Religion and plagiarism

Plagiarized Godhead©Philippe Quéau 2018

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

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

iiIbid. X, 1,7-8

iiiIbid. X,2,1

ivIbid. X,2,6

vIbid. X,2,6

viIbid. X,4,15

Yōḥ, Jove, Yah and Yahweh

Mars Ciel ©Philippe Quéau 2020

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).

iG. Dumézil. Idées romaines. 1969

iiYasna 44,9

iiiYast X. 120

The Divine, – Long Before Abraham

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…

iKhorda. Prayer to Mithra.

iiVend. Farg. 19 quoted in Émile Burnouf. Le Vase sacré. 1896

iiiYaçna 30.2

ivYaçna 30.2

vYaçna 32.14

viYaçna 43.9

viiYaçna 53.6

viiiVisp 31.8

ixYaçna 31.8

xYaçna 50.30

xiYaçna 34.4

Drunken Love, a metaphor of Divine Love

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.

« Your name is an oil that pours out.”xi

« Your lips, O bride, distil the virgin honey. Honey and milk are under your tongue.”xii

« Myrrh and aloes, with the finest aromas. Source of the gardens, well of living water, runoff from Lebanon!”xiii

« I gather my myrrh and my balm, I eat my honey and my comb, I drink my wine and my milk.”xiv

« From my hands dripped myrrh, from my fingers virgin myrrh.”xv

« His head is of gold, pure gold. “xvi

« Her eyes are doves, at the edge of rivers, bathing in milk, resting on the edge of a basin.”xvii

« Your bosom, a rounded cut, let there be no lack of wine! »xviii

« I will make you drink a fragrant wine.”xix

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. Mandala 9. 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. »

xi So 1,3

xii So 4,11

xiii So 4,14-15

xiv So 5,1

xv So 5,3

xvi So 5,11

xvii So 5,12

xviii So 7,3

xix So 8,2

Hebrew Wind and Chinese Breath

« 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 , , breath.

The is the vital breath. It is the fundamental principle of life, which animates all beings. After death, the continues to live in the afterlife. The embodies the essence of a universe that is constantly changing. It constantly circulates and connects things and beings.

takes different forms. We can distinguish the original ( yuánqì,元气), the primordial (yuánqì 元氣), the prenatal (jīng 精), the of the mind and the of the soul (shén 神), etc.

Archaeological traces of the character have been found, engraved on turtle shells. It was originally represented by three horizontal bars, supposed to evoke steam or mist. The 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), is represented by a sinogram combining steam 气 and fire 火.

In the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279) the 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 () which represents a cloud.

The lower part of the sinogram is the pictogram 米 (), which represents grains of rice and means « rice ». The character 氣 expresses the idea of rice boiling in the pot.

The sinogram writes 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 ( 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, 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 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 , and the aesthetics of a canvas depends on the capture of this breath.

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 , that is to say, but the can be used by the divine.

The 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…

iGen. 1,2

A Philosophy of Hatred

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.

And even less with a philosophy of hatred.


iMt, 5,13

iiQumran P. IX. I. Quoted in Guy Stroumsa. Barbarian Philosophy.

iiiPhilo of Alexandria. Cf. Quod omnis probus liber sit. 72-94 et Vita Mosis 2. 19-20

ivFlavius Josephus. Contra Apius.. 1. 176-182

vQumran. The Rule of Community. III, 18

viB.Yoma 69b, Baba Bathra 16a, Gen Rabba 9.9)

viiAugustin. De duabus animabus.

viiiAugustin. Contra faustum. 6,8

ixOrigen. Homelies on St Luke.

xGuy Stroumsa. Barbarian Philosophy.

The knowledge of immortality (Hermes and Moses)

Towards the end of the 15th century, Marsilius Ficinus summed up the whole of « ancient theology » in six emblematic names: Hermes Trismegistus, Orpheus, Aglaophemus, Pythagoras, Philolaos, and Plato. In his mind, these characters formed one and the same ‘sect of initiates’, transmitting knowledge, wisdom and secrets to each other.

The first link in this long chain of initiation was Hermes Trismegistus, « three times very great », of whom Plato himself is only a distant disciple.

Well after Plato, in the 2nd century AD, the Corpus Hermeticum appeared, supposedly bringing back the essence of this ancient knowledge. The first Book of the Corpus is called after Poimandres, a Greek name meaning « the shepherd of man ».

In this Book, Hermes tells of his encounter with Poimandres:

« Who are you then?

– I am Poimandres (the « shepherd of man »), the Sovereign Intelligence. I know what you desire, and I am with you everywhere.”

Poimandres then enlightens the mind of Hermes, who expresses himself in the first person to recount his vision: « I am living an indefinable spectacle. Everything became a soft and pleasant light that charmed my sight. Soon afterwards, a frightful and horrible darkness descended in a sinuous form; it seemed to me as if this darkness was changing into some kind of damp and troubled nature, exhaling a smoke like fire and a kind of gloomy noise. Then there came out an inarticulate cry which seemed to be the voice of light.”

« Have you understood what this vision means?  » asks Poimandres. « This light is me, the Intelligence, – your God, who precedes the wet nature out of darkness. The luminous Word that emanates from Intelligence is the Son of God.

– What do you mean, I replied.

– Learn this: what you see and hear in you is the Word, the word of the Lord; intelligence is the Father God. They are not separated from one another, for the union is their life.

– I thank you, I replied.

– Understand the light, he said, and know it. »

We can deduce from the words of Poimandres that « vision » is only a glimpse of the mystery, not its end. Understanding is not knowing, and knowing is not understanding. This is an essential principle of Gnosis.

At the time when the Corpus Hermeticum was composed, the Roman Empire reached its apogee. The Pax romana reigned from Brittany (England) to Egypt, from Tingitan Mauritania to Mesopotamia. The emperor was considered a god. Marcus Aurelius had to fight against the Barbarians on the Danube front, but the invasions and serious crises of the 3rd century had not begun.

Christianity was still only a ‘superstition’ (superstitio illicita) among many others. The cult of Mithra dominated in the Roman armies, and the influence of the Eastern and Gnostic cults was significant. Hermeticism took its place in this effervescence.

Hermetic formulas undoubtedly originated several centuries earlier, and thus well before the Gospel of John, written at the end of the 1st century AD.

But as transcribed in the Poimandres, these formulas are striking in the simplicity and ease with which they seem to prefigure (or repeat?) some of the formulas of the Gospel of John. According to John, Christ is the Word of God, His Logos. Christ is the Son of God, and he is also « One » with Him. Would John have been sensitive to any hermetic influence? Or was it the opposite, the hermeticism of Poimandres mimicking Christian ideas?

Hermetic formulas do not copy the Johannine metaphors, nor do they duplicate them in any way. Under the apparent analogy, significant discrepancies emerge.

Hermeticism, however heraldable it may be to certain aspects of Christian theology, is certainly distinguished from it by other features, which belong only to it, and which clearly refer to Gnosis – from which Christianity very early wanted to distance itself, without, moreover, totally escaping its philosophical attraction.

Poïmandres says, for example, that the Sovereign of the world shows the image of his divinity to the « inferior nature ». Nature falls in love with this image, an image that is none other than man. Man too, seeing in the water the reflection of his own form, falls in love with his own nature (or with himself?) and wants to possess it. Nature and man are therefore closely united by mutual love.

Poïmandres explains: « This is why man, alone among all the beings living on earth, is double, mortal in body and immortal in essence. Immortal and sovereign of all things, he is subject to the destiny that governs what is mortal; superior to the harmony of the world, he is captive in his bonds; male and female like his father, and superior to sleep he is dominated by sleep.”

Then comes man’s ascent among the powers and towards God. By uniting with man, nature successively generates seven « men » (male and female), who receive their soul and intelligence from « life » and « light », in the form of air and fire.

This succession of « men » is an allegory of the necessary evolution of human nature. Various human natures must succeed one another through the historical ages.

Man must finally reach the stage where he/she strips him/herself of all the harmonies and beauties of the world. With only his/her own power left, he/she reaches an « eighth nature ».

In this eighth stage the « powers » reign, « ascending » towards God, to be reborn in Him.

Poimandres concluded his speech to Hermes with the following words: « This is the final good of those who possess Gnosis, – to become God. What are you waiting for now? You have learned everything, you only have to show the way to men, so that through you God may save the human race.”

Then began the mission of Hermes among Humankind: « And I began to preach to men the beauty of religion and Gnosis: peoples, men born of the earth, immersed in the drunkenness, sleep and ignorance of God, shake off your sensual torpor, wake up from your foolishness! Why, O men born of the earth, do you surrender yourselves to death, when you are allowed to obtain immortality? Come back to yourselves, you who walk in error, who languish in ignorance; depart from the dark light, take part in immortality by renouncing corruption ».

Who was Hermes Trismegistus really? A syncretic entity? A Ptolemaic myth? A pagan Christ? A Gnostic philosopher? A theological-political creation?

Through his ideas, Hermes Trismegistus embodied the fusion of two cultures, Greek and Egyptian. He is both the god Hermes of the Greeks, messenger of the gods and conductor of souls (psychopompos), and the god Thoth of ancient Egypt, who invented hieroglyphics and helped Isis to gather the scattered members of Osiris.

I stand by the interpretation of Marsilius Ficinus. Hermes is the first of the « ancient theologians ».

One lends only to the rich. In the 4th century B.C., Hecateus of Abatea had written that Thot-Hermes was the inventor of writing, astronomy and the lyre.

Artapan, in the 2nd century BC, even saw in him a figure of Moses.

Hermes in fact spoke, like Moses, with God. He too was given the mission of guiding mankind towards the Promised Land, the land that has a name: the knowledge of immortality.

A God with no Name

The intuition of mystery has touched humanity from the earliest ages. Eight hundred thousand years ago, men carried out religious rites accompanying the death of their loved ones, in a cave near Beijing, at Chou Kou Tien. Skulls were found there, placed in a circle and painted in red ochre. They bear witness to the fact that almost a million years ago, men believed that death was a passage.

Fascination with other worlds, a sense of mystery, confrontation with the weakness of life and the rigor of death, seem to be part of the human genetic heritage, since the dawn of time, inhabiting the unconscious, sculpting cultures, knotting myths, informing languages.

The idea of the power of the divine is an extremely ancient idea, as old as humanity itself. It is equally obvious that the minds of men all over the world have, since extremely ancient times, turned towards forms of animism, religions of immanence or even religions of ecstasy and transcendent trance, long before being able to speculate and refine « theological » questions such as the formal opposition between « polytheism » and « monotheism ».

Brains and cultures, minds and languages, were not yet mature.

Animism, shamanism, polytheism, monotheism, and the religions of the immanence try to designate what cannot be said. In the high period, the time of human dawn, all these religions in -isms obviously came together in a single intuition, a single vision: the absolute weakness of man, the irremediable fleetingness of his life, and the infinite greatness and power of the unknown.

Feeling, guessing, fearing, worshipping, revering, this power was one and multiple. Innumerable names throughout the world have tried to express this power, without ever reaching its intrinsic unity.

This is why the assertion of the monotheisms that « God is One » is both a door that has been open for millions of years and at the same time, in a certain way, is also a saying that closes our understanding of the very nature of the « mystery », our understanding of how this « mystery » has taken root in the heart of the human soul, since Homo knew himself to be a sapiens

In the 17th century, Ralph Cudworth was already tackling the « great prejudice » that all primitive and ancient religions had been polytheistic, and that only « a small, insignificant handful of Jews »i had developed the idea of a single God.

A « small insignificant handful of Jews »? Compared to the Nations, number is not always the best indicator. Another way to put the question is: was the idea of the One God invented by the Jews? If so, when and why? If not, who invented it, and for how long was it there around the world?

If we analyse the available sources, it would seem that this idea appeared very early among the nations, perhaps even before the so-called « historical » times. But it must be recognized that the Jews brought the idea to its incandescence, and above all that they « published » it, and « democratized » it, making it the essential idea of their people. Elsewhere, and for millennia, the idea was present, but reserved in a way to an elite.

Greek polytheism, the Sibylline oracles, Zoroastrianism, the Chaldean religion, Orphism, all these « ancient » religions distinguished a radical difference between multiple born and mortal gods, and a Single God, not created and existing by Himself. The Orphic cabal had a great secret, a mystery reserved for the initiated, namely: « God is the Whole ».

Cudworth deduced from the testimonies of Clement of Alexandria, Plutarch, Iamblichus, Horapollo, or Damascius, that it was indisputably clear that Orpheus and all the other Greek pagans knew a single universal deity who was « the One », and « the Whole ». But this knowledge was secret, reserved for the initiated.

Clement of Alexandria wrote that « All the barbarian and Greek theologians had kept the principles of reality secret and had only transmitted the truth in the form of enigmas, symbols, allegories, metaphors and other tropes and similar figures. « ii And Clement made a comparison between the Egyptians and the Hebrews in this respect: « The Egyptians represented the truly secret Logos, which they kept deep in the sanctuary of truth, by what they called ‘Adyta’, and the Hebrews by the curtain in the Temple. As far as concealment is concerned, the secrets of the Hebrews and those of the Egyptians are very similar.”iii

Hieroglyphics (as sacred writing) and allegories (the meaning of symbols and images) were used to transmit the secret arcana of the Egyptian religion to those who were worthy of it, to the most qualified priests and to those chosen to succeed the king.

The « hieroglyphic science » was entirely responsible for expressing the mysteries of theology and religion in such a way that they remained hidden from the profane crowd. The highest of these mysteries was that of the revelation of « the One and Universal Divinity, the Creator of the whole world, » Cudworth added.

