The Hebrew word נִיצוֹץ, nitsots, « spark, » is used only once in the Hebrew Bible. It is found in Isaiah – with a figurative sense of evanescence, transience. « The mighty man shall become a coal, and his work a spark, and both shall burn together, and no man shall quench them ». (Is 1:31) In another, verbal form (נֹצְצִם, notstsim, « they sparked »), the root verb natsats is also used only once, — by the prophet Ezekiel (Ezek 1:7). The noun « spark » and the verb « to spark » are two hapaxes. Rare words, then. However, in the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, called the ‘Septuagint’, because it was translated by seventy rabbis in Alexandria in the 3rd century B.C., the word σπινθὴρ, spinther, ‘spark’ in Greek, is used three times in the Book of Wisdom (also called ‘Solomon’s Book’), and three times in Ecclesiasticus (attributed to ‘Sirach’). But these two books are considered today as apocryphal by the Jews, and therefore not canonical. On the other hand, they are preserved canonically by the Catholics and the Orthodox. This does not detract from their intrinsic value, from their poetic breath, not devoid of pessimism. « We are born of chance, after which we will be as if we had not existed. It is a smoke that breathes from our nostrils, and thought a spark that springs from the beating of our heart (ὁ λόγος σπινθὴρ ἐν κινήσει καρδίας ἡμῶν.); let it be extinguished, and the body will go to ashes, and the spirit will scatter like inconsistent air. » (Wis 2:2-3) The logos, here, is only a « spark ». Here again the idea of transience, of impalpable brevity, appears. The other uses of the word « spark » in Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus are divided between literal and figurative meanings.i Significantly, a verse in Ecclesiasticus seems to invite, precisely, the contemplation of the sparkling transience, quickly drowned in nothingness: « Like a spark that one could contemplate » (Sir 42,22). The Greek word spinther, « spark, » was also used by Homer in a sense close to that employed by Ezekiel, since it is associated with the representation of the Godhead: « The goddess is like a shining star that (…) sparks a thousand sparks around it (πολλοὶ σπινθῆρες) » (Iliad 4, 73-77) From the word spinther derives the word spintharis, which is a name of a bird (similar to the Latin word spinturnix). Pierre Chantraine suggests that it is « perhaps because of its eyes ».ii Do not the eyes of some birds (of prey) sparkle in the night? Similarly, the Hebrew word nitsots, « spark, » is also used as a bird name for a bird of prey, the hawk or the eagle. The analogy is perhaps justified because of the twinkling of the eyes in the night, but one can also opt for the analogy of the flight of sparks and birds… The verbal root of nitsots is נָצַץ, natsats, « to shine, to sparkle ». Natsats is used by Ezekiel to describe the appearance of four « divine appearances » (מַרְאוֹת אֱלֹהִים , mar’ot Elohim) which Ezekiel calls the four « Living Ones » ( חַיּוֹת , Ḥaiot). The four Living Ones each had four faces (panim), « and they sparkled (notstsim) like the appearance of polished tin » (Ezek 1:7). The verbal root נָצַץ natsats is very close etymologically to another verbal root, נוּץ, nouts, « to blossom, to grow, » and from נָצָה, natsah, « to fly away, to flee. » Moreover, the same noun, נֵץ, nets, means both « flower » and « sparrowhawk », as if this semantic group brought together the notions of spark, bloom, grow, fly away. Added to this are the notions of dispersion, devastation, and metaphorically, flight and exile, carried by the lexical field of the verb natsah, for example in the verses « your cities will be devastated » (Jer 4:7) and « they have fled, they have scattered into exile » (Lam 4:15).
The spark is thus associated with ideas of brilliance, of flowering, but also of bursting forth, of flight, of dispersion, of devastation and even of exile. Metaphorically, the associated values range from the negative (fleetingness, inanity of the spark) to the very positive (divine « sparkling » appearances). It is perhaps this richness and ambivalence of the words nitsots, natsats and natsah that prompted Isaac Louria to choose the spark as a metaphor for the human soul. As Marc-Alain Ouaknin explains, « Rabbi Isaac Luria teaches that the soul [of Adam] is composed of 613 parts: each of these parts is in turn composed of 613 parts or ‘roots’ (chorech); each of these so-called major ‘roots’ is subdivided into a certain number of minor ‘roots’ or ‘sparks’ (nitsot). Each of these ‘sparks’ is an individual holy soul. » iii
But the process of subdivision and individuation, of which three stages have just been set forth, is a process that has to be carried out by the individual soul.
« Each ‘individual spark’ is divided into three levels: nefech, ruach, nechama, and each level has 613 parts. (…) Man’s task is to achieve the perfection of his ‘individual spark’ at all levels. « iv
Moreover, Isaac Louria sets the stage for a vast eschatological perspective, in which the link between the spark and the exile, whose etymological kinship has already been emphasized, is particularly highlighted from the point of view of the Lourianic cabala. « Indeed, Louria proposes an explanatory system – a philosophic-mystical thesis of the historical process (…) The man responsible for History is still to be understood in its collective sense. The entire people of Israel is endowed with its own function. It must prepare the world of Tikkun, bring everything back to its place; it has the duty to gather, to collect the sparks scattered in the four corners of the world. Therefore, he himself, the people, must be in exile at the four ends of the earth. The Exile is not just a chance, but a mission of reparation and ‘sorting’ (…) The children of Israel are completely engaged in the process of ‘raising the sparks’. « v
One would like to imagine that not only Israel, but also all the other people, all the « living », all those who possess a « soul », i.e. a divine « spark », have the vocation to rise, to fly away, and to gather in the divine sun, the luminous burn, – its eternal and fleeting flower.
i« They will shine like sparks running through the reeds. « (Sag 3:7). « Throwing terrible sparks from their eyes » (Wis 11:18). « A spark lights a great fire » (Sir 11:32). « Blow on an ember, it is set on fire, spit on it, it is extinguished; one as well as the other comes out of your mouth. (Sir 28,12) « Like a spark one could contemplate » (Sir 42,22).
iiPierre Chantraine, Etymological Dictionary of the Greek Language. Ed Klincksieck, Paris, 1977.
Taken together, the Self, the inner being, hidden in its abyss, under several veils, and the Ego, the outer being, filled with sensations, thoughts, feelings, vibrating with the life of circumstances and contingencies, offer the image of a radical duality. This constitutive, intrinsic duality is analogous, it seems to me, to that of the God who ‘hides’ Himself, but who nevertheless reveals Himself in some way, and sometimes lets Himself be seen (or understood). This is a very ancient (human) experience of the divine. Far from presenting Himself to man in all His glory, God certainly hides Himself, everywhere, all the time, and in many ways. There are indeed many ways for Him to let Himself be hidden. But how would we know that God exists, if He were always, irremediably, hidden? First of all, the Jewish Scriptures, and not the least, affirm that He is, and that He is hidden. Isaiah proclaims: Aken attah El misttatter. אָכֵן, אַתָּה אֵל מִסְתַּתֵּר .
Moreover, though admittedly a negative proof, it is easy to see how many never see Him, always deny Him, and ignore Him without remorse. But, although very well hidden, God is discovered, sometimes, it is said, to the pure, to the humble, and also to those who ‘really’ seek Him.
Anecdotes abound on this subject, and they must be taken for what they are worth. Rabindranath Tagore wrote: « There was a curious character who came to see me from time to time and used to ask all sorts of absurd questions. Once, for example, he asked me, ‘Have you ever seen God, Sir, with your own eyes?’ And when I had to answer him in the negative, he said that he had seen Him. ‘And what did you see?’ I asked. – ‘He was agitated, convulsing and pulsating before my eyes’, he answered.» ii
I liked this last sentence, at first reading, insofar as the divine seemed to appear here (an undeniable innovation), not as a noun, a substance, or any monolithic or monotheistic attribute, but in the form of three verbs, knotted together – ‘agitate’, ‘convulse’, ‘palpitate’.
Unfortunately, either in metaphysical irony or as a precaution against laughter, the great Tagore immediately nipped this embryonic, agitated, convulsive and palpitating image of divinity in the bud in the very next sentence, inflicting on the reader a brief and Jesuitical judgment: « You can imagine that we were not interested in engaging in deep discussions with such an individual. » iii
For my part, on the contrary, I could not imagine that. It is certain that, whatever it may be, the deep « nature », the « essence » of God, is hidden much more often than it shows itself or lets itself be found.
About God, therefore, the doubt lasts. But, from time to time, sparks fly. Fires blaze. Two hundred and fifty years before the short Bengali theophany just mentioned, Blaise Pascal dared a revolutionary and anachronistic (pre-Hegelian and non-materialist) dialectic, of the ‘and, and’ type. He affirmed that « men are at the same time unworthy of God and capable of God: unworthy by their corruption, capable by their first nature » iv.
