Eternal Birth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

iPlato. Symposium.

iiPhilo. De Monarch. I, 5-7

iiiEx 33, 18-23

ivJer. 14,1

vJer. 15,17

viEz. 1,3

viiEz. 3,12

viiiEz. 3,14

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

In the Mire, Drowning Angels.

We humans are fundamentally nomads, – with no nomosi. We are forever nomads with no limits, and no ends.

Always dissatisfied, never at peace, never at rest, perpetually on the move, forever in exile.

The Journey has no end. Wandering is meaningless, without clues. The homelands are suffocating. Landscapes are passing by, and we have no roots. No abyss fulfills us. The deepest oceans are empty. The skies, down there, are fading. The suns are pale, the moons dirty. The stars are blinking. We can only breathe for a moment.

Our minds would like to look beyond the diffuse background, behind the veiled Cosmos. But even an infinitely powerful Hubble telescope couldn’t show us anything of what’s behind. Cosmology is a prison, only vaster, but still finite, bounded, and we are already tired of endless, useless, multiverses, and weary of their aborted drafts.

The worried soul « pursues an Italy that is slipping away », but Virgil is not anymore our vigilante, and Aeneas is not our elder. Rome has forgotten itself. Athens has died out. Jerusalem, we already have returned there, – so they say.

Billions of people live, dream and die on the Promised Land.

They try, every night, to drink the water of the Lethe and the Cocyte, without being burnt by the Phlegethon. When they wake up, they are always thirsty for new caresses, they want again to smell myrrh, to taste nectars.

They try to avoid the icy skin of mirrors. They desperately scan the hairy mountains, the undecided rivers, the bitter oranges. They follow the hard curve of the fruits, the orb of the colors.

But at one point the heart hits, the body falls. At any moment, the final night will cover the sun. Forgetting all will come without fail.

Euripides called life: « the dream of a shadow ».ii

This shadow has two wings, – not six, like Ezekiel’s angels.

Intelligence and will are our wings, says Plato.

With one wing, the shadow (or the soul) sucks in, breathes in. The world comes into her.

With the other wing, she goes to all things, she flies freely, anywhere.

When the two wings flap together, then anything is possible. The soul can evade anywhere, even out of herself, and even from God Himself. As Marsilio Ficino says: « Animus noster poterit deus quidam evadere ».

There is a mysterious principle at the heart of the soul: she becomes what she’s looking for. She is transformed into what she loves.

Who said that? A litany of impressive thinkers. Zoroaster, King David. Plato, Porphyry, Augustine. Paul put it that way: « And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory. »iii

It is indeed a mysterious principle.

The word ‘mystery’ comes from the Greek μύω, to close. This verb was originally used for the eyes, or for the lips. Closed eyes. Closed lips. The religious meaning, as a derivative, describes an ancient problem: how could what is always closed be ever opened?

Zoroaster found an answer, kind of: « The human soul encloses God in herself, so to speak, when, keeping nothing mortal, she gets drunk entirely on the divinity”.iv

Who still reads or pays attention to Zoroaster today?

Nietzsche? But Nietzsche, the gay barbarian, joyfully ripped away his nose, teeth and tongue. After that, he pretended he could speak on his behalf. Also Sprach Zarathustra. Ach so? Wirklich?

There are two kinds of thinkers.

There are the atrabilaries, who distill their venom, their suspicions, their despair, or their limitations, like Aristotle, Chrysippus, Zeno, Averroes, Schopenhauer or Nietzsche.

And there are the optimists, Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, or Apollonius of Thyana. They believe in life and in everything that may flourish.

We’ll rely on Heraclitus for a concluding line: “If you do not expect the unexpected you will not find it, for it is not to be reached by search or trail”. (Fragm. 18)

What can we learn from that fragment?

Without hope, everything is and will stay forever mud, mire, or muck. We have to search for the unexpected, the impossible, the inaccessible… What on earth could it be? – Gold in the mud, – or in the mire, drowning angels?

iNomos (Greek) = Law

ii Medea, 1224

iii2 Co 3,18

iv ChaldaicOracles V. 14.21

« You, Israel, are joyful, but my servants are grieving. »

Everything contributes to deceive, delude, mislead, the seeker who ventures into the slippery terrain of mystery, – without guidance, compass or bearings. The shoehorns are multiplying underfoot, in words. There are a thousand opportunities to get lost. The material is too rich, too vast, too flexible, too subtle. It is covered with too many veils, protected by thick walls, buried in the depths of forgotten cenotaphs, vanished into a clear azure, lost in the inaudible murmur of the zephyr.

You need a singularly piercing eye, a fine ear, a gentle touch, to only feel the fleeting shadow of a clue.

The mystery seeker reminds us of this character from Ṛg Veda: « Sullen, without knowledge, I question with my mind what are the hidden traces of the gods. »i

The seeker contemplates with his thoughts Isaiah’s seraphim, with their three pairs of wings, two of which are to cover their face and feet, and the third to fly, and he cannot be satisfied with what he sees, since they hide from him what he cannot see.

He tries to understand the meaning of Greek words that are only outer envelopes, without content: mystery (μυστήριον), symbol (σύμϐολον), enigma (αἲνιγμα), sign (σημεῖον), shadow (σκία), shape (τύπος) or similarity (εἰκών).

Origen has shown as clearly as possible, without being discouraged, how the mystery is constantly being hidden, and how, without interruption, it is being overlooked. He stated with a sense of evidence: « We feel that everything is full of mysteries”ii and also: « Everything that happens, happens in mysteries.»iii

In terms of mysteries, a higher irony haunts some Kabbalah texts, such as this one: « You, Israel, are joyful, but my servants are grieving. For it is a mystery from the mysteries that leaves my treasure. All your schools prosper like fattened calves (Jeremiah 46:21), not by sorrow, not by labor, but by the name of this seal and by the mention of the terrifying crown. »iv

How would one interpret that sentence, nowadays?

Without waiting too long for an answer that will not easily be spit out, the researcher picks up other grains of knowledge that were collected thousands of years ago: « What is manifested and secret, what moves here in the secret heart of our being is the powerful foundation in which is established all that moves and breathes and sees. »v

He meditated on the details of Ezekiel’s experience, wondering about the differences between brightness, fire, and amber: « And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire.» vi

The researcher measures the inanity of his efforts, the derisory nature of his strengths. He is aware that the idea of mystery could be nothing more than an illusion, a chimera, a pretext to collect in sheer waste scattered symbols, a propensity to tear diaphanous veils, to plunge into a verbal abyss, to overestimate the signs, to desire to see, instead of live.

Origen had warned: true knowledge is love. Plunged in sweet madness, the seeker seeks love in the true mystery.

iŖg Veda I,164,1

iiOrigen, Lev. Hom. 3,8

iiiOrigen, Gen. Hom. 9,1

iv Cf. Section Sar Ha-Torah (« Prince of Torah ») from Hekhalot Rabbati (« Great Palaces »)

vMundaka 2,2,1

viEz 1, 4

The Koran is a Torah of « Kindness » said Sabbatai Tsevi

By proclaiming himself « Messiah » in 1648, Sabbatai Tsevi created a movement that was both revolutionary and apocalyptic. He achieved great success, and his messianic vocation was recognized as such by the Jews of Aleppo and Smyrna, his hometown, as well as by many Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, Western Europe and the Middle East.

But, after a beginning as shattering as it was promising, why did Tsevi then apostasize Judaism and convert to Islam in 1666?

Gershom Scholem reports in his study of him that Tsevi was actually seeking, in apostasy, the « mystery of the Divinity ».

In any case, one cannot fail to admire his courage and his spirit of transgression. Tsevi converted spectacularly to Islam, when he was seen as Messiah by a large part of the Jewish communities in the Diaspora. Why? This is due to a profound, difficult, but not unimportant idea – even today.

Tsevi believed that his apostasy, as Messiah, would advance tiqoun (« reparation » or « reconstruction »), thereby working for the restoration of the world.

A foolish bet, full of good intentions.

The tiqoun required broad, radical, revolutionary gestures.

Moses had brought a Law of Truth (Torah Emet) and the Koran a Law of Kindness (Torah Hessed), he said. These two laws had to be reconciled in order to save the world, as the Psalmist says: « Goodness and truth meet » (Ps. 85:11).

It was not necessary to oppose laws and traditions, but to unite them, to conjoin them. As proof, Kabbalists argued that the « divine mystery » is symbolically embodied in the sixth Sefira, Tiferet, which corresponds to the third letter (ו Vav) of the Tetragrammaton, which marks the conjunction, in Hebrew grammar (ו means « and »).

Tsevi, well versed in Kabbalah, was not satisfied with it, however. He thought that the divine mystery was located far above the Sefirot, even beyond the first principle, beyond the idea of the First Cause, beyond the inaccessible Ein-sof, and finally far beyond the very idea of mystery.

The ultimate remains in the holiest simplicity.

That is why, after having been influenced by it for a long time, Sabbatai Tsevi finally rejected the Kabbalah of Luria. He said that « Isaac Louria had built an admirable tank but had not specified who was driving it ».

The admirable chariot was the metaphor then accepted to designate the Sefirot of Louria. This expression also referred to Ezekiel’s famous vision.

The Tsevi question remains relevant today. Who drives the Sefirot’s chariot?

An even more important question, maybe :

Where is this chariot really going?