Plutarch noted several times in his famous work, On Isis and Osiris, that the Egyptians called their supreme God « the First God » and considered him a « dark and hidden God ».

Cudworth points out that Horapollo tells us that the Egyptians knew a Pantokrator (Universal Sovereign) and a Kosmokrator (Cosmic Sovereign), and that the Egyptian notion of ‘God’ referred to a « spirit that spreads throughout the world, and penetrates into all things to the deepest depths.

The « divine Iamblichus » made similar analyses in his De Mysteriis Aegyptiorum.

Finally, Damascius, in his Treatise on First Principles, wrote that the Egyptian philosophers said that there is a single principle of all things, which is revered under the name of ‘invisible darkness’. This « invisible darkness » is an allegory of this supreme deity, namely that it is inconceivable.

This supreme deity has the name « Ammon », which means « that which is hidden », as explained by Manetho of Sebennytos.

Cudworth, to whom we owe this compilation of quotations, deduced that « among the Egyptians, Ammon was not only the name of the supreme Deity, but also the name of the hidden, invisible and corporeal Deity ».

Cudworth concludes that long before Moses, himself of Egyptian culture, and brought up in the knowledge of ‘Egyptian wisdom’, the Egyptians were already worshipping a Supreme God, conceived as invisible, hidden, outside the world and independent of it.

The One (to Hen, in Greek) is the invisible origin of all things and he manifests himself, or rather « hides » himself in the Whole (to Pan, in Greek).

The same anthropological descent towards the mysterious depths of belief can be undertaken systematically, notably with the oldest texts we have, those of Zend Avesta, the Vedas and their commentaries on Upaniṣad.

« Beyond the senses is the mind, higher than the mind is the essence, above the essence is the great Self, higher than the great [Self] is the unmanifested.

But beyond the unmanifested is Man, the Puruṣa, passing through all and without sign in truth. By knowing Him, the human being is liberated and attains immortality.

His form does not exist to be seen, no one can see it through the eye. Through the heart, through the intelligence, through the mind He is apprehended – those who know Him become immortal. (…)

Not even by speech, not even by the mind can He be reached, not even by the eye. How can He be perceived other than by saying: « He is »?

And by saying « He is » (in Sanskrit asti), He can be perceived in two ways according to His true nature. And by saying « He is », for the one who perceives Him, His true nature is established.

When all the desires established in one’s heart are liberated, then the mortal becomes immortal, he reaches here the Brahman.”iv

The Zohar also affirms: « The Holy One blessed be He has a hidden aspect and a revealed aspect. »

Aren’t these not « two ways » of perceiving the true nature of « He is »? Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhyn affirms: « The essence of the En-Sof (Infinite) is hidden more than any secret; it must not be named by any name, not even the Tetragrammaton, not even the end of the smallest letter, the Yod.” v

So what do all these names of God mean in the purest monotheism?

« R. ‘Abba bar Mamel says: The Holy One blessed be He says to Moshe: Do you want to know my Name? I name Myself after my deeds. Sometimes my name is El Shadday, Tsebaoth, Elohim, YHVY. When I judge creatures my name is Elohim, when I fight the wicked I am called Tsebaoth, when I suspend the faults of men I am El Shadday and when I take pity on the worlds I am YHVH. This Name is the attribute of mercy, as it is said: « YHVY, YHVH, merciful and compassionate God » (Ex. 34:6). Likewise: ‘Ehyeh, asher ‘Ehyeh (I am who I am) (Ex. 3:14) – I name myself after my deeds.”vi

These are very wise words, which invite us to ask ourselves what was the name of YHVH, 800,000 years ago, at Chou Kou Tien, when He saw the sorrow of these men and women, a small group of Homo sapiens in affliction and grief, assembled at the bottom of a cave.

iRalph Cudworth, True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678), quoted in Jan Assmann, Moïse l’Égyptien, 2001, p.138

iiClement of Alexandria, Stromata V, ch. 4, 21,4

iiiClement of Alexandria, Stromata V, ch.3, 19,3 and Stromata V, ch.6, 41,2

ivKaha-upaniad 2.3. 7-9 and 12-14. Upaniad. My translation into English from the French Translation by Alyette Degrâces. Fayard. 2014. p. 390-391

vRabbi Hayyim de Volozhyn. L’âme de la vie. 2ème Portique, ch. 2. Trad. Benjamin Gross. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1986, p.74

viIbid. 2ème Portique, ch. 3, p. 75.

Unspeakable words

Every language has its genius, their words have their power, their potency. One speaks them without really knowing them. One grazes their abysses, fly over their peaks, ignoring their heaps of secrets.

Our languages tell us that we are enigmas to ourselves.

Perhaps two examples will shed some light on the far-reaching implications of this unconscious of languages.

The Hebrew verb נָהַר (nāhar) means ‘to shine, to radiate with joy’, as in Is 60:5 (“Then you will look and be radiant”i). A derived word נָהָר (nāhār) means « stream, river ». In feminine form, this word becomes נָהָרָה (nāhārā) and means « light ». And in a different vocalization, attested in Chaldean, נָהִירוּ (nāhiru) means « wisdom ».

This word, therefore, may incarnate unto itself light, joy, a river – and wisdom!

Curiously, the Greek language also has words that bring together the meaning of light, the idea of joy and the brilliance of water. A verse from Aeschylus in the Prometheus in chains sings « the countless smile of the sea waves » (ποντίων τε κυμάτων άνήριθμον γέλασμα).

Another example highlights the intrinsic capacity of a word to bear witness to the dream of the whole language, and of those who speak it. Thus the verb עָלַם (alam) means « to hide, to be ignored ». As a noun, the same word עָלַם means ‘eternity’. One would like to ask: does this word incite to think that eternity is ‘hidden’? Or that ignorance is ‘eternal’?

In another vocalization, the same word means ‘world’. But perhaps even most beautifully, the word , in yet another vocalization (‘elem), means ‘child’.

Again the mind wanders… Is the world a veiled child? Does a child hide his eternity? Does eternity veil and hidden childhood? Is the veil the eternal childhood of the world?

A thousand possible thoughts arise from just one word. Languages, all of them, abound with simple surprises, disconcerting shifts, and forgotten nuggets. Yet they bear witness to a dream, they testify that the smallest word is linked to untold mysteries.

i In Hebrew : ‘אָז תִּרְאִי וְנָהַרְתְּ ‘

Anything May Yet Happen

Sometimes inaction or a wait-and-see attitude pays off. For example, it is written: « Moses and the Ark of the Covenant did not move ». Standing still in the middle of the camp was the best thing to do. Tactical caution was called for. Those who rushed to the top of the mountain were soon « cut to pieces » by the Amalekite and the Canaanite.

Far from the factual, from common sense, Philo proposes two unexpected ways of interpreting this verse: « Either the wise man does not separate himself from virtue, or virtue ignores movement, and the good man changes it.”i

Philo’s method is known. He always looks for the allegorical meaning in words, the hidden movement towards symbolic heights. Phrases seem to move, taking on a higher meaning as they pass by.

By this upward movement, the sentence mimics the non-movement (permanence) of virtue, it embodies the non-change (immutability) of the good man.

Philo explains: « The breath of God joins only one category of men, those who strip themselves of all that is in the becoming, of the innermost veil, of the envelope of opinion »ii.

The future is not in the becoming. Nor in opinion.

Aaron speaks, he is skilful with words; Moses remains in silence, he strips himself of any words. With a few words, the biblical sentence makes the silent and immobile contemplation of Moses heard.

This is a general lesson. Thought must free itself from everything that clutters it, make itself « naked ».

When Moses leaves the camp, he will pitch his tent on the mountain. He goes out of the world. That is to say, he establishes himself firmly on his own judgment, so that he can enter the “dark cloud”, the invisible region. He will need this inner immutability in order to face the mysteries, and to bear witness to them afterwards.

Moses is not only an initiate. He is the hierophant of mystical knowledge, a tutor of divine truths, which are neither of heaven nor earth.

There are men who are from the earth, others are from heaven, but others go even further. Those of the earth seek material pleasures and cherish the body. Those from heaven are the artists, the scientists and the humanists.

And then there are those who, like Moses or other Prophets, are not satisfied with the Kingdom of the universe, and are not satisfied with being citizens of the world. They neglect all the senses. They emigrate. They choose the exodus to the Land of immortal and immaterial ideas. They believe that the Earth is not the future of mankind. Neither are the Heavens. Does man have a future, by the way? Isn’t man essentially transitory, fleeting, ephemeral?

Didn’t God say that He wanted to « blot out man”?

“The Lord regretted having created man on earth, and he grieved within himself. And the Lord said, ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the earth, every man and beast and crawling creature and bird of the air—for I am grieved that I have made them’.”iii

The Lord « regretted » and then « grieved ».

How can God regret what He has done? Is He not supremely wise? Could He not foresee in His foreknowledge what would become of His creation?

And why these two verbs, « to regret » and « to grieve », in succession? Pleonasm? Unnecessary repetition?

Maybe the first verb translates the clarity of the notion, the second conveys the depth of the reflection. One is thinking at rest, the other is thinking on the move. These are two powers of the mind. They allow us to contemplate creatures as they are, but also as being able to become other than they are.

Rashi comments on this verse.

“ ‘He regretted having created’. The Midrach translates: God took solace in the fact that at least He had created man ON EARTH. If He had created him in heaven, he would have led the worlds above in his rebellion. ‘And He grieved in His heart’. The Targum Onkelos translates: Man (subject of the verb) became an object of suffering in the heart of God. It came to God’s mind to inflict punishment on him. Another explanation of the first verb VA-YINA’HEM: ‘he regretted’. In God’s mind, mercy gave way to justice. He wondered: what to do with the man He had created on earth? The verb נחם always means in the Bible: to ask oneself what to do. It means: ‘What is the right thing to do?’ God is not a man to regret (Num 23,19) « .

The dictionary says that the verb נחם means: « to repent, to change one’s feelings, to allow oneself to be bent, to have pity, to forgive ». These nuances of meaning do not apply indifferently to man or to God.

It can apply to the point of view of man, but probably not to the point of view of God, when it is a question of « repenting », « regretting », « changing one’s feelings ». But it can be applied from God’s point of view, if we translate this word as « to have mercy », « to forgive », « to allow oneself to be bent ».

The nuance proposed by Rashi, « to ask oneself what to do », opens up still other paths, which (tellingly) are not quoted in the dictionary, and which are turned towards the future, towards the unforeseen.

Virtue ignores movement, and the good man ignores change, Philo said two thousand years ago. And, a little less than a thousand years ago, Rashi said that God himself could « change his feelings » and « ask himself what to do ».

There is no end to surprises, yet to come. Anything is possible, definitely. Anything may yet happen.

iPhilo. De Gigantibus. 1,48

iiPhilo. De Gigantibus. 1,53

iiiGen 6, 6-7

The « Highest » and the « Lowest »

In Biblical Hebrew, the word « to descend » (יָרַד yarad) offers a curiously vast range of meanings, including distant semantic universes that are brought closer together, some very simple, everyday ones and others touching on very high notions, including the idea of theophany.

The primary meaning of the verb yarad is “to go from top to bottom”:

« She went down to the fountain » (Gen 24:16)

« My beloved went down to his garden. « (Ct 6,2)

« Abram went down to Egypt. « (Gen 12:10)

« Moses came down from Mount Sinai. « (Ex 34:29)

But the idea of a « descent » invites various metaphors. Here are some examples:

« He will come down like rain on the cut grass. « (Ps 72:10)

« Those who go down into the peat. « (Pr 1,12)

« Let them go down alive into the sheol. « (Ps 55:16)

Some of the metaphors associated with “yarada” broaden the meaning, while keeping the general idea.

« The day was going down. « (Jg 19:11)

« They all burst (yoréd, יֹרֵד בַּבֶּכִי) into tears. « (Is 15:3)

« Those who sail (yoredéi, יוֹרְדֵי הַיָּם) on the sea. « (Ps 107:23)

A second group of meanings is formed around meanings such as: « to fall, to perish, to be ruined ».

« You, you will always fall further and further down. « (Deut 28:43)

The Ritual speaks of a sacrifice that « goes up » and « goes down », that is to say that it varies according to the fortune or virtue of the person offering it.

A third group of meanings, built around the Hiphil form of the verb, increases the strength and intensity of the meaning: « To bring down, to humiliate, to precipitate ».

Finally there is the particular group of meanings associated with apparitions of God, the theophanies.

« The Lord will come down (yéréd YHVH,  יֵרֵד יְהוָה )to Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. « (Ex 19:11)

« The mountain of Sinai was all steamy because the Lord had come down (yarad  יָרַד )there in the midst of the flame (ba-éch בָּאֵשׁ). « (Ex 19:18).

« When Moses had entered, the pillar of cloud descended (yéréd יֵרֵד) and stopped at the entrance of the Tent and God spoke with Moses. « (Ex 33:9)

« The Lord of Hosts will come down to do battle on Mount Zion and its heights. »(Is 31:4)

« The Lord came down to earth to see the city and the tower. « (Gen 11:5)

A theophany is obviously an extraordinary phenomenon. Witnesses who are able to report a godly vision and translate it into convincing words can sometimes contradict themselves, increasing the doubt of the skeptics. But they also strengthen the faith of those who see hidden meanings beyond words.

Let us take the example of a curious verse:

« He parted the heavens and came down; dark clouds were under His feet. » (2S 22,10)

A good Cartesian might object: if God comes down with a thick mist under His feet, how can one see Him from below?

