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.

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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.

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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?

______

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.

Biblical Nudity


The Drunkenness of Noah. Moretto da Brescia.

There are four kinds of nudity in the Bible.

The first kind of nudity: the head uncovered, the face unveiled, or the body dressed in torn clothing.

Moses said to Aaron, and to Eleazar and Ithamar his sons: « Do not uncover your heads or tear your clothes, unless you want to die and bring divine wrath upon the whole community. « (Lev. 10:6)

In this episode, sadness and mourning take hold of Aaron and his sons because a divine fire has just fatally burned two other sons. But Moses does not allow them to express their sorrow in the agreed forms (uncovered head, torn clothes).

In another episode, it is the unveiled face of Abraham’s wife that poses a problem, not as such, but because it arouses the Pharaoh’s desire, and incites Abraham to lie to him about his wife whom he presents as his sister.

« When he was about to arrive in Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife: « I know that you are a woman with a gracious face. It will happen that when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’, and they will kill me and keep you alive. « (Gen. 12:11-12)

Second kind of nudity: that of the drunk man, who does not have his full conscience. Thus Noah: « He drank of his wine and became drunk, and laid himself bare in the midst of his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and went outside to tell his two brothers. « (Gen. 9:21-22)

Third kind of nudity, the proud nudity of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. « Now they were both naked, the man and his wife, and they were not ashamed. « (Gen. 2:25).

The fourth kind of nakedness is that of the shameful body. « And the LORD God called the man and said to him, « Where are you? » He answered, « I heard your voice in the garden; I was afraid, because I am naked, and I hid myself. » Then he said, « Who told you that you were naked? » (Gen. 3:9-11)

These different sort of nakedness can be interpreted, it seems to me, as various allegories of the Mystery, as various ways of being confronted with it, partially or totally, seeing it without understanding it, or somewhat understanding it, but then being excluded from it.

Not everyone is allowed to “see” the mysteries of heaven and earth. There are several levels of unveiling, reserved for those who have the capacity to face them face to face, according to their own merits.

“Seeing” the nakedness of the mystery is in principle excluded. But there are cases where this is more or less possible, with certain consequences.

If the mystery is laid bare, if it is looked at without a veil, without precaution, this implies taking risks.

The first kind of nudity is an image of the risk taken. Uncovering one’s head or tearing off one’s clothes against time, like Aaron did, can arouse divine anger.

Noah’s nakedness is another parable. One is sometimes led to surreptitiously discover a hidden aspect of the Mystery. Ham accidentally saw his father’s nudity (nudity which is admittedly a figure, a metaphor, of the Mystery). Ham will be punished above all for having immediately ‘revealed’ it to his brothers Shem and Japheth instead of having taken the necessary measures (covering the nudity, protecting the nakedness of the Mystery). It was the latter brothers who then carefully covered it, walking backwards and turning their face, not taking any glance at the scene.

They were to be rewarded later on for having preserved the invisible aura of the Mystery.

The third nudity, the happy nudity of Adam and Eve, is that of the origin. One may see the entire Mystery, without any veil, but the paradox is that one is not aware of its real nature. The whole Mystery is fully disclosed, but everything happens as if there was no awareness of it, as if there was nothing special to see, to understand, as is there was nothing mysterious in fact. Trap of the visible. Laces of un-exercised intelligence. Adam and Eve do not “see” and even less understand the Mystery that surrounds them, and they are not even aware of their own mystery, the mystery of their existence, their own consciousness. The Mystery is present in them, around them, but they know nothing of it.

The fourth kind of nudity is shameful nudity. Adam finally knows and sees his own nakedness as it is. The mystery is revealed to the consciousness. The consciousness has knowledge of the existence of the Mystery, but to no avail. The presence of the Mystery is immediately covered, buried in the unconscious, by the consciousness.

Four kind of nudity, four ways of perceiving the Mystery, and four ways blinding oneself to its true nature.

The biblical nudity carries four lessons about the veil and its unveiling.

One has to make an effort to understand the true nature, the true nudity, the true essence of the Mystery.

Not by unveiling it. On the contrary.

The Thinker


The Thinker. Auguste Rodin

The Greek word logos means « reason » or « discourse, speech ».

In Plato’s philosophy, the Logos is the Principle and the Word. It is also the Whole of all the Intelligible, as well as the link between the divine powers, and what founds their unity. Finally, it is the « intermediary » between man and God.

For Philo of Alexandria, a Neo-Platonist Jew, the Logos takes two forms. In God, the Logos is the divine Intelligence, the Eternal Thought, the Thoughtful Thought. In its second form, the Logos resides in the world, it is the Thought in action, the Thought realized outside God.

Written shortly after Philo’s active years, the Gospel of John says that « in the beginning » there was the Logos who was God, and the Logos who was with God i. There was also the Logos who was made fleshii.

Does this mean that there are three instances of the Logos? The Logos who is God, the Logos who is with Him and the Logos who became flesh?

In Christian theology, there is only one Logos. Yet the three divine ‘instances’ of the Logos quoted by John have also been personified as Father, Son, Spirit.

For the structuralist philosopher, it is possible to sum up these difficult theses in a pragmatic way. The Logos comes in three forms or aspects: Being, Thinking, Speaking. That what is, that what thinks and that what speaks. These three forms are, moreover, fundamental states, from which everything derives, and with which anybody can find an analogy pointing to the fundamental human condition (existence, intelligence, expression).

Philo, who is both a Jew and a Neoplatonist, goes quite far with the theory of the Logos, despite the inherent difficulty of reconciling the unity of God and the multiplication of His ‘instances’ (that the Kabbalah, much later on, called ‘sefirot‘). For Philo, the Logos is the totality of God’s Ideas. These Ideas act “like seals, which when approached to the wax produce countless imprints without being affected in any way, always remaining the same.”iii

All things that exist in the universe derive from an Idea, a « seal ». The Logos is the general seal whose imprint is the entire universe.iv

Philo’s Logos is not « personified ». The Logos is the Organ of God (both His Reason and His Word) playing a role in the Creation. Philo multiplies metaphors, analogies, drawing from divine, human and natural images. The Logos is creation, engendering, speech, conception, or flow, radiation, dilatation. Using a political image, God « reigns », the Logos « governs ».

Philo’s thinking about the Logos is complex and confusing. A 19th century commentator judged that « a tremendous confusion is at the basis of Philo’s system »v. Allegedly, Philo seems to mix up Logos (Word), Pneuma (Spirit), Sophia (Wisdom) and Epistemus (Knowledge).

Wisdom seems to play the same role in relation to the Logos as the thinking Thought (Spirit) of God plays in relation to the world of the Intelligible. Wisdom is the deep source of this world of the Intelligible, and at the same time it is identical with it.

There is no logical quirk in this paradox. Everything comes from the nature of the divine Spirit, in which no distinction can be made between « container » and « content ».

The Logos is thus both the Author of the Law and the Law itself, the spirit and the letter of its content. The Logos is the Law, and the Logos is also its enunciator, its revelator.vi

The Logos is, in the universe, the Divine brought back to unity. He is also the intermediary between this unity and God. Everything which constitutes the Logos is divine, and everything which is divine, apart from the essence of God, is the Logos.

These ideas, as has been said, have been sometimes described as a « philosophical hodgepodge »; they seem to demonstrate a « lack of rigor »vii on the part of Philo, according to certain harsh judgments.

However, what strikes me is that Philo and John, at about the same historical period, the one immediately preceding the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, and independently of each other, specified the contours of a theophany of the Logos, with clear differences but also deep common structures.

What is even more striking is that, over the centuries, the Logos of the Stoics, the Platonic Noos, the Biblical Angel of the Eternal, the Word of YHVH, the Judeo-Alexandrine Logos, or the ‘Word made flesh‘, the Messiah of the first Christian Church, have succeeded one another. All these figures offer their analogies and differences.

As already said, the main difficulty, however, for a thinker like Philo, was to reconcile the fundamental unity of God, the founding dogma of Judaism, and His multiple, divine emanations, such as the Law (the Torah), or His Wisdom (Hokhma).

On a more philosophical level, the difficulty was to think a Thought that exists as a Being, that also unfolds as a living, free, creative entity, and that finally ´reveals´ herself as the Word — in the world.

There would certainly be an easy (negative) solution to this problem, a solution that « modern » and « nominalist » thinkers, cut off from these philosophical roots, would willingly employ: it would be to simply send the Logos and the Noos, the Angel and the  incarnate Wisdom, the Torah and the Gospel back into the dustbin of empty abstractions, of idealistic chimera.

I do not opt for such an easy solution. It seems to me contrary to all the clues accumulated by History.