Man: angel and beast.
The debate would be very long, and very undecided. Excellent dialectician, Pascal specified, very usefully: « Instead of complaining that God has hidden himself, you will give him thanks that he has discovered himself so much; and you will give him thanks again that he has not discovered himself to the superb wise men, unworthy of knowing a God so holy. » v Sharp as a diamond, the Pascalian sentence never makes acceptance of the conveniences and the clichés, of the views of the PolitBuro of all obediences, and of the religious little marquis. Zero tolerance for any arrogance, any smugness, in these transcendent subjects, in these high matters. On the other hand, what a balance, on the razor blade, between extremes and dualisms, not to blunt them, but to exacerbate them, to magnify them: « If there were no darkness man would not feel his corruption, if there were no light man would not hope for a remedy, so it is not only right, but useful for us that God be hidden in part and discovered in part since it is equally dangerous for man to know God without knowing his misery, and to know his misery without knowing God. » vi This is not all. God makes it clear that He is hiding. That seems to be His strategy. This is how He wants to present Himself, in His creation and with man, with His presence and with His absence… « That God wanted to hide himself. If there were only one religion, God would be very obvious. Likewise, if there were only martyrs in our religion.
God being thus hidden, any religion which does not say that God is hidden is not true, and any religion which does not give the reason for it is not instructive. Ours does all this. Vere tu es deus absconditus.vii«
Here, Pascal quotes Isaiah in Latin. « Truly, You are a hidden God. » Deus absconditus.
I prefer, for my part, the strength of Hebrew sound: El misttatter.
How would we have known that God was hidden if Scripture had not revealed Him? The Scripture certainly reveals Him, in a clear and ambiguous way. « It says in so many places that those who seek God will find him. It does not speak of this light as the day at noon. It is not said that those who seek the day at noon, or water in the sea, will find it; and so it is necessary that the evidence of God is not such in nature; also it tells us elsewhere: Vere tu es Deus absconditus. » viii Absconditus in Latin, misttatter in Hebrew, caché in French.
But, in the Greek translation of this verse of Isaiah by the seventy rabbis of Alexandria, we read:
σὺ γὰρ εἶ θεός, καὶ οὐκ ᾔδειμεν Su gar eï theos, kai ouk êdeimen.
Which litterally means: « Truly You are God, and we did not know it »… A whole different perspective appears, then. Languages inevitably bring their own veils. How do we interpret these variations? The fact that we do not know whether God is ‘really God’, or whether He is ‘really hidden’, does not necessarily imply that He might not really be God, or that He will always be hidden. Pascal states that if God has only appeared once, the chances are that He is always in a position to appear again, when He pleases. But did He appear only once? Who can say with absolute certainty? On the other hand, if He really never appeared to any man, then yes, we would be justified in making the perfectly reasonable observation that the divinity is indeed ‘absent’, and we would be led to make the no less likely hypothesis that it will remain so. But this would not prevent, on the other hand, that other interpretations of this absence could be made, such as that man is decidedly unworthy of the divine presence (hence his absence), or even that man is unworthy of the consciousness of this absence.
Now Pascal, for his part, really saw God, – he saw Him precisely on Monday, November 23, 1654, from half past ten in the evening to half past midnight. « Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not God of the philosophers and scholars. Certainty. Certainty. Feeling. Joy. Peace. God of Jesus Christ. » ix This point being acquired (why put in doubt this writing of Pascal, discovered after his death, and sewn in the lining of his pourpoint?), one can let oneself be carried along by the sequences, the deductions and the exercise of reason that Pascal himself proposes.
« If nothing of God had ever appeared, this eternal deprivation would be equivocal, and could just as well refer to the absence of any divinity as to the unworthiness of men to know it; but the fact that he appears sometimes, and not always, removes the equivocation. If he appears once, he is always; and thus one cannot conclude anything except that there is a God, and that men are unworthy of him» x. Pascal’s reasoning is tight, impeccable. How can one not follow it and approve its course? It must be admitted: either God has never appeared on earth or among men, or He may have appeared at least once or a few times. This alternative embodies the ‘tragic’ question, – a ‘theatrical’ question on the forefront of the world stage… One must choose. Either the total and eternal absence and disappearance of God on earth, since the beginning of time, or a few untimely divine appearances, a few rare theophanies, reserved for a few chosen ones…
In all cases, God seemed to have left the scene of the world since His last appearance, or to have decided never to appear again, thus putting in scene His deliberate absence. But, paradoxically, the significance of this absence had not yet been perceived, and even less understood, except by a tiny handful of out-of-touch thinkers, for whom, in the face of this absence of God, « no authentic human value has any more necessary foundation, and, on the other hand, all non-values remain possible and even probable. » xi A Marxist and consummate dialectician, Lucien Goldmann, devoted his thesis to the ‘hidden god’. He established a formal link between the theophany staged by Isaiah, and the ‘tragic vision’ incarnated by Racine, and Pascal. « The voice of God no longer speaks to man in an immediate way. Here is one of the fundamental points of the tragic thought. Vere tu es Deus absconditus‘, Pascal will write. » xii Pascal’s quotation of the verse from Isaiah will be taken up several times by Goldmann, like an antiphon, and even in the title of his book. « Deus absconditus. Hidden God. Fundamental idea for the tragic vision of God, and for Pascal’s work in particular (…): God is hidden from most men but he is visible to those he has chosen by granting them grace. » xiii
Goldmann interprets Pascal in his own strictly ‘dialectical’ way. He rejects any reading of Pascal according to binary oppositions ‘either…or…’. « This way of understanding the idea of the hidden God would be false and contrary to the whole of Pascalian thought which never says yes or no but always yes and no. The hidden God is for Pascal a God who is present and absent and not present sometimes and absent sometimes; but always present and always absent. » xiv The constant presence of opposites and the work of immanent contradiction demand it. And this presence of opposites is itself a very real metaphor for the absent presence (or present absence) of the hidden God. « The being of the hidden God is for Pascal, as for the tragic man in general, a permanent presence more important and more real than all empirical and sensible presences, the only essential presence. A God always absent and always present, that is the center of tragedy. » xv
But what does ‘always present and always absent‘ really mean? This is the ‘dialectical’ answer of a Marxist thinker tackling the (tragic) theophany of absence, – as seen by the prophet Isaiah, and by Pascal. In this difficult confrontation with such unmaterialist personalities, Goldmann felt the need to call to the rescue another Marxist, Georg von Lucàcs, to support his dialectical views on the absent (and present) God. « In 1910, without thinking of Pascal, Lucàcs began his essay: ‘Tragedy is a game, a game of man and his destiny, a game in which God is the spectator. But he is only a spectator, and neither his words nor his gestures are ever mixed with the words and gestures of the actors. Only his eyes rest on them’. xvi
To then pose the central problem of all tragic thought: ‘Can he still live, the man on whom God’s gaze has fallen?’ Is there not incompatibility between life and the divine presence? » xvii
It is piquant to see a confirmed Marxist make an implicit allusion to the famous passage in Exodus where the meeting of God and Moses on Mount Horeb is staged, and where the danger of death associated with the vision of the divine face is underlined. It is no less piquant to see Lucàcs seeming to confuse (is this intentional?) the ‘gaze of God’ falling on man with the fact that man ‘sees the face’ of God… It is also very significant that Lucàcs, a Marxist dialectician, combines, as early as 1910, an impeccable historical materialism with the storm of powerful inner tensions, of deep spiritual aspirations, going so far as to affirm the reality of the ‘miracle’ (for God alone)…
What is perhaps even more significant is that the thought of this Hungarian Jew, a materialist revolutionary, seems to be deeply mixed with a kind of despair as to the human condition, and a strong ontological pessimism, tempered with a putative openness towards the reality of the divine (miracle)… « Daily life is an anarchy of chiaroscuro; nothing is ever fully realized, nothing reaches its essence… everything flows, one into the other, without barriers in an impure mixture; everything is destroyed and broken, nothing ever reaches the authentic life. For men love in existence what it has of atmospheric, of uncertain… they love the great uncertainty like a monotonous and sleepy lullaby. They hate all that is univocal and are afraid of it (…) The man of the empirical life never knows where his rivers end, because where nothing is realized everything remains possible (…) But the miracle is realization (…) It is determined and determining; it penetrates in an unforeseeable way in the life and transforms it in a clear and univocal account. He removes from the soul all its deceptive veils woven of brilliant moments and vague feelings rich in meaning; drawn with hard and implacable strokes, the soul is thus in its most naked essence before his gaze. » And Lucàcs to conclude, in an eminently unexpected apex: « But before God the miracle alone is real. » xviii
Strange and provocative sentence, all the more mysterious that it wants to be materialist and dialectic…
Does Lucàcs invite man to consider history (or revolution) as a miracle that he has to realize, like God? Or does he consider historical materialism as the miraculous unfolding of something divine in man? Stranger still is Lucien Goldmann’s commentary on this sentence of Lucàcs: « We can now understand the meaning and importance for the tragic thinker and writer of the question: ‘Can the man on whom God’s gaze has fallen still live?’» xix
But, isn’t the classic question rather: ‘Can the man who looks up to God still live? Doesn’t Lucàcs’ new, revised question, taken up by Goldmann, imply a univocal answer ? Such as : – ‘For man to live, God must be hidden’ or even, more radically: ‘For man to live, God must die’. But this last formulation would undoubtedly sound far too ‘Christian’…
In the end, can God really ‘hide’ or a fortiori can He really ‘die’? Are these words, ‘hide’, ‘die’, really compatible with a transcendent God? Is Isaiah’s expression, ‘the hidden God’ (El misttatter), clear, univocal, or does it itself hide a universe of less apparent, more ambiguous meanings? A return to the text of Isaiah is no doubt necessary here. In theory, and to be complete, it would also be necessary to return to other religious traditions, even more ancient than the Jewish one, which have also dealt with the theme of the hidden god (or the unknown god), notably the Vedic tradition and that of ancient Egypt. The limits of this article do not allow it. Nevertheless, it must be said emphatically that the intuition of a ‘hidden god’ is probably as old as humanity itself. However, it must be recognized that Isaiah has, from the heart of Jewish tradition, strongly and solemnly verbalized the idea of the ‘hidden God’, while immediately associating it with that of the ‘saving God’. אָכֵן, אַתָּה אֵל מִסְתַּתֵּר–אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, מוֹשִׁיעַ. Aken attah, El misttatter – Elohai Israel, mochi’a. « Truly, You, hidden God – God of Israel, Savior. » xx A few centuries after Isaiah, the idea of the God of Israel, ‘hidden’ and ‘savior’, became part of the consciousness called, perhaps too roughly, ‘Judeo-Christian’. It is therefore impossible to understand the semantic value of the expression « hidden God » without associating it with « God the savior », in the context of the rich and sensitive inspiration of the prophet Isaiah. Perhaps, moreover, other metaphorical, anagogical or mystical meanings are still buried in Isaiah’s verses, so obviously full of a sensitive and gripping mystery?
