Making God and Giving Him Life – in Kabbalah and other Theurgic Conceptions


« Mains de bénédiction »

God needs men, even more than men need God.

The theurgic, creative power of men has always manifested itself through the ages.

Religious anthropology bears witness to this.

« No doubt, without the Gods, men could not live. But on the other hand, the Gods would die if they were not worshipped (…) What the worshipper really gives to his God is not the food he puts on the altar, nor the blood that flows from his veins: that is his thought. Between the deity and his worshippers there is an exchange of good offices which condition each other. »i

The Vedic sacrifice is one of the most ancient human rite from which derives the essence of Prajāpati, the supreme God, the Creator of the worlds.

« There are rites without gods, and there are rites from which gods derive ».ii

Unexpectingly, Charles Mopsik, in his study of the Jewish kabbalah, subtitled The Rites that Make God, affirms the « flagrant similarity » of these ancient theurgical beliefs with the Jewish motif of the creative power of the rite.

Mopsik readily admits that « the existence of a theme in Judaism, according to which man must ‘make God’, may seem incredible.»iii

Examples of Jewish kabbalistic theurgy abound, involving, for example, man’s ‘shaping’ of God, or his participation in the ‘creation’ of the Name or the Shabbath. Mopsik evokes a midrash quoted by R. Bahya ben Acher, according to which « the man who keeps the Shabbath from below, ‘it is as if he were doing it from above’, in other words ‘gave existence’, ‘fashioned the Sabbath from above. »iv

The expression ‘to make God’, which Charles Mopsik uses in the subtitle of his book, can be compared to the expression ‘to make the Shabbath’ (in the sense of ‘to create the Shabbath’) as it is curiously expressed in the Torah (« The sons of Israel will keep the Shabbath to make the Shabbath » (Ex 31,16)), as well as in the Clementine Homilies, a Judeo-Christian text that presents God as the Shabbath par excellencev, which implies that ‘to make the Shabbath’ is ‘to make God’…

Since its very ancient ‘magical’ origins, theurgy implies a direct relationship between ‘saying’ and ‘doing’ or ‘making’. The Kabbalah takes up this idea, and develops it:

« You must know that the commandment is a light, and he who does it below affirms (ma’amid) and does (‘osseh) that which is above. Therefore, when man practices a commandment, that commandment is light.»vi

In this quotation, the word ‘light’ is to be understood as an allusive way of saying ‘God’, comments Mopsik, who adds: « Observances have a sui generis efficacy and shape the God of the man who puts them into practice.»

Many other rabbis, such as Moses de Leon (the author of the Zohar), Joseph Gikatila, Joseph of Hamadan, Méir ibn Gabbay, or Joseph Caro, affirm the power of « the theurgic instituting action » or « theo-poietic ».

The Zohar explains :

« ‘If you follow my ordinances, if you keep my commandments, when you do them, etc.' ». (Lev 26:3) What does ‘When you do them’ mean? Since the text already says, « If you follow and keep, » what is the meaning of « When you do them »? Verily, whoever does the commandments of the Torah and walks in its ways, so to speak, it is as if he makes Him on high (‘avyd leyh le’ila), the Holy One blessed be He who says, ‘It is as if he makes Me’ (‘assa-ny). In this connection Rabbi Simeon said, ‘David made the Name’. » vii

« David made the Name » ! This is yet another theurgical expression, and not the least, since the Name, the Holy Name, is in reality God Himself !

‘Making God’, ‘Making the Shabbath’, ‘Making the Name’, all these theurgic expressions are equivalent, and the authors of the Kabbalah adopt them alternately.

From a critical point of view, it remains to be seen whether the kabbalistic interpretations of these theurgies are in any case semantically and grammatically acceptable. It also remains to be ascertained whether they are not rather the result of deliberately tendentious readings, purposefully diverting the obvious meaning of the Texts. But even if this were precisely the case, there would still remain the stubborn, inescapable fact that the Jewish Kabbalists wanted to find the theurgic idea in the Torah .

Given the importance of what is at stake, it is worth delving deeper into the meaning of the expression « Making the Name », and the way in which the Kabbalists understood it, – and then commented on it again and again over the centuries …

The original occurrence of this particular expression is found in the second book of Samuel (II Sam 8,13). It is a particularly warlike verse, whose usual translation gives a factual, neutral interpretation, very far in truth from the theurgic interpretation:

« When he returned from defeating Syria, David again made a name for himself by defeating eighteen thousand men in the Valley of Salt. »

David « made a name for himself », i.e. a « reputation », a « glory », in the usual sense of the word שֵׁם, chem.

The massoretic text of this verse gives :

וַיַּעַשׂ דָּוִד, שֵׁם

Va ya’ass Daoud shem

« To make a name for oneself, a reputation » seems to be the correct translation, in the context of a warlord’s glorious victory. Biblical Hebrew dictionaries confirm that this meaning is widespread.

Yet this was not the interpretation chosen by the Kabbalists.

They prefer to read: « David made the Name« , i.e. « made God« , as Rabbi Simeon says, quoted by the Zohar.

In this context, Charles Mopsik proposes a perfectly extraordinary interpretation of the expression « making God ». This interpretation (taken from the Zohar) is that « to make God » is equivalent to the fact that God constitutes His divine fullness by conjugating (in the original sense of the word!) « His masculine and feminine dimensions ».

If we follow Mopsik, « making God » for the Zohar would be the equivalent of « making love » for both male and female parts of God?

More precisely, as we will see, it would be the idea of YHVH’s loving encounter with His alter ego, Adonaï?

A brilliant idea, – or an absolute scandal (from the point of view of Jewish ‘monotheism’)?

Here’s how Charles Mopsik puts it:

« The ‘Holy Name’ is defined as the close union of the two polar powers of the divine pleroma, masculine and feminine: the sefira Tiferet (Beauty) and the sefira Malkhut (Royalty), to which the words Law and Right refer (…) The theo-poietic action is accomplished through the unifying action of the practice of the commandments that cause the junction of the sefirot Tiferet and Malkhut, the Male and Female from Above. These are thus united ‘one to the other’, the ‘Holy Name’ which represents the integrity of the divine pleroma in its two great poles YHVH (the sefira Tiferet) and Adonay (the sefira Malkhut). For the Zohar, ‘To make God’ therefore means to constitute the divine fullness [or pleroma] by uniting its masculine and feminine dimensions. » viii

In another passage of the Zohar, it is the (loving) conjunction of God with the Shekhina, which is proposed as an equivalence or ‘explanation’ of the expressions « making God » or « making the Name »:

« Rabbi Judah reports a verse: ‘It is time to act for YHVH, they have violated the Torah’ (Ps.119,126). What does ‘the time to act for YHVH’ mean? (…) ‘Time’ refers to the Community of Israel (the Shekhinah), as it is said: ‘He does not enter the sanctuary at all times’ (Lev 16:2). Why [is it called] ‘time’? Because there is a ‘time’ and a moment for all things, to draw near, to be enlightened, to unite as it should be, as it is written: ‘And I pray to you, YHVH, the favourable time’ (Ps 69:14), ‘to act for YHVH’ [‘to make YHVH’] as it is written: ‘David made the Name’ (II Sam 8:13), for whoever devotes himself to the Torah, it is as if he were making and repairing the ‘Time’ [the Shekhinah], to join him to the Holy One blessed be He. » ix

After « making God », « making YHVH », « making the Name », here is another theurgical form: « making Time », that is to say « bringing together » the Holy One blessed be He and the Shekhina…

A midrach quoted by R. Abraham ben Ḥananel de Esquira teaches this word attributed to God Himself: « Whoever fulfills My commandments, I count him as if they had made Me. » x

Mopsik notes here that the meaning of the word ‘theurgy’ as ‘production of the divine’, as given for example in the Liturgy, may therefore mean ‘procreation’, as a model for all the works that are supposed to ‘make God’. xi

This idea is confirmed by the famous Rabbi Menahem Recanati: « The Name has commanded each one of us to write a book of the Torah for himself; the hidden secret is this: it is as if he is making the Name, blessed be He, and all the Torah is the names of the Saint, blessed be He. » xii

In another text, Rabbi Recanati brings together the two formulations ‘to make YHVH’ and ‘to make Me’: « Our masters have said, ‘Whoever does My commandments, I will count him worthy as if he were making Me,’ as it is written, ‘It is time to make YHVH’ (Ps 119:126)xiii.

One can see it, tirelessly, century after century, the rabbis report and repeat the same verse of the psalms, interpreted in a very specific way, relying blindly on its ‘authority’ to dare to formulate dizzying speculations… like the idea of the ‘procreation’ of the divinity, or of its ‘begetting’, in itself and by itself….

The kabbalistic image of ‘procreation’ is actually used by the Zohar to translate the relationship of the Shekhina with the divine pleroma:

« ‘Noah built an altar’ (Gen 8:20). What does ‘Noah built’ mean? In truth, Noah is the righteous man. He ‘built an altar’, that is the Shekhina. His edification (binyam) is a son (ben) who is the Central Column. » xiv

Mopsik specifies that the ‘righteous’ is « the equivalent of the sefira Yessod (the Foundation) represented by the male sexual organ. Acting as ‘righteous’, the man assumes a function in sympathy with that of this divine emanation, which connects the male and female dimensions of the sefirot, allowing him to ‘build’ the Shekhina identified at the altar. » xv

In this Genesis verse, we see that the Zohar reads the presence of the Shekhina, represented by the altar of sacrifice, and embodying the feminine part of the divine, and we see that the Zohar also reads the act of « edifying » her, symbolized by the Central Column, that is to say by the ‘Foundation’, or the Yessod, which in the Kabbalah has as its image the male sexual organ, and which thus incarnates the male part of the divine, and bears the name of ‘son’ [of God]…

How can we understand these allusive images? To say it without a veil, the kabbalah does not hesitate to represent here (in a cryptic way) a quasi-marital scene where God ‘gets closer’ to His Queen to love her…

And it is up to ‘Israel’ to ensure the smooth running of this loving encounter, as the following passage indicates:

 » ‘They will make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among you’ (Ex 25:8) (…) The Holy One blessed be He asked Israel to bring the Queen called ‘Sanctuary’ to Him (…) For it is written: ‘You shall bring a fire (ichêh, a fire = ichah, a woman) to YHVH’ (Lev 23:8). Therefore it is written, ‘They will make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among you’. » xvi

Let’s take an interested look at the verse: « You will approach a fire from YHVH » (Lev 33:8).

The Hebrew text gives :

וְהִקְרַבְתֶּם אִשֶּׁה לַיהוָה

Ve-hiqravttêm ichêh la-YHVH

The word אִשֶּׁה , ichêh, means ‘fire’, but in a very slightly different vocalization, ichah, this same word means ‘woman’. As for the verb ‘to approach’, its root is קרב, qaraba, « to be near, to approach, to move towards » and in the hiphil form, « to present, to offer, to sacrifice ». Interestingly, and even disturbingly, the noun qorban, ‘sacrifice, oblation, gift’ that derives from it, is almost identical to the noun qerben which means ‘womb, entrails, breast’ (of the woman).

One could propose the following equations (or analogies), which the Hebrew language either shows or implies allusively:

Fire = Woman

Approaching = Sacrifice = Entrails (of the woman)

‘Approaching the altar’ = ‘Approaching a woman’ (Do we need to recall here that, in the Hebrew Bible, « to approach a woman » is a euphemism for « making love »?)

The imagination of the Kabbalists does not hesitate to evoke together (in an almost subliminal way) the ‘sacrifice’, the ‘entrails’, the ‘fire’ and the ‘woman’ and to bring them formally ‘closer’ to the Most Holy Name: YHVH.

It should be noted, however, that the Kabbalists’ audacity is only relative here, since the Song of Songs had, long before the Kabbalah, dared to take on even more burning images.

In the thinking of the Kabbalists, the expression « to make God » is understood as the result of a « union » of the masculine and feminine dimensions of the divine.

In this allegory, the sefira Yessod connects God and the Community of believers just as the male organ connects the male body to the female body. xvii

Rabbi Matthias Delacroute (Poland, 16th century) comments:

« ‘Time to make YHVH’ (Ps 119:126). Explanation: The Shekhinah called ‘Time’ is to be made by joining her to YHVH after she has been separated from Him because one has broken the rules and transgressed the Law. » xviii

For his part, Rabbi Joseph Caro (1488-1575) understood the same verse as follows: « To join the upper pleroma, masculine and divine, with the lower pleroma, feminine and archangelical, must be the aim of those who practice the commandments (…) The lower pleroma is the Shekhinah, also called the Community of Israel ». xix

It is a question of magnifying the role of the Community of Israel, or that of each individual believer, in the ‘divine work’, in its ‘reparation’, in its increase in ‘power’ or even in its ‘begetting’….

Rabbi Hayim Vital, a contemporary of Joseph Caro, comments on a verse from Isaiah and relates it to another verse from the Psalms in a way that has been judged « extravagant » by literalist exegetesxx.

Isaiah’s verse (Is 49:4) reads, according to R. Hayim Vital: « My work is my God », and he compares it with Psalm 68: « Give power to God » (Ps 68:35), of which he gives the following comment: « My work was my God Himself, God whom I worked, whom I made, whom I repaired ».

Note that this verse (Is 49:4) is usually translated as follows: « My reward is with my God » (ou-féoulati êt Adonaï).

Mopsik comments: « It is not ‘God’ who is the object of the believer’s work, or action, but ‘my God’, that God who is ‘mine’, with whom I have a personal relationship, and in whom I have faith, and who is ‘my’ work. »

And he concludes that this ‘God who is made’, who is ‘worked’, is in reality ‘the feminine aspect of the divinity’.

The Gaon Elijah of Vilna proposed yet another way of understanding and designating the two ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ aspects of the Deity, calling them respectively ‘expansive aspect’ and ‘receiving aspect’:

« The expansive aspect is called havayah (being) [i.e. HVYH, anagram of YHVH…], the receiving aspect of the glorification coming from us is called ‘His Name’. In the measure of Israel’s attachment to God, praising and glorifying Him, the Shekhinah receives the Good of the expanding aspect. (…) The Totality of the offices, praise and glorification, that is called Shekhinah, which is His Name. Indeed, ‘name’ means ‘public renown’ and ‘celebration’ of His Glory, the perception of His Greatness. (…) This is the secret of ‘YHVH is one, and His Name is one’ (Zac 14:9). YHVH is one’ refers to the expansion of His will. ‘His Name is one’ designates the receiving aspect of His praise and attachment. This is the unification of the recitation of the Shemaxxi

According to the Gaon of Vilna, the feminine dimension of God, the Shekhina, is the passive dimension of the manifested God, a dimension that is nourished by the Totality of the praises and glorifications of the believers. The masculine dimension of God is Havayah, the Being.

Charles Mopsik’s presentation on the theurgical interpretations of the Jewish Kabbalah (‘Making God’) does not neglect to recognize that these interpretations are in fact part of a universal history of the religious fact, particularly rich in comparable experiences, especially in the diverse world of ‘paganism’. It is thus necessary to recognize the existence of « homologies that are difficult to dispute between the theurgic conceptions of Hellenized Egyptian hermeticism, late Greco-Roman Neoplatonism, Sufi theology, Neoplatonism and Jewish mystagogy. » xxii

Said in direct terms, this amounts to noting that since the dawn of time, there has been among all ‘pagan’ people this idea that the existence of God depends on men, at least to a certain degree.

It is also striking that ideas seemingly quite foreign to the Jewish religion, such as the idea of a Trinitarian conception of God (notoriously associated with Christianity) has in fact been enunciated in a similar way by some high-flying cabbalists.

Thus the famous Rabbi Moses Hayim Luzzatto had this formula surprisingly comparable (or if one prefers: ‘isomorphic’) to the Trinitarian formula:

« The Holy One, Blessed be He, the Torah and Israel are one. »

But it should also be recalled that this kind of « kabbalistic » conception has attracted virulent criticism within conservative Judaism, criticism which extends to the entire Jewish Kabbalah. Mopsik cites in this connection the outraged reactions of such personalities as Rabbi Elie del Medigo (c. 1460- 1493) or Rabbi Judah Arie of Modena (17th century), and those of equally critical contemporaries such as Gershom Scholem or Martin Buber…

We will not enter into this debate. We prefer here to try to perceive in the theurgic conceptions we have just outlined the clue of an anthropological constant, an archetype, a kind of universal intuition proper to the profound nature of the human spirit.

It is necessary to pay tribute to the revolutionary effort of the Kabbalists, who have shaken with all their might the narrow frames of old and fixed conceptions, in an attempt to answer ever-renewed questions about the essence of the relationship between divinity, the world and humanity, the theos, the cosmos and the anthropos.

This titanic intellectual effort of the Jewish Kabbalah is, moreover, comparable in intensity, it seems to me, to similar efforts made in other religions (such as those of a Thomas Aquinas within the framework of Christianity, around the same period, or those of the great Vedic thinkers, as witnessed by the profound Brahmanas, two millennia before our era).

From the powerful effort of the Kabbalah emerges a specifically Jewish idea of universal value:

« The revealed God is the result of the Law, rather than the origin of the Law. This God is not posed at the Beginning, but proceeds from an interaction between the superabundant flow emanating from the Infinite and the active presence of Man. » xxiii

In a very concise and perhaps more relevant way: « You can’t really know God without acting on Him, » also says Mopsik.

Unlike Gershom Scholem or Martin Buber, who have classified the Kabbalah as « magic » in order to disdain it at its core, Charles Mopsik clearly perceives that it is one of the signs of the infinite richness of human potential in its relationship with the divine. We must pay homage to him for his very broad anthropological vision of the phenomena linked to divine revelation, in all eras and throughout the world.

The spirit blows where it wants. Since the dawn of time, i.e. for tens of thousands of years (the caves of Lascaux or Chauvet bear witness to this), many human minds have tried to explore the unspeakable, without preconceived ideas, and against all a priori constraints.

Closer to us, in the 9th century AD, in Ireland, John Scot Erigenes wrote:

« Because in all that is, the divine nature appears, while by itself it is invisible, it is not incongruous to say that it is made. » xxiv

Two centuries later, the Sufi Ibn Arabi, born in Murcia, died in Damascus, cried out: « If He gave us life and existence through His being, I also give Him life, knowing Him in my heart.» xxv

Theurgy is a timeless idea, with unimaginable implications, and today, unfortunately, this profound idea seems almost incomprehensible in our almost completely de-divinized world.

___________________

iE. Durckheim. Elementary forms of religious life. PUF, 1990, p.494-495

iiE. Durckheim. Elementary forms of religious life. PUF, 1990, p. 49

iiiCharles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites that make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.551

ivIbid.

vClementine Homilies, cf. Homily XVII. Verdier 1991, p.324

viR. Ezra de Girona. Liqouté Chikhehah ou-féah. Ferrara, 1556, fol 17b-18a, cited in Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites that make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.558

viiZohar III 113a

viiiCharles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites that make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.561-563.

ixZohar, I, 116b, cited in Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites which make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.568

xR. Abraham ben Ḥananel de Esquira. Sefer Yessod ‘Olam. Ms Moscow-Günzburg 607 Fol 69b, cited in Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites that make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.589

xiSee Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites that make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.591

xiiR. Menahem Recanati. Perouch ‘al ha-Torah. Jerusalem, 1971, fol 23b-c, quoted in Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites which make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.591

xiiiR. Menahem Recanati. Sefer Ta’amé ha-Mitsvot. London 1962 p.47, cited in Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites which make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.591

xivZohar Hadach, Tiqounim Hadachim. Ed. Margaliot. Jerusalem, 1978, fol 117c quoted in Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites which make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.591

xvCharles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites that make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.593

xviR. Joseph de Hamadan. Sefer Tashak. Ed J. Zwelling U.M.I. 1975, p.454-455, cited in Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites which make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.593

xviiSee Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites that make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p. 604

xviiiR. Matthias Délacroute. Commentary on the Cha’aré Orah. Fol 19b note 3. Quoted in Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites which make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p. 604

xixCharles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites that make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p. 604

xxIbid.

xxiGaon Elijah of Vilna. Liqouté ha-Gra. Tefilat Chaharit, Sidour ha-Gra, Jerusalem 1971 p.89, cited in Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites which make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p. 610

xxiiCharles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites that make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p. 630

xxiiiCharles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites that make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p. 639

xxivJean Scot Erigène. De Divisione Naturae. I,453-454B, quoted by Ch. Mopsik, Ibid. p.627

xxvQuoted by H. Corbin. The creative imagination

« Making God »: Kabbalah, Trance and Theurgy.


« Shamanic Trance »

Words are devious. Language is treacherous, and grammars are vicious. Willingly ignorant of these deficiencies, men have been sailing for millennia in oceans of sentences, drifting above the depths of meanings, equipped with broken compasses, falsified sextants, under the fleeting stars.

How accurately, then, can men understand a « divine revelation » when it is made of « words », clothed in their unfathomable depths, their ambiguous abysses?

Error lurks for the wise. The study never ends. Who can pretend to grasp the ultimate meaning of any revelation?

Let us start with a single verse of the Psalms, which opened worlds of interpretation, during millenia.

« It is time to make YHVH » (Ps. 119:126).

« Making YHVH? » Really? Yes, this is the meaning that some Jewish Kabbalists, in Medieval Spain, decided was the true sense conveyed by Ps. 119:126.

Most versions of the Bible, today, give more ‘rational’ translations of Ps. 119:126, such as:

« It is time for the LORD to work »i

Or:

« It is time for thee, LORD, to work »ii

Why then, did some medieval rabbis, most of them Kabbalists, chose to deviate from the obvious, traditional meaning carried by the Massoretic text? Why did they dare to flirt with scandal? Were they not aware that they were shocking the Jewish faith, or even just simple common sense, by pretending to « make » YHVH?

Many centuries before the Jewish Kabbalists tried their wits on this particular verse, manuscripts (and interpretations) already differed greatly about its true meaning.

The obvious meaning was indeed: « It is time for God to act ».

Other interpretations prefered : « It is time to act for God », – i.e. men should finally do for God what they had to do.

Has the time come (for the LORD) to act, or has the time come (for men) to act for the LORD?

Forsaking these two possible (and indeed differing) readings, the Kabbalists in early medieval Spain chose yet another interpretation: « It is time [for men] to make God. » iii

Why this audacity, rubbing shoulders with blasphemy, shaving the abyss?

The Hebrew Bible, in the Massoretic version which was developed after the destruction of the Second Temple, and which therefore dates from the first centuries of our era, proposes the following text:

עֵת, לַעֲשׂוֹת לַיהוָה

‘èt la’assot la-YHVH

This can be translated as: « It is time to act for God », if one understands לַיהוָה = for YHVH

But the Kabbalists refused this reading. They seem not to have used the Massoretic text, but other, much older manuscripts which omit the preposition for (לַ).

The word ‘God’ (or more precisely יהוָה, ‘YHVH’) thus becomes the direct object complement of the verb ‘to do, to act’. Hence the translation : ‘It is time to make God’.

The Bible of the French Rabbinate follows the Massoretic version and translates :

« The time has come to act for the Lord ».

The Jerusalem Bible (Ed. Cerf, 1973) translates: « It is time to act, Yahweh ».

In this interpretation, the Psalmist seems to somehow admonish YHVH and gives Him a pressing request to « act ». The translators of the Jerusalem Bible note that the Massoretic text indicates « for Yahweh », which would imply that it is up to man to act for Him. But they do not retain this lesson, and they mention another handwritten (unspecified) source, which seems to have been adopted by S. Jerome, a source which differs from the Massoretic text by the elision of the preposition ל. Hence the adopted translation: « It is time to act, Yahweh », without the word for.

But, again, the lessons vary, depending on how you understand the grammatical role of the word ‘Yahweh’…

S. Jerome’s version (the Vulgate) gives :

Tempus is ut facias Domine.

The word ‘Lord’ is in the vocative (‘Domine!’): the Psalmist calls upon the Lord to ask Him to act. « It is time for You to act, Lord! »

However, in the text of the Clementine Vulgate, finalized in the 16th century by Pope Clement VIII, and which is the basis of the ‘New Vulgate’ (Nova Vulgata) available online on the Vatican website, it reads:

Tempus faciendi Domino

The word ‘Lord’ is in the dative (‘Domino’), and thus plays the role of a complement of attribution. « It is time to act for the Lord ».

The Septuagint (that is, the version of the Bible translated into Greek by seventy-two Jewish scholars gathered in Alexandria around 270 B.C.E.) proposes, for its part

καιρὸς τοῦ ποιῆσαι τῷ κυρίῳ-

Kairos tou poïêsai tô kyriô

Here too the word ‘Lord’ is in the dative, not in the vocative. « It is time to act for the Lord ».

This ancient lesson of the Septuagint (established well before the Massoretic text) does not, however, resolve a residual ambiguity.

One can indeed choose to emphasize the need to act, which is imparted to the Lord Himself:

« For the Lord, the time to act has come ».

But one can just as easily choose to emphasize the need for men to act for the Lord:

« The time has come to act for the Lord ».

In relation to these different nuances, what I’d like to emphasize here is the radically different understanding chosen by the Kabbalists in medieval Spain:

« It is time to make God ».

Rabbi Meir Ibn Gabbay wrote:

« He who fulfills all the commandments, his image and likeness are perfect, and he is like the High Man sitting on the Throne (Ez. 1:26), he is in his image, and the Shekhinah is established with him because he has made all his organs perfect: his body becomes a throne and a dwelling for the figure that corresponds to him. From there you will understand the secret of the verse: « It is time to make YHVH » (Ps. 119:126). You will also understand that the Torah has a living soul (…) It has matter and form, body and soul (…) And know that the soul of the Torah is the Shekhinah, the secret of the last he [ה ], the Torah is its garment (…) The Torah is therefore a body for the Shekhinah, and the Shekhinah is like a soul for her. » iv

Charles Mopsik notes that « this expression [« making God »], roughly stated, can surprise and even scandalize ».

At least, this is an opportunity to question the practices and conceptions of the Jewish Kabbalah in matters of ‘theurgy’.

The word ‘theurgy’ comes from the Latin theurgia, « theurgy, magic operation, evocation of spirits », itself borrowed by Augustine from the Greek θεουργία , « act of divine power », « miracle », « magic operation ». E. des Places defines theurgy as « a kind of binding action on the gods ». In Neoplatonism, « theurgy » means « the act of making God act in oneself », according to the Littré.

E. R. Dodds devotes an appendix of his work The Greeks and the Irrationalv to the theurgy, which he introduces as follows: « The theologoi ‘spoke of the gods’, but [the theourgos] ‘acted upon them’, or perhaps even ‘created them' », this last formula being an allusion to the formula of the famous Byzantine scholar Michel Psellus (11th century): « He who possesses the theurgic virtue is called ‘father of the gods’, because he transforms men into gods (theous all anthropous ergazetai). » vi

In this context, E.R. Dodd cites Jamblichus’ treatise De mysteriis, which he considers ‘irrational’ and a testimony to a ‘culture in decline’: « De mysteriis is a manifesto of irrationalism, an affirmation that the way to salvation is not in human reason but in ritual. It is not thought that links theurgists to the gods: what else would prevent philosophical theorists from enjoying the theurgical union? But this is not the case. Theurgic union is achieved only by the efficacy of ineffable acts performed in the proper way, acts that are beyond understanding, and by the power of ineffable symbols that are understood only by gods… without intellectual effort on our part, signs (sunthêmata) by their own virtue perform their own work’ (De myst. 96.13 Parthey). To the discouraged spirit of the pagans of the fourth century such a message brought seductive comfort. « vii

But the result of these attitudes, privileging ‘rite’ over ‘intellectual effort,’ was « a declining culture, and the slow thrust of that Christian athéotês who all too obviously undermined the very life of Hellenism. Just as vulgar magic is commonly the last resort of the desperate individual, of those who have been lacking in both man and God, so theurgy became the refuge of a desperate ‘intelligentsia’ that already felt the fascination of the abyss. » viii

The modes of operation of the theurgy vary notoriously, covering a vast domain, from magical rites or divination rites to shamanic trances or phenomena of demonic or spiritual ‘possession’.

E.R. Dodds proposes to group them into two main types: those that depend on the use of symbols (symbola) or signs (sunthêmata), and those that require the use of a ‘medium’, in ecstasy. The first type was known as telestikê, and was mainly used for the consecration and animation of magical statues in order to obtain oracles. The making of magical statuettes of gods was not a ‘monopoly of theurgists’. It was based on an ancient and widespread belief of a universal sympatheia ix, linking the images to their original model. The original center of these practices was Egypt.

Dodds cites Hermes Trismegistus’ dialogue with Asclepius (or Aesculapius), which evokes « animated statues, full of meaning and spirit » (statuas animatas sensu et spiritu plenas), which can predict the future, inflict or cure diseases, and imprison the souls of deer or angels, all the theurgic actions summarized by Hermes Trismegistus’ formula: sic deorum fictor est homo, (« this is how man makes gods »)x.

« To make gods »: this expression was there to prefigure, with more than a thousand years of anteriority, the formula put forward later by R. Meir ibn Gabbay and other Kabbalists: « to make YHVH », – although undoubtedly with a different intention. We shall return to this.

In his book The City of God, S. Augustinexi had quoted large excerpts from this famous dialogue between Hermes Trismegistus and Asclepius, including these sentences:

« As the Lord and the Father, God in a word, is the author of the heavenly gods, so man is the author of those gods who reside in temples and delight in the neighborhood of mortals. Thus, humanity, faithful to the memory of its nature and origin, perseveres in this imitation of its divinity. The Father and the Lord made the eternal gods in his likeness, and humanity made its gods in the likeness of man. » xii

And Hermes added: « It is a marvel above all wonder and admiration that man could invent and create a divinity. The disbelief of our ancestors was lost in deep errors about the existence and condition of the gods, forsaking the worship and honors of the true God; thus they found the art of making gods. »

The anger of St. Augustine exploded at this very spot against Hermes. « I don’t know if the demons themselves would confess as much as this man! »

After a long deconstruction of the Hermetic discourse, Augustine concludes by quoting a definitive sentence of the prophet Jeremiah:

« Man makes himself gods (elohim)? No, of course, they are not gods (elohim)! » xiii

Attempting to combat the « sarcasm » of Christian criticism, Jamblichus strove to prove that « idols are divine and filled with the divine presence. « xiv

This art of making divine statues had to survive the end of the « dying pagan world » and find its way into « the repertoire of medieval magicians, » Dodds notesxv.

One could add, without seeing any malice in it, that the idea was also taken up by the Spanish Jewish cabal in the Middle Ages, and later still, by the rabbis who made Golem, such as the Maharal of Prague, nicknamed Yehudah-Leib, or Rabbi Loew…

This is at least the suggestion proposed by E.R. Dodds: « Did the theurgical telestikê suggest to medieval alchemists their attempts to create artificial human beings (« homunculi« )? (…) Curious clues to some historical relationship have recently been put forward by Paul Kraus. (…) He points out that the vast alchemical corpus attributed to Jâbir b. Hayyan (Gebir) not only alludes to Porphyry’s (apocryphal?) Book of the Generation, but also uses neo-Platonic speculations about images. » xvi

The other operational mode of theurgy is trance or mediumnic possession, of which Dodds notes « the obvious analogy with modern spiritism. xvii

I don’t know if the « modern spiritism » that Dodds spoke of in the 1950s is not a little outdated today, but it is certain that the rites of trance and possession, whether they are practiced in Morocco (the Gnaouas), Haiti (Voodoo), Nepal, Mongolia, Mexico, and everywhere else in the world, are still worth studying. One can consult in this respect the beautiful study of Bertrand Hell, Possession and Shamanismxviii, whose cover page quotes the superb answer of the Great Mughal Khan Güyük to Pope Innocent IV in 1246: « For if man is not himself the strength of God, what could he do in this world? »

Many are the skeptics, who doubt the very reality of the trance. The famous Sufi philosopher al-Ghazali, in his 12th century Book of the Proper Use of Hearing and Ecstasy, admits the possibility of « feigned » ecstasy, but he adds that deliberately provoking one’s « rapture » when participating in a cult of possession (dikhr) can nevertheless lead the initiate to a true encounter with the divine. xix

Bertrand Hell argues that simulations and deceptions about ecstasy can open up a fertile field of reflection, as evidenced by the concepts of « para-sincerity » (Jean Poirier), « lived theater » (Michel Leiris) or « true hallucination » (Jean Duvignaud). xx

In the definitions and examples of theurgies we have just gone through, it is a question of « making the divinity act » in itself, or « acting » on the divinity, and much more exceptionally of « creating » it. The only examples of a theurgy that « creates gods » are those evoked by Hermes Trismegistus, who speaks of man as the « maker of gods » (fictor deorum), and by Michel Psellus, with the somewhat allegorical sense of a theurgy that exercises itself on men to « transform them into gods ».