I believe that the Spirit, as it manifests itself at a very modest level in each one of us, does not come from biochemical mechanisms, from synaptic connections. I believe it is precisely the opposite.

Our brain multiplies cellular and neuronal networks, in order to try to grasp, to capture at our own level, what the Spirit can let us see of its true, inner nature, its fundamental essence.

The brain, the human body, the peoples of different nations and, as such, the whole of humanity are, in their own unique way, immense collective ´antennae´, whose primary mission is to capture the diffuse signs of a creative Intelligence, and build a consciousness out of it.

The greatest human geniuses do not find their founding ideas at the unexpected crossroads of a few synapses, or thanks to haphazard ionic exchanges. Rather, they are « inspired » by a web of thoughtful Thoughts, in which all living things have been immersed since the beginning.

As a clue, I propose this image :  When I think, I think that I am; then I think that this thought is part of a Thought that lives, and endless becomes; and I think of this Thought, which never stops thinking, never ceases to think, eternally, the Thought that continues « to be », and that never stops being without thinking, and that never stops thinking without being.

iJn 1,1

iiJn 1,14

iiiPhilo. De Monarchia. II, 218

ivPhilo. De Mundi I, 5. De Prof. I, 547

vJean Riéville. La doctrine du Logos dans le 4ème évangile et dans les œuvres de Philon. 1881

viPhilo, De Migr. Abrah. I, 440-456

viiJean Riéville, op.cit.

God’s Shadows


Marc Chagall. Moses and the Burning Bush

Can God have an ‘image’ or a ‘shadow’? According to the Torah, the answer to this question is doubly positive. The idea that God can have an ‘image’ is recorded in Genesis. The text associates ‘image’ (‘tselem‘) and ‘likeness’ (‘demut‘) with Genesis 1:26: בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ , b-tsalmenou ki-demutenou (‘in our image and likeness’), and repeats the word ‘image’ in Genesis 1:27 in two other ways: בְּצַלְמוֹ b-tsalmou (‘in his image’) and בְּצֶם אֱלֹהִים b-tselem elohim (‘in the image of Elohim’).

As for the fact that God may also have a ‘shadow’, this is alluded to in a verse from Exodusi, which quotes the name Betsalel, which literally means ‘in the shadow of God’1. The word צֵל tsel means ‘shadow’. This word has the same root as the word צֶלֶם tselem, which we have just seen means ‘image’. Moreover, tselem also has as its primary meaning: ‘shadow, darkness’, as in this verse: ‘Yes, man walks in darkness’, or ‘he passes like a shadow’ii.

One could therefore, theoretically, question the usual translation of Gen 1:26, and translate it as follows: « Let us make man in our shadow », or « in our darkness ». What is important here is, above all, to see that in Hebrew ‘image’, ‘shadow’ and ‘darkness’ have the same root (צֵל ).

This lexical fact seems highly significant, and when these words are used in relation to God, it is obvious that they cry out: « Interpret us! ».

Philo, the Jewish and Hellenophone philosopher from Alexandria, proposes this interpretation: « The shadow of God is the Logos. Just as God is the model of His image, which is here called shadow, so the image becomes the model of other things, as is showed at the beginning of the Law (Gen. 1:27) (…) The image was reproduced after God and man after the image, who thus took the role of model.”iii 

Philo, through the use of the Greek word logos, through the role of mediator and model that the Logos plays between God and man, seems to prefigure in some way the Christian thesis of the existence of the divine Logos, as introduced by John: « In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God.”iv

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

In the original Hebrew of this verse, we read not ‘shadow’ (tsal), but ‘dream’ (halom). Philo, in his commentary, therefore changed the word ‘dream’ for ‘shadow’. But what is important for us is that Philo establishes that the words ‘vision’, ‘dream’ and ‘shadow’ have similar connotations.

The text, a little further on, reveals a clear opposition between these words (‘vision’, ‘dream’) and the words ‘face-to-face’, ‘appearance’, ‘without riddles’, and ‘image’.

« Listen carefully to my words. If he were only your prophet, I, the Lord, would manifest myself to him in a vision, I would speak with him in a dream. But no: Moses is my servant; he is the most devoted of all my household. I speak to him face to face, in a clear apparition and without riddles; it is the very image of God that he contemplates. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant, against Moses? » v

God manifests Himself to a simple prophet in ambiguous and fragile ways, through a vision (ba-mar’ah בַבַּמַּרְאָה ) or a dream (bahalom בַּחֲלוֹם ).

But to Moses, God appears ‘face to face’ (pêh el-pêh), ‘in a clear appearance and without riddles’ (v-mar’êh v-lo b-hidot וּמַרְאֶה וְלֹא בְחִידֹת ). In short, Moses contemplates ‘the image of God himself’ (temounah תְּמוּנָה).

Note here the curious repetition of the word mar’ah מַּרְאָה, ‘vision’, with a complete change in its meaning from negative to positive… God says in verse 6: « If he were only your prophet, I, the Lord, would manifest Myself to him in a vision (ba-mar’ah בַּמַּרְאָה ) ». And it is the same word (מַרְאֶה), with another vocalization, which he uses in verse 8: « I speak to him face to face, in a clear apparition (ou-mar’êh וּמַרְאֶה ) ». The online version of Sefarim translates the same word as ‘vision’ in verse 6 and ‘clear appearance’ in verse 8. The ‘vision’ is reserved for the simple prophets, and the ‘clear appearance’ for Moses.

How can this be explained?

Verse 6 says: ba-mar’ah, ‘in a vision’. Verse 8 says: ou-mar’eh, ‘and a vision’. In the first case God manifests himself ‘in‘ a vision. In the second case, God speaks with Moses, not ‘through’ a vision, but making Himself as « a vision ».

Moses has the great privilege of seeing God face to face, he sees the image of God. This image is not simply an image, or a ‘shadow’, because it ‘speaks’, and it is the very Logos of God, according to Philo.

Rashi is somewhat consistent with Philo’s point of view, it seems to me. He comments on this delicate passage as follows: « A vision and not in riddles. ‘Vision’ here means ‘clarity of speech’. I explain my words clearly to him and I don’t hide them in riddles like the ones Ye’hezqèl talks about: ‘Propose a riddle…’. (Ye’hezqèl 17, 2). I might have thought that the ‘vision’ is that of the shekhina. So it is written: ‘You cannot see my face’ (Shemoth 33:20) (Sifri). And he will contemplate the image of Hashem. It is the vision from behind, as it is written: ‘You will see me from behind’ (Shimot 33:23) (Sifri). »

If God only manifests Himself ‘in a vision’, it is because He does not ‘speak’. The important thing is not the vision, the image or the shadow of God, but His word, His Logos, the fact that God « speaks ». Read: פֶּה אֶל-פֶּה אֲדַבֶ-בּוֹ, וּמַרְאֶה pêh al-pêh adaber bo, ou-mar’êh: ‘I speak to him face to face, – a vision’.

It is necessary to understand: ‘I speak to him and I make him see clearly my word (my Logos, my Dabar)’…

Philo, a Hellenophone, probably gives the word Logos some Platonic connotations, which are not a priori present in the Hebrew word Dabar (דָּבָר). But Philo makes the strong gesture of identifying the Logos, the Image (of God) and Dabar.

Philo is also a contemporary of Jesus, whom his disciple John will call a few years later Logos and « Image » of God.

Between the Dabar of Moses and the Logos as Philo, John and Rashi understand it, how can we not see continuities and differences?

The Spirit (or the Word) is more or less incarnated. As in the ‘image’ and the ‘clear appearance’ of the Logos. Or as in being the Logos itself.

____

1In Hebrew,  tsal means « shadow » and Tsalel : « shadow of God »

iEx. 31,2

iiPs 39,7

iiiLegum Allegoriae, 96

ivJn 1,1

vNum. 12,6-8

Ecstasy


The Descent from Mount Sinai, by Cosimo Rosselli, the Sistine Chapel, Rome

Under Tiberius, in the year 16, soothsayers, astrologers and magi were expelled from Italy. Divination had become a capital crime that one would pay with one’s life. A new millennium had begun, but no one suspected it. Times were changing faster than people’s minds. And the Roman religion had to defend itself foot to foot against barbaric ideas from elsewhere.

Long gone was then the time of Moses, who saw in the light what thought could not embrace. Long gone, the time of the prophets, who received dreams and visions, images and words.

Long gone also, was the time of the Chaldean magi and the Avestic and Vedic priests. Possessed of a divine madness, they could, it is said, predict the future by their power of enthusiasm, their capacity for ecstasy.

The words ‘enthusiasm’ and ‘ecstasy’ translate by means of Greek words and roots experiences of a probably universal nature. But do these words adequately reflect the variety of ‘visions’ and the diversity of ‘seers’ throughout the world and throughout history? How can this be ascertained? How can we organize the timeless archaeology of enthusiasm, launch the worldwide excavations of the ecstatic states?