Several answers to this rather naive objection are possible. The phenomenon can be observed from several angles. Or the expression « dark clouds » may be open to interpretation. It may mean that God is indeed descending, but with a kind of reticence. Another verse is an allegory of the cloud or mist:

« Ah, may you tear the heavens apart and come down! « (Is 63:19).

Theophany is sometimes followed by considerable physical effects or, conversely, very subtle consequences.

In the catastrophic genre: « You went down, and the mountains staggered. « (Is 64:2)

In a more subtle genre, there is the dream, like those of Jacob and Moses.

« The divine messengers went up and down this ladder. « (Gen 28:12). There is the idea of a continuous, processional link between the top and the bottom.

God thus addresses Moses in this way:

« I will come down and speak to you and I will take away part of the spirit that is on you and put it on them. « (Num 11:17)

Is Moses threatened with a possible lobotomy? Should part of his mind be removed to benefit his co-religionists?

Philo offers this reassuring comment:

« Don’t think that the removal was done by entrenchment or separation. It’s like fire: one would light a thousand torches in it, but it remains equal to itself and does not diminish in the least. This is also the nature of science. »i

There is a more important issue. Why does God, who in principle is abundantly endowed with it, need to take some of the spirit of Moses and distribute it like at auction?

God takes a little of Moses’ spirit because Moses possesses a unique spirit, without equal. God recognizes this uniqueness and wants others to benefit from it. God wants to multiply (to clone?) part of Moses’ spirit, to share it with the Hebrews.

This is a kind of « communion ».

God has « come down » to distribute to the people what is unique in Moses.

The semantic analysis of the word yarad projects, as one can see, a wide spectrum of meaning.

This word may mean « fall », « decay », « humiliation », but also the « appearance » of God in glory on the mountain or in the clouds, or may convey the intimate operation of a « communion », linking spirit to spirit.

Thus, the idea of a theophany, expressed in the form of God’s « descent » is not, by construction, immune from possible contamination or slippage, coming from more ordinary, much more human acceptances.

From this observation, of a purely semantic nature, a lesson can be drawn about an aspect of the deepest nature of the divine.

The Highest may also descend into the Lowest.

iPhilo. De Gigantibus. 1,22

YHVH’s Temounah

The Hebrew word תְּמוּנָה (temounah) has three meanings, according to 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., it is a form or figure of an object perceived by the senses. « (Deut. 4:25)

Then, it may describe imaginary figures and thoughts that may occur in the imagination: « In thoughts born of night visions, etc. »(Jb. 4:13). This passage from Job ends by using the word temounah: « A figure (temounah), whose features were unknown to me, stood there before my eyes. « (Jb. 4:16). This means, says Maimonides, that there was a ghost before Job’s eyes, appearing while he was sleeping.

In its third sense, this word means the idea perceived by the intelligence. It is in this sense, says Maimonides, that one can use temounah when speaking of God, as in this passage: « And he beholds the figure (temounah) of the Lord (YHVH). « (Num. 12:8).

Maimonides comments as follows: “That is to say, he [Moses] contemplates God in his reality.”

In this famous passage, God speaks in the first person singular: “I speak to him [Moses] face to face, in evidence, not in riddles.”

Then, immediately afterwards, God speaks of Himself in the third person: « and he [Moses] sees the form (temounah) of YHVH. »

Maimonides comments: « The doctors say that this was a reward for having first ‘hidden his face so as not to look at God’ (Berakhot 7a) ».

Indeed, during the burning bush episode: “Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look towards God” (Ex. 3:6)

But Maimonides is silent on the fact that the Berakhot treatise reports opposing opinions on this subject.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korḥa interprets negatively that Moses first hid his face and then asked God to show him His « glory » (Ex. 33:18). Consequently, God denies him this privilege.

On the contrary, Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥmani and Rabbi Yonatan believe that Moses’ discretion when God appeared in the burning bush was rewarded in three ways. Firstly, his face « shone » when he came down from the mountain (Ex. 34:29). Secondly, the Israelites « were afraid to approach him » (Ex. 34:30). Thirdly, Moses could « see the form (temounah) of YHVH » (Num. 12:8).

It is difficult to say anything new after the doctors of the Talmud and Maimonides. I will try anyway.

The word תְּמוּנָה (temounah) has as its verbal root מוּן, moun, “to furrow, split; to invent, fabricate, lie”i. The letter taw, initial of temounah, gives the word its substantive form. But if one swaps this taw with the teth of the Hebrew alphabet, one gets the word themounah. And curiously enough, the word thamana, טָמַן, means precisely « to hide, to bury ».

I find it very surprising that Moses “hides” (thamana) his face in order not to see the temounah of God. And that by “hiding” (thamana) his face, he was precisely granted the privilege of seeing YHVH’s temounah…

One may still want to ask: was YHVH’s temounah a figure, a vision or an idea?

Admittedly, the etymological root of the word temounah is not very reassuring, as it evokes invention, fabrication or lies…

We may want to re-read Num 12:6-8 with extra attention:

“If there is a prophet among you, it is in a vision ( בַּמַּרְאָה , ba-mar’ah) that I reveal myself to him, it is in a dream (בַּחֲלוֹם , ba-ḥalom) that I speak to him. It is not so with my servant Moses, all my house is entrusted to him. I speak to him face to face, (פֶּה אֶל-פֶּה , pê êl-pê), in evidence, (מַרְאֶה , mar’êh), not in riddles, and he sees the temounah of YHVH.” (Numbers 12:6-8).

It is said explicitly, here, that Moses is not just like other prophets, and that consequently, God did not reveal Himself to Moses “in a vision” (ba-mar’ah) or “in a dream” (ba-ḥalom).

However God revealed Himself as “mar’êh” and as “temounah”. What do these words really mean?

The word מַרְאֶה , mar’êh, means in fact « vision », but also « mirror ». The first meaning is found in Dan 10:7, « They did not see the vision » and in Ez 8:3, « In visions of God » (בְּמַרְאוֹת אֱלֹהִים , be-mar’ot Elohim). The second meaning is found in Ex 38:8, « with the mirrors of the women ».

Given the context, it seems probable that the meaning found in Daniel and Ezechiel (‘vision’) must prevail here, though this meaning still seem to contradict Num 12:6.

The translation of mar’êh by « evidence » is also a possible option, but there still may be an ambiguity, if the « vision » is seen like in a « mirror ».

The King James translation of Num 12:8 gives :

« With him will I speak mouth to mouth, even apparently, and not in dark speeches; and the similitude of the LORD shall he behold. »

That translation does not really help to eradicate a doubt about the real nature of the mar’êh and of the temounah.

So, did Moses “see” YHVH “apparently”, or in a “vision”, or like “in a mirror”, or “in evidence” ?

What we just know is that Moses did not “see” the temounah of YHVH ( תְמֻנַת יְהוָה ), “by a vision” or “in a vision” (ba-mar’ah).

We also know that Moses did not “see” but did “contemplate” (יַבִּיט , yabit) “a vision” (mar’êh), – directly, without the preposition בַּ, i.e. without any intermediary.

Moses contemplated a pure and intelligible idea, perceived by his intelligence, his soul.

iCf. Ernest Klein. A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English. Carta Jerusalem & The University of Haifa. 1987

Eternal Birth

Man is an “intermediate being”, said Plato, “between the mortal and the immortal”i. This obscure expression can be understood in several senses.

Man is constantly on the move. He goes up and down. He ascends towards ideas he doesn’t quite understand, and he descends towards the matter he has forgotten and which reminds him of her. Systole and diastole of the soul. Breathing of the body, inhalation, exhalation of the spirit.

The ancients had formed words that can help to understand these opposite movements. The Greek word ἒκστασις (extasis), means « coming out of oneself ». In « ecstasy », the spirit « comes out » of the body, it is caught in a movement that carries it away. Ecstasy has nothing to do with what is called « contemplation », which is immobile, stable, and which Aristotle called θεωρία (theoria).

The meaning of the word θεωρία as « contemplation, consideration » is rather late, since it only appears with Plato and Aristotle. Later, in Hellenistic Greek, the word took on the meaning of « theory, speculation », as opposed to « practice ».

But originally, θεωρία meant « sending delegates to a religious festival, religious embassy, being a theorist ». The « theorist » was the person going on a trip to consult the oracle, or to attend a religious ceremony. A « theory » was a religious delegation going to a holy place.

Ecstasy is an exit from the body. The theoria is a journey out of the homeland, to visit the oracle of Delphi. These words therefore have one thing in common, that of a certain movement towards the divine.

They are images of the possible movement of the soul, vertically or horizontally, as ascent or approach. Unlike the theoria, which denotes a journey of the body in the literal sense, ecstasy takes the form of a thought in movement outside the body, traversed by lightning and dazzle, always aware of its weakness, its powerlessness, in an experience which is beyond it, and which it knows it has little chance of really grasping, little means of fixing it in order to share it on its return.

The word ecstasy is the minimal trace of a kind of experience that is difficult to understand for those who have not lived it. It is not simply a matter of « ascending » to higher or even divine realities. When the soul moves into these generally inaccessible regions, she encounters phenomena that are absolutely dissimilar to anything she has ever observed on earth, in her usual life. She runs an infinitely fast race, in pursuit of something that is always ahead of her, and which draws her further and further away, into an ever-changing elsewhere, and which projects her to an infinite distance of what she has ever experienced.

Human life cannot know the end of this incredible race. The soul, which is given the experience of ecstasy, understands by experience the possibility of such a search. She will always remain marked by her ‘election’, by the gift given to her of a striking flight towards a reality that is forever elusive.

It is interesting to question the texts that report ecstasies that have had the effect of changing the course of history, and to analyze their differences.

In his comments on the experience of ecstasyii, Philo considers that Moses, despite the fame and the power of his visioniii, did not have access to the full understanding of the divine powers.

Philo then sought in the vision of Jeremiah, with more success, the traces of a greater penetration of these powers.

Moving forward in these fields is a random and delicate undertaking. The texts are difficult, they resist interpretation.

“This is how the word of God was addressed to Jeremiah”iv.

This is a restrained way of giving an account of what was, one might think, originally an ecstasy. Reading these lines, one can guess at its hold.

“Dominated by your power, I lived in isolation.”v

Other prophets expressed the marks of their ecstasy in other metaphors. Ezekiel says that « the hand of God came »vi upon him, or that the spirit « prevailed ».vii

When ecstasy is at its height, the hand of God weighs more than usual:

“And the spirit lifted me up and carried me away, and I went away sorrowful in the exaltation of my spirit, and the hand of the Lord weighed heavily on me.”viii

The definition of ‘ecstasy’ according to the National Center for Textual and Lexical Resource (CNRTL) is as follows:

“A particular state in which a person, as if transported out of himself, is removed from the modalities of the sensible world by discovering through a kind of illumination certain revelations of the intelligible world, or by participating in the experience of an identification, of a union with a transcendent, essential reality.”

This definition speaks of enlightenment, identification or union with transcendental realities. But what do these words really cover?

According to other testimonies, ecstasy, of mystical essence, seems infinitely more dynamic, more transforming. It draws its principle and its energy from the intuition of the divine infinite and from participation in its movement.

Ecstasy is more a race than a stasis, more a dazzle than an illumination.

Bergson, the philosopher of movement, paradoxically gives a rather static, ‘arrested’ image of ecstasy: “The soul ceases to turn on herself (…). She stops, as if she were listening to a voice calling out to her. (…) Then comes an immensity of joy, an ecstasy in which she is absorbed or a rapture which she undergoes: God is there, and it is in her. No more mystery. Problems fade away, obscurities dissipate; it is an illumination.”ix

It is not known whether Bergson knows from real personal experience what he is talking about.

One only has to pay attention to the testimonies of Blaise Pascal or S. John of the Cross, to guess that ecstasy cannot be so luminously static. Taken to such an elevation, ecstasy has a fiery power that carries away all certainty, all security, and even all illumination.

Ecstasy dazzles like a primal dive into the center of Light. And the worlds, all the worlds, are then only like tiny quantum hairs emanating from a divine Black Hole.

It is difficult to explain in audible words, in palpable images, the infinite rapture of the soul, when she is given to see her own, eternal, birth.

iPlato. Symposium.

iiPhilo. De Monarch. I, 5-7

iiiEx 33, 18-23

ivJer. 14,1

vJer. 15,17

viEz. 1,3

viiEz. 3,12

viiiEz. 3,14

ix H. Bergson, Deux sources, 1932, p. 243.

Shadows of God

The biblical name Bezaleeli literally means « in the shadow of God ». Philo offers this interpretation: “The ‘shadow of God’ is the Logos. Just as God is the model of His own Image, which He has here called ‘shadow’, so the Image becomes the model of other things, as He showed at the beginning of the Law (Gen. 1:27) (…) The Image was reproduced after God, and man after the Image, who thus took on the role of model.”ii 

Man then is only the shadow of a shadow, the image of an image, or the dream of a dream. For the word shadow evokes the dream, the dream, according to Philo, who quotes the verse: « God will make Himself known unto him in a vision, that is, in a shadow, and not in all light » (Num. 12:6).

In truth, this quotation from Philo is a bit approximate.

The King James version says, more faithfully: “If there be a prophet among you, I the LORD will make myself known unto him in a vision, and will speak unto him in a dream.”

In fact, in the original Hebrew, we read not the word « shadow » (tsal), but « dream » (halom).

If one renders the translation with this word, the verse reads:

« Listen 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 house. 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? »iii

Even to a ‘prophet’, God may manifest Himself in ambiguous and fragile ways: through a vision or a dream.