This is why Charles Mopsik’s project to study the notion of theurgy as it was developed in the Jewish cabal has a particularly original character. In this case, in fact, theurgy does not only mean « to make the god act upon man », or « to act upon the god » or « to make man divine », but it takes on the much more absolute, much more radical, and almost blasphemous meaning, particularly from a Jewish point of view, of « creating God », of « making God »xxi.

There is a definite semantic and symbolic leap here. Mopsik does not hesitate to propose this leap in the understanding of theurgy, because it was precisely the radical choice of the Spanish Jewish Kabbalah, for several centuries…

___________________

iAccording to the Masoretic Text and the JPS 1917 Edition.

iiKing James Version

iiiCf. the long and learned study devoted to this last interpretation by Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites that make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993

ivR. Méir Ibn Gabbay. Derekh Emounah. Jerusalem, 1967, p.30-31, cited in Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites that make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p. 371-372.

vE.R. Dodds. The Greeks and the irrational. Flammarion, 1977, p.279-299

viMichel Psellus. Greek patrology. 122, 721D, « Theurgicam virtutem qui habet pater divinus appellatur, quoniam enim ex hominibus facit deos, illo venit nomine. »

viiE.R. Dodds. The Greeks and the irrational. Flammarion, 1977, p.284.

viiiE.R. Dodds. The Greeks and the irrational. Flammarion, 1977, p.284.

ixE.R. Dodds. The Greeks and the irrational. Flammarion, 1977, p.289

xAsclepius III, 24a, 37a-38a. Corpus Hermeticum. Trad. A.J. Festugière. t. II. Les Belles Lettres. Paris, 1973, p.349, quoted by E.R. Dodds. The Greeks and the irrational. Flammarion, 1977, p.291.

xiS. Augustine. The City of God. VIII, 23-24

xiiAsclepius, 23.

xiiiJr 16.20

xivPhotius, Bibl. 215. Quoted by E.R. Dodds. The Greeks and the Irrational. Flammarion, 1977, p.292

xvE.R. Dodds. The Greeks and the irrational. Flammarion, 1977, p.292

xviE.R. Dodds. The Greeks and the irrational. Flammarion, 1977, p.293

xviiE.R. Dodds. The Greeks and the irrational. Flammarion, 1977, p.294

xviiiBertand Hell, Possession and Shamanism. Les maîtres du désordre, Flammarion, 1999

xixBertand Hell, Possession and Shamanism. Les maîtres du désordre, Flammarion, 1999, p.198

xxBertand Hell, Possession and Shamanism. Les maîtres du désordre, Flammarion, 1999, p.197

xxiCharles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites that make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.550.

The God named « I, I, Him »


« Old Rabbi. Rembrandt »

The Jews, fierce defenders of the monotheistic idea, are also the faithful guardians of texts in which appear, on several occasions, what could be called ‘verbal trinities’, or ‘triple names’ of God, such as: « YHVH Elohenou YHVH » (Deut 6:4), « Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh » (Ex 3:14), or « Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh « , expressed as a triple attribute of YHVH (Is 6:3).

The Zohar commented upon the first of these three-part names, « YHVH Elohenou YHVH », making a link with the « divine secret » embedded in the first sentence of the Torah: « Until now, this has been the secret of ‘YHVH Elohim YHVH’. These three names correspond to the divine secret contained in the verse ‘In the beginning created Elohim’. Thus, the expression ‘In the beginning’ is an ancient secret, namely: Wisdom (Hokhmah) is called ‘Beginning’. The word ‘created’ also alludes to a hidden secret, from which everything develops. » (Zohar 1:15b).

One could conclude that the One God does not therefore exclude a ‘Trinitarian’ phenomenology of His essential nature, which may be expressed in the words that designate Him, or in the names by which He calls Himself….

Among the strangest ‘triplets’ of divine names that the One God uses to name Himself is the expression, « I, I, Him », first mentioned by Moses (Deut 32:39), then repeated several times by Isaiah (Is 43:10; Is 43:25; Is 51:12; Is 52:6).

In Hebrew: אֲנִי אֲנִי הוּא ani ani hu’, « I, I, Him ».

These three pronouns are preceded by an invitation from God to ‘see’ who He is:

רְאוּ עַתָּה, כִּי אֲנִי הוּא

reou ‘attah, ki ani ani hu’.

Literally: « See now that: I, I, Him ».

This sentence is immediately followed by a reaffirmation of God’s singularity:

וְאֵין אֱלֹהִים, עִמָּדִי

v’éin elohim ‘imadi

« And there is no god (elohim) with Me ».

Throughout history, translators have endeavored to interpret this succession of three personal pronouns with various solutions.

The Septuagint chose to translate (in Greek) this triplet as a simple affirmation by God of his existence (ego eimi, « I am »), and transformed the original doubling of the personal pronoun in the first person singular (ani ani, « I I ») into a repetition of the initial imperative of the verb ‘to see’, which is used only once in the original text:

ἴδετε ἴδετε ὅτι ἐγώ εἰμι

idete, idete, oti ego eimi

« See, see, that I am ».

On the other hand, the third person singular pronoun disappears from the Greek translation.

The second part of the verse gives :

καὶ οὐκ ἔστιν θεὸς πλὴν ἐμοῦ-

kai ouk estin theos plén emou.

« and there is no God but Me. »

In the translation of the French Rabbinate adapted to Rashi’s commentary, one reads:

« See now, it is Me, I, I am Him, no god beside Me! »

We see that « ani ani hu’ » is translated as « It is Me, I, I am Him ».

Rashi comments on this verse as follows:

« SEE NOW. Understand by the chastisement with which I have struck you and no one could save you, and by the salvation I will grant you and no one can stop Me. – IT IS ME, I, I AM HIM. I to lower and I to raise. – NO GOD, BESIDE ME. Rises up against Me to oppose Me. עִמָּדִי: My equal, My fellow man. » i

Let’s try to comment on Rashi’s comment.

Rashi sees two « I’s » in God, an « I » that lowers and an « I » that raises.

The ‘I’ that lowers seems to be found in the statement ‘It is Me’.

The ‘I’ that raises is the ‘I’ as understood in the formula ‘I am Him’.

Rashi distinguishes between a first ani, who is the ‘I’ who lowers and punishes, and a second ani who is an I’ who ‘raises’ and who is also a hu’, a ‘Him’, that is to say an ‘Other’ than ‘I’.

We infer that Rashi clearly supports the idea that there are two « I’s » in God, one of which is also a « Him », or that there are two « I’s » and one « Him » in Him…

As for the formula v’éin elohim ‘imadi (‘no god beside Me’, or ‘no god with Me’), Rashi understands it as meaning : ‘no god [who is my equal] is against me’.

Let us note that Rashi’s interpretation does not exclude a priori that God has an equal or similar God ‘with him’ or ‘beside him’, but that it only means that God does not have a God [similar or equal] ‘against him’.

In the translation of the so-called « Rabbinate Bible » (1899), the three pronouns are rendered in such a way as to affirm the emphasis on God’s solitary existence:

« Recognize now that I am God, I alone, and there is no God (Elohim) beside me! » ii

In this translation, note that the personal pronoun in the 3rd person singular (hu’) has completely disappeared. There is, however, a repeated affirmation of God’s ‘loneliness’ (‘I alone’, and ‘no God beside me’).

This translation by the French Rabbinate raises several questions.

Why has the expression ani hu’, « I Him », been translated by a periphrase (« it is I who am God, I alone »), introducing the words « God », « am » and « alone », not present in the original, while obliterating the pronoun hu’, « He »?

On the other hand, there is the question of the meaning of the 2nd part of the verse: if there is « no Elohim » beside God, then how to interpret the numerous biblical verses which precisely associate, side by side, YHVH and Elohim?

How can we understand, for example, the fact that in the second chapter of Genesis we find the expression יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים , YHVH Elohim, on numerous occasions, if, as Deuteronomy states, that there is no Elohim « beside » YHVH?

Some elements of clarity may be gained from Isaiah’s use of the same curious expression.

Is 43,10 : כִּי-אֲנִי הוּא ki ani hu’, ‘that I Him’

Is 43, 11: אָנֹכִי אָנֹכִי, יְהוָה anokhi anokhi YHVH, ‘I, I, YHVH’

Is 43, 25: אָנֹכִי אָנֹכִי הוּא anokhi anokhi hu’, ‘I, I, Him’

Is 51,12 : אָנֹכִי אָנֹכִי הוּא anokhi anokhi hu‘, ‘I, I, Him’

Is 52,6 : כִּי-אֲנִי-הוּא הַמְדַבֵּר הִנֵּנִי ki ani hu’ hamdaber hinnéni, ‘that I, He, I speak, there’, sometimes translated as ‘that I who speak, I am there’.

In the light of these various verses, the personal pronoun hu’, ‘He’ can be interpreted as playing the role of a relative pronoun, ‘Him’.

But why should this personal pronoun in the 3rd person singular, hu’, « He », this pronoun which God calls Himself, somehow descend from a grammatical level, and become a relative pronoun, simply to comply with the requirement of grammatical clarity ?

In this context, it is necessary to preserve the difficulty and face it head on.

God, through the voice of Moses and Isaiah, calls Himself « I I He ».

What lesson can we get out of it?

First we can see the idea that God carries within His intrinsic unity a kind of hidden Trinity, here translated grammatically by a double « I » followed by a « He ».

Another interpretation, could be to read ‘I I He’ as the equivalent of the Trinity ‘Father Son Spirit’.

One could also understand, considering that the verb to be is implicitly contained in the personal pronouns ani and hu’, in accordance with Hebrew grammar: « I, [I am] an ‘I’ [who is] a ‘Him’ « .

In this reading, God defines Himself as an I whose essence is to be an Other I, or an Him.

As confirmed by His name revealed to Moses « Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh » (Ex 3:14), God is an I that is always in the process of becoming, according to the grammatical use of the imperfect in Ehyeh, ‘I will be’.

One learns from that that God is always in potentia. He always is the One who will be Other than who He is.

Never static. Always alive and becoming. The One who is the Other.

I know : that sounds pretty unacceptable for the general theological opinion.

But grammatically, this interpretation stands up.

More importantly, it is faithful to the letter of the Torah.

__________________

iThe Pentateuch, accompanied by Rachi’s commentary. Volume V. Deuteronomy. Translated by Joseph Bloch, Israël Salzer, Elie Munk, Ernest Gugenheim. Ed. S. and O. Foundation. Lévy. Paris, 1991, p. 227

iiDt 32, 39

Is God Willing to Exterminate His Own Creation?


Is God an « Exterminator » in potentia?

« The Lord sent death upon Jacob and it came upon Israel. » (Isaiah 9:7)

Death, really? Upon Jacob? And upon Israel? Sent by the Lord Himself ?

The word « death » is in fact used in this verse in the famous translation of the Septuagint, made around 270 B.C. by seventy Jewish scholars in Alexandria at the request of Ptolemy II. The Septuagint (noted LXX) uses the Greek word θάνατον, thanaton, which means « death ».

But in other translations, disregarding this catastrophic lesson of the LXX, Isaiah’s verse is translated much more neutrally as « word ».i

The Jerusalem Bible gives thus: « The Lord hath cast a word into Jacob, it is fallen upon Israel. »

In the original version, Hebrew uses the word דָּבָר , davar, whose primary meaning is « word ».

The dictionary also tells that this same word, דָּבָר , davar, can mean « plague » or « death », as in Exodus 9:3: « A very strong plague » or « a very deadly plague ». Here, the LXX gives θάνατος μέγας, « a great death ». In Hosea 13:14 the word davar means « plagues ».

If the noun דָּבָר , davar, carries this astonishing duality of meaning, the verb דָּבַר , davara, confirms it by adding a nuance of excess. Davara means « to speak, to say; to speak evil, to speak against », but also « to destroy, to exterminate ».

It seems that in Hebrew the sphere of meanings attached to davar and davara is not only potentially full of threats or (verbal) aggression, as in Numbers 12:1 (« Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses ») or in Ps 78:19 (« They spoke against God »), but also full of potential, fatal and deadly action, as in II Chr 22:10 (« She wiped out the whole royal race ») or in Ps 2:5 (« In his wrath he will destroy their mighty ones »).

Davar. Word. Plague. Death.

Davara. To speak. To exterminate.

Such ambivalence, so radical, implies that one can really decide on the meaning, – « word » or « extermination » ? – only by analyzing the broader context in which the word is used.

For example, in the case of Isaiah’s verse: « The Lord sent death upon Jacob and it came upon Israel », it is important to emphasize that the prophet continues to make terrible predictions, even darker:

« The Lord will raise up against them the enemies of Rezin. And he will arm their enemies. Aram on the east, the Philistines on the west, and they will devour Israel with full mouths » (Isaiah 9:10-11).

« So YHVH cut off from Israel head and tail, palm and rush, in one day » (Isaiah 9:13).

« By the wrath of YHVH Sabaoth the earth has been burned and the people are like the prey of fire » (Isaiah 9:18).

The context here clearly gives weight to an interpretation of davar as « death » and « extermination » and not simply as « word ».

The lesson in LXX appears to be correct and faithful to the intended meaning.

Another question then arises.

Is this use of the word davar in Isaiah unique in its kind?

Another prophet, Ezekiel, also reported terrible threats from God against Israel.

« I will make you a desolation, a derision among the nations that are round about you, in the sight of all who pass by » (Ez 5:14).

« I will act in you as I have never acted before and as I will never act again, because of all your abominations » (Ez 5:9).

« You shall be a mockery and a reproach, an example and a stupefaction to the nations around you, when I shall do justice from you in anger and wrath, with furious punishments. I, YHVH, have said » (Ez 5:15).

« And I will put the dead bodies of the Israelites before their filthiness, and I will scatter their bones around your altars. Wherever you dwell, the cities shall be destroyed and the high places laid waste » (Ez 6:5).

We find in Ezekiel the word davar used in the sense of « plague » or « pestilence »:

« Thus says the Lord YHVH: Clap your hands, clap your feet and say, ‘Alas,’ over all the abominations of the house of Israel, which will fall by the sword, by famine and by pestilence (davar). He who is far away will die by the pestilence (davar). He who is near shall fall by the sword. That which has been preserved and spared will starve, for I will quench my fury against them » (Ez 6:11-12).

God is not joking. Davar is not « only » a plague. It is the prospect of an extermination, an annihilation, the final end.

« Thus says the Lord YHVH to the land of Israel: Finished! The end is coming on the four corners of the land. It is now the end for you. I will let go of my anger against you to judge you according to your conduct. (…) Thus says the Lord YHVH: Behold, evil is coming, one evil. The end is coming, the end is coming, it is awakening towards you, and behold, it is coming » (Ez 7:2-5).

Faced with this accumulation of threats of exterminating the people of Israel uttered by the Lord YHVH, an even deeper question arises.

Why does a God who created the worlds, and who has « chosen » Israel, decide to send « death », threatening to ensure the « end » of His Chosen People?

There is a question of simple logic that arises.

Why does an omnipotent and all-knowing God create a world and people that seem, in retrospect, so evil, so perverse, so corrupt, that He decides to send a word of extermination?

If God is omniscient, He should always have known that His creation would eventually provoke His unquenchable fury, shouldn’t he?

If He is omnipotent, why did He not immediately make Israel a people sufficiently satisfying in His eyes to at least avoid the pain of having to send death and extermination a few centuries later?

This is in fact a question that goes beyond the question of the relationship between God and Israel, but touches on the larger problem of the relationship between God and His Creation.

Why is a « Creator »-God also led to become, afterwards, an « Exterminator »-God ?

Why can the « Word » of God mean « Creation », then also mean « Extermination »?

There are only two possible answers.

Either God is indeed omniscient and omnipotent, and then He is necessarily also cruel and perverse, as revealed by His intention to exterminate a people He has (knowingly) created « evil » and « corrupt » so that He can then « exterminate » them.

Either God is not omniscient and He is not omnipotent. But how come ? A possible interpretation is that He renounced, in creating the world, a part of His omniscience and omnipotence. He made a kind of « sacrifice », the sacrifice of His omnipotence and omniscience.

He made this sacrifice in order to raise His creatures to His own level, giving them real freedom, a freedom that in some strange way escapes divine « science » and « knowledge ».

Let us note that this sort of sacrifice was already a deep intuition of the Veda, as represented by the initial, primal, sacrifice of Prajāpati, the supreme God, the Lord of Creatures.

But why does a supreme God, the Creator of the Worlds, decide to sacrifice His omnipotence and omniscience for creatures who, as we can see, end up behaving in such a way that this supreme God, having somehow fallen back to earth, must resolve to send them « death » and promise them the « end »?

There is only one explanation, in my humble opinion.

It is that the Whole [i.e. God + Cosmos + Humanity] is in a mysterious way, more profound, more abysmal, and in a sense infinitely more « divine » than the divinity of a God alone, a God without Cosmos and without Anthropos.

Only the sacrifice of God, the sacrifice of God as not being anymore the sole « Being », in spite of all the risks abundantly described by Isaiah or Ezekiel, makes possible an « increase » of His own divinity, which He will then share with His Creation, and Humankind.

This is a fascinating line of research. It implies that Humanity has a shared but also « divine » responsibility about the future of the world, and to begin with, about the future of this small planet.

________________

iThis debate over the meaning to be given to davar in this particular verse has been the subject of many commentaries. Théodoret de Cyr notes: « It should be noted that the other interpreters have said that it is a « word » and not « death » that has been sent. Nevertheless, their interpretation does not offer any disagreement: they gave the name of « word » to the decision to punish. « Basil adopts λόγον (« word »), and proposes another interpretation than Theodoret: it would be the Divine Word sent to the poorest, symbolized by Jacob. Cyril also gives λόγον, but ends up with the same conculsion as Theodoret: the « word » as the announcement of punishment. See Theodoret of Cyr, Commentaries on Isaiah. Translated by Jean-Noël Guinot. Ed. Cerf. 1982, p.13

The Grammatical Names of God: ‘Who’, ‘What’ and ‘That’.


« A Hebrew Grammar »

I’d like to compare here the use of various « grammatical » names of God, in the Veda and in the Zohar.

The idea of a « One » God is extremely old. More than four thousand years ago, long before Abraham left Ur in Chaldea, the One God was already celebrated by nomadic peoples transhumant in Transoxiana to settle in the Indus basin, as attested by the Veda, and then, a few centuries later, by the peoples of ancient Iran, as reported by the sacred texts of the Avesta.

But the strangest thing is that these very diverse peoples, belonging to cultures thousands of years and thousands of miles apart, have called God by the interrogative pronoun. They named God by the name « Who ?» and other grammatical variations.

Even more surprisingly, some three thousand five hundred years after this innovation appeared, the Jewish Kabbalah, in the midst of the European Middle Ages, took up this same idea of using the interrogative pronoun as a Name of God, developed it and commented on it in detail in the Zohar.

It seems that there is rich material for a comparative anthropological approach to various religions celebrating the God named « Who? »

The Vedic priests prayed to the one and supreme God, creator of the worlds, Prajāpati, – the « Lord (pati) of creatures (prajā) ». In the Rig Veda, Prajāpati is referred to as (Ka, « who »), in hymn 121 of the 10th Mandala.

« In the beginning appears the golden seed of light.

Only He was the born sovereign of the world.

He fills the earth and the sky.

– To ‘Who? »-God will we offer the sacrifice?

He who gives life and strength,

He whose blessing all the gods themselves invoke,

immortality and death are only His shadow!

– To ‘Who? »-God will we offer the sacrifice?

(…)

He whose powerful gaze stretched out over these waters,

that bear strength and engender salvation,

He who, above the gods, was the only God!

– To ‘Who?’-God will we offer the sacrifice? » i

Max Müller asserts the pre-eminence of the Veda in the invention of the pronoun « Who » as a name of God: « The Brâhmans did indeed invent the name Ka of God. The authors of Brahmaṇas have broken so completely with the past that, forgetting the poetic character of the hymns and the poets’ desire for the unknown God, they have promoted an interrogative pronoun to the rank of deityii.

In the Taittirîya-samhitâiii , the Kaushîtaki-brâhmaṇaiv , the Tâṇdya-brâhmaṇav and the Satapatha-brâhmaṇavi , whenever a verse is presented in interrogative form, the authors say that the pronoun Ka which carries the interrogation designates Prajāpati. All hymns in which the interrogative pronoun Ka was found were called Kadvat, i.e., ‘possessing the kad‘, – or ‘possessing the who?

The Brahmans even formed a new adjective for everything associated with the word Ka. Not only the hymns but also the sacrifices offered to the God Ka were referred to as « Kâya »’vii.

The use of the interrogative pronoun Ka to designate God, far from being a kind of limited rhetorical artifice, had become the equivalent of a theological tradition.

Another question arises. If we know that Ka actually refers to Prajāpati, why use (with its burden of uncertainty) an interrogative pronoun, which seems to indicate that one cannot be satisfied with the expected and known answer?

Further west to the highlands of Iran, and half a millennium before the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt, the Yashts, among the oldest hymns of the Avesta, also proclaim this affirmation of the One God about himself: « Ahmi yat ahmi » (« I am who I am »)viii.

God is named this way in Avestic language through the relative pronoun yat, « who », which is another way of grammatically dealing with the uncertainty of God’s real name.

A millennium before Moses, Zarathushtra asked the one God: « Reveal to me Your Name, O Ahura Mazda, Your highest, best, most just, most powerful Name ».

Then Ahura Mazda answered: « My Name is the One, – and it is in ‘question’, O holy Zarathushtra! « »ix .

The Avestic text literally says: « Frakhshtya nâma ahmi« , which can be translated word for word: « He who is in question (Frakhshtya), as for the name (nâma), I am (ahmi)« . x

Curiously enough, long after the Veda and the Avesta, the Hebrew Bible also gives the One God these same « grammatical » names, « Who » or « He Who ».

We find this use of the interrogative pronoun who (מִי , mi ) in the verse from Isaiahxi: מִי-בָרָא אֵלֶּה (mi bara éleh), « Who created that? ».

As for the relative pronoun « who, whom » (אֲשֶׁר , asher), it is staged in a famous passage from Exodusxii: אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה (ehyeh asher ehyeh), « I am who I am », or more acurately, « I will be who I will be », taking into account the imperfect tense of ‘ehyeh’.

The latter option leaves open the possibility of a future revelation, of another Name yet, or of a divine essence whose essence would have no grammatically formulable essence, but could be rendered only approximately, for example by means of a relative pronoun and a verbal form in the future .

Two millennia after Isaiah, in the midst of the European Middle Ages, the famous book of the Jewish Kabbalah, the Zohar, attributed to Moses de Leon, focused on a detailed study of the name Mi (« Who? ») of God.

One of the tracks that emerges from this interrogation is the intrinsically divine relationship of Mi (Who) to Mâ (What) and to Eleh (That).

« It is written: « In the beginning ». Rabbi Eleazar opened one of his lectures with the following exordium: « Lift up your eyes (Is 40:28) and consider who created this ». « Lift up your eyes up, » to what place? To the place where all eyes are turned. And what is that place? It is the « opening of the eyes ». There you will learn that the mysterious Elder, the eternal object of research, created this. And who is He? – Mi » (= Who). He is the one who is called the « Extremity of Heaven », above, for everything is in his power. And it is because he is the eternal object of research, because he is in a mysterious way and because he does not reveal himself that he is called « Mi » (= Who); and beyond that we must not go deeper. This upper end of the Heaven is called « Mi » (= Who). But there is another end at the bottom, called « Mâ » (= What). What is the difference between the two? The first, mysterious one, called « Mi », is the eternal object of search; and, after man has searched, after he has tried to meditate and to go up from step to step until he reaches the last one, he finally arrives at « Mâ » (= What). What did you learn? What did you understand? What did you look for? Because everything is as mysterious as before. This mystery is alluded to in the words of Scripture: ‘Mâ (= What), I will take you as a witness, Mâ (= What), I will be like you' ». xiii

What are we learning, indeed? What have we understood?

Mi is a Name of God. It is an eternal object of research.

Can it be reached? No.

One can only reach this other noun, which is still only a pronoun, (= What).

You look for « Who » and you reach « What ».

This Mâis not the sought-after Mi, but of Mâ we can say, as Scripture testifies: « Mâ, I will take you as a witness, Mâ, I will be like you. » xiv

The Zohar indicates indeed:

« When the Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed, a heavenly voice came and said, « Mâ (= What) will give you a testimony, » for I have testified every day from the first days of creation, as it is written, « I take heaven and earth as my witness this day. « And I said, « Mâ will be like you, » that is, He will give you sacred crowns, very much like His own, and make you ruler over the world. » xv

The God whose Name is Mi is not the God whose Name is Mâ, and yet they are one.

And above all, under the Name of , He will one day be the ‘equal’ of anyone who seeks Him in all things, at least according to the Zohar:

« Just as the sacred people no longer enter the holy walls today, so I promise you that I will not enter my dwelling place above until all the troops have entered your walls below. May this be your consolation, for in this form of « What » (Mâ) I will be your equal in all things. » xvi

The man who ‘seeks’ God is placed between Mi and Mâ, in an intermediate position, just as Jacob was once.

« For Mi, the one who is the upper echelon of the mystery and on whom all depends, will heal you and restore you; Mi, the end of heaven from above, and Mâ, the end of heaven from below. And this is Jacob’s inheritance that forms the link between the upper end Mi and the lower end Mâ, for he stands in the midst of them. This is the meaning of the verse: « Mi (= Who) created that » (Is 40:26). » xvii

But that’s not all. Isaiah’s verse has not yet delivered its full weight of meaning. What does « that » mean?

« Rabbi Simeon says, « Eleazar, what does the word ‘Eleh‘ (= That) mean? It cannot refer to the stars and other heavenly bodies, since they are always seen and since the heavenly bodies are created by « Mâ« , as it is written (Ps 33:6): « By the Word of God the heavens were created. » Neither can it refer to secret objects, since the word « Eleh » can only refer to visible things. This mystery had not yet been revealed to me until the day when, as I stood by the sea, the prophet Elijah appeared to me. He said to me, « Rabbi, do you know the meaning of the words, ‘Who (Mi) created that (Eleh)? « 

I answered him, « The word ‘Eleh‘ means the Heavens and the heavenly bodies, and Scripture commands man to contemplate the works of the Holy One, blessed be he, as it is written (Ps 8:4): « When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, etc ». and a little further on (Ibid., 10): « God, our master, how wonderful is your name on all the earth. « 

Elijah replied: Rabbi, this word containing a secret was spoken before the Holy One, blessed be He, and its meaning was revealed in the Heavenly School, here it is: When the Mystery of all Mysteries wished to manifest itself, He first created a point, which became the Divine Thought; then He drew all kinds of images on it, engraved all kinds of figures on it, and finally engraved on it the sacred and mysterious lamp, an image representing the most sacred mystery, a profound work coming out of the Divine Thought. But this was only the beginning of the edifice, existing but not yet existing, hidden in the Name, and at that time called itself only « Mi« . Then, wanting to manifest Himself and be called by His Name, God put on a precious and shining garment and created « Eleh » (That), which was added to His Name.

« Eleh« , added to inverted « mi » [i.e. ‘im’], formed « Elohim« . Thus the word « Elohim » did not exist before « Eleh » was created. It is to this mystery that the culprits who worshipped the golden calf alluded when they cried out (Ex 32:4): « Eleh » is your God, O Israel. » xviii

We learn in this passage from the Zohar that the true essence of the golden calf was neither to be a calf nor to be made of gold. The golden calf was only a pretext to designate « that ».

It was only there to designate the essence of « Eleh » (That), the third instanciation of the divine essence, after that of « Mi » and that of «  » …

As the Zohar indicates, this can be deduced by associating the Name « Mi » (Who?) with the Name « Eleh » (That), which allows us to obtain the Name « Elohim » (God), after inverting mi into im, ...

The Name Mi, the Name and the Name Eleh were not primarily divine nouns, but only pronouns (interrogative, relative, demonstrative).

These divine pronouns, in which lies a powerful part of mystery because of their grammatical nature, also interact between themselves. They refer to each other a part of their deeper meaning. The « Who » calls the « What », and they both also refer to a grammatically immanent « That ».

The grammatical plane of interpretation is rich. But can a more theological reading be attempted? I think so.

These three Divine Names, « Who », « What » and « That », form a kind of proto-trinity, I’d like to suggest.

This proto-trinity evokes three attributes of God:

He is a personal God, since we can ask the question « Who? » about Him.

He is a God who may enter in relation, since relative pronouns (« Whom », « What ») can designate Him.

Finally He is an immanent God, since a demonstrative pronoun (« That ») can evoke Him.

Even if Judaism claims an absolute « unity » of the divine, it cannot help but hatch within itself Trinitarian formulations – here, in grammatical form.

This Trinitarian phenomenology of the divine in Judaism, in the grammatical form it borrows, does not make it any less profound or any less eternally perennial. For if there is indeed an ever-present symbol, always at work, of the original wiring of the human mind, it is grammar…

In a million years, or even in seven hundred million years from now, and whatever idea of the divine will reign then, I guess that there will still be a transhuman or posthuman grammar to evoke the categories of the Who, the What, and the That, and to make them look as aspects or ‘faces’ of the Divine.

__________________

iRig Veda. 121st Hymn. Book X.

iiMax Müller. History of Ancient Sanskrit Literature. 1860, p. 433

iii I, 7, 6, 6

iv XXIV, 4

v XV, 10

vi http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/sbe32/sbe3215.htm#fn_77

vii The word Kâya is used in Taittirîya-samhitâ (I, 8, 3, 1) and Vâgasaneyi-samhitâ (XXIV, 15).

viii Max Müller, Theosophy or Psychological Religion. Ed. Longmans, Green. London, 1895, p.52

ix  » My name is the One of whom questions are asked, O Holy Zarathushtra ! ». Quoted by Max Müller, Theosophy or Psychological Religion. Ed. Longmans, Green & Co. London, 1895, p. 55

x Cf. this other translation proposed by Max Müller: « One to be asked by name am I », in Max Müller. Theosophy or Psychological Religion. Longmans, Green & Co. London, 1895, p. 55.

xiIs 40.26

xiiEx 3.14

xiiiZohar I,1b.

xivZohar I,1b.

xvZohar I,1b.

xviZohar I,1b.

xviiZohar I,1b.

xviiiZohar I,1b-2a

Wisdom or Prophecy?


« Sefer ha-Zohar »

The Jewish Kabbalah pits the Prophet against the Wise man, and puts the Wise man above the Prophet. Why this hierarchical order? Is it justified? What does it teach us? What can we expect from this vision of things?

Let’s start with some elements of argumentation, against prophetism.

« The Wise man always prevails over the Prophet, for the Prophet is sometimes inspired and sometimes not, while the Holy Spirit never leaves the Wise men; they have knowledge of what has happened Up-There and Down-Here, and they are under no obligation to reveal it. » i

The Wise men « know ». Their wisdom is such that they even dispense with the risk of speaking about it publicly. There would only be blows to be taken, trouble guaranteed. And for what benefit? In their great wisdom, the Wise men are careful not to « reveal » what they « know ». It is precisely because they are « wise » that they do not reveal what is the basis of their « wisdom ».

What do they do then, if they do not reveal their knowledge to the world? Well, they continue to deepen it, they study to climb the ladder of knowledge constantly.

« Those who study the Torah are always preferable to the prophets. They are indeed of a higher level, for they hold themselves Above, in a place called Torah, which is the foundation of all faith. Prophets stand at a lower level, called Netsah and Hod. Therefore, those who study the Torah are more important than the prophets, they are superior to them. » ii

This frontal antagonism between sages and prophets has a long history. It can be summed up in the age-old rivalry between prophetic Judaism and rabbinic Judaism.