Shortly before directly addressing the ‘hidden God’ and ‘savior’, Isaiah had reported the words of the God of Israel addressing the Persian Cyrus, – a key figure in the history of Israel, at once Persian emperor, savior of the Jewish people, figure of the Messiah, and even, according to Christians, a prefiguration of Christ. This last claim was not totally unfounded, at least on the linguistic level, for Cyrus is clearly designated by Isaiah as the « Anointed » (mochi’a)xxi of the Lord. Now the Hebrew word mochi’a is translated precisely as christos, ‘anointed’ in Greek, and ‘messiah‘ in English.
According to Isaiah, this is what God said to His ‘messiah’, Cyrus: « I will give you treasures (otserot) in darkness (ḥochekh), and hidden (misttarim) riches (matmunei) , that you may know that I am YHVH, calling you by your name (chem), – the God of Israel (Elohai Israel). » xxii
Let us note incidentally that the word matmunei, ‘riches’, comes from the verb טָמַן, taman, ‘to hide, to bury’, as the verse says: « all darkness (ḥochekh) bury (tamun) his treasures » xxiii. We thus learn that the ‘treasures’ that Isaiah mentions in verse 45:3, are triply concealed: they are in ‘darkness’, they are ‘buried’ and they are ‘hidden’…
The accumulation of these veils and multiple hiding places invites us to think that such well hidden treasures are only ever a means, a pretext. They hide in their turn, in reality, the reason, even more profound, for which they are hidden…
These treasures are perhaps hidden in the darkness and they are carefully buried, so that Cyrus sees there motivation to discover finally, he the Anointed One, what it is really necessary for him to know. And what he really needs to know are three names (chem), revealed to him, by God… First the unspeakable name, ‘YHVH’, then the name by which YHVH will henceforth call Cyrus, (a name which is not given by Isaiah), and finally the name Elohéï Israel (‘God of Israel’).
As for us, what we are given to know is that the ‘hidden God’ (El misttatter) is also the God who gives Cyrus ‘hidden riches’ (matmunei misttarim). The verbal root of misttatter and misttarim is סָתַר, satar. In the Hithpael mode, this verb takes on the meaning of ‘to hide’, as in Is 45:15, « You, God, hide yourself », or ‘to become darkened’, as in Is 29:14, « And the mind will be darkened ».
In the Hiphil mode, the verb satar, used with the word panim, ‘face’, takes on the meaning of ‘covering the face’, or ‘turning away the face’, opening up other moral, mystical or anagogical meanings. We find satar and panim associated in the verses: « Moses covered his face » (Ex 3:6), « God turned away his face » (Ps 10:11), « Turn away your face from my sins » (Ps 51:11), « Do not turn away your face from me » (Ps 27:9), « Your sins make him turn his face away from you » (Is 59:2).
Note that, in the same verbal mode, satar can also take on the meaning of « to protect, to shelter », as in: « Shelter me under the shadow of your wings » (Ps 17:8). In biblical Hebrew, there are at least a dozen verbal roots meaning « to hide » xxiv , several of which are associated with meanings evoking material hiding places (such as « to bury », « to preserve », « to make a shelter »). Others, rarer, refer to immaterial hiding places or shelters and meanings such as ‘keep’, ‘protect’. Among this abundance of roots, the verbal root satar offers precisely the particularityxxv of associating the idea of « hiding place » and « secret » with that of « protection », carried for example by the word sétèr: « You are my protection (sétèr) » (Ps 32:7); « He who dwells under the protection (sétèr) of the Most High, in the shadow (tsèl) of the Almighty » (Ps 91:1).xxvi
Isaiah 45:15, « Truly, You, the hidden God, » uses the verbal root satar for the word « hidden » (misttatter). Satar thus evokes not only the idea of a God « who hides » but also connotes a God « who protects, shelters » and « saves » (from the enemy or from affliction). Thus we learn that the God « who hides » is also the God « who reveals ». And, what He reveals of His Self does « save ».
iiRabindranath Tagore. Souvenirs. 1924. Gallimard. Knowledge of the Orient, p. 185
iiiRabindranath Tagore. Souvenirs. 1924. Gallimard. Knowledge of the Orient, p. 185
ivPascal. Thoughts. Fragment 557. Edition by Léon Brunschvicg. Paris, 1904
vPascal. Thoughts. Fragment 288. Edition by Léon Brunschvicg. Paris, 1904
viPascal. Thoughts. Fragment 586. Edition by Léon Brunschvicg. Paris, 1906
viiPascal. Thoughts. Fragment 585. Edition by Léon Brunschvicg. Paris, 1904
viiiPascal. Thoughts. Fragment 242. Edition by Léon Brunschvicg. Paris, 1904
ixPascal. Memorial. In Pensées, Edition by Léon Brunschvicg. Paris, 1904, p.4
xPascal. Thoughts. Fragment 559. Edition by Léon Brunschvicg. Paris, 1904
xiLucien Goldmann. The Hidden God. Study on the tragic vision in Pascal’s Pensées and in Racine’s theater. Gallimard. 1955, p. 44. Expressions in italics are by the author.
xiiLucien Goldmann. The Hidden God. Study on the tragic vision in Pascal’s Pensées and in Racine’s theater. Gallimard. 1955, p. 45
xiiiLucien Goldmann. The Hidden God. Study on the tragic vision in Pascal’s Pensées and in Racine’s theater. Gallimard. 1955, p. 46
xivLucien Goldmann. The Hidden God. Study on the tragic vision in Pascal’s Pensées and in Racine’s theater. Gallimard. 1955, p. 46. Expressions in italics are by the author.
xvLucien Goldmann. The Hidden God. Study on the tragic vision in Pascal’s Pensées and in Racine’s theater. Gallimard. 1955, p. 46-47. Expressions in italics are by the author.
xviLucien Goldmann. The Hidden God. Study on the tragic vision in Pascal’s Pensées and in Racine’s theater. Gallimard. 1955, p. 46-47. Expressions in italics are by the author.