When the divine penetrates the human, it overturns all that is known, all that is acquired, all that can be expressed, all that can be dictated. Everything is overturned, but it also seems that the mind receives, if we believe the testimonies, a capacity for understanding, comprehension and conviction, without any possible comparison. The prophet ‘hears’ or ‘sees’ in an instant thoughts which he considers ‘divine’ but which he makes his own, and to a certain extent he can communicate them to others and find attentive ears. This is where the true prophet is revealed.

After God breathed thoughts and laws into Moses’ mind, Moses in turn repeated them to Aaron. This double operation (first through divine breath, then through human speech) can be understood as an allegory. Moses is above all God’s interpreter. Firstly, he represents His Intelligence, then His Word. The Intelligence first grasps Moses entirely. What can be said of this? The texts are opaque, difficult to interpret. As for the Word that Moses repeated to Aaron, it represented the prophetic act itself, the decisive leap out of the sanctuary of ecstasy into freedom.

Free, the prophet is also bound, from above and below, – bound to heaven by Intelligence, bound to earth by the Word. Philo sums up: « The soul has an earthly base, but it has its summit in pure Intelligence.”i

For my part, I would add that the most important thing is not in fact to be found in Intelligence, which assails the soul entirely and subjugates it, nor in the Word, whose task is to give meaning to the unspeakable and then bring the worlds together.

What is really important, for the rest of the ages, and for its truly unspeakable implications, is the absolute freedom of the soul (here the soul of Moses) which has been able to free itself from ecstasy, then to transcend the innumerable constraints of the human word, and finally to launch a bridge over unfathomable chasms.

What a lesson!

What an encouragement!

iPhilo, De Somn. 1. 146

Creation, Death, Life


According to Genesis, taken literally, man was created twice.

Genesis, in chapter 1, describes a first creation of « man » called ha-adam. The word ha-adam includes the definite article ha and literally means « the earth », metaphorically « the red » (for the earth is red), and by extension « man ».

In Chapter 2, Genesis describes a second creation of man (ish), accompanied by a creation of woman (isha). These two words are not preceded by the article ha.

The most immediately noticeable differences between the two creations are as follows.

First of all, the names given to the man differ, as we have just seen: ha-adam on the one hand, ish and isha on the other.

Secondly, the verbs used to describe the act of creation are not the same. In the first chapter of Genesis we read: « God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness' » (Gen. 1:26). The Hebrew word for ‘let us make’ is נַעֲשֶׂה from the verb עֲשֶׂה, ‘asah, to do, to act, to work. In the second chapter of Genesis we read: « And the Eternal God planted a garden in Eden toward the east, and there he placed the man whom he had fashioned. « (Gen. 2:8) The Hebrew word for ‘fashioning’ is יָצָר , yatsara, to make, to form, to create.

Thirdly, in Genesis 1, God created man « male and female » (zakhar and nqebah). Man is apparently united in a kind of bi-sexual indifferentiation or created with « two faces », according to Rashi.

In contrast, in Genesis 2, the creation of woman is clearly differentiated. She is created in a specific way and receives the name ‘isha‘, which is given to her by the man. The man, ‘ha-adam‘, then calls himself ‘ish‘, and he calls his wife ‘isha‘, « because she was taken from ‘ish‘ ».

Rashi comments on this verse: « She shall be called isha, because she was taken from ish. Isha (‘woman’) is derived from ish (‘man’). From here we learn that the world was created with the holy language, [since only the Hebrew language connects the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’ with a common root]. (Berechith raba 18, 4).”

I don’t know if it can be said with impunity that only the Hebrew language connects the words « man » and « woman » to a common root. English, for example, displays such a link with « man » and « woman ». In Latin, « femina » (woman) would be the feminine counterpart of « homo » (« hemna« ).

But this is a secondary issue. However, it shows that Rashi’s interest is certainly not exercised here on the problem of double creation and on the triple difference between the stories of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2: two nouns (adam/ish), two verbs to describe creation (‘asah/yatsara), and two ways of evoking the difference between genders, in the form ‘male and female’ (zakhar/nqebah) and in the form ‘man and woman’ (ish/isha).

The double narrative of the creation of man and woman could be interpreted as the result of writing by independent authors at different times. These various versions were later collated to form the text of Genesis, which we have at our disposal, and which is traditionally attributed to Moses.

What is important here is not so much the identity of the writers as the possible interpretation of the differences between the two stories.

The two ‘ways’ of creating man are rendered, as has been said, by two Hebrew words, עֲשֶׂה ‘to make’ and יָצָר ‘to form’. What does this difference in vocabulary indicate?

The verb עֲשֶׂה ‘asah (to do) has a range of meanings that help to characterize it more precisely: to prepare, to arrange, to take care of, to establish, to institute, to accomplish, to practice, to observe. These verbs evoke a general idea of realization, accomplishment, with a nuance of perfection.

The verb יָצָר yatsara (to shape, to form) has a second, intransitive meaning: to be narrow, tight, embarrassed, afraid, tormented. It evokes an idea of constraint, that which could be imposed by a form applied to a malleable material.

By relying on lexicon and semantics, one can attempt a symbolic explanation. The first verb (עֲשֶׂה , to do) seems to translate God’s point of view when he created man. He « makes » man, as if he was in his mind a finished, perfect, accomplished idea. The second verb (יָצָר , to form) rather translates, by contrast, the point of view of man receiving the « form » given to him, with all that this implies in terms of constraints, constrictions and limits.

If we venture into a more philosophical terrain, chapter 1 of Genesis seems to present the creation of man as ‘essence’, or in a ‘latent’ form, still ‘hidden’ to some extent in the secret of nature.

Later, when the time came, man also appears to have been created as an existential, natural, visible, and clearly sexually differentiated reality, as chapter 2 reports.

S. Augustine devoted Part VI of his book, Genesis in the literal sense, to this difficult question. He proposes to consider that God first created all things ‘simultaneously’, as it is written: ‘He who lives for eternity created everything at the same time. « (Ecclesiasticus, 18,1) The Vulgate version says: « in aeternum, creavit omnia simul« . This word ‘simul‘ seems to mean a ‘simultaneous’ creation of all things.

It should be noted in passing that neither Jews nor Protestants consider this book of Ecclesiasticus (also called Sirach) to belong to the biblical canon.

For its part, the Septuagint translates from Hebrew into Greek this verse from Ecclesiasticus:  » o zon eis ton aiôna ektisen ta panta koinè « . (« He who lives for eternity has created everything together. »)

This is another interpretation.

So shall we retain ‘together’ (as the Greek koinè says) or ‘simultaneously’ (according to the Latin simul)? It could be said that it amounts to the same thing. However it follows from this difference that Augustine’s quotation from Sirach 18:1 is debatable, especially when it is used to distinguish between the creation of man in chapter 1 of Genesis and his second creation in chapter 2.

According to Augustine, God in the beginning created all things ‘in their causes’, or ‘in potency’. In other words, God in chapter 1 creates the idea, essence or principle of all things and everything in nature, including man. « If I say that man in that first creation where God created all things simultaneously, not only was he not a man in the perfection of adulthood, but was not even a child, – not only was he not a child, but was not even an embryo in his mother’s womb, but was not even the visible seed of man, it will be believed that he was nothing at all.”

Augustine then asks: what were Adam and Eve like at the time of the first creation? « I will answer: invisibly, potentially, in their causes, as future things are made that are not yet.”

Augustine takes the side of the thesis of the double creation of man, firstly in his ‘causal reason’, ‘in potency’, and secondly, ‘in act’, in an effective ‘existence’ which is prolonged throughout history.

This is also true of the soul of every man. The soul is not created before the body, but after it. It does not pre-exist it. When it is created, it is created as a ‘living soul’. It is only in a second stage that this ‘living soul’ may (or may not) become ‘life-giving spirit’.

Augustine quotes Paul on this subject: « If there is an animal body, there is also a spiritual body. It is in this sense that it is written: The first man, Adam, was made a living soul, the last Adam, the ‘newest Adam’ (novissimus Adam), was a life-giving spirit. But it is not what is spiritual that was made first, it is what is animal; what is spiritual comes next. The first man, who came from the earth, is earthly; the second man, who came from heaven, is heavenly. Such is the earthly, such are also the earthly; and such is the heavenly, such are also the heavenly. And just as we have put on the image of the earthly, so shall we also put on the image of him who is of heaven.”

And Augustine adds: « What more can I say? We therefore bear the image of the heavenly man from now on by faith, sure that we will obtain in the resurrection what we believe: as for the image of the earthly man, we have clothed it from the origin of the human race. »

This basically amounts to suggesting the hypothesis of a third ‘creation’ that could affect man: after adam, ish or isha, there is the ‘last Adam‘, man as ‘life-giving spirit’.

From all of this, we will retain a real intuition of the possible metamorphoses of man, certainly not reduced to a fixed form, but called upon to considerably surpass himself.

It is interesting, at this point, to note that Philo of Alexandria offers a very different explanation of the double creation.

Philo explains that in the beginning God « places » (וַיָּשֶׂם שָׁם ) in the Garden of Eden a « fashioned » man (‘The Eternal God planted a garden in Eden towards the east and placed the man he had fashioned in it’). Gen. 2:8). A little later he ‘established’ (וַיַּנִּח ) a man to be the worker and the guardian (‘The Eternal-God therefore took the man and established him in the Garden of Eden to cultivate and care for it’. Gen. 2:15).

According to Philo, the man who cultivates the garden and cares for it is not the « fashioned » man, but « the man [that God] has made« . And Philo says: « [God] receives this one, but drives out the other.”i

Philo had already made a distinction between the heavenly man and the earthly man, by the same verbal means. « The heavenly man was not fashioned, but made in the image of God, and the earthly man is a being fashioned, but not begotten by the Maker.”ii

If we follow Philo, we must understand that God drove the ‘fashioned‘ man out of the garden, after having placed him there, and then established the ‘made‘ man there. The man whom God ‘fashioned‘ was ‘placed‘ in the garden, but it seems that he was not considered worthy to cultivate and keep it.

Moreover, in the text of Genesis there is no evidence to support Philo’s thesis of a cross between a ‘fashioned’ man and a ‘made’ man.

Philo specifies: « The man whom God made differs, as I have said, from the man who was fashioned: the fashioned man is the earthly intelligence; the made man is the immaterial intelligence.”iii

Philo’s interpretation, as we can see, is metaphorical. It must be understood that there are not two kinds of men, but that there are rather two kinds of intelligence in man.

« Adam is the earthly and corruptible intelligence, for the man in the image is not earthly but heavenly. We must seek why, giving all other things their names, he did not give himself his own (…) The intelligence that is in each one of us can understand other beings, but it is incapable of knowing itself, as the eye sees without seeing itself »iv.

The ‘earthly’ intelligence can think of all beings, but it cannot understand itself.

God has therefore also ‘made‘ a man of ‘heavenly’ intelligence, but he does not seem to have had a happier hand, since he disobeyed the command not to eat of the fruit of the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’.

But was this tree of ‘the knowledge of good and evil’ really in the Garden of Eden? Philo doubts it. For if God says, « But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it », then « this tree was not in the garden »v.

« You shall not eat of it.” This should not be interpreted as a prohibition, but as a simple prediction of an all-knowing God.

This can be explained by the nature of things, Philo argues. The tree could have been present in « substance », but not in « potency »…

The man ‘in the image’ could have eaten the substance of a fruit of this tree. But he did not digest all its latent potency, and therefore he did not benefit from it in any real way.

There is yet another possible interpretation. Knowledge is not found in life. It is found only in potency, not in life, but in death.

The day in which one eats from the fruit of the tree of knowledge is also the day of death, the day in which the prediction is fulfilled: « Thou shalt die of death » מוֹת תָּמוּת (Gen. 2:17).

In this strange verse the word « death » is used twice. Why is this?

« There is a double death, that of man, and the death proper to the soul; that of man is the separation of soul and body; that of the soul is the loss of virtue and the acquisition of vice. (…) And perhaps this second death is opposed to the first: this one is a division of the compound of body and soul; the other, on the contrary, is a meeting of the two where the inferior, the body, dominates and the superior, the soul, is dominated.”vi

Philo quotes fragment 62 of Heraclitus: « We live by their death, we are dead to their life.”vii He believes that Heraclitus was « right to follow the doctrine of Moses in this ». As a good Neoplatonist, Philo also takes up Plato’s famous thesis of the body as the ‘tomb of the soul’.

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

There is nevertheless a notable difference between the vision of Genesis and that of the Greek philosophers.

Genesis says: « You shall die of death! « 

Heraclitus has a very different formula: « The life of some is the death of others, the death of some, the life of others.”

In Genesis death is deemed as a double death.

For Heraclitus, death is mixed with life.

Who is right?

iPhilo of Alexandria, Legum Allegoriae, 55

iiIbid., 31

iiiIbid., 88

ivIbid., 90

vIbid., 100

viIbid., 105

vii Philo quoted only a part of fragment 62. He omitted: « Immortals are mortal; mortals are immortal ».

viiiIbid., 106

Angelus novus


Angelus Novus. Paul Klee

Paul Klee’s Angelus novus has an undeniably catchy title. « The new angel », – two simple words that sum up an entire programme. But does the painting live up to the expectation created by its title? A certain ‘angel’, with a figure like no other, seems to float graphically in the air of mystery, but what is he? What does he say? It is said that there are billions of angels on the head of a single pin. Each boson, each prion, has its angel, one might think, and each man too, say the scholastics. How, under these conditions, can we distinguish between new and old angels? Aren’t they all in service, in mission, mobilised for the duration of time? And if there are « old angels », are they not nevertheless, and above all, eternal, timeless, always new in some way?

Walter Benjamin has commented on this painting by Klee, which undoubtedly ensured its paper celebrity more than anything else.

« There is a painting by Klee entitled Angelus novus. It depicts an angel who seems to have the intention of moving away from what his gaze seems to be riveted to. His eyes are wide open, his mouth open, his wings spread. Such is the aspect that the angel must necessarily have of history. His face is turned towards the past. Where a sequence of events appears before us, he sees only one and only one catastrophe, which keeps piling up ruins upon ruins and throwing them at his feet. He would like to linger, awaken the dead and gather the defeated. But a storm is blowing from paradise, so strong that the angel can no longer close its wings. This storm is constantly pushing him towards the future, to which he turns his back, while ruins are piling up all the way to heaven before him. This storm is what we call progress.”i

Striking is the distance between Benjamin’s dithyrambic commentary and Klee’s flatter, drier work. Klee’s angel actually appears static, even motionless. No sensation of movement emanates from him, either backwards or forwards. No wind seems to be blowing. His ‘wings’ are raised as if for an invocation, not for a flight. And if he were to take off, it would be upwards rather than forwards. Its « fingers », or « feathers », are pointed upwards, like isosceles triangles. His eyes look sideways, fleeing the gaze of the painter and the spectator. His hair looks like pages of manuscripts, rolled by time. No wind disturbs them. The angel has a vaguely leonine face, a strong, sensual, U-shaped jaw, accompanied by a double chin, also U-shaped. His nose seems like another face, whose eyes would be his nostrils. His teeth are wide apart, sharp, almost sickly. It even seems that several of them are missing. Do angels’ teeth decay?

Klee’s angel is sickly, stunted, and has only three fingers on his feet. He points them down, like a chicken hanging in a butcher’s shop.

Reading Benjamin, one might think he’s talking about another figure, probably dreamt of. Benjamin has completely re-invented Klee’s painting. No accumulated progress, no past catastrophe, seems to accompany this angelus novus, this young angel.

But let us move on to the question of substance. Why should history have only one ‘angel’? And why should this angel be ‘new’?

Angelology is a notoriously imperfect science. Doctors rarely seem to agree.

In Isaiah (33:7) we read: « The angels of peace will weep bitterly. » Do their renewed tears testify to their powerlessness?

In Daniel (10:13) it is said that an archangel appeared and said to Daniel: « The Prince of the Persians resisted me twenty-one days ». This archangel was Gabriel, it is said of him, and the Prince of Persia was the name of the angel in charge of the Persian kingdom.

So the two angels were fighting against each other?

It was not a fight like Jacob’s fight with the angel, but a metaphysical fight. S. Jerome explains that this angel, the Prince of the Persian kingdom, opposed the liberation of the Israelite people, for whom Daniel prayed, while the archangel Gabriel presented his prayers to God.

S. Thomas Aquinas also commented on this passage: « This resistance was possible because a prince of the demons wanted to drag the Jews who had been brought to Persia into sin, which was an obstacle to Daniel’s prayer interceding for this people.”ii

From all this we can learn that there are many angels and even demons in history, and that they are brought to fight each other, for the good of their respective causes.

According to several sources (Maimonides, the Kabbalah, the Zohar, the Soda Raza, the Maseketh Atziluth) angels are divided into various orders and classes, such as Principalities (hence the name « Prince » which we have just met for some of them), Powers, Virtues, Dominations. Perhaps the best known are also the highest in the hierarchy: the Cherubim and the Seraphim. Isaiah says in chapter 6 that he saw several Seraphim with six wings « shouting to one another ». Ezekiel (10:15) speaks of Cherubim.

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

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

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

Among the myriads of possible angels, where should we place Klee’s Angelus novus, the new angel whom Benjamin called the « angel of history » with authority? Subsidiary question: is a « new angel » fundamentally permanent or eminently perishable?

In other words: is History of an eternal essence or is it made up of a series of moments with no sequel?

Benjamin thinks, as we have seen, that History is represented, at every moment, at every turning point, by a « new Angel ». History exists only as a succession of phases, it is a wireless and random necklace of moments, without a sequel.

Anything is always possible, at any moment, anything can happen, such seems to be the lesson learned, in an age of absolute anguish, or in a serene sky.

But one can also, and without any real contradiction, think that History is one, that it builds its own meaning, that it is a human fabrication, and that the divine Himself must take into account this fundamental freedom, always new, always renewed, and yet so ancient, established since the origin of its foundation.

—–

iWalter Benjamin, Thèses sur la philosophie de l’histoire. Œuvres III, Paris, Gallimard, 2000, p. 434

ii Summa Theol. I, Q. 113 a.8

The Union of Breath and Word


Rig Veda ─ Padapātha

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

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

The Udgatṛi were responsible for singing the hymns of SâmaVeda in the most melodious way.

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

Finally, remaining silent throughout, an experienced Brahmin, the ultimate reference for the smooth running of the sacrifice and guarantor of its effectiveness, supervised the various phases of the ceremony.

These four kinds of priests had a very different relationship to the word (of the Veda), according to their ranks and skills.

Some murmured it, others sang it, others spoke it loudly, – and finally the most senior among them kept silent.

These different regimes of expression could be interpreted as so many modalities of the relationship of speech to the divine. One could also be content to see in them an image of the different stages of the sacrifice, an indication of its progress.

In the Vedic imagination, murmurs, songs, words, cries, and finally silence fill and increase the divine, like great rivers wind ‘safe to the sea’.

The recitation of Ṛg Veda is an endless narrative, weaving itself, according to various rhythms. One can recite it word for word (pada rhythm), or mime a path (krama) according to eight possible varieties, such as the « braid » (jatā rhythm) or the « block » (ghana rhythm).

In the « braid » (jatā ) style, a four-syllable expression (noted: abcd) became the subject of a long, repetitive and obsessive litany, such as: ab/ba/abc/cba/bc/cb/bcd/dcb/bcd…

When the time came, the recitation would « burst out » (like thunder). Acme of sacrifice.

In all the stages of the sacrifice, there was a will to connect, a linking energy. The Vedic word is entirely occupied with building links with the Deity, weaving close, vocal, musical, rhythmic, semantic correlations.

In essence, it represents the mystery of the Deity. It establishes and constitutes the substance of a link with her, in the various regimes of breath, in their learned progression.

A hymn of the Atharvaveda pushes the metaphor of breath and rhythm as far as possible. It makes us understand the nature of the act in progress, which is similar to a sacred, mystical union.

« More than one who sees has not seen the Word; more than one who hears does not hear it.

To the latter, she has opened her body

like her husband a loving wife in rich attire. »

It is interesting, I think, to compare some of these Vedic concepts to those one can find in Judaism.

In Genesis, there is talk of a « wind » from God (רוּח, ruah), at the origin of the world.i A little later, it is said that God breathed a « breath of life » (נשׁמה neshmah) so that man became a « living being » (נפשׁ nefesh).ii

God’s « wind » evokes the idea of a powerful, strong hurricane. In contrast, the « breath of life » is light as a breeze, a peaceful and gentle exhalation.

But there is also the breath associated with the word of God, which « speaks », which « says ».

Philo of Alexandria thus commented about the « breath » and « wind » of God, : « The expression (He breathed) has an even deeper meaning. Indeed three things are required: what blows, what receives, what is blown. What blows is God; what receives is Intelligence; what is blown is Breath. What is done with these elements? A union of all three occurs.”iii

Breath, soul, spirit and speech, in the end, unite.

Beyond languages, beyond cultures, from the Veda to the Bible, a profound analogy transcends worlds.

The murmurs of the Adhvaryu, the songs of Udgatṛi, the words of Hotṛi, and the very silence of the Brahmin, aim at an union with the divine.

The union of these various breaths (murmured, spoken, sung, silent breaths) is analogous in principle, it seems to me, to the union of the wind (ruah), the soul (neshmah), and the spirit (nefesh).

In the Veda and in the Bible, — across the millennia, the union of the word and the breath, mimics the union of the divine and the human.

_____

iGn 1,2

iiGn 2,7

iii Philo. Legum Allegoriae 37

Modern Marranos


Esther before Ahasuerus. Giovanni Andrea Sirani (1630)

The « Hidden Jew » is an ancient figure. Joseph and Esther hid for a time. Esther’s name (אֶסְתֵּר) means « I will hide ». But, somewhat paradoxically, it is because she revealed her secret to Ahasuerus, that she saved her people.

Forced to hide under the Inquisition, and again paradoxically, the Marranos were « adventurers », « pioneers who can be counted among the first modern men », according to Shmuel Triganoi. They were the ferment of Jewish modernity. They are even said to be at the origin and the foundations of modernity in general.

« The Marrano experience reveals the existence in Judaism of a potentiality of Marranism, of a predisposition to Marranism, which has nothing to do with the fact that it also represents a decay of Judaism. The ambivalence is greater: imposed by force, it is also a high fact of the courage and perseverance of the Jews. The real question is this: is Marranism structurally inherent to Judaism, was it inscribed in Judaism from the beginning? (…) How could Jews have thought that they were becoming even more Jewish by becoming Christians (basically this is what Jewish-Christians have thought since Paul)?”ii

This question goes beyond the scope of Jewish-Christian relations alone. It goes further back to the origins. Did not Moses live for a time in ambivalence at the court of the Pharaoh?

Philo of Alexandria died around 50 AD. He had no connection with Christianity, of which he was a contemporary. Of Greek and Jewish culture, he knew the Greek philosophers and was well-learned in the texts of Judaism, which he interpreted in an original way. He was also interested in the religions of the Magi, the Chaldeans and the Zoroastrians.

A man of crossroads, he sought higher syntheses, new ways, adapted to the mingling of peoples, whose progress he observed.

Philo was certainly not a « hidden Jew ». But he pushed the analysis of tradition and its interpretation to the point of incandescence. Neither a Pharisee, a Sadducee nor an Essene, what kind of Judaism was he then representing?

Philo, two thousand years ago, and the Spanish and Portuguese marranos, five centuries ago, represent two unorthodox ways of claiming Judaism among the Gentiles. They seem to be moving away from it, but only to better return to it, by another kind of fidelity, more faithful perhaps to its spirit than to its letter. In this way they serve as bridges, as links, with the world of nations, offering broad perspectives.

Royaly ignored by the Synagogue, living in a troubled period, just before the destruction of the Second Temple, Philo professed advanced opinions, which could shock the orthodox traditionalists, and which bordered on heresy. Moreover, it was the Christian philosophers and theologians of the first centuries who preserved Philo’s writings, finding a posteriori in his synthetic thinking enough to feed their own reflections.

There was clearly then a difference in perspective between the Jews of Jerusalem, who prayed every day in the Temple, unaware of its imminent destruction, and the Jews of the Diaspora, whose freedom of thought was great.

Let us find an indication of such freedom of research by this line of Philo, typical of his style :

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

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

The Logos, « image and eldest son of God »? This was written by a Jew from Alexandria, a few years after the death on a cross of an obscure rabbi from Nazareth, a self-called Messiah? It is not difficult to imagine the reaction of the Doctors of Jewish Law to these stirring words. It is also easy to understand why the Judeo-Christians of the 1st and 2nd centuries decided that Philo would be a precious ally for them, because of his audacity and philosophical interpersonal skills.

In another writing, Philo evokes Wisdom, both a « spouse of God »iv, and a « virgin », of an undefiled nature. How is it possible? It is precisely because the union with God gives the Soul its virginity. Other metaphors abound: the Logos is father and husband of the Soul.

The idea of a mother-virgin wife was not so new. It can be found in various spiritual traditions of Antiquity, especially among the Orphics. The symbolic fusion between the wife and daughter of God corresponds to the assimilation between Artemis and Athena among the latter. Korah, a virgin, daughter of Zeus and Demeter, unites with Zeus and is the life-giving source of the world. She is the object of the mysteries of Eleusis. In the Osiriac tradition, Osiris is the « principle », Isis the « receptacle » and Horus the « product », which is translated philosophically by the triad of the intelligible, the material and the sensible.

Tempted by daring syntheses, Philo was certainly not an orthodox Jew. So what was he then the symbol, the prefiguration of? Of the eternal vigour of Marranism? Of the temptation of an effluence of the spirit? Of an avid search for universals?

Is Marranism so absolutely modern, that it becomes universal? Shmuel Trigano writes: « The dual identity of the modern Jew may well be akin to the Marrano score.”v

But the « Marrano score » is not reserved for « hidden Jews ». It is much more general. It touches on the very identity of modern man. « Marranism was the laboratory of Jewish modernity, even among the Jews who escaped Marranism. Let us go further: Marranism was the very model of all political modernity. »v

A political Marranism? But why not go further, and postulate the possibility of an anthropological attitude fundamentally « Marrano« , potentially touching everyone, and hiding in the heart of all human groups?

What, in fact, does Marranism bear witness to? It testifies to the profound ambivalence of the worldview of messianic belief. « Messianic consciousness encourages the Jew to live the life of this world while waiting for the world to come and thus to develop a cantilevered attitude towards this world.”vi

This feeling of strangeness in the world, of being put off, is not specific to Judaism, it seems to me.

Hinduism and Buddhism, for example, see this world as an illusion, as Māyā. This has also been the feeling of shamans since the dawn of time. The feeling of strangeness to the world is so universal, that it can be considered as a foundation of human consciousness. Man’s heart remains hidden from himself, and from this concealment he has a restless and troubled conscience. Man is for himself a mystery, that the magnificence of this world and its wonders verges on it without really reaching it, and certainly without ever filling it.

Man, shall we say, is fundamentally, anthropologically a « marrano« , torn between his inner and outer selves, his ego and his id, his soul and his abyss. Here is man, apparently complete, in « working order », and he is also aware confusely of all what he is lacking of. A Dasein pursued by doubt.

He discovers, again and again, that the world denies him, that the immense, eternal cosmos welcomes him, one day, we don’t know why or how, and makes a fleeting consciousness emerge from nowhere, which will end up broken, humiliated, by the tumult of unanswered questions. But over time, he also discovers the means to resist alienation, the necessary tricks, and acquires the ability to thwart the game of illusions.

This is a political lesson and a philosophical lesson.

Politics, first of all. At a time when the most « democratic » nations are actively preparing the means of mass surveillance, intrusive to the last degree, at a time when the prodromes of totalitarianism are rising on a planetary scale, we will always need this very ancient lesson of duplicity to survive, simply to remain human.

Philosophical, too. In order to prepare a better, more universal world, we will have to follow Philo’s example, navigate freely among religions and nations, thoughts and languages, as if they all belonged to us and were our own.

—–

iShmuel Trigano. Le Juif caché. Marranisme et modernité, In Press Eds, 2000

iiIbid.

iiiPhilo, De Ebrietate

ivPhilon, Cherubim 43-53

vShmuel Trigano. Le Juif caché. Marranisme et modernité, In Press Eds, 2000

viIbid.

You Must Emigrate


A French antiriot police officer tries to prevent illegal migrants from hiding in trucks heading for England in the French northern harbour of Calais, on June 17, 2015. AFP PHOTO / Philippe Huguen

A little over two thousand years ago, Philo of Alexandria advocated radical emigration. He did not care about land borders, historical nations, geographical territories. « You must emigrate, in search of your father’s land, the land of the sacred word, the land of the father of those who practice virtue. This land is wisdom. « i

He was looking for access to another world, whose foreboding had come to him in a strange way, and whose presence seemed irrefutable to him. « Sometimes I would come to work as if I were empty, and suddenly I was full, ideas fell invisible from the sky, spread out inside me like a shower. Under this divine inspiration I was so excited that I no longer recognized anything, neither the place where I was, nor those who were there, nor what I was saying or writing.”ii

Philo had been seized several times by divine inspiration, he had « seen » it. « To see », at that time, was « to know ». In the old days in Israel, when people went to God for advice, they would say, « Come, let us go to the seer! For the one we call the prophet today was once called the seer.”iii

After his long fight in the dark night, Jacob too had wanted to « see ». He had wanted to hear the name of the one he had fought, to finally « see » him. But the name he asked for was not revealed to him. He only heard his own name, what was to be his new name. A name given by the one who kept his own name silent. Only then did Jacob « see ». But what did he see? A name? An idea? A future?

All we know is that he heard a voice in the night that gave him his name, his new and true name.

This voice is a light in the night. A voice of wisdom, no doubt, which sees itself, a splendour, of which the sun would never be but a faint image.

Jacob heard his « name », and he was no longer Jacob. He heard, – and then he « saw ». The important thing was not the name, but that he « saw ».

Philo explains this: « If the voice of mortals is addressed to the hearing, the oracles reveal to us that the words of God are, like light, things seen. It is said, ‘All the people saw the voice‘ (Ex. 20:15) instead of ‘heard the voice’. For indeed there was no shaking of the air due to the organs of the mouth and tongue; there was the splendor of virtue, identical with the source of reason. The same revelation is found in this other form: ‘You have seen that I have spoken to you from heaven’ (Ex. 20:18), instead of ‘you have heard‘, always for the same reason. There are occasions when Moses distinguishes between what is heard and what is seen, hearing and sight. ‘You heard the sound of the words, and you saw no form but a voice’ (Deut. 4:12).”iv

Seeing the voice, hearing the word, the « sound of the word ». These words have a double meaning.

In the original Hebrew we read: « kol debarim atem shome’im » ( קוׄל דְּבָרׅים אַתֶּם שֺׁמְעׅים ), which literally translates as : « you have heard the voice of the words ». This is a veiled indication that the « words » in question are like living beings, since they have a « voice ». This voice is not embodied in « air shaking », but is given to be « seen ». This « voice » inhabits the interior of the words, it makes their immanent nature, their « secret » dimension visible, it reveals an enigmatic background, of which they are the living mirror.

Whether they are Kabbalists, Vedic or Sufi, the mystics all know their own path towards this nature, this secret. Rûmî, John of the Cross or Jacob Boehme have followed this path of discovery as far as possible. Great writers of language, they showed how the language of the gods (or of God) could marry with that of men, and give birth to manifest secrets. Everything that is, everything that is said, everything that is presented to reason, has a background. These mystics have shown, as far as men can do it, that part of the essence of the world is in language, or, better said: « is » language.

i Philo, De migratione Abrahami, 28

ii De migr. Abr., 35

iii 1 Sa 9,9

ivDe Migr. Abr., 47

Vedic Genesis


Trimurti

In the Beginning…

One of the most beautiful and deepest hymns of the Ṛg Veda, the Nasadiya Sukta, begins with what was and what was not, even before the Beginning:

« Ná ásat āsīt ná u sát āsīt tadânīm« i.

The translation of this famous verse is not easy. Here are a few attempts:

« There was no being, there was no non-being at that time. « (Renou)

« Nothing existed then, neither being nor non-being. « (Müller)

« Nothing existed then, neither visible nor invisible. « (Langlois)

« Then even nothingness was not, nor existence. « (Basham)

« Not the non-existent existed, nor did the existent then » (Art. Nasadiya Sukta. Wikipedia).

“Then was not non-existent nor existent.” (Griffith)

How to render with words what was before words? How to say a « being » that « is » before « being » and also, moreover, before « non-being »? How to describe the existence of what existed before existence and before non-existence?

We also begin to think by analogy: how can we hope to think what is obviously beyond what is thinkable? How can we think possible even to try to think the unthinkable?

How can we know whether words like sát, ásat, āsīt, mono- or bi-syllabic messengers, which have reached us intact over the millennia, and which benefit from the semantic precision of Sanskrit, still live a real, meaningful, authentic life?

The Nasadiya Sukta anthem is at least 4000 years old. Long before it was memorized in writing in the Veda corpus, it was probably transmitted from generation to generation by a faithful oral tradition. Its verses are pure intellectual delight, so much so that they stand slightly, far above the void, beyond common sense, a frail bridge, a labile trace, between worlds :

नासदासीन्नो सदासीत्तदानीं नासीद्रजो नो व्योमा परो यत् |

किमावरीवः कुह कस्य शर्मन्नम्भः किमासीद्गहनं गभीरम् ॥ १॥

न मृत्य्युरासीदमृतं न तर्हि न रात्र्या अह्न आसीत्प्रकेत | आसीत्प्रकः

आनीदवातं स्वधया तदेकं तस्माद्धान्यन्न परः किञ्चनास ॥२॥

Louis Renou translates these two verses as follows:

« There was no being, there was no non-being at that time. There was no space or firmament beyond. What was moving? Where, under whose guard? Was there deep water, bottomless water?

Neither death was at that time, nor undead, no sign distinguishing night from day. The One breathed breathlessly, moved by himself: nothing else existed beyond.”ii

Ralph Griffith:

“Then was not non-existent nor existent: there was no realm of air, no sky beyond it. What covered in, and where? And what gave shelter? Was water there, unfathomed depth of water?

Death was not then, nor was there aught immortal: no sign was there, the day’s and night’s divider. That One Thing, breathless, breathed by its own nature: apart from it was nothing whatsoever.”iii

Max Müller :

« Nothing existed then, neither being nor non-being; the bright sky was not yet, nor the broad canvas of the firmament stretched out above it. By what was everything wrapped, protected, hidden? Was it by the unfathomable depths of the waters?

There was no death, no immortality. There was no distinction between day and night. The One Being breathed alone, taking no breath, and since then there has been nothing but Him. “iv

Alexandre Langlois :

« Nothing existed then, neither visible nor invisible. Point of upper region; point of air; point of sky. Where was this envelope (of the world)? In which bed was the wave contained? Where were these impenetrable depths (of air)?

There was no death, no immortality. Nothing announced day or night. He alone breathed, forming no breath, enclosed within himself. He alone existed.”v

From these various versions, it appears that the translators share a certain consensus on the following points:

Before there was nothing, there was « the One », also called « Him ».

Before the world was, the One existed, alone, and He breathed – without breath.

The Rig Veda claimed that « the One is », long before the time came of any Genesis, long before a « wind of God » came over the waters.

The following verses then take flight, using words and images that may evoke memories of the Genesis in the Bible (- which appeared later than the Veda by at least two millennia, it should be noted):

Renou :

« Originally darkness covered darkness, everything we see was just an indistinct wave. Enclosed in the void, the One, accessing the Being, was then born by the power of heat.

Desire developed first, which was the first seed of thought; searching thoughtfully in their souls, the wise men found in non-being the bond of being.

Their line was stretched diagonally: what was the top, what was the bottom? There were seed bearers, there were virtues: below was spontaneous energy, above was the Gift.”vi

Griffith:

“Darkness there was: at first concealed in darkness this All was indiscriminated chaos. All that existed then was void and formless: by the great power of Warmth was born that Unit.

There after rose Desire in the beginning. Desire, the primal seed and germ of spirit. Sages, who searched with their heart’s thought discovered the existent’s kinship in the non-existent.

Tranversely was their severing line extended: what was above it then, and what below it? There were begetters, there were mighty forces, free action here and energy up yonder.”vii

Müller :

« The seed, which was still hidden in its envelope, suddenly sprang up in the intense heat.Then love, the new source of the spirit, joined it for the first time.

Yes, the poets, meditating in their hearts, discovered this link between created things and what was uncreated. Does this spark that gushes out everywhere, that penetrates everything, come from the earth or the sky?

Then the seeds of life were sown and great forces appeared, nature below, power and will above.”viii

Langlois :

« In the beginning the darkness was shrouded in darkness; the water was without impulse. Everything was confused. The Being rested in the midst of this chaos, and this great All was born by the force of his piety.

In the beginning Love was in him, and from his spirit the first seed sprang forth. The wise men (of creation), through the work of intelligence, succeeded in forming the union of the real being and the apparent being.

The ray of these (wise men) went forth, extending upwards and downwards. They were great, (these wise men); they were full of a fruitful seed, (such as a fire whose flame) rises above the hearth that feeds it.”ix

Note that, for some translators, in the beginning « darkness envelops darkness ». Others prefer to read here a metaphor, that of the « seed », hidden in its « envelope ».

Is it necessary to give a meaning, an interpretation to the « darkness », or is it better to let it bathe in its own mystery?

Let us also note that some translators relate the birth of the All to « warmth », while others understand that the origin of the world must be attributed to « piety » (of the One). Material minds! Abstract minds! How difficult it is to reconcile them!

So, « piety » or « warmth »? The Sanskrit text uses the word « tapas« : तपस्.

Huet translates « tapas » by « heat, ardour; suffering, torment, mortification, austerities, penance, asceticism », and by extension, « the strength of soul acquired through asceticism ».

Monier-Williams indicates that the tap– root has several meanings: « to burn, to shine, to give heat », but also « to consume, to destroy by fire » or « to suffer, to repent, to torment, to practice austerity, to purify oneself by austerity ».

Two semantic universes emerge here, that of nature (fire, heat, burning) and that of the spirit (suffering, repentance, austerity, purification).

If we take into account the intrinsic dualism attached to the creation of the « Whole » by the « One », the two meanings can be used simultaneously and without contradiction.

An original brilliance and warmth probably accompanied the creation of some inchoate Big Bang. But the Vedic text also underlines another cause, not physical, but metaphysical, of the creation of the world, by opening up to the figurative meaning of the word « tapas« , which evokes « suffering », « repentance », or even « asceticism » that the One would have chosen, in his solitude, to impose on himself, in order to give the world its initial impulse.

This Vedic vision of the suffering of the One is not without analogy with the concept of kenosis, in Christian theology, and with the Christic dimension of the divine sacrifice.

The Judaic concept of tsimtsum (the « contraction » of God) could also be related to the Vedic idea of « tapas« .

From this hymn of the Rig Veda, the presence of a very strong monotheistic feeling is particularly evident. The Veda is fundamentally a « monotheism », since it stages, even before any « Beginning » of the world, the One, the One who is « alone », who breathes « without breath ».

Furthermore, let us also note that this divine One can diffract Himself into a form of divine « trinity ». Dominating darkness, water, emptiness, confusion and chaos, the One Being (the Creator) creates the Whole. The Whole is born of the Being because of his « desire », his « Love », which grows within the « Spirit », or « Intelligence ».x

The idea of the One is intimately associated with that of the Spirit and that of Love (or Desire), which can be interpreted as a trinitarian representation of divine unity.

The last two verses of the Nasadiya Sukta finally tackle head-on the question of origin and its mystery.

Renou :

« Who knows in truth, who could announce it here: where did this creation come from, where does it come from? The gods are beyond this creative act. Who knows where it emanates from?

This creation, from where it emanates, whether it was made or not, – he who watches over it in the highest heaven probably knows it… or whether he did not know it? “xi

Langlois :

« Who knows these things? Who can say them? Where do beings come from? What is this creation? The Gods were also produced by him. But who knows how he exists?

He who is the first author of this creation, supports it. And who else but him could do so? He who from heaven has his eyes on all this world, knows it alone. Who else would have this science?”xii

Griffith:

“Who verily knows and who can here declare it, whence it was born, and whence comes this creation? The Gods are later than this world’s production. Who knows then whence it first came into being?

He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it all or did not form it, whose eye controls this world in highest heaven, he verily knows it, or perhaps he knows not.”xiii

Müller:

« Who knows the secret? Who here tells us where this varied creation came from? The Gods themselves came into existence later: who knows where this vast world came from?

Whoever has been the author of all this great creation, whether his will has ordered it or whether his will has been silent, the Most High « Seer » who resides in the highest of the heavens, it is he who knows it, – or perhaps He Himself does not know it? »xiv

The final pun (« Perhaps He Himself does not know it? ») carries, in my opinion, the essence of the intended meaning.

That the Gods, as a whole, are only a part of the creation of the Most High, again confirms the pre-eminence of the One in the Veda.

But how can we understand that the « Seer » may not know whether He Himself is the author of the creation, how can He not know whether it was made – or not made?

One possible interpretation would be that the Whole received an initial impulse of life (the « breath »). But this is not enough. The world is not a mechanism. The Whole, though ‘created’, is not ‘determined’. The Seer is not « Almighty », nor « Omniscient ». He has renounced his omnipotence and omniscience, through assumed asceticism. His suffering must be understood as the consequence of risk taking on the part of the One, the risk of the freedom of the world, the risk involved in the creation of free essences, essentially free beings created freely by a free will.

This essential freedom of the Whole is, in a sense, « an image » of the freedom of the One.

iNasadiya Sukta. Ṛg Veda, X, 129

iiṚg Veda, X, 129, 1-2. My translation in English from the translation in French by Louis Renou, La poésie religieuse de l’Inde antique. 1942

iiiRalp Griffith. The Hymns of the g Veda. RV X, 129,1-2. Motilal Banarsidass Publ. Delhi, 1073, p. 633

ivṚg Veda, X, 129, 1-2. Max Müller. Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion (1878)

vṚg Veda, X, 129, 1-2. My translation in English from the translation in French by . A. Langlois. (Section VIII, lect. VII, Hymn X)

viṚg Veda, X, 129, 3-5. My translation in English from the translation in French by Louis Renou, La poésie religieuse de l’Inde antique. 1942

viiRalp Griffith. The Hymns of the g Veda. RV X, 129,3-5. Motilal Banarsidass Publ. Delhi, 1073, p. 633

viiiṚg Veda, X, 129, 3-5.. Max Müller. Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion (1878)

ixṚg Veda, X, 129, 3-5.. My translation in English from the translation in French by. A. Langlois. (Section VIII, lecture VII, Hymne X)

xNasadiya Sukta, v. 4

xiṚg Veda, X, 129, 6-7. My translation in English from the translation in French by Louis Renou, La poésie religieuse de l’Inde antique. 1942

xiiṚg Veda, X, 129, 6-7. My translation in English from the translation in French by. A. Langlois. (Section VIII, lecture VII, Hymne X)

xiiiRalp Griffith. The Hymns of the g Veda. RV X, 129,6-7. Motilal Banarsidass Publ. Delhi, 1073, p. 633-634

xivṚg Veda, X, 129, 6-7. Max Müller. Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion (1878)

Agni, a Vedic Messiah?


The most remote historical traces of the appearance of monotheistic feeling date back to the time of Amenophis IV, born around 1364 BC. This Egyptian pharaoh, worshipper of the unique God Aten, took the name of Akhenaten, as a sign of the religious revolution he initiated in the Nile valley. The abbreviated fate of his monotheistic « heresy » is known.

Around two centuries later, monotheism reappeared in history with the strange figure of Melchisedech (in Hebrew מַלְכֵּי־צֶדֶק ), high priest of El-Elyon (‘God the Most High’) and king of Salem. It was Melchisedech who gave his blessing to Abram (Abraham), when Abram came to pay him homage and tribute.i

Coming long after Akhenaten, neither Melchisedech nor Abraham obviously « invented » monotheism. The monotheistic idea had already penetrated the consciousness of peoples for several centuries. But they can be credited with having embodied the first « archived » trace of it in the biblical text.

The pure, hard, monotheistic idea has an austere beauty, a shimmering, icy or burning one, depending on the point of view. Taken philosophically, it is the intuition of the One mingled with the idea of the Whole. This simplicity of conception and abstraction reduced to the essential have something restful and consoling about them. Without doubt, the mineral lines of the deserts helped to overshadow the confused and abundant vegetal multiplicity of animism or polytheism, which had blossomed in less severe, greener, landscapes.

A simple idea, monotheism has a revolutionary power. The idea of a single God inevitably leads to the idea of a universal God, which can disturb acquired habits, hinder power interests. In principle, the idea of the « universal » may also have as an unintended consequence the crush of more « local » cultures and traditions.

But Abraham and Moses were able to combine the idea of a single, transcendent, « universal » God with the idea of a « tribal », « national » God, committed to a “chosen” people as « Lord of Hosts », Yahweh Tsabaoth.

The covenant of a “universal” God with a particular, « chosen » people may seem a priori an oxymoron. The election of Israel seems to contradict the universal vocation of a God who transcends human divisions. There is one possible explanation, however. This seemingly contradictory idea was, according to all appearances, the very condition for its deployment and epigenesis, as witnessed in history. It was necessary for a specific people – rather than any particular people – to embody and defend the idea, before it was finally accepted and defended in the rest of the nations.

The monotheistic idea also leads, by an almost natural derivation, to the idea of a personal God, a God to whom man may speak and say « you », a God who also speaks, hears and answers, who may appear or remain silent, present all His glory, or remain desperately absent. The idea of a “personal” God, through its anthropomorphism, is opposed to that of an abstract God, an inconceivable, perpendicular, inalienable principle, transcending everything that the human mind can conceive. What could be more anthropomorphic, in fact, than the concept of « person »? Isn’t this concept, therefore, fundamentally at odds with the essence of a God who is absolutely « Other »?

When, within Judaism, a young village carpenter and rabbi, a good orator and versed in the Scriptures, appeared in Galilee two thousand years ago, Abrahamic monotheism took a seemingly new direction. The One God could also, according to Rabbi Yehoshua of Nazareth, become incarnate freely, « otherwise », through a new understanding of His revelation, His Essence, His Spirit.

But to be fair, from ancient times, other people of different lore had already been thinking about the idea of a Deity with multiple manifestations – without contradiction.

The Indian grammarian Yāska reports in his Nirukta, which is the oldest treatise on the language of the Veda, that according to the original Vedic authors, the deity could be represented by three gods, Savitri, Agni and Vâyu. Savitri means « producer » or « Father ». His symbol is the Sun. Agni, his « Son », has the Fire as his symbol. Vâyu is the Spirit, with Wind as its symbol.

The oldest historically recorded form in which the idea of the divine trinity appears is therefore based on an analogy, term by term, between the material world (the Sun, Fire and Wind) and the metaphysical world (the Father, Son and Spirit).

The Sanskritist Émile Burnouf reports that when the Vedic priest pours clarified butter on Fire (Agni), “Agni” then takes the name of « Anointed One » (in Sanskrit: akta).

Note that « Anointed » is translated in Hebrew as mashia’h, meaning « messiah ».

Agni, the Fire who became the Anointed One, becomes, at the moment of the « anointing », the very mediator of the sacrifice, the one who embodies its ultimate meaning.

Burnouf noted the structural analogy of the Vedic sacrifice with the figure of the Christic sacrifice. « The center from which all the great religions of the earth have radiated is therefore the theory of Agni, of which Christ Jesus was the most perfect incarnation.”ii

Agni, – universal paradigm, « mother idea »? Agni is for the Aryas the principle of all life. All the movements of inanimate things proceed from heat, and heat proceeds from the Sun, which is the « Universal Engine », but also the « Celestial Traveller ». During the Vedic sacrifice, a sacred fire is lit which is the image of the universal agent of Life, and by extension, the image of Thought, the symbol of the Spirit.

Long after the first Vedic prayers had been chanted to Savitri, Agni, Vâyu, some (Judeo-)Christians believers said in their turn and in their own way, even before the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem had occurred: « I believe in the Father, the Son and the Spirit ».

However this Trinitarian formula was admittedly not “Jewish”, since Judaism presented itself as fiercely monotheistic.

But from the point of view of its formal structure, we can say with some level of credibility that it was partly the result of Zoroastrian, Avestic and, more originally, Vedic influences.

In yet another cultural area, the Chinese, the ancient Trinitarian intuition of the divine is also proven. The highest gods of the Tao form a trinity, the « Three Pure Ones » (Sān Qīng , 三清 ).

The first member of the supreme triad is called the Celestial Venerable of the Original Beginning (元始天尊 Yuanshi Tianzun). This God has other names that it is interesting to list: Supreme God Emperor of Jade (玉皇上帝 Yuhuang Shangdi), Great God Emperor of Jade (玉皇大帝 Yuhuang Dadi), or Celestial Treasure (天寶 Tianbao) and finally God of Mystery (玄帝 Xuandi), which is an abbreviation of Supreme God Celestial Mystery (玄天上帝 Xuantian Shangdi).

From these various names it can be deduced that this God is at the « beginning », that He is at the « origin », that He is « supreme », that He is « mystery ».

By analogy with the Christian trinitarian system, this first God of the Taoist trinity could appear as the « Father » God.

The second member of the supreme triad, the Venerable Heavenly One of the Spiritual Treasure (靈寶天尊 Lingbao Tianzun), is also called Lord of the Way (道君 Daojun).

In Christianity, God the « Son » said of Himself that He is « the Way, the Truth, the Life ». The analogy of the « Son » with the « Lord of the Way » is obvious.

The third God of the supreme triad is the Venerated Heavenly One of the Divine Treasure (神寶天尊 Shenbao Tianzun). He is also called the Most High Patriarch Prince or the Old Lord of Supreme Height (太上老君 Taishang Laojun), better known as the Old Child (老子 Laozi).

In Christian symbolism, the Holy Spirit is represented by a dove, flying through the air. The analogy allows for a certain approximation of the Holy Spirit with the Lord of Supreme Height.

Vedism, Taoism and Christianity share, as can be seen, the intuition of a supreme and unique divine entity which diffracts into three representationsiii.

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iGn 14,18-20

iiEmile Burnouf. La science des religions. 1872

iii In my opinion, it may be possible to also find a possible equivalent to this trinitarian intuition in Judaism, with the Eternal (YHVH), the Torah and the Shekhinah. The Torah is « divine ». It is said that the Torah existed before the world was even created. And the Torah was also able to « incarnate » itself in some specific way. The Zohar ‘Hadach (Shir haShirim 74b) teaches that there are 600,000 letters in the Torah. If we do an exact count, we find that the Torah actually contains 304,805 letters. In any case, it is certain that the divine Torah has allowed itself to « incarnate » in a « certain number » of Hebrew letters… The Shekhinah also incarnates the divine « presence ». A single divine entity, therefore, and three representations.