Gershom Scholem, who has studied the great currents of Jewish mysticism, notes « an essential point on which Sabbatianism and Hasidism converge, while moving away from the rabbinic scale of values, namely: their conception of the ideal type of man to whom they attribute the function of leader. For rabbinic Jews, especially at that time, the ideal type recognized as the spiritual leader of the community was the scholar, the Torah student, the educated Rabbi. From him, no inner rebirth is required. (…) In place of these masters of the Law, the new movements gave birth to a new type of leader, the seer, the man whose heart was touched and changed by God, in a word, the prophet. » iii

The rivalry between the scholar and the seer can be graduated according to a supposed scale, which would symbolically link the Below and the Above. For rabbinic Judaism, the talmudic scholar, the student of the Torah, is « superior » to the seer, the prophet, or the one whose heart has been changed by God.

Once a sort of scale of comparison is established, other hierarchies proliferate within the caste of the « masters of the Law ». They are based on the more or less proper way of studying the Law, on the more or less proper way of approaching the Torah.

The texts testify to this.

« Why is it written on the one hand, ‘For thy grace is exalted to the heavens’? (Ps 57:11) and on the other hand: ‘Your grace is greater than the heavens’ (Ps 108:5)? There is no contradiction between these two verses. The first refers to those who do not care about the Torah in a selfless way, while the second applies to those who study in a selfless way. » iv

One might conclude (probably too hastily) that it is therefore in one’s interest to be disinterested (as to the purpose of the study), and to be disinterested in any interest (for the purpose of the Torah), if one wants to know the grace that « transcends the heavens ».

But another avenue of research opens up immediately.

Rather than only concerning those who ‘study the Torah’, the grace that ‘ascends to heaven’ and the grace that ‘transcends heaven’ could apply respectively to the masters of the Law and the prophets, – unless it is the other way around? How do we know?

We have just seen that the Zohar resolutely takes sides with the superiority of the masters of the Law over the seers and the prophets. But the ambivalence of the texts of the Hebrew Bible undoubtedly allows for many other interpretations.

Perhaps we can draw on the sayings of the Prophets themselves to form an opinion about them, and try to see if what they have to say can « reach beyond the heavens »?

Isaiah states about his own prophetic mission:

« Yes, so spoke YHVH to me when his hand grasped me and taught me not to follow the path of this people, saying :

‘You will not call a conspiracy all that this people calls a conspiracy, you will not share their fears and you will not be terrified of them. It is YHVH Tsebaot whom you will proclaim holy; it is He who will be the object of your fear and terror.

He will be a sanctuary, a rock that brings down, a stumbling block for the two houses of Israel, a net and a snare for the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Many will stumble, fall and break, and they will be trapped and captured.

Enclose a testimony, seal an instruction in the heart of my disciples’.

I hope in YHVH that hides His face from Jacob’s house. » v

According to Isaiah’s testimony, YHVH declares that He himself is a ‘rock that makes fall’, a ‘stumbling block’, a ‘net and snare’. But a little further on Isaiah radically reverses this metaphor of the ‘stone’ and gives it the opposite meaning :

« Thus says the Lord YHVH:

Behold, I am going to lay in Zion a stone, a granite stone, a cornerstone, a precious stone, a well-established foundation stone: he who trusts in it shall not be shaken. » vi

Contradiction? No.

To paraphrase what was said above about self-serving and selfless study of the Torah, let us argue that the ‘well-grounded foundation stone’ applies to true prophets.

On the other hand, the ‘stumbling block’ refers to the ‘insolent’, those who have ‘made a covenant with death’, who have made ‘lies’ their ‘refuge’ and who have ‘hidden in falsehood’vii, as well as false prophets, priests and all those who claim to ‘teach lessons’ and ‘explain doctrines’….

Isaiah eructs and thunderstruck. His fury bursts out against the pseudo-Masters of the Law.

« They, too, were troubled by the wine, they wandered about under the effect of the drink. Priest and prophet, they were troubled by drink, they were taken with wine, they wandered with drink, they were troubled in their visions, they wandered in their sentences. Yes, all the tables are covered with abject vomit, not a clean place! » viii

The false prophets and priests are drunk and roll around in their abject vomit… Their visions are troubled… Their sentences are rambling… They stutter, they donkey absurd sentences, but YHVH will give them their derisory lessons and knock them off their pedestals :

« Who does He teach the lesson to? To whom does He explain the doctrine? To children barely weaned, barely out of the teat, when He says: ‘çav laçav, çav laçav; qav laqav, qav laqav; ze ‘êr sham, ze ‘êr shamix. Yes, it is with stuttering lips and in a foreign language that He will speak to this people (…) Thus YHVH will speak to them thus: çav laçav, çav laçav; qav laqav, qav laqav; ze ‘êr sham, ze ‘êr sham‘, so that as they walk they may fall backwards, be broken, be trapped, be imprisoned. » x

As we can see, Isaiah had, more than a millennium beforehand, already warned of the subtle contempt and the self-satisfaction of the Kabbalistic scholars, and of the pseudo-sapiential sentences of rabbinic masters.

Today, what has become of the ancient bipolarity of prophetic and rabbinic Judaism?

It seems that rabbinic Judaism now occupies almost all the ideological terrain. The time of the (true) prophets has indeed been over for more than two millennia. The (false) prophets have been particularly discredited since the recurrent proliferation of multiple « Messiahs » (ranging from Jesus Christ to Isaac Luria, Sabbatai Zevi and Nathan of Gaza…).

There is little hope that the Messiah will risk to come again on the world stage any time soon. We know now what it cost the daring ones who ventured to take the role.

What future, then, for the Eternal People? What future for Judaism in a shrinking, suffering planet, threatened from all sides, especially by war, injustice, biological death?

I don’t know, not being wise enough.

I only know that, in truth, probably only a prophet would be able to answer these questions…

_________________

iZohar II 6b (Shemot). Quoted by Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhyn. The soul of life. Fourth portico: Between God and man: the Torah. Verdier 1986, p.215.

ii Zohar III 35a (Tsav). Quoted by Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhyn. The soul of life. Fourth portico: Between God and man: the Torah. Verdier 1986, p.215.

iiiGershom Scholem. The great currents of Jewish mysticism. Trad. M.-M. Davy. Ed. Payot et Rivages, Paris, 2014, pp.483-484

ivRabbi Hayyim of Volozhyn. The soul of life. Fourth portico: Between God and man: the Torah. Ed. Verdier 1986, p.210.

vIs 8, 11-17

viIs 28.16

viiIs 28, 14-15

viiiIs 28, 7-8

ixLiterally: « Order to order…measure to measure…a little here, a little there ». This can be interpreted as a derogatory imitation of the self-nominated « masters of the Law ».

xIs 28, 9-13

Double Meanings and Triple Names (The Cases of Veda and the Sheqel ha-Qodesh)


Classical Sanskrit is a language which allows a lot of verbal games (śleṣa), and double entendres. This semantic duplicity is not simply linguistic. It has its source in the Veda itself, which gives it a much deeper meaning.

« The ‘double meaning’ is the most remarkable process of the Vedic style (…) The objective is to veil the expression, to attenuate direct intelligibility, in short to create ambiguity. This is what the presence of so many obscure words contributes to, so many others that are likely to have (sometimes, simultaneously) a friendly side, a hostile side. » i

The vocabulary of Ṛg Veda is full of ambiguous words and puns.

For example, the word arí means « friend; faithful, zealous, pious » but also « greedy, envious; hostile, enemy ». The word jána refers to the men of the tribe or clan, but the derived word jánya means « stranger ».

On the puns side, let us quote śáva which means both « force » and « corpse », and the phonetic proximity invites us to attribute it to God Śiva, giving it these two meanings. A representation of Śiva at the Ethnographic Museum in Berlin shows him lying on his back, blue and dead, and a goddess with a fierce appearance, multiple arms, a ravenous mouth, ecstatic eyes, makes love to him, to gather the divine seed.

Particularly rich in contrary meanings are the words that apply to the sphere of the sacred.

Thus the root vṛj- has two opposite senses. On the one hand, it means « to overthrow » (the wicked), on the other hand « to attract to oneself » (the Divinity) as Louis Renouii notes. Huet’s Sanskrit dictionary proposes two pallets of meanings for this root: « to bend, to twist; to tear out, to pick, to take away, to exclude, to alienate » and « to choose, to select; to reserve for oneself », which we can see that they can be applied in two antagonistic intentions: rejection or appropriation.

The keyword devá plays a central role, but its meaning is particularly ambiguous. Its primary meaning is « brilliant », « being of light », « divine ». But in RV I,32,12, devá designates Vṛta, the « hidden », the god Agni hid himself as « the one who took human form »iii. And in later texts the word devá is clearly used to refer to ‘demons’iv.

This ambiguity is accentuated when it is prefixed like in ādeva or ádeva: « The word ādeva is different: sometimes it is a doublet of ádeva – ‘impious’ – which is even juxtaposed with in RV VI 49:15; sometimes the word means ‘turned towards the gods’. It is significant that two terms of almost opposite meanings have merged into one and the same form. » v

This phonetic ambiguity of the word is not only ‘significant’, but it seems to me that it allows to detect a crypto-theology of the negative God, of the God « hidden » in his own negation…

The ambiguity installed at this level indicates the Vedic propensity to reduce (by phonetic shifts and approximations) the a priori radical gap between God and Non-God.

The closeness and ambiguity of the meanings makes it possible to link, by metonymy, the clear negation of God (ádeva) and what could be described as God’s ‘procession’ towards Himself (ādeva).

The Sanskrit language thus more or less consciously stages the potential reversibility or dialectical equivalence between the word ádeva (« without God » or « Non-God ») and the word ādeva which, on the contrary, underlines the idea of a momentum or movement of God « towards » God, as in this formula of a hymn addressed to Agni: ā devam ādevaṃ, « God turned towards God », or « God devoted to God » (RV VI, 4,1) .

This analysis is confirmed by the very clear case of the notion of Asura, which combines in a single word two extreme opposite meanings, that of « supreme deity » and that of « enemy of the deva« vi.

The ambiguity of the words reflects on the Gods by name. Agni is the very type of the beneficent deity, but he is also evoked as durmati (foolish) in a passage from RV VII, 1,22. Elsewhere he is accused of constant deceit (RV V,19,4). The God Soma plays a prominent role in all Vedic rites of sacrifice, but he is also described as deceitful (RV IX 61,30), and there are several instances of a demonized Soma identified at Vṛtra. vii

What interpretation should be given to these opposing and concurrent meanings?

Louis Renou opts for the magic idea. « The reversibility of acts as well as formulas is a feature of magical thinking. One puts deities into action against deities, a sacrifice against one’s sacrifice, a word against one’s word ». (MS II, 1,7) »viii.

Anything that touches the sacred can be turned upside down, or overturned.

The sacred is at the same time the source of the greatest goods but also of panic terror, by all that it keeps of mortal dread.

If we turn to the specialist in comparative myth analysis that was C. G. Jung, another interpretation emerges, that of the « conjunction of opposites », which is « synonymous with unconsciousness ».

« The conjuctio oppositorum occupied the speculation of the alchemists in the form of the chymic marriage, and also that of the Kabbalists in the image of Tipheret and Malchut, of God and the Shekinah, not to mention the marriage of the Lamb. » ix

Jung also makes the link with the Gnostic conception of a God ‘devoid of consciousness’ (anennoetos theos). The idea of the agnosia of God psychologically means that God is assimilated to the ‘numinosity of the unconscious’, which is reflected in the Vedic philosophy of Ātman and Puruṣa in the East as well as in that of Master Eckhart in the West.

« The idea that the creator god is not conscious, but that perhaps he is dreaming is also found in the literature of India:

Who could probe it, who will say

Where was he born and where did he come from?

The gods came out of him here.

Who says where they come from?

He who produced the creation

Who contemplates it in the very high light of the sky,

Who did or did not do it,

He knows it! – Or does he not know it? » x

Similarly, Master Eckhart’s theology implies « a ‘divinity’ of which no property can be asserted except that of unity and being, it ‘becomes’, it is not yet Lord of oneself, and it represents an absolute coincidence of opposites. But its simple nature is formless of forms, without becoming of becoming, without being of beings. A conjunction of opposites is synonymous with unconsciousness, because consciousness supposes a discrimination as well as a relation between subject and object. The possibility of consciousness ceases where there is not yet ‘another’. » xi

Can we be satisfied with the Gnostic (or Jungian) idea of the unconscious God? Isn’t it a contradiction for Gnosis (which wants to be supremely ‘knowledge’) to take for God an unconscious God?

Jung’s allusion to the Jewish Kabbalah allows me to return to the ambiguities in biblical Hebrew. This ambiguity is particularly evident in the ‘names of God’. God is supposed to be the One par excellence, but in the Torah there are formally ten names of God: Ehyeh, Yah, Eloha, YHVH, El, Elohim, Elohe Israel, Zevahot, Adonai, Chaddai. xii

This multiplicity of names hides in it an additional profusion of meanings deeply hidden in each of them. Moses de Leon, thus comments on the first name mentioned, Ehyeh:

« The first name: Ehyeh (‘I will be’). It is the secret of the proper Name and it is the name of unity, unique among all His names. The secret of this name is that it is the first of the names of the Holy One blessed be He. And in truth, the secret of the first name is hidden and concealed without any unveiling; therefore, it is the secret of ‘I will be’ because it persists in its being in the secret of mysterious depth until the Secret of Wisdom arises, from which there is unfolding of everything. » xiii

A beginning of explanation is perhaps given by the comment of Moses de Leon about the second name :

« The secret of the second name is Yah. A great principle is that Wisdom is the beginning of the name emerging from the secret of Clear Air, and it is he, yes he, who is destined to be revealed according to the secret of ‘For I will be’. They said:  » ‘I will be’ is a name that is not known and revealed, ‘For I will be’. « Although the secret of Yah [YH] is that it is half of the name [the name YHVH], nevertheless it is the fullness of all, in that it is the principle of all existence, the principle of all essences. » xiv

Judaism uncompromisingly affirms the absolute unity of God and ridicules the Christian idea of the ‘divine Trinity’, but it does not, however, refrain from some incursions into this very territory:

« Why should the Sefirot be ten and not three, in accordance with the secret of Unity that lies in three? You have already treated and discussed the secret of Unity and dissected the secret of : YHVH, our God, YHVH’ (Deut 6:4). You have dealt with the secret of His unity, blessed be His name, concerning these three names, as well as the secret of His Holiness according to the riddle of the three holinesses: ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ (Is 6:3).

(…) You need to know in the secret of the depths of the question you asked that ‘YHVH, our God, YHVH’ is the secret of three things and how they are one. (…) You will discover it in the secret: ‘Holy, holy, holy’ (Is 6:3) which Jonathan ben Myiel said and translated into Aramaic in this way: ‘Holy in the heavens above, dwelling place of His presence, Holy on earth where He performs His deeds, Holy forever and for all eternity of eternities’. In fact, the procession of holiness takes place in all the worlds according to their descent and their hierarchical position, and yet holiness is one. » xv

The idea of the ‘procession of the three Holies’ is found almost word for word in the pages of the book On the Trinity written by St. Augustine, almost a thousand years before the Sheqel ha-Qodesh of Moses de Leon… But what does it matter! It seems that our time prefers to privilege sharp and radical oppositions rather than to encourage the observation of convergences and similarities.

Let us conclude. The Veda, by its words, shows that the name devá of God can play with its own negation (ádeva), to evoke the « procession » of God « towards God » (ādeva).

A thousand years later, God revealed to Moses His triple name ‘Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh‘. Then, three thousand years after the Ṛg Veda, the Jewish Kabbalah interpreted the mystery of the name Ehyeh, as an ‘I will be’ yet to come – ‘For I will be’. A pungent paradox for radical monotheism, it also affirms the idea of a « procession » of the three « Holinesses » of the One God.

Language, be it Vedic or biblical, far from being a museum of dead words and frozen concepts, has throughout the ages constantly presented the breadth, depth and width of its scope. It charges each word with meanings, sometimes necessarily contrary or contradictory, and then nurtures them with all the power of intention, which is revealed through interpretation.

Words hold in reserve all the energy, wisdom and intelligence of those who relentlessly think of them as being the intermediaries of the absolute unthinkable and unspeakable.

_____________________

iLouis Renou. Choice of Indian studies. EFEO Press. Paris, 1997, p.36-37

iiLouis Renou. Choice of Indian studies. §16. EFEO Press. Paris, 1997, p. 58

iiiRV I,32,11

ivLouis Renou. Choice of Indian studies. §67. EFEO Press. Paris, 1997, p. 103

vLouis Renou. Choice of Indian studies. §35. EFEO Press. Paris, 1997, p. 77

viSee Louis Renou. Choice of Indian studies. §71. EFEO Press. Paris, 1997, p. 107

viiExamples cited by Louis Renou. Selected Indian studies. §68. EFEO Press. Paris, 1997, p.104

viii Louis Renou. Choice of Indian studies. §77. EFEO Press. Paris, 1997, p.112

ixC.G. Jung. Aïon. Trad. Etienne Perrot. M.M. Louzier-Sahler. Albin Michel. 1983, p. 88

xRV X, 129 Strophes 6 and 7. Quoted by C.G. Jung, Aïon. Translated by Etienne Perrot. M.M. Louzier-Sahler. Albin Michel. 1983, p.211

xiC.G. Jung. Aïon. Trad. Etienne Perrot. M.M. Louzier-Sahler. Albin Michel. 1983, p.212

xiiCf. The Gate of the Ten Names that are not erased », in Moses de Leon. Sheqel ha-Qodesh. Translated by Charles Mopsik. Verdier. 1996. pp. 278-287.

xiii« The Gate of the Ten Names that are not erased, » in Moses de Leon. Sheqel ha-Qodesh. Translated by Charles Mopsik. Verdier. 1996. p. 280.

xiv« The Gate of the Ten Names that are not erased, » in Moses de Leon. Sheqel ha-Qodesh. Translated by Charles Mopsik. Verdier. 1996. p. 281-282

xv« The Gate of the Ten Names that are not erased, » in Moses de Leon. Sheqel ha-Qodesh. Translated by Charles Mopsik. Verdier. 1996. pp. 290, 292, 294.

Hearing the Murmur


« Elijah »

Hegel puts science far above religion in the final chapter of Phenomenology of the Mind.

Why? Because only science is capable of true knowledge.

What is true knowledge ? It is the knowledge that the mind has of itself.

« As long as the spirit has not been fulfilled in itself, fulfilled as a spirit of the world (Weltgeist), it cannot reach its perfection as a self-conscious spirit. Thus in time, the content of religion expresses earlier than science what the spirit is, but science alone is the true knowledge that the spirit has of itself ». i

Today, we are nearing the end of the Hegelian « system ». We are at the end of the book. But there are still a few crucial steps to be taken…

First of all, the spirit must be « self-fulfilling », that is to say, it must be « fulfilled as the spirit of the world ». After this accomplishment, we could say that it has reached its perfection.

This perfection can be measured as follows: it has become a self-conscious mind.

But how can we be aware of this accomplishment as « spirit of the world », of this accomplishment of the mind as « self-awareness »?

How can we get some knowledge about the mind becoming self-aware?

By religion? No.

Religion does not yet express true knowledge about the spirit. Religion expresses what the spirit is, when it is finally fulfilled as « spirit of the world ». But this is not enough. What religion expresses (by its content) is not yet true knowledge.

So what is true knowledge about the self-conscious mind?

True knowledge is not what the mind is, but what the mind has, – true knowledge is the knowledge that the mind has of itself.

Religion, by its content, can give an idea of what the mind is, but it remains somehow outside the mind, it does not penetrate the essence of the mind.

In order to really know, we must now enter into the spirit itself, and not be satisfied with the content of religion, which gives only an external image of it.

To reach true knowledge, one can only rely on « science alone ».

How does this « science » work?

« Science alone » makes it possible to go beyond the content ofreligion and finally penetrate the mysteries of the mind.

By entering the mind itself, « science alone » accesses what the mind knows of itself, it accesses the knowledge that the mind has of itself, which alone is true knowledge.

That is the goal, the absolute knowledge: the mind knowing itself as mind.

Given the emphasis thus placed on « absolute knowledge » as the final goal, one might be tempted to describe the Hegelian approach as « Gnostic ».

Gnosis (from the Greek gnosis, knowledge) flourished in the first centuries of our era, but it undoubtedly had much more ancient roots. Gnosticism was intended to be the path to the absolute ‘knowledge’ of God, including the knowledge of the world and of history. Ernest Renan noted incidentally that the word ‘Gnostic’ (Gnosticos) has the same meaning as the word ‘Buddha’, « He who knows ».

Some specialists agree on Simon the Magician as being at the origin of Gnosticism among Judeo-Christians, as early as the first century AD. Who was Simon the Magician? Renan, with a definite sense of provocation, but armed with considerable references, speculates that Simon the Magician may well have been the apostle Paul himself. Adolf von Harnack, more cautious, also puts forward this hypothesis but does not settle the question.

Was Paul a « Gnostic »? Or at least, was his doctrine a Gnostic one, in some respects?

Perhaps. Thus, as Hegel will do later, long after him, Paul used a formula with Gnostic resonances : the « spirit of the world ».

But unlike Hegel, who identifies the « spirit of the world » (Weltgeist) with the « accomplished » spirit, the « self-conscious » spirit, Paul radically contrasts the « spirit of the world » (« pneuma tou kosmou ») with the spirit of God (« pneuma tou theou »).

« We have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which comes from God, that we may know the good things which God has given us by his grace »ii.

Not only is the « spirit of the world » nothing like the « Spirit that comes from God, » but the « knowledge » we derive from it is never more than the « knowledge of the blessings » that God has given us. It is not, therefore, the intimate knowledge of the « self-conscious mind » that Hegel seeks to achieve.

One could infer that Hegel is in this respect much more Gnostic than Paul.

For Hegel, the « spirit of the world » is already a figure of the fulfillment of the « self-conscious mind, » that is, a prefiguration of the mind capable of attaining « absolute knowledge ». One could even add that « the spirit of the world » is for Hegel a hypostasis of Absolute Knowledge, that is, a hypostasis of God.

However, the idea of « absolute knowledge » as divine hypostasis does not correspond in any way to Paul’s profound feeling about the « knowledge » of God.

This feeling can be summarized as follows:

On the one hand, people can know the « idea » of God.

On the other hand, men can know the « spirit ».

Let’s look at these two points.

– On the one hand, people can know the « idea » of God.

« The idea of God is known to them [men], God has made it known to them. What He has had unseen since creation can be seen by the intellect through His works, His eternal power and divinity ». iii

Men cannot see God, but ‘His invisible things’ can be seen. « This vision of the invisible is the idea of God that men can ‘know’, the idea of his « invisibility ».

It is a beginning, but this knowledge through the idea is of no use to them, « since, having known God, they have not given him as to a God of glory or thanksgiving, but they have lost the sense in their reasoning and their unintelligent heart has become darkened: in their claim to wisdom they have gone mad and have changed the glory of the incorruptible God against a representation. » iv

The knowledge of the invisibility of God, and the knowledge of the incomprehensibility and insignificance of our lives, do not add up to a clear knowledge. In the best of cases, this knowledge is only one « light » among others, and these « lights » that are ours are certainly not the light of « Glory » that we could hope to « see » if we had really « seen » God.

It is as much to say then that these human « lights » are only « darkness », that our intelligence is « vain » and that our heart is « unintelligent ». We are limited on all sides. « Empty of meaning, left to his own resources, man faces the forces which, empty of meaning, reign over the world (…) Heartless, understanding without seeing, and therefore vain, such has become thought; and without thought, seeing without understanding, and therefore blind, such has become the heart. The soul is alien to the world and the world is without a soul when they do not meet in the knowledge of the unknown God, when man strives to avoid the true God, when he should lose himself and the world, in order to find himself and the world again in this God. » v

The only sure knowledge we have, therefore, is that we always walk in the night.

– On the other hand, men can have a knowledge of the mind.

Here, two things:

If the spirit has always been silent, if it is still silent, or if it has never just existed, then there is nothing to say about it. The only possible « way » then is silence. A silence of death. There is nothing to know about it.

But if the spirit means, if it speaks, however little, then this sign or word necessarily comes into us as from someone Other than ourselves.

This sign or word is born in us from a life that was certainly not in us until then, not in the least. And this life that was not in us could even die, before us, and like us.

Words, writings, acts, silences, absences, refusals, life, death, all of this always refers us back only to ourselves, to extensible « I’s » whose tour we make indefinitely, – a potentially cosmic tour (in theory), but really always the same (deep down).

Only the spirit has the vocation to burst in, to suddenly melt into us as the very Other, with its breath, its inspiration, its life, its fire, its knowledge.

Without this blatant breath, this inspiration, this living life, this fire of flame, this knowledge in birth, I would never be but me. I would not find, alone, helpless by myself, any clue whatsoever, from the path to the abyss, from the bridge over the worlds, from Jacob’s ladders to heaven.

It is certainly not the man who enters of himself into the knowledge of the Spirit « conscious of himself », on his way to « absolute knowledge ». It is rather the opposite, according to testimonies.

It is the Spirit, « conscious of itself », which enters, of itself, into the spirit of man to make itself known there. Man, if he is vigilant, then knows the Spirit, not as a « self-conscious » Spirit, but only as a « grace », – the grace of « knowing » that there is an « Other consciousness ».

Another name for the « Other » is « truth ». The Spirit is « Other » and it is « truth » (in this, Hegel is no different). But it is not we who can see the truth, who can consider it objectively. It is the opposite. It is the truth that sees us, from its own primal point of view. Our own point of view is always subjective, fragmented, pulverized.

But the true cannot be subjective, exploded, pulverized.

As for what the true is, one can only say (negatively) that it is hidden, unknown, foreign, unfathomable, beyond all knowledge.

The true is beyond life and death, beyond all life and death. If truth were not beyond life and death, it would not be « true ».

It would be life, and death, that would be « true » instead of the « true ».

We don’t know what the True is. We do not know what the Spirit is.

We can only hope to find out one day.

Hoping for what we don’t see is already a bit like knowing it.

And we are not necessarily alone in this expectation.

If the Spirit is not pure nothingness, it is not impossible to hope for a sign of it one day.

If it is « breath », some breeze can be expected (as the prophet Elijah testifies):

« And after the hurricane there was a hurricane, so strong and so violent that it split the mountains and broke the rocks, but the Lord was not in the hurricane; and after the hurricane there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire, and after the fire there was the murmur of a gentle breeze. »vi

From the Spirit, we can always expect the « unexpressed »:

« The Spirit also comes to meet our weakness. For we do not know what we should be praying for as we should. But the Spirit himself, in his overpowering power, intercedes for us with unspoken sighs, and he who searches the hearts knows what the Spirit’s thought is (‘to phronèma tou pneumatos’), andthat his intercession for the saints corresponds to God’s views. » vii

Even prayer is useless in this waiting, in this hope. You never know how to pray.

Man does not know how to get out of himself, he does not know the way out of what he has always been.

He knows nothing of the encounter with the living God.

And even if he met Him, he knows nothing of what the Spirit thinks.

But that doesn’t mean that man can never get out of himself. He can – if the circumstances are right, or if he gets a little help.

We don’t even know that yet. We are only waiting without impatience.

We look into the distance. Or beyond. Or within. Or below.

There are in us two men, one from the earth, the other from heavenviii.

And it is the latter, the man from heaven in us, who can feel the light breath, and hear the murmur.

_______________

iHegel. Phenomenology of the mind, II. Trad. J. Hyppolite. Aubier, 1941, p.306

ii1 Co. 2.12

iiiRm 1, 19

ivRm 1, 21-23

vKarl Barth. The Epistle to the Romans . Ed. Labor and Fides. Geneva, 2016. p. 53

vi1 Kg 19, 11-12

viiRom 8, 26-27

viii1 Co 15.47

Judaism, Christianity and « their Indissoluble Difference ».


« Jacob Taubes »

Jacob Taubes wrote an article, The controversy between Judaism and Christianity, whose subtitle reads: « Considerations on their indissoluble difference« i, in which he densely summed up what he views as the essence of the « impossible dialogue between « the Synagogue » and « the Church » ».

This non-dialogue has been going on for two millennia, and will only end at the end of time, in all probability.

The popular expression « Judeo-Christian tradition » is often used. But it is meaningless. Above all, it impedes a full understanding of the « fundamental » differences in the « controversial questions concerning the Jewish and Christian religions » that « continue to influence every moment of our lives ». ii

From the outset, Jacob Taubes asserts that no concession on the part of Judaism towards Christianity is possible. The opposition is frontal, radical, absolute, irremediable.

In order for two parties to begin any kind of debate, at the very least, they must recognize each other’s legitimate right to participate in that debate.

However, these really basic conditions are not even fulfilled…

One party does not recognize the other. Christianity means nothing to Judaism. Christianity has absolutely no religious legitimacy for the latter:

« For the Jewish faith, the Christian religion in general and the body of the Christian Church in particular have no religious significance. For the Church, there is a Jewish « mystery, » but the Synagogue knows no « Christian » mystery of any kind. For Jewish belief, the Christian Church cannot have any religious significance; and the division of historical time into a « before Christ » and an « after Christ » cannot be recognized by the Synagogue. Moreover, it cannot even be recognized as something that, though meaningless to the Jewish people, represents a truth to the rest of the world. » iii

The denial of Christianity by Judaism is implacable, definitive. Christianity is not « recognized » by Judaism. It has intrinsically no « religious significance ». This absence of « religious significance » is not limited to the « Jewish people ». Nor does Judaism recognize any religious « significance » for religions from « the rest of the world ».

It is useless to expect from Jacob Taubes scholarly comparisons and fine analyses comparing Jewish and Christian theological elements in order to try to deepen the terms of a common questioning.

A major element of the Christian faith is only « blasphemy » from the Jewish point of view:

« But, from the Jewish point of view, the division into « Father » and « Son » operates a cleavage of the divine being; the Synagogue looked at it, and still looks at it, simply as blasphemy. » iv

In theory, and in good faith, for the sake of the « controversy », Jacob Taubes could have evoked, on this question of the « Father » and the « Son », the troubling passages of the Zohar which deal with the generation of Elohim following the « union » of the One with Wisdom (Hokhmah)v.

Is the « Father-Son-Holy Spirit » Trinity structurally analogous to the Trinity of « the One, Hokhmah and Elohim »?

Does it offer points of comparison with the revelation made to Moses under a formal Trinitarian formula: « Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh » (Ex. 3:14) or with the strange Trinitarian expression of Deuteronomy: « YHVH, Elohenou, YHVH » (Deut. 6:4)?

Maybe so. Maybe not. But this is not the bottom line for Taubes: he is not at all interested in a thorough confrontation of texts and ideas on such opaque and metaphysical subjects.

This lack of interest in comparative hermeneutics is all the more striking because Taubes immediately admits that Judaism, in its long history, has in fact fallen back a great deal on its supposed « rigid monotheism »:

« The recent insistence on rigid monotheism as the defining characteristic of Jewish religious life is contradicted by a fact that contemporary Jewish thinkers tend to dismiss: the centuries-long predominance of the Lurian Kabbalah in Judaism. The Kabbalah has developed theological speculations that can only be compared to Gnostic (and pagan) mythologies. The mythical unity of the divine King and the divine Queen, the speculation on Adam Kadmon, the mythology of the ten sephirot, which are not attributes but manifestations of the divine, of different essences, poses a challenge to any historian of religion who claims to judge what is Jewish and what is not according to the criterion of a « rigid monotheism ». The Jewish religion would not have been able to cope with the explosion of Kabbalistic mythologization if its fundamental and determining characteristic had been a rigid monotheism. » vi

Even more astonishing, Jacob Taubes, after having denied any kind of « religious significance » to Christianity, affirms however that « Christianity is a typically Jewish heresy »:

« Christian history, Jesus’ claim to the title of Messiah and Pauline theology of Christ as the end of the Law are not at all « singular » events for Judaism, but are things that regularly recur in the fundamental Jewish frame (Grundmuster)of religious existence. As I have already said, Christian history does not constitute a « mystery » for the Jewish religion. Christianity represents a « typical » crisis in Jewish history, which expresses a typically Jewish « heresy »: antinomistic messianism – the belief that with the coming of the Messiah, what is decisive for salvation is not the observance of the Law, but faith in the Messiah. » vii

But if Christianity is, for Judaism, a « typically Jewish heresy », does this not recognize it as a form of « significance » in the eyes of Judaism, if only because of its antinomic opposition? The fact that forms of heresy, at least formally analogous to Christianity, may have appeared in a recurring manner within Judaism itself, does not this imply the presence of a subterranean question, always at work, in the darkness of the foundations?