xviiLucien Goldmann. The Hidden God. Study on the tragic vision in Pascal’s Pensées and in Racine’s theater. Gallimard. 1955, p. 47
xviiiGeorg von Lucàcs. Die Seele und dir Formen. p. 328-330, quoted in Lucien Goldmann. The Hidden God. Study on the tragic vision in Pascal’s Pensées and in Racine’s theater. Gallimard. 1955, p. 48-49
xixLucien Goldmann. The Hidden God. Study on the tragic vision in Pascal’s Pensées and in Racine’s theater. Gallimard. 1955, p. 49
xxivIt would be out of place to make an exhaustive analysis of this in this article, but we will return to it later. The roots in question are as follows: חבא, חבה, טמן ,כּחד,כּסה, נצר, כּפר, סכךְ, סתם, סתר, עמם, עלם. They cover a wide semantic spectrum: ‘to hide, to hide, to bury, to cover, to cover, to keep, to guard, to protect, to preserve, to make a shelter, to close, to keep secret, to obscure, to be obscure’.
xxvAs well as the verbal roots צפן and סכךְ, although these have slightly different nuances.
xxviIt would be indispensable to enter into the depths of the Hebrew language in order to grasp all the subtlety of the semantic intentions and the breadth of the metaphorical and intertextual evocations that are at stake. Only then is it possible to understand the ambivalence of the language, which is all the more amplified in the context of divine presence and action. The same verbal root (tsur) indeed evokes both ‘enemy’ and ‘protection’, ‘fight’ and ‘shelter’, but also subliminally evokes the famous ‘rock’ (tsur) in the cleft of which God placed Moses to ‘protect’ him when He appeared to him in His glory on Mount Horeb. « I will place you in the cleft of the rock (tsur) and I will shelter you (or hide you, – verb שָׂכַךֽ sakhakh) from my ‘hand’ (kaf, literally, from my ‘hollow’) until I have passed over. « (Ex 33:22) For example, puns and alliterations proliferate in verse 7 of Psalm 32. Just after the first hemisphere ‘You are my protection (attah seter li)’, we read: מִצַּר תִּצְּרֵנִי , mi-tsar ti-tsre-ni (« from the enemy, or from affliction, you save me »). There is here a double alliteration playing on the phonetic proximity of the STR root of the word sétèr (‘protection’), of the TSR root of the word tsar, denoting the enemy or affliction, and of the tsar verb ‘to protect, guard, save’. This is not just an alliteration, but a deliberate play on words, all derived from the verbal root צוּר , tsour, ‘to besiege, fight, afflict; to bind, enclose’: – the word צַר, tsar, ‘adversary, enemy; distress, affliction; stone’; – the word צוּר , tsur, ‘rock, stone’; – the verb צָרַר, tsar, ‘to bind, envelop, guard; oppress, fight; be cramped, be afflicted, be in anguish’.
« The Lord sent death upon Jacob and it came upon Israel. » (Isaiah 9:7)
Death, really? Upon Jacob? And upon Israel? Sent by the Lord Himself ?
The word « death » is in fact used in this verse in the famous translation of the Septuagint, made around 270 B.C. by seventy Jewish scholars in Alexandria at the request of Ptolemy II. The Septuagint (noted LXX) uses the Greek word θάνατον, thanaton, which means « death ».
But in other translations, disregarding this catastrophic lesson of the LXX, Isaiah’s verse is translated much more neutrally as « word ».i
The Jerusalem Bible gives thus: « The Lord hath cast a word into Jacob, it is fallen upon Israel. »
In the original version, Hebrew uses the word דָּבָר , davar, whose primary meaning is « word ».
The dictionary also tells that this same word, דָּבָר , davar, can mean « plague » or « death », as in Exodus 9:3: « A very strong plague » or « a very deadly plague ». Here, the LXX gives θάνατος μέγας, « a great death ». In Hosea 13:14 the word davar means « plagues ».
If the noun דָּבָר , davar, carries this astonishing duality of meaning, the verb דָּבַר , davara, confirms it by adding a nuance of excess. Davara means « to speak, to say; to speak evil, to speak against », but also « to destroy, to exterminate ».
It seems that in Hebrew the sphere of meanings attached to davar and davara is not only potentially full of threats or (verbal) aggression, as in Numbers 12:1 (« Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses ») or in Ps 78:19 (« They spoke against God »), but also full of potential, fatal and deadly action, as in II Chr 22:10 (« She wiped out the whole royal race ») or in Ps 2:5 (« In his wrath he will destroy their mighty ones »).
Davar. Word. Plague. Death.
Davara. To speak. To exterminate.
Such ambivalence, so radical, implies that one can really decide on the meaning, – « word » or « extermination » ? – only by analyzing the broader context in which the word is used.
For example, in the case of Isaiah’s verse: « The Lord sent death upon Jacob and it came upon Israel », it is important to emphasize that the prophet continues to make terrible predictions, even darker:
« The Lord will raise up against them the enemies of Rezin. And he will arm their enemies. Aram on the east, the Philistines on the west, and they will devour Israel with full mouths » (Isaiah 9:10-11).
« So YHVH cut off from Israel head and tail, palm and rush, in one day » (Isaiah 9:13).
« By the wrath of YHVH Sabaoth the earth has been burned and the people are like the prey of fire » (Isaiah 9:18).
The context here clearly gives weight to an interpretation of davar as « death » and « extermination » and not simply as « word ».
The lesson in LXX appears to be correct and faithful to the intended meaning.
Another question then arises.
Is this use of the word davar in Isaiah unique in its kind?
Another prophet, Ezekiel, also reported terrible threats from God against Israel.
« I will make you a desolation, a derision among the nations that are round about you, in the sight of all who pass by » (Ez 5:14).
« I will act in you as I have never acted before and as I will never act again, because of all your abominations » (Ez 5:9).
« You shall be a mockery and a reproach, an example and a stupefaction to the nations around you, when I shall do justice from you in anger and wrath, with furious punishments. I, YHVH, have said » (Ez 5:15).
« And I will put the dead bodies of the Israelites before their filthiness, and I will scatter their bones around your altars. Wherever you dwell, the cities shall be destroyed and the high places laid waste » (Ez 6:5).
We find in Ezekiel the word davar used in the sense of « plague » or « pestilence »:
« Thus says the Lord YHVH: Clap your hands, clap your feet and say, ‘Alas,’ over all the abominations of the house of Israel, which will fall by the sword, by famine and by pestilence (davar). He who is far away will die by the pestilence (davar). He who is near shall fall by the sword. That which has been preserved and spared will starve, for I will quench my fury against them » (Ez 6:11-12).
God is not joking. Davar is not « only » a plague. It is the prospect of an extermination, an annihilation, the final end.
« Thus says the Lord YHVH to the land of Israel: Finished! The end is coming on the four corners of the land. It is now the end for you. I will let go of my anger against you to judge you according to your conduct. (…) Thus says the Lord YHVH: Behold, evil is coming, one evil. The end is coming, the end is coming, it is awakening towards you, and behold, it is coming » (Ez 7:2-5).
Faced with this accumulation of threats of exterminating the people of Israel uttered by the Lord YHVH, an even deeper question arises.
Why does a God who created the worlds, and who has « chosen » Israel, decide to send « death », threatening to ensure the « end » of His Chosen People?
There is a question of simple logic that arises.
Why does an omnipotent and all-knowing God create a world and people that seem, in retrospect, so evil, so perverse, so corrupt, that He decides to send a word of extermination?
If God is omniscient, He should always have known that His creation would eventually provoke His unquenchable fury, shouldn’t he?
If He is omnipotent, why did He not immediately make Israel a people sufficiently satisfying in His eyes to at least avoid the pain of having to send death and extermination a few centuries later?
This is in fact a question that goes beyond the question of the relationship between God and Israel, but touches on the larger problem of the relationship between God and His Creation.
Why is a « Creator »-God also led to become, afterwards, an « Exterminator »-God ?
Why can the « Word » of God mean « Creation », then also mean « Extermination »?
There are only two possible answers.
Either God is indeed omniscient and omnipotent, and then He is necessarily also cruel and perverse, as revealed by His intention to exterminate a people He has (knowingly) created « evil » and « corrupt » so that He can then « exterminate » them.
Either God is not omniscient and He is not omnipotent. But how come ? A possible interpretation is that He renounced, in creating the world, a part of His omniscience and omnipotence. He made a kind of « sacrifice », the sacrifice of His omnipotence and omniscience.
He made this sacrifice in order to raise His creatures to His own level, giving them real freedom, a freedom that in some strange way escapes divine « science » and « knowledge ».
Let us note that this sort of sacrifice was already a deep intuition of the Veda, as represented by the initial, primal, sacrifice of Prajāpati, the supreme God, the Lord of Creatures.