But to Moses, God appeared face to face, clearly, ‘without riddles’. And Moses contemplated God as an « image ».

He had the great privilege of seeing God face to face, but in reality he saw only His image. This image, this « shadow », was the Logos of God, if we are to follow Philo.

Evidently, here, the Platonic theories of the Logos had percolated and sowed some seeds in the mind of a great Jewish thinker.

Born in Alexandria just before our era, Philo appears in history shortly before a certain Yĕhōshúa of Galilea, who was later destined to be granted the name of the divine Logos by his followers.

From Moses to Jesus, one can see some continuity and some difference. Moses talks face to face with the Logos of God, i.e. His « image », or His « shadow ». Jesus also talks face to face with God, but he is himself called Logos.

What is the difference? Maybe a difference in the degree of ‘incarnation’ of the Divine Spirit.

The prophets usually are given visions and dreams. To Moses, was given the image and vision of the Logos. To Jesus was given to be the Logos.

And to the Prophet Muhammad what was given? He was given the Qur’an. As the prophet was notoriously illiterate, this text was first dictated to him in oral form, by an angel. Some scribes then took it upon themselves to transcribe the revealed text for posterity.

Can we say that the Qur’an is an instance of the divine Logos? Admittedly, the Qur’an and the Logos are both different instances of the Word of God.

So what is the (ontological) difference between the experience of Moses, that of Jesus and that of Muhammad?

In all three cases God manifests Himself through His Word.

Three brands of monotheism came out to celebrate these manifestations.

The Jews conserve the ‘words’ that God spoke to Moses. They believe that the Logos can be embodied in the vision that Moses saw, and in the Law that he heard.

The Christians believe that the Logos can incarnate Himself in a Messiah, called « Son of God », and that the (divine) Word is « the Son of God ».

The Muslims believe that the « Uncreated Qur’an » is the Word of God.

In reality, nothing may prevent the Logos to ‘descend’ and ‘incarnate’ in this world, wherever and whenever He or She wishes to do so.

iEx 31,2

iiLegum Allegoriae, 96

iiiNum. 12,6-8

Finding Knowledge in Death

In the Book of Genesis, God creates man in two different ways. Two words, עֲשֶׂה ‘ésêh, « to make » and יָצָר yatsar, « to form » are used, at two distinct moments, to indicate this nuance.

« And God said: Let us make man in our image, after our likeness » (Gen. 1:26). The Hebrew word for « let us make » is נַעֲשֶׂה from the verb עֲשֶׂה ‘ésêh.

And in the second chapter of Genesis we read:

« And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there he put the man whom he had formed. « (Gen. 2:8) The Hebrew word for « formed » is: יָצָר , yatsar.

What does this difference in vocabulary teach us?

The verb עֲשֶׂה means “to make” but has several other nuances: “to prepare, arrange, care, establish, institute, accomplish, practice, observe.” This range of meanings evokes the general idea of realization, accomplishment, perfection.

The verb יָצָר means “to form, to fashion” but also has an intransitive meaning: “to be narrow, constricted, embarrassed, afraid, tormented”. It evokes an idea of constraint, of embarrassment.

It is as if the first verb (« to make ») translated the point of view of God creating man, and as if the second verb (« to form ») expressed the point of view of man who finds himself in the narrow « form » imposed to him, with all that it implies of constraint, tightness and torment.

The Book of Genesis twice cites the episode of the creation of man, but with significant differences.

Firstly, God « places » (וַיָּשֶׂם שָׁם ) a man “whom he had formed « (Gen. 2,8) in the Garden of Eden. A little later, God « establishes » (וַיַּנִּח ) a man there to be the worker and the guardian (Gen. 2,15).

Philo interprets this reference to two different “placement” or “establishment” of “man” as follows: the man who tills the garden and looks after it, is « the man [whom God] has made », and not the man whom he has « formed ». God « receives the former, but drives out the latter.”i

Philo introduces a distinction between the « heavenly » man and the « earthly » man. « The heavenly man was not formed, but made in the image of God, and the earthly man is a being formed, but not begotten by the Maker. »ii

One can understand thusly: God first « formed » a man and « placed » him in the garden. But this man was not deemed worthy to cultivate it. God drove him out of the Garden of Eden. Then He « established » the man whom He « made » in his place.

Philo adds: « The man whom God has made is different, as I have said, from the man who has been formed: the formed man is earthly intelligence; the man who has been made is immaterial intelligence. »iii

So it was just meant to be a metaphor. There are not two kinds of men, but rather two kinds of intelligence in the same 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 name… The intelligence that is in each of us can understand other beings, but it is incapable of knowing itself, as the eye sees without seeing itself. »iv

The « earthly » intelligence thinks all beings but does not understand itself.

God takes up his work again, and endows man with a « celestial » intelligence. He then has new troubles, since this new man disobeys him and eats of the fruit of the « tree of the knowledge of good and evil ».

It can be argued that without this « heavenly » intelligence, man could not have eaten and known good and evil.

Another question: Was this tree really in the Garden of Eden?

Philo doubts it, because God has said: « But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it.”

This is (grammatically) not an order, but just a factual statement. Philo infers that « this tree was therefore not in the garden ».v

This can be explained by the nature of things, he argues: « It [the tree] is there by substance, it is not there in potency. »

In other words, the “tree” is apparently there, but not really its “fruit”.

More philosophically: knowledge is not to be found in life. Knowledge is only to be found “in potency”, i.e. in death.

For the day that one eats of the fruit of the tree of knowledge is also the day of death, the day of which it is said, « You shall die of death » מוֹת תָּמוּת, mot tamut, (Gen. 2:17).

Why this pleonasm, “to die of death”, in the biblical text?

« 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, 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 here the last part of the fragment 62 of Heraclitus: “ Immortals are mortal, mortals immortal, living their death, dying their life ».

He believes that Heraclitus was « right to follow the doctrine of Moses in this », and, as a good Neoplatonist, Philo takes up the famous thesis of the body, tomb of the soul, developed by Plato.

“That is to say, at the present time, when we live, the soul is dead and buried in the body as in a tomb, but by our death the soul lives of the life proper to it, and is delivered from evil and from the corpse that was bound to it, the body.”vii

The Book of Genesis says: “You shall die of death!”. Heraclitus has a formula which is less of such a pleonasm: “The life of some is the death of others, the death of some, the life of others.”

Who to believe? Is death double, that of the body and that of the soul? Or does death herald another life?

We can try to propose a synthesis, like Philo did.

Knowledge is not to be found in life. It is only there “in potency”, and it is probably to be found in “death”, which announces an “other” sort of life.

iPhilo of Alexandria, Legum Allegoriae, 55

iiIbid., 31

iiiIbid., 88

ivIbid., 90

vIbid., 100

viIbid., 105

viiIbid., 106

Unspeakable Suns

« And the evening and the morning were the first day.”i

« And the evening and the morning were the second day.”ii

« And the evening and the morning were the third day.”iii

However, the sun was not created until the fourth day of the Creation! During the first half of the six days of the Creation, there was no sun, yet there was light and darkness…

What were those « mornings » and « evenings » really like, when the sun was not yet created? Were they only metaphors? Symbols? Images?

One could speculate that these « mornings » (without sun) could be a colourful, metaphoric, way of describing the dawn of things, their principle, their idea, their essence.

And continuing on this train of thoughts, the « evenings » – which came before the « mornings », in the Book of Genesis – could then represent the knowledge that precedes principles, ideas, – the obscure knowledge that precedes the dawn of the understanding, the dawn of the essence of things.

The « evenings » would then confusingly embody all that announces things yet to be created, in advance, all that prepares them in secret, makes them possible and compatible with matter, life, reality.

The « evening knowledge » may represent the knowledge of things as they subsist, latent, in their own nature, immersed in a slowly emerging consciousness, that is still formless.

And when the « morning » comes, then appears the « morning knowledge », the knowledge of the primordial nature of beings, their true, luminous, essence.

A lion, an eagle or a squid, live their own unique life in the steppe, the sky or the sea. Who will tell the unique experience of this particular lion, this singular eagle, this specific squid? Who will bundle them with ‘sensors’ from birth to death, observe their entire life, grasp all their perceptions, understand the full range of their emotions, their fears, their pleasures, and acquire their grammar, their vocabulary?

Plato invented the idea of “the idea”. We may then imagine that there is such a thing as the “idea” of the tiger, its very essence, the “tiger-dom”. But even if we could grasp the essence of the generic tiger, what about the essence of a specific tiger?

To access the « morning knowledge » of the tiger, one would also have to be capable of abstraction, to penetrate its essence, to understanding the paradigm at work.

But, even more difficult maybe, one would also have to be a very zealous observer, endowed with empathy, sensitivity, and encyclopedic patience, to claim the « evening knowledge » of this or that particular tiger.

One should ideally strive to be able to grasp at the same time, not only the “tiger-dom” in general, but the unique “tiger-dom” of this or that particular tiger.

In a sense, a specific tiger may well represent its species. But from another perspective, an individual tiger remains deeply immersed in its own, opaque, singularity. It can never represent the sum total of the life experiences of its fellow tigers of past and future times. One tiger virtually sums up the species, one can admit, but is also overwhelmed on all sides by the innumerable lives of other, real tigers.

During the first days of the Genesis, and before the sun was even created, three evenings and three mornings benefited from a non-solar “light”, a “light” without photons, but not without enlightenment, – a non material “light”, but not without “ideas”…

During those first three days and nights, in the absence of the sun, we can infer that were crated many other (unspeakable) “suns” that were never before seen, and many other unheard-of and unspeakable “moons”.

iGn. 1, 5

iiGn. 1, 8

iiiGn. 1, 13

Bitter Angels of History

Klee’s painting, Angelus novus, has a catchy title. It gives the painting an air of mystery. Angels, however, are so many, there are billions of them, on every pinhead, it is said. Every boson, every prion even, could have its own angel. In this immense crowd, how can we distinguish between « new » and « old » angels?

Are not angels, by nature, essentially timeless, pure spirits?

Klee’s angel is curiously static, even motionless. There is no sensation of movement, either backwards or forwards. No wind seems to be blowing.

His « wings » are raised as if for an invocation, not for a flight. And if he were to take off, it would be upwards rather than forward. His « fingers », or « feathers », are pointing upwards, like isosceles triangles. His eyes look sideways, fleeing the gaze of the painter and the spectator. His hair looks like pages of manuscripts, rolled by time. No wind disturbs them. The angel has a vaguely leonine face, a strong, sensual, U-shaped jaw, accompanied by a double chin, also U-shaped. His nose is like another tiny face, whose eyes would be his nostrils. His teeth are wide apart, sharp, almost sickly. It even seems that several are missing.

This ailing, stunted angel has only three fingers on his feet. He points them down, like a chicken hanging in a butcher shop.

Walter Benjamin made this comment, expressly metaphorical: “There is a painting by Klee entitled Angelus novus. It depicts an angel who seems to have the intention of moving away from what his gaze seems to be riveted to. His eyes are wide open, his mouth open, his wings spread. This is what the angel of History must necessarily look like. His face is turned towards the past. Where a sequence of events appears before us, he sees only one and only one catastrophe, which keeps piling up ruins upon ruins and throwing them at his feet. He would like to linger, awaken the dead and gather the defeated. But a storm blows from heaven, so strong that the angel can no longer close its wings. This storm is pushing him incessantly towards the future, to which he turns his back, while ruins pile up as far as heaven before him. This storm is what we call progress.”i

It seems to me that Benjamin has completely re-invented the Klee painting, for his own purposes. No storm, no accumulated progress, no past catastrophe, seem – in my opinion – to accompany the young angel of Klee.

Why, moreover, should History have only one ‘Angel’? And, if it were so, why should this Angel of History be ‘new’, when History is not?

Angelology is a very imperfect science, like History, it seems.

Isaiah said: “The angels of peace shall weep bitterly.”ii

In the Book of Daniel, we read that an archangel appeared and said: “The Prince of the Persians resisted me for twenty-one days.”iii According to a classical interpretation, this archangel was Gabriel, and the « Prince of the Persians » was the angel in charge of guarding the Persian kingdom.

S. Jerome added that Daniel prayed for the liberation of his people. But the Angel-Prince of the Persian kingdom opposed his prayers, while the archangel Gabriel presented them to God.

S. Thomas Aquinas commented the commentary: “This resistance was possible because a prince of the demons wanted to drag the Jews brought to Persia into sin, which was an obstacle to Daniel’s prayer interceding for this people.”iv

Isn’t this here a quite convincing indication, based on the Scriptures, that there are definitely several angels playing a role in History, and that, moreover, they are sometimes brought to fight each other, according to the interests of the moment?

According to several sources (Maimonides, the Kabbalah, the Zohar, the Soda Raza, the Maseketh Atziluth) angels belong to various orders and classes, such as the Principalities (hence the name « Prince » that we have just met for the angel of Persia), the Powers, the Virtues, the Dominations. Even better known are the Cherubim and Seraphim. Isaiah says in chapter 6 that he saw several Seraphim with six wings « crying out to one another ». Ezechiel speaks of Cherubim he had a vison of, and according to him, each of them had four faces and four wings.v

The Kabbalists propose ten classes of Angels in the Zohar: the Erelim, the Ishim, the Beni Elohim, the Malakim, the Hashmalim, the Tarshishim, the Shinanim, the Cherubim, the Ophanim and the Seraphim.

Maimonides also proposes ten classes of angels, but he arranges them in a different order, and groups them into two large classes, the « permanent » and the « perishable ».