Judaism seems indeed to suffer from certain structural « weaknesses », at least according to the opinion of Jacob Taubes :

« The weakness of all modern Jewish theology – and not only modern – is that it fails to designate Halakhah, the Law, as its alpha and omega. Since the period of Emancipation, the Jewish religion has been in crisis because it lost its center when Halakhah lost its central position and binding force in Jewish thought and life. From the moment Halakhah ceases to be the determining force in Jewish life, the door is open to all the anti-halakhic (antinomistic) and disguised Christian assumptions that are prevalent in secularized modern Christian society. » viii

On the one hand, Christianity has no « religious significance », according to Jacob Taubes.

On the other hand, Christianity threatens Halakhah in its very foundation, which is of the order of the Law, and in its « ultimate » principle, justice:

« Halakhah is essentially based on the principle of representation: the intention of man’s heart and soul must be manifested and represented in his daily life. Therefore the Halakhah must become « external » and « legal », it must deal with the details of life because it is only in the details of life that the covenant between God and man can be presented. (…) Halakhah is the Law because justice is the ultimate principle: ecstatic or pseudo-ecstatic religiosity can see in the sobriety of justice only dead legalism and external ceremonialism, just as anarchy can conceive law and order only as tyranny and oppression. » ix

Here we are at the core. For Taubes, Judaism has as its essential foundations Law and Justice, which are radically opposed to the « principle of love »:

« The controversy between the Jewish religion and the Christian religion refers to the eternal conflict between the principle of the Law and the principle of love. The « yoke of the Law » is challenged by the enthusiasm of love. But in the end, only the « justice of the Law » could question the arbitrariness of love. » x

Let’s summarize:

-Judaism does not give any religious significance to Christianity, nor does it recognize any meaning for the « rest of the world ».

-In reality Christianity is only a « Jewish heresy », as there have been so many others.

-Judaism is threatened by Christianity in that it deeply undermines Halakhah in a modern, secularized Christian society.

-The two essential principles of Judaism are the Law and justice.

-The essential principle of Christianity is love, but this principle is « arbitrary », -Judaism must question the « principle of love » through the « justice of the Law ».

Logically, the above points are inconsistent with each other when considered as a whole.

But logic has little to do with this debate, which is not, and probably cannot be « logical ».

Therefore, one has to use something other than logic.

But what? Vision? Intuition? Prophecy?

One reads, right at the very end of the Torah, its very last sentence:

« No prophet like Moses has ever risen in Israel, whom YHVH knew face to face. »xi

Let’s presume that the Torah tells the ultimate truth about this. How could it be otherwise?

Then, maybe, « He » could have risen out of Israel?

The Masters of Israel, from blessed memory, also testified, according to Moses de Leon:

« He has not risen in Israel, but He has risen among the nations of the world.» xii

The Masters cited the example of Balaam. He is a prophet, undeniably, since « God presented Himself (vayiqar) to Balaam » (Num. 23:4), but Balaam still is a « sulphurous » prophet.

However Balaam « stood up » before the end of the Torah. Which leaves open the question of other prophets « standing up » after the Torah was completed…

It is up to us, who belong to the nations of the world, to reflect and meditate on the prophets who may have risen – no longer in Israel, since none could possibly have « risen » in Israel since Moses – but among the « nations of the world ».

And this according to the testimony, not only of the Torah, but of the illustrious Jewish Masters who commented on it.

Vast program!

___________________

iJacob Taubes. « The controversy between Judaism and Christianity: Considerations on their indissoluble difference ». In « Time is running out. From worship to culture » (« Le temps presse ». Du culte à la culture. ) Ed. du Seuil. Paris, 2009.

iiJacob Taubes. « The controversy between Judaism and Christianity: Considerations on their indissoluble difference. « Time is running out. From worship to culture. Ed. du Seuil. Paris, 2009. p.101

iiiJacob Taubes. « The controversy between Judaism and Christianity: Considerations on their indissoluble difference ». In « Time is running out. From worship to culture » (« Le temps presse ». Du culte à la culture. ) Ed. du Seuil. Paris, 2009. p. 105

ivJacob Taubes. « The controversy between Judaism and Christianity: Considerations on their indissoluble difference ». In « Time is running out. From worship to culture » (« Le temps presse ». Du culte à la culture. ) Ed. du Seuil. Paris, 2009. . p. 104

vSee my article on this blog: How the Elohim Were Begotten | Metaxu. Le blog de Philippe Quéau.

viJacob Taubes. « The controversy between Judaism and Christianity: Considerations on their indissoluble difference ». In « Time is running out. From worship to culture » (« Le temps presse ». Du culte à la culture. ) Ed. du Seuil. Paris, 2009. . p. 111

viiJacob Taubes. »The controversy between Judaism and Christianity: Considerations on their indissoluble difference ». In « Time is running out. From worship to culture » (« Le temps presse ». Du culte à la culture. ) Ed. du Seuil. Paris, 2009. p. 113

viii« The controversy between Judaism and Christianity: Considerations on their indissoluble difference ». In « Time is running out. From worship to culture » (« Le temps presse ». Du culte à la culture. ) Ed. du Seuil. Paris, 2009. p. 114-115

ix« The controversy between Judaism and Christianity: Considerations on their indissoluble difference ». In « Time is running out. From worship to culture » (« Le temps presse ». Du culte à la culture. ) Ed. du Seuil. Paris, 2009. p. 115

xJacob Taubes. « The controversy between Judaism and Christianity: Considerations on their indissoluble difference ». In « Time is running out. From worship to culture » (« Le temps presse ». Du culte à la culture. ) Ed. du Seuil. Paris, 2009. Seuil. 2009. p. 117

xiDt. 34,10

xiiQuoted by Moses de Leon. The sicle of the Sanctuary (Chequel ha-Qodesh). Translation Charles Mopsik. Ed. Verdier. 1996. p. 103

Berechit Bara Elohim and the Zohar


« Zohar »

The Book of Creation (« Sefer Yetsirah ») explains that the ten Sefirot Belimah (literally: the ten « numbers of non-being ») are « spheres of existence out of nothingness ». They have appeared as « an endless flash of light, » and « the Word of God circulates continuously within them, constantly coming and going, like a whirlwind. »i.

All of these details are valuable, but should not in fact be disclosed at all in public. The Book of Creation intimates this compelling order: « Ten Sefirot Belimah: Hold back your mouth from speaking about it and your heart from thinking about it, and if your heart is carried away, return to the place where it says, ‘And the Haioth go and return, for that is why the covenant was made’ (Ezekiel 6:14). » ii

I will not « hold my mouth » : I will quote the very texts of those who talk about it, think about it, go to it and come back to it over and over again.

For example, Henry Corbin, in a text written as an introduction to the Book of Metaphysical Penetrations by Mollâ Sadrâ Shîrâzi, the most famous Iranian philosopher at the time of the brilliant Safavid court of Isfahan, and a contemporary of Descartes and Leibniz in Europe, wonders in his turn about the essence of sefirot, and raises the question of their ineffability.

« The quiddity or divine essence, what God or the One is in his being, is found outside the structure of the ten sefirot, which, although they derive from it, do not carry it within them at all. The ten sefirot are ‘without His quiddity’ (beli mahuto, בלי מהותו), such is the teaching of the sentence in the Book of Creation. (…) But a completely different exegesis of the same sentence from the Book of Creation is advanced in the Sicle of the Sanctuary. For this new exegesis, the word belimah does not mean beli mahout (without essence) but refers to the inexpressible character of the sefirot whose mouth must ‘refrain itself (belom) from speaking' ». iii

So, the question is : are sefirot « without divine essence », as the Book of Creation seems to say?

Or are sefirot really divine, and therefore « unspeakable »?

Or are they only « that which cannot be spoken of », according to the restrictive opinion of Moses de Leon (1240-1305), who is the author of the Sicle of the Sanctuary?

It seems to me that Moses de Leo, also apocryphal author of the famous Zohar, occupies a position on this subject that is difficult to defend, given all the speculations and revelations that abound in his main work…

Moreover, if one « cannot speak » of the sefirot, nor « think » about them, how can one then attribute any value whatsoever to the venerable Sefer Yetsirah (whose origin is attributed to Abraham himself, – but whose writing is dated historically between the 3rd and 6th century A.D.)?

On the other hand, – an argument of authority it is true, but not without relevance -, it should be emphasized that the Sicle of the Sanctuary is nevertheless « a little young » compared to the Sefer Yestsirah, which is at least a millennium older.

In view of these objections, let us consider that we can continue to evoke here (albeit cautiously) the sefirot, and try to reflect on them.

The sefirot, what are they? Are they of divine essence or are they pure nothingness?

The Zohar clearly states :

« Ten Sefirot Belimah: It is the breath (Ruah) of the spirit of the Living God for eternity. The Word or creative power, the Spirit and the Word are what we call the Holy Spirit. » iv

Finding expressions such as the « Word » or the « Holy Spirit » in one of the oldest philosophical texts of Judaism (elaborated between the 3rd and 6th centuries A.D.), may evoke strangely similar wordings, used in Christian Gospels.

There is, at least, a possibility of beginning a fruitful debate on the nature of the divine « emanations », to use the concept of atsilut – אצילות, used by Moses de Leon, and on the possible analogy of these « emanations » with the divine « processions » of the Father, Son and Spirit, as described by Christian theology?

What I would like to discuss here is how the Zohar links the « triple names » of God with what Moses de Leon calls the divine « emanations ».

The Zohar repeatedly quotes several combinations of God’s « names », which form « triplets ».

In addition, it also deals with the divine « emanations » of which the sefirot seems an archetype, as well as expressions such as the « Breath » of God or his « Seed ».

Do the « divine emanations » and the « triple names » of God have some deep, structural, hidden relationship, and if so, what does this teach us?

The « triple names » of God.

In Scripture, there are several instances of what might be called the « triple names » of God, that is, formulas consisting of three words that form a unitary whole, an indissoluble verbal covenant to designate God:

-Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh (Ex. 3:14) (« I am he who is »)

-YHVH Elohenou YHVH (Deut. 6:4) (« YHVH, Our God, YHVH »)

To these « trinitarian » formulas, the Zohar adds for example:

Berechit Bara Elohim (Gen 1:1) (« In the beginning created Elohim »)

Bringing these different « triplets » together, the Zohar establishes the idea that the names contained in each of these « triplets » are individually insufficient to account for the divine essence. Only the union of the three names in each of these formulations is supposed to be able to approach the mystery. But, taken individually, one by one, the names « YHVH », or « Ehyeh », or « Elohim », do not reach the ultimate level of comprehension. It is as if only the dynamic « procession » of the relationships between the names « within » each triplet could account for the mystery of God’s « Name ».

On the other hand, the Zohar suggests a kind of structural identity between the « triple names » just mentioned. Thus, by comparing term by term the verses Ex. 3:14 and Dt. 6:4, one can assume a kind of identity between YHVH and « Ehyeh ». And, based on the supposed analogy between Dt 6:4 and Gen 1:1, we can also identify the name « YHVH » with the names « Berechit » and « Elohim ».

Finally, if we pursue this structuralist logic, a word that could a priori be a « simple conjunction » with a grammatical vocation (the word « asher« ) acquires (according to the Zohar) the status of « divine noun », or divine hypostasis, as does the verb « bara« .

Let’s look at these points.

The Zohar formulates these structural analogies as follows:

« This is the meaning of the verse (Dt. 6:4): ‘Listen, Israel, YHVH, Elohenu, YHVH is one’. These three divine names designate the three scales of the divine essence expressed in the first verse of Genesis: ‘Berechit bara Elohim eth-ha-shamaim’, ‘Berechit’ designates the first mysterious hypostasis; ‘bara’ indicates the mystery of creation; ‘Elohim’ designates the mysterious hypostasis which is the basis of all creation; ‘eth-ha-shamaim’ designates the generating essence. The hypostasisElohim’ forms the link between the two others, the fecundating and the generating, which are never separated and form one whole. » v

We see that the Zohar thus distinguishes, from the first verse of the Torah, two « triplets » of divine names, somehow embedded in each other: ‘Berechit bara Elohim’ on the one hand, and ‘Bara Elohim eth-ha-shamaym’ on the other.

We also deduce that the second « triplet » is somehow « engendered » (in the sense of « generative grammars ») by the first « triplet », thanks to the special role played by the name ‘Elohim’.

The generative theory of the divine « triplets » also allows us to better understand the profound structure of the famous verse ‘Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh’ (Ex. 3:14) (« I am he who is »), and moreover allows us to establish a link with the theory of the divine emanations of the Zohar.

Let’s look at this point.

The Seed of God: ‘Asher’ and ‘Elohim’.

The « Seed » of God is evoked metaphorically or directly in several texts of Scripture as well as in the Zohar. It has various names: Isaiah calls it ‘Zera’ (זֶרָע: ‘seed’, ‘seed’, ‘race’)vi. The Zohar calls it « Zohar » (זֹהַר: glow, brightness, light), but also « Asher » (אֲשֶׁר: « that » or « who » – that is, as we have seen, the grammatical particle that can be used as a relative pronoun, conjunction or adverb), as the following two passages indicate:

« The word glow’ (Zohar) refers to the spark that the Mysterious One caused when he struck the void and which is the origin of the universe, which is a palace built for the glory of the Mysterious One. This spark constitutes in a way the sacred seed of the world. This mystery is expressed in the words of Scripture (Is. 6:13): ‘And the seed to which it owes its existence is sacred.’ Thus the word ‘glow’ (Zohar) refers to the seed He sowed for His glory, since the purpose of creation is the glorification of God. Like a mollusk from which purple is extracted and clothed in its shell, the divine seed is surrounded by the material that serves as its palace, built for the glory of God and the good of the world. This palace from which the divine seed has surrounded itself is called « Elohim » (Lord). This is the mystical meaning of the words: ‘With the Beginning He created Elohim’, that is, with the help of the ‘light’ (Zohar), the origin of all the Verbs (Maamaroth), God created ‘Elohim’ (Lord) ». vii

But a few lines later, the Zohar assigns to the word « Zohar » two more meanings, that of « Mysterious » and that of « Beginning ». Therefore, since the word « Zohar » is no longer available as a metaphor for the divine « Seed », the Zohar uses the word « Asher » (אֲשֶׁר: « that » or « who ») to designate the latter, but also the word « Elohim », which derives from it by synonymous engendering and following a kind of « literal » pirouette, as shown in this passage:

« By the word glow’ (Zohar), Scripture refers to the Mysterious called ‘Berechit’ (Beginning), because it is the beginning of all things. When Moses asked God what His name was, God replied (Ex. 3:14): « Ehyeh asher Ehyeh » (אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה , I am He who is). The sacred name ‘Ehyeh’ appears on both sides, while the name ‘Elohim’ forms the crown, since it appears in the middle; for ‘Asher’ is synonymous with ‘Elohim’, whereas the nameAsher’ is formed from the sameletters that make up the wordRoch’ (head, crown). ‘Asher’, which is the same asElohim’, is derived from ‘Berechit’. As long as the divine spark was enclosed in the sublime palace, that is to say, before it manifested itself,it did not form any peculiarity that could be designated in the divine essenceby anyname; the Whole was One, under the name ‘Roch’. Butwhen God created, with the help of the sacred seed (‘Asher’), the palace of matter, ‘Asher’ took shape in the divine essence; only then did ‘Asher’ take, in the divine essence, the shape of a crown head (‘Roch’), being situated in the middle (‘Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh’). Now, the word ‘Berechit’ contains the word ‘Roch’, synonymous with ‘Asher’;it forms the words ‘Roch’ and ‘Baït’, i.e. ‘Roch’ enclosed in a palace (‘Baït’). viiiThe words: ‘Berechit Bara Elohim’ thus mean : When ‘Roch’, synonymous with ‘Asher’,wasused as divine seed in the palace of matter, ‘Elohim’ was created; that is to say, Elohim took shape in the essence of God. ix

Let’s summarize what we just learned from the Zohar.

The divine « Seed » receives, according to its authors, the following names: Zera‘, Zohar, Asher, Roch (‘seed, glow, who, head’).

The « Seed » is deposited in the middle of the « palace ».

The Palace-Semen together are called ‘Beginning’ (Berechit).

And this ‘Beginning’ ‘created’ ‘Elohim’.

And all this is presented in the first verse of the Torah.

How can we fail to see in this thesis of the Zohar a structural analogy between « Elohim » and the Christian concept of « Son of God »?

Decidedly, even a purely ‘monotheistic’ theology needs « emanations » to live in the « world ».

iBook of Creation, 1.5

iiBook of Creation, 1.7

iiiHenry Corbin. The vocabulary of being. Preface to the Book of Metaphysical Penetrations. Molla Sadra Shiraz. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse. 1988, p. 50

ivBook of Creation, 1.8

vZohar 1, 15b

viIs. 6.13

viiZohar, 1.15a

viiiThe two consonants of Baït, B and T frame the two consonants of Rosh, R and SH, in the word BeReSHiT.

ixZohar, 1.15a-15b

How the Elohim Were Begotten


« Gershom Scholem »

Let’s begin with this verse from the Psalmist: « The foundation of your word is truth »i. In the original Hebrew: רֹאשׁ-דְּבָרְךָ אֱמֶת, roch devar-ka emét.

Another translation gives: « Truth, the principle of your word! » ii

In yet another translation, the word רֹאשׁ, roch, is translated as « essence »: « Truth is the essence of your word. »iii

The words used here, « foundation », « principle », « essence » are quite abstract. They belong to the philosophical language, and they seem somewhat removed from the spirit of ancient Hebrew, an eminently concrete, realistic language.

Originally, the word רֹאשׁ, roch means: 1) head, person, man. Then, by derivation, metonymy or metaphor: 2) head, top, point, main thing; 3) sum, number, troop; 4) beginning, the first; 5) a poisonous plant (the hemlock, or poppy), poison, venom, gall.

It is from the 4th meaning of roch that the word reshit, « beginning », derives, this word which one finds precisely at the very beginning of the Torah: Be-rechit, « in the beginning ».

If one wanted to render exactly all the connotations of the word רֹאשׁ, rosh in the verse of Psalm 119, one would have to resolve to translate it into a sum of formulations, – a swarm of meanings:

-At the head of your word, the truth.

-The tip of your word is truth.

-The sum of your word is truth.

-Truth is the beginning of your word.

-The truth is the venom of your word.

Each of these formulas is clearly unsatisfactory, but as a whole they open up new questions and new perspectives.

For example, if truth is « at the head » of the word, or in its « tip », or in its « beginning », does this mean that in all the « rest » of the word there is something other than truth?

If it is the « sum » of the word that is the « truth », does this imply that each of the parts of the « word » does not really contain it?

How can we understand that the word (of God) can contain a « venom »?

The more modern translations that have been cited (« foundation, principle, essence ») seem to escape these difficulties of interpretation. They immediately give the verse a veneer of depth and a kind of philosophical allure.

But this « abstract » veneer and this « philosophical » appearance are undoubtedly the indications of a real deviation from the original meaning, intended by the Psalmist, which was to be much more « concrete ».

If one wants to remain faithful to the genius of ancient Hebrew, the essence of the word roch must rather be sought in one of its main derivative, the word rechit (« beginning »).

This word is indeed part of the description of a key moment of Creation, the « Beginning », and it derives a special prestige from it.

This eminent moment is described by Zohar 1:15a in a surprisingly vivid way, in a passage full of dark light, particularly delicate to « translate », even for the best specialists and the most learned rabbis who have worked on it.

One may judge the difficulty from four very different translations of this strange text which will now be presented.

Gershom Scholem offers :

« In the beginning, when the King’s will began to act, he drew signs in the divine aura. A dark flame gushes forth from the most intimate depths of the mystery of the Infinite, the En-Sof; like a mist that gives form to what has no form, it is enclosed in the ring of this aura, it appears neither white, nor black, nor red, nor green, without any color. But when it began to grow in height and spread, it produced radiant colors. For in the innermost center of this flame, a spring gushes forth, whose flames spill over everything below, hidden in the mysterious secrets of the En-Sof. The source gushes forth, and yet it does not gush forth completely, through the ethereal aura that surrounds it. It was absolutely unrecognizable until, under the shock of this spurt, a higher point then hidden would have shone. Beyond this point, nothing can be known or understood and that is why it is called Rechit, meaning « beginning », the first word of creation. » iv

What is this « point » called Rechit? Gershom Scholem indicates that for the Zohar (whose paternity he attributes to Moses de León) and for the majority of Kabbalist writers, this primordial « point », this « beginning » is identified with the divine « Wisdom », Hokhmah.

Before proposing his own translation-interpretation of this difficult passage of the Zohar, Charles Mopsikv cites two other translation-interpretations, that of R. Siméon Labi of Tripoli and that of R. Moses Cordovero, both dating from the 16th century:

R. Simeon Labi :

« In the head, the King’s word carved signs in the highest transparency. A spark of darkness came out of the middle of the enclosure, from the head of the Ein-Sof; attached to the Golem (or initial formless matter), planted in the ring (…) This source is enclosed in the middle of the enclosure until, thanks to the jostling force of its breakthrough, a point, the supreme enclosure, is illuminated. After this point one knows nothing more, that is why it is called Rechit (beginning), first word. » vi

R. Moses Cordovero :

« At the moment before the King said, in his supreme zenith, he engraved a sign. An obscure (or eminent) flame gushes out inside the most enclosed, which started from the confines of the Infinite, forms in the Golem planted in the center of the ring (…) In the center of the Flame a spring gushes out from which the colors took their hue when it reached the bottom. The enclosure of the Enigma of the Infinite tried to pierce, but did not pierce its surrounding air and remained unknown until, by the power of its breakthrough, a point was illuminated, the supreme enclosure. Above this point nothing is knowable, so it is called Rechit, beginning, first of all words. » vii

Having thus prepared the ground with three different versions, and benefiting from their respective contributions, Charles Mopsik proposes his own translation, which is also jargonous and amphigorous, but which is not without opening up new reflexive possibilities:

« From the outset, the King’s resolution left the trace of his withdrawal in supreme transparency. An obscure flame springs from the quivering of the Infinite in its confinement. Like a form in the formless, inscribed on the seal. Neither white, nor black, nor red, nor green, nor of any color. When he then set the commensurable, he brought out colors that illuminated the confinement. And from the flame a spring gushed forth, downstream from which the hues of these colors appeared. Enclosure in the Confinement, quivering of the Infinite, the source pierces and does not pierce the air that surrounds it and it remains unknowable. Until by the insistence of its piercing, it brings to light a tenuous point, supreme confinement. From there this point is the unknown, so it is called the ‘beginning’, the first of all. » viii

It should be noted at the outset that Mopsik clearly distinguishes himself from other translators, from the very first sentence, by proposing that the King « leave the trace of his withdrawal in supreme transparency », rather than « engrave or carve signs ».

He justifies this bold choice in this way:

« What led us to prefer the expression ‘to leave the trace of its withdrawal’ to ‘to inscribe signs’ comes from the fact that the verb galaf or galif is rarely found in the Midrach, and when it appears, it is associated with the idea of inscribing in hollow, of opening the matrix. Thus it is this term that is used when God visited Sarah and then Rikvah who were barren (see Gen 47.2 , Gen 53.5 and Gen 63.5).

It is therefore likely that Zohar uses these connotations of generation and fertilization. Moreover, the passage in question was later interpreted by the school of Louria as an evocation of the Tsimtsum, or withdrawal of the divine.»ix

In Mopsik’s interpretation, therefore, in the beginning, God « opens the matrix », then withdraws from it, but nevertheless « leaves a trace of his withdrawal ».

Which « matrix » is it?

According to the Zohar, this ‘matrix’ is Wisdom (Hokhmah).

Indeed, a little further on, the Zohar gives these relatively cryptic, yet enlightening explanations:

« Until now, this has been the secret of ‘YHVH Elohim YHVH’. These three names correspond to the divine secret contained in the verse ‘In the beginning created Elohim’ (Berechit bara Elohim). Thus, the expression ‘In the beginning’ is an ancient secret, namely: Wisdom (Hokhmah) is called ‘Beginning’. The word ‘created’ also alludes to a hidden secret, from which everything develops. » x

Let’s summarize what we just learned:

Wisdom (Hokmah) is also called ‘Beginning’ (Rechit).

The « matrix » that God « opens » at the « Beginning », before « withdrawing » from it, is that of Wisdom. According to Charles Mopsik, the metaphors that the Zohar uses to describe this moment evoke « generation » and « fecundation ».

The Zohar, decidedly well-informed, still delivers these precisions:

« With this Beginning, the Hidden and Unknown One created the Temple (or Palace), and this Temple is called by the name ‘Elohim’. This is the secret of the words: ‘In the beginning created Elohim. xi

The great secret, unspeakable, spreads out clearly in the Zohar:

The One unites himself with Wisdom (whose other name is ‘Beginning’), then withdraws from it, while leaving his trace. From this union of the One and the Beginning is born the Temple (also called ‘Elohim’).

According to the Zohar, the first verse of the Torah ‘Be-rechit bara Elohim’ should be understood as follows: « With the Beginning, [the One, the Hidden One] created the Elohim (Lords).

Jewish ‘monotheism’ is definitely full of surprises…

From the Beginning, the Trinity of the One, Wisdom and Elohim is revealed.

The Elohim are generated by Wisdom, impregnated by the One…

_________________

iPs. 119:160

iiThe Jerusalem Bible. Ed. du Cerf, Paris, 1996

iiiGershom G. Scholem, in The Name of God and Kabbalistic Theory of Language. Alia. 2018, p.11

ivZohar 1.15a. Quoted by Gershom G. Scholem, Les grands courants de la mystique juive. Translation from English by Marie-Madeleine Davy. Ed. Payot, Paris, 2014, p.320

vCharles Mopsik. The Zohar. Ed. Verdier. 1981, p.482

viR. Simeon Labi de Tripoli in Ketem Paz Biour ha Milot (Enlightenment of Words), 1570, quoted by Charles Mopsik in op.cit. p.482

viiR. Moïse Cordovero, Or Yakar, Quoted by Charles Mopsik in op.cit. p.483

viiiTranslation by Charles Mopsik. The Zohar. Ed. Verdier. 1981, p.484

ixCharles Mopsik. The Zohar. Ed. Verdier. 1981, p.484

xZohar 1.15b

xiZohar 1.15a

The name « Israel »


« La lutte de Jacob avec l’ange ». Alexandre Louis Leloir (1865)

The origin of the name « Israel » is based on some passages of Genesis dedicated to Jacob, which ‘explain’ why he was first named « Jacob », and then how he was renamed « Israel ».

This famous story, commented on throughout the centuries, is briefly recalled by the prophet Hosea, in the following way.

« The LORD will therefore charge against Judah, and will execute judgment on Jacob according to his ways, and will reward him according to his works. From his mother’s womb he supplanted his brother and in his manhood he triumphed over a God. He wrestled with an angel and was victorious, and the angel wept and asked for mercy.»i

The LORD will do justice for Jacob, says Hosea. What has he done? He « supplanted his brother, » he « fought against God, » and he was « victorious, » reducing him to « weeping » and asking for mercy. Let’s look at these points.

Even before he was born, in his mother’s womb, it is written that « Jacob supplanted » his brother.

He was given the name Jacob because he had come out of his mother’s womb holding his brother’s heel. « The first one came out completely red like a coat of hair, and they called him Esau. Then his brother came out, and his hand held Esau’s heel, and he was called Jacob. » ii

In Hebrew the word « Jacob » is taken from the verb עָקַב ‘aqab, « he supplanted », « he deceived », « he defrauded ». « Jacob » seems to be a difficult name to bear, even if its proper meaning can be euphemised by giving it a derived meaning from the Genesis passage: « he who caught (his brother) by the heels », at the moment of his birth.

But Jacob again earned his name by supplanting Esau a second time, by « buying » his birthrightiii, and a third time, by substituting for him to obtain the blessing of his father Isaac on his deathbed.

Jacob is aware of the negative meaning attached to his name, and he is also aware of the significance of his actions. « Perhaps my father will feel me and I will be like a deceiver in his eyes, and I will bring on me the curse and not the blessing, »iv he worries to Rebekah.

Jacob fears being seen as a « deceiver ». Therefore, he does not really consider himself as such, despite appearances and facts. He no doubt thinks he has settled the legal aspect of frauding by acquiring the birthright in exchange for a « red soup ». He also relies on his mother Rebecca who says to him: « I take your curse upon me, my son. Obey me. » v

But these are minor concerns. Jacob ends up taking the fraud personally when his father, blind and dying, asks him, « Who are you, my son? » and he answers, « It is I, Esau, your firstborn. » vi

Isaac blessed him then, but seized by doubt, asked a second time: « Is that you, there, my son Esau? « Jacob answers: « It is I. » vii Then Isaac blessed him a second time, confirming him in his inheritance: « Be the head of your brothers, and let your mother’s sons bow down before you! Cursed be he who curses you, and blessed be he who blesses you! » viii.

Esau comes up in the meantime and asks, « Is it because they named him Jacob that he has already twice supplanted me? He has taken away my birthright and now he has taken away my blessing! » ix

We can see by this that Jacob’s name carried his whole destiny in a nutshell, at least for the first part of his life.

Now let’s see how Jacob changed his name during the night combat scene.

« Jacob was left alone, and a man struggled with him until dawn. » x

Jacob is alone, but a man is with him. How to reconcile this apparent contradiction? Is this « man » just an apparition, a mirage? Or is he an angel? A divine spirit?

I opt for a third track. It could be an inner presence.

But then how can we explain this mad fight against himself?

Night-time delirium? Mystical crisis ? You have to hold on to minute details.

« Seeing that he could not defeat him, he touched his hip and Jacob’s hip dislocated as he struggled with him. » xi

The Hebrew text says that Jacob was struck in the hollow of the « hip »: כַּף-יֶרֶךְ , kaf yérek. But this word can have several meanings. If one adopts the idea that it is a physical, virile struggle, it might be a euphemism for « genitals ». A good punch in these parts can give an advantage.

But if one adopts the interpretation of an inner, mystical struggle, one must find something else. Now, this composed expression can also mean, taken word for word: « the hollow (kaf) of the bottom (yarkah)« , i.e. the « bottom of the bottom », or the « depth ».

If Jacob has engaged in an inner struggle, he has reached the extreme depths of his soul.

At that moment the man, or the angel, (or the depths of the soul?) begs Jacob: « Let me go, for the dawn has come. » Jacob answered, « I will not let you go unless you bless me. » Then he said to him, « What is your name? » He answered, « Jacob ». He said, « Jacob will no longer be your name, but Israel; for you have fought with God and with men and have triumphed. » xii

יִשְׂרָאֵל: כִּי-שָׂרִיתָ עִם-אֱלֹהִים וְעִם-אֲנָשִׁים, וַתּוּכָל.

(Israel: ki-sarita ‘im elohim ve ‘im enoshim va toukhal)

According to this interpretation, « Israel » would therefore mean: « He fought against God », taking as a basis for the word Israel the verb שָׂרָה, sarah, to struggle.

But the « very learned » Philo of Alexandria, commenting on the same passage, is, for his part, of the opinion that the name « Israel » means « seeing God », relying on the verb רָאָה, raah, « to see, to have visions ».

Which interpretation seems the best?

If it was a mystical battle, Philo’s interpretation seems much better.

But for the way forward, we can also refer to Rashi, who does not deal directly with this question here, but addresses it in another way.

Rashi comments on the verse « Jacob shall henceforth no longer be your name, but Israel » as follows: « It will no longer be said that you have obtained these blessings by trickery and supplanting (עקבה, same root as יעקב), but in all dignity and openly. The Holy One, blessed be He, will reveal Himself to you in Bethel, change your name there and bless you. I will be there and confirm them to you. This is what the Prophet Hosea will say: He wrestled with an angel and got the upper hand, he wept and begged him (Hosea 12:5). It was the angel who wept and begged. What did he ask him? In Bethel He will find us and there He will speak to us (ibid.). Give me a delay until He speaks to us there. But Jacob did not want to and the angel had to, in spite of himself, give him confirmation of the blessings. This is what is meant here in verse 30, ‘He blesses him on the spot’. He had begged him to wait, but Jacob refused. »

Rachi relies for this comment on the authority of Hosea. Hosea himself simply quotes Genesis. God appeared again to Jacob when he returned from the land of Aram, to the place that was later to be called Bethel, and blessed him there, saying to him, « Your name is Jacob; but your name henceforth shall not be Jacob any more, but Israel.» xiii

In this new account of Jacob’s change of name in Israel, Rashi gives himself his own interpretation of the meaning of the name Israel : « ‘Your name will no longer be Jacob’. This name refers to a man who is on the lookout to catch someone by surprise ( עקבה ), but you will bear a name that means prince (שׂר) and noble. »

As can be seen, Rashi proposes here a third interpretation of the meaning of the name « Israel ». After the ‘struggle’ (against God), the ‘vision’ (of God), here is the ‘kingship’ (in God?).

Immediately after these events, the story resumes with a new, mysterious episode. « The Lord disappeared from the place where he had spoken to him. Jacob erected a monument in the place where he had spoken to him, a monument of stone.» xiv

Why do I say « a mysterious episode »? Because the great Rashi himself admits about this verse: « I don’t know what this text wants to teach us. »

Let’s take a chance. We read here yet another circumstantial expression of place: « in the place where he had spoken to him ».

In Bethel, God stands « near » Jacob, during his « battle » at the place called Peniel, on the bank of the Jaboc, and that the same time Jacob holds his opponent tightly in a close combat.

This is the first difference of « placement ».

But what is surprising is that God then disappears away « from him » (i.e. moves away from the place « near » Jacob) to go « to the place where he had spoken to him » (bi maqom asher diber itou).

It seems that God disappears, not just « from » but rather « into » the place where He had just spoken.

Let’s elaborate. We must distinguish here between the place where God stood « near » Jacob, – and the « place where God had spoken », which is not a geographical place, but more likely the very soul of Jacob.

What the text teaches us, therefore, is that God disappeared « in » Jacob’s soul, melting into it, blending into it intimately.

After this anticipatory detour by Bethel, let us return to the scene of Penïêl, close to the ford of Jaboc. Jacob has just been named there for the first time « Israel ».

He then wants to know the name of the one who just called him that: « He answered, ‘Why do you ask my name?’ And he blessed him on the spot. » xv

The man, or the angel, blesses Jacob, but does not reveal his name to him. On the other hand, one can infer from the text that he showed his face to him.

Indeed, we read: « Jacob called this place Peniel: ‘Because I saw an angel of God face to face, and my life was saved’. » xvi

Peniel means, word for word, « face of God, » which seems to support the fact that Jacob-Israel did « see » God in his nightly battle.

This is an opportunity to note a kind of inverted symmetry between Jacob’s experience and that of Moses. Jacob « saw » God, but was not given to hear his name. For Moses it was the opposite, God revealed to him one of his names, Eyeh asher Eyeh, « I will be who I will be, » but He did not show him His « face, » only His « back.

What is the most manifest sign of election and grace: seeing the face of God or hearing His name?

Interpretations of this difficult question are legion. I will not discuss them here.

There is another mystery, before which Rashi himself had to admit ignorance: why did God disappear where He had spoken?

Why is the place of His presence now the place of His absence?

One lesson of the text might be that only His ‘word’ may reconcile both His (past) presence and His (present) absence.

_____________

iHos 12, 3-5

iiGen 25, 25-26

iiiGn 25.31

ivGn 27.12

vGen 27, 13

viGen 27, 19

viiGen 27, 24

viiiGen 27, 29

ixGen 27, 36

xGn 32.25

xiGen 32, 26

xiiGn 32, 27-29

xiiiGn 35, 10

xivGen 35, 14

xvGn 32, 30

xviGen 32, 31

The Night of the ‘Sod’


« Talmud »

They spend a lifetime sailing between the ends of the world, aiming for the very high or the very low, the bright or the dark, without ever finding a way out. Everywhere dead ends, clogged skies, impenetrable mountains, high walls, closed seas, and bottomless abysses.

Tired of detours, perplexed by fences, impatient for open roads, some people try to seek direct help: « Where have you been hiding ? » they ask, as the poet once did, thrown into the bottom of a low pit in Toledo: ¿ Adónde te escondiste? i

But who will answer? In the game of worlds, silence can be heard, speech is rare. We call, we implore, we groan, in vain. The hidden remains consistent and keeps hiding. Why would He betray himself by a mad « here!  » ?

All means are good, to whoever wants to find. With an acute eye, one can scrutinize the signs, detect traces, read between the lines. One can juggle endlessly, with the obvious (pshath), the allusion (remez), the allegory (drash), to continue trying to grasp the hidden (sod).

But is that enough? Sod is « mystery ». Barely touched, it suddenly discovers its nature, it is the abyss. It deepens unceasingly, as one throws in it furtive glances. Suddenly, a sinkhole collapses, bitter avens and swallowing ouvalas multiply. The more one brushes against the sod, the more it slips away, and sinks endlessly into its night.

Pedagogically, Amos has accumulated some clues in an ample sentence: « It is He who forms the mountains and creates the wind, who reveals to man his thoughts, who turns dawn into darkness, and who walks on the heights of the earth.»ii

Is the mystery hidden in the shape of the mountains, or is it at the origin of the wind?

Does it hide itself in the dawn drowned at night? Above all it is hidden in the man himself. Man, says Amos, doesn’t know what he thinks, he doesn’t know who he is, he doesn’t know what’s going on inside him. It is necessary to reveal it to him.

Man also is sod, therefore, and that even he does not see it, nor does he know it. So ill-prepared for himself, how could he face the « great mystery » (raza raba)?

Amos’ successive metaphors give an overview. Man can be compared to « mountains », in the moments when they « form » (orogeny, in technical style), or to a « wind » (ruah), shapeless but « created », or to a power that in an instant changes the dawn into darkness, or to the march of the spirit, above the heights of the world.

These metaphors are also understatements, which say, by antiphrase, that man ignores himself royally.

Mountain, wind, dawn, darkness, walking, world, height, all this man is in a way, and yet these prodigious images explain nothing yet.

Hidden, far below these figures, is waiting, patient and lurking, an ultimate image.

A unique topos. Buried within man is a secret place, which he does not know he possesses and which encloses « treasures », – as Isaiah tells us. « And I will give you secret treasures, hidden riches »iii.

Man possesses them in essence, these secrets and treasures, but he also ignores them. It has already been said: he doesn’t really know who he is, what he says, what he thinks. Nor does he know whether he really believes what he says he is or what he believes.

A fortiori, how little does he know his own abyssal depths, and their sealed secrets! For him to start guessing their presence, perhaps someone greater than himself must resolve to reveal them to him.

Climbing to the heights, flying in the winds, going to the ends of the world, is useless to discover what is already there, deep inside man.

As for the wind, really its flight is vain, in the dark.

And, on the highest mountain, the summit too is vain, if one must hide in the crevice (niqrat), like Moses, to take cover, – under a shadow thick enough to erase the fire of consciousnessiv .

In the crevices, in the depths of the night, perhaps the truth is there,baking in its own light, since it is nowhere else? One can hope in this shadow to catch a glimpse of the elusive silhouette, which is already slipping away.

The darkness, the obscurity, the night are somber and propitious premises, for the man who seeks.

They indicate to the researcher that one should hide « in the shadow of the wings »v.

What shadow? Which wings?

The word « wing » (in Hebrew kanap) has a double meaning. It also means « to hide ».

The wing « hides », « covers », « protects ».

Triple pleonasm: « to hide », « in the shade » of « the wing ».

Why all these hiding places, these blankets, these shadows, when we are in search of clarity and discovery? Isn’t it counter-intuitive?

Could it be a reaction to the fear of danger? There are indeed those who « hide » when enemies come running and attack the depths of the soulvi. But is death assured, if other enemies lie in wait, lurking in the hiding place itselfvii?

We must hide, not to flee, but because it is the only way to enter into the heart of the dark.

The inaccessible, the hidden, how to reach it other than by plunging into the dark shadows?

The mystery, the intelligence does not grasp it. It also evades the senses and is tasteless. Nothing emanates from it, it leaves cold. Hermetic, its depth, its opacity, its absence, put it out of reach, out of reach.

Unless, against all reason, one is obviously drowning in its shadow.

The more the mystery is opaque, the more it is revealed, by this very opacity. The more it resists openly, the more it opens in secret. It is the very opposite of ordinary logic.

The less you sense what is hidden, the closer you get to it. The less we grasp its meaning, the more we learn about our intuition.

The less one waits for its presence, the more it emerges.

One approaches, and the darkness deepens; one might think that one has taken the wrong road, that one is beating the countryside, that one is going astray. Paradox!

So close, so sublime is the knowledge of the mystery, it is still immensely far from its essence. But so far away are we lost in the depths of the unfathomable cave, we are already closer than in any light.

Paradox again.

You can’t see anything. But it is blindness that we must see. It is blindness that reveals.

« If he comes I will not see him, if he withdraws, I will not notice. »viii

We see nothing, and it is that « we don’t see » that we must see…

« Truly you are a hidden God! » ix

Wisdom once said of herself: « From eternity I was established, from the beginning, before the origin of the earth.» x

From eternity, ‘olam. From the principle, mé-rosh.

The Bahir reports a commentary on these expressions by Rabbi Bun:

« What is mé-‘olam? The word designates that which must remain hidden from everyone, for it is written : ‘He has also put the ‘olam in their hearts’xi. Do not read ha-‘olam (eternity) but ha-‘elem (the hidden) »xii.

The Hebrew word עָלַם lends itself to this play on words, since it is used as a noun (« eternity ») and as a verb (« hide »).

In the heart of man, « eternity » is hidden, and the « hidden » itself, under the shadow of its « wings ».

The hidden, the wing and eternity!

Three images for one secret.

______________

iJohn of the Cross. Spiritual Song B, 1

iiAm 4.13

iiiIs 45,3

ivEx 33.22

vPs 17,8

viPs 17:9

viiPs 17:12

viiiJb 9.11

ixIs 45,15

xPr 8.23

xiQo 3.11

xiiBahir, 10

Hair metaphysics


« Apollo and Daphne » Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680)

Hair has always had an anthropological, imaginary and symbolic depth. Literature, painting, sculpture, under all latitudes, have testified and still testify to the metaphorical (and metonymic) power of hair, and more generally of hairs.

An exhaustive analysis of the representations of hair in Western painting alone could yield some exciting material.

Where does it come from? One of the fundamental problems that painters face is to make forms and backgrounds blend together in a meaningful way. The restricted and highly organized space of the canvas allows to give meaning to graphic analogies and pictorial proximities, which are as many opening metaphors, as many potential metonymies.

Paul Eluard writes that the work of the Painter,

« Is always a question of algae.

Of hair of grounds (…)  » i

How, for example, should a character’s hair, whether spread or held, mad or wise, meet on the canvas the background against which it is shaped? Should it contrast sharply with its immediate environment, or attempt a latent fusion?

For the painters who represent the metamorphosis of Daphne into a laurel, the hair of the nymph is a propitious place to present the fusion of forms to come, the transformation of the human figure into an evergreen shrub. The sculpture also takes advantage of these effects of metamorphosis. Bernini, with Apollo and Daphne, presents with precision the beginning of the vegetable transition of hair and fingers into foliage and branches, where it naturally begins.

The hair favors many other metaphors, such as that of the veil:

« O fleece, flowing down to the neckline!
O curls! O perfume loaded with nonchalance!
Ecstasy! To populate this evening the dark alcove
With memories sleeping in this hair,
I want to shake it in the air like a handkerchief! » ii

From this handkerchief, we can use it to wipe tears or tears, Luke attests it:

« And behold, a sinful woman who was in the city, when she knew that he was sitting at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster vase full of ointment and stood behind it at Jesus’ feet. She wept, and soon she wet his feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with ointment. » iii

There is also the metaphor of the waves:

« Strong braids, be the swell that takes me away!

You contain, sea of ebony, a dazzling dream

Of sails, rowers, flames and masts :
A resounding port where my soul can drink. « iv.

Multiple, heteroclite, are the poetic or graphic metaphors of the hair: knots, linksv, helmets, breastplates, interlacing, clouds, and even the stars! The Hair of Berenice is a constellation of the Northern Hemisphere, named so because Berenice II, Queen of Egypt, sacrificed her hair, and that, according to the astronomer Conon of Samos, it was then placed by the gods in the sky.

Among the most widespread in painting, it is undoubtedly the metaphors of water and blood, which lend themselves very well to the supple and silky variations of the hair.

Ophelia’s drowned hair blends harmoniously with the wave, in which her body is bathed, in Eugène Delacroix or J.E. Millais. Gustave Klimt uses this effect to paint Ondines swimming lying down in Sang de poisson and in Serpents d’eau.

Bernardino Luini represents the head of John the Baptist, above a dish held by Salome, and his blood still runs in long dark streaks, prolonging the hair of the beheaded man.

Among all the countless metaphors of hair, there is one very particular one, that of fire and flame.

« The hair, flight of a flame to the extreme
Occident of desires to deploy it,
Poses itself (I’d say die a diadem)
Towards the crowned forehead its former home »vi
The image of a ‘hair of fire’ goes to the extreme indeed, and makes it possible to reach untold ends, and the Divine too…

The Ṛg Veda evokes a single God, Agni, named « Hairy », who is incarnated in three figures, endowed with different attributes. These three « Hairy » have the hair of a flamevii. « Three Hairy ones shine in turn: one sows himself in Saṃvatsara; one considers the Whole by means of the Powers; and another one sees the crossing, but not the color.» viii

The « Hair » connotes the reproductive power, the creative force, the infinite radiance of divine light. The first « Hairy » engenders himself in the Soma, in the form of a primordial germ. The second « Hairy » contains the Whole, i.e. the universe, again through Soma. The third « Hairy » is the « dark » Agni, the « unborn » Agni aja, which passes from night to light and reveals itself there.

In Judaism, hair does not burn, and it must be carefully maintained. ix

However, God chose a kind of vegetable hair, in the form of a « burning bush », to address Moses on Mount Horeb.

In Christianity, the flames of the Holy Spirit, at Pentecost, come to mingle with the hair of the Apostles. x

In Sufism, the « Hair » represents the Divine Essence as a symbol of multiplicity hiding unity. « Multiplicity conceals the non-existence of things, and thereby obscures the Heart, but at the same time as it veils, the Hair attracts Divine Grace and Divine Gifts. » xi

The hair represents here the « multiple », and thus nothingness. By its abundance and luxuriance, hair is an image of everything that is not the « unique ».

In absolute contrast to Sufism, John of the Cross chose precisely the metaphor of the « single hair » to represent the reciprocal love of the singular soul and of God, and to represent the fine and impalpable link that connects the soul to God. An infinitely fine link, but so strong that it has the power to link God himself to the soul he loves.

For John of the Cross, fundamentally, « the hair represents love ». xii

The initial inspiration for this metaphor seems, apparently at least, to come from the Song of Songs.

« Speaking of this wound, the Bridegroom of the Song of Songs says to the soul: You have made a woundin my soul, my sister, my wife, you have made a woundin my heart, with one of your eyes and with one hair of your neck (Ct 4:9). The eye here represents faith in the Incarnation of the Bridegroom, and the hair represents the love inspired by this mystery.» xiii

Vaporous lightness, evanescent subtlety, but also inconceivable power. Beneath the most feeble appearance, the single hair hides an extraordinary strength. A single, solitary hair has the power to hold God captive in the soul, because God falls in love with it, through this hair.

« God is strongly in love with this hair of love when he sees it alone and strong. » xiv

John of the Cross explains: « The hair that makes such a union must surely be strong and well untied, since it penetrates so powerfully the parts that it links together. The soul exposes, in the following stanza, the properties of this beautiful hair, saying :

This hair, you considered it

On my neck as it flew,

On my neck you looked at it,

It held you prisoner,

And with one of my eyes you felt hurt. » xv

John adds :

« The soul says that this hair ‘flew on her neck’, because the love of a strong and generous soul rushes towards God with vigor and agility, without enjoying anything created. And just as the breeze stirs and makes the hair fly, so the breath of the Holy Spirit lifts and sets the strong love in motion, making it rise up to God. » xvi

But how can the supreme God fall in love with a hair?

« Until now God had not looked at this hair in such a way as to be enamored of it, because he had not seen it alone and free from other hair, that is to say, from other loves, appetites, inclinations and tastes; it could not fly alone on the neck, symbol of strength ». xvii

And, above all, how can the supreme God remain captive, bound by a single hair?

« It is a marvel worthy of our admiration and joy that a God is held captive by a single hair! The reason for this infinitely precious capture is that God stopped to look at the hair that was flying on the neck of the bride, because, as we have said, God’s gaze is his love ». xviii

God allows himself to be captivated by the « theft of the hair of love », because God is love. This is how « the little bird seizes the great golden eagle, if the latter comes down from the heights of the air to let himself be caught ». xix

The single hair embodies the will of the soul, and the love it bears to the Beloved.

But why a single hair, and not rather, to make a mass, a tuft, a fleece, or an entire head of hairxx ?

« The Spouse speaks ‘of one hair’ and not of many, to make us understand that her will is God’s alone, free from all other hair, that is to say, from all affections foreign to God. » xxi

Admirable metaphor!

But the case is more complicated than it seems.

The Song of Songs does not actually contain this image. In its chapter 4 verse 9, we read the following:

« You have captured my heart, O my sister, my fiancée, you have captured my heart by one of your glances, by one of the necklaces that adorn your neck. »

The word « necklace » correctly translates the Hebrew word עֲנָק, which actually has no other meaning, and certainly does not mean « hair ».

In Hebrew, « hair » is said to be שַׂעָר. This word is also used just before, in verse 1 of the same chapter of the Song of Songs: « Your hair is like a herd of goats coming down from the Mount of Gilead »xxii.

The metaphor of the « herd of goats » implies a play on words, which is not unrelated to our subject. Indeed, the Hebrew שַׂעָר , « hair », is very close semantically to שָׂעׅיר , « goat » and שְׂעׅירָה , « goat ».

This is understandable. The goat is a very hairy animal, « hairy » par excellence. But the verse does not use this repetition, and does not use here the word שְׂעׅירָה , but another word, which also means « goat », עֵז, and which allows for an equivalent play on words, since its plural, עׅזׅים, metonymically means « goat hair ». By forcing the note, verse Ct 4.1 could be translated literally: « Your hair is like a multitude of goat’s hairs coming down from Mount Galaad… ». »

If verse 1 multiplies the effect of multitude, in verse 9, it would only be a matter of a single hair, according to John of the Cross.

The problem, we said, is that this hair is not present in the Hebrew text.

So did the Vulgate, in a translation here defective, mislead John of the Cross?

The Vulgate gives for Ct 4:9: « Vulnerasti cor meum, soror mea, sponsa; vulnerasti cor meum in uno oculorum tuorum, et in uno crine colli tui. »

The Vulgate thus translates the Hebrew עֲנָק, « necklace » by uno crine, « a curl of hair », which seems a dubious equivalence.

Poets are seers, and outstanding visionaries, they see higher, further, more accurately. Perhaps the « hair » that God « sees » on the Bride’s neck is in fact a fine, precious thread, attaching to the neck a unique jewel? Hair, or thread on the neck, what does it matter, then, if both words fulfill their role of metaphor and metonymy, signifying the love of the soul for God, and God’s love for the soul?

In the film Call me by your name, by Luca Guadagnino, the hero, Elio Perlman, played by Timothée Chalamet, sees a Star of David hanging from a thin golden thread around the neck of Oliver, played by Armie Hammer. In the film, this precious object plays a transitional role in Elio’s budding passion for Oliver.

Perhaps we can imagine an extremely precious piece of jewelry around the Bride’s neck? In this case, one should not be mistaken: what attracts the gaze of God, as Bridegroom, is not this jewel, however precious it may be, but the very thin thread that holds it, and which the Vulgate assimilates to a « hair ».

In the eyes of John of the Cross, the unique necklace of the Bride of the Song of Songs is in any case a powerful metonymy assimilating the thread to a hair and the hair to a mystical link. This metonymy inspires him, and allows him to write his own original spiritual Song of Songs, whose stanzas 21 and 22 tie the metaphor tightly together:

De flores y esmeraldas,

en las frescas mañanas escogidas,

haremos las guirnaldas,

en tu amor florecidas,

y en un cabello me entretejidas.

In solo aquel cabello

que en mi cuello volar considerarste,

mirástele en mi cuello,

y enél preso quedaste,

y en uno de mis ojos te llagaste.

(With flowers, emeralds,

Chosen in the cool mornings,

We will go to make garlands,

All flowered in your love,

And held embraced by one of my hair.

This hair, you considered it

On my neck as he flew,

on my neck you looked at him,

He held you prisoner,

And with one of my eyes you felt hurt).

__________

iPaul Éluard, Uninterrupted Poetry, Poetry/Gallimard, 2011

iiCharles Baudelaire. The Hair.

iiiLk 7, 37-38

ivCharles Baudelaire. The Hair.

v 
« D’or sont les liens, Madame,
Dont fut premier ma liberté surprise
Amour la flamme autour du cœur éprise,
eyesThe line that pierces my soul. »

Joachim du Bellay. Regrets.

viStéphane Mallarmé. The Hair

viiṚg Veda I, 164.44.

viiiIncidentally, one of the attributes of Apollo, Xantokomès (Ξανθόκομης), also makes him a God « with fire-red hair ».

ixThe rules concerning hair are very codified. But only he who purifies himself must make them disappear completely, under the razor blade: « Then on the seventh day he shall shave off all his hair, his hair, his beard, his eyebrows, all his hair; he shall wash his clothes, bathe his body in water, and become clean. « Lev 14:9

x« On the day of Pentecost, they were all together in the same place. Suddenly there came a sound from heaven like a rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Tongues like tongues of fire appeared to them, separated from one another, and rested on each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them power to speak. « Acts 2:1-4

xiLaleh Bakhtiar. Sufism. Ed. Seuil, Paris, 1077, p.68

xiiJohn of the Cross, Spiritual Song B, 7,3. Complete Works . Cerf, 1990. p.1249

xiiiIbid.

xivSpiritual Song B, 31, 3 Ibid. p. 1386

xvSpiritual Song B, 31, 2 Ibid. p. 1386

xviSpiritual Song B, 31, 4 Ibid. p. 1387

xviiSpiritual Song B, 31, 6 Ibid. p. 1388

xviiiSpiritual Song B, 31, 8 Ibid. p. 1388

xixIbid.

xxHowever, in Ascent to Carmel, John of the Cross uses the metaphor of ‘hair’ in the plural. He relies on a passage from the Lamentations of Jeremiah which he translates again from the Vulgate: « Candidiores sunt Nazaraei ejus nive, nitidiores lacte, rubincundiores ebore antiquo, saphiro pulchriores ». « Their hair is whiter than snow, brighter than milk, redder than antique ivory, more beautiful than sapphire. Their faces have become blacker than coal, and are no longer recognizable in public squares. « (Rom 4:7-8) John of the Cross uses here the word cabello, « hair, » to translate into Spanish the word Nazaraei (« Nazarenes, » or « Nazirs of God ») used by the Vulgate. And he explains what, according to him, Jeremiah’s metaphor means: « By ‘hair’ we mean the thoughts and affections of the soul which are directed to God (…) The soul with its operations represented by hair surpasses all the beauty of creatures. « (John of the Cross, The Ascent of Carmel 1,9,2. Complete Works . Cerf, 1990. p.611)

xxiSpiritual Song B, 30, 9 Ibid. p. 1383

xxiiCt 4.1

The Secret of the One who Speaks


« The Sacrifice of Isaac » (Caravaggio)

All languages have their own words for ‘secret’, which unconsciously reveal a part of it.

The Greek word for secret is ἀπόῤῥηθον, aporrhêton, which literally means « far, or away, from speech ». The secret is properly what is « unspeakable », either that which cannot be said, since the resources of language are insufficient, or that which must be kept silent, since words must be kept away. The emphasis is on speech and language, their limits or their impotence. This is why the idea of secrecy among the Greeks is well expressed in hermeticism and in the religions of the mysteries, where the initiate must swear to keep secret the things taught.

In Latin, the word secretum (from the verb seco, secare, sectum, « to cut ») etymologically evokes the idea of separation, of physical cut. The emphasis is not on language, but on place or space. The secret is what is separated from the rest of the world, what is cut off from it. The secret participates in a partition of the world into highly differentiated zones, exclusive of each other.

In Hebrew, the word for secret is רָז (raz). It is a word of Persian origin. In the Bible it is only found in the book of Daniel, then at a rather late date, where it takes on the meaning of « mystery ».

Sanskrit offers, among other words: गुप्त, gupta and गुह्यguhya. The word gupta comes from the root gup- , « to keep, protect, defend ». It first means « protected, hidden ». It also means « secret » by derivation. In Sanskrit, secrecy seems to be less an end in itself, to be kept for what it is worth, than a means to protect the person who benefits from it. As for guhya, it comes from the root guh-, « tocover, to conceal, to hide ». Guhya is what must be hidden, like a magic formula, or the sexual organs, of which this word is also the name. Here too, the emphasis is on the veil and the act of veiling, more than on what is veiled.

In contrast, the German word for secret, Geheimnis, precisely brings out the link between the secret and the interiority, the inner self. The secret is what is deep in the heart, or in the intimacy of the soul.

We could go on for a long time with this anthology of the word « secret » in different languages. But we already sense that each culture has a conception of the secret that corresponds as well as possible to what it agrees to reveal to itself and to what it agrees to show to the world, as for its (collective) unconscious .

This is also true of individuals, and of the secrets that inhabit them, or that found them.

In A Taste for Secrecy, Jacques Derrida declares that the secret is « the very non-phenomenality of experience », and « something that is beyond the opposition of phenomenon and non-phenomenon, and which is the very element of existence »i.

Even if everything could be said, there is something that will always resist, that will always remain secret, singular, unique, irreplaceable, « even without having to hide anything »ii.

This singular, specific secret is not even opposed to what is not secret. Nor is it ineffable. This secret is the secret of all that is said. The secret undoes what is brought forward by the word.

The secret « undoes the word », which is also the characteristic of deconstruction.

By undoing the word, the secret takes on an absolute significance. This secret that can never be shared, even at the moment of sharing, occupies a position of overhang: it is the very condition of sharing.

This is the absolute secret. The secret is an « absolute » that reigns above or within the existing, or is completely detached from it. Derrida says: « It is the ab-solute even in the etymological sense of the term, that is to say what is cut off from the bond, detached, and cannot bind; it is the condition of the bond but it cannot bind: that is the absolute; if there is an absolute, it is secret. It is in this direction that I try to read Kierkegaard, Isaac’s sacrifice, the absolute as secret and as the ‘other’. Not transcendent, not even beyond myself: a resistance to the light of phenomenality that is radical, irreversible, to which one can give all sorts of forms, death, for example, but it is not even death. » iii

« The absolute as a secret and as the ‘other’ ». But « not transcendent ».

A rather enigmatic formula, admittedly…. But how is Isaac’s sacrifice linked to the question of the secret, if the absolute is the « other » and is not « transcendent »?

We need a tighter analysis.

« Abraham took the wood of the sacrifice, put it on Isaac his son, took the fire and the knife in his hand, and they both went together.» iv

Rashi comments: « They both went together: Abraham who knew he was going to sacrifice his son, walked with the same goodwill and joy as Isaac who suspected nothing. « 

Abraham kept the secret of what awaited Isaac. He told him nothing. The secret was absolute. Abraham did not let anything show on his face. He even walked cheerfully, according to Rashi, so as not to arouse any fear in Isaac. But some suspicion nevertheless arose and Isaac finally questioned his father: « ‘Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb of the burnt offering?’ Abraham answered: ‘God himself will choose the lamb of the burnt offering, my son,’ and they both went together. » v

The repetition of this phrase, « they both went together », suggests two different meanings. Rashi comments: « And though Isaac understood that he was going to be immolated, ‘they both went together’, with one heart. »

The first time, it is Abraham who took the emotional burden on him. The second time, it was Isaac. He did not show anything about what he had guessed to be his fate. He kept his emotion secret.

In both cases, for Abraham and for Isaac, – absolute secrecy of the heart, but a secrecy that was not transcendent, indeed.

It was only the secret of a silent father, in one case, and the secret of a son who was silent, in the other. It was a doubly absolute secret, one can imagine.

Or, perhaps, was the absolute also present, secretly, in these moments, in two different ways?

This absolute, so secret, so doubly secret, can also, in fact, be called the « other ».

One could even suggest that this absolute wasthe « All Other ».

But then why does Derrida insist on the idea that the Absolute which is the « other » is precisely not « transcendent »?

In the text of Genesis, however, transcendence does appear at this crucial moment in all splendor: « But a messenger of the Lord called to him from heaven, and he said, ‘Abraham… Abraham!’ He answered, ‘Here I am,’ and said, ‘Do not lay a hand on this young man, do nothing to him! For now I know that you fear God, you who did not deny me your son, your only son ». vi

One knows that the absolute is secret, that it is the « other ». As for being « transcendent », it is a question of interpretation.

Shortly after finding a ram embarrassed by its horns in a bush and sacrificing it as a burnt offering in place of his son, Abraham named the place where this whole scene had taken place: « YHVH will see. »vii In Hebrew: יְהוָה יִרְאֶה (‘Adonai-Yiré’)

The Targum interprets this verse as follows, according to Rashi: God will choose for Himself this place to make His Divine Presence reside there and to make offerings there. And it will be said about this place: It is on this mountain that God makes Himself seen by His people.

But if « YHVH will see » is to be understood as « God will be seen », the Targum should also explain why the active way (God will see) has been changed into a passive way (God will be seen).

The Midrach gives yet another interpretation, according to Rachi. « YHVH will see » means: « The LORD will see this offering to forgive Israel every year and to spare it the punishment it deserves. So it will be said in the generations to come: Today God shows Himself on the mountain. Isaac’s ashes are still there to make atonement for our sins. »

A Cartesian spirit will point out that the ashes of the ram offered as a holocaust are still on the mountain called « YHVH will see », but certainly not the ashes of Isaac, since the latter left, alive and well, with his father to Beer-sheba.

From all of this, it emerges that the initial secret, so opaque, unravels endlessly, in twisted insinuations, in down-to-earth or messianic interpretations, depending on different « points of view ».

For us, who respect grammatical values more than lyrical flights of fancy, we will remember above all that « He will see » may also mean « He will be seen ».

Ultimately, it is the grammar itself, the foundation of the language, that must be deconstructed if we want to unlock the secret, not of the language, but of the one who speaks.

iJacques Derrida, Maurizio Ferraris. Le goût du secret. Hermann. 2018, p.69-70

iiIbid, p.70

iiiIbid, p.70

ivGen. 22.6

vGen. 22, 7-8

viGen. 22, 11-13

viiGen. 22.14

Levinas, Derrida, and Blitzkrieg


« Derrida »
« Levinas »

With exquisite, urban manners, using forceful, honeyed compliments, but not without double-edged meanings, Emmanuel Levinas once fiercely criticized Jacques Derrida’s philosophical system. With the tip of his lips, he recognized, fiendishly, his « poetry », which offers, he says, a « new shiver ». Was Levinas’ devastating, acid irony against Derrida nothing but the effect of the Parisian literary swamp?

The very excess of Levinas’ final metaphor, which evoked, in a totally unexpected way, the memory of the invasion of the German army during the Second World War, prevents us from thinking it…

Here is an excerpt of Levinas’ text about Derrida:

« In The Voice and the Phenomenon, which overturns the logo-centric discourse, not a single sentence is contingent. A marvelous rigor learned certainly in the phenomenological school, in the extreme attention paid to the discreet gestures of Husserl, to the wide movements of Heidegger, but practiced with a spirit of continuity and a consummate art: reversal of the ‘limit notion’ as a precondition, of the defect as a source, of the abyss as a condition, of the discourse as a place, reversal of these very reversals as destiny: the concepts purified of their ontic resonance, freed from the alternative of true and false. At the beginning, everything is in place, after a few pages or a few paragraphs, under the effect of a formidable questioning, nothing is more habitable for thought. There, outside the philosophical scope of the proposals, there is a purely literary effect, the new thrill, the poetry of Derrida. When I read it, I always remember the exodus of 1940.»ii

The passage just quoted was read by Maurizio Ferraris to Derrida himself in January 1994, during a series of interviewsiii. Derrida immediately stroke back. « It is a text that a friend, Samuel Weber, drew my attention to, a few weeks ago. He told me: ‘Doesn’t it bother you, this text ? What is it accusing you of at the moment? You are like the enemy army.’ So I re-read Levinas’ text, which is a generous text; but when you see what he says, that in short, when I came, it’s like when the German army came: then there’s nothing left… It’s weird, I hadn’t paid any attention to it from that point of view; what is the unconscious of this image? And then the Nazi invader… » iv

Understandably, Derrida, a Sephardic Jew, found it rather « weird » that Levinas, an Ashkenazi Jew, had compared his work to a « Nazi » invasion.

The question remains unanswered. What is the unconscious of this image? Why does Levinas feel the need to take this polemic to the Godwin point from the outset? What made him so uncomfortable about Derrida’s « deconstruction »? Or about the person of Derrida himself?

Or was it an occasion for Levinas, through Derrida, to paradoxically settle some score with German philosophy and its cultural-historical context?

Or could it be the effect of the unconscious resurgence of a deeper hatred that is both memorial and immemorial, and obviously ruthless?

After all, wasn’t Derrida’s attack of the logos, wasn’t his ‘de-construction’, in a way equivalent to attacking the Law ?

Moreover, if we add that Derrida said of himself: « I am the end of Judaism », had he not already, unforgivably, crossed all the limits – like the German army once had done, in a Blitzkrieg?

_____________

iIbid. p447

iiE. Levinas, Noms propres, Montpellier, Fata Morgana, 1976, p.82

iiiJacques Derrida, Maurizio Ferraris. A taste for secrecy. Hermman. 2018, p.63

ivIbid. p.63-64

Kinds of Prophets


« Isaiah » – Michelangelo

Prophets can be grouped into three categories, admittedly. There are those who see with their eyes, such as Abraham who saw three men under the oak tree of Mamre. There are those who see by the spirit, like Isaiah. And there are those who see neither with the eyes nor with images or figures, but with pure intuition of the spirit (intuitio). Thus Daniel intuitively contemplated, by the sole force of his intellect, what Baltassar had seen in his dream, and was able to interpret it. ii

Maimonides reduces these three groups to one, and draws a general lesson from it. « Know that the three verbs raâ, hibbît and ‘hazà apply to the sight of the eye; but all three are used metaphorically for the perception of intelligence. (…) It is in this metaphorical sense that the verb raa must be taken whenever it is applied to God, as for example in the following passages: ‘I saw the LORD’ (1 Kings 22:19); ‘and the LORD showed himself to him’ (Gen. (Gen. 18:1); ‘And God saw that it was good’ (Gen. 1, passim); ‘Let me see your glory’ (Ex. 33:18); ‘And they saw the God of Israel’ (Ex. 24:10). This is everywhere an intellectual perception, not the sight of the eye.» iii

According to Maimonides, all « visions » must be understood as operations of intelligence.

But this rationalist approach does not account for all cases of observed « prophecies ».

Other commentators offer a more detailed analysis, such as Isidore of Sevilleiv, who distinguish seven kinds of prophecies.

The first is ecstasy (ekstasis). It is a temporary passage of the mind into an afterlife. Thus the ecstasy of Peter. « He saw the sky open, and an object like a great tablecloth tied at the four corners, descending and lowering itself to the earth, where all the quadrupeds and the reptiles of the earth and the birds of the sky were.» v

This ecstasy consists of three moments: an exit out of the body, the sight of an (extraordinary) phenomenon in the heights, followed by a descent, a lowering and a return to earth.

The second is vision (visio). Isaiah tells: « In the year of the death of King Uzziah I saw the Lord sitting on a great and high throne. His train filled the sanctuary. Seraphim stood above him, each with six wings, two to cover his feet, two to cover his face, and two to fly. They shouted to one another, « Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, his glory fills the whole earth.» vi

Unlike ecstasy, which is an elevation followed by a descent, the vision stands entirely in the heights. Another difference: ecstasy is precise, detailed. Peter perceives all the animals of the earth and the sky (but not those of the sea). In contrast, Isaiah’s vision is partial, more veiled. He sees the « sanctuary », filled by God’s « train ». The Hebrew text uses the word Hekal, הֵיכָל. The Hekal is the part of the temple that stands before the « Holy of Holies », the Debir, דְּבִיר, – which is the most sacred, most inaccessible place. So Isaiah sees the sanctuary, but not the Holy of Holies, which remains veiled by the « train » (שׁוּלׇ), the bottom of God’s garment. He also sees seraphim, but only partially, since two pairs of their wings cover their faces and feet. Isaiah’s vision is partly incomplete.

Vision is superior to ecstasy in that it « sees » in the heights certain aspects of the divinity, but it also encounters various obstacles, veils that cover other layers of mystery.

The third kind of prophecy mobilizes the dream (somnium). Jacob saw in the dream: « Behold, a ladder was set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven, and angels of God ascended and descended on it! Behold, Yahweh stood before him and said, ‘I am Yahweh, the God of Abraham, your ancestor and the God of Isaac.» vii

Jacob’s dream combines the ascent and descent, as in ecstasy, and adds a divine vision, in which the Lord calls himself and speaks. He makes a solemn promise and a covenant: « I am with you, I will keep you wherever you go. » viii

All this could impress anyone. But Jacob is a cautious man. He saw Yahweh in a dream, and the LORD spoke to him, and made him mirthful promises. But it was only a dream after all. The next day, when Jacob woke up, he made a vow: « If God is with me and keeps me on the road where I am going, if he gives me bread to eat and clothes to wear, if I return safely to my father’s house, then the LORD will be my God. » ix

The dream after all is only a dream. Nothing can replace true reality. Jacob waits to see, in order to believe in his dream, the fulfillment of promises: bread, clothes, a safe journey. The vision of the dream is veiled too, from the veil of doubt, the doubt of the dreamer.

The fourth kind of prophecy is not direct either, it is perceived through still other veils: fire, a cloud or a storm.

One reads: « And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of a bush. Moses looked, and the bush was ablaze but not consumed. » x

One also reads: « I will come to you in the thickness of the cloud, so that the people will hear when I speak with you and believe in you forever. » xi

Or: « And the LORD answered Job out of the midst of the storm, and said… » xii

Here again, the vision is somehow mixed, confused. The vision is made against the background of a phenomenon of nature with which it hybridizes.

The fifth kind of prophecy is not a vision but a voice, – coming from heaven. « The angel of Yahweh called it from heaven and said, ‘Abraham! He answered, ‘Here I am. xiii

Abraham hears the voice of God distinctly, at a particularly dramatic moment: « Do not stretch out your hand against the child! Do no harm to him! I know now that you fear God: you did not deny me your son, your only one. » xiv

If the ear undoubtedly hears, the vision remains earthly. At the sound of God’s voice, Abraham raises his eyes and sees a ram whose horns have been caught in a bush.

A similar phenomenon took place on the road to Damascus, with different effects. « Falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? xv

There is the voice but not the image. « His companions on the road had stopped, mute in amazement: they heard the voice, but saw no one. » xvi

Deeper, this voice that we do not see, – this (non-)vision, blind. « Saul rose from the ground, but although his eyes were open, he saw nothing. He was led by the hand back to Damascus. For three days he was blind, eating and drinking nothing. » xvii

The sixth kind of prophecy is purely intellectual. It is the one that happened to Solomon composing his Proverbs.

The seventh kind of prophecy sums them all up. It consists in being fulfilled by the Holy Spirit (repletio). It is common to all prophets, for it is the very condition of their prophecy.

These various kinds of prophecies all have another thing in common, which is that they are always in some way, for one reason or another, veiled.

Maimonides made a comment on this subject, which may help to become aware of the inevitability of the veil. « It is frequently found in the Midrashoth and Haggadoth of the Talmud [this assertion] that among the prophets there are some who saw God behind many veils, others through a few, depending on how close they were to the divinity and on the rank of the prophets, so that [the Doctors of the Law] have said that Moses, our Master, saw God behind a single veil that was shining, that is, transparent, according to this word (Yebamot 49b): « He (Moses) contemplated God [as] through a mirror illuminating the eyes », ispaklaria (=speculare) being [in Latin] the name of the mirror, made of a transparent body, like glass and crystal. » xviii

Maimonides adds that the prophet Isaiahxix said that the sins and vices of man are « veils » that come between man and God. This is why, according to the doctors of the law, « prophetic inspiration is given only to a wise, strong and rich man » (Shabbat 92a).

But, Maimonides also tempers, « the prophet need not necessarily possess all the moral qualities, so that no vice can befall him, since Solomon was a prophet in the witness of Scripture. ‘At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon’ (Kings 3:5), but we know of a moral defect, a passion for a certain thing: the great number of women. » xx

He also points to the negative examples of David, « who shed much blood » (Chron. 28:3), and Elijah, who was prone to anger and fanaticism.

What can be said is that the more the prophet is afflicted with nonconforming moral dispositions, the more the number of veils between him and God increases. But there are also structural limits, inherent in man’s intelligence.

Even to Moses, there remained « a single transparent veil that prevented him from attaining the real knowledge of the divine essence: human intelligence ». xxi

Even Moses still had a veil…

But could any man still live, if stripped of all veils, in the cruellest nudity?

A document was read at the Nuremberg trial, the deposition of the German engineer Graede, an eyewitness to the massacre of several thousand Jews near Dubno in October 1942. « Men, women and children of all ages were undressed before the eyes of the SS, who walked among them with a whip or whip in their hands. They would then place their clothes in the place that was indicated to them, pieces of clothing on one side, shoes on the other. Without shouting or crying, all these naked people grouped themselves into families. After kissing each other and saying goodbye, they waited for the sign of the S.S. who was standing at the edge of the pit, also with a whip in his hand. I stayed about fifteen minutes with one of them, and I did not hear anyone complaining or asking for mercy… I saw a whole family: a man and a woman of about fifty years old, with their children of eight and nine years old, and two tall girls in their twenties. A white-haired woman was holding a one-year-old child in her arms, singing a song to him and tickling him…: the child laughed, the father and mother looked at their child with tears in their eyes. The father of a ten year old child held his hand and spoke softly to him; the child tried not to cry; the father pointed to the sky, stroked his hair; he seemed to be explaining something to him. » xxii

The father pointed to the sky, stroking his child’s hair. He really was explaining something to him.

______________

iMc 9.4

iiDan. 2, 26-28

iiiMoses Maimonides. The Guide of the Lost. Ed. Verdier, 1979, p.35.

ivEtymologies, VII, viii, 33-37

vActs 10,11-12

viIs. 6,1-3

viiGen. 28, 12-13

viiiGen. 28.15

ixGen. 28, 20-21

xEx. 3, 2

xie.g. 19.9

xiiJob 38.1

xiiiGen. 22, 11

xivGen. 22.12

xvActs 9, 4

xviActs 9, 7

xviiActs 9, 8-9

xviiiMoses Maimonides. Treatise on the eight chapters. Verdier, 1979, p. 667.

xixIs. 59.2

xxMoses Maimonides. Treatise on the eight chapters. Verdier, 1979, p.668.

xxiIbid. p.670

xxiiLe Monde, issue of January 3, 1946. Cited in Jules Isaac, Jésus et Israël, Ed. Fasquelle, 1959, reprinted 1987, p.527.

The Original Language


« Gershom Scholem, circa 1970 »

According to Gershom Scholem: « Hebrew is the original language »i. For the sake of a sound debate, one could perhaps argue that Sanskrit, the « perfect » language (according to the Veda), was formed several millennia before Hebrew began to incarnate the word of God. However, such historical and linguistic arguments may have no bearing on the zealots of the « sacred language », the language that God Himself is supposed to have spoken, with His own words, even before the creation of the world.

Where does this supposedly unique status of the Hebrew language come from?

A first explanation can be found in the relationship between the Torah and the name of God. The Torah is, literally, the name of God. Scholem explains: « The Torah is not only made up of the names of God, but forms in its entirety the one great name of God. » In support of this thesis, the opinion of the Kabbalistic cenacle of Gerona is quoted: « The five books of the Torah are the name of the Holy One, blessed be He.» ii

How can this be? Here and there in the Torah, we find various names of God, such as the name Yahveh (YHVH) or the name Ehyeh (« I shall be »). But there are also many other (non divine) names, and many other words, that are perfectly profane in the Torah. The four letters aleph, he, waw and yod (אהוי), which are present in Yahveh (יהוה) and Ehyeh ( אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה) are also the letters that serve in Hebrew as matres lectionis (the « mothers of reading »), and as such, they are spread throughout the text, they structure it, and make it intelligible.

From that consideration, some Kabbalists, such as Abraham Aboulafia, draw the conclusion that the true name of God is neither Yahveh nor Ehyeh. Aboulafia goes so far as to say that the true original name of God is EHWY (אהוי), that is, a name composed of the four fundamental letters, without repetition. « The tetragrammaton of the Torah is thus only an expedient, behind which the true original name is hidden. In each of two four-letter names there are only three of the consonants that make up the original name, the fourth being only a repetition of one of them, namely, he (ה). » iii

It was, without a doubt, a thesis of « unheard-of radicality » to affirm that the name of God does not even appear in the Torah, but only some of his pseudonyms… Moses Cordovero of Safed rose with indignation against this maximalist thesis. Yet a similar idea resurfaces elsewhere, in the Kabbalistic work entitled Temunah. It evokes « the conception of a divine name containing, in a different order these four letters, yod, he, waw, aleph, and which would constitute the true name of God before the creation of the world, for which the usual tetragram was substituted only for the creation of this world.» iv

Not surprisingly, there are many more other ideas on the matter. There is, for example, the idea of the existence of seventy-two divine names formed from the seventy-two consonants contained in each of the three verses of Exodus 14:19-21. « Know that the seventy-two sacred names serve the Merkavah and are united with the essence of the Merkavah. They are like columns of shining light, called in the Bible bne elohim, and all the heavenly host pays homage to them. (…) The divine names are the essence itself, they are the powers of the divinity, and their substance is the substance of the light of life.» v

There are also technical methods « to expand the tetragram, writing the name of each of the consonants that make up the tetragram in full letters so as to obtain four names with numerical values of 45, 52, 63 and 72, respectively ».vi Far from being a simple set of letters and numbers, this is a mechanism that is at the foundation of the worlds. « The Torah is formed in the supreme world, as in this original garment, only from a series of combinations, each of which unites two consonants of the Hebrew alphabet. It is only in the second world that the Torah manifests itself as a series of mystical divine names formed from new combinations of the first elements. It has the same letters, but in a different order than the Torah we know. In the third world the letters appear as angelic beings whose names, or at least their initials, are suggested. It is only in the ultimate world that the Torah becomes visible in the form in which it is transmitted to us.» vii

From all of this, one may be tempted to draw the fundamental idea that Hebrew is indeed the original language, the divine language. « Hence the conventional character of secular languages as opposed to the sacred character of Hebrew. »viii

However, there was the catastrophic episode of the Tower of Babel and the confusion of languages, which spared none of them – including Hebrew! « But to the sacred language itself have since then mingled profane elements, just as profane languages still contain here and there elements or remnants of the sacred language.» ix

One is always happy to learn, when one has a somewhat universalist sensibility, that « remnants » of the sacred still exist, « here and there », in other languages. To lovers of languages and dictionaries then comes the thankless but promising task of discovering these sacred snags, which are perhaps still hidden in Greek or Arabic, Avestic or Sanskrit, or even Fulani, Wolof and Chinese, who knows?

From a perhaps more polemical point of view, one may wonder whether this is not a kind of idolatry of the letter, — an « idolettry » , then, or a « grapho-latry »…

We may need to go up to a higher level of understanding, to see things from a higher perspective. « Wisdom is contained and gathered in letters, in sefirot and in names, all of which are mutually composed from each other.» x

We need to broaden the vision. These tiny sacred traces present in the languages of the world are like living germs. « All languages derive their origin by corruption from the original sacred language, in which the world of names immediately unfolds, and they all relate to it in a mediated way. As every language has its home in the divine name, it can be brought back to this center.» xi

All languages then have a vocation to return to the divine « center ». Every word and every letter contain, perhaps, by extension, a tiny bit of sacredness…

« Each singular letter of the Kabbalah constitutes a world in itself » xii, Gershom Scholem adds in a note that in the Zohar (1:4b) it is said that every new and authentic word that man utters in the Torah stands before God, who embraces it and sets it with seventy mystical crowns. And this word then expands in its own motion to form a new world, a new heaven and a new earth.

Let’s be a little more generous, and give the goyim a chance. When the poet says, for example, « O million golden birds, O future vigor!  » , is there any chance that these inspired words, though not present in the Torah, will one day appear trembling before God, and that God will deign to grant them one or two mystical crowns? I do not know. But maybe so. In the eyes of Aboulafia himself, « the knowledge that can be attained by following the path of the mysticism of language prevails over that which follows the path of the ten sefirot. xiii

So let’s make a wager that all languages have their own « mystical » way, certainly well hidden.

Scholem concludes: « What will be the dignity of a language from which God has withdrawn? This is the question that must be asked by those who still believe that they perceive, in the immanence of the world, the echo of the creative word that has now disappeared. It is a question that, in our time, can only be answered by poets, who do not share the despair of most mystics with regard to language. One thing connects them to the masters of Kabbalah, even though they reject its theological formulation, which is still too explicit: the belief in language thought as an absolute, however dialectically torn, – the belief in the secret that has become audible in language. » xiv

For my part, I believe that no human language is totally deserted of all creative speech, of all sacred flavor. I believe that poets all over the world may hear the disturbing echoes, may perceive infinitesimal vibrations, guess the celestial chords present in their languages.

Whether they are whispered, spoken, dreamed, revealed, words from all origins only approach the mystery. It is already a lot, but it is still very little.

There is much more to be said about silence than about words.

« It is indeed quite striking in view of the sacramental meaning that speech had in a decisive manner in contemporary paganism, that it does not play any role in the Israelite religion, nor especially in its rite. This silence is so complete that it can only be interpreted as intentional silence. The Israelite priest fulfills all his offices entirely without any words, with the exception of the blessing which he must pronounce aloud [Numbers 6:24]. In none of his ceremonial acts is he prescribed a word that he must pronounce. He makes all sacrifices and performs his duties without uttering a single word »xv.

The opposition thus made by Benno Jacob between « Israelite worship » and « paganism » may be be easily contradicted, for that matter. During the Vedic sacrifice of the soma, the high priest also remains absolutely silent throughout the ceremony, while his acolytes chant, sing, or recite the hymns.

It is true, however, that the Veda is certainly not a « pagan » religion, since more than a millennium before Abraham left Ur in Chaldea, Veda was already celebrating the unspeakable unity of the Divine.

______________

iGershom Scholem. The name of God and the Kabbalistic theory of language. Ed. Alia. 2018, p. 100.

iiIbid. p.48

iiiAbraham Aboulafia. Gold ha-Sekel. Ms. Munich Heb. 92 Fol.54 a-b. Quoted in Gershom Scholem. The name of God and the Kabbalistic theory of language. Ed. Alia. 2018, p. 71

ivGershom Scholem. Op. cit. p. 72

vJacob ben Jacob Cohen of Soria (~1260-1270) quoted in op.cit. p.77

viGershom Scholem. Op. cit. p. 88

viiIbid. p.88

viiiIbid. p. 91

ixIbid. p. 91

xNer Elohim. Ms. Munich 10, fol. 164B quoted in op.cit. p. 91

xiIbid. p. 106

xiiSefer ha-Melits. Ms. Munich 285, fol. 10a

xiiiGershom Scholem. Op. cit. p.109

xivIbid. p.115

xvBenno Jacob. In the Name of God. Eine sprachliche und religiongeschichtliche Untersuchung zum Alten und Neuen Testament. Berlin, 1903, p. 64. Quoted in G. Scholem, op.cit. p. 19-20.

Life after Death (a Short Review)


In a famous passage from the Acts of the Apostles, Paul recounts his rapture in paradise in a strangely indirect way:

« I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago – was it in his body? I don’t know; was it outside his body? I don’t know; God knows – … that man was taken up to the third heaven. And that man – was it in his body? Was it without his body? I don’t know; God knows; I know that he was taken up to heaven and heard words that cannot be spoken, that a man is not allowed to say again.»i

Augustine commented specifically on the « third heaven », where Paul was delighted.

According to him, there are indeed three « heavens » corresponding to three different levels of « vision ». There are the heaven of the body, the heaven of the mind and the heaven of the soul.

In the third heaven, at the third level of vision, one can « see the divine substance ».

Augustine exercises in passing his critical mind about the « rapture » of which Paul was apparently the beneficiary. Quite acid is his comment:

« Finally, even though the Apostle who was taken away from the bodily senses and then was taken up to the third heaven and into paradise, he certainly lacked one thing to have this full and perfect knowledge, such as is found in the angels: not knowing whether he was with or without his body. »ii

The body seems to be a hindrance to the full consciousness of the delighted soul. If one can access through ecstasy or rapture to the contemplation of divine things by the soul, what is the use of the body in these exceptional circumstances?

« Perhaps the objection will be made: what need is there for the spirits of the dead to recover their bodies at the resurrection, if, even without their bodies, they can enjoy this sovereign bliss? The question is undoubtedly too difficult to be perfectly dealt with in this book. There is no doubt, however, that the intellectual soul of man, both when rapture takes it away from the use of the carnal senses and when after death it abandons the remains of the flesh and even transcends the similarities of the bodies, cannot see the substance of God as the holy angels see it. This inferiority is due either to some mysterious cause or to the fact that there is a natural appetite in the soul to rule the body. This appetite somehow delays it and prevents it from reaching for that supreme heaven with all its might, as long as the body is not under its influence. »iii

The delighted soul, therefore, sees the substance of God, but in an incomplete way, in any case less than that which the angels enjoy. The body corrupts and burdens the soul, and binds it.

These limitations come from the special relationship (« the natural appetite ») that in men, is established between the soul and the body.

We can deduce that death brings deliverance and gives the soul a power of transformed vision.

But then, if this is the case, why desire the resurrection? Won’t finding one’s body bind the soul again?

Augustine answers that « mysterious » transformations of the glorious body will change its relationship with the soul after the resurrection. The soul will no longer be hindered, but on the contrary energized, and perhaps even capable of contemplating the divine substance in a more active or perfect way, surpassing then that of the angels. iv

In an epistle to the Corinthians, Paul gives his own explanation.

« Other the brightness of the sun, other the brightness of the moon, other the brightness of the stars. A star itself differs in brightness from another star. So it is with the resurrection of the dead: one is sown in corruption, one resurrects in incorruptibility; one is sown in ignominy, one resurrects in glory; one is sown in weakness, one resurrects in strength; one is sown in the psychic body, one resurrects the spiritual body.

If there is a psychic body, there is also a spiritual body. This is how it is written: The first man, Adam, was made a living soul; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that appears first; it is the psychic, then the spiritual. The first man, who came from the ground, is earthly; the second comes from heaven. Such was the earthly, such will also be the earthly; such will also be the celestial, such will also be the celestial. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly, so shall we also bear the image of the heavenly. »v

The first Adam is made a living soul. The last Adam is made a life-giving spirit, for Paul.

For Augustine, the vision of the « spirit » reaches the second heaven, and the vision of the « intellectual soul » reaches the third heaven.

Strangely enough, everything happens as if Paul and Augustine had switched their respective uses of the words « soul » and « spirit ».

Perhaps a return to Biblical Hebrew, which distinguishes neshma, ruah, and nephesh, (breath, spirit, soul), will be helpful?

In Gen. 2:7 we read precisely two different expressions:

נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים , breath (neshma) of life,

and :

לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה, soul (nephesh) alive.

Here is Gen 2:7:

ז וַיִּיצֶר יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם, עָפָר מִן-הָאֲדָמָה, וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו, נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים; וַיְהִי הָאָדָם, לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה.

The French Rabbinate offers a French translation, of which I propose this translation in English:

« The Eternal-God fashioned man from dust detached from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils a breath of life, and man became a living soul. »

The Jerusalem Bible gives :

« Then YHVH God molded man with the clay of the ground, breathed into his nostrils a breath of life and man became a living being. »

Rachi comments on this verse as follows:

« HE FASHIONED (the word is written וַיִּיצֶר with two יּ). Two formations, one for this world, one for the resurrection of the dead. But for the beasts that will not appear on Judgment Day, the same word has only one י (verse 19).

DUST FROM THE GROUND. God has gathered dust from all the earth at the four cardinal corners. In every place where man dies, the earth agrees to be his grave. Another explanation: it was dust taken from the place where it says, « You will make me an altar OF THE EARTH » (Ex. 20:24). God said, « May it be an atonement for him, and he will be able to remain ».

AND HE BREATHED INTO HIS NOSTRILS. He formed it from elements from below and elements from above. The body from below; the soul from above.

For on the first day the heavens and the earth were created. On the second day He said, « Let the earth appear beneath. On the fourth day He created the lights above. On the fifth day He said, « Let the waters swarm and so forth, below. On the sixth day, He had to finish with the world above and the world below. Otherwise there would have been jealousy in the work of creation.

A LIVING SOUL. Pets and field animals are also called living souls. But man’s soul is the most living soul, because it also has knowledge and speech. »

We can see that what matters for Rashi is not so much the distinction between nephesh and neshma, but the life of the soul, which is « more alive » in the case of man.

It is not enough to be alive. It is important that life be « as alive » as possible.

And there is a connection between this « more alive » life and God’s vision.

In a note by P. Agaësse and A. Solignac – « Third Heaven and Paradise » – added to their translation of Augustine’s Genesis in the literal sense, there is a more complete analysis which I summarize in the following paragraphs.

If the third heaven that St. Paul saw corresponds to the third kind of vision, it may have been given to Paul’s soul to see the glory of God, face to face, and to know His very essence. This is Augustine’s interpretation.

But if we make the third heaven one of the celestial spheresvi, among many others, we can in this hypothesis, admit a hierarchy of spiritual and intellectual visions with numerous degrees. Augustine, rather dubious, admits that he himself does not see how to arrive on this subject at a knowledge worthy of being taught.

If most modern exegetes adopt Augustine’s interpretation, the history of ideas is rich in other points of view.

Ambrose affirms that man « goes from the first heaven to the second, from the second to the third, and thus successively to the seventh, and those who deserve it to go to the top and to the vault of the heavens ». vii

He admits the existence of more than three heavens. And he criticizes the idea that Paul only ascended to the « third heaven », which would be only that of the « moon ».

Origen also evokes Paul’s vision to show that man can know heavenly things. But, he says, it is not man by himself who accesses this knowledge, it is the Spirit of God who illuminates man.viii

Origen also says that the friends of God « know him in His essence and not by riddles or by the naked wisdom of voices, speeches and symbols, rising to the nature of intelligible things and the beauty of truth. » ix

Origen also believes that it is reasonable to admit that the Prophets, through their hegemonikon (which is another Greek name for the noos, the spirit), were able to « see wonders, hear the words of the Lord, see the heavens opened »x, and he gives the rapture of Paul as an example of those who saw the heavens open.

From all this we can infer that there is some confusion about the nature of the « heavenly visions », their hierarchy, and their actual ability to « know » the divine essence.

This confusion is somehow symbolized by the fact that Augustine calls spiritual and intellectual what other authors call psychic and spiritual.

Paul himself distinguishes, as we have seen, the living soul of the « first Adam » and the life-giving spirit of the « last Adam » .

Are these only battles of words? No, they bear underlying witness to a fundamental question: what is the nature of the bond between soul and body?

This is a very old question, but also a hyper-modern one, as it highlights the powerlessness of neuroscience to deal with this kind of subject.

The three kinds of visions proposed by Augustine shed light on the nature of the « place » that the soul reaches after death. This place, in which the soul finds rewards, or punishments, is essentially spiritual. There is therefore a corporeal Paradise or Hell, such as the Jewish Gehenna, one of whose entrances is in Jerusalem, and Eden, whose entrance is in Damascus or Palestine, according to the Talmud?

The separated soul no longer has a body, but it keeps a mysterious link with the body in which it lived, as a « living soul », and retains a certain similarity with it.

The body is a cocoon, and the soul separates from it to continue its progression.

« It is a whole theory of knowledge that Augustine develops (with the three kinds of visions), in all its dimensions, sensitive, imaginative and intellectual, normal and pathological, profane and mystical, intramural and celestial.

The three kinds of visions mark the stages of the soul’s journey from the corporeal to the intelligible, reveal the structure of its essence in its triple relationship to the world, to itself, to God, and develop the dialectic of transcendence that fulfills its destiny. »xi

Let’s give Paul the benefit of the last word. The first Adam was made a « living soul ». His destiny, which sums up Man, is to metamorphose, through life, death, and resurrection, into the last Adam, who is « life-giving spirit ».

The destiny of the soul, therefore, is to metamorphose not into a merely « living » spirit, but into a spirit that « invigorates », a spirit that gives life and « makes live ».

__________________

i2 Cor. 12, 2-4

iiS. Augustine. Genesis in the literal sense. Book XII, 36, 69. Desclée de Brouwer. 1972, p.455.Augustine concedes, however: « But this knowledge will no longer fail him when, once the bodies are recovered at the resurrection of the dead, this corruptible body will be clothed with incorruptibility and this mortal body clothed with immortality (1 Cor. 15:53). For all things will be evident and, without falsity or ignorance, will be distributed according to their order – both bodily and spiritual and intellectual – in a nature that will have recovered its integrity and will be in perfect bliss. »

iiiIbid. Book XII, 35, 68, p.451.

iv« Afterwards, when this body is no longer an animal body, but when the coming transformation has made it a spiritual body, the soul, equal to the angels, will acquire the mode of perfection proper to its nature, obedient and commanding, invigorated and invigorating, with such ineffable ease that what was a burden to it will become for it an added glory. Even then, these three kinds of vision will subsist ; but no falsehood will make us take one thing for another, neither in bodily nor in spiritual visions, much less in intellectual visions. These will be so present and clear to us that in comparison the bodily forms which we reach today are much less obvious to us, they which we perceive with the help of our bodily senses and to which many men are so enslaved that they think that there are no others and figure that, all that is not such, does not exist at all. Quite different is the attitude of the sages in the face of these bodily visions: although these things appear more present, they are nevertheless more certain of what they grasp is worth to them by intelligence beyond the bodily forms and similarities of bodily things, although they cannot contemplate the intelligible with the intellectual soul as they see the sensible with the bodily sense. « » S. Augustine. Book XII, 35-36, 68-69. Desclée de Brouwer. 1972, p.451

v1 Cor. 15, 41-49

vi Some have seven, others eight, nine or even ten. One can refer to Plato’s theses on this subject.

In addition, P. Agaësse and A. Solignac recall that the Ambrosiaster rejects the opinion that Paul was raised to the third heaven, that of the moon.

viiIn Ambrose’s commentary on Ps. 38:17.

viii De Orat. 1, P.G.11,416 BC citing 2 Cor. 12,4 and 1 Cor. 2, 11-16

ixExhort. ad Mart. 13, P.G. 11,580 C

x C. Cels. 1,48

xiP. Agaësse and A. Solignac. Note in La Genèse au sens littéral, op.cit. p. 585.

Neurosciences, the Talmud and the Soul


« First page of the Talmud »

One can consult the latest research in Neurosciences on consciousness: many interesting hypothesis are tested, but there is never a word about the soul. Total absence of the idea, even. Is soul a blind spot of techno-sciences? One may suppose that the soul, by her very nature, escapes all scientific investigation, she is out of reach, absolutely. She can’t be looked at, with a simply « objective », « materialistic » gaze.

By contrast, the Talmud is more prolific on the subject, and teaches several things about the human soul: she has been called « Light »; she « fills » and « nourishes » the whole body; she « sees » but cannot be seen; she is « pure »; she resides in a « very secret place »; she is « weak ».

It’s a good start. But let’s review these Talmudic determinations of the soul.

The soul is named « Light ».

« The Holy One, blessed be He, said, ‘The soul I have given you is called Light, and I have warned you concerning the lights. If you heed these warnings, so much the better; if not, beware! I will take your souls’. » i

Light is only the third of God’s « creations », right after heaven and earth. But there is an important nuance. Heaven and earth were definitely « created ». « In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. » ii

But « light » was not « created », literally speaking. Rather, it came right out of the word of God: « God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light. » iv

Moreover, it seems that from the start, light worked better, as a creation: « God saw that the light was good. » v God did not say that the heaven or the earth were « good ».

Light, therefore, was the first of the divine creations to be called « good ».

Hence, maybe, its extraordinary success as a metaphor. Light became the prototype of life (of men): « Life was the light of men »vi. And, by extension, it also became the prototype of their soul, as the Talmud indicates. If life is the light of men, the soul is the light of life.

This explains why, later on, we will see a deep connection between light and truth: « He who does the truth comes to the light »vii.

The Hebrew word for « light » is אור, « or ». The word אור means « light, radiance, sun, fire, flame », but also, by extension, « happiness ».

« Or », אור, is maybe the true name, the true nature of the soul.

The soul fills and nourishes the body, sees, is pure, and resides in a very secret place.

We learn all this in the Berakhot treaty:

« R. Chimi b. Okba asked: ‘How can I understand? Bless the LORD, my soul: let all my womb bless his name. (Ps 103:1)? (…) What was David thinking when he said five timesviii Bless the LORD, my soul?

– [He was thinking ] of the Holy One, blessed be He, and to the soul. Just as the Holy One, blessed be He, fills the whole world, so the soul fills the whole body; the Holy One, blessed be He, sees and is not visible, and likewise the soul sees but cannot be seen; the soul nourishes the whole body, just as the Holy One, blessed be He, nourishes the whole world; the Holy One, blessed be He, is pure, the soul also; like the Holy One, blessed be He, the soul resides in a very secret place. It is good that the one who possesses these five attributes should come to glorify the One who possesses these five attributes. » ix

This text teaches us that the soul has five attributes. These five attributes are based on the hypothesis of a « likeness » or « resemblance » between the soul and the « Holy One ».

The soul fills the whole body and nourishes it. But then what happens when a part of the body becomes detached from it? Does a piece of the soul leave as a result? No, the soul is indivisible. What is called « body » takes its name only from the presence of the soul that envelops and fills it. If the body dies and decomposes, it just means that the soul has gone. Not the other way around.

The soul sees. It is not, of course, through the eyes of the body. It is all about seeing what cannot be seen, which is beyond all vision. The soul sees but she does not see herself. This comes from the fact that she is of the same essence as the divine word that said « Let there be light ». One cannot see such a word, nor can one hear it, one can only read it.

The soul is pure. But then evil does not reach her? No. Evil does not attain her essence. It can only veil or darken her light. Evil can be compared to thick, uncomfortable clothes, heavy armor, or rubbish thrown on the skin, or a hard gangue hiding the brilliance of an even harder diamond.

The soul resides in a very secret place. This statement should be made known to the specialists of neurosciences. The first Russian cosmonauts famously reported, after their return to earth, that they had not found God in space. Nor is there much chance that the soul can be detected by positron emission tomography or other techniques of imagery. This makes it necessary to imagine a structure of the universe that is much more complex (by many orders of magnitude) than the one that « modern », positivist science is trying to defend.

The soul is weak.

The soul is « weak », as evidenced by the fact that she « falters » when she hears even a single word from her Creator. « R. Joshua b. Levi said: Every word spoken by the Holy One, blessed be he, made the souls of Israel faint, for it is said, My soul fainted when he spoke to me (Cant. 5:6). But when a first word had been spoken and the soul had gone out, how could she listen to a second word? He made the dew fall that was destined to raise the dead in the future, and it raised them up. » x

There are even more serious arguments. The soul is weak in its very essence, because she « floats ».

« [In Heaven] are also the breaths and souls of those who are to be created, for it is said before me the breaths float, and the souls which I have made (Is. 57:16); and the dew that will serve the Holy One, blessed be he, to raise the dead. » xi

The quotation from Isaiah in this excerpt from the Talmud, however, lends itself to other interpretations, and translations…

The word « float » here translates the Hebrew יַעֲטוֹף: « to cover oneself; to be weak ».

With this more faithful sense, one reads: « Thus says He who is high and exalted, whose dwelling is eternal and whose name is holy: ‘I am high and holy in my dwelling place, but I am with the contrite and humiliated man, to revive the humiliated spirits, to revive the contrite hearts. For I do not want to accuse constantly or always be angry, for before me would weaken the spirit and those souls I created.  » (Is. 57:15-16)

Another translation (by the Jerusalem Bible) chooses to translate יַעֲטוֹף as « to die out »:

« Sublime and holy is my throne! But it is also in the contrite and humble hearts, to vivify the spirit of the humble, to revive the hearts of the afflicted. No; I don’t want to argue without respite, to be angry all the time, because the spirit would eventually die out in front of me, with these souls that I myself have created. »

So, is the soul « floating », « weak » or threatened to « die out »?

All this together, for sure. Fortunately, Isaiah brings us good news.

The souls of the humble and the afflicted will be enlivened, revived.

It is the souls of the proud who risk to die out.

I would like to conclude here, with yet another metaphor, due to the Psalmist:

« My soul is in me like a child, like a little child against its mother. » xii

___________________________

i Aggadoth of the Babylonian Talmud. Shabbat 31b. §51. Translated by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre. Ed. Verdier. 1982, p.168.

iiGen. 1.1

iiiGen. 1.2

ivGen. 1.3

vGen. 1.4

viJn 1.4

viiJn 3.21

viiiIn Psalm 103, David says three times, Bless the LORD my soul (Ps 103:1, 2 and 22), once bless the LORD, you his angels (103:20), once bless the LORD, you his hosts (Ps 103:21), once bless the LORD, you all his creatures (Ps 103:22). However, David says twice more Bless the LORD, my soul in Psalm 104:1, « My soul, bless the LORD! O LORD my God, you are infinitely great! « and « Bless, my soul, YHVH, hallelujah! « Ps 104:35.

ixAggadoth of the Babylonian Talmud. Berakhot 10a. §85. Translated by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1982, p. 69-70.

xAggadoth of the Babylonian Talmud. Shabbat 88b. §136. Translated by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre. Ed. Verdier. 1982, p.207.

xi Aggadoth of the Babylonian Talmud. Haguiga 12b, § 31. Translated by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre. Ed. Verdier. 1982, p.580.

xiiPs. 131,2

The Pagan and the Rabbi


« The Old Rabbi ». Rembrandt

Is a « beautiful girl », whose beauty is « without soul », really beautiful?

Kant thought about this interesting question.

« Even of a girl, it can be said that she is pretty, conversational and good-looking, but soulless. What is meant here by soul? The soul, in the aesthetic sense, refers to the principle that, in the mind, brings life.» i

For Kant, here, the soul is an aesthetic principle, a principle of life. Beauty is nothing if it does not live in some way, from the fire of an inner principle.

Beauty is really nothing without what makes it live, without what animates it, without the soul herself.

But if the soul brings life, how do we see the effect of her power? By the radiance alone of beauty? Or by some other signs?

Can the soul live, and even live to the highest possible degree, without astonishing or striking those who are close to her, who even brush past her, without seeing her? Or, even worse, by those who see her but then despise her?

« He had no beauty or glamour to attract attention, and his appearance had nothing to seduce us. » ii

These words of the prophet Isaiah describe the « Servant », a paradoxical figure, not of a triumphant Messiah, but of God’s chosen one, who is the « light of the nations »iii and who « will establish righteousness on earthiv.

A few centuries after Isaiah, Christians interpreted the « Servant » as a prefiguration of Christ.

The Servant is not beautiful, he has no radiance. In front of him, one even veils one’s face, because of the contempt he inspires.

But as Isaiah says, the Servant is in reality the king of Israel, the light of the nations, the man in whom God has put His spirit, and in whom the soul of God delightsv.

« Object of contempt, abandoned by men, man of pain, familiar with suffering, like someone before whom one hides one’s face, despised, we do not care. Yet it was our suffering that he bore and our pain that he was burdened with. And we considered him punished, struck by God and humiliated. » vi

The Servant, – the Messiah, has neither beauty nor radiance. He has nothing to seduce, but the soul of God delights in him.

A beautiful woman, without soul. And the Servant, without beauty, whose soul is loved by God.

Would soul and beauty have nothing to do with each other?

In the Talmud, several passages deal with beauty; others with the soul; rarely with both.

Some rabbis took pride in their own, personal beauty.

R. Johanan Bar Napheba boasted: « I am a remnant of the splendors of Jerusalem ». vii

His beauty was indeed famous. It must have been all the more striking because his face was « hairless ».viii

And, in fact, this beauty aroused love, to the point of triggering unexpected transports.

« One day, R. Johanan was bathing in the Jordan River. Rech Lakich saw him and jumped into the river to join him.

– You should devote your strength to the Torah, » said R. Johanan.

– Your beauty would suit a woman better, » replied Rech Lakich.

– If you change your life, I’ll give you my sister in marriage, who is much more beautiful than I am. » ix

At least this R. Johanan was looked at and admired ! The same cannot be said of Abraham’s wife. She was beautiful, as we know, because the Pharaoh had coveted her. But Abraham did not even bother to look at her…

« I had made a covenant with my eyes, and I would not have looked at a virgin (Job, 31:1): Job would not have looked at a woman who was not his, says Rabbah, but Abraham did not even look at his own wife, since it is written, « Behold, I know that you are a beautiful woman (Gen. 12:11): until then he did not know it. » x

From another point of view, if someone is really beautiful, it can be detrimental, even deadly.

The very handsome rabbi R. Johanan reported: « From the river Echel to Rabath stretches the valley of Dura, and among the Israelites whom Nebuchadnezzar exiled there were young men whose radiant beauty eclipsed the sun. Their very sight alone made the women of Chaldea sick with desire. They confessed it to their husbands. The husbands informed the king who had them executed. But the women continued to languish. So the king had the bodies of young men crushed.» xi

In those days, the rabbis themselves did not hide their appreciation of the beauty of women :

« Rabbi Simon b. Gamaliel was on the steps of the Temple Hill when he saw a pagan woman of great beauty. How great are your works, O LORD! (Ps. 104:24) he exclaimed. Likewise, when R. Akiba saw Turnus Rufus’ wifexii, he spat, laughed, and wept. He spat because she came from a stinking drop; he laughed because she was destined to convert and become his wife; and he wept [thinking] that such beauty would one day be under the earth. » xiii

That Rabbi Akiba dreamt of converting and seducing the wife of the Roman governor of Judea can be attributed to militant proselytizing.

Or was it just a parable?

Why did Rabbi Akiba mourn the beauty of this pagan?

Shouldn’t the beauty of her « converted » soul have obliterated forever the beauty of her body, destined moreover to be buried some day?

_____________

iEmmanuel Kant. Criticism of the faculty of judgment.

iiIsaiah, 53.2

iiiIsaiah, 42, 6

ivIsaiah, 42.4

vIsaiah, 42.1

viIsaiah 53:3-4

viiAggadoth of the Babylonian Talmud. Baba Metsi’a. §34. Translated by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre. Ed. Verdier. 1982, p.895.

viiiIbid.

ixIbid. §35, pp. 895-896.

xIbid. Baba Bathra. §37, p. 940.

xiIbid. Sanhedrin. §143. p.1081.

xiiRoman governor of Judea in the first century of the Christian era.

xiiiIbid ‘Avoda Zara. §34, p. 1234

The Murder of Moses


John Everett Millais‘ Victory O Lord! (1871)

« All men are either Jews or Hellenes; either they are driven by ascetic impulses which lead them to reject all pictorial representation and to sacrifice to sublimation, or they are distinguished by their serenity, their expansive naturalness and their realistic spirit, » wrote Heinrich Heinei.

The over-schematic and somewhat outrageous nature of this statement may surprise in the mouth of the « last of the Romantic poets ».

But, according to Jan Assmann, Heine here would only symbolize the opposition between two human types, each of them holding on to two world visions, one valuing the spirit, without seeking a direct relationship with material reality, and the other valuing above all the senses and the concrete world.

In any case, when Heinrich Heine wrote these words at the beginning of the 19th century, this clear-cut opposition between « Hebraism » and « Hellenism » could be seen as a kind of commonplace “cliché” in the Weltanschauung then active in Germany.

Other considerations fueled this polarization. A kind of fresh wind seemed to be blowing on the European intellectual scene following the recent discovery of Sanskrit, followed by the realization of the historical depth of the Vedic heritage, and the exhumation of evidence of a linguistic filiation between the ‘Indo-European’ languages.

All this supported the thesis of the existence of multi-millennia migrations covering vast territories, notably from Northern Europe to Central Asia, India and Iran.

There was a passionate search for a common European origin, described in Germany as ‘Indo-Germanic’ and in France or Britain as ‘Indo-European’, taking advantage as much as possible of the lessons of comparative linguistics, the psychology of peoples and various mythical, religious and cultural sources.

Heine considered the opposition between « Semitic » and « Aryan » culture as essential. For him, it was a question not only of opposing « Aryans » and « Semites », but of perceiving « a more general opposition that concerned ‘all men’, the opposition between the mind, which is not directly related to the world or distant from it, and the senses, which are linked to the world. The first inclination, says Heine (rather simplistically, I must say), men get it from the Jews, the second, they inherited it from the Greeks, so that henceforth two souls live in the same bosom, a Jewish soul and a Greek soul, one taking precedence over the other depending on the case.» ii

A century later, Freud thought something comparable, according to Jan Assmann. « For him, too, the specifically Jewish contribution to human history lay in the drive toward what he called « progress in the life of the spirit. This progress is to the psychic history of humanity what Freud calls ‘sublimation’ in the individual psychic life.”iii

For Freud, the monotheistic invention consisted « in a refusal of magic and mysticism, in encouraging progress in the life of the spirit, and in encouraging sublimation ». It was a process by which « the people, animated by the possession of truth, penetrated by the consciousness of election, came to set great store by intellectual things and to emphasize ethics »iv.

This would be the great contribution of « Judaism » to the history of the world.

At the same time, however, Freud developed a particularly daring and provocative thesis about the « invention » of monotheism. According to him, Moses was not a Hebrew, he was Egyptian; moreover, and most importantly, he did not die in the land of Moab, as the Bible reports, but was in fact murdered by his own people.

Freud’s argument is based on the unmistakably Egyptian name ‘Moses’, the legend of his childhood, and Moses’ « difficult speech, » an indication that he was not proficient in Hebrew. Indeed, he could communicate only through Aaron. In addition, there are some revealing quotations, according to Freud: « What will I do for this people? A little more and they will stone me! « (Ex. 17:4) and : « The whole community was talking about [Moses and Aaron] stoning them. » (Numbers 14:10).

There is also that chapter of Isaiah in which Freud distinguishes the « repressed » trace of the fate actually reserved for Moses: « An object of contempt, abandoned by men, a man of sorrow, familiar with suffering, like one before whom one hides his face, despised, we took no notice of him. But it was our sufferings that he bore and our pains that he was burdened with. And we saw him as punished, struck by God and humiliated. But he was pierced because of our crimes, crushed because of our faults. « (Is. 53:3-5)

Freud infers from all these clues that Moses was in fact murdered by the Jews after they revolted against the unbearable demands of the Mosaic religion. He adds that the killing of Moses by the Jews marked the end of the system of the primitive horde and polytheism, and thus resulted in the effective and lasting foundation of monotheism.

The murder of the « father », which was – deeply – repressed in Jewish consciousness, became part of an « archaic heritage », which « encompasses not only provisions but also contents, mnemonic traces relating to the life of previous generations. (…) If we admit the preservation of such mnemonic traces in the archaic heritage, we have bridged the gap between individual psychology and the psychology of the masses, we can treat people as the neurotic individual.”v

The repression is not simply cultural or psychological, it affects the long memory of peoples, through « mnemonic traces » that are inscribed in the depths of souls, and perhaps even in the biology of bodies, in their DNA.

The important thing is that it is from this repression that a « decisive progress in the life of the spirit » has been able to emerge, according to Freud. This « decisive progress », triggered by the murder of Moses, was also encouraged by the ban on mosaic images.

« Among the prescriptions of the religion of Moses, there is one that is more meaningful than is at first thought. It is the prohibition to make an image of God, and therefore the obligation to worship a God who cannot be seen. We suppose that on this point Moses surpassed in rigor the religion of Aten; perhaps he only wanted to be consistent – his God had neither name nor face -; perhaps it was a new measure against the illicit practices of magic. But if one admitted this prohibition, it necessarily had to have an in-depth action. It meant, in fact, a withdrawal of the sensory perception in favor of a representation that should be called abstract, a triumph of the life of the mind over the sensory life, strictly speaking a renunciation of impulses with its necessary consequences on the psychological level.”vi

If Judaism represents a « decisive progress » in the life of the spirit, what can we think of the specific contribution of Christianity in this regard?

Further progress in the march of the spirit? Or, on the contrary, regression?

Freud’s judgment of the Christian religion is very negative.

« We have already said that the Christian ceremony of Holy Communion, in which the believer incorporates the Saviour’s flesh and blood, repeats in its content the ancient totemic meal, certainly only in its sense of tenderness, which expresses veneration, not in its aggressive sense ».vii

For him, « this religion constitutes a clear regression in the life of the spirit, since it is marked by a return to magical images and rites, and in particular to the sacrificial rite of the totemic meal during which God himself is consumed by the community of believers.”viii

Freud’s blunt condemnation of Christianity is accompanied by a kind of contempt for the « lower human masses » who have adopted this religion.

« In many respects, the new religion constituted a cultural regression in relation to the old, Jewish religion, as is regularly the case when new, lower-level human masses enter or are admitted somewhere. The Christian religion did not maintain the degree of spiritualization to which Judaism had risen. It was no longer strictly monotheistic, it adopted many of the symbolic rites of the surrounding peoples, it restored the great mother goddess and found room for a large number of polytheistic deities, recognizable under their veils, albeit reduced to a subordinate position. Above all it did not close itself, like the religion of Aten and the Mosaic religion which followed it, to the intrusion of superstitious magic and mystical elements, which were to represent a serious inhibition for the spiritual development of the next two millennia.”ix

If one adopts a viewpoint internal to Christianity, however hurtful Freud’s attacks may be, they do not stand up to analysis. In spite of all the folklore from which popular religiosity is not exempt, Christian theology is clear: there is only one God. The Trinity, difficult to understand, one can admit, for non-Christians as well as for Christians, does not imply « three Gods », but only one God, who gives Himself to be seen and understood in three « Persons ».

To take a cross-comparison, one could infer that Judaism is not « strictly monotheistic » either, if one recalls that the Scriptures attest that « three men » (who were YHVH) appeared to Abraham under the oak tree of Mamre (Gen 18:1-3), or that the Word of God was « incarnated » in the six hundred thousand signs of the Torah, or that God left in the world His own « Shekhinah » .

From the point of view of Christianity, everything happens as if Isaiah chapter 53, which Freud applied to Moses, could also be applied to the figure of Jesus.

It is the absolutely paradoxical and scandalous idea (from the point of view of Judaism) that the Messiah could appear not as a triumphant man, crushing the Romans, but as « an object of contempt, abandoned by men, a man of sorrow, familiar with suffering, like someone before whom one hides one’s face, despised. »

But what is, now, the most scandalous thing for the Jewish conscience?

Is it Freud’s hypothesis that Isaiah’s words about a « man of sorrow », « despised », indicate that the Jews murdered Moses?

Or is it that these same Isaiah’s words announce the Christian thesis that the Messiah had to die like a slave, under the lazzis and spittle?

If Freud is wrong and Moses was not murdered by the Jews, it cannot be denied that a certain Jesus was indeed put to death under Pontius Pilate. And then one may be struck by the resonance of these words uttered by Isaiah seven centuries before: « Now it is our sufferings that he bore and our sorrows that he was burdened with. And we considered him punished, struck by God and humiliated. But he was pierced because of our crimes, crushed because of our faults. « (Is. 53:4-5)

There is obviously no proof, from the Jewish point of view, that these words of Isaiah apply to Jesus, — or to Moses.

If Isaiah’s words do not apply to Moses (in retrospect) nor to Jesus (prophetically), who do they apply to? Are they only general, abstract formulas, without historical content? Or do they refer to some future Messiah? Then, how many more millennia must Isaiah’s voice wait before it reaches its truth?

History, we know, has only just begun.

Human phylum, if it does not throw itself unexpectedly into nothingness, taking with it its planet of origin, still has (roughly) a few tens of millions of years of phylogenetic « development » ahead of it.

To accomplish what?

One may answer: to rise ever more in consciousness.

Or to accomplish still unimaginable « decisive progress »…

With time, the millennia will pass.

Will Isaiah’s words pass?

What is mankind already capable of?

What will be the nature of the « decisive progress » of the human spirit, which has yet to be accomplished, and which still holds itself in the potency to become?

It is necessary to prepare for it. We must always set to work, in the dark, in what seems like a desert of stone, salt and sand.

For example, it would be, it seems to me, a kind of « decisive » progress to “see” in the figure of Moses « put to death » by his own people, and in that of Christ « put on the cross », the very figure of the Sacrifice.

What Sacrifice?

The original Sacrifice, granted from before the creation of the world by the Creator God, the « Lord of Creatures » (that One and Supreme God whom the Veda already called « Prajāpati » six thousand years ago).

It would also, it seems to me, be another kind of « decisive » progress to begin to sense some of the anthropological consequences of the original « Sacrifice » of the supreme God, the « Lord of Creatures ».

Among them, the future of the « religions » on the surface of such a small, negligible planet (Earth): their necessary movement of convergence towards a religion of Humanity and of the World, a religion of the conscience of the Sacrifice of God, a religion of the conscience of Man, in the emptiness of the Cosmos.

iHeinrich Heine. Ludwig Börne. Le Cerf. Paris, 1993

iiJan Assmann. Le prix du monothéisme. Flammarion, Paris 2007, p. 142

iiiIbid. p. 143

ivSigmund Freud, L’Homme Moïse et la Religion monothéiste, traduit de l’allemand par Cornelius Heim, Paris, Gallimard, 1993, p.177, cité par J. Assmann, op.cit. p.144

vIbid. p.196

viIbid. p.211-212

viiIbid. p.173 et 179

viiiJan Assmann. Le prix du monothéisme. Flammarion, Paris 2007, p. 163

ixSigmund Freud, L’Homme Moïse, p.211-212

The Same Ancient and New Truth


« A Nag Hammadi Codex »

They all claim to bring « revelation », but no religion has ever presented total transparency, assumed full disclosure. Much of their foundation is shrouded in secrecy, and « the further back we go in religious history, the greater the role of secrecy”i .

But this secrecy should not be confused with mystery.

The mystery is deep, immense, alive.

The secret is useful and human. It is maintained on purpose, by the pythies, the shamans, the magi, the priests, the haruspices. It is used for control, it facilitates the construction of dogma, reinforces rites and the rigor of laws.

The mystery belongs to no one. It is not given to everyone to sense it, and even less to grasp its essence and nature.

The secret is put forward, proclaimed publicly, not in its content, but as a principle. It is therefore imposed on all and benefits a few.

To a certain extent, the secret is based (a little bit) on the existence of the mystery. One is the appearance of the reality of the other.

This is why the secret, through its signs, can sometimes nourish the sense of mystery, give it a presence.

The secret can remain such for a long time, but one day it is discovered for what it is, and we see that it was not much, in view of the mystery. Or, quite simply, it is lost forever, in indifference, without much damage to anyone.

The mystery, on the other hand, always stands back, or very much in the front, really elsewhere, absolutely other. It’s never finished with it.

Of the mystery what can we know?

A divine truth comes to be « revealed », but it also comes « veiled ».

« Truth did not come naked into the world, but it came dressed in symbols and images. The world will not receive it in any other way.”ii

Truth never comes « naked » into the world.

At least, that is what sarcastic, wily common sense guarantees.

God cannot be « seen », and even less « naked »…

« How could I believe in a supreme god who would enter a woman’s womb through her sexual organs […] without necessity? How could I believe in a living God who was born of a woman, without knowledge or intelligence, without distinguishing His right from His left, who defecates and urinates, sucks His mother’s breasts with hunger and thirst, and who, if His mother did not feed Him, would die of hunger like the rest of men?”iii

Rigorous reasoning. Realism of the details.

Yehoshua, the Messiah? « It is impossible for me to believe in his being the Messiah, for the prophecy says of the Messiah, ‘He shall have dominion from sea to sea and from the river to the ends of the earth’ (Psalm 72:8). But Jesus had no reign at all; on the contrary, he was persecuted by his enemies and had to hide from them: in the end he fell into their hands and could not even preserve his own life. How could he have saved Israel? Even after his death he had no kingdom… At present, the servants of Muhammad, your enemies, have a power greater than yours. Moreover, prophecy foretells that in the time of the Messiah … ‘the knowledge of YHVH will fill the earth as the waters cover the sea’ (Isaiah 11:9). From the time of Jesus until today, there have been many wars and the world has been full of oppression and ruin. As for Christians, they have shed more blood than the rest of the nations.”iv

In this affair, it seems, common sense, reason, truth, are on the side of the doubters. Two millennia of Christianity have not changed their minds, quite the contrary…

What is striking in this whole affair is its paradoxical, incredible, implausible side.

Philosophically, one could tentatively argue that there are « naked » truths that are, by that very fact, even more veiled. They are hidden in the plain sight.

But history teaches us over and over again that there are no « naked » truths, in fact, but only veiled ones.

« The ancient theory of Egypt’s secret religion, as found in Plutarch and Diodorus, Philo, Origen, and Clement of Alexandria, and in Porphyry and Iamblichus, is based on the premise that truth is a secret in itself, and that it can only be grasped in this world through images, myths, allegories, and riddles.”v

This ancient conception probably dates back to the pre-dynastic period, and one can think that it goes back well before pre-history itself .

Since these immensely remote times, it has not ceased to influence the « first » religions, then the « historical » religions. Nor has it ceased to proliferate in Pythagorism, Platonism, Hermeticism or Gnosis.

The Nag Hammadi manuscripts still retain the memory of it. One of them, found in 1945, the Gospel of Philip, affirms that the world cannot receive truth otherwise than veiled by words, myths and images.

Words and images do not have the function of hiding the truth from the eyes of the unbelievers, the hardened, the blasphemers.

Words and images are themselves the very expression of the secret, the symbols of mystery.

Goethe summed up the ambivalence of the secret, both as concealment and as the manifestation of truth, in three words:

« The true is like God;

it does not appear immediately,

we have to guess it from its manifestations.”vi

Secrets always end up being revealed, but then they only reveal the ’emptiness’ of their time, their era.

The mystery, for its part, never ceases to stay hidden.

Jan Assmann concluding his beautiful study on « Moses the Egyptian » with a provocative thought:

« At its apogee, the pagan religion did not hide a void in the mysteries, but the truth of the One God.”vii

A good example of that is Abraham himself coming all the way to pay tribute to Melchisedech, a non-Hebrew « priest of the Most High ».

Augustine connected all the ages of belief in one stroke:

« What today is called the Christian religion existed in antiquity, and from the origin of the human race until Christ became incarnate, and it was from him that the true religion that already existed began to be called Christian.”viii

Basically the idea is very simple. And very stimulating, in a way.

Truth always has been ‘true’, and always will be. Truth was ‘true’ from the beginning of the world, and even before the beginning of the world. Truth will still be  »true in a hundred million or a hundred billion years, and even after the end of this (fleeting) universe.

The various words that tell the Truth, and the men who believe in it, such as Akhnaton, Melchisedech, Abraham, Moses, Zoroaster, Plato, Yehoshua, are only themselves quite fleeting, but they serve It, according to their rank, and wisdom.

Truth is as ancient as the Ancient of Days; Truth is also very young, and just beginning to live again, everyday, in hidden, mysterious cradles.

_____________

iJan Assmann. Moïse l’Égyptien. Aubier, Paris, 2001, p.316

iiGospel of Philip, 67

iiiDavid Kimhi (1160-1235) quoted by Shmuel Trigano. In Judaïsme et christianisme, entre affrontement et reconnaissance. Bayard. Paris, 2005, p. 32

ivMoses Nahmanide. La Dispute de Barcelone. Lagrasse, Verdier, 1984, p.41s. Cité par S. Trigano in op.cit.

vJan Assmann. Moïse l’Égyptien. Aubier, Paris, 2001, p.317

viGoethe. « Aus Makariens Archiv ». Werke 8. Münich 1981, p. 460 N.3. Cité in Jan Assmann, op.cit. p.318

viiJan Assmann. Moïse l’Égyptien. Aubier, Paris, 2001, p.320

viiiAugustin. Retr. I, 13

YHVH and AI


« Leshan Giant Buddha« , built during the Tang dynasty (618–907)

At the time of the introduction of Indian Buddhism in China, the scholars of the Chinese Empire, confronted with the arrival of new ‘barbaric words’ (i.e. the sacred names and religious terms inherited from Buddhism) considered it preferable not to translate them. They chose to only transliterate them.

A tentative translation into the Chinese language would have given these terms, it was thought, a down-to-earth, materialistic sound, hardly likely to inspire respect or evoke mystery.

Much later, in the 19th century, a sinologist from Collège de France, Stanislas Julien, developed a method to decipher Sanskrit names as they were (very approximately) transcribed into Chinese, and provided some examples.

« The word Pou-ti-sa-to (Bôdhisattva) translated literally as ‘Intelligent Being’ would have lost its nobility and emphasis; that is why it was left as veiled in its Indian form. The same was done for the sublime names of the Buddha, which, by passing in a vulgar language, could have been exposed to the mockery and sarcasm of the profane.”i

There are words and names that must definitely remain untranslated, not that they are strictly speaking untranslatable, but their eventual translation would go against the interest of their original meaning, threaten their substance, undermine their essence, and harm the extent of their resonance, by associating them – through the specific resources and means of the target language – with semantic and symbolic spaces more likely to deceive, mislead or mystify, than to enlighten, explain or reveal.

Many sacred names of Buddhism, originally conceived and expressed in the precise, subtle, unbound language that is Sanskrit, have thus not been translated into Chinese, but only transcribed, based on uncertain phonetic equivalences, as the sound universe of Chinese seems so far removed from the tones of the Sanskrit language.

The non-translation of these Sanskrit words into Chinese was even theorized in detail by Xuanzang (or Hiouen-Thsang), the Chinese Buddhist monk who was, in the 7th century AD, one of the four great translators of the Buddhist sutra.

« According to the testimony of Hiuen-Thsang (玄奘 ), the words that should not be translated were divided into five classes:

1°) Words that have a mystical meaning such as those of the Toloni (Dharanîs) and charms or magic formulas.

2°) Those that contain a large number of meanings such as Po-Kia-Fan (Bhagavan), « which has six meanings ».

3°) The names of things that do not exist in China, such as the trees Djambou, Bhôdhidrouma, Haritaki.

4°) Words that we keep out of respect for their ancient use, for example the expression Anouttara bôdhi, « superior intelligence ».

5°) Words considered to produce happiness, for example Pan-jo (Prodjna), « Intelligence ». »ii

Far from being seen as a lack of the Chinese language, or a lack of ideas on the part of Chinese translators, the voluntary renunciation to translate seems to me to be a sign of strength and openness. Greek once allowed the Romance languages to duplicate each other, so to speak, by adding to the concrete semantic roots of everyday life the vast resources of a language more apt for speculation; similarly, Chinese has been able to incorporate as it stands some of the highest, abstract concepts ever developed in Sanskrit.

There is a general lesson here.

There are compact, dense, unique words that appeared in a specific culture, generated by the genius of a people. Their translation would, despite efforts, be a radical betrayal.

For example, the Arabic word « Allah » literally means « the god » (al-lah). Note that there are no capital letters in Arabic. There can be no question of translating « Allah » into English by its literal equivalent (« the god »), as it would then lose the special meaning and aura that the sound of the Arabic language gives it. The liquid syllabes that follow one another, the alliterative repetition of the definite article, al, “the”, merging with the word lah, « god », create a block of meaning without equivalent, one might think.

Could, for instance, the famous Koranic formula « Lâ ilaha ilâ Allâh » proclaiming the oneness of God be translated literally in this way: « There is no god but the god »?

If this translation is considered too flat, should we try to translate it by using a capital letter: “There is no god but God” ?

Perhaps. But then what would be particularly original about this Islamic formula? Judaism and Christianity had already formulated the same idea, long before.

But the preservation of the proper name, Allah, may, on the other hand, give it a perfume of novelty.

The Hebrew word יהוה (YHVH) is a cryptic and untranslatable name of God. It offers an undeniable advantage: being literally untranslatable, the question of translation no longer arises. The mystery of the cryptogram is closed by construction, as soon as it appears in its original language. One can only transcribe it later in clumsy alphabets, giving it even more obscure equivalents, like “YHVH”, which is not even a faithful transcription of יהוה, or like “Yahweh”, an imaginary, faulty and somewhat blasphemous transcription (from the Jewish point of view).

But, paradoxically, we come closer, by this observation of impotence, to the original intention. The transcription of the sacred name יהוה in any other language of the world, a language of the goyim, gives it de facto one or more additional, potential layers of depth, yet to be deciphered.

This potential depth added (in spite of itself) by other languages is a universal incentive to navigate through the language archipelagos. It is an invitation to overcome the confusion of Babel, to open to the idiomatic lights of all the languages of the world. We may dream, one day, of being able to understand and speak them all, — through some future, powerful AI.

Some words, such as יהוה, would still be properly untranslatable. But, at least, with the help of AI, we would be able to observe the full spectrum of potential semantic or symbolic “equivalences”, in the context of several thousands of living or dead languages.

I bet that we will then discover some gold nuggets, waiting for us in the collective unconscious.

_______________

iMéthode pour déchiffrer et transcrire les noms sanscrits qui se rencontrent dans les livres chinois, à l’aide de règles, d’exercices et d’un répertoire de onze cents caractères chinois idéographiques employés alphabétiquement, inventée et démontrée par M. Stanislas Julien (1861)

iiHoeï-Li and Yen-Thsang. Histoire de la vie de Hiouen-Thsang et de ses voyages dans l’Inde : depuis l’an 629 jusqu’en 645, par, Paris, Benjamin Duprat,‎ 1853 .

Drops of Truth


« Maimonides »

Rav Shmuel ben Ali, Gaon of Baghdad, rightly pointed out that in Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed , there is not a single word on the question of the immortality of souls or that of the resurrection of the dead.

It is not that Maimonides was not interested in these delicate problems. In his great work, the Mishneh Torah, he asserted that the rational soul is immortal, and that she is conscious of her personal individuality, even in the world to comei.

Maimonides also said that the individual soul, which he also called the « intellect in act », joins after death the « agent intellect » that governs the sublunar sphere. At birth, the soul emanates from this sphere, and she comes to melt into it again at death.

The immortality of the soul does not take a personal form. Immersed in the bosom of the “agent intellect”, the soul possesses a kind of identity, without however having a separate existence.ii

Clearly, we are entering here into a highly speculative territory where the reference points are incomplete, even absent, and the indications of the rare daring ones who think they have some revelation to make on these subjects are scattered and contradictory.

The opportunities for getting lost are multiplying. No ‘guide’ seems to be able to lead us to a good port.

Perhaps that is why Maimonides did not see fit to include these ideas in his own Guide, despite the few insights he had into these matters.

Speculation about the afterlife, however fraught with pitfalls, offers an opportunity to dream of strange states of consciousness, to dream of unimaginable possibilities of being. There are more futile activities.

From the few elements provided by Maimonides, it is worth trying to freely imagine what the soul experiences after death, at the moment when she discovers herself, in a kind of subliminal awakening, plunged into another « world ». Arguably, she is fully conscious of herself, while feeling a kind of fusion with other sister souls, also immersed in the infinity of the « agent intellect ».

In this new « world », several levels of consciousness are superimposed and cross-fertilized, of which she hardly perceives the ultimate extensions or future implications.

The soul accessing the « sublunar sphere » is conscious of being (again) newly « born », but she is not completely devoid of reference points.

She has already experienced two previous « births », one at conception, the other at childbirth. She now knows confusedly that she has just experienced a kind of 3rd birth after death, opening a new phase of a life decidedly full of surprises, leaps, jumps.

Not long ago, on earth, she was a principle of life and consciousness, and now she swims in an ocean of life and intelligence, which absorbs her completely, without drowning her, nor blinding her, quite the contrary.

She was, a while ago, a “principle” (of life and consciousness, as I said) , and now she has become pure spiritual substance !

In this new state, she is probably waiting for an opportunity to manifest herself as a singular being, perhaps having taken a liking for it in her previous lives. Or, nourished by the thousand wounds of experience, she volunteers for yet other states of consciousness, or for yet other worlds, of a hopefully less cruel nature, and of which there is perhaps a profusion, beyond the sublunar sphere.

This kind of idea, I am well aware, seems perfectly inadmissible to an overwhelming majority of « modern » thinkers. Nihilists and other materialists give full meaning to « matter » and give nothing to the strength of the spirit, to its autonomy, to its capacity for survival, in an unsuspected way, after the vicissitudes of a life dominated by « matter ».

By contrast, Maimonides, in twelfth-century Spain, then a crossroads of thought, has attempted to unravel the mystery of what happens after death.

Maimonides was neither reactionary, nor an “illuminati”, nor a bigot, nor complacent. He flew high above innumerable dogmatic quarrels. There was in him an aspiration to pure reason, a nostalgia for the beyond of religious forms.

There was no question of renouncing the Law, however, or of abandoning memory of ancient cults. In his strange, aloof, ironic style, he says: « To ask for such a thing would have been as if a prophet in those times, exhorting the worship of God, came to us and said: ‘God forbids you to pray to Him, to fast, and to call on His help in times of trouble, but your worship will be a simple meditation, without any practice.”iii

This phrase that Maimonides put into the mouth of an imaginary prophet as if by play, can be taken today, a thousand years later, at face value. What seemed at the time a frank denial can now be interpreted as a rhetorical ruse, a posthumous warning from the man Maimonides, a master of double meaning.

The irony of the time fades away. The meaning is reversed, the intention is revealed.

His idea was radical. It is necessary to put an end to all cults, to idolatry, to hypocrisy, based on « prayers », « sacrifices », « fasts » and « invocations ».

Here comes the time for « simple » meditation!

I think that Maimonides was, very early on, one of the necessary prophets of new times, of those times which are always announced with delay, just as today these future times are late in coming, when ancient cults will no longer be respected for what they claim to embody, in their motionless repetitions.

In our times in parturition, naked meditation will surpass the practices of surface and appearance.

Is this idea subversive, scandalous?

Or is it a real vision, for the ultimate benefit of humankind?

Men have practiced, millennia after millennia, multiple sorts of religion. They have followed ordinances and laws, detailed or symbolic, or even freed themselves from them.

History is far from having said its last word.

There is no end to prophecy. There is no seal of the prophets.

Always, the search for a truer truth will animate the minds of men.

And in our wildest imagination, we are still very far from having tasted a small drop from this oceanic truth.

______________

iCf. Gérard Bensussan. Qu’est-ce que la philosophie juive ? 2003

iiIbid.

iiiMaïmonide. Guide des égarés. Traduction de l’arabe par Salomon Munk, Ed. Verdier, 1979, p.522

Bread and Wine


« Bread and Wine »

The « realist » philosophers analyze the world as it is, or at least how it looks, or what they believe it to be. But they have nothing to say about how being came to be, or about the genesis of reality. They are also very short about the ultimate ends, whether there are any or none.

They are in no way capable of conceptualizing the world in its full potency. They have no idea how the universe emerged from nothingness in indistinct times, when nothing and no one had yet attained being, when nothing was yet « in act ».

Nor do they have any representation of this world (the planet Earth) a few hundred million years from now, which is not a large space of time, from a cosmological point of view.

My point is: if one takes the full measure of the impotence and pusillanimity of the “realist” philosophy, then our mind is suddenly freed, – freed from all the past web of philosophical tatters studded with limited thoughts, turning short, local truths, fleeting views, closed syllogisms.

Our mind is freed from all inherited constraints. Everything is yet to be thought, and discovered.

We should then exercise the highest faculty, that of imagination, that of dreaming and vision.

It is an incentive to get out of reason itself, not to abandon it, but to observe it from an external, detached, non-rational point of view. “Pure reason” is ill-equipped to judge itself, no matter what Kant thinks.

What can we see, then?

Firstly, reason is truly unable to admit that it is closed on itself, let alone willing to admit that it necessarily has an outside, that there is something out there that is inconceivable to reason.

The purest, most penetrating reason is still quite blind to anything that is not reasonable.

Reason sees nothing of the oceanic immensity of non-reason which surrounds it, exceeds it infinitely, and in which however reason bathes, as an ignorant, fragile, ephemeral bubble.

Reason has always been in a strong relationship with language. But we know quite well that the language is a rudimentary tool, a kind of badly cut, flimsy flint, producing from time to time some rare sparks…

Let’s try to show this flimsiness with an example, based on a simple but foundational sentence, like « God is one ».

Grammatically, this sentence is a flimsy oxymoron. It oozes inconsistency. It links a subject (« God ») and a predicate (« one ») with the help of the copula (« is »). But in the same time it separates (grammatically) the subject and the predicate. In the same time, it separates them (semantically) and then reunites them (grammatically) by the sole virtue of a copulative verb (« is »), which, by the way, exists only in some human languages, but remains unknown to the majority of them…

If truly, I mean grammatically, ‘God is one’, then it should be impossible to really separate the words ‘God’, ‘is’, or ‘one’. They would be just the same reality.

If grammatically ‘God is one’, there would only be a need for the word ‘God’, or if one prefers only for the word ‘one’, or only for the word ‘is’. Those words or ‘names’ imply just the same, unique reality. Moreover, after having stated this ‘unique reality’, one would remain (logically) short. What else could be added, without immediately contravening the ‘unitary’ dogma? If anything else could be added, it should be immediately engulfed into the “oneness” of the “being”. Or, if not, that would imply that something could “be” outside the “One and Unique Being”. Which is (grammatically) illogical.

If grammatically ‘God is one’, then one must already count three verbal instances of His nature: the ‘name’ (God), the ‘essence’ (Being), the ‘nature’ (Oneness).

Three instances are already a crowd, in the context of the Unique One…

And no reason to stop there. This is why there are at least ten names of God in the Torah, and 99 names of Allah in Islam….

If grammatically ‘God is one’, then how can language itself could dare to stand as overhanging, outside of the ‘oneness’ of God, outside of His essential ‘unity’?

If grammatically ‘God is one’, then shouldn’t the language itself necessarily be one with Him, and made of His pure substance?

Some theologians have seen this difficulty perfectly well. So they have proposed a slightly modified formula: « God is one, but not according to unity.”

This clever attempt doesn’t actually solve anything.

They are just words added to words. This proliferation, this multiplicity (of words) is not really a good omen of their supposed ability to capture the essence of the One… Language, definitely, has untimely bursts, uncontrolled (but revealing) inner contradictions… Language is a mystery that only really take flight, like the bird of Minerva (the Hegelian owl), at dusk, when all the weak, flashy and illusory lights of reason are put under the bushel.

Here is another example of reason overcome by the proper power of language.

The great and famous Maimonides, a specialist in halakha, and very little suspect of effrontery in regard to the Law, surprised more than one commentator by admitting that the reason for the use of wine in the liturgy, or the function of the breads on display in the Temple, were completely beyond his comprehension.

He underlined that he had tried for a long time to search for some « virtual reasons »i to use wine and bread for religious purpose, to no avail. This strange expression (« virtual reasons ») seems to vindicate that, for Maimonides, there are in the commandments of the Law « provisions of detail whose reason cannot be indicated », and « that he who thinks that these details can be motivated is as far from the truth as he who believes that the general precept is of no real use »ii.

Which leaves us with yet another bunch of mysteries to tackle with.

Maimonides, a renowned expert of halakha in the 11th century A.D., candidly admitted that he did not understand the reason for the presence of bread and wine in Jewish liturgy, and particularly their presence in the premises of the Temple of Jerusalem.

It is then perhaps up to the poet, or the dreamer, or the anthropologist, to try to guess by analogy, or by anagogy, some possible « virtual reasons » for this religious use of bread and wine?

Maybe the bread and wine do belong to the depths of the collective inconscious, and for that reason are loaded with numinous potency?

Or, maybe Maimonides just would not want to see the obvious link with what had happened, more that a millennium before his time, in Jerusalem, during the Last Supper?

Whatever the answer, the question remains: why bread and wine, if “God is One”?

______________

iMaimonides. Le Guide des égarés. Ed. Verdier. 1979. The translation from Arabic into French by Salomon Munk, p.609, gives here : « raisons virtuelles ».

iiMaimonides. Le Guide des égarés. Ed. Verdier. 1979. Translation from Arabic into French by Salomon Munk, p.609 sq.

Neuroscience and Metaphysics


« Ezekiel’s Vision »

« There are not many Jewish philosophers, » says Leo Straussi.

This statement, however provocative, should be put into perspective.

The first Jewish philosopher, historically speaking, Philo of Alexandria, attempted a synthesis between his Jewish faith and Greek philosophy. He had little influence on the Judaism of his time, but much more on the Fathers of the Church, who were inspired by him, and instrumental in conserving his works.

A millennium later, Moses Maimonides drew inspiration from Aristotelian philosophy in an attempt to reconcile faith and reason. He was the famous author of the Guide of the Perplexed, and of the Mishne Torah, a code of Jewish law, which caused long controversies among Jews in the 12th and 13th centuries.

Another celebrity, Baruch Spinoza was « excommunicated » (the Hebrew term is חרם herem) and definitively « banished » from the Jewish community in 1656, but he was admired by Hegel, Nietzsche, and many Moderns…

In the 18th century, Moses Mendelssohn tried to apply the spirit of the Aufklärung to Judaism and became one of the main instigators of the « Jewish Enlightenment », the Haskalah (from the word השכלה , « wisdom », « erudition »).

We can also mention Hermann Cohen, a neo-Kantian of the 19th century, and « a very great German philosopher », in the words of Gérard Bensussanii.

Closer in time, Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig and Emmanuel Lévinas .

That’s about it. These names don’t make a crowd, but we are far from the shortage that Leo Strauss wanted to point out. It seems that Leo Strauss really wished to emphasize, for reasons of his own, « the old Jewish premise that being a Jew and being a philosopher are two incompatible things, » as he himself explicitly put it.iii

It is interesting to recall that Leo Strauss also clarified his point of view by analyzing the emblematic case of Maimonides: « Philosophers are men who try to account for the Whole on the basis of what is always accessible to man as man; Maimonides starts from the acceptance of the Torah. A Jew may use philosophy and Maimonides uses it in the widest possible way; but, as a Jew, he gives his assent where, as a philosopher, he would suspend his assent.”iv

Leo Strauss added, rather categorically, that Maimonides’ book, The Guide of the Perplexed, « is not a philosophical book – a book written by a philosopher for philosophers – but a Jewish book: a book written by a Jew for Jews.”v

The Guide of the Perplexed is in fact entirely devoted to the Torah and to the explanation of the « hidden meaning » of several passages. The most important of the « hidden secrets » that it tries to elucidate are the ‘Narrative of the Beginning’ (the Genesis) and the ‘Narrative of the Chariot’ (Ezekiel ch. 1 to 10). Of these « secrets », Maimonides says that « the Narrative of the Beginning” is the same as the science of nature and the “Narrative of the Chariot” is the same as the divine science (i.e. the science of incorporeal beings, or of God and angels).vi

The chapters of Ezekiel mentioned by Maimonides undoubtedly deserve the attention and study of the most subtle minds, the finest souls. But they are not to be put into all hands. Ezekiel recounts his « divine visions » in great detail. It is easy to imagine that skeptics, materialists, rationalists or sneers (whether Jewish or not) are not part of the intended readership.

Let us take a closer look at a revealing excerpt of Ezekiel’ vision.

« I looked, and behold, there came from the north a rushing wind, a great cloud, and a sheaf of fire, which spread a bright light on all sides, in the center of which shone like polished brass from the midst of the fire. Also in the center were four animals that looked like humans. Each of them had four faces, and each had four wings. Their feet were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the soles of calves’ feet. They sparkled like polished bronze. They had human hands under the wings on their four sides; and all four of them had their faces and wings. Their wings were joined together; they did not turn as they walked, but each walked straight ahead. As for the figures of their faces, all four had the face of a man, all four had the face of a lion on the right, all four had the face of an ox on the left, and all four had the face of an eagle.”vii

The vision of Ezekiel then takes a stunning turn, with a description of an appearance of the « glory of the Lord ».

« I saw again as it were polished brass, fire, within which was this man, and which shone round about, from the form of his loins upward, and from the form of his loins downward, I saw as fire, and as bright light, about which he was surrounded. As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on a rainy day, so was the appearance of that bright light: it was an image of the glory of the Lord. When I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking.”viii

The « man » in the midst of the fire speaks to Ezekiel as if he were an « image » of God.

But was this « man » really an « image » of God? What « philosopher » would dare to judge this statement ?

Perhaps this « man » surrounded by fire was some sort of « reality »? Or was he just an illusion?

Either way, it is clear that this text and its possible interpretations do not fit into the usual philosophical canons.

Should we therefore follow Leo Strauss, and consequently admit that Maimonides himself is not a « philosopher », but that he really wrote a « Jewish book » for the Jews, in order to respond to the need for clarification of the mysteries contained in the Texts?

Perhaps… But the modern reader of Ezekiel, whether Jewish or not, whether a philosopher or not, cannot fail to be interested in the parables one finds there, and in their symbolic implications.

The « man » in the midst of the fire asks Ezekiel to « swallow » a book, then to go « to the house of Israel », to this people which is not for him « a people with an obscure language, an unintelligible language », to bring back the words he is going to say to them.

The usual resources of philosophy seem little adapted to deal with this kind of request.

But the Guide for the Perplexed tackles it head on, in a both refined and robust style, mobilizing all the resources of reason and criticism, in order to shed some light on people of faith, who are already advanced in reflection, but who are seized with « perplexity » in the face of the mysteries of such « prophetic visions ».

The Guide for the Perplexed implies a great trust in the capacities of human reason.

It suggests that these human capacities are far greater, far more unbounded than anything that the most eminent philosophers or the most enlightened poets have glimpsed through the centuries.

And it is not all. Ages will come, no doubt, when the power of human penetration into divine secrets will be, dare we say it, without comparison with what Moses or Ezekiel themselves were able to bequeath to posterity.

In other words, and contrary to usual wisdom, I am saying that the age of the prophets, far from being over, has only just begun; and as well, the age of philosophers is barely emerging, considering the vast scale of the times yet to come.

Human history still is in its infancy, really.

Our entire epoch is still part of the dawn, and the great suns of the Spirit have not revealed anything but a tiny flash of their potential illuminating power.

From an anatomical and functional point of view, the human brain conceals much deeper mysteries, much more obscure, and powerful, than the rich and colorful metaphors of Ezekiel.

Ezekiel’s own brain was once, a few centuries ago, prey to a « vision ». So there was at that time a form of compatibility, of correspondence between the inherent structure of Ezekiel’s brain and the vision which he was able to give an account of.

The implication is that one day in the future, presumably, other brains of new prophets or visionaries may be able to transport themselves even further than Ezekiel.

It all winds down to this: either the prophetic « vision » is an illusion, or it has a reality of its own.

In the first case, Moses, Ezekiel and the long list of the « visionaries » of mankind are just misguided people who have led their followers down paths of error, with no return.

In the second case, one must admit that a “prophetic vision” implies the existence of another “world” subliminally enveloping the « seer ».

To every « seer » it is given to perceive to a certain extent the presence of the mystery, which surrounds the whole of humanity on all sides.

To take up William James’ intuition, human brains are analogous to « antennae », permanently connected to an immense, invisible worldix.

From age to age, many shamans, a few prophets and some poets have perceived the emanations, the pulsations of this other world.

We have to build the neuroscience and the metaphysics of otherworldly emanations.

_________

iLeo Strauss. Maïmonides. 1988, p.300

iiGérard Bensussan. Qu’est-ce que la philosophie juive ? 2003, p.166.

iiiLeo Strauss. Maïmonides. 1988, p.300

ivIbid., p.300

vIbid., p.300

viIbid., p. 304

viiEzekiel, 1, 4-10

viiiEzekiel, 1, 4-10

ixWilliam James. Human Immortality: Two Supposed Objections to the Doctrine.1898. Ed. Houghton, Mifflin and Company, The Riverside Press, Cambridge.

The « churning » of East and West


 « The Churning of the Ocean of Milk ». Dasavastra manuscript, ca. 1690 – 1700, Mankot court, Pahari School (India)

In India at the end of the 19th century, some Indian intellectuals wanted to better understand the culture of England, the country that had colonized them. For instance, D.K. Gokhale took it as a duty to memorize Milton’s Paradise Lost, Walter Scott’s Rokeby, and the speeches of Edmund Burke and John Bright.

However, he was quite surprised by the spiritual emptiness of these texts, seemingly representative of the « culture » of the occupying power.

Perhaps he should have read Dante, Master Eckhart, Juan de la Cruz, or Pascal instead, to get a broader view of Europe’s capabilities in matters of spirituality?

In any case, Gokhale, tired of so much superficiality, decided to return to his Vedic roots. Striving to show the world what India had to offer, he translated Taittirīya-Upaniṣad into English with the famous commentary from Śaṃkara.

At the time of Śaṃkara, in the 8th century AD, the Veda was not yet preserved in written form. But for five thousand years already, it had been transmitted orally through the Indian souls, from age to age, with extraordinary fidelity.i

The Veda heritage had lived on in the brains of priests, during five millenia, generation after generation. Yet it was never communicated in public, except very partially, selectively, in the form of short fragments recited during sacrifices. The integral Veda existed only in oral form, kept in private memories.

Never before the (rather late) time of Śaṃkara had the Veda been presented in writing, and as a whole, in its entirety.

During the millenia when the Veda was only conserved orally, it would have been necessary to assemble many priests, of various origins, just to recite a complete version of it, because the whole Veda was divided into distinct parts, of which various families of Brahmins had the exclusive responsibility.

The complete recitation of the hymns would have taken days and days. Even then, their chanting would not have allowed a synoptic representation of the Veda.

Certainly, the Veda was not a « Book ». It was a living assembly of words.

At the time the Taittirīya-Upaniṣad was composed, the Indo-Gangetic region had cultural areas with a different approach to the sacred « word » of Veda.

In the Indus basin, the Vedic religion has always affirmed itself as a religion of the « Word ». Vāc (the Sanskrit word for « Word ») is a vedic Divinity. Vāc breathes its Breath into the Sacrifice, and the Sacrifice is entirely, essentially, Vāc, — « Word ».

But in the eastern region, in Magadha and Bihar, south of the Ganges, the Deity remains ‘silent’.

Moreover, in northeast India, Buddhism, born in the 6th century B.C., is concerned only with meaning, and feels no need to divinize the « Word ».

These very different attitudes can be compared, it seems to me, to the way in which the so-called « religions of the Book » also deal with the « Word ».

The « word » of the Torah is swarming, bushy, contradictory. It requires, as history has shown, generations of rabbis, commentators and Talmudists to search for all its possible meanings, in the permanent feeling of the incompleteness of its ultimate understanding. Interpretation has no end, and cannot have an end.

The Christian Gospels also have their variations and their obscurities. They were composed some time after the events they recount, by four very different men, of different culture and origin: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

As human works, the Gospels have not been « revealed » by God, but only « written » by men, who were also witnesses. In contrast, at least if we follow the Jewish tradition, the Torah has been (supposedly) directly revealed to Moses by God Himself.

For Christianity, the « Word » is then not « incarnated » in a « Book » (the Gospels). The « Word » is incarnated in Jesus.

Islam respects the very letter of the Qur’an, « uncreated », fully « descended » into the ear of the Prophet. Illiterate, Muhammad, however, was its faithful mediator, transmitting the words of the angel of God, spoken in Arabic, to those of his disciples who were able to note them down.

Let us summarize. For some, the « Word » is Silence, or Breath, or Sacrifice. For others, the « Word » is Law. For others, the « Word » is Christ. For others, the « Word » is a ‘Descent‘.

How can such variations be explained? National « Genius »? Historical and cultural circumstances? Chances of the times?

Perhaps one day, in a world where culture and « religion » will have become truly global, and where the mind will have reached a very high level of consciousness, in the majority of humans, the « Word » will present itself in still other forms, in still other appearances?

For the moment, let us jealously preserve the magic and power of the vast, rich and diverse religious heritage, coming from East and West.

Let us consider its fundamental elevation, its common aspiration, and let us really begin its churning.

________

i Cf. Lokamanya Bâl Gangâdhar Tilak, Orion ou Recherche sur l’antiquité des Védas, French translation by Claire et Jean Rémy, éditions Edidit & Archè, Milan et Paris, 1989



Seeing the « Hidden » God


Moses wearing a veil

The Hebrew word temounah has three meanings, says Maimonides.

Firstly, it refers to the shape or figure of an object perceived by the senses. For example: « If you make a carved image of the figure (temounah) of anything, etc., you are making an image of the shape or figure of an object perceived by the senses. « (Deut. 4:25)

Secondly, this word may be used to refer to figures, thoughts or visions that may occur in the imagination: « In thoughts born of nocturnal visions (temounah), etc.”, (Jb. 4:13). This passage from Job ends by using a second time this word: « A figure (temounah), whose features were unknown to me, stood there before my eyes. « (Jb. 4:16). This means, according to Maimonides, that there was a ghost before Job’s eyes while he was sleeping.

Finally, this word may mean the idea perceived by the intelligence. It is in this sense that one can use temounah when speaking of God: « And he beholds the figure (temounah) of the Lord. « (Num. 12:8). Maimonides comments: « That is to say, he contemplates God in his reality.” It is Moses, here, who ‘contemplates’ the reality of God. In another passage, again about Moses, God Himself says: « I speak to him face to face, in a clear appearance and without riddles. It is the image (temounah) of God himself that he contemplates. » (Numbers 12:8).

Maimonides explains: « The doctors say that this was a reward for having first ‘hidden his face so as not to look at God’ (Berakhot 7a) ». Indeed, one text says: « Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look towards God.” (Ex. 3:6)

It is difficult to bring anything new after Maimonides and the doctors. But this word, whose image, vision and idea can be understood through its very amphibology, deserves a special effort.

The word temounah is written תְּמוּנָה (root מוּן ).

The letter taw, the initial of temounah, can be swapped with the other ‘t’ in the Hebrew alphabet, the teth ט, as is allowed in the Hebrew language, which is very lax in this respect. This gives a new word, which can be transcribed as follows: themounah. Curiously enough, the word thamana טָמַן, which is very close to it, means « to hide, to bury ».

One may argue that it’s just a play on words. But the salt of the matter, if one lends any virtue to the implicit evocations of the meaning of the words, is that Moses « hides » (thamana) his face so as not to see the temounah of God.

By hiding (thamana) his own face (temounah), Moses contemplates the figure (temounah) of God, which remains hidden from him (thamana).

What does this teach us?

It teaches us that the divine figure does not show itself, even to a prophet of the calibre of Moses. Rather, it shows that the divine figure stays hidden. But by hiding, it also shows that one can contemplate its absence, which is in fact the beginning of the vision (temounah) of its very essence (temounah).

By renouncing to see a temounah (an image), one gains access to the temounah of the temounah (the understanding of the essence).

Through this riddle, hopefully, one may start to get access to God’s temounah.

It is also a further indication that God is indeed a hidden God. No wonder it is difficult to talk about His existence (and even more so about His essence) to ‘modern’ people who only want to « see » what is visible.

Varieties of Ecstasy


Ezekiel’s Vision. Raphael

Man is an « intermediary being » between the mortal and the immortal, says Plato. This enigmatic phrase, rather inaudible to modern people, can be understood in several senses,.

One of these is the following. « Intermediary » means that man is in constant motion. He goes up and down, in the same breath. He ascends towards ideas that he does not really understand, and he descends towards matter that he does not understand at all. Inhaling, exhaling. Systole of the spirit, diastole of the soul.

Ancient words still testify to these outward movements of the soul. « Ecstasy », from the Greek ἒκστασις (ekstasis), means firstly « coming out of oneself ». The spirit comes out of the body, and then it is caught up in a movement that takes it beyond the world.

Ekstasis is the opposite of stasis, ‘contemplation’, — which is immobile, stable, and which Aristotle called θεωρία (theoria). The meaning of θεωρία as ‘contemplation, consideration’ is rather late, since it only appears with Plato and Aristotle. Later, in Hellenistic Greek, this 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 festival. A ‘theory’ was a religious delegation going to a holy place.

The words ekstasis and theoria have something in common, a certain movement towards the divine. Ekstasis is an exit from the body. Theoria is a journey out of the homeland, to visit the oracle of Delphi.

These are images of the free movement of the soul, in the vertical or horizontal direction. Unlike the theoria, which is a journey in the true sense of the word, ekstasis takes the form of a thought in movement outside the body, crossed by lightning and dazzle, always aware of its weakness, its powerlessness, in an experience which goes far beyond its capacities, and which it knows it has little chance of really grasping, few means of fixing it and sharing it on its return.

The word ekstasis seems to keep the trace of a kind of experience that is difficult to understand for those who have not lived it. When the soul moves to higher lands, generally inaccessible, it encounters phenomena quite different from those of the usual life, life on earth. Above all, it runs an infinitely fast race, in pursuit of something that is constantly ahead of it, that draws it ever further away, to an ever-changing elsewhere, which probably stands at an infinite distance.

Human life cannot know the end of this race. The soul, at least the one that is given the experience of ekstasis, can nevertheless intuitively grasp the possibility of a perpetual search, a striking race towards an elusive reality.

In his commentaries on the experience of ecstasyi, Philo considers that Moses, despite what his famous visionii, reported in the Bible, did not actually have access to a complete understanding of the divine powers.

But Jeremiah, on the other hand, would testify to a much greater penetration of these powers, according to Philo. However, despite all his talent, Philo has difficulty in consolidating this delicate thesis. The texts are difficult and resistant to interpretation.

Philo cautiously suggests extrapolating certain lines from Jeremiah’s text to make it an indication of what may have been an ecstasy. « This is how the word of God was addressed to Jeremiah”iii. This is rather thin, admittedly. But another line allows us to guess God’s hold, God’s domination over Jeremiah: « Dominated by your power, I have lived in isolation »iv.

Other prophets have also declared to have lived in ecstasy, using other metaphors. Ezekiel, for example, says that « the hand of God came »v upon him, or that the spirit « prevailed »vi.

When the 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 sad, in the exaltation of my spirit, and the hand of the Lord weighed heavily on me.”vii

In a cynical, materialistic and disillusioned time, like our time, one cannot be content with just words, even prophetic ones, to interest the reader. Facts, experiments, science, rationality are needed.

Let’s start with a ‘technical’ definition of ecstasy according to the CNRTL :

« A particular state in which a person, finding herself as if transported out of herself, 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 evokes enlightenment, identification or union with transcendental realities. This vocabulary is hardly less obscure than the biblical expressions ‘dominion by power’, or ‘hand of God’.

Moreover, this definition cautiously employs what appears to be a series of euphemisms: ‘to be as if transported’, ‘to be removed from the sensitive world’, ‘to discover a kind of enlightenment’, ‘to participate in an experience’.

If we return to the memories of ecstasy bequeathed to us by the prophets, the true ‘experience’ of ecstasy seems infinitely more dynamic, more overwhelming, ‘dominated’ by the immediate, irrefutable intuition of an infinite, transcendent ‘power’.

Bergson, a true modernist, if ever there was one, and philosopher of movement, paradoxically gives a rather static image of ecstasy: « The soul ceases to turn on itself (…). It stops, as if it were listening to a voice calling out to it. (…) Then comes an immensity of joy, an ecstasy in which it is absorbed or a rapture it experiences: God is there, and it is in him. No more mystery. Problems fade away, obscurities dissipate; it is an illumination.”viii

Can ecstasy only be associated with a moment when the soul ‘stops’, when it ‘stops spinning’? Is it not rather carried away without recourse by a fiery power, which suddenly sweeps away all certainty, all security? Bergson certainly falls far short of any essential understanding of ecstasy, perhaps because he has never experienced one.

Who will report today in audible words, in palpable images, the infinite and gentle violence of ecstasy? Who will say in raw terms the light that invades the intelligence, as in love the whole body? Who will explain the narrow bank from which the pulse of death is measured? Who will tell us how to kiss the lips of infinity? Who will grasp in one stroke the face of which time is but a slice, and the world, but a shadow?

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iPhilon. De Monarch. I, 5-7

iiEx., 33, 18-23

iiiJér. 14,1

ivJér. 15,17

vEz. 1,3

viEz. 3,12

viiEz. 3,14

viiiH. Bergson, Deux sources,1932, p. 243.