But why does a supreme God, the Creator of the Worlds, decide to sacrifice His omnipotence and omniscience for creatures who, as we can see, end up behaving in such a way that this supreme God, having somehow fallen back to earth, must resolve to send them « death » and promise them the « end »?
There is only one explanation, in my humble opinion.
It is that the Whole [i.e. God + Cosmos + Humanity] is in a mysterious way, more profound, more abysmal, and in a sense infinitely more « divine » than the divinity of a God alone, a God without Cosmos and without Anthropos.
Only the sacrifice of God, the sacrifice of God as not being anymore the sole « Being », in spite of all the risks abundantly described by Isaiah or Ezekiel, makes possible an « increase » of His own divinity, which He will then share with His Creation, and Humankind.
This is a fascinating line of research. It implies that Humanity has a shared but also « divine » responsibility about the future of the world, and to begin with, about the future of this small planet.
iThis debate over the meaning to be given to davar in this particular verse has been the subject of many commentaries. Théodoret de Cyr notes: « It should be noted that the other interpreters have said that it is a « word » and not « death » that has been sent. Nevertheless, their interpretation does not offer any disagreement: they gave the name of « word » to the decision to punish. « Basil adopts λόγον (« word »), and proposes another interpretation than Theodoret: it would be the Divine Word sent to the poorest, symbolized by Jacob. Cyril also gives λόγον, but ends up with the same conculsion as Theodoret: the « word » as the announcement of punishment. See Theodoret of Cyr, Commentaries on Isaiah. Translated by Jean-Noël Guinot. Ed. Cerf. 1982, p.13
The Jewish Kabbalah pits the Prophet against the Wise man, and puts the Wise man above the Prophet. Why this hierarchical order? Is it justified? What does it teach us? What can we expect from this vision of things?
Let’s start with some elements of argumentation, against prophetism.
« The Wise man always prevails over the Prophet, for the Prophet is sometimes inspired and sometimes not, while the Holy Spirit never leaves the Wise men; they have knowledge of what has happened Up-There and Down-Here, and they are under no obligation to reveal it. » i
The Wise men « know ». Their wisdom is such that they even dispense with the risk of speaking about it publicly. There would only be blows to be taken, trouble guaranteed. And for what benefit? In their great wisdom, the Wise men are careful not to « reveal » what they « know ». It is precisely because they are « wise » that they do not reveal what is the basis of their « wisdom ».
What do they do then, if they do not reveal their knowledge to the world? Well, they continue to deepen it, they study to climb the ladder of knowledge constantly.
« Those who study the Torah are always preferable to the prophets. They are indeed of a higher level, for they hold themselves Above, in a place called Torah, which is the foundation of all faith. Prophets stand at a lower level, called Netsah and Hod. Therefore, those who study the Torah are more important than the prophets, they are superior to them. » ii
This frontal antagonism between sages and prophets has a long history. It can be summed up in the age-old rivalry between prophetic Judaism and rabbinic Judaism.
Gershom Scholem, who has studied the great currents of Jewish mysticism, notes « an essential point on which Sabbatianism and Hasidism converge, while moving away from the rabbinic scale of values, namely: their conception of the ideal type of man to whom they attribute the function of leader. For rabbinic Jews, especially at that time, the ideal type recognized as the spiritual leader of the community was the scholar, the Torah student, the educated Rabbi. From him, no inner rebirth is required. (…) In place of these masters of the Law, the new movements gave birth to a new type of leader, the seer, the man whose heart was touched and changed by God, in a word, the prophet. » iii
The rivalry between the scholar and the seer can be graduated according to a supposed scale, which would symbolically link the Below and the Above. For rabbinic Judaism, the talmudic scholar, the student of the Torah, is « superior » to the seer, the prophet, or the one whose heart has been changed by God.
Once a sort of scale of comparison is established, other hierarchies proliferate within the caste of the « masters of the Law ». They are based on the more or less proper way of studying the Law, on the more or less proper way of approaching the Torah.
The texts testify to this.
« Why is it written on the one hand, ‘For thy grace is exalted to the heavens’? (Ps 57:11) and on the other hand: ‘Your grace is greater than the heavens’ (Ps 108:5)? There is no contradiction between these two verses. The first refers to those who do not care about the Torah in a selfless way, while the second applies to those who study in a selfless way. » iv
One might conclude (probably too hastily) that it is therefore in one’s interest to be disinterested (as to the purpose of the study), and to be disinterested in any interest (for the purpose of the Torah), if one wants to know the grace that « transcends the heavens ».
But another avenue of research opens up immediately.
Rather than only concerning those who ‘study the Torah’, the grace that ‘ascends to heaven’ and the grace that ‘transcends heaven’ could apply respectively to the masters of the Law and the prophets, – unless it is the other way around? How do we know?
We have just seen that the Zohar resolutely takes sides with the superiority of the masters of the Law over the seers and the prophets. But the ambivalence of the texts of the Hebrew Bible undoubtedly allows for many other interpretations.
Perhaps we can draw on the sayings of the Prophets themselves to form an opinion about them, and try to see if what they have to say can « reach beyond the heavens »?
Isaiah states about his own prophetic mission:
« Yes, so spoke YHVH to me when his hand grasped me and taught me not to follow the path of this people, saying :
‘You will not call a conspiracy all that this people calls a conspiracy, you will not share their fears and you will not be terrified of them. It is YHVH Tsebaot whom you will proclaim holy; it is He who will be the object of your fear and terror.
He will be a sanctuary, a rock that brings down, a stumbling block for the two houses of Israel, a net and a snare for the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Many will stumble, fall and break, and they will be trapped and captured.
Enclose a testimony, seal an instruction in the heart of my disciples’.
I hope in YHVH that hides His face from Jacob’s house. » v
According to Isaiah’s testimony, YHVH declares that He himself is a ‘rock that makes fall’, a ‘stumbling block’, a ‘net and snare’. But a little further on Isaiah radically reverses this metaphor of the ‘stone’ and gives it the opposite meaning :
« Thus says the Lord YHVH:
Behold, I am going to lay in Zion a stone, a granite stone, a cornerstone, a precious stone, a well-established foundation stone: he who trusts in it shall not be shaken. » vi
To paraphrase what was said above about self-serving and selfless study of the Torah, let us argue that the ‘well-grounded foundation stone’ applies to true prophets.
On the other hand, the ‘stumbling block’ refers to the ‘insolent’, those who have ‘made a covenant with death’, who have made ‘lies’ their ‘refuge’ and who have ‘hidden in falsehood’vii, as well as false prophets, priests and all those who claim to ‘teach lessons’ and ‘explain doctrines’….
Isaiah eructs and thunderstruck. His fury bursts out against the pseudo-Masters of the Law.
« They, too, were troubled by the wine, they wandered about under the effect of the drink. Priest and prophet, they were troubled by drink, they were taken with wine, they wandered with drink, they were troubled in their visions, they wandered in their sentences. Yes, all the tables are covered with abject vomit, not a clean place! » viii
The false prophets and priests are drunk and roll around in their abject vomit… Their visions are troubled… Their sentences are rambling… They stutter, they donkey absurd sentences, but YHVH will give them their derisory lessons and knock them off their pedestals :
« Who does He teach the lesson to? To whom does He explain the doctrine? To children barely weaned, barely out of the teat, when He says: ‘çav laçav, çav laçav; qav laqav, qav laqav; ze ‘êr sham, ze ‘êr sham‘ ix. Yes, it is with stuttering lips and in a foreign language that He will speak to this people (…) Thus YHVH will speak to them thus: çav laçav, çav laçav; qav laqav, qav laqav; ze ‘êr sham, ze ‘êr sham‘, so that as they walk they may fall backwards, be broken, be trapped, be imprisoned. » x
As we can see, Isaiah had, more than a millennium beforehand, already warned of the subtle contempt and the self-satisfaction of the Kabbalistic scholars, and of the pseudo-sapiential sentences of rabbinic masters.
Today, what has become of the ancient bipolarity of prophetic and rabbinic Judaism?
It seems that rabbinic Judaism now occupies almost all the ideological terrain. The time of the (true) prophets has indeed been over for more than two millennia. The (false) prophets have been particularly discredited since the recurrent proliferation of multiple « Messiahs » (ranging from Jesus Christ to Isaac Luria, Sabbatai Zevi and Nathan of Gaza…).
There is little hope that the Messiah will risk to come again on the world stage any time soon. We know now what it cost the daring ones who ventured to take the role.
What future, then, for the Eternal People? What future for Judaism in a shrinking, suffering planet, threatened from all sides, especially by war, injustice, biological death?
I don’t know, not being wise enough.
I only know that, in truth, probably only a prophet would be able to answer these questions…
iZohar II 6b (Shemot). Quoted by Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhyn. The soul of life. Fourth portico: Between God and man: the Torah. Verdier 1986, p.215.
iiZohar III 35a (Tsav). Quoted by Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhyn. The soul of life. Fourth portico: Between God and man: the Torah. Verdier 1986, p.215.
iiiGershom Scholem. The great currents of Jewish mysticism. Trad. M.-M. Davy. Ed. Payot et Rivages, Paris, 2014, pp.483-484
ivRabbi Hayyim of Volozhyn. The soul of life. Fourth portico: Between God and man: the Torah. Ed. Verdier 1986, p.210.
One can consult the latest research in Neurosciences on consciousness: many interesting hypothesis are tested, but there is never a word about the soul. Total absence of the idea, even. Is soul a blind spot of techno-sciences? One may suppose that the soul, by her very nature, escapes all scientific investigation, she is out of reach, absolutely. She can’t be looked at, with a simply « objective », « materialistic » gaze.
By contrast, the Talmud is more prolific on the subject, and teaches several things about the human soul: she has been called « Light »; she « fills » and « nourishes » the whole body; she « sees » but cannot be seen; she is « pure »; she resides in a « very secret place »; she is « weak ».
It’s a good start. But let’s review these Talmudic determinations of the soul.
The soul is named « Light ».
« The Holy One, blessed be He, said, ‘The soul I have given you is called Light, and I have warned you concerning the lights. If you heed these warnings, so much the better; if not, beware! I will take your souls’. » i
Light is only the third of God’s « creations », right after heaven and earth. But there is an important nuance. Heaven and earth were definitely « created ». « In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. » ii
But « light » was not « created », literally speaking. Rather, it came right out of the word of God: « God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light. » iv
Moreover, it seems that from the start, light worked better, as a creation: « God saw that the light was good. » v God did not say that the heaven or the earth were « good ».
Light, therefore, was the first of the divine creations to be called « good ».
Hence, maybe, its extraordinary success as a metaphor. Light became the prototype of life (of men): « Life was the light of men »vi. And, by extension, it also became the prototype of their soul, as the Talmud indicates. If life is the light of men, the soul is the light of life.
This explains why, later on, we will see a deep connection between light and truth: « He who does the truth comes to the light »vii.
The Hebrew word for « light » is אור, « or ». The word אור means « light, radiance, sun, fire, flame », but also, by extension, « happiness ».
« Or », אור, is maybe the true name, the true nature of the soul.
The soul fills and nourishes the body, sees, is pure, and resides in a very secret place.
We learn all this in the Berakhot treaty:
« R. Chimi b. Okba asked: ‘How can I understand? Bless the LORD, my soul: let all my womb bless his name. (Ps 103:1)? (…) What was David thinking when he said five timesviii Bless the LORD, my soul?
– [He was thinking ] of the Holy One, blessed be He, and to the soul. Just as the Holy One, blessed be He, fills the whole world, so the soul fills the whole body; the Holy One, blessed be He, sees and is not visible, and likewise the soul sees but cannot be seen; the soul nourishes the whole body, just as the Holy One, blessed be He, nourishes the whole world; the Holy One, blessed be He, is pure, the soul also; like the Holy One, blessed be He, the soul resides in a very secret place. It is good that the one who possesses these five attributes should come to glorify the One who possesses these five attributes. » ix
This text teaches us that the soul has five attributes. These five attributes are based on the hypothesis of a « likeness » or « resemblance » between the soul and the « Holy One ».
The soul fills the whole body and nourishes it. But then what happens when a part of the body becomes detached from it? Does a piece of the soul leave as a result? No, the soul is indivisible. What is called « body » takes its name only from the presence of the soul that envelops and fills it. If the body dies and decomposes, it just means that the soul has gone. Not the other way around.
The soul sees. It is not, of course, through the eyes of the body. It is all about seeing what cannot be seen, which is beyond all vision. The soul sees but she does not see herself. This comes from the fact that she is of the same essence as the divine word that said « Let there be light ». One cannot see such a word, nor can one hear it, one can only read it.
The soul is pure. But then evil does not reach her? No. Evil does not attain her essence. It can only veil or darken her light. Evil can be compared to thick, uncomfortable clothes, heavy armor, or rubbish thrown on the skin, or a hard gangue hiding the brilliance of an even harder diamond.
The soul resides in a very secret place. This statement should be made known to the specialists of neurosciences. The first Russian cosmonauts famously reported, after their return to earth, that they had not found God in space. Nor is there much chance that the soul can be detected by positron emission tomography or other techniques of imagery. This makes it necessary to imagine a structure of the universe that is much more complex (by many orders of magnitude) than the one that « modern », positivist science is trying to defend.
The soul is weak.
The soul is « weak », as evidenced by the fact that she « falters » when she hears even a single word from her Creator. « R. Joshua b. Levi said: Every word spoken by the Holy One, blessed be he, made the souls of Israel faint, for it is said, My soul fainted when he spoke to me (Cant. 5:6). But when a first word had been spoken and the soul had gone out, how could she listen to a second word? He made the dew fall that was destined to raise the dead in the future, and it raised them up. » x
There are even more serious arguments. The soul is weak in its very essence, because she « floats ».
« [In Heaven] are also the breaths and souls of those who are to be created, for it is said before me the breaths float, and the souls which I have made (Is. 57:16); and the dew that will serve the Holy One, blessed be he, to raise the dead. » xi
The quotation from Isaiah in this excerpt from the Talmud, however, lends itself to other interpretations, and translations…
The word « float » here translates the Hebrew יַעֲטוֹף: « to cover oneself; to be weak ».
With this more faithful sense, one reads: « Thus says He who is high and exalted, whose dwelling is eternal and whose name is holy: ‘I am high and holy in my dwelling place, but I am with the contrite and humiliated man, to revive the humiliated spirits, to revive the contrite hearts. For I do not want to accuse constantly or always be angry, for before me would weaken the spirit and those souls I created. » (Is. 57:15-16)
Another translation (by the Jerusalem Bible) chooses to translate יַעֲטוֹף as « to die out »:
« Sublime and holy is my throne! But it is also in the contrite and humble hearts, to vivify the spirit of the humble, to revive the hearts of the afflicted. No; I don’t want to argue without respite, to be angry all the time, because the spirit would eventually die out in front of me, with these souls that I myself have created. »
So, is the soul « floating », « weak » or threatened to « die out »?
All this together, for sure. Fortunately, Isaiah brings us good news.
The souls of the humble and the afflicted will be enlivened, revived.
It is the souls of the proud who risk to die out.
I would like to conclude here, with yet another metaphor, due to the Psalmist:
« My soul is in me like a child, like a little child against its mother. » xii
iAggadoth of the Babylonian Talmud. Shabbat 31b. §51. Translated by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre. Ed. Verdier. 1982, p.168.
viiiIn Psalm 103, David says three times, Bless the LORD my soul (Ps 103:1, 2 and 22), once bless the LORD, you his angels (103:20), once bless the LORD, you his hosts (Ps 103:21), once bless the LORD, you all his creatures (Ps 103:22). However, David says twice more Bless the LORD, my soul in Psalm 104:1, « My soul, bless the LORD! O LORD my God, you are infinitely great! « and « Bless, my soul, YHVH, hallelujah! « Ps 104:35.
ixAggadoth of the Babylonian Talmud. Berakhot 10a. §85. Translated by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1982, p. 69-70.
xAggadoth of the Babylonian Talmud. Shabbat 88b. §136. Translated by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre. Ed. Verdier. 1982, p.207.
xiAggadoth of the Babylonian Talmud. Haguiga 12b, § 31. Translated by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre. Ed. Verdier. 1982, p.580.
Is a « beautiful girl », whose beauty is « without soul », really beautiful?
Kant thought about this interesting question.
« Even of a girl, it can be said that she is pretty, conversational and good-looking, but soulless. What is meant here by soul? The soul, in the aesthetic sense, refers to the principle that, in the mind, brings life.» i
For Kant, here, the soul is an aesthetic principle, a principle of life. Beauty is nothing if it does not live in some way, from the fire of an inner principle.
Beauty is really nothing without what makes it live, without what animates it, without the soul herself.
But if the soul brings life, how do we see the effect of her power? By the radiance alone of beauty? Or by some other signs?
Can the soul live, and even live to the highest possible degree, without astonishing or striking those who are close to her, who even brush past her, without seeing her? Or, even worse, by those who see her but then despise her?
« He had no beauty or glamour to attract attention, and his appearance had nothing to seduce us. » ii
These words of the prophet Isaiah describe the « Servant », a paradoxical figure, not of a triumphant Messiah, but of God’s chosen one, who is the « light of the nations »iii and who « will establish righteousness on earthiv.
A few centuries after Isaiah, Christians interpreted the « Servant » as a prefiguration of Christ.
The Servant is not beautiful, he has no radiance. In front of him, one even veils one’s face, because of the contempt he inspires.
But as Isaiah says, the Servant is in reality the king of Israel, the light of the nations, the man in whom God has put His spirit, and in whom the soul of God delightsv.
« Object of contempt, abandoned by men, man of pain, familiar with suffering, like someone before whom one hides one’s face, despised, we do not care. Yet it was our suffering that he bore and our pain that he was burdened with. And we considered him punished, struck by God and humiliated. » vi
The Servant, – the Messiah, has neither beauty nor radiance. He has nothing to seduce, but the soul of God delights in him.
A beautiful woman, without soul. And the Servant, without beauty, whose soul is loved by God.
Would soul and beauty have nothing to do with each other?
In the Talmud, several passages deal with beauty; others with the soul; rarely with both.
Some rabbis took pride in their own, personal beauty.
R. Johanan Bar Napheba boasted: « I am a remnant of the splendors of Jerusalem ». vii
His beauty was indeed famous. It must have been all the more striking because his face was « hairless ».viii
And, in fact, this beauty aroused love, to the point of triggering unexpected transports.
« One day, R. Johanan was bathing in the Jordan River. Rech Lakich saw him and jumped into the river to join him.
– You should devote your strength to the Torah, » said R. Johanan.
– Your beauty would suit a woman better, » replied Rech Lakich.
– If you change your life, I’ll give you my sister in marriage, who is much more beautiful than I am. » ix
At least this R. Johanan was looked at and admired ! The same cannot be said of Abraham’s wife. She was beautiful, as we know, because the Pharaoh had coveted her. But Abraham did not even bother to look at her…
« I had made a covenant with my eyes, and I would not have looked at a virgin (Job, 31:1): Job would not have looked at a woman who was not his, says Rabbah, but Abraham did not even look at his own wife, since it is written, « Behold, I know that you are a beautiful woman (Gen. 12:11): until then he did not know it. » x
From another point of view, if someone is really beautiful, it can be detrimental, even deadly.
The very handsome rabbi R. Johanan reported: « From the river Echel to Rabath stretches the valley of Dura, and among the Israelites whom Nebuchadnezzar exiled there were young men whose radiant beauty eclipsed the sun. Their very sight alone made the women of Chaldea sick with desire. They confessed it to their husbands. The husbands informed the king who had them executed. But the women continued to languish. So the king had the bodies of young men crushed.» xi
In those days, the rabbis themselves did not hide their appreciation of the beauty of women :
« Rabbi Simon b. Gamaliel was on the steps of the Temple Hill when he saw a pagan woman of great beauty. How great are your works, O LORD! (Ps. 104:24) he exclaimed. Likewise, when R. Akiba saw Turnus Rufus’ wifexii, he spat, laughed, and wept. He spat because she came from a stinking drop; he laughed because she was destined to convert and become his wife; and he wept [thinking] that such beauty would one day be under the earth. » xiii
That Rabbi Akiba dreamt of converting and seducing the wife of the Roman governor of Judea can be attributed to militant proselytizing.
Or was it just a parable?
Why did Rabbi Akiba mourn the beauty of this pagan?
Shouldn’t the beauty of her « converted » soul have obliterated forever the beauty of her body, destined moreover to be buried some day?
iEmmanuel Kant. Criticism of the faculty of judgment.
« All men are either Jews or Hellenes; either they are driven by ascetic impulses which lead them to reject all pictorial representation and to sacrifice to sublimation, or they are distinguished by their serenity, their expansive naturalness and their realistic spirit, » wrote Heinrich Heinei.
The over-schematic and somewhat outrageous nature of this statement may surprise in the mouth of the « last of the Romantic poets ».
But, according to Jan Assmann, Heine here would only symbolize the opposition between two human types, each of them holding on to two world visions, one valuing the spirit, without seeking a direct relationship with material reality, and the other valuing above all the senses and the concrete world.
In any case, when Heinrich Heine wrote these words at the beginning of the 19th century, this clear-cut opposition between « Hebraism » and « Hellenism » could be seen as a kind of commonplace “cliché” in the Weltanschauung then active in Germany.
Other considerations fueled this polarization. A kind of fresh wind seemed to be blowing on the European intellectual scene following the recent discovery of Sanskrit, followed by the realization of the historical depth of the Vedic heritage, and the exhumation of evidence of a linguistic filiation between the ‘Indo-European’ languages.
All this supported the thesis of the existence of multi-millennia migrations covering vast territories, notably from Northern Europe to Central Asia, India and Iran.
There was a passionate search for a common European origin, described in Germany as ‘Indo-Germanic’ and in France or Britain as ‘Indo-European’, taking advantage as much as possible of the lessons of comparative linguistics, the psychology of peoples and various mythical, religious and cultural sources.
Heine considered the opposition between « Semitic » and « Aryan » culture as essential. For him, it was a question not only of opposing « Aryans » and « Semites », but of perceiving « a more general opposition that concerned ‘all men’, the opposition between the mind, which is not directly related to the world or distant from it, and the senses, which are linked to the world. The first inclination, says Heine (rather simplistically, I must say), men get it from the Jews, the second, they inherited it from the Greeks, so that henceforth two souls live in the same bosom, a Jewish soul and a Greek soul, one taking precedence over the other depending on the case.» ii
A century later, Freud thought something comparable, according to Jan Assmann. « For him, too, the specifically Jewish contribution to human history lay in the drive toward what he called « progress in the life of the spirit. This progress is to the psychic history of humanity what Freud calls ‘sublimation’ in the individual psychic life.”iii
For Freud, the monotheistic invention consisted « in a refusal of magic and mysticism, in encouraging progress in the life of the spirit, and in encouraging sublimation ». It was a process by which « the people, animated by the possession of truth, penetrated by the consciousness of election, came to set great store by intellectual things and to emphasize ethics »iv.
This would be the great contribution of « Judaism » to the history of the world.
At the same time, however, Freud developed a particularly daring and provocative thesis about the « invention » of monotheism. According to him, Moses was not a Hebrew, he was Egyptian; moreover, and most importantly, he did not die in the land of Moab, as the Bible reports, but was in fact murdered by his own people.
Freud’s argument is based on the unmistakably Egyptian name ‘Moses’, the legend of his childhood, and Moses’ « difficult speech, » an indication that he was not proficient in Hebrew. Indeed, he could communicate only through Aaron. In addition, there are some revealing quotations, according to Freud: « What will I do for this people? A little more and they will stone me! « (Ex. 17:4) and : « The whole community was talking about [Moses and Aaron] stoning them. » (Numbers 14:10).
There is also that chapter of Isaiah in which Freud distinguishes the « repressed » trace of the fate actually reserved for Moses: « An object of contempt, abandoned by men, a man of sorrow, familiar with suffering, like one before whom one hides his face, despised, we took no notice of him. But it was our sufferings that he bore and our pains that he was burdened with. And we saw him as punished, struck by God and humiliated. But he was pierced because of our crimes, crushed because of our faults. « (Is. 53:3-5)
Freud infers from all these clues that Moses was in fact murdered by the Jews after they revolted against the unbearable demands of the Mosaic religion. He adds that the killing of Moses by the Jews marked the end of the system of the primitive horde and polytheism, and thus resulted in the effective and lasting foundation of monotheism.
The murder of the « father », which was – deeply – repressed in Jewish consciousness, became part of an « archaic heritage », which « encompasses not only provisions but also contents, mnemonic traces relating to the life of previous generations. (…) If we admit the preservation of such mnemonic traces in the archaic heritage, we have bridged the gap between individual psychology and the psychology of the masses, we can treat people as the neurotic individual.”v
The repression is not simply cultural or psychological, it affects the long memory of peoples, through « mnemonic traces » that are inscribed in the depths of souls, and perhaps even in the biology of bodies, in their DNA.
The important thing is that it is from this repression that a « decisive progress in the life of the spirit » has been able to emerge, according to Freud. This « decisive progress », triggered by the murder of Moses, was also encouraged by the ban on mosaic images.
« Among the prescriptions of the religion of Moses, there is one that is more meaningful than is at first thought. It is the prohibition to make an image of God, and therefore the obligation to worship a God who cannot be seen. We suppose that on this point Moses surpassed in rigor the religion of Aten; perhaps he only wanted to be consistent – his God had neither name nor face -; perhaps it was a new measure against the illicit practices of magic. But if one admitted this prohibition, it necessarily had to have an in-depth action. It meant, in fact, a withdrawal of the sensory perception in favor of a representation that should be called abstract, a triumph of the life of the mind over the sensory life, strictly speaking a renunciation of impulses with its necessary consequences on the psychological level.”vi
If Judaism represents a « decisive progress » in the life of the spirit, what can we think of the specific contribution of Christianity in this regard?
Further progress in the march of the spirit? Or, on the contrary, regression?
Freud’s judgment of the Christian religion is very negative.
« We have already said that the Christian ceremony of Holy Communion, in which the believer incorporates the Saviour’s flesh and blood, repeats in its content the ancient totemic meal, certainly only in its sense of tenderness, which expresses veneration, not in its aggressive sense ».vii
For him, « this religion constitutes a clear regression in the life of the spirit, since it is marked by a return to magical images and rites, and in particular to the sacrificial rite of the totemic meal during which God himself is consumed by the community of believers.”viii
Freud’s blunt condemnation of Christianity is accompanied by a kind of contempt for the « lower human masses » who have adopted this religion.
« In many respects, the new religion constituted a cultural regression in relation to the old, Jewish religion, as is regularly the case when new, lower-level human masses enter or are admitted somewhere. The Christian religion did not maintain the degree of spiritualization to which Judaism had risen. It was no longer strictly monotheistic, it adopted many of the symbolic rites of the surrounding peoples, it restored the great mother goddess and found room for a large number of polytheistic deities, recognizable under their veils, albeit reduced to a subordinate position. Above all it did not close itself, like the religion of Aten and the Mosaic religion which followed it, to the intrusion of superstitious magic and mystical elements, which were to represent a serious inhibition for the spiritual development of the next two millennia.”ix
If one adopts a viewpoint internal to Christianity, however hurtful Freud’s attacks may be, they do not stand up to analysis. In spite of all the folklore from which popular religiosity is not exempt, Christian theology is clear: there is only one God. The Trinity, difficult to understand, one can admit, for non-Christians as well as for Christians, does not imply « three Gods », but only one God, who gives Himself to be seen and understood in three « Persons ».
To take a cross-comparison, one could infer that Judaism is not « strictly monotheistic » either, if one recalls that the Scriptures attest that « three men » (who were YHVH) appeared to Abraham under the oak tree of Mamre (Gen 18:1-3), or that the Word of God was « incarnated » in the six hundred thousand signs of the Torah, or that God left in the world His own « Shekhinah » .
From the point of view of Christianity, everything happens as if Isaiah chapter 53, which Freud applied to Moses, could also be applied to the figure of Jesus.
It is the absolutely paradoxical and scandalous idea (from the point of view of Judaism) that the Messiah could appear not as a triumphant man, crushing the Romans, but as « an object of contempt, abandoned by men, a man of sorrow, familiar with suffering, like someone before whom one hides one’s face, despised. »
But what is, now, the most scandalous thing for the Jewish conscience?
Is it Freud’s hypothesis that Isaiah’s words about a « man of sorrow », « despised », indicate that the Jews murdered Moses?
Or is it that these same Isaiah’s words announce the Christian thesis that the Messiah had to die like a slave, under the lazzis and spittle?
If Freud is wrong and Moses was not murdered by the Jews, it cannot be denied that a certain Jesus was indeed put to death under Pontius Pilate. And then one may be struck by the resonance of these words uttered by Isaiah seven centuries before: « Now it is our sufferings that he bore and our sorrows that he was burdened with. And we considered him punished, struck by God and humiliated. But he was pierced because of our crimes, crushed because of our faults. « (Is. 53:4-5)
There is obviously no proof, from the Jewish point of view, that these words of Isaiah apply to Jesus, — or to Moses.
If Isaiah’s words do not apply to Moses (in retrospect) nor to Jesus (prophetically), who do they apply to? Are they only general, abstract formulas, without historical content? Or do they refer to some future Messiah? Then, how many more millennia must Isaiah’s voice wait before it reaches its truth?
History, we know, has only just begun.
Human phylum, if it does not throw itself unexpectedly into nothingness, taking with it its planet of origin, still has (roughly) a few tens of millions of years of phylogenetic « development » ahead of it.
To accomplish what?
One may answer: to rise ever more in consciousness.
Or to accomplish still unimaginable « decisive progress »…
With time, the millennia will pass.
Will Isaiah’s words pass?
What is mankind already capable of?
What will be the nature of the « decisive progress » of the human spirit, which has yet to be accomplished, and which still holds itself in the potency to become?
It is necessary to prepare for it. We must always set to work, in the dark, in what seems like a desert of stone, salt and sand.
For example, it would be, it seems to me, a kind of « decisive » progress to “see” in the figure of Moses « put to death » by his own people, and in that of Christ « put on the cross », the very figure of the Sacrifice.
The original Sacrifice, granted from before the creation of the world by the Creator God, the « Lord of Creatures » (that One and Supreme God whom the Veda already called « Prajāpati » six thousand years ago).
It would also, it seems to me, be another kind of « decisive » progress to begin to sense some of the anthropological consequences of the original « Sacrifice » of the supreme God, the « Lord of Creatures ».
Among them, the future of the « religions » on the surface of such a small, negligible planet (Earth): their necessary movement of convergence towards a religion of Humanity and of the World, a religion of the conscience of the Sacrifice of God, a religion of the conscience of Man, in the emptiness of the Cosmos.
iHeinrich Heine. Ludwig Börne. Le Cerf. Paris, 1993
iiJan Assmann. Le prix du monothéisme. Flammarion, Paris 2007, p. 142
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
Klee’s painting, Angelus novus, has a catchy title. It gives the painting an air of mystery. Angels, however, are so many, there are billions of them, on every pinhead, it is said. Every boson, every prion even, could have its own angel. In this immense crowd, how can we distinguish between « new » and « old » angels?
Are not angels, by nature, essentially timeless, pure spirits?
Klee’s angel is curiously static, even motionless. There is no sensation of movement, either backwards or forwards. No wind seems to be blowing.
His « wings » are raised as if for an invocation, not for a flight. And if he were to take off, it would be upwards rather than forward. His « fingers », or « feathers », are pointing upwards, like isosceles triangles. His eyes look sideways, fleeing the gaze of the painter and the spectator. His hair looks like pages of manuscripts, rolled by time. No wind disturbs them. The angel has a vaguely leonine face, a strong, sensual, U-shaped jaw, accompanied by a double chin, also U-shaped. His nose is like another tiny face, whose eyes would be his nostrils. His teeth are wide apart, sharp, almost sickly. It even seems that several are missing.
This ailing, stunted angel has only three fingers on his feet. He points them down, like a chicken hanging in a butcher shop.
Walter Benjamin made this comment, expressly metaphorical: “There is a painting by Klee entitled Angelus novus. It depicts an angel who seems to have the intention of moving away from what his gaze seems to be riveted to. His eyes are wide open, his mouth open, his wings spread. This is what the angel of History must necessarily look like. His face is turned towards the past. Where a sequence of events appears before us, he sees only one and only one catastrophe, which keeps piling up ruins upon ruins and throwing them at his feet. He would like to linger, awaken the dead and gather the defeated. But a storm blows from heaven, so strong that the angel can no longer close its wings. This storm is pushing him incessantly towards the future, to which he turns his back, while ruins pile up as far as heaven before him. This storm is what we call progress.”i
It seems to me that Benjamin has completely re-invented the Klee painting, for his own purposes. No storm, no accumulated progress, no past catastrophe, seem – in my opinion – to accompany the young angel of Klee.
Why, moreover, should History have only one ‘Angel’? And, if it were so, why should this Angel of History be ‘new’, when History is not?
Angelology is a very imperfect science, like History, it seems.
Isaiah said: “The angels of peace shall weep bitterly.”ii
In the Book of Daniel, we read that an archangel appeared and said: “The Prince of the Persians resisted me for twenty-one days.”iii According to a classical interpretation, this archangel was Gabriel, and the « Prince of the Persians » was the angel in charge of guarding the Persian kingdom.
S. Jerome added that Daniel prayed for the liberation of his people. But the Angel-Prince of the Persian kingdom opposed his prayers, while the archangel Gabriel presented them to God.
S. Thomas Aquinas commented the commentary: “This resistance was possible because a prince of the demons wanted to drag the Jews brought to Persia into sin, which was an obstacle to Daniel’s prayer interceding for this people.”iv
Isn’t this here a quite convincing indication, based on the Scriptures, that there are definitely several angels playing a role in History, and that, moreover, they are sometimes brought to fight each other, according to the interests of the moment?
According to several sources (Maimonides, the Kabbalah, the Zohar, the Soda Raza, the Maseketh Atziluth) angels belong to various orders and classes, such as the Principalities (hence the name « Prince » that we have just met for the angel of Persia), the Powers, the Virