it is reasonable to admit that the Prophets, through their hegemonikon (which is another Greek name for the noos, the spirit), were able to « see wonders, hear the words of the Lord, see the heavens opened »x, and he gives the rapture of Paul as an example of those who saw the heavens open.
From all this we can infer that there is some confusion about the nature of the « heavenly visions », their hierarchy, and their actual ability to « know » the divine essence.
This confusion is somehow symbolized by the fact that Augustine calls spiritual and intellectual what other authors call psychic and spiritual.
Paul himself distinguishes, as we have seen, the living soul of the « first Adam » and the life-giving spirit of the « last Adam » .
Are these only battles of words? No, they bear underlying witness to a fundamental question: what is the nature of the bond between soul and body?
This is a very old question, but also a hyper-modern one, as it highlights the powerlessness of neuroscience to deal with this kind of subject.
The three kinds of visions proposed by Augustine shed light on the nature of the « place » that the soul reaches after death. This place, in which the soul finds rewards, or punishments, is essentially spiritual. There is therefore a corporeal Paradise or Hell, such as the Jewish Gehenna, one of whose entrances is in Jerusalem, and Eden, whose entrance is in Damascus or Palestine, according to the Talmud?
The separated soul no longer has a body, but it keeps a mysterious link with the body in which it lived, as a « living soul », and retains a certain similarity with it.
The body is a cocoon, and the soul separates from it to continue its progression.
« It is a whole theory of knowledge that Augustine develops (with the three kinds of visions), in all its dimensions, sensitive, imaginative and intellectual, normal and pathological, profane and mystical, intramural and celestial.
The three kinds of visions mark the stages of the soul’s journey from the corporeal to the intelligible, reveal the structure of its essence in its triple relationship to the world, to itself, to God, and develop the dialectic of transcendence that fulfills its destiny. »xi
Let’s give Paul the benefit of the last word. The first Adam was made a « living soul ». His destiny, which sums up Man, is to metamorphose, through life, death, and resurrection, into the last Adam, who is « life-giving spirit ».
The destiny of the soul, therefore, is to metamorphose not into a merely « living » spirit, but into a spirit that « invigorates », a spirit that gives life and « makes live ».
iiS. Augustine. Genesis in the literal sense. Book XII, 36, 69. Desclée de Brouwer. 1972, p.455.Augustine concedes, however: « But this knowledge will no longer fail him when, once the bodies are recovered at the resurrection of the dead, this corruptible body will be clothed with incorruptibility and this mortal body clothed with immortality (1 Cor. 15:53). For all things will be evident and, without falsity or ignorance, will be distributed according to their order – both bodily and spiritual and intellectual – in a nature that will have recovered its integrity and will be in perfect bliss. »
iv« Afterwards, when this body is no longer an animal body, but when the coming transformation has made it a spiritual body, the soul, equal to the angels, will acquire the mode of perfection proper to its nature, obedient and commanding, invigorated and invigorating, with such ineffable ease that what was a burden to it will become for it an added glory. Even then, these three kinds of vision will subsist ; but no falsehood will make us take one thing for another, neither in bodily nor in spiritual visions, much less in intellectual visions. These will be so present and clear to us that in comparison the bodily forms which we reach today are much less obvious to us, they which we perceive with the help of our bodily senses and to which many men are so enslaved that they think that there are no others and figure that, all that is not such, does not exist at all. Quite different is the attitude of the sages in the face of these bodily visions: although these things appear more present, they are nevertheless more certain of what they grasp is worth to them by intelligence beyond the bodily forms and similarities of bodily things, although they cannot contemplate the intelligible with the intellectual soul as they see the sensible with the bodily sense. « » S. Augustine. Book XII, 35-36, 68-69. Desclée de Brouwer. 1972, p.451
One can consult the latest research in Neurosciences on consciousness: many interesting hypothesis are tested, but there is never a word about the soul. Total absence of the idea, even. Is soul a blind spot of techno-sciences? One may suppose that the soul, by her very nature, escapes all scientific investigation, she is out of reach, absolutely. She can’t be looked at, with a simply « objective », « materialistic » gaze.
By contrast, the Talmud is more prolific on the subject, and teaches several things about the human soul: she has been called « Light »; she « fills » and « nourishes » the whole body; she « sees » but cannot be seen; she is « pure »; she resides in a « very secret place »; she is « weak ».
It’s a good start. But let’s review these Talmudic determinations of the soul.
The soul is named « Light ».
« The Holy One, blessed be He, said, ‘The soul I have given you is called Light, and I have warned you concerning the lights. If you heed these warnings, so much the better; if not, beware! I will take your souls’. » i
Light is only the third of God’s « creations », right after heaven and earth. But there is an important nuance. Heaven and earth were definitely « created ». « In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. » ii
But « light » was not « created », literally speaking. Rather, it came right out of the word of God: « God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light. » iv
Moreover, it seems that from the start, light worked better, as a creation: « God saw that the light was good. » v God did not say that the heaven or the earth were « good ».
Light, therefore, was the first of the divine creations to be called « good ».
Hence, maybe, its extraordinary success as a metaphor. Light became the prototype of life (of men): « Life was the light of men »vi. And, by extension, it also became the prototype of their soul, as the Talmud indicates. If life is the light of men, the soul is the light of life.
This explains why, later on, we will see a deep connection between light and truth: « He who does the truth comes to the light »vii.
The Hebrew word for « light » is אור, « or ». The word אור means « light, radiance, sun, fire, flame », but also, by extension, « happiness ».
« Or », אור, is maybe the true name, the true nature of the soul.
The soul fills and nourishes the body, sees, is pure, and resides in a very secret place.
We learn all this in the Berakhot treaty:
« R. Chimi b. Okba asked: ‘How can I understand? Bless the LORD, my soul: let all my womb bless his name. (Ps 103:1)? (…) What was David thinking when he said five timesviii Bless the LORD, my soul?
– [He was thinking ] of the Holy One, blessed be He, and to the soul. Just as the Holy One, blessed be He, fills the whole world, so the soul fills the whole body; the Holy One, blessed be He, sees and is not visible, and likewise the soul sees but cannot be seen; the soul nourishes the whole body, just as the Holy One, blessed be He, nourishes the whole world; the Holy One, blessed be He, is pure, the soul also; like the Holy One, blessed be He, the soul resides in a very secret place. It is good that the one who possesses these five attributes should come to glorify the One who possesses these five attributes. » ix
This text teaches us that the soul has five attributes. These five attributes are based on the hypothesis of a « likeness » or « resemblance » between the soul and the « Holy One ».
The soul fills the whole body and nourishes it. But then what happens when a part of the body becomes detached from it? Does a piece of the soul leave as a result? No, the soul is indivisible. What is called « body » takes its name only from the presence of the soul that envelops and fills it. If the body dies and decomposes, it just means that the soul has gone. Not the other way around.
The soul sees. It is not, of course, through the eyes of the body. It is all about seeing what cannot be seen, which is beyond all vision. The soul sees but she does not see herself. This comes from the fact that she is of the same essence as the divine word that said « Let there be light ». One cannot see such a word, nor can one hear it, one can only read it.
The soul is pure. But then evil does not reach her? No. Evil does not attain her essence. It can only veil or darken her light. Evil can be compared to thick, uncomfortable clothes, heavy armor, or rubbish thrown on the skin, or a hard gangue hiding the brilliance of an even harder diamond.
The soul resides in a very secret place. This statement should be made known to the specialists of neurosciences. The first Russian cosmonauts famously reported, after their return to earth, that they had not found God in space. Nor is there much chance that the soul can be detected by positron emission tomography or other techniques of imagery. This makes it necessary to imagine a structure of the universe that is much more complex (by many orders of magnitude) than the one that « modern », positivist science is trying to defend.
The soul is weak.
The soul is « weak », as evidenced by the fact that she « falters » when she hears even a single word from her Creator. « R. Joshua b. Levi said: Every word spoken by the Holy One, blessed be he, made the souls of Israel faint, for it is said, My soul fainted when he spoke to me (Cant. 5:6). But when a first word had been spoken and the soul had gone out, how could she listen to a second word? He made the dew fall that was destined to raise the dead in the future, and it raised them up. » x
There are even more serious arguments. The soul is weak in its very essence, because she « floats ».
« [In Heaven] are also the breaths and souls of those who are to be created, for it is said before me the breaths float, and the souls which I have made (Is. 57:16); and the dew that will serve the Holy One, blessed be he, to raise the dead. » xi
The quotation from Isaiah in this excerpt from the Talmud, however, lends itself to other interpretations, and translations…
The word « float » here translates the Hebrew יַעֲטוֹף: « to cover oneself; to be weak ».
With this more faithful sense, one reads: « Thus says He who is high and exalted, whose dwelling is eternal and whose name is holy: ‘I am high and holy in my dwelling place, but I am with the contrite and humiliated man, to revive the humiliated spirits, to revive the contrite hearts. For I do not want to accuse constantly or always be angry, for before me would weaken the spirit and those souls I created. » (Is. 57:15-16)
Another translation (by the Jerusalem Bible) chooses to translate יַעֲטוֹף as « to die out »:
« Sublime and holy is my throne! But it is also in the contrite and humble hearts, to vivify the spirit of the humble, to revive the hearts of the afflicted. No; I don’t want to argue without respite, to be angry all the time, because the spirit would eventually die out in front of me, with these souls that I myself have created. »
So, is the soul « floating », « weak » or threatened to « die out »?
All this together, for sure. Fortunately, Isaiah brings us good news.
The souls of the humble and the afflicted will be enlivened, revived.
It is the souls of the proud who risk to die out.
I would like to conclude here, with yet another metaphor, due to the Psalmist:
« My soul is in me like a child, like a little child against its mother. » xii
iAggadoth of the Babylonian Talmud. Shabbat 31b. §51. Translated by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre. Ed. Verdier. 1982, p.168.
viiiIn Psalm 103, David says three times, Bless the LORD my soul (Ps 103:1, 2 and 22), once bless the LORD, you his angels (103:20), once bless the LORD, you his hosts (Ps 103:21), once bless the LORD, you all his creatures (Ps 103:22). However, David says twice more Bless the LORD, my soul in Psalm 104:1, « My soul, bless the LORD! O LORD my God, you are infinitely great! « and « Bless, my soul, YHVH, hallelujah! « Ps 104:35.
ixAggadoth of the Babylonian Talmud. Berakhot 10a. §85. Translated by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1982, p. 69-70.
xAggadoth of the Babylonian Talmud. Shabbat 88b. §136. Translated by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre. Ed. Verdier. 1982, p.207.
xiAggadoth of the Babylonian Talmud. Haguiga 12b, § 31. Translated by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre. Ed. Verdier. 1982, p.580.
Is a « beautiful girl », whose beauty is « without soul », really beautiful?
Kant thought about this interesting question.
« Even of a girl, it can be said that she is pretty, conversational and good-looking, but soulless. What is meant here by soul? The soul, in the aesthetic sense, refers to the principle that, in the mind, brings life.» i
For Kant, here, the soul is an aesthetic principle, a principle of life. Beauty is nothing if it does not live in some way, from the fire of an inner principle.
Beauty is really nothing without what makes it live, without what animates it, without the soul herself.
But if the soul brings life, how do we see the effect of her power? By the radiance alone of beauty? Or by some other signs?
Can the soul live, and even live to the highest possible degree, without astonishing or striking those who are close to her, who even brush past her, without seeing her? Or, even worse, by those who see her but then despise her?
« He had no beauty or glamour to attract attention, and his appearance had nothing to seduce us. » ii
These words of the prophet Isaiah describe the « Servant », a paradoxical figure, not of a triumphant Messiah, but of God’s chosen one, who is the « light of the nations »iii and who « will establish righteousness on earthiv.
A few centuries after Isaiah, Christians interpreted the « Servant » as a prefiguration of Christ.
The Servant is not beautiful, he has no radiance. In front of him, one even veils one’s face, because of the contempt he inspires.
But as Isaiah says, the Servant is in reality the king of Israel, the light of the nations, the man in whom God has put His spirit, and in whom the soul of God delightsv.
« Object of contempt, abandoned by men, man of pain, familiar with suffering, like someone before whom one hides one’s face, despised, we do not care. Yet it was our suffering that he bore and our pain that he was burdened with. And we considered him punished, struck by God and humiliated. » vi
The Servant, – the Messiah, has neither beauty nor radiance. He has nothing to seduce, but the soul of God delights in him.
A beautiful woman, without soul. And the Servant, without beauty, whose soul is loved by God.
Would soul and beauty have nothing to do with each other?
In the Talmud, several passages deal with beauty; others with the soul; rarely with both.
Some rabbis took pride in their own, personal beauty.
R. Johanan Bar Napheba boasted: « I am a remnant of the splendors of Jerusalem ». vii
His beauty was indeed famous. It must have been all the more striking because his face was « hairless ».viii
And, in fact, this beauty aroused love, to the point of triggering unexpected transports.
« One day, R. Johanan was bathing in the Jordan River. Rech Lakich saw him and jumped into the river to join him.
– You should devote your strength to the Torah, » said R. Johanan.
– Your beauty would suit a woman better, » replied Rech Lakich.
– If you change your life, I’ll give you my sister in marriage, who is much more beautiful than I am. » ix
At least this R. Johanan was looked at and admired ! The same cannot be said of Abraham’s wife. She was beautiful, as we know, because the Pharaoh had coveted her. But Abraham did not even bother to look at her…
« I had made a covenant with my eyes, and I would not have looked at a virgin (Job, 31:1): Job would not have looked at a woman who was not his, says Rabbah, but Abraham did not even look at his own wife, since it is written, « Behold, I know that you are a beautiful woman (Gen. 12:11): until then he did not know it. » x
From another point of view, if someone is really beautiful, it can be detrimental, even deadly.
The very handsome rabbi R. Johanan reported: « From the river Echel to Rabath stretches the valley of Dura, and among the Israelites whom Nebuchadnezzar exiled there were young men whose radiant beauty eclipsed the sun. Their very sight alone made the women of Chaldea sick with desire. They confessed it to their husbands. The husbands informed the king who had them executed. But the women continued to languish. So the king had the bodies of young men crushed.» xi
In those days, the rabbis themselves did not hide their appreciation of the beauty of women :
« Rabbi Simon b. Gamaliel was on the steps of the Temple Hill when he saw a pagan woman of great beauty. How great are your works, O LORD! (Ps. 104:24) he exclaimed. Likewise, when R. Akiba saw Turnus Rufus’ wifexii, he spat, laughed, and wept. He spat because she came from a stinking drop; he laughed because she was destined to convert and become his wife; and he wept [thinking] that such beauty would one day be under the earth. » xiii
That Rabbi Akiba dreamt of converting and seducing the wife of the Roman governor of Judea can be attributed to militant proselytizing.
Or was it just a parable?
Why did Rabbi Akiba mourn the beauty of this pagan?
Shouldn’t the beauty of her « converted » soul have obliterated forever the beauty of her body, destined moreover to be buried some day?
iEmmanuel Kant. Criticism of the faculty of judgment.
« All men are either Jews or Hellenes; either they are driven by ascetic impulses which lead them to reject all pictorial representation and to sacrifice to sublimation, or they are distinguished by their serenity, their expansive naturalness and their realistic spirit, » wrote Heinrich Heinei.
The over-schematic and somewhat outrageous nature of this statement may surprise in the mouth of the « last of the Romantic poets ».
But, according to Jan Assmann, Heine here would only symbolize the opposition between two human types, each of them holding on to two world visions, one valuing the spirit, without seeking a direct relationship with material reality, and the other valuing above all the senses and the concrete world.
In any case, when Heinrich Heine wrote these words at the beginning of the 19th century, this clear-cut opposition between « Hebraism » and « Hellenism » could be seen as a kind of commonplace “cliché” in the Weltanschauung then active in Germany.