Judah ha-Levi (1085-1140), a 12th century Jewish theologian, distinguished between « eternal » angels and angels created at a given time.

Where, then, should we place Klee’s Angelus novus, that « new » angel whom Benjamin calls the « Angel of History »? Is he permanent or perishable? Eternal or momentary?

If Benjamin and Klee are right, we should believe that History is guarded just by one ‘new angel’, who therefore must be probably perishable and momentary.

But if they are wrong, History is guarded not by one, but by many angels, and they may be eternal, imperishable.

They then may also cry out to each other like seraphim with multiple wings, and in the confused battles of the angels furiously mixed up, over the centuries, progress might be hard to perceive.

There is one thing, however, that we can be assured of: the most beautiful, the most brilliant of these seraphim (though not the most powerful apparently), – these angels of « peace » keep crying out, bitterly.

iWalter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History. 1940

iiIs. 33, 7

iiiDan. 10,13

ivSumma Theologiae I, Q. 113 a.8

vEz. 10,14-22

Breath and Word in Veda and Judaism

The Vedic rite of sacrifice required the participation of four kinds of priests, with very different functions.

The Adhvaryu prepared the animals and the altar, lit the fire and performed the actual sacrifice. They took care of all the material and manual part of the operations, during which they were only allowed to whisper a few incantations proper to their sacrificial activity.

The Udgatṛi were responsible for singing the hymns of Sama Veda in the most melodious manner.

The Hotṛi, for their part, had to recite in a loud voice, without singing them, the ancient hymns of the Ṛg Veda while respecting the traditional rules of pronunciation and accentuation. They were supposed to know by heart all the texts of the Veda in order to adapt to all the circumstances of the sacrifices. At the end of the litanies, they uttered a kind of wild cry, called vausat.

Finally, remaining silent throughout, a Brahmin, a referent of the good progress of the sacrifice, guarantor of its effectiveness, supervised the various phases of the ceremony.

These four kinds of priests had, as one can see, a very different relationship to the word of the Veda. The first murmured (or mumbled) it, the second sang it, following a melody, mingled with music, the third proclaimed it, concluding with a shout. Finally, silence was observed by the Brahmin.

These different regimes of vocal expression can be interpreted as so many possible modalities of the relationship of the word to the divine. They accompany and give rhythm to the stages of the sacrifice and its progression.

The chant is a metaphor for the divine fire, the fire of Agni. « Songs fill you and increase you, as the great rivers fill the sea » says a Vedic formula addressed to Agni.

The recitation of Ṛg Veda is a self-weaving narrative. It can be done word for word (pada rhythm), or in a kind of melodic path (krama) according to eight possible varieties, such as the « braid » (jatā rhythm) or the « block » (ghana rhythm).

In the « braid » style, for example, a four-syllable expression abcd was pronounced in a long, repetitive and obsessive litany: ab/ba/abc/cba/bc/cb/bcd/dcb/bcd

When the time came, the recitation finally « burst forth » like thunder. Acme of sacrifice.

The Vedic word appears in all its successive stages a will to connect, an energy of connection. Little by little set in motion, it is entirely oriented towards the construction of links with the Deity, the weaving of close correlations, vocal, musical, rhythmic, semantic.

It is impregnated with the mystery of Deity. It establishes and constitutes by itself a sacred link, in the various regimes of breath, and by their learned progression.

A hymn of Atharvaveda pushes the metaphor of breath and rhythm as far as possible. It makes us understand the nature of the act in progress, which resembles a sacred, mystical union: « More than one who sees has not seen the Word; more than one who hears has not heard it. To the latter, she opened her body as to her husband, a loving woman in rich finery.»

The Vedic Word is at the same time substance, vision, way.

A comparison with the divine Word and Breath in the biblical texts can be interesting.

In Gen 2:7, God breathes a « breath of life » (neshmah נשׁמה) so that man becomes a living being (nephesh נפשׁ ). In Gen 1:2, a « wind » from God blows (rua רוּח). The « wind » is violent and evokes notions of power, strength, active tension. The « breath » of life, on the other hand, can be compared to a breeze, a peaceful and gentle exhalation. Finally, God « speaks », he « says »: « Let there be light! ».

On the subject of the breath and wind of God, Philo of Alexandria comments: « This expression (he breathed) has an even deeper meaning. Indeed three things are required: what blows, what receives, what is blown. What blows is God; what receives is intelligence; what is blown is breath. What is done with these elements? A union of all three occurs. »

Philo poses the deep, intrinsic unity of breath, soul, spirit and speech.

Beyond languages, beyond cultures, from the Veda to the Bible, the analogy of breath transcends worlds. The murmur of the Adhvaryu, the song of Udgatṛi, the word of Hotṛi, and its very cry, form a union, analogous in principle to that of the divine exhalation (neshmah, נשׁמה), the living breath (nephesh, נפשׁ ), and the wind of God (rua, רוּח ).

In all matters, there are those who excel in seeing the differences. Others see especially the similarities. In the Veda and the Bible, the latter will be able to recognize the persistence of a paradigm of speech and breath in seemingly distant contexts.

The Aryan Veda and Semitic Judaism, beyond their multiple differences, share the intuition of the union of word and breath, – which is also a divine prerogative.

All Religions Belong to Us

The « Hidden Jew » is an ancient figure. Joseph and Esther first hid their Jewishness. Esther’s name in Hebrew means « I will hide ». Esther belonged to the harem of King Ahasuerus. She revealed to him that she was a Jew and thus saved her people.

Closer in time, the Marrano Jews also « hid ». Shmuel Trigano affirms that they were « adventurers » and « pioneers who can be counted among the first modern men »i. They were the ferment of Jewish modernity, and thus they were the origin and foundation of modernity itself. Far from betraying their people, they saved them, as it were, by surreptitiously facilitating their acculturation, if we are to believe Trigano’s thesis.

It is a stimulating hypothesis, with broad perspectives. Marranism would not be an escape, a treason, a  » decay « , but would in fact embody the courage and resilience of the Jews, and would pose a larger question, inherent in Judaism from its very origins:

« The Marran experience reveals the existence in Judaism of a potentiality of Marranism, a predisposition to Marranism, unrelated to the fact that it also represents a decay of Judaism. The ambivalence is greater: imposed by force, it also constitutes a high fact of the courage and perseverance of the Jews. The real question is this: is Marranism structurally inherent in Judaism, was it inscribed from the beginning in Judaism? (…) How could Jews have thought that they were becoming even more Jewish by becoming Christians (in fact this is what Jewish Christians have thought since Paul)? »ii

This question undoubtedly has a Judeo-Christian component, but its scope goes beyond the historical framework of Judeo-Christian relations. It goes much further back in time. Above all, it sheds light on a fundamental component of Judaism, its latent tendency towards universalism, as perhaps the Psalmist testifies. « But of Zion, it will be said, every man was born there  » (Ps. 87:5).

Philo, a Jew and philosopher who lived in Alexandria and died about 50 A.D., offers an interesting figure to study in this regard.

Philo had no connection with Christianity, the birth of which he was a contemporary. Of Greek and Jewish culture, he was well acquainted with the Greek philosophers and had a perfect knowledge of 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.

He sought higher syntheses, new ways, more adapted to the forms of  » globalization  » whose progress he observed in his time.

Philo was certainly not a hidden Jew. But what kind of Judaism was he representing? What kind of profound thought, of irrepressible aspiration, was he the bearer?

Philo, two thousand years ago, like the Spanish and Portuguese marranes five centuries ago, represented a paradoxical Judaism. They seem to be moving away from it somewhat, or temporarily , but only to return to it later, in a deeper way. They seem to betray it on the surface, but it is by the effect of a fidelity of their own, perhaps more essential to its true spirit. By taking some distance, by linking themselves to the world, they build bridges, establish links with nations, with non-Jews, and open up the possibility of other syntheses.

Ignored by the Synagogue, Philo professed opinions that might seem unorthodox. It was, moreover, the Christian philosophers and theologians of the first centuries who preserved Philo’s writings, and who found a posteriori in his thought enough to nourish their own reflections.

What was the real state of Judaism just before the destruction of the Second Temple? There were many varieties of Judaism at that time: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, etc., not to mention the diasporas, more or less Hellenized.

There was undoubtedly a difference in perspective between the Jews of Jerusalem, who prayed every day in the Temple, not knowing that its end was imminent, and the Jews of the Diaspora, whose freedom of thought and belief, if we take Philo as a reference, was undoubtedly greater than in Jerusalem.

Let us judge by this text:

« God and Wisdom are the father and mother of the world, » Philo wrote in De Ebrietate, « but the spirit cannot bear such parents whose graces are far greater than those it can receive; therefore it will have as its father the right Logos and as its mother the education more appropriate to its weakness. »

Philo clarifies the scope of the metaphor: « The Logos is image and eldest son. Sophia is the spouse of God, whom God makes fruitful and who generates the world. »

It is not difficult to imagine the reaction of the Doctors of the Law to these remarks. It is also easy to understand why the Judeo-Christians found in Philo a valuable ally.

In a passage from his Cherubim (43-53), Philo evokes Sophia or Wisdom, the bride of God, and at the same time a Virgin, or Nature without defilement, and « Virginity » itself. Union with God makes the soul a virgin. The Logos is both father and husband of the soul.

This idea of a “virgin-mother-wife” is found almost everywhere in various traditions of antiquity, especially among the Orphics. The symbolic fusion between the wife and the 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 Osirid tradition, Osiris is the ‘principle’, Isis the ‘receptacle’ and Horus the ‘product’, which is translated philosophically by the triad: ‘Intelligible, matter, sensible’.

Was Philo an orthodox Jew? It is doubtful. Then who was he? One could say that he was, in anticipation, a sort of « Marrano » Jew, mutatis mutandis, converted by force of circumstance to spiritual globalization…

Schmuel Trigano writes in the conclusion of his work: « The double identity of the modern Jew could well be akin to the Marrano score. »

He generalized « Marranism » and made it a general model of the identity of modern man. « Marranism was the laboratory of Jewish modernity, even among those Jews who escaped Marranism. Let us go further: Marranism was the very model of all political modernity. »iii

What does Marranism testify to? The deep ambivalence of a worldview based on messianic consciousness. « 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. »

This feeling of strangeness in the world is particularly acute for anyone with an acute awareness of the implications of the coming of the Messiah.

But, paradoxically, it is in no way specific to Judaism.

Buddhism views this world as an appearance. This has also been the feeling of the shamans since the dawn of time. The feeling of strangeness in the world is so universal, that it must be taken as a fundamental trait of the most original religious feeling .

Man’s heart is hidden. It is for itself a mystery, that the world and its wonders come close without ever reaching it.

The « Marrano » man, doubly torn between his interior and exterior, as a man and as a persecuted person, discovered that modernity, through the State, could strive to systematically break down the interior of the self. But he also learned over time the means to resist alienation, the necessary wiles, the ability to thwart the games of political power, over very long periods of time.

We must not forget this lesson. 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 new barbarities are rising on a planetary scale, we will need this ancient lesson of duplicity in order to survive.

In order to prepare a better, universal, wise, humane world, we must follow the lesson of Philo: navigate among religions and nations, thoughts and languages, not as if we belonged to them, but as if they belonged to us.

iShmuel Trigano. « Le Juif caché. Marranisme et modernité », Pardès, 2000



The “Seer” and the “Hearer”

Philo of Alexandria lived two thousand years ago, at the center of a dense web of exchanges and ideas, in a city where Africa, Asia and Europe meet. He is the author of a scholarly, hybrid and, according to him, inspired work.

« Sometimes I would come to work as if I were empty, and suddenly I was full, ideas would fall invisible from the heavens, 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. But on the other hand I was in full awareness of the richness of interpretation, the joy of light, of very penetrating views, of the most manifest energy in everything that had to be done, and all this had as much effect on me as the clearest eye evidence would have had on my eyes. »i

You either see or you don’t. The seer sees.

In the old days in Israel, when people went to consult God, they said, « Come, let us go to the seer. For he who is called the prophet today was once called the seer. « (1 Sam 9:9).

The “seer”. הָרֹאֶה . Ha-ro’eh.

After his fight in the dark night, without seeing his opponent, Jacob wanted to hear the name of the one he was fighting, or at least the sound of his voice. The ear, allied with the eye. Hearing united with seeing. But no name was revealed to him except his own. It was his own name, his real name, that he then learned. Only then, presumably, he « saw » after he « heard ».

Through the wisdom contained in his name, he was finally able to « see ». See what?

« It is necessary to make you 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. »ii

Wisdom is a land, which is a light, – a light that sees, a light that sees itself, a light that sees us. It is splendour. The sun is a very weak metaphor for it.

Above all, like the sun, wisdom brings life.

Philo, the wise Alexandrian, wanted to « see », like the ancients:

« If the voice of mortals is addressed to the ear, the oracles tell us that the words of God are, like light, things ‘seen’. It is said, ‘All the People saw the 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 splendour of virtue, identical to 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 words, and saw no form but a voice’ (Deut. 4:12). »iii

Seeing the voice! Seeing the word! Rather than « hearing it »…

The senses are not separate. They are together. The taste is tasted and the sight is illuminated. We admire the robe of the grand cru, we smell its bouquet before savouring it. The touch, the caresses, you can enjoy them with your eyes closed, and seeing the hand magnifies them, afterward, as a bonus.

Seeing ‘voices’, hearing their roar or their sweetness, tasting their gall or their honey, feeling their breath, their air.

But what about the divine Voice? Does it have a smell? A taste? Does it touch or graze?

If we are to believe Tradition, only the splendour of the Voice seemed to be revealed – and for the People, it was inaudible. It was only visible.

One may « see » the Voice. And when one has « seen » it, the most difficult thing remains: « hearing » it.

iPhilo, De migratione Abrahami, 35

iiDe migr. Abr., 28

iiiDe Migr. Abr., 47

Knowing Women

Adam « knew » Eve, and she conceived Cain, then Abel and Seth. But the Bible never says that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob or Moses « knew » their wives, notes Philo of Alexandria. Why not? Was it out of prudishness?

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses were wise men. But, according to Philo, the « woman » can be understood as an image that represents the senses, the sensations. For a wise man, « knowing the woman » may be interpreted, counter-intuitively, as the capacity to put sensations at a distance. Lovers of wisdom and those who seek true knowledge must “repudiate” their senses, not to succumb to their seductions. To truly « know », one must « know » the senses, not to be satisfied with them, but to question them, to put them at a distance.

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses have their « virtues » for « wife ». Sarah, Abraham’s wife, is « princess and guide », Rebekah, Isaac’s wife, embodies « perseverance », according to Philo. Jacob’s wife, Leah, represents « the virtue of endurance » and Sipporah, Moses’ wife, is the image of « the virtue that ascends from earth to heaven ».

Let’s take the reasoning a little further. Can we then say that these wise men « knew » their « virtue »?

Can the metaphor of intimate, conjugal union be spun in this context? Philo considers this point and warns that he can only address himself to true initiates on this subject, because the mysteries in question are the « most sacred ».i

The union of a man and a woman obeys the laws of nature, and tends to the generation of children. But it is not in accordance with the order of things that the “virtue”, which can give rise to so many perfections, can be united to a human husband, a mere mortal. Then who can unite with Virtue, in order to impregnate her? – Only the Father of the universe, the uncreated God, says Philo, can give her His seed. Only God conceives and begets with Virtue. Virtue receives the divine seed of the Cause of all things, and begets a child that she presents to the one of her lovers who deserves it most.

Another analogy can be used, says Philo. Thus the most wise Isaac addressed his prayers to God, and Rebekah, who is « perseverance », was made pregnant by the one who received this prayer. On the other hand, Moses who had received Sipporah, « winged and sublime virtue », found that she had conceived from no mortal, without the need of any prior prayer.

Here we reach difficult terrain. These « mysteries », Philo insists again, can only be received by purified, initiated souls. They cannot be shared with the uninitiated. Philo himself was initiated into these higher mysteries by the teachings of Moses and Jeremiah, he reveals.

Philo quotes a verse from Jeremiah, to whom God spoke in these terms: « Did you not call me ‘father’ and ‘husband of your virginity’? ». In fact, nowhere in Jeremiah is this expression found literally. But in Jeremiah 3:4 there is something similar, though much less direct and much less metaphorical: « You cry out to me, ‘O my father, you are the guide of my youth’. « 

Philo seems to have transformed the original expression of Jeremiah (« the guide of my youth ») into a more elevated formula (« the husband of my virginity »). For Philo, Jeremiah thus shows that « God is the incorporeal abode of Ideas, the Father of all things, inasmuch as He created them, and the Bridegroom of Wisdom, inseminating the seed of happiness in good and virgin land for the benefit of the human race ».ii

God can converse only with a good and virgin nature. Hence this reversal: « Men, with the intention of procreating, make a virgin a woman. But God, when He associates with a soul, because she was a woman, He makes her a virgin again. »iii

iCherubim, 42



Many Names and One God

Some say that God is infinitely distant, totally incomprehensible, absolutely different from anything human minds can conceive. So much so, in fact, that this God might just as well not « exist » in the sense that we understand « existence » and its various modalities.

Others think that God creates, speaks, justifies, gratifies, condemns, punishes, saves, in short actually interacts, in various ways, with the world and with human beings.

At first glance, these two lines of thought are contradictory, incompatible.

But there is yet another hypothesis: the possibility of a God who is at once infinitely distant, incomprehensible, and at the same time close to men, speaking to them in their language.

Some texts describe forms of interaction between God and man. In the Book of Exodus, for example, God says to Moses:

« There I will meet thee, and I will speak with thee from the mercy seat between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the Testimony, and I will give thee my commandments for the children of Israel. « (Ex. 25:22)

How can we justify the use of these words: « from », « upon », « between »? Are they not, inasmuch as they indicate positions and places, rather strange for a divine Spirit, who is supposed to be disembodied?

According to Philo of Alexandriai, God thus indicates that He is « above » grace, « above » the powers symbolized by the cherubim, i.e. the power to create and the power to judge. The Divine « speaks » by occupying an intermediate place, in the middle of the ark. The Divine fills this space and leaves nothing empty. God mediates and arbitrates, placing Himself between the sides of the ark that seemed separated, bringing them friendship and harmony, community and peace.

The Ark, the Cherubim, and the Word (or Logos) must be considered together as a whole.

Philo explains: « First, there is the One who is First – even before the One, the Monad, or the Principle. Then there is the Divine Word (the Logos), which is the true seminal substance of all that exists. And from the divine Word flow as from a source, dividing, two powers. One is the power of creation, by which everything was created. It is called « God ». And there is the royal power, by which the Creator governs all things. It is called « Lord ». From these two powers flow all the others. (…) Below these powers is the Ark, which is the symbol of the intelligible world, and which symbolically contains all the things that are in the innermost sanctuary, namely, the incorporeal world, the « testimonies, » the legislative and punitive powers, the propitiatory and beneficent powers, and above them, the royal and creative power that are their sources.

But between them also appears the divine Word (the Logos), and above the Word, the Speaker. And so seven things are enumerated, namely, the intelligible world, then above it, the two powers, punitive and benevolent, then the powers that precede them, creative and royal, closer to the Creator than to what He creates. Above, the sixth, which is the Word. The seventh is the Speaker.»ii

The multiplication of the names of God, of His attributes or His « emanations », is attested to in the text of Exodus just quoted, and is confirmed by Philo’s interpretation.

The idea of a One God to whom multiple names are given (a « God myrionymous », i.e. God « with a thousand names ») was also familiar to the Stoics, as it was to the followers of the cult of Isis or to the followers of the Orphic cults. Among the Greeks, God is at the same time Zeus, the Noos, or « the one with many and diverse names », πολλαίϛ τε έτεραις όνομασιαϛ.

We also find this practice, multiplied beyond all measure, in the Veda.

For example, Agnî has been called by the following names: “God of Fire”. “Messenger of the Gods”. “Guardian of the domestic hearth”. “His mouth receives the offering”. “He purifies, provides abundance and vigour”. “Always young”. “His greatness is boundless”. “He sustains and protects man”. “He has four eyes”. “He has a thousand eyes”. “He transmits the offering to the Gods with his tongue”. “He is the Head of the sky and the umbilicus of the Earth”. “He surpasses all the Gods”. “His child is his rays”. “He had a triple birth”. “He has three abodes”. “He arranges the seasons, he is the son of the waters”. “He produces his own mothers”. “He is called the Benefactor”. “He is born by Night and Dawn in turn”. “He is the son of strength and effort”. “He is the Mortal God ». “Called Archer”. “Identified with Indra, Vishnu, Varuna, Aryaman, Tvachtri”. “His splendor is threefold”. “He knows all the hidden treasures and uncovers them for us”. “He is present everywhere”. “His friendship delights the Gods, everything animate or inanimate”. “He is in the home of the singer, priest and prophet”. “He is in heaven and on earth”. “He is invoked before all the Gods”.

Both the God of Moses and the God Agnî have one thing in common: they have many names. No matter how many, in fact. What is important is that these two Gods, who are both ‘unique’, do not have just one single name. Why is that?

Perhaps no single word, no (however sacred) language, is worthy of bearing the name of God. No spirit, either, is deemed worthy to think about God only through His (many) attributes.

iPhilo. Q.E. II, 68

iiPhilo. Q.E. II, 68

The Evanescence of Wisdom

Ancient ideas will still live on for a long time to come. For centuries, for millennia. But the daily traffic of billions of Internet users, what will remain of it in four thousand years?

People have always been eager to communicate their myths, to transmit their dreams, to share their intuitions. These ideas, these forces, are not those of empires and kingdoms. But they have made it possible to build worlds, to bring movements to life, capable of traversing the history of the centuries.

For a long time to come, ideas will still connect people, as they once did.

Megasthenes went to India in the 4th century B.C. to represent King Seleucus I Nicator, – successor of Alexander the Great. In the third book of his Indica, the Greek ambassador stated: “Really all that our ancients have said about nature is also said by philosophers foreign to Greece, either in India by the Brahmans or in Syria by those called the Jews.”i

Wasn’t that already a ‘globalization’ going on? The obvious recognition of a world wide community of concern? Far from suffering from distance, it was religious and philosophical ideas that traveled the farthest, across borders and languages, systems and prejudices, in these times of openness to all sides.

Eusebius also recalls Numenius of Apamea, who wrote: “After quoting Plato’s testimonies, it will be necessary to go back further and link them to the teachings of Pythagoras, and then appeal to the peoples of renown, conferring their initiations, their dogmas, the religious foundations which they accomplish in agreement with Plato, and all that the Brahmins, the Jews, the Magi and the Egyptians have established.”ii

It is a testimony that India, Persia, Mesopotamia, Israel, and Egypt, together with Greece, were then a fertile arc of thoughts and dreams, an immense, luminous, flow of genius at work.

Megasthenes and Numenius testified to the natural possibility of human minds to correspond, to provide each other with signals, ladders, guides and relays.

The 21st century therefore has no real lesson to teach in this matter. It has electrified and digitalized globalization, making it quasi-immediate, but at the same time quite superficial. We know « in real time » the stock market prices in Shanghai, Frankfurt and New York, as well as the number of corpses found after terrorist attacks and earthquakes. But we know less about the initiation of peoples, their way of evolution, their cultural foundations. Torrents of superfluous details abound. But where are the great visions, the profound prophecies staged?

Porphyry, a good analyst, is quite critical of the capacity of peoples in general. Some of them discover, some other just stray. « The oracle of Apollo has said: Chained with a bronze chain is the steep and arduous road that leads to the Gods; the Barbarians have discovered many paths, but the Greeks went astray; those who barely had it lost it; and the God gave the honor of discoveries to the Egyptians, the Phoenicians, the Chaldeans, the Assyrians, the Lydians, and the Hebrews.”iii

Porphyry, a neo-Platonic philosopher of the 3rd century AD, recognized the intellectual and spiritual brotherhood of the peoples who lived in these lands, today called Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran. They shared a common march on the « steep and arduous road that leads to the Gods ».

But the Greeks got lost along the way.

Porphyry adds: « Furthermore, Apollo said in another oracle: To the Chaldeans alone is wisdom, and also to the Hebrews, who are holy worshippers of the God-King born of Himself.»iv

Religion is not enough to successfully take the steep and arduous road that leads to the Gods. It must also be done with « wisdom ». The Chaldeans and the Hebrews were the custodians of it, then.

But today, where are the peoples who speak « wisely » in the name of the « God-King born of Himself »?

iQuoted by par Eusebius of Caesarea. Prep. Ev., Book XI


iiiPorphyry. Philosophie tirée des Oracles (Livre I)


Why did YHVH Attack Moses, Seeking to Kill him?

“The LORD met him, and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a flint, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet; and she said: ‘Surely a bridegroom of blood art thou to me’. So He let him alone. Then she said: ‘A bridegroom of blood in regard of the circumcision’.”i

This text is off-putting, disjointed, enigmatic and raises many questions.

For example, is Zipporah addressing her son or her husband when she pronounces these words: « You are for me a bridegroom of blood »? Both interpretations are possible, and both have been defended by learned commentators.

According to some, Zipporah has just circumcised her son and she calls him « blood husband » because he is bleeding.

According to others, Moses neglected to circumcise his child, which is why God « attacked him » and « sought to kill him”. When Moses was close to death, Zipporah called him « blood husband, » because she had saved him with her son’s blood.

The first interpretation is preferred by the majority of commentators. But it poses a problem. One could ask whether Zipporah is operating a kind of symbolic incest. The mother calls her son twice: « blood husband » and « blood husband because of circumcision ». There would undoubtedly be there, for psychoanalysis, a form of symmetry with the true husband, Moses, who made Zipporah bleed « because of » her defloration.

Moses tore Zipporah’s hymen, as a husband of flesh. Zipporah cut off Eliezer’s foreskin, as a « husband of blood ». A symbolic parallel, heavy with analytical consequences, but also a saving act. Just after Zipporah cut off the foreskin, YHVH released Moses, and it is then that Zipporah clarified: « A husband of blood because of circumcision. »

But why would Zipporah feel the need to « touch » the feet of her son Eliezer with her foreskin?

The second interpretation is perhaps deeper. Zipporah saves her husband’s life by circumcising her son Eliezer in a hurry, while YHVH (or his angel) is about to kill Moses. Then she touches « his feet » with her foreskin. Whose feet? In the second interpretation, they are the « feet » of Moses, and it is to him that she addresses herself. But why the “feet”? Why touch the feet of Moses with his son’s foreskin?

In biblical Hebrew, “feet” are a metaphor often used to signify sex, as in Isaiah 7:20: « He shall shave the head and the hair of the feet ». Zipporah touched the sex of Moses with his son’s foreskin and said to him: « You are a blood husband to me », because it was also his blood that flowed, with the blood of his son. Circumcision is the figure of a new marriage, not with the son (which would be incest), but with Moses, and this in a symbolic sense, the sense of the Covenant, which is physically concluded in the blood of both spouses, as they are united by the blood of Eliezer.

In other words, Zipporah saved the life of Moses (who was uncircumcised) by simulating his circumcision. She touches the sex of Moses with the foreskin of her son, who has just been circumcised, and thus appeases the divine wrath, which was twofold: because the father and the son had not yet been circumcised.

At that very moment, YHVH « let him [Moses] alone ». This translation does not render the richness of the original Hebrew word. The verb used, rafah, has as its first meaning « to heal »; in a second sense, it means « to decline, to weaken, to desist, to release ». Healing is a weakening of the disease. It is worth noting this double meaning. YHVH « releases » Moses, « desists » from him, and thus He « heals » him. He « heals » Moses of his capital fault, and he also « heals » the child who is bleeding, and who might have died as a result of the operation, carried out with a stone in the middle of the desert, without much hygiene, and in an emergency.

There is yet another angle to this story.

Rachi comments: « He deserved to die because of this negligence. A Baraïta teaches us: Rabbi Yosef said: God forbid, Moses was not guilty of negligence. But he thought, « Shall I circumcise the child and set off? Will the child be in danger for three days? Shall I circumcise the child and wait three days? Yet the Holy One Blessed be He, who commanded me: Go, return to Egypt. Why then should he deserve death? Because he had first taken care of his bed at the stage instead of circumcising him without delay. The Talmud in the Nedarim Treaty (32a) says that the angel took the form of a snake, and swallowed him starting from the head to the hips, then rejected him and swallowed him again starting from the feet to the place in question. That’s how Zipporah understood that it was because of the circumcision. »

Rashi presents Moses in the throes of procrastination. Which of God’s commandments should be obeyed first: that of returning to Egypt, or that of circumcising his son? He falls into the fault when he does not immediately take care of the circumcision. But the Nedarim Treaty goes further. It evokes Moses swallowed by a snake. The snake starts at the head and stops at the hips (at the sex), then spits him out and starts again by swallowing him, starting by the feet.

Let’s try our own interpretation.

One can speculate that this « snake » metaphorically represents disease. Moses, uncircumcised, may have been the victim of a genital infection, which resulted in high fevers, with pain extending to the sex. Then, after a remission, the infection would start again from the « feet » (the sex). The kind of fellatio performed by the « snake » is a rather crude metaphor, but « biblical » after all. In any case, the Talmudists thought about it allusively, and felt that this was how Zipporah understood what she had to do.

But if Moses had a genital infection, why did Zipporah operate on her son’s sex rather than on Moses’?

As an unrepentant rationalist, I shall attempt a medical explanation.

Zipporah touched her husband’s sex with her son’s bloody foreskin. The son’s blood contained antibodies, which cured Moses’ genital infection.

Quite a rational solution. Yet it was a (rather irrational) angel who suggested it to Zipporah…

iEx. 4, 24-26

Seeing God and Dying

Maimonides often uses words in a double sense, – positive and negative, real and metaphorical, tool and weapon. In a passage dedicated to the different ways of ‘seeing’ God, he thus questioned the meaning of the verse: ‘And they saw God, and ate and drank’ (Ex. 24:11):

« It has been said: ‘And Moses hid his face, because he feared to look to God’ (Ex. 3:6), – where we must also consider what the literal meaning indicates; namely, that he was afraid to look at the shining light (of the burning bush), – not that the eyes could perceive the divinity [that it be exalted and exalted above all imperfection!]. Moses deserved praise for this, and the Most High poured out his goodness and favor upon him so much that in the following it could be said of him: ‘And he beholds the figure of God’ (Num. 12:8); for the doctors say that this was a reward for having first ‘hidden his face so as not to look toward God’ (Berakhot 7a). But as for « the chosen ones among the children of Israel » (Ex. 24:11), they acted hastily, giving free rein to their thoughts; they perceived (the divinity) but in an imperfect way. Therefore it is said of them: ‘And they saw the God of Israel, and under his feet, etc.’ (ibid. v. 10), and it was not enough to simply say, ‘And they saw the God of Israel’, for the whole sentence is intended only to criticize their vision, not to describe how they saw. Thus, all that was done was to criticize the form in which they had perceived (God) and which was tainted with corporeality, which was the necessary result of the haste they had put into it before they had perfected themselves. (…) When the ‘chosen among the children of Israel’ made false steps in their perception, their actions were also disturbed thereby, and they inclined towards bodily things by the vice of their perception; therefore the Scripture says: ‘And they saw God, and ate and drank’ (Ex. 24:11) ».i

Maimonides does not deny that the ‘chosen among the children of Israel’ saw God. But he asserts that this vision was tainted by ‘corporeality’, by the discreet metonymy that occurs in counterpoint. Would men who had just ‘seen God’ begin, without transition, to ‘eat and drink’?

Maimonides is not interested in what the ‘chosen among the children of Israel’ could ‘see’ or ‘not see’. He does not seek to criticize their claim to have ‘seen’. He is only interested in the fact that they ‘saw, ate and drank’ in the same movement, which implies a form of homogeneity, integration, analogy, between three very different actions. ‘Eating’ and ‘drinking’ cast a retrospective shadow over ‘seeing’ in this context. Maimonides does not deny the ‘seeing’, he merely devalues it, materializing it, trivializing it, laminating it.

There are other possible criticisms, much more radical.

In his commentary on the same verses, Rashi says: « They have looked and they have contemplated, and for this they have deserved mortal punishment. » He adds that the Holy One, Blessed be He, waited for the day of the dedication of the Tabernacle, and then a fire from the Lord burned them and devoured them at the end of the camp.

In an additional commentary to this commentary by Rashi (in the 1987 edition edited by E. Munk), we read: « They sought to be able to glimpse at least a quick glance at the Godhead, in a sort of hidden glimpse of the Godhead. »

Was it a deep contemplation or a quick glimpse? It doesn’t matter. The same punishment awaits those who have even cast a glance at this transcendental phenomenon: death by lightning strikes, – not on the spot [so as not to spoil the reception of the Torah, says Maimonides], but a little later, after the feast of the Tabernacle, and out of sight of the people, at the end of the camp. A true execution, coldly prepared, in the Mossad style, if I dare say so.

But, if it was a question for God to give a good lesson to his people, why not strike those guilty of ‘vision’ in front of everyone, to better strike the minds?

We need to go deeper into this question.

What was the greatest fault of the « chosen among the children of Israel »? To have « seen » the Divinity? Or to have « seen » it by stealth? Or to have « seen » it, – and then to have « eaten and drunk » it?

The answer varies according to the comments, as can be judged from Maimonides and Rashi.

We know that Moses himself, and several ‘chosen ones among the sons of Israel’ were able to ‘see’ God and not die on the spot. This is an important point. It is said in the Torah that one cannot see God without dying. So it is still possible, it seems, to see the Divinity and to survive, at least for a while.

If we put aside the case of Moses, we learn that the other « seers » were punished a little later. One can always imagine that those who had glimpsed the Divinity (supposing that they had indeed been able to look at it in secret, – which Maimonides denies, but which Rashi acknowledges), the ‘seers’ could have been saved, if they had prayed, or if they had meditated on their vision, wondering why they had only seen the « feet » of the Divinity.

Or should they have just avoided ‘eating and drinking’ right after they ‘saw’?

Or should they have repented instead, having given in to the understandable desire to take a look at such an extraordinary phenomenon as a « shining light »?

What can we learn from this? We learn that ‘seeing God’ does not necessarily imply ‘dying’, despite the warnings of the Torah.

It is ‘seeing God’, then ‘eating and drinking’, that implies dying.

iMaïmonides. Guide of the Perplexed. III. §5, pp.37-38. Ed. Verdier. 1979

The Elsewhere God


There are some things it is better to keep quiet about. Whatever we may say, we risk approximation, error, provocation, offense, – or even, more bitingly, the silent smile of the wise men, if there are any.

The psalmist says, addressing Elohim:

לְךָ דֻמִיָּה תְהִלָּה lekha doumiâ tehilâ. » For you, silence is praise »i.

In order to think, it is better to remain silent: « Think in your heart, on your bed make silence.»ii

Silence must be kept, but one can still write. About the highest mysteries, writing is in the same time compass and bearing, mast and mainsail. A wind of inspiration will then come, maybe.

Maimonides himself did not hesitate to face, in writing, the ocean of mysteries. In writing, he even tried to define the essence of true wisdom, and thus that of God.

« The word ‘Hokhma in the Hebrew language has four meanings »iii, he wrote. ‘Hokhma refers to the understanding of philosophical truths that have as their goal the perception of God. It can also be said of the possession of any art or industry. It applies to the acquisition of moral virtues. Finally, it is applied in the sense of finesse and cunning.

Vast spectrum of possible meanings, then. Or structural ambiguity?

« It may be that the word ‘Hokhma in the Hebrew language has (originally) the meaning of ‘finesse’ and ‘application of thought’, so that this finesse or sagacity will have as its object sometimes the acquisition of intellectual qualities, sometimes that of moral qualities, sometimes that of a practical art, sometimes malice and wickedness.”iv

Who can be said to be « wise » then?

« He who is instructed in the whole Law, and who knows its true meaning, is called ‘hakham in two respects, because it embraces both intellectual and moral qualities.”

Maimonides then quotes on Aristotlev and the ancient philosophers to define « four species of perfections ».

The first kind of ‘perfection’ is particularly prized by most men but is really of little value. It is material possession. Mountains of gold and silver are to be possessed, they offer only a passing enjoyment, and at the bottom of the imagination.

The second is the perfection of the body, the physical constitution, beauty, health. This is certainly not nothing, but has little impact on the health of the soul itself.

The third kind of perfection consists in moral qualities. This is a definite advantage from the point of view of the essence of the soul. But moral qualities are not an end in themselves. They serve only as a preparation for some other, higher purpose.

The fourth sort of perfection is true human perfection. It consists in being able to conceive ideas about the great metaphysical questions. This is the true end of man. « It is through it that he obtains immortality, »vi Maimonides said.

Jeremiah had also expressed himself on this subject, in his own style: « Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, nor the strong man glory in his strength, nor the rich man glory in his riches; but whoever wishes to glory, let him find glory in this: to have understanding and to know me, for I am YHVH.”vii

Wisdom is knowledge, – the knowledge of the Lord.

But how to get to know that specific knowledge?

Jeremiah has an answer:

« I am YHVH, who exercises goodness, justice and righteousness in the earth. Yes, this is what I delight in, says YHVH!” viii 

This means that the essence of God is known by His actions, which should be taken as a model. There are three fundamental ones: חֶסֶד , hesed (goodness), מִשְׁפָּט , michpat (law), and ָּצְדָקָה , tsedaka (justice).

Maimonides comments: « He [Jeremiah] then adds another essential idea, saying – ‘on earth’ –, and this idea is the pillar of religion”ix.

Since this idea comes at the very end of the Guide for the Perplexed, it can probably be thought to be its final conclusion.

That simple, conclusive, remark leaves open an immense field of new research. What would be the essence of God, not just on earth, but elsewhere?

And would the answer to that question, if we knew it, be possibly the pillar of another kind of religion?

i Ps. 65,2

ii Ps. 4,5

iiiMaïmonides. Guide of the Perplexed. III. §54, pp.629. Ed. Verdier. 1979.

ivIbid. p.630

vL’Éthique à Nicomaque. 1,8 et sq.

viMaïmonides. Guide of the Perplexed. III. §54, pp.633. Ed. Verdier. 1979.

vii Jer. 9, 22-23

viiiJér. 9,23

ixMaïmonide.Le Guide des égarés. 3ème partie. §54, pp.635. Ed. Verdier. 1979

Biblical Love

« Ben Bag Bag said: Turn her over and over, for all is in her; search her, grow old and weary into her, and from her do not move, for there is nothing better for you than heri

In this short piece of advice, one can be struck by the deliberate ambiguity, the soft insinuation with which Ben Bag Bag introduces and cultivates the allusion – a metaphor for high-flying teaching.

The original meaning is clear. The figure « in which » to « wear out » is the Torah.

Already, the Song of Songs had accustomed us to the idea that erotic metaphors, even the most daring ones, could be applied to translate the highest and deepest spiritual realities.

Rambam (Maimonides) commented on Ben Bag Bag: « He says about the Torah: examine it in every sense and meditate on it, for everything is in it. And he adds, ‘Examine her’ (תחזי), for if you look at her with the eye of understanding, you will see the truth in her, as the Aramaic formula ‘and she lives’ is translated into Aramaic by וחזא. Then he says: ‘Grow old and use yourself into her’, that is to say, work into her until the end of old age and do not leave her for anything else. »

The Torah is like a woman, – a woman whom one loves for life, until old age, and « into whom » one must turn, return, wear out, and never leave.

Is such a metaphor permissible? To the wise, everything is possible. It is up to the commentator not to attempt the deeper intention. The metaphor of faithful, conjugal, lifelong, consecrated love is not a bad one. The associated images are transformed, then magnified, by their very slippage.

The same Pirqe Abot, michnah 4 of chapter 2, teaches: « He said: Fulfill His desire as if it were yours, so that He may fulfill your desire as if it were His own. Suspend your desire in front of His, then He will suspend the desire of others in front of yours. »

Rachi comments:  » ‘Fulfill His desire as if it were your own,’ even when you fulfill your desire, do it in the name of Heaven. ‘That he may fulfill your desire as though it were His own’, so that from Heaven you may be given well and abundantly. ‘Suspend your desire in the face of his’: compare the harm of the commandment with his wages; ‘then he will suspend the desire of others’, who stand against you to harm you. »

Biblical Hebrew is a crude language, where things are said directly, without detours. For example, the verb ‘to love’ רׇחַם is used like this: « I will love thee, O Lord, my strength. » The same word, in its substantive form, means: « womb, sex, breast, entrails », and also, « vulture, filthy bird » (- this name was given because of the vulture’s love for its young).

The word ‘desire’, רָצוֹן ratson, also means « complacency, contentment, pleasure, favour, joy, pleasure, grace ». The arc of the senses here runs from the most material to the most spiritual.

These words are like Jacob’s ladder, which one can use to climb to the highest Heavens or descend to the bottom of the abyss.

iPirqe Avot. Michna 5,22.

A Very Lousy Bargain With God

The prophet Isaiah was sawed in half with a wood saw by order of Manasseh, king of Judah. It was Belkira, also a prophet in Jerusalem, who had accused him.

What was the accusation? Isaiah had called Jerusalem « Sodom, » and had foretold that it would be devastated along with the other cities of Judah.

He also prophesied that the sons of Judah and Benjamin would go into captivity, and that king Manasseh would be put in a cage with iron chains.

Belkira claimed that Isaiah hated Israel and Judah.

But the most serious accusation was that Isaiah had dared to say: « I see further than the prophet Moses ».

Moses had said: « No man shall see the LORD and live. »

Isaiah had contradicted him: « I have seen the LORD, and behold, I am alive. »

Isaiah had told his vision in detail to Hezekiah, king of Judah and father of Manasseh, and to several prophets, including Micah.

Let’s summarize it here. An angel took Isaiah up to the firmament and then to the first six heavens. Finally he reached the seventh heaven. There he saw « someone standing, whose glory was greater than all else, a great and marvelous glory ». The angel said to him: « This is the Lord of all the glory that you have seen ». Isaiah also saw another glorious being, similar to the first. He asked, « Who is this one? ». The angel answered, “Worship him, for this is the angel of the Holy Spirit, who has spoken in you and in the other righteous ones.”

That was just foreplay.

Isaiah continued.

“And my Lord, with the angel of the Spirit, came to me, and said: ‘Behold, thou hast been given to see the LORD; and for thy sake this power is given to the angel that is with thee.’ And I saw that my Lord worshipped, and the angel of the Spirit, and they both glorified the LORD together.”i

Isaiah also claimed to have seen the LORD, Yahweh-God, in the year of the death of King Uzziah (~740). « I saw the LORD sitting on a great and high throne (…) ». And he cried out in anguish: « Woe is me, I am lost! For I am a man of unclean lips, I dwell among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of Hosts.”ii

The price to pay for this vision was relatively small. A seraphim flew to Isaiah, and touched his mouth with an ember caught with pliers.

It was only later that he finally had to pay with his life for this vision of God: his body was sawed in half.

When Isaiah saw God, the Lord said to him, « Go and tell this people, ‘Listen, listen, and do not understand; look, look, and do not discern’. Make the heart of this people heavy, make their ears hard, swallow up their eyes. »iii

Two lessons can be drawn from these texts.

Firstly, Isaiah sees God face to face in all his glory, but does not die, contrary to what Moses said.

Secondly, though all this divine glory is clearly revealed to Isaiah, it only entrusted him with a rather disappointing and illogical message to deliver on his return to earth.

God sends Isaiah back to his people with a warning that is inaudible, incomprehensible, and above all paradoxical, contradictory. He must tell the people to ‘listen’ to him, but at the same time make them hard of hearing, and incapable to understand.

He must tell them to ‘look’ and  and make their eyes glaze over.

Isaiah did not call into question the rather lousy mission he had been given.

Why so much glory given to Isaiah, and at the same time so much severity for the people?

As a matter of strong contrast, let us recall what happened to Ezra.

Ezra also had a vision.

The angels Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel placed him on a « cloud of flames » and took him to the seventh heaven. But when he got there, unlike Isaiah, Ezra saw only « the back of the Lord, » noting, « I have not deserved to see anything else. »

In front of the Lord’s back, Ezra tried to intervene on behalf of men. He told him without delay and spontaneously: « Lord, spare sinners!”

Then began a rather long quarrel between God and Ezra.

Ezra said, « How righteous are you, how almighty are you, how merciful are you, and how worthy are you? « 

He also asked what will happen on Judgment day.

The Lord answered, « The Moon will become blood on the last day, and the sun will flow in its blood. »

This prompted Ezra to reply, « In what has heaven sinned? « 

The Lord replied, « This heaven looks down upon the wickedness of mankind. »

Ezra wanted to plead the cause of men once again.

He attacked on a sensitive point, the election.

Ezra: « By the life of the Lord! I am going to plead for good against you because of all the men who have no place among the chosen ones! »

The Lord: « But you will be chosen with my prophets! »

Ezra: « Sinners, who shaped them? »

The Lord: « It’s me. »

Ezra: “If I too, like sinners, was created by you, then it is better to lose myself than the whole world!»iv

Here is a great prophet, Isaiah, who had the great privilege, denied even to Moses, of seeing the glory of God without dying, and who returns to earth with the mission to weigh down the hearts of his people, to make them deaf and blind.

And here is another prophet, Ezra, who could only see the « back of the Lord », but who did not hesitate to plead the cause of men on several occasions, and who said he was ready to renounce his election and to lose himself in exchange for the salvation of the world.

How should this be interpreted?

The Lord agreed to do men a favor, and said to Ezra: « Let sinners rest from their labors from the ninth hour of the Sabbath eve until the second day of the week; but on the other days let them be punished in return for their sins. »

From Friday afternoon until Monday midnight, three and a half days of grace.

One half of the week filled with grace. Half of the time then.

A good result for a prophet admitted to see only the « back of God ».

Think what Isaiah might have gotten if he had only tried to bargain with God.

Maybe, being captivated by his vision of God’s glory did not prepare him to engage God into a serious bargaining….

i The Ascension of Isaiah, 9, 27-40

ii Is. 6, 1-5

iii Is. 6,9-10

ivVision of Esdras, 87-89a

The true name of God (from Enlil and Ilu to El, Ilah and Allah)

On the plain of words, a worn-out ziggurat casts its shadow – the world of ideas is deeper than memory. Who measures its angles? Who discerns its diagonals? Who calculates the effect of rain and dust on it? Who can see the hollow that time leaves in it?

Towards the end of the 3rd millennium B.C., in Sumer, a poem celebrated the sovereign God, the God of gods. Enlil, his name Sumerian name, is its oldest written name, ever.

« Enlil! His authority is far-reaching,

His word is sublime, holy!

What he decides is imprescriptible.

He assigns forever the destiny of beings.

His eyes scan the entire earth.

His radiance penetrates to the farthest reaches of the land.

When the venerable Enlil takes his place in majesty..,

On his sacred and sublime throne,

When he exercises his powers as Lord and King in perfection,

The other gods spontaneously prostrate themselves before him and obey his orders without question.

He is the great and powerful ruler who dominates Heaven and Earth,

Who knows everything and understands everything.»i

A millennium later, a prayer in the Akkadian language was composed for the supreme God. His Akkadian name was Marduk.

« Lord Marduk, O supreme God, of unsurpassed intelligence..,

When you go to war, the heavens falter,

When you raise your voice, the sea is disturbed.

When you brandish your sword, the gods turn around.

Not a single one can resist your furious shock.

Fearful Lord, in the Assembly of the Gods, there is none like you! »ii

The language of the Sumerians does not belong to any known language family. As for the language of the Akkadians, which included Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic peoples, it was Semitic.

Sumerians and Akkadians began to mix in Mesopotamia from the 4th millennium BC. Jean Bottéroiii notes that the Akkadians arrived in the north and centre of Mesopotamia, whereas the Sumerians were already present in the south.

The mixing of these peoples took place gradually. A common cultural capital was formed over time.

The Sumerians were « the most active and inventive, » according to Jean Bottéro. They were the ones who invented writing, around ~3000. Sumerian is therefore the oldest language ever written.

From the 2nd millennium BC, the Sumerians were « absorbed » by the Semites. Akkadian remains the only spoken language, but the Sumerian language, a language of culture, liturgy and scholarship, does not disappear and continues to be written.

There is an enormous amount of documentation about this period. More than 500,000 documents written in Sumerian make it possible to study the religious world of these peoples, their prayers, hymns, rituals and myths.

In this mass of documents, there is no dogmatic, normative text. There are no « holy writings », no « revealed text ».

Yet religion permeated life. The sacred penetrated daily life.

In this multitude of assembled peoples, no one claimed the monopoly of a cognitive election, the supremacy of knowledge.

These peoples, these myriads, of diverse origins, shared together a sense of the sacred, an intuition of mystery.

In Babylonia, beliefs were humble, and the high priests remained modest in their formulas:

« The thoughts of the gods are as far from us as the depths of heaven.

It is impossible for us to penetrate them,

No one can understand them! »iv

To represent the idea of the divine in the Sumerian language, the cuneiform sign used was an eight-pointed star:

(pronunciation: dingir).

In Akkadian, this representation was simplified and stylized as follows:

(pronunciation: ilu).


This original Ilu later became El (God) among the Hebrews and Ilah (the Divinity) among the Arabs, who took the proper name of Allah, literally al Ilah: « the God ».

God, therefore, was written for the first time in Sumerian, Enlil, in four corner strokes, forming two crosses together, or a star.

Then the Akkadian, Semitic language, wrote it Ilu, in three cuneiform strokes, forming a cross or a star – with six branches.

i Source : A. Kalkenstein, Sumerischr Götterlieder

ii Source : E. Ebeling, Die Akkadische Gebetserie « Handerhebung »

iii Cf. J.Bottéro, Mésopotamie. L’écriture, la raison et les dieux. Folio. Paris, 1997

iv Source : W.G. Lambert. Babylonian Wisdom Literature. Cit. in J. Bottéro, Mésopotamie. L’écriture, la raison et les dieux. Folio. Paris, 1997

The True Meaning of Exile

« Light, intelligence and wisdom ». These three words are used together several times in the Book of Daniel. The queen, wife of King Balthazar, son of Nebuchadnezzar, praises Daniel’s « extraordinary spirit » as follows: « There is a man in your kingdom in whom dwells the spirit of the holy gods. In the days of your father there was in him light and understanding and wisdom like that of the gods. « (Dan. 5:11).

Then Balthazar called him and said: « Are you Daniel, of the people of the deportation of Judah, brought from Judah by my father the king? I have heard that the spirit of the gods resides in you and that in you is light, intelligence and extraordinary wisdom. « (Dan. 5:13-14)

Daniel had already experienced a glorious hour in Babylon when he had explained the dreams of Nebuchadnezzar, and revealed their « secret », their « mystery ».

The Hebrew word for « secret » and « mystery » is רָז (raz). This word is of Persian origin, and it is only found in the Bible in the Book of Daniel alone. It is also found later in the Qumran texts. It may be used in various contextsi.

Nebuchadnezzar had defeated the kingdom of Judah and destroyed the temple of Jerusalem in ~587. However Daniel brought him to resignation by revealing “the mystery”.

The mystery takes on its full value, its true meaning, only when it is brought to light, when it is « revealed », as in the verse: « It is he who reveals the deep and hidden things. »(Dan. 2:22).

The Hebrew verb used for « reveal » is גָלָה (galah) which means: « To discover, to appear, to reveal, to make known ». But in a derived sense, it means: « To emigrate, to be taken into captivity, to be exiled, to be banished. » In the niphal form, “To be uncovered, to be naked; to reveal oneself, to be announced.”

For example, « Have the gates of death been opened to you? « (Job 38:17), « There God revealed himself to him. « (Gen. 35:7), « The glory of God will be manifested. « (Is. 40:5).

It is the « revelation » that constitutes the deep substance of the secret, its inner fabric, much more than the secret itself, which is only the external appearance. A secret forever buried in the depths of time would be like a seed that would never germinate.

And, in Hebrew, “to reveal” evokes another series of meanings, revolving around emigration, exile, banishment. A penetration of the secret, an entry into the mystery, evokes a departure to a foreign land, or even a deportation, like an exile to Babylon…

A child of exile, a deportee from Judah, « reveals » his own « secret » to the king who « exiled » his people, – and by doing so, who « discovered » Judah, who made it « appear ».

Irony and depth of words, which say more than they are meant to say.

The word גָלָה (galah), which means « to reveal » and « to emigrate », also reaches a sublime form of mystery. By linking « revelation » and « emigration », it deepens a mystery whose meaning it does not reveal.

i« Then the mystery (רָז ) was revealed to Daniel in a night vision. « (Dan. 2:19)

« He who reveals depths and secrets (רָז ) knows what is in the darkness, and the light dwells with him.  » (Dan. 2:22)

« The mystery (רָז ) that the king pursues, wise men, soothsayers, magicians and exorcists have not been able to discover it to the king. « (Dan. 2:27)

« But there is a God in heaven who reveals the mysteries (רָז ) and who has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what is to happen at the end of days. Your dream and the visions of your head on your bed, here they are. « (Dan. 2:28)

« This mystery (רָז ) has been revealed to me, and I have no more wisdom than anyone else, for the sole purpose of letting the king know its meaning. « (Dan. 2:30)

« And the king said to Daniel: « Truly your god is the God of gods, and the master of kings, the revelator of mysteries (רָז ), since you were able to reveal the mystery (רָז ).  » (Dan. 2:47)