Other considerations fueled this polarization. A kind of fresh wind seemed to be blowing on the European intellectual scene following the recent discovery of Sanskrit, followed by the realization of the historical depth of the Vedic heritage, and the exhumation of evidence of a linguistic filiation between the ‘Indo-European’ languages.
All this supported the thesis of the existence of multi-millennia migrations covering vast territories, notably from Northern Europe to Central Asia, India and Iran.
There was a passionate search for a common European origin, described in Germany as ‘Indo-Germanic’ and in France or Britain as ‘Indo-European’, taking advantage as much as possible of the lessons of comparative linguistics, the psychology of peoples and various mythical, religious and cultural sources.
Heine considered the opposition between « Semitic » and « Aryan » culture as essential. For him, it was a question not only of opposing « Aryans » and « Semites », but of perceiving « a more general opposition that concerned ‘all men’, the opposition between the mind, which is not directly related to the world or distant from it, and the senses, which are linked to the world. The first inclination, says Heine (rather simplistically, I must say), men get it from the Jews, the second, they inherited it from the Greeks, so that henceforth two souls live in the same bosom, a Jewish soul and a Greek soul, one taking precedence over the other depending on the case.» ii
A century later, Freud thought something comparable, according to Jan Assmann. « For him, too, the specifically Jewish contribution to human history lay in the drive toward what he called « progress in the life of the spirit. This progress is to the psychic history of humanity what Freud calls ‘sublimation’ in the individual psychic life.”iii
For Freud, the monotheistic invention consisted « in a refusal of magic and mysticism, in encouraging progress in the life of the spirit, and in encouraging sublimation ». It was a process by which « the people, animated by the possession of truth, penetrated by the consciousness of election, came to set great store by intellectual things and to emphasize ethics »iv.
This would be the great contribution of « Judaism » to the history of the world.
At the same time, however, Freud developed a particularly daring and provocative thesis about the « invention » of monotheism. According to him, Moses was not a Hebrew, he was Egyptian; moreover, and most importantly, he did not die in the land of Moab, as the Bible reports, but was in fact murdered by his own people.
Freud’s argument is based on the unmistakably Egyptian name ‘Moses’, the legend of his childhood, and Moses’ « difficult speech, » an indication that he was not proficient in Hebrew. Indeed, he could communicate only through Aaron. In addition, there are some revealing quotations, according to Freud: « What will I do for this people? A little more and they will stone me! « (Ex. 17:4) and : « The whole community was talking about [Moses and Aaron] stoning them. » (Numbers 14:10).
There is also that chapter of Isaiah in which Freud distinguishes the « repressed » trace of the fate actually reserved for Moses: « An object of contempt, abandoned by men, a man of sorrow, familiar with suffering, like one before whom one hides his face, despised, we took no notice of him. But it was our sufferings that he bore and our pains that he was burdened with. And we saw him as punished, struck by God and humiliated. But he was pierced because of our crimes, crushed because of our faults. « (Is. 53:3-5)
Freud infers from all these clues that Moses was in fact murdered by the Jews after they revolted against the unbearable demands of the Mosaic religion. He adds that the killing of Moses by the Jews marked the end of the system of the primitive horde and polytheism, and thus resulted in the effective and lasting foundation of monotheism.
The murder of the « father », which was – deeply – repressed in Jewish consciousness, became part of an « archaic heritage », which « encompasses not only provisions but also contents, mnemonic traces relating to the life of previous generations. (…) If we admit the preservation of such mnemonic traces in the archaic heritage, we have bridged the gap between individual psychology and the psychology of the masses, we can treat people as the neurotic individual.”v
The repression is not simply cultural or psychological, it affects the long memory of peoples, through « mnemonic traces » that are inscribed in the depths of souls, and perhaps even in the biology of bodies, in their DNA.
The important thing is that it is from this repression that a « decisive progress in the life of the spirit » has been able to emerge, according to Freud. This « decisive progress », triggered by the murder of Moses, was also encouraged by the ban on mosaic images.
« Among the prescriptions of the religion of Moses, there is one that is more meaningful than is at first thought. It is the prohibition to make an image of God, and therefore the obligation to worship a God who cannot be seen. We suppose that on this point Moses surpassed in rigor the religion of Aten; perhaps he only wanted to be consistent – his God had neither name nor face -; perhaps it was a new measure against the illicit practices of magic. But if one admitted this prohibition, it necessarily had to have an in-depth action. It meant, in fact, a withdrawal of the sensory perception in favor of a representation that should be called abstract, a triumph of the life of the mind over the sensory life, strictly speaking a renunciation of impulses with its necessary consequences on the psychological level.”vi
If Judaism represents a « decisive progress » in the life of the spirit, what can we think of the specific contribution of Christianity in this regard?
Further progress in the march of the spirit? Or, on the contrary, regression?
Freud’s judgment of the Christian religion is very negative.
« We have already said that the Christian ceremony of Holy Communion, in which the believer incorporates the Saviour’s flesh and blood, repeats in its content the ancient totemic meal, certainly only in its sense of tenderness, which expresses veneration, not in its aggressive sense ».vii
For him, « this religion constitutes a clear regression in the life of the spirit, since it is marked by a return to magical images and rites, and in particular to the sacrificial rite of the totemic meal during which God himself is consumed by the community of believers.”viii
Freud’s blunt condemnation of Christianity is accompanied by a kind of contempt for the « lower human masses » who have adopted this religion.
« In many respects, the new religion constituted a cultural regression in relation to the old, Jewish religion, as is regularly the case when new, lower-level human masses enter or are admitted somewhere. The Christian religion did not maintain the degree of spiritualization to which Judaism had risen. It was no longer strictly monotheistic, it adopted many of the symbolic rites of the surrounding peoples, it restored the great mother goddess and found room for a large number of polytheistic deities, recognizable under their veils, albeit reduced to a subordinate position. Above all it did not close itself, like the religion of Aten and the Mosaic religion which followed it, to the intrusion of superstitious magic and mystical elements, which were to represent a serious inhibition for the spiritual development of the next two millennia.”ix
If one adopts a viewpoint internal to Christianity, however hurtful Freud’s attacks may be, they do not stand up to analysis. In spite of all the folklore from which popular religiosity is not exempt, Christian theology is clear: there is only one God. The Trinity, difficult to understand, one can admit, for non-Christians as well as for Christians, does not imply « three Gods », but only one God, who gives Himself to be seen and understood in three « Persons ».
To take a cross-comparison, one could infer that Judaism is not « strictly monotheistic » either, if one recalls that the Scriptures attest that « three men » (who were YHVH) appeared to Abraham under the oak tree of Mamre (Gen 18:1-3), or that the Word of God was « incarnated » in the six hundred thousand signs of the Torah, or that God left in the world His own « Shekhinah » .
From the point of view of Christianity, everything happens as if Isaiah chapter 53, which Freud applied to Moses, could also be applied to the figure of Jesus.
It is the absolutely paradoxical and scandalous idea (from the point of view of Judaism) that the Messiah could appear not as a triumphant man, crushing the Romans, but as « an object of contempt, abandoned by men, a man of sorrow, familiar with suffering, like someone before whom one hides one’s face, despised. »
But what is, now, the most scandalous thing for the Jewish conscience?
Is it Freud’s hypothesis that Isaiah’s words about a « man of sorrow », « despised », indicate that the Jews murdered Moses?
Or is it that these same Isaiah’s words announce the Christian thesis that the Messiah had to die like a slave, under the lazzis and spittle?
If Freud is wrong and Moses was not murdered by the Jews, it cannot be denied that a certain Jesus was indeed put to death under Pontius Pilate. And then one may be struck by the resonance of these words uttered by Isaiah seven centuries before: « Now it is our sufferings that he bore and our sorrows that he was burdened with. And we considered him punished, struck by God and humiliated. But he was pierced because of our crimes, crushed because of our faults. « (Is. 53:4-5)
There is obviously no proof, from the Jewish point of view, that these words of Isaiah apply to Jesus, — or to Moses.
If Isaiah’s words do not apply to Moses (in retrospect) nor to Jesus (prophetically), who do they apply to? Are they only general, abstract formulas, without historical content? Or do they refer to some future Messiah? Then, how many more millennia must Isaiah’s voice wait before it reaches its truth?
History, we know, has only just begun.
Human phylum, if it does not throw itself unexpectedly into nothingness, taking with it its planet of origin, still has (roughly) a few tens of millions of years of phylogenetic « development » ahead of it.
To accomplish what?
One may answer: to rise ever more in consciousness.
Or to accomplish still unimaginable « decisive progress »…
With time, the millennia will pass.
Will Isaiah’s words pass?
What is mankind already capable of?
What will be the nature of the « decisive progress » of the human spirit, which has yet to be accomplished, and which still holds itself in the potency to become?
It is necessary to prepare for it. We must always set to work, in the dark, in what seems like a desert of stone, salt and sand.
For example, it would be, it seems to me, a kind of « decisive » progress to “see” in the figure of Moses « put to death » by his own people, and in that of Christ « put on the cross », the very figure of the Sacrifice.
The original Sacrifice, granted from before the creation of the world by the Creator God, the « Lord of Creatures » (that One and Supreme God whom the Veda already called « Prajāpati » six thousand years ago).
It would also, it seems to me, be another kind of « decisive » progress to begin to sense some of the anthropological consequences of the original « Sacrifice » of the supreme God, the « Lord of Creatures ».
Among them, the future of the « religions » on the surface of such a small, negligible planet (Earth): their necessary movement of convergence towards a religion of Humanity and of the World, a religion of the conscience of the Sacrifice of God, a religion of the conscience of Man, in the emptiness of the Cosmos.
iHeinrich Heine. Ludwig Börne. Le Cerf. Paris, 1993
iiJan Assmann. Le prix du monothéisme. Flammarion, Paris 2007, p. 142
They all claim to bring « revelation », but no religion has ever presented total transparency, assumed full disclosure. Much of their foundation is shrouded in secrecy, and « the further back we go in religious history, the greater the role of secrecy”i .
But this secrecy should not be confused with mystery.
The mystery is deep, immense, alive.
The secret is useful and human. It is maintained on purpose, by the pythies, the shamans, the magi, the priests, the haruspices. It is used for control, it facilitates the construction of dogma, reinforces rites and the rigor of laws.
The mystery belongs to no one. It is not given to everyone to sense it, and even less to grasp its essence and nature.
The secret is put forward, proclaimed publicly, not in its content, but as a principle. It is therefore imposed on all and benefits a few.
To a certain extent, the secret is based (a little bit) on the existence of the mystery. One is the appearance of the reality of the other.
This is why the secret, through its signs, can sometimes nourish the sense of mystery, give it a presence.
The secret can remain such for a long time, but one day it is discovered for what it is, and we see that it was not much, in view of the mystery. Or, quite simply, it is lost forever, in indifference, without much damage to anyone.
The mystery, on the other hand, always stands back, or very much in the front, really elsewhere, absolutely other. It’s never finished with it.
Of the mystery what can we know?
A divine truth comes to be « revealed », but it also comes « veiled ».
« Truth did not come naked into the world, but it came dressed in symbols and images. The world will not receive it in any other way.”ii
Truth never comes « naked » into the world.
At least, that is what sarcastic, wily common sense guarantees.
God cannot be « seen », and even less « naked »…
« How could I believe in a supreme god who would enter a woman’s womb through her sexual organs […] without necessity? How could I believe in a living God who was born of a woman, without knowledge or intelligence, without distinguishing His right from His left, who defecates and urinates, sucks His mother’s breasts with hunger and thirst, and who, if His mother did not feed Him, would die of hunger like the rest of men?”iii
Rigorous reasoning. Realism of the details.
Yehoshua, the Messiah? « It is impossible for me to believe in his being the Messiah, for the prophecy says of the Messiah, ‘He shall have dominion from sea to sea and from the river to the ends of the earth’ (Psalm 72:8). But Jesus had no reign at all; on the contrary, he was persecuted by his enemies and had to hide from them: in the end he fell into their hands and could not even preserve his own life. How could he have saved Israel? Even after his death he had no kingdom… At present, the servants of Muhammad, your enemies, have a power greater than yours. Moreover, prophecy foretells that in the time of the Messiah … ‘the knowledge of YHVH will fill the earth as the waters cover the sea’ (Isaiah 11:9). From the time of Jesus until today, there have been many wars and the world has been full of oppression and ruin. As for Christians, they have shed more blood than the rest of the nations.”iv
In this affair, it seems, common sense, reason, truth, are on the side of the doubters. Two millennia of Christianity have not changed their minds, quite the contrary…
What is striking in this whole affair is its paradoxical, incredible, implausible side.
Philosophically, one could tentatively argue that there are « naked » truths that are, by that very fact, even more veiled. They are hidden in the plain sight.
But history teaches us over and over again that there are no « naked » truths, in fact, but only veiled ones.
« The ancient theory of Egypt’s secret religion, as found in Plutarch and Diodorus, Philo, Origen, and Clement of Alexandria, and in Porphyry and Iamblichus, is based on the premise that truth is a secret in itself, and that it can only be grasped in this world through images, myths, allegories, and riddles.”v
This ancient conception probably dates back to the pre-dynastic period, and one can think that it goes back well before pre-history itself .
Since these immensely remote times, it has not ceased to influence the « first » religions, then the « historical » religions. Nor has it ceased to proliferate in Pythagorism, Platonism, Hermeticism or Gnosis.
The Nag Hammadi manuscripts still retain the memory of it. One of them, found in 1945, the Gospel of Philip, affirms that the world cannot receive truth otherwise than veiled by words, myths and images.
Words and images do not have the function of hiding the truth from the eyes of the unbelievers, the hardened, the blasphemers.
Words and images are themselves the very expression of the secret, the symbols of mystery.
Goethe summed up the ambivalence of the secret, both as concealment and as the manifestation of truth, in three words:
Secrets always end up being revealed, but then they only reveal the ’emptiness’ of their time, their era.
The mystery, for its part, never ceases to stay hidden.
Jan Assmann concluding his beautiful study on « Moses the Egyptian » with a provocative thought:
« At its apogee, the pagan religion did not hide a void in the mysteries, but the truth of the One God.”vii
A good example of that is Abraham himself coming all the way to pay tribute to Melchisedech, a non-Hebrew « priest of the Most High ».
Augustine connected all the ages of belief in one stroke:
« What today is called the Christian religion existed in antiquity, and from the origin of the human race until Christ became incarnate, and it was from him that the true religion that already existed began to be called Christian.”viii
Basically the idea is very simple. And very stimulating, in a way.
Truth always has been ‘true’, and always will be. Truth was ‘true’ from the beginning of the world, and even before the beginning of the world. Truth will still be »true in a hundred million or a hundred billion years, and even after the end of this (fleeting) universe.
The various words that tell the Truth, and the men who believe in it, such as Akhnaton, Melchisedech, Abraham, Moses, Zoroaster, Plato, Yehoshua, are only themselves quite fleeting, but they serve It, according to their rank, and wisdom.
Truth is as ancient as the Ancient of Days; Truth is also very young, and just beginning to live again, everyday, in hidden, mysterious cradles.
At the time of the introduction of Indian Buddhism in China, the scholars of the Chinese Empire, confronted with the arrival of new ‘barbaric words’ (i.e. the sacred names and religious terms inherited from Buddhism) considered it preferable not to translate them. They chose to only transliterate them.
A tentative translation into the Chinese language would have given these terms, it was thought, a down-to-earth, materialistic sound, hardly likely to inspire respect or evoke mystery.
Much later, in the 19th century, a sinologist from Collège de France, Stanislas Julien, developed a method to decipher Sanskrit names as they were (very approximately) transcribed into Chinese, and provided some examples.
« The word Pou-ti-sa-to (Bôdhisattva) translated literally as ‘Intelligent Being’ would have lost its nobility and emphasis; that is why it was left as veiled in its Indian form. The same was done for the sublime names of the Buddha, which, by passing in a vulgar language, could have been exposed to the mockery and sarcasm of the profane.”i
There are words and names that must definitely remain untranslated, not that they are strictly speaking untranslatable, but their eventual translation would go against the interest of their original meaning, threaten their substance, undermine their essence, and harm the extent of their resonance, by associating them – through the specific resources and means of the target language – with semantic and symbolic spaces more likely to deceive, mislead or mystify, than to enlighten, explain or reveal.
Many sacred names of Buddhism, originally conceived and expressed in the precise, subtle, unbound language that is Sanskrit, have thus not been translated into Chinese, but only transcribed, based on uncertain phonetic equivalences, as the sound universe of Chinese seems so far removed from the tones of the Sanskrit language.
The non-translation of these Sanskrit words into Chinese was even theorized in detail by Xuanzang (or Hiouen-Thsang), the Chinese Buddhist monk who was, in the 7th century AD, one of the four great translators of the Buddhist sutra.
« According to the testimony of Hiuen-Thsang (玄奘 ), the words that should not be translated were divided into five classes:
1°) Words that have a mystical meaning such as those of the Toloni (Dharanîs) and charms or magic formulas.
2°) Those that contain a large number of meanings such as Po-Kia-Fan (Bhagavan), « which has six meanings ».
3°) The names of things that do not exist in China, such as the trees Djambou, Bhôdhidrouma, Haritaki.
4°) Words that we keep out of respect for their ancient use, for example the expression Anouttara bôdhi, « superior intelligence ».
5°) Words considered to produce happiness, for example Pan-jo (Prodjna), « Intelligence ». »ii
Far from being seen as a lack of the Chinese language, or a lack of ideas on the part of Chinese translators, the voluntary renunciation to translate seems to me to be a sign of strength and openness. Greek once allowed the Romance languages to duplicate each other, so to speak, by adding to the concrete semantic roots of everyday life the vast resources of a language more apt for speculation; similarly, Chinese has been able to incorporate as it stands some of the highest, abstract concepts ever developed in Sanskrit.
There is a general lesson here.
There are compact, dense, unique words that appeared in a specific culture, generated by the genius of a people. Their translation would, despite efforts, be a radical betrayal.
For example, the Arabic word « Allah » literally means « the god » (al-lah). Note that there are no capital letters in Arabic. There can be no question of translating « Allah » into English by its literal equivalent (« the god »), as it would then lose the special meaning and aura that the sound of the Arabic language gives it. The liquid syllabes that follow one another, the alliterative repetition of the definite article, al, “the”, merging with the word lah, « god », create a block of meaning without equivalent, one might think.
Could, for instance, the famous Koranic formula « Lâ ilaha ilâ Allâh » proclaiming the oneness of God be translated literally in this way: « There is no god but the god »?
If this translation is considered too flat, should we try to translate it by using a capital letter: “There is no god but God” ?
Perhaps. But then what would be particularly original about this Islamic formula? Judaism and Christianity had already formulated the same idea, long before.
But the preservation of the proper name, Allah, may, on the other hand, give it a perfume of novelty.
The Hebrew word יהוה (YHVH) is a cryptic and untranslatable name of God. It offers an undeniable advantage: being literally untranslatable, the question of translation no longer arises. The mystery of the cryptogram is closed by construction, as soon as it appears in its original language. One can only transcribe it later in clumsy alphabets, giving it even more obscure equivalents, like “YHVH”, which is not even a faithful transcription of יהוה, or like “Yahweh”, an imaginary, faulty and somewhat blasphemous transcription (from the Jewish point of view).
But, paradoxically, we come closer, by this observation of impotence, to the original intention. The transcription of the sacred name יהוה in any other language of the world, a language of the goyim, gives it de facto one or more additional, potential layers of depth, yet to be deciphered.
This potential depth added (in spite of itself) by other languages is a universal incentive to navigate through the language archipelagos. It is an invitation to overcome the confusion of Babel, to open to the idiomatic lights of all the languages of the world. We may dream, one day, of being able to understand and speak them all, — through some future, powerful AI.
Some words, such as יהוה, would still be properly untranslatable. But, at least, with the help of AI, we would be able to observe the full spectrum of potential semantic or symbolic “equivalences”, in the context of several thousands of living or dead languages.
I bet that we will then discover some gold nuggets, waiting for us in the collective unconscious.
iMéthode pour déchiffrer et transcrire les noms sanscrits qui se rencontrent dans les livres chinois, à l’aide de règles, d’exercices et d’un répertoire de onze cents caractères chinois idéographiques employés alphabétiquement, inventée et démontrée par M. Stanislas Julien (1861)
iiHoeï-Li and Yen-Thsang. Histoire de la vie de Hiouen-Thsang et de ses voyages dans l’Inde : depuis l’an 629 jusqu’en 645, par, Paris, Benjamin Duprat, 1853 .
The « realist » philosophers analyze the world as it is, or at least how it looks, or what they believe it to be. But they have nothing to say about how being came to be, or about the genesis of reality. They are also very short about the ultimate ends, whether there are any or none.
They are in no way capable of conceptualizing the world in its full potency. They have no idea how the universe emerged from nothingness in indistinct times, when nothing and no one had yet attained being, when nothing was yet « in act ».
Nor do they have any representation of this world (the planet Earth) a few hundred million years from now, which is not a large space of time, from a cosmological point of view.
My point is: if one takes the full measure of the impotence and pusillanimity of the “realist” philosophy, then our mind is suddenly freed, – freed from all the past web of philosophical tatters studded with limited thoughts, turning short, local truths, fleeting views, closed syllogisms.
Our mind is freed from all inherited constraints. Everything is yet to be thought, and discovered.
We should then exercise the highest faculty, that of imagination, that of dreaming and vision.
It is an incentive to get out of reason itself, not to abandon it, but to observe it from an external, detached, non-rational point of view. “Pure reason” is ill-equipped to judge itself, no matter what Kant thinks.
What can we see, then?
Firstly, reason is truly unable to admit that it is closed on itself, let alone willing to admit that it necessarily has an outside, that there is something out there that is inconceivable to reason.
The purest, most penetrating reason is still quite blind to anything that is not reasonable.
Reason sees nothing of the oceanic immensity of non-reason which surrounds it, exceeds it infinitely, and in which however reason bathes, as an ignorant, fragile, ephemeral bubble.
Reason has always been in a strong relationship with language. But we know quite well that the language is a rudimentary tool, a kind of badly cut, flimsy flint, producing from time to time some rare sparks…
Let’s try to show this flimsiness with an example, based on a simple but foundational sentence, like « God is one ».
Grammatically, this sentence is a flimsy oxymoron. It oozes inconsistency. It links a subject (« God ») and a predicate (« one ») with the help of the copula (« is »). But in the same time it separates (grammatically) the subject and the predicate. In the same time, it separates them (semantically) and then reunites them (grammatically) by the sole virtue of a copulative verb (« is »), which, by the way, exists only in some human languages, but remains unknown to the majority of them…
If truly, I mean grammatically, ‘God is one’, then it should be impossible to really separate the words ‘God’, ‘is’, or ‘one’. They would be just the same reality.
If grammatically ‘God is one’, there would only be a need for the word ‘God’, or if one prefers only for the word ‘one’, or only for the word ‘is’. Those words or ‘names’ imply just the same, unique reality. Moreover, after having stated this ‘unique reality’, one would remain (logically) short. What else could be added, without immediately contravening the ‘unitary’ dogma? If anything else could be added, it should be immediately engulfed into the “oneness” of the “being”. Or, if not, that would imply that something could “be” outside the “One and Unique Being”. Which is (grammatically) illogical.
If grammatically ‘God is one’, then one must already count three verbal instances of His nature: the ‘name’ (God), the ‘essence’ (Being), the ‘nature’ (Oneness).
Three instances are already a crowd, in the context of the Unique One…
And no reason to stop there. This is why there are at least ten names of God in the Torah, and 99 names of Allah in Islam….
If grammatically ‘God is one’, then how can language itself could dare to stand as overhanging, outside of the ‘oneness’ of God, outside of His essential ‘unity’?
If grammatically ‘God is one’, then shouldn’t the language itself necessarily be one with Him, and made of His pure substance?
Some theologians have seen this difficulty perfectly well. So they have proposed a slightly modified formula: « God is one, but not according to unity.”
This clever attempt doesn’t actually solve anything.
They are just words added to words. This proliferation, this multiplicity (of words) is not really a good omen of their supposed ability to capture the essence of the One… Language, definitely, has untimely bursts, uncontrolled (but revealing) inner contradictions… Language is a mystery that only really take flight, like the bird of Minerva (the Hegelian owl), at dusk, when all the weak, flashy and illusory lights of reason are put under the bushel.
Here is another example of reason overcome by the proper power of language.
The great and famous Maimonides, a specialist in halakha, and very little suspect of effrontery in regard to the Law, surprised more than one commentator by admitting that the reason for the use of wine in the liturgy, or the function of the breads on display in the Temple, were completely beyond his comprehension.
He underlined that he had tried for a long time to search for some « virtual reasons »i to use wine and bread for religious purpose, to no avail. This strange expression (« virtual reasons ») seems to vindicate that, for Maimonides, there are in the commandments of the Law « provisions of detail whose reason cannot be indicated », and « that he who thinks that these details can be motivated is as far from the truth as he who believes that the general precept is of no real use »ii.
Which leaves us with yet another bunch of mysteries to tackle with.
Maimonides, a renowned expert of halakha in the 11th century A.D., candidly admitted that he did not understand the reason for the presence of bread and wine in Jewish liturgy, and particularly their presence in the premises of the Temple of Jerusalem.
It is then perhaps up to the poet, or the dreamer, or the anthropologist, to try to guess by analogy, or by anagogy, some possible « virtual reasons » for this religious use of bread and wine?
Maybe the bread and wine do belong to the depths of the collective inconscious, and for that reason are loaded with numinous potency?
Or, maybe Maimonides just would not want to see the obvious link with what had happened, more that a millennium before his time, in Jerusalem, during the Last Supper?
Whatever the answer, the question remains: why bread and wine, if “God is One”?
iMaimonides. Le Guide des égarés. Ed. Verdier. 1979. The translation from Arabic into French by Salomon Munk, p.609, gives here : « raisons virtuelles ».
iiMaimonides. Le Guide des égarés. Ed. Verdier. 1979. Translation from Arabic into French by Salomon Munk, p.609 sq.
« There are not many Jewish philosophers, » says Leo Straussi.
This statement, however provocative, should be put into perspective.
The first Jewish philosopher, historically speaking, Philo of Alexandria, attempted a synthesis between his Jewish faith and Greek philosophy. He had little influence on the Judaism of his time, but much more on the Fathers of the Church, who were inspired by him, and instrumental in conserving his works.
A millennium later, Moses Maimonides drew inspiration from Aristotelian philosophy in an attempt to reconcile faith and reason. He was the famous author of the Guide of the Perplexed, and of the Mishne Torah, a code of Jewish law, which caused long controversies among Jews in the 12th and 13th centuries.
Another celebrity, Baruch Spinoza was « excommunicated » (the Hebrew term is חרם herem) and definitively « banished » from the Jewish community in 1656, but he was admired by Hegel, Nietzsche, and many Moderns…
In the 18th century, Moses Mendelssohn tried to apply the spirit of the Aufklärung to Judaism and became one of the main instigators of the « Jewish Enlightenment », the Haskalah (from the word השכלה , « wisdom », « erudition »).
We can also mention Hermann Cohen, a neo-Kantian of the 19th century, and « a very great German philosopher », in the words of Gérard Bensussanii.
Closer in time, Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig and Emmanuel Lévinas .
That’s about it. These names don’t make a crowd, but we are far from the shortage that Leo Strauss wanted to point out. It seems that Leo Strauss really wished to emphasize, for reasons of his own, « the old Jewish premise that being a Jew and being a philosopher are two incompatible things, » as he himself explicitly put it.iii
It is interesting to recall that Leo Strauss also clarified his point of view by analyzing the emblematic case of Maimonides: « Philosophers are men who try to account for the Whole on the basis of what is always accessible to man as man; Maimonides starts from the acceptance of the Torah. A Jew may use philosophy and Maimonides uses it in the widest possible way; but, as a Jew, he gives his assent where, as a philosopher, he would suspend his assent.”iv
Leo Strauss added, rather categorically, that Maimonides’ book, The Guide of the Perplexed, « is not a philosophical book – a book written by a philosopher for philosophers – but a Jewish book: a book written by a Jew for Jews.”v
The Guide of the Perplexed is in fact entirely devoted to the Torah and to the explanation of the « hidden meaning » of several passages. The most important of the « hidden secrets » that it tries to elucidate are the ‘Narrative of the Beginning’ (the Genesis) and the ‘Narrative of the Chariot’ (Ezekiel ch. 1 to 10). Of these « secrets », Maimonides says that « the Narrative of the Beginning” is the same as the science of nature and the “Narrative of the Chariot” is the same as the divine science (i.e. the science of incorporeal beings, or of God and angels).vi
The chapters of Ezekiel mentioned by Maimonides undoubtedly deserve the attention and study of the most subtle minds, the finest souls. But they are not to be put into all hands. Ezekiel recounts his « divine visions » in great detail. It is easy to imagine that skeptics, materialists, rationalists or sneers (whether Jewish or not) are not part of the intended readership.
Let us take a closer look at a revealing excerpt of Ezekiel’ vision.
« I looked, and behold, there came from the north a rushing wind, a great cloud, and a sheaf of fire, which spread a bright light on all sides, in the center of which shone like polished brass from the midst of the fire. Also in the center were four animals that looked like humans. Each of them had four faces, and each had four wings. Their feet were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the soles of calves’ feet. They sparkled like polished bronze. They had human hands under the wings on their four sides; and all four of them had their faces and wings. Their wings were joined together; they did not turn as they walked, but each walked straight ahead. As for the figures of their faces, all four had the face of a man, all four had the face of a lion on the right, all four had the face of an ox on the left, and all four had the face of an eagle.”vii
The vision of Ezekiel then takes a stunning turn, with a description of an appearance of the « glory of the Lord ».
« I saw again as it were polished brass, fire, within which was this man, and which shone round about, from the form of his loins upward, and from the form of his loins downward, I saw as fire, and as bright light, about which he was surrounded. As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on a rainy day, so was the appearance of that bright light: it was an image of the glory of the Lord. When I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking.”viii
The « man » in the midst of the fire speaks to Ezekiel as if he were an « image » of God.
But was this « man » really an « image » of God? What « philosopher » would dare to judge this statement ?
Perhaps this « man » surrounded by fire was some sort of « reality »? Or was he just an illusion?
Either way, it is clear that this text and its possible interpretations do not fit into the usual philosophical canons.
Should we therefore follow Leo Strauss, and consequently admit that Maimonides himself is not a « philosopher », but that he really wrote a « Jewish book » for the Jews, in order to respond to the need for clarification of the mysteries contained in the Texts?
Perhaps… But the modern reader of Ezekiel, whether Jewish or not, whether a philosopher or not, cannot fail to be interested in the parables one finds there, and in their symbolic implications.
The « man » in the midst of the fire asks Ezekiel to « swallow » a book, then to go « to the house of Israel », to this people which is not for him « a people with an obscure language, an unintelligible language », to bring back the words he is going to say to them.
The usual resources of philosophy seem little adapted to deal with this kind of request.
But the Guide for the Perplexed tackles it head on, in a both refined and robust style, mobilizing all the resources of reason and criticism, in order to shed some light on people of faith, who are already advanced in reflection, but who are seized with « perplexity » in the face of the mysteries of such « prophetic visions ».
The Guide for the Perplexed implies a great trust in the capacities of human reason.
It suggests that these human capacities are far greater, far more unbounded than anything that the most eminent philosophers or the most enlightened poets have glimpsed through the centuries.
And it is not all. Ages will come, no doubt, when the power of human penetration into divine secrets will be, dare we say it, without comparison with what Moses or Ezekiel themselves were able to bequeath to posterity.
In other words, and contrary to usual wisdom, I am saying that the age of the prophets, far from being over, has only just begun; and as well, the age of philosophers is barely emerging, considering the vast scale of the times yet to come.
Human history still is in its infancy, really.
Our entire epoch is still part of the dawn, and the great suns of the Spirit have not revealed anything but a tiny flash of their potential illuminating power.
From an anatomical and functional point of view, the human brain conceals much deeper mysteries, much more obscure, and powerful, than the rich and colorful metaphors of Ezekiel.
Ezekiel’s own brain was once, a few centuries ago, prey to a « vision ». So there was at that time a form of compatibility, of correspondence between the inherent structure of Ezekiel’s brain and the vision which he was able to give an account of.
The implication is that one day in the future, presumably, other brains of new prophets or visionaries may be able to transport themselves even further than Ezekiel.
It all winds down to this: either the prophetic « vision » is an illusion, or it has a reality of its own.
In the first case, Moses, Ezekiel and the long list of the « visionaries » of mankind are just misguided people who have led their followers down paths of error, with no return.
In the second case, one must admit that a “prophetic vision” implies the existence of another “world” subliminally enveloping the « seer ».
To every « seer » it is given to perceive to a certain extent the presence of the mystery, which surrounds the whole of humanity on all sides.
To take up William James’ intuition, human brains are analogous to « antennae », permanently connected to an immense, invisible worldix.
From age to age, many shamans, a few prophets and some poets have perceived the emanations, the pulsations of this other world.
We have to build the neuroscience and the metaphysics of otherworldly emanations.
All human languages are animated by a secret spirit, an immanent soul. Over the millennia, they have developed within them their own potency, even without the participating knowledge of the fleeting peoples who speak them. In the case of ancient languages, such as Sanskrit, Egyptian, Avestic, Hebrew (biblical), Greek (Homeric), Latin, or Arabic, this spirit, soul, and other powers are still at work, many centuries after their apogee, albeit often in a hidden form. The keen, patient observer can still try to find the breath, the strength, the fire, well in evidence in ancient, famous pages or left buried in neglected works. One may sometimes succeed, unexpectedly, to find pearls, and then contemplate their special aura, their glowing, sui generis energy.
The innumerable speakers of these languages, all of them appearing late and disappearing early in their long history, could be compared to ephemeral insects, foraging briefly in the forest of fragrant, independent and fertile language flowers, before disappearing, some without having produced the slightest verbal honey, others having been able by chance to distill some rare juice, some suave sense, from time to time.
From this follows, quite logically, what must be called the phenomenal independence of languages in relation to the men who speak and think them.
Men often seem to be only parasites of their language. It is the languages that « speak » the people, more than the people speak them. Turgot said: « Languages are not the work of a reason present to itself.”
The uncertain origin and the intrinsic ‘mystery’ of languages go back to the most ancient ages, far beyond the limited horizon that history, anthropology and even linguistics are generally content with.
Languages are some kind of angels of history. They haunt the unconscious of men, and like zealous messengers, they help them to become aware of a profound mystery, that of the manifestation of the spirit in the world and in man.
The essence of a language, its DNA, is its grammar. Grammar incorporates the soul of the language, and it structures its spirit, without being able to understand its own genius. Grammatical DNA is not enough to explain the origin of the genius of language. It is also necessary to take the full measure of the slow work of epigenesis, and the sculpture of time.
Semitic languages, to take one example, are organized around verbal roots, which are called « triliters » because they are composed of three radical letters. But in fact, these verbs (concave, geminated, weak, imperfect,…) are not really « triliters ». To call them so is only « grammatical fiction », Renan saidi. In reality, triliteral roots can be etymologically reduced to two radical letters, with the third radical letter only adding a marginal nuance.
In Hebrew, the biliteral root פר (PR) carries the idea of separation, cut, break. The addition of a third radical letter following פר modifies this primary meaning, and brings like a bouquet of nuances.
Thus, the verbs : פּרד (parada, to divide), פּרה (paraa, to bear fruit), פּרח (paraha, to bloom, to bud, to burst),ּ פּרט (paratha, to break, to divide), פּרך (parakha, to crumble, to pulverize), פּרם (parama, to tear, to unravel), פּרס (paraça, to break, to divide), פּרע (para’a, to detach from, to excel), פּרץ (paratsa, to break, to shatter), פּרק (paraqa, to tear, to fragment), פּרר (parara, to break, to rape, to tear, to divide), פּרשׂ (parassa, to spread, to unfold), פּרשׁ (parasha, to distinguish, to declare).
The two letters פּ et ר also form a word, פּר, par, a substantive meaning: « young bull, sacrificial victim ». There is here, in my view, an unconscious meaning associated with the idea of separation. A very ancient, original, symbolic meaning, is still remembered in the language: the sacrificial victim is the one which is ‘separated’ from the herd, who is ‘set apart’.
There is more…
Hebrew willingly agrees to swap certain letters that are phonetically close. Thus, פּ (P) may be transmuted with other labials, such as בּ (B) or מ (M). After transmutation, the word פּר, ‘par’, is then transformed into בּר, ‘bar’, by substituting בּ for פּ. Now בּר, ‘bar‘, means ‘son’. The Hebrew thus makes it possible to associate with the idea of ‘son’ another idea, phonetically close, that of ‘sacrificial victim’. This may seem counter-intuitive, or, on the contrary, well correlated with certain very ancient customs (the ‘first born son sacrifice’). This adds another level of understanding to what was almost the fate of Isaac, the son of Abraham, whom the God YHVH asked to be sacrificed.
Just as פּ (P) permuted with בּ (B), so the first sacrificial victim (the son, ‘bar‘) permuted with another sacrificial victim (‘par‘), in this case a ram.
The biliteral root בּר, BR, ‘bar‘, gave several verbs. They are: בּרא (bara‘, ‘to create, to form’; ‘to be fat’), בּרה (baraa, ‘to eat’), בּרח (baraha, ‘to pass through, to flee’), בּרך (barakha, ‘to kneel, to bless’), בּרק (baraq, ‘lightning’), בּרר (barara, ‘to purify, to choose’).
The spectrum of these meanings, while opening the mind to other dimensions, broadens the symbolic understanding of the sacrificial context. Thus the verb bara‘, ‘he created’, is used at the beginning of Genesis, Berechit bara’ Elohim, « In the beginning created God…. ». The act of ‘creating’ (bara‘) the Earth is assimilated to the begetting of a ‘son’ (bar), but also, in a derivative sense, to the act of fattening an animal (‘the fatted calf’) for its future sacrifice. After repetition of the final R, we have the verb barara, which connotes the ideas of election and purification, which correspond to the initial justification of the sacrifice (election) and its final aim (purification). The same root, slightly modified, barakha, denotes the fact of bringing the animal to its knees before slaughtering it, a more practical position for the butcher. Hence, no doubt, the unconscious reason for the late, metonymic shift to the word ‘bless’. Kneeling, a position of humility, awaiting the blessing, evokes the position taken by the animal on the altar of sacrifice.
Hebrew allows yet other permutations with the second radical letter of the word, for example in the case cited, by substituting ר with צ. This gives: פּצה (patsaa, ‘to split, to open wide’), פּצח (patsaha, ‘to burst, to make heard’), פּצל (patsala, ‘to remove the bark, to peel’), פּצם (patsama, ‘to split’), פצע (patsa’a, ‘to wound, to bruise’). All these meanings have some connotation with the slaughter that the sacrifice of the ancient Hebrew religion requires, in marked contrast to the sacrifice of the Vedic religion, which is initiated by the grinding of plants and their mixing with clarified butter.
Lovers of Hebrew, Sanskrit, Greek, or Arabic dictionaries can easily make a thousand discoveries of this nature. They contemplate curiously, then stunned, the shimmering of these ancient languages, sedimenting old meanings by subtle shifts, and feeding on multiple metaphors, for thousands of years.
Unlike Semitic languages, the semantic roots of Chinese or the ancient language of Egypt are monosyllabic, but the rules of agglutination and coagulation of these roots also produce, though in another way, myriads of variations. Other subtleties, other nuances are discovered and unfold in an entirely different grammatical context.
These questions of grammar, roots and settled variations are fascinating, but it must be said that by confining ourselves to them, we never remain but on the surface of things.
We need to go deeper, to understand the very texture of words, their fundamental origin, whose etymology can never be enough. The time travel that etymology allows, always stops too early, in some ‘original’ sense, but that does not exhaust curiosity. Beyond that, only dense mists reign.
It has been rightly pointed out that Arabic is, in essence, a desert language, a language of nomads. All the roots bear witness to this in a lively, raw, poetic way.
In the same way, one should be able to understand why and how the Vedic language, Sanskrit, which is perhaps the richest, most elaborate language that man has ever conceived, is a language that has been almost entirely constructed from roots and philosophical and religious (Vedic) concepts. One only has to consult a dictionary such as Monier-Williams’ to see that the vast majority of Sanskrit words are metaphorically or metonymically linked to what was once a religious, Vedic image, symbol or intuition.
It is necessary to imagine these people, living six, twelve, twenty or forty thousand years ago, some of them possessing an intelligence and a wisdom as penetrating and powerful as those of Homer, Plato, Dante or Kant, but confronted to a very different ‘cultural’ environment.
These enlightened men of Prehistory were the first dreamers, the first thinkers of language. Their brains, avid, deep and slow, wove dense cocoons, from which were born eternal and brief butterflies, still flying in the light of origin, carefree, drawing arabesques, above the abyss, where the unconscious of the world never ceases to move.
The Hebrew word temounah has three meanings, says Maimonides.
Firstly, it refers to the shape or figure of an object perceived by the senses. For example: « If you make a carved image of the figure (temounah) of anything, etc., you are making an image of the shape or figure of an object perceived by the senses. « (Deut. 4:25)
Secondly, this word may be used to refer to figures, thoughts or visions that may occur in the imagination: « In thoughts born of nocturnal visions (temounah), etc.”, (Jb. 4:13). This passage from Job ends by using a second time this word: « A figure (temounah), whose features were unknown to me, stood there before my eyes. « (Jb. 4:16). This means, according to Maimonides, that there was a ghost before Job’s eyes while he was sleeping.
Finally, this word may mean the idea perceived by the intelligence. It is in this sense that one can use temounah when speaking of God: « And he beholds the figure (temounah) of the Lord. « (Num. 12:8). Maimonides comments: « That is to say, he contemplates God in his reality.” It is Moses, here, who ‘contemplates’ the reality of God. In another passage, again about Moses, God Himself says: « I speak to him face to face, in a clear appearance and without riddles. It is the image (temounah) of God himself that he contemplates. » (Numbers 12:8).
Maimonides explains: « The doctors say that this was a reward for having first ‘hidden his face so as not to look at God’ (Berakhot 7a) ». Indeed, one text says: « Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look towards God.” (Ex. 3:6)
It is difficult to bring anything new after Maimonides and the doctors. But this word, whose image, vision and idea can be understood through its very amphibology, deserves a special effort.
The word temounah is written תְּמוּנָה (root מוּן ).
The letter taw, the initial of temounah, can be swapped with the other ‘t’ in the Hebrew alphabet, the teth ט, as is allowed in the Hebrew language, which is very lax in this respect. This gives a new word, which can be transcribed as follows: themounah. Curiously enough, the word thamana טָמַן, which is very close to it, means « to hide, to bury ».
One may argue that it’s just a play on words. But the salt of the matter, if one lends any virtue to the implicit evocations of the meaning of the words, is that Moses « hides » (thamana) his face so as not to see the temounah of God.
By hiding (thamana) his own face (temounah), Moses contemplates the figure (temounah) of God, which remains hidden from him (thamana).
What does this teach us?
It teaches us that the divine figure does not show itself, even to a prophet of the calibre of Moses. Rather, it shows that the divine figure stays hidden. But by hiding, it also shows that one can contemplate its absence, which is in fact the beginning of the vision (temounah) of its very essence (temounah).
By renouncing to see a temounah (an image), one gains access to the temounah of the temounah (the understanding of the essence).
Through this riddle, hopefully, one may start to get access to God’s temounah.
It is also a further indication that God is indeed a hidden God. No wonder it is difficult to talk about His existence (and even more so about His essence) to ‘modern’ people who only want to « see » what is visible.
Can God have an ‘image’ or a ‘shadow’? According to the Torah, the answer to this question is doubly positive. The idea that God can have an ‘image’ is recorded in Genesis. The text associates ‘image’ (‘tselem‘) and ‘likeness’ (‘demut‘) with Genesis 1:26: בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ , b-tsalmenou ki-demutenou (‘in our image and likeness’), and repeats the word ‘image’ in Genesis 1:27 in two other ways: בְּצַלְמוֹ b-tsalmou (‘in his image’) and בְּצֶם אֱלֹהִים b-tselem elohim (‘in the image of Elohim’).
As for the fact that God may also have a ‘shadow’, this is alluded to in a verse from Exodusi, which quotes the name Betsalel, which literally means ‘in the shadow of God’1. The word צֵל tsel means ‘shadow’. This word has the same root as the word צֶלֶם tselem, which we have just seen means ‘image’. Moreover, tselem also has as its primary meaning: ‘shadow, darkness’, as in this verse: ‘Yes, man walks in darkness’, or ‘he passes like a shadow’ii.
One could therefore, theoretically, question the usual translation of Gen 1:26, and translate it as follows: « Let us make man in our shadow », or « in our darkness ». What is important here is, above all, to see that in Hebrew ‘image’, ‘shadow’ and ‘darkness’ have the same root (צֵל ).
This lexical fact seems highly significant, and when these words are used in relation to God, it is obvious that they cry out: « Interpret us! ».
Philo, the Jewish and Hellenophone philosopher from Alexandria, proposes this interpretation: « The shadow of God is the Logos. Just as God is the model of His image, which is here called shadow, so the image becomes the model of other things, as is showed at the beginning of the Law (Gen. 1:27) (…) The image was reproduced after God and man after the image, who thus took the role of model.”iii
Philo, through the use of the Greek word logos, through the role of mediator and model that the Logos plays between God and man, seems to prefigure in some way the Christian thesis of the existence of the divine Logos, as introduced by John: « In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God.”iv
Man is therefore only the shadow of a shadow, the image of an image, or the dream of a dream. For the word shadow can evoke a dream, according to Philo. He quotes the verse: « God will make himself known to him in a vision, that is, in a shadow, and not in all light » (Num. 12:6).
In the original Hebrew of this verse, we read not ‘shadow’ (tsal), but ‘dream’ (halom). Philo, in his commentary, therefore changed the word ‘dream’ for ‘shadow’. But what is important for us is that Philo establishes that the words ‘vision’, ‘dream’ and ‘shadow’ have similar connotations.
The text, a little further on, reveals a clear opposition between these words (‘vision’, ‘dream’) and the words ‘face-to-face’, ‘appearance’, ‘without riddles’, and ‘image’.
« Listen carefully to my words. If he were only your prophet, I, the Lord, would manifest myself to him in a vision, I would speak with him in a dream. But no: Moses is my servant; he is the most devoted of all my household. I speak to him face to face, in a clear apparition and without riddles; it is the very image of God that he contemplates. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant, against Moses? » v
God manifests Himself to a simple prophet in ambiguous and fragile ways, through a vision (ba-mar’ah בַבַּמַּרְאָה ) or a dream (ba–halom בַּחֲלוֹם ).
But to Moses, God appears ‘face to face’ (pêh el-pêh), ‘in a clear appearance and without riddles’ (v-mar’êh v-lo b-hidot וּמַרְאֶה וְלֹא בְחִידֹת ). In short, Moses contemplates ‘the image of God himself’ (temounah תְּמוּנָה).
Note here the curious repetition of the word mar’ah מַּרְאָה, ‘vision’, with a complete change in its meaning from negative to positive… God says in verse 6: « If he were only your prophet, I, the Lord, would manifest Myself to him in a vision (ba-mar’ah בַּמַּרְאָה ) ». And it is the same word (מַרְאֶה), with another vocalization, which he uses in verse 8: « I speak to him face to face, in a clear apparition (ou-mar’êh וּמַרְאֶה ) ». The online version of Sefarim translates the same word as ‘vision’ in verse 6 and ‘clear appearance’ in verse 8. The ‘vision’ is reserved for the simple prophets, and the ‘clear appearance’ for Moses.
How can this be explained?
Verse 6 says: ba-mar’ah, ‘in a vision’. Verse 8 says: ou-mar’eh, ‘and a vision’. In the first case God manifests himself ‘in‘ a vision. In the second case, God speaks with Moses, not ‘through’ a vision, but making Himself as « a vision ».
Moses has the great privilege of seeing God face to face, he sees the image of God. This image is not simply an image, or a ‘shadow’, because it ‘speaks’, and it is the very Logos of God, according to Philo.
Rashi is somewhat consistent with Philo’s point of view, it seems to me. He comments on this delicate passage as follows: « A vision and not in riddles. ‘Vision’ here means ‘clarity of speech’. I explain my words clearly to him and I don’t hide them in riddles like the ones Ye’hezqèl talks about: ‘Propose a riddle…’. (Ye’hezqèl 17, 2). I might have thought that the ‘vision’ is that of the shekhina. So it is written: ‘You cannot see my face’ (Shemoth 33:20) (Sifri). And he will contemplate the image of Hashem. It is the vision from behind, as it is written: ‘You will see me from behind’ (Shimot 33:23) (Sifri). »
If God only manifests Himself ‘in a vision’, it is because He does not ‘speak’. The important thing is not the vision, the image or the shadow of God, but His word, His Logos, the fact that God « speaks ». Read: פֶּה אֶל-פֶּה אֲדַבֶ-בּוֹ, וּמַרְאֶה pêh al-pêh adaber bo, ou-mar’êh: ‘I speak to him face to face, – a vision’.
It is necessary to understand: ‘I speak to him and I make him see clearly my word (my Logos, my Dabar)’…
Philo, a Hellenophone, probably gives the word Logos some Platonic connotations, which are not a priori present in the Hebrew word Dabar (דָּבָר). But Philo makes the strong gesture of identifying the Logos, the Image (of God) and Dabar.
Philo is also a contemporary of Jesus, whom his disciple John will call a few years later Logos and « Image » of God.
Between the Dabar of Moses and the Logos as Philo, John and Rashi understand it, how can we not see continuities and differences?
The Spirit (or the Word) is more or less incarnated. As in the ‘image’ and the ‘clear appearance’ of the Logos. Or as in being the Logos itself.
1In Hebrew, tsal means « shadow » and Tsalel : « shadow of God »
Under Tiberius, in the year 16, soothsayers, astrologers and magi were expelled from Italy. Divination had become a capital crime that one would pay with one’s life. A new millennium had begun, but no one suspected it. Times were changing faster than people’s minds. And the Roman religion had to defend itself foot to foot against barbaric ideas from elsewhere.
Long gone was then the time of Moses, who saw in the light what thought could not embrace. Long gone, the time of the prophets, who received dreams and visions, images and words.
Long gone also, was the time of the Chaldean magi and the Avestic and Vedic priests. Possessed of a divine madness, they could, it is said, predict the future by their power of enthusiasm, their capacity for ecstasy.
The words ‘enthusiasm’ and ‘ecstasy’ translate by means of Greek words and roots experiences of a probably universal nature. But do these words adequately reflect the variety of ‘visions’ and the diversity of ‘seers’ throughout the world and throughout history? How can this be ascertained? How can we organize the timeless archaeology of enthusiasm, launch the worldwide excavations of the ecstatic states?
When the divine penetrates the human, it overturns all that is known, all that is acquired, all that can be expressed, all that can be dictated. Everything is overturned, but it also seems that the mind receives, if we believe the testimonies, a capacity for understanding, comprehension and conviction, without any possible comparison. The prophet ‘hears’ or ‘sees’ in an instant thoughts which he considers ‘divine’ but which he makes his own, and to a certain extent he can communicate them to others and find attentive ears. This is where the true prophet is revealed.
After God breathed thoughts and laws into Moses’ mind, Moses in turn repeated them to Aaron. This double operation (first through divine breath, then through human speech) can be understood as an allegory. Moses is above all God’s interpreter. Firstly, he represents His Intelligence, then His Word. The Intelligence first grasps Moses entirely. What can be said of this? The texts are opaque, difficult to interpret. As for the Word that Moses repeated to Aaron, it represented the prophetic act itself, the decisive leap out of the sanctuary of ecstasy into freedom.
Free, the prophet is also bound, from above and below, – bound to heaven by Intelligence, bound to earth by the Word. Philo sums up: « The soul has an earthly base, but it has its summit in pure Intelligence.”i
For my part, I would add that the most important thing is not in fact to be found in Intelligence, which assails the soul entirely and subjugates it, nor in the Word, whose task is to give meaning to the unspeakable and then bring the worlds together.
What is really important, for the rest of the ages, and for its truly unspeakable implications, is the absolute freedom of the soul (here the soul of Moses) which has been able to free itself from ecstasy, then to transcend the innumerable constraints of the human word, and finally to launch a bridge over unfathomable chasms.
According to Genesis, taken literally, man was created twice.
Genesis, in chapter 1, describes a first creation of « man » called ha-adam. The word ha-adam includes the definite article ha and literally means « the earth », metaphorically « the red » (for the earth is red), and by extension « man ».
In Chapter 2, Genesis describes a second creation of man (ish), accompanied by a creation of woman (isha). These two words are not preceded by the article ha.
The most immediately noticeable differences between the two creations are as follows.
First of all, the names given to the man differ, as we have just seen: ha-adam on the one hand, ish and isha on the other.
Secondly, the verbs used to describe the act of creation are not the same. In the first chapter of Genesis we read: « God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness' » (Gen. 1:26). The Hebrew word for ‘let us make’ is נַעֲשֶׂה from the verb עֲשֶׂה, ‘asah, to do, to act, to work. In the second chapter of Genesis we read: « And the Eternal God planted a garden in Eden toward the east, and there he placed the man whom he had fashioned. « (Gen. 2:8) The Hebrew word for ‘fashioning’ is יָצָר , yatsara, to make, to form, to create.
Thirdly, in Genesis 1, God created man « male and female » (zakhar and nqebah). Man is apparently united in a kind of bi-sexual indifferentiation or created with « two faces », according to Rashi.
In contrast, in Genesis 2, the creation of woman is clearly differentiated. She is created in a specific way and receives the name ‘isha‘, which is given to her by the man. The man, ‘ha-adam‘, then calls himself ‘ish‘, and he calls his wife ‘isha‘, « because she was taken from ‘ish‘ ».
Rashi comments on this verse: « She shall be called isha, because she was taken from ish. Isha (‘woman’) is derived from ish (‘man’). From here we learn that the world was created with the holy language, [since only the Hebrew language connects the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’ with a common root]. (Berechith raba 18, 4).”
I don’t know if it can be said with impunity that only the Hebrew language connects the words « man » and « woman » to a common root. English, for example, displays such a link with « man » and « woman ». In Latin, « femina » (woman) would be the feminine counterpart of « homo » (« hemna« ).
But this is a secondary issue. However, it shows that Rashi’s interest is certainly not exercised here on the problem of double creation and on the triple difference between the stories of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2: two nouns (adam/ish), two verbs to describe creation (‘asah/yatsara), and two ways of evoking the difference between genders, in the form ‘male and female’ (zakhar/nqebah) and in the form ‘man and woman’ (ish/isha).
The double narrative of the creation of man and woman could be interpreted as the result of writing by independent authors at different times. These various versions were later collated to form the text of Genesis, which we have at our disposal, and which is traditionally attributed to Moses.
What is important here is not so much the identity of the writers as the possible interpretation of the differences between the two stories.
The two ‘ways’ of creating man are rendered, as has been said, by two Hebrew words, עֲשֶׂה ‘to make’ and יָצָר ‘to form’. What does this difference in vocabulary indicate?
The verb עֲשֶׂה ‘asah (to do) has a range of meanings that help to characterize it more precisely: to prepare, to arrange, to take care of, to establish, to institute, to accomplish, to practice, to observe. These verbs evoke a general idea of realization, accomplishment, with a nuance of perfection.
The verb יָצָר yatsara (to shape, to form) has a second, intransitive meaning: to be narrow, tight, embarrassed, afraid, tormented. It evokes an idea of constraint, that which could be imposed by a form applied to a malleable material.
By relying on lexicon and semantics, one can attempt a symbolic explanation. The first verb (עֲשֶׂה , to do) seems to translate God’s point of view when he created man. He « makes » man, as if he was in his mind a finished, perfect, accomplished idea. The second verb (יָצָר , to form) rather translates, by contrast, the point of view of man receiving the « form » given to him, with all that this implies in terms of constraints, constrictions and limits.
If we venture into a more philosophical terrain, chapter 1 of Genesis seems to present the creation of man as ‘essence’, or in a ‘latent’ form, still ‘hidden’ to some extent in the secret of nature.
Later, when the time came, man also appears to have been created as an existential, natural, visible, and clearly sexually differentiated reality, as chapter 2 reports.
S. Augustine devoted Part VI of his book, Genesisin the literal sense, to this difficult question. He proposes to consider that God first created all things ‘simultaneously’, as it is written: ‘He who lives for eternity created everything at the same time. « (Ecclesiasticus, 18,1) The Vulgate version says: « inaeternum, creavit omnia simul« . This word ‘simul‘ seems to mean a ‘simultaneous’ creation of all things.
It should be noted in passing that neither Jews nor Protestants consider this book of Ecclesiasticus (also called Sirach) to belong to the biblical canon.
For its part, the Septuagint translates from Hebrew into Greek this verse from Ecclesiasticus: » o zon eis ton aiôna ektisen ta panta koinè « . (« He who lives for eternity has created everything together. »)
This is another interpretation.
So shall we retain ‘together’ (as the Greek koinè says) or ‘simultaneously’ (according to the Latin simul)? It could be said that it amounts to the same thing. However it follows from this difference that Augustine’s quotation from Sirach 18:1 is debatable, especially when it is used to distinguish between the creation of man in chapter 1 of Genesis and his second creation in chapter 2.
According to Augustine, God in the beginning created all things ‘in their causes’, or ‘in potency’. In other words, God in chapter 1 creates the idea, essence or principle of all things and everything in nature, including man. « If I say that man in that first creation where God created all things simultaneously, not only was he not a man in the perfection of adulthood, but was not even a child, – not only was he not a child, but was not even an embryo in his mother’s womb, but was not even the visible seed of man, it will be believed that he was nothing at all.”
Augustine then asks: what were Adam and Eve like at the time of the first creation? « I will answer: invisibly, potentially, in their causes, as future things are made that are not yet.”
Augustine takes the side of the thesis of the double creation of man, firstly in his ‘causal reason’, ‘in potency’, and secondly, ‘in act’, in an effective ‘existence’ which is prolonged throughout history.
This is also true of the soul of every man. The soul is not created before the body, but after it. It does not pre-exist it. When it is created, it is created as a ‘living soul’. It is only in a second stage that this ‘living soul’ may (or may not) become ‘life-giving spirit’.
Augustine quotes Paul on this subject: « If there is an animal body, there is also a spiritual body. It is in this sense that it is written: The first man, Adam, was made a living soul, the last Adam, the ‘newest Adam’ (novissimusAdam), was a life-giving spirit. But it is not what is spiritual that was made first, it is what is animal; what is spiritual comes next. The first man, who came from the earth, is earthly; the second man, who came from heaven, is heavenly. Such is the earthly, such are also the earthly; and such is the heavenly, such are also the heavenly. And just as we have put on the image of the earthly, so shall we also put on the image of him who is of heaven.”
And Augustine adds: « What more can I say? We therefore bear the image of the heavenly man from now on by faith, sure that we will obtain in the resurrection what we believe: as for the image of the earthly man, we have clothed it from the origin of the human race. »
This basically amounts to suggesting the hypothesis of a third ‘creation’ that could affect man: after adam, ish or isha, there is the ‘last Adam‘, man as ‘life-giving spirit’.
From all of this, we will retain a real intuition of the possible metamorphoses of man, certainly not reduced to a fixed form, but called upon to considerably surpass himself.
It is interesting, at this point, to note that Philo of Alexandria offers a very different explanation of the double creation.
Philo explains that in the beginning God « places » (וַיָּשֶׂם שָׁם ) in the Garden of Eden a « fashioned » man (‘The Eternal God planted a garden in Eden towards the east and placed the man he had fashioned in it’). Gen. 2:8). A little later he ‘established’ (וַיַּנִּח ) a man to be the worker and the guardian (‘The Eternal-God therefore took the man and established him in the Garden of Eden to cultivate and care for it’. Gen. 2:15).
According to Philo, the man who cultivates the garden and cares for it is not the « fashioned » man, but « the man [that God] has made« . And Philo says: « [God] receives this one, but drives out the other.”i
Philo had already made a distinction between the heavenly man and the earthly man, by the same verbal means. « The heavenly man was not fashioned, but made in the image of God, and the earthly man is a being fashioned, but not begotten by the Maker.”ii
If we follow Philo, we must understand that God drove the ‘fashioned‘ man out of the garden, after having placed him there, and then established the ‘made‘ man there. The man whom God ‘fashioned‘ was ‘placed‘ in the garden, but it seems that he was not considered worthy to cultivate and keep it.
Moreover, in the text of Genesis there is no evidence to support Philo’s thesis of a cross between a ‘fashioned’ man and a ‘made’ man.
Philo specifies: « The man whom God made differs, as I have said, from the man who was fashioned: the fashioned man is the earthly intelligence; the made man is the immaterial intelligence.”iii
Philo’s interpretation, as we can see, is metaphorical. It must be understood that there are not two kinds of men, but that there are rather two kinds of intelligence in man.
« Adam is the earthly and corruptible intelligence, for the man in the image is not earthly but heavenly. We must seek why, giving all other things their names, he did not give himself his own (…) The intelligence that is in each one of us can understand other beings, but it is incapable of knowing itself, as the eye sees without seeing itself »iv.
The ‘earthly’ intelligence can think of all beings, but it cannot understand itself.
God has therefore also ‘made‘ a man of ‘heavenly’ intelligence, but he does not seem to have had a happier hand, since he disobeyed the command not to eat of the fruit of the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’.
But was this tree of ‘the knowledge of good and evil’ really in the Garden of Eden? Philo doubts it. For if God says, « But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it », then « this tree was not in the garden »v.
« You shall not eat of it.” This should not be interpreted as a prohibition, but as a simple prediction of an all-knowing God.
This can be explained by the nature of things, Philo argues. The tree could have been present in « substance », but not in « potency »…
The man ‘in the image’ could have eaten the substance of a fruit of this tree. But he did not digest all its latent potency, and therefore he did not benefit from it in any real way.
There is yet another possible interpretation. Knowledge is not found in life. It is found only in potency, not in life, but in death.
The day in which one eats from the fruit of the tree of knowledge is also the day of death, the day in which the prediction is fulfilled: « Thou shalt die of death » מוֹת תָּמוּת (Gen. 2:17).
In this strange verse the word « death » is used twice. Why is this?
« There is a double death, that of man, and the death proper to the soul; that of man is the separation of soul and body; that of the soul is the loss of virtue and the acquisition of vice. (…) And perhaps this second death is opposed to the first: this one is a division of the compound of body and soul; the other, on the contrary, is a meeting of the two where the inferior, the body, dominates and the superior, the soul, is dominated.”vi
Philo quotes fragment 62 of Heraclitus: « We live by their death, we are dead to their life.”vii He believes that Heraclitus was « right to follow the doctrine of Moses in this ». As a good Neoplatonist, Philo also takes up Plato’s famous thesis of the body as the ‘tomb of the soul’.
« That is to say that at present, when we live, the soul is dead and buried in the body as in a tomb, but by our death, the soul lives from the life that is proper to it, and is delivered from evil and the corpse that was bound to it, the body.”viii
There is nevertheless a notable difference between the vision of Genesis and that of the Greek philosophers.
Genesis says: « You shall die of death! «
Heraclitus has a very different formula: « The life of some is the death of others, the death of some, the life of others.”
The « Hidden Jew » is an ancient figure. Joseph and Esther hid for a time. Esther’s name (אֶסְתֵּר) means « I will hide ». But, somewhat paradoxically, it is because she revealed her secret to Ahasuerus, that she saved her people.
Forced to hide under the Inquisition, and again paradoxically, the Marranos were « adventurers », « pioneers who can be counted among the first modern men », according to Shmuel Triganoi. They were the ferment of Jewish modernity. They are even said to be at the origin and the foundations of modernity in general.
« The Marrano experience reveals the existence in Judaism of a potentiality of Marranism, of a predisposition to Marranism, which has nothing to do with the fact that it also represents a decay of Judaism. The ambivalence is greater: imposed by force, it is also a high fact of the courage and perseverance of the Jews. The real question is this: is Marranism structurally inherent to Judaism, was it inscribed in Judaism from the beginning? (…) How could Jews have thought that they were becoming even more Jewish by becoming Christians (basically this is what Jewish-Christians have thought since Paul)?”ii
This question goes beyond the scope of Jewish-Christian relations alone. It goes further back to the origins. Did not Moses live for a time in ambivalence at the court of the Pharaoh?
Philo of Alexandria died around 50 AD. He had no connection with Christianity, of which he was a contemporary. Of Greek and Jewish culture, he knew the Greek philosophers and was well-learned in the texts of Judaism, which he interpreted in an original way. He was also interested in the religions of the Magi, the Chaldeans and the Zoroastrians.
A man of crossroads, he sought higher syntheses, new ways, adapted to the mingling of peoples, whose progress he observed.
Philo was certainly not a « hidden Jew ». But he pushed the analysis of tradition and its interpretation to the point of incandescence. Neither a Pharisee, a Sadducee nor an Essene, what kind of Judaism was he then representing?
Philo, two thousand years ago, and the Spanish and Portuguese marranos, five centuries ago, represent two unorthodox ways of claiming Judaism among the Gentiles. They seem to be moving away from it, but only to better return to it, by another kind of fidelity, more faithful perhaps to its spirit than to its letter. In this way they serve as bridges, as links, with the world of nations, offering broad perspectives.
Royaly ignored by the Synagogue, living in a troubled period, just before the destruction of the Second Temple, Philo professed advanced opinions, which could shock the orthodox traditionalists, and which bordered on heresy. Moreover, it was the Christian philosophers and theologians of the first centuries who preserved Philo’s writings, finding a posteriori in his synthetic thinking enough to feed their own reflections.
There was clearly then a difference in perspective between the Jews of Jerusalem, who prayed every day in the Temple, unaware of its imminent destruction, and the Jews of the Diaspora, whose freedom of thought was great.
Let us find an indication of such freedom of research by this line of Philo, typical of his style :
« God and Wisdom are the father and mother of the world, but the spirit cannot bear such parents whose graces are far greater than those it can receive; it will therefore have as its father the right Logos and as its mother the education more appropriate to its weakness.”iii
Philo clarifies the scope of the metaphor: « The Logos is image and eldest son. Sophia is the bride of God, whom God makes fruitful and who generates the world.”
The Logos, « image and eldest son of God »? This was written by a Jew from Alexandria, a few years after the death on a cross of an obscure rabbi from Nazareth, a self-called Messiah? It is not difficult to imagine the reaction of the Doctors of Jewish Law to these stirring words. It is also easy to understand why the Judeo-Christians of the 1st and 2nd centuries decided that Philo would be a precious ally for them, because of his audacity and philosophical interpersonal skills.
In another writing, Philo evokes Wisdom, both a « spouse of God »iv, and a « virgin », of an undefiled nature. How is it possible? It is precisely because the union with God gives the Soul its virginity. Other metaphors abound: the Logos is father and husband of the Soul.
The idea of a mother-virgin wife was not so new. It can be found in various spiritual traditions of Antiquity, especially among the Orphics. The symbolic fusion between the wife and daughter of God corresponds to the assimilation between Artemis and Athena among the latter. Korah, a virgin, daughter of Zeus and Demeter, unites with Zeus and is the life-giving source of the world. She is the object of the mysteries of Eleusis. In the Osiriac tradition, Osiris is the « principle », Isis the « receptacle » and Horus the « product », which is translated philosophically by the triad of the intelligible, the material and the sensible.
Tempted by daring syntheses, Philo was certainly not an orthodox Jew. So what was he then the symbol, the prefiguration of? Of the eternal vigour of Marranism? Of the temptation of an effluence of the spirit? Of an avid search for universals?
Is Marranism so absolutely modern, that it becomes universal? Shmuel Trigano writes: « The dual identity of the modern Jew may well be akin to the Marrano score.”v
But the « Marrano score » is not reserved for « hidden Jews ». It is much more general. It touches on the very identity of modern man. « Marranism was the laboratory of Jewish modernity, even among the Jews who escaped Marranism. Let us go further: Marranism was the very model of all political modernity. »v
A political Marranism? But why not go further, and postulate the possibility of an anthropological attitude fundamentally « Marrano« , potentially touching everyone, and hiding in the heart of all human groups?
What, in fact, does Marranism bear witness to? It testifies to the profound ambivalence of the worldview of messianic belief. « Messianic consciousness encourages the Jew to live the life of this world while waiting for the world to come and thus to develop a cantilevered attitude towards this world.”vi
This feeling of strangeness in the world, of being put off, is not specific to Judaism, it seems to me.
Hinduism and Buddhism, for example, see this world as an illusion, as Māyā. This has also been the feeling of shamans since the dawn of time. The feeling of strangeness to the world is so universal, that it can be considered as a foundation of human consciousness. Man’s heart remains hidden from himself, and from this concealment he has a restless and troubled conscience. Man is for himself a mystery, that the magnificence of this world and its wonders verges on it without really reaching it, and certainly without ever filling it.
Man, shall we say, is fundamentally, anthropologically a « marrano« , torn between his inner and outer selves, his ego and his id, his soul and his abyss. Here is man, apparently complete, in « working order », and he is also aware confusely of all what he is lacking of. A Dasein pursued by doubt.
He discovers, again and again, that the world denies him, that the immense, eternal cosmos welcomes him, one day, we don’t know why or how, and makes a fleeting consciousness emerge from nowhere, which will end up broken, humiliated, by the tumult of unanswered questions. But over time, he also discovers the means to resist alienation, the necessary tricks, and acquires the ability to thwart the game of illusions.
This is a political lesson and a philosophical lesson.
Politics, first of all. At a time when the most « democratic » nations are actively preparing the means of mass surveillance, intrusive to the last degree, at a time when the prodromes of totalitarianism are rising on a planetary scale, we will always need this very ancient lesson of duplicity to survive, simply to remain human.
Philosophical, too. In order to prepare a better, more universal world, we will have to follow Philo’s example, navigate freely among religions and nations, thoughts and languages, as if they all belonged to us and were our own.
iShmuel Trigano. Le Juif caché. Marranisme et modernité, In Press Eds, 2000
A little over two thousand years ago, Philo of Alexandria advocated radical emigration. He did not care about land borders, historical nations, geographical territories. « You must emigrate, in search of your father’s land, the land of the sacred word, the land of the father of those who practice virtue. This land is wisdom. « i
He was looking for access to another world, whose foreboding had come to him in a strange way, and whose presence seemed irrefutable to him. « Sometimes I would come to work as if I were empty, and suddenly I was full, ideas fell invisible from the sky, spread out inside me like a shower. Under this divine inspiration I was so excited that I no longer recognized anything, neither the place where I was, nor those who were there, nor what I was saying or writing.”ii
Philo had been seized several times by divine inspiration, he had « seen » it. « To see », at that time, was « to know ». In the old days in Israel, when people went to God for advice, they would say, « Come, let us go to the seer! For the one we call the prophet today was once called the seer.”iii
After his long fight in the dark night, Jacob too had wanted to « see ». He had wanted to hear the name of the one he had fought, to finally « see » him. But the name he asked for was not revealed to him. He only heard his own name, what was to be his new name. A name given by the one who kept his own name silent. Only then did Jacob « see ». But what did he see? A name? An idea? A future?
All we know is that he heard a voice in the night that gave him his name, his new and true name.
This voice is a light in the night. A voice of wisdom, no doubt, which sees itself, a splendour, of which the sun would never be but a faint image.
Jacob heard his « name », and he was no longer Jacob. He heard, – and then he « saw ». The important thing was not the name, but that he « saw ».
Philo explains this: « If the voice of mortals is addressed to the hearing, the oracles reveal to us that the words of God are, like light, things seen. It is said, ‘All the people sawthe voice‘ (Ex. 20:15) instead of ‘heard the voice’. For indeed there was no shaking of the air due to the organs of the mouth and tongue; there was the splendor of virtue, identical with the source of reason. The same revelation is found in this other form: ‘You have seen that I have spoken to you from heaven’ (Ex. 20:18), instead of ‘you have heard‘, always for the same reason. There are occasions when Moses distinguishes between what is heard and what is seen, hearing and sight. ‘You heard the sound of the words, and you saw no form but a voice’ (Deut. 4:12).”iv
Seeing the voice, hearing the word, the « sound of the word ». These words have a double meaning.
In the original Hebrew we read: « kol debarim atem shome’im » ( קוׄל דְּבָרׅים אַתֶּם שֺׁמְעׅים ), which literally translates as : « you have heard the voice of the words ». This is a veiled indication that the « words » in question are like living beings, since they have a « voice ». This voice is not embodied in « air shaking », but is given to be « seen ». This « voice » inhabits the interior of the words, it makes their immanent nature, their « secret » dimension visible, it reveals an enigmatic background, of which they are the living mirror.
Whether they are Kabbalists, Vedic or Sufi, the mystics all know their own path towards this nature, this secret. Rûmî, John of the Cross or Jacob Boehme have followed this path of discovery as far as possible. Great writers of language, they showed how the language of the gods (or of God) could marry with that of men, and give birth to manifest secrets. Everything that is, everything that is said, everything that is presented to reason, has a background. These mystics have shown, as far as men can do it, that part of the essence of the world is in language, or, better said: « is » language.
Ancient languages, such as Sanskrit, Egyptian, Avestic, Chinese, Hebrew and Greek, possess a kind of secret spirit, an immanent soul, which makes them develop as living powers, often without the knowledge of the people who speak them, and could be compared to insects foraging in a forest of words, with fragrant, autonomous and fertile scents.
This phenomenal independence of languages from the men who speak and think with them is the sign of a mystery, latent from their genesis. « Languages are not the work of a reason conscious of itself”, wrote Turgoti .
They are the work of another type of ‘reason’, a superior one, which could be compared to the putative reason of language angels, active in the history of the world, haunting the unconscious of peoples, and drawing their substance from them, just as much as from the nature of things.
The essence of a language, its DNA, lies in its grammar. Grammar incorporates the soul of the language. It represents it in all its potency, without limiting its own genius. Grammar is there but it is not enough to explain the genius of the language. The slow work of epigenesis, the work of time on words, escapes it completely.
This epigenesis of the language, how can it be felt? One way is to consider vast sets of interrelated words, and to visit through thought the society they constitute, and the history that made them possible.
Let’s take an example. Semitic languages are organized around verbal roots, which are called « trilitera » because they are composed of three radical letters. But these verbs (concave, geminated, weak, imperfect, …) are not really « triliterated ». To call them so is only « grammatical fiction », Renan assertedii. In reality, triliteral roots can be etymologically reduced to two radical, essential letters, the third radical letter only adding a marginal nuance.
For example, in Hebrew, the two root letters פר (para) translate the idea of ‘separation’, ‘cut’, ‘break’. The addition of a third radical letter following פר then modulates this primary meaning and gives a range of nuances: פרד parada « to separate, to be dispersed », פרח paraha « to erupt, to germinate, to blossom », פרס parasa « to tear, to split », פרע para’a « to reject, to dissolve », פרץ paratsa « to destroy, to cut down, to break », פרק paraqa « to break, to tear », פרס perasa « to break, to share », פרש parasha « to break, to disperse ».
The keyboard of possible variations can be further expanded. The Hebrew language allows the first radical letter פ to be swapped with the beth ב, opening up other semantic horizons: ברא bara « to create, to draw from nothing; to cut, to cut down », ברה bara’a « to choose », ברר barada « to hail », בבח baraha, « to flee, to hunt », ברך barakha, « to bless; to curse, to offend, to blaspheme », ברק baraqa, « to make lightning shine », ברר barara, « to separate, sort; to purify ».
The Hebrew language, which is very flexible, may also allow permutations with the second letter of the verbal root, changing for example the ר by צ or by ז. This gives rise to a new efflorescence of nuances, opening up other semantic avenues:
פצה « to split, to open wide », פצח « to burst, to make heard », פצל « to remove the bark, to peel », פצם « to split, to open in », פצע « to wound, to bruise », בצע « to cut, to break, to delight, to steal », בצר « to cut, to harvest », בזה « to despise, to scorn », בזא « to devastate », בזר « to spread, to distribute », בזק « lightning flash », בתר « to cut, to divide ».
Through oblique shifts, slight additions, literal « mutations » and « permutations » of the alphabetic DNA, we witness the quasi-genetic development of the words of the language and the epigenetic variability of their meanings.
Languages other than Hebrew, such as Sanskrit, Greek or Arabic, also allow a thousand similar discoveries, and offer lexical and semantic shimmering, inviting us to explore the endless sedimentation of the meanings, which has been accumulating and densifying for thousands of years in the unconscious of languages.
In contrast, the Chinese language or the language of ancient Egypt do not seem to have a very elaborate grammar. On the other hand, as they are composed of monosyllabic units of meaning (ideograms, hieroglyphics) whose agglutination and coagulation also produce, in their own way, myriads of variations, we then discover other generative powers, other specific forms generating the necessary proliferation of meaning.
Grammar, lexicography and etymology are sometimes poetic, surprising and lively ways of accessing the unconscious of language. They do not reveal it entirely, however, far from it.
A psychoanalysis of language may reveal its unconscious and help finding the origin of its original impulses.
For example, it is worth noting that the language of the Veda, Sanskrit – perhaps the richest and most elaborate language ever conceived by man – is almost entirely based on a philosophical or religious vocabulary. Almost all entries in the most learned Sanskrit dictionaries refer in one way or another to religious matters. Their network is so dense that almost every word naturally leads back to them.
One is then entitled to ask the question: Is (Vedic) religion the essence of (Sanskrit) language? Or is it the other way round? Does Vedic language contain the essence of Veda?
This question is of course open to generalization: does Hebrew contain the essence of Judaism? And do its letters conceal an inner mystery? Or is it the opposite: is Judaism the truth and the essence of the Hebrew language?
In a given culture, does the conception of the world precede that of language? Or is it the language itself, shaped by centuries and men, which ends up bringing ancient religious foundations to their incandescence?
Or, alternatively, do language and religion have a complex symbiotic relationship that is indistinguishable, but prodigiously fertile – in some cases, or potentially sterile in others? A dreadful dilemma! But how stimulating for the researcher of the future.
One can imagine men, living six or twelve thousand years ago, possessing a penetrating intelligence, and the brilliant imagination of a Dante or a Kant, like native dreamers, contemplating cocoons of meaning, slow caterpillars, or evanescent butterflies, and tempting in their language eternity – by the idea and by the words, in front of the starry night, unaware of their ultimate destiny.
iTurgot. Remarques sur l’origine des langues. Œuvres complètes . Vol. 2. Paris, 1844. p.719
The word “plagiarism originally meant « the act of selling or buying a free person as a slave ». The word comes from the Latin plagiarius or plagiator, « thief of man ». This meaning is unused today. The word is now only used in a literary, artistic or scientific context. Plagiarism is the act of appropriating someone else’s ideas or words by passing them off as one’s own.
The Latin plagiator and plagiarists have one thing in common, and that is that they attack the very being of man. To steal a man’s ideas is to steal him as a being, to steal his substance.
« Plagiarising » means enslaving a man’s thought, putting it under the control of another man, making it a « slave ».
A Palestinian bishop, Eusebius of Caesarea (265-339), recognised as the « Father of the Church », brought a severe charge against the many plagiarisms and borrowings made by the Greeks at the expense of the many peoples who had preceded them in the history (of ideas).
Eusebius’ intention was apologetic. It was intended to diminish the prestige of Greek philosophy at a time when the development of the Christian religion needed to be reinforced.
« The Greeks took from the Barbarians the belief in multiple gods, mysteries, initiations, and furthermore the historical relations and mythical accounts of the gods, the allegorising physiologies of the myths and all idolatrous error ».i
Pillage is permanent, universal. The Greeks steal from everyone and steal from each other.
« The Greeks monopolised Hebrew opinions and plundered the rest of the sciences from the Egyptians and Chaldeans as well as from the other barbarian nations, and now they are caught stealing each other’s reputation as writers. Each of them, for example, stole from his neighbor passions, ideas, entire developments and adorned himself with them as his own personal labor.”ii
Eusebius quotes the testimony of Clement of Alexandria: « We have proved that the manifestation of Greek thought has been illuminated by the truth given to us by the Scriptures (…) and that the flight of truth has passed to them; well! Let us set the Greeks against each other as witnesses to this theft.»iii
The most prestigious names in Greek thought are put on the pillory of dishonor.
Clement of Alexandria quotes « the expressions of Orpheus, Heraclitus, Plato, Pythagoras, Herodotus, Theopompus, Thucydides, Demosthenes, Eschina, Lysias, Isocrates and a hundred others that it would be superfluous to enumerate.”iv
Porphyrus, too, accuses Plato of being a plagiarist in his Protagoras.
The accusation is clear, precise and devastating. « All the famous philosophical culture of the Greeks, their first sciences, their proud logic were borrowed by them from the Barbarians.”v
The famous Pythagoras himself went to Babylon, Egypt and Persia. He learned everything from the Magi and the priests. He even went to learn from the Brahmins of India, it is said. From some he was able to learn astrology, from others geometry and from others arithmetic and music.vi
Even the Greek alphabet was invented in Phoenicia, and was introduced to Greece by Cadmos, a Phoenician by birth.
As for Orpheus, he borrowed from the Egyptians his rites, his « initiations into the mysteries », and his « affabulations » about Hades. The cult of Dionysus is entirely modelled on that of Osiris, and the cult of Demeter on that of Isis. The figure of Hermes Psychopompe, the conductor of the dead, is obviously inspired by Egyptian myths.
It must be concluded, says Eusebius, that Hebrew theology must be preferred to the philosophy of the Greeks, which must be given second place, since it is nothing but a bunch of plagiarism.
The Greek gods form a cohort of second-hand gods, of eclectic borrowings, from Egypt to Mesopotamia and from India to Persia. Moses predates the capture of Troy and thus precedes the appearance of the majority of the gods of the Greeks and their sages.
Eusebius aims to magnify the Hebrew heritage by completely discrediting « Greek wisdom » and the pantheon of its imported gods.
So, Greek thought, — a plagiary thought?
First of all, the ideas of the Persian magi, the Egyptian priests and the Brahmins of India were not copied as such. Pythagoras or Plato digested them, transformed, even transmuted them into something entirely original.
Greek thought also added a level of freedom of thought by copying, augmenting, criticizing.
Then the so- called « Greek loans » represent a very long chain, which goes back to the dawn of time. And everyone was doing that. It is not at all certain, for example, that Moses himself was entirely free of plagiarism. Raised at the court of Pharaoh Amosis, – according to Tatian and Clement of Alexandria, it is very likely that Moses benefited from many Egyptian ideas about the hidden God (Ammon) and the one God (Aten).
Ammon, the ‘hidden’ God, had been worshipped in Egypt for more than two millennia before Moses. As for the « one » God Aten, he was celebrated by Amenophis IV, who took the name of Akhenaten in his honour several centuries before the Exodus. Several religious rites established by Moses seem to have been copied from the Egyptian rites, by means of a deliberate « inversion », taking the direct opposite side, which is, it is true, an original form of plagiarism. Thus the biblical sacrifice of sheep or cattle was instituted by Moses, as it were, as a reaction against the Egyptian cult which banned precisely blood sacrifices. It is not by chance that Moses had adopted as a « sacred » rite what seemed most « sacrilegious » to the Egyptians — since they accorded the bull Apis the status of a sacred, and even « divine » figure, and for whom it was therefore out of the question to slaughter cows, oxen or bulls on altars.
It is interesting to recall that this prohibition of bloody sacrifices had also been respected for several millennia by the Vedic cult in the Indus basin.
What can we conclude from this? That the essential ideas circulate, either in their positive expressions, or by provoking negative reactions, direct opposition.
As far as ideas are concerned, let us say provocatively, nothing is more profitable than plagiarism, in the long term. And as far as religion is concerned, the more we plagiarize, the closer we come, in fact, to a common awareness, and to a larval consensus, but one can hope for a slowly growing one, on the most difficult subjects.
World religion began more than 800,000 or a million years ago, as evidenced by the traces of religious activity found at Chou Kou Tien, near Beijing, which show that Homo sapiens already had an idea of the afterlife, of life after death, and therefore of the divine.
Moses and Plato are milestones in the long history of world religion. The shamans who officiated 40,000 years ago in the cave of Pont d’Arc, those who later took over in Altamira or Lascaux, were already human in the full sense of the word.
From the depths of the centuries, they have been announcing the coming of the prophets of the future, who will emerge, it is obvious, in the heart of an overpopulated planet, threatened by madness, death and despair.
iEusebius of Caesarea. Praeparatio Evangelica, X, 1,3
In the ancient Umbrian language, the word « man » is expressed in two ways: ner– and veiro-, which denote the place occupied in society and the social role. This differentiation is entirely consistent with that observed in the ancient languages of India and Iran: nar– and vīrā.
In Rome, traces of these ancient names can also be found in the vocabulary used in relation to the Gods Mars (Nerio) and Quirinus (Quirites, Viriles), as noted by G. Dumézili.
If there are two distinct words for « man » in these various languages, or to differentiate the god of war (Mars) and the god of peace (Quirinus, – whose name, derived from *covirino– or *co-uirio-, means « the god of all men »), it is perhaps because man is fundamentally double, or dual, and the Gods he gives himself translate this duality?
If man is double, the Gods are triple. The pre-capitoline triad, or « archaic triad » – Jupiter, Mars, Quirinus -, in fact proposes a third God, Jupiter, who dominates the first two.
What does the name Jupiter tell us?
This name is very close, phonetically and semantically, to that of the Vedic God Dyaus Pitar, literally « God the Father », in Sanskrit द्यौष् पिता / Dyauṣ Pitā or द्यौष्पितृ / Dyauṣpitṛ.
The Sanskrit root of Dyaus (« God ») is दिव् div-, « heaven ». The God Dyau is the personified « Heaven-Light ».
The Latin Jupiter therefore means « Father-God ». The short form in Latin is Jove, (genitive Jovis).
The linguistic closeness between Latin, Avestic and Vedic – which is extended in cultural analogies between Rome, Iran and India – is confirmed when referring to the three words « law », « faith » and « divination », – respectively, in Latin: iūs, credo, augur. In the Vedic language, the similarity of these words is striking: yōḥ, ṡṛad-dhā, ōjas. In Avestic (ancient Iranian), the first two terms are yaoš and zraz-dā, also quite similar.
Dumézil states that iūs is a contraction of *ioves-, close to Jove /Jovis. and he adds that this word etymologically refers to Vedic yōḥ (or yos) and Avestic yaoš.
The three words yaoš, yōḥ (or yos) and iūs have the same etymological origin, therefore, but their meanings have subsequently varied significantly.
In Avestic, the word yaoš has three uses, according to Dumézil :
-To sanctify an invisible entity or a mythical state. Thus this verse attributed to Zoroaster: « The religious conscience that I must sanctify [yaoš-dā].”ii
-To consecrate, to perform a ritual act, as in the expression: « The consecrated liquor » [yaoš-dātam zaotram].iii
-To purify what has been soiled.
These concepts (« sanctification », « consecration », « purification ») refer to the three forms of medicine that prevailed at the time: herbal medicine, knife medicine and incantations.
Incidentally, these three forms of medicine are based respectively on the vitality of the plant world and its power of regeneration, on the life forces associated with the blood shed during the « sacrifice », and on the mystical power of prayers and orations.
In the Vedic language, yōḥ (or yos) is associated with prosperity, health, happiness, fortune, but also with the mystical, ritual universe, as the Sanskrit root yaj testifies, « to offer the sacrifice, to honor the divinity, to sanctify a place ».
But in Latin, iūs takes on a more concrete, legal and « verbal » rather than religious meaning. Iūs can be ´said´: « iū-dic« , – hence the word iūdex, justice.
The Romans socialised, personalised, legalised and ‘secularised’ iūs in a way. They make iūs an attribute of everyone. One person’s iūs is equivalent to another person’s iūs, hence the possible confrontations, but also the search for balance and equilibrium, – war or peace.
The idea of « right » (jus) thus comes from a conception of iūs, founded in the original Rome, but itself inherited from a mystical and religious tradition, much older, and coming from a more distant (Indo-Aryan) East. But in Rome it was the juridical spirit of justice that finally prevailed over the mystical and religious spirit.
The idea of justice reached modern times, but what about the spirit carried in three Indo-Aryan languages by the words iūs, yaoš-dā, yōs, originally associated with the root *ioves– ?
One last thing. We will notice that the words yōḥ and Jove, seem to be phonetically and poetically close to two Hebrew names of God: Yah and YHVH (Yahweh).
More than two millennia B.C., in the middle of the Bronze Age, so-called « Indo-Aryan » peoples were settled in Bactria, between present-day Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. They left traces of a civilisation known as the Oxus civilisation (-2200, -1700). Then they migrated southwards, branching off to the left, towards the Indus plains, or to the right, towards the high plateau of Iran.
These migrant peoples, who had long shared a common culture, then began to differentiate themselves, linguistically and religiously, without losing their fundamental intuitions. This is evidenced by the analogies and differences between their respective languages, Sanskrit and Zend, and their religions, the religion of the Vedas and that of Zend-Avesta.
In the Vedic cult, the sacrifice of the Soma, composed of clarified butter, fermented juice and decoctions of hallucinogenic plants, plays an essential role. The Vedic Soma has its close equivalent in Haoma, in Zend-Avesta. The two words are in fact the same, if we take into account that the Zend language of the ancient Persians puts an aspirated h where the Sanskrit puts an s.
Soma and Haoma have a deep meaning. These liquids are transformed by fire during the sacrifice, and then rise towards the sky. Water, milk, clarified butter are symbols of the cosmic cycles. At the same time, the juice of hallucinogenic plants and their emanations contribute to ecstasy, trance and divination, revealing an intimate link between the chemistry of nature, the powers of the brain and the insight into divine realities.
The divine names are very close, in the Avesta and the Veda. For example, the solar God is called Mitra in Sanskrit and Mithra in Avesta. The symbolism linked to Mitra/Mithra is not limited to identification with the sun. It is the whole cosmic cycle that is targeted.
An Avestic prayer says: « In Mithra, in the rich pastures, I want to sacrifice through Haoma.”i
Mithra, the divine « Sun », reigns over the « pastures » that designate all the expanses of Heaven, and the entire Cosmos. In the celestial « pastures », the clouds are the « cows of the Sun ». They provide the milk of Heaven, the water that makes plants grow and that waters all life on earth. Water, milk and Soma, all liquid, have their common origin in the solar, celestial cows.
The Soma and Haoma cults are inspired by this cycle. The components of the sacred liquid (water, clarified butter, vegetable juices) are carefully mixed in a sacred vase, the samoudra. But the contents of the vase only take on their full meaning through the divine word, the sacred hymn.
« Mortar, vase, Haoma, as well as the words coming out of Ahura-Mazda‘s mouth, these are my best weapons.”ii
Soma and Haoma are destined for the Altar Fire. Fire gives a life of its own to everything it burns. It reveals the nature of things, illuminates them from within by its light, its incandescence.
« Listen to the soul of the earth; contemplate the rays of Fire with devotion.”iii
Fire originally comes from the earth, and its role is to make the link with Heaven, as says the Yaçna.iv
« The earth has won the victory, because it has lit the flame that repels evil.”v
Nothing naturalistic in these images. These ancient religions were not idolatrous, as they were made to believe, with a myopia mixed with profound ignorance. They were penetrated by a cosmic spirituality.
« In the midst of those who honor your flame, I will stand in the way of Truth « vi said the officiant during the sacrifice.
The Fire is stirred by the Wind (which is called Vāyou in Avestic as in Sanskrit). Vāyou is not a simple breath, a breeze, it is the Holy Spirit, the treasure of wisdom.
» Vāyou raises up pure light and directs it against the dark ones.”vii
Water, Fire, Wind are means of mediation, means to link up with the one God, the « Living » God that the Avesta calls Ahura Mazda.
« In the pure light of Heaven, Ahura Mazda exists. »viii
The name of Ahura (the « Living »), calls the supreme Lord. This name is identical to the Sanskrit Asura (we have already seen the equivalence h/s). The root of Asura is asu, “life”.
The Avestic word mazda means « wise ».
« It is you, Ahura Mazda (« the Living Wise One »), whom I have recognized as the primordial principle, the father of the Good Spirit, the source of truth, the author of existence, living eternally in your works.”ix
Clearly, the « Living » is infinitely above all its creatures.
« All luminous bodies, the stars and the Sun, messenger of the day, move in your honor, O Wise One, living and true. »x
I call attention to the alliance of the three words, « wise », « living » and « true », to define the supreme God.
The Vedic priest as well as the Avestic priest addressed God in this way more than four thousand years ago: « To you, O Living and True One, we consecrate this living flame, pure and powerful, the support of the world.”xi
I like to think that the use of these three attributes (« Wise », « Living » and « True »), already defining the essence of the supreme God more than four thousand years ago, is the oldest proven trace of an original theology of monotheism.
It is important to stress that this theology of Life, Wisdom and Truth of a supreme God, unique in His supremacy, precedes the tradition of Abrahamic monotheism by more than a thousand years.
Four millennia later, at the beginning of the 21st century, the world landscape of religions offers us at least three monotheisms, particularly assertorical: Judaism, Christianity, Islam…
« Monotheisms! Monotheisms! », – I would wish wish to apostrophe them, – « A little modesty! Consider with attention and respect the depth of the times that preceded the late emergence of your own dogmas!”
The hidden roots and ancient visions of primeval and deep humanity still show to whoever will see them, our essential, unfailing unity and our unique origin…
Soma is a flammable liquid, composed of clarified butter and various hallucinogenic plant juices. On a symbolic level, Soma is both a representation of the living God, the embodiment of the essence of the cosmos, and the sacrifice par excellence to the supreme God.
Vedic hymns, composed to accompany the sacrifice of the Soma, abound in metaphors, attributes and epithets of the divinity. Verbs such as to pour, to flow, to come, to abide, to embrace, to beget are used to describe the action of God.
Many hymns evoke, in a raw or subliminal way, the dizziness of (divine) love. Words such as lover, woman, womb, ardour, pleasure. But here again, they are metaphors, with hidden meanings, which must be carefully interpreted.
The sacrifice of the divine Soma can be summed up as follows: a mixture of oil, butter and milk flows in flames towards the « matrix » (the crucible where the fire blazes with all its strength), then rises in smoke and fragrance towards Heaven, where it participates in the generation of the divine.
The 9th Mandala of the Rig Veda, entirely dedicated to the sacrifice of the Soma, considered as a God, explains the profound meaning of what is at stake and its cosmic effects. Here are a few quotes, which, I believe, capture the essence of what’s at stake:
« The poured Soma flows for the Ardent, for the Wind, for that which envelops, for the Spirits, for the Active.»i
« This golden light, support, flows into that which ignites it; that which crackles flows into the matrix.”ii
« He who is here [the Soma] has come like an eagle to take up his abode, like the lover to the woman.”iii
« This gold that one drinks, and which flows rumbling towards the matrix, towards pleasure.”iv
« That which flows from desire, comes from that which moves away and from that which comes near, – the sweetness poured out for the Ardent.”v
« Those who go together shouted. They made the gold flow with the stone. Take up residence in the matrix where it flows.”vi
« The sound of the burning Ardent, like the sound of rain; lightning goes into the sky.”vii
« Bringing forth the lights of the sky, generating the sun in the waters, gold envelops milk and waters.”viii
« Coming from the original milk, He flows into the hearth, embracing it, and by crying He generates the Gods.”ix
« Soma, as He lights up, flows towards all the treasures, towards the Gods who grow through the oblation.”x
Other mystical traditions, the Jewish for example, share with the Vedic language comparable semantic elements, similar metaphors (oil, honey, milk, entrails, bosom, matrix, water, wine or liquor, pouring out, flowing into, ).
Particularly interesting in this respect is the Song of Songs, composed between six and eight centuries after the Rig Veda.
We can see that the Rig Veda and the Song of Songs, centuries apart, share, despite their distance, a comparable atmosphere of loving fusion with the divine.
This should come as no surprise. There is no doubt that this is an indication of the existence of an extremely profound anthropological constant.
The traces left in the Palaeolithic by prehistoric religions, which show comparable metaphors, bear witness to this.
The Venus of Laussel is 25,000 years old. Naked, she brandishes a horn to drink it. This gesture, always young, reminds us that in the oldest ages of humanity, the divine was already perceived in the guise of love, – and (infinite) drunkenness, a spiritual one of course, but in a strange sort of way, associated to a more mundane one.
iRig Veda. Mandala9.Hymn 34,.2. For reference, the translation of Ralph T.H. Griffith (1889) gives : « Poured forth to Indra, Varuṇa, to Vāyu and the Marut host, to Viṣṇu, flows the Soma juice. »
iiIbid. Hymn 37,2. For reference, the translation of Ralph T.H. Griffith (1889) gives : « Far-sighted, tawny-coloured, he flows to the sieve, intelligent, bellowing, to his place of rest. »
iiiIbid. Hymn 38,4. For reference, the translation of Ralph T.H. Griffith (1889) gives : « He like a falcon settles down amid the families of men. Speeding like lover to his love. »
ivIbid. Hymn 38,6. For reference, the translation of Ralph T.H. Griffith (1889) gives : « Poured for the draught, this tawny juice flows forth, intelligent, crying out, unto the well-beloved place. »
vIbid. Hymn 39,5. For reference, the translation of Ralph T.H. Griffith (1889) gives : « Inviting him from far away, and even from near at hand, the juice for Indra is poured forth as meath. »
viIbid. Hymne 39,6. Ralph T.H. Griffith (1889) translates: « In union they have sung the hymn ; with stones they urge the Tawny One. Sit in the place of sacrifice. »
viiIbid. Hymn 41,3. Ralph T.H. Griffith (1889) translates: « The mighty Pavamāna’s roar is heard as ‘twere the rush of rain. Lightnings are flashing to the sky. »
viiiIbid. Hymn 42,1. Ralph T.H. Griffith (1889) translates: « Engendering the Sun in floods, engendering heaven’s lights, green-hued, robed in the waters and the milk. »
ixIbid. Hymn 42,4. Ralph T.H. Griffith (1889) translates: « Shedding the ancient fluid He is poured into the cleansing sieve ; He, thundering, hath produces the Gods. »
xIbid. Hymn 42,5. Ralph T.H. Griffith (1889) translates: « Soma, while purifying, sends hither all things to be desired, He sends the Gods who strenghten Law. »
« The earth was tohu and bohu, darkness covered the abyss, a wind of God (וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים , ruah Elohim) was moving over the waters.”i
Tohu means « astonishment, amazement » and bohu means « emptiness, loneliness », explains Rashi, who adds: « Man is seized with amazement and horror in the presence of emptiness.”
Man was amazed and horrified? But how could this be done? Man was only created on the 6th day, when the emptiness had already been partly filled by light, the firmament, the land and the seas, the light fixtures and a multitude of living beings. But this is not necessarily contradictory. It is inferred that Rashi is referring to the « astonishment and horror » that man felt long after the tohu and bohu were created, when man began to reflect on the origins.
However, this reflection has not ceased and is still relevant today.
So there are two kinds of men, if we follow the path indicated by Rashi. Those who feel « amazement and horror » when they think about the hustle and bustle of the origins, and those who are in no way moved by this kind of thinking.
Above the emptiness, above the abyss, above the bohu, « a wind of God » was moving. The word רוּחַ, ruah, is very ambivalent and can mean wind, breath, spirit, soul, depending on the context. Translating here as « a wind » as the Jerusalem Bible does seems to favour a more meteorological or geo-physical approach to these original times. This translation uses the indefinite article (« a wind ») which indicates a certain non-differentiation, a possible multiplicity of other « winds » that God would not have put into action.
The Bible of the French Rabbinate translates ruah Elohim as « the breath of God ». Rashi comments: « The throne of the Divine Majesty stood in the air and hovered on the surface of the waters by the sole force of the breath of the word of the Holy One, and by His order. Like a dove hovering over its nest.”
This comment by Rashi calls for another comment, – from my modest part.
To explain just one word, ruah, Rashi uses four more words. First an expression of three words: « the strength of the breath of the word » of the Holy One, blessed be He, and a fourth word that clarifies its meaning: « by His order ». To this are added two more images, that of the « Throne of the Divine Majesty », and a comparison of the ruah with « the dove hovering over its nest ». The « wind of God » hovering in front of the loneliness of the bohu is thus well surrounded.
It is generally one of the roles of the commentator to multiply the possible outbursts of meaning, and to make promises glimmer. It is apparent from Rashi’s commentary that not only was the ruah not alone in the beginning, but that it bore, so to speak, the Throne of God, in His Majesty, and that it was accompanied by His Word and His Order (i.e. His Power). A curious trinity, for a monotheism that claims to be pure of all kind of trinitarian idolatry.
Now let us change era, and air. Let’s go East.
The same idea of « original breath » is expressed in Chinese by the two caractères元气 , yuánqì. The two ideograms used are: 元 , yuán, origin and 气 , qì, breath.
The qì is the vital breath. It is the fundamental principle of life, which animates all beings. After death, the qì continues to live in the afterlife. The qì embodies the essence of a universe that is constantly changing. It constantly circulates and connects things and beings.
Qì takes different forms. We can distinguish the original qì ( yuánqì,元气), the primordial qì (yuánqì 元氣), the prenatal qì (jīng 精), the qì of the mind and the qì of the soul (shén 神), etc.
Archaeological traces of the qì character have been found, engraved on turtle shells. It was originally represented by three horizontal bars, supposed to evoke steam or mist. The qì also appears on a jade jewel dating from the period of the Fighting Kingdoms (-403 to -256), in the form of the sinogram 炁 , composed of the radical 灬, which refers to fire (huǒ 火). During the Han Dynasty (from -206 to 220), qì is represented by a sinogram combining steam 气 and fire 火.
In the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279) the qì is represented by the sinogram 氣 which refers to the steam emanating from the cooking of rice. It is still used today, and illustrates the material and immaterial nature of the concept. Its key is the pictogram 气 (qì) which represents a cloud.
The lower part of the sinogram is the pictogram 米 (mǐ), which represents grains of rice and means « rice ». The character 氣 expresses the idea of rice boiling in the pot.
The sinogram writes qì as a mixture, immaterial and ethereal (steam), dense and material (rice).
In Genesis, the movement of the divine breath precedes the separation of heaven and earth, and then the creation of living beings; in Chinese cosmology, too, the breath (qì 气) precedes the separation of yin and yang, which is itself the origin of the « ten thousand beings » (wànwù 万物), that is to say all beings and indirectly the things that make up the world.
In Chinese thought, qì is at work in the reign of the living and in the mineral reign. For example, the veins of jade are considered to be organized by qì just like the veins of the human body. Chinese painting depicts the geological strata of mountains, which are one of the macro-cosmic manifestations of qì, and the aesthetics of a canvas depends on the capture of this breath.
Qì nourishes thought and spiritual life and has a certain relationship with the divine shén 神, whose deep meaning is etymologically linked to the characters « to say » and « to show, to reveal ». The divine is not in the qì , that is to say, but the qì can be used by the divine.
The qì is ‘breath, wind’, the divine (shén) is ‘word, revelation’.
The divine is not in the ‘wind’ or the ‘breath’, it is in the ‘word’, – far from any materialism of cloudy emanations, or cooking vapors.
Throughout the ages, cultures and languages, the ancient metaphors of wind and breath still inspire us.
Energy comes from the world and brings it to life. But for the Hebrews and the Chinese, the divine is not of the world. The divine is not in the wind.
The Divine, or the Word, may be in the world, but they are not of the world…
Quite early in history, the idea of a « universal religion » appeared in various civilisations – despite the usual obstacles posed by tradition and the vested interests of priests and princes.
This idea did not fit easily into the old frames of thought, nor into the representations of the world built by tribal, national religions, or, a fortiori, by exclusive, elitist sects, reserved for privileged initiates or a chosen few.
But, for example, five centuries before the Prophet Muhammad, the Persian prophet Mani already affirmed out of the blues that he was the « seal of the prophets ». It was therefore up to him to found and preach a new, universal religion. Manichaeism then had its hour of glory. Augustine, who embraced it for a time, testifies to its expansion and success in the territories controlled by Rome at the time, and to its lasting hold on the spirits.
Manichaeism promoted a dualist system of thought, centred on the eternal struggle between Good and Evil; it is not certain that these ideas have disappeared today.
Before Mani, the first Christians also saw themselves as bearers of a really universal message. They no longer saw themselves as Jews — or Gentiles. They thought of themselves as a third kind of man (« triton genos« , « tertium genus« ), « trans-humans » ahead of the times. They saw themselves as the promoters of a new wisdom, « barbaric » from the Greek point of view, « scandalous » for the Jews, – transcending the power of the Law and of Reason.
Christians were not to be a nation among nations, but « a nation built out of nations » according to the formula of Aphrahat, a Persian sage of the 4th century.
Contrary to the usual dichotomies, that of the Greeks against the Barbarians, or that of the Jews against the Goyim, the Christians thus thought that they embodied a new type of « nation », a « nation » that was not « national », but purely spiritual, a « nation » that would be like a soul in the body of the world (or according to another image, the « salt of the earth »i).
The idea of a really « universal » religion then rubbed shoulders, it is important to say, with positions that were absolutely contrary, exclusive, and even antagonistic to the last degree, like those of the Essenes.
A text found in Qumran, near the Dead Sea, advocates hatred against all those who are not members of the sect, while insisting on the importance that this « hatred » must remain secret. The member of the Essene sect « must hide the teaching of the Law from men of falsity (anshei ha-‘arel), but must announce true knowledge and right judgment to those who have chosen the way. (…) Eternal hatred in a spirit of secrecy for men of perdition! (sin’at ‘olam ‘im anshei shahat be-ruah hasher!)ii « .
G. Stroumsa comments: « The peaceful conduct of the Essenes towards the surrounding world now appears to have been nothing more than a mask hiding a bellicose theology. »
This attitude is still found today in the « taqqiya » of the Shi’ites, for example.
It should be added that the idea of « holy war » was also part of Essene eschatology, as can be seen in the « War Scroll » (War Scroll, 1QM), preserved in Jerusalem, which is also known as the scroll of « The War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness ».
Philo of Alexandria, steeped in Greek culture, considered that the Essenes had a « barbaric philosophy », and « that they were in a sense, the Brahmins of the Jews, an elite among the elite. »
Clearch of Soles, a peripatetic philosopher of the 4th century BC, a disciple of Aristotle, had also seriously considered that the Jews were descended from Brahmins, and that their wisdom was a « legitimate inheritance » from India. This idea spread widely, and was apparently accepted by the Jews of that time, as evidenced by the fact that Philo of Alexandriaiii and Flavius Josephusiv naturally referred to it.
The « barbaric philosophy » of the Essenes and the « barbaric wisdom » of the early Christians have one thing in common: they both point to ideas emanating from a more distant East, that of Persia, Oxus and even, ultimately, the Indus.
Among oriental ideas, one is particularly powerful. That of the double of the soul, or the double soul, depending on the point of view.
The text of the Rule of the Community, found in Qumran, gives an indication: « He created man to rule the world, and assigned to him two spirits with which he must walk until the time when He will return: the spirit of truth and the spirit of lie (ruah ha-emet ve ruah ha-avel).”v
There is broad agreement among researchers to detect an Iranian influence in this anthropology. Shaul Shaked writes: « It is conceivable that contacts between Jews and Iranians led to the formulation of a Jewish theology, which, while following traditional Jewish motifs, came to resemble closely the Iranian worldview. »
G. Stroumsa further notes that such duality in the soul is found in the rabbinic idea of the two basic instincts of good and evil present in the human soul (yetser ha-ra’, yetser ha-tov)vi.
This conception has been widely disseminated since ancient times. Far from being reserved for the Gnostics and Manicheans, who seem to have found their most ancient sources in ancient Persia, it had, as we can see, penetrated Jewish thought in several ways.
But it also aroused strong opposition. Christians, in particular, held different views.
Augustine asserts that there can be no « spirit of evil », since all souls come from God.vii In his Counter Faustus, he argues: « As they say that every living being has two souls, one from the light, the other from the darkness, is it not clear that the good soul leaves at the moment of death, while the evil soul remains?”viii
Origen has yet another interpretation: every soul is assisted by two angels, an angel of righteousness and an angel of iniquityix. There are not two opposing souls, but rather a higher soul and another in a lower position.
Manichaeism itself varied on this delicate issue. It presented two different conceptions of the dualism inherent in the soul. The horizontal conception put the two souls, one good and one bad, in conflict. The other conception, vertical, put the soul in relation to its celestial counterpart, its ‘guardian angel’. The guardian angel of Mani, the Paraclete (« the intercessor angel »), the Holy Spirit are all possible figures of this twin, divine soul.
This conception of a celestial Spirit forming a « couple » (suzugia) with each soul was theorised by Tatian the Syrian in the 2nd century AD, as Erik Peterson notes.
Stroumsa points out that « this conception, which was already widespread in Iran, clearly reflects shamanistic forms of thought, according to which the soul can come and go outside the individual under certain conditions.”x
The idea of the soul of Osiris or Horus floating above the body of the dead God, the angels of the Jewish tradition, the Greek « daimon », the split souls of the Gnostics, the Manicheans, or the Iranians, or, even more ancient, the experiences of the shamans, by their profound analogies, testify to the existence of « anthropological constants », of which the comparative study of ancient religions gives a glimpse.
All these traditions converge in this: the soul is not only a principle of life, attached to an earthly body, which would be destined to disappear after death.
It is also attached to a higher, spiritual principle that guards and guides it.
Science has recently taken a step in this direction, foreseen for several millennia, by demonstrating that man’s « spirit » is not only located in the brain itself, but that it is also « diffused » all around him, in the emotional, symbolic, imaginary and social spheres.
Perhaps one day we will be able to objectify in a tangible way this intuition, so ancient, and so « universal ». In the meantime, let us conclude that it is difficult to be satisfied with a narrowly materialistic, mechanical description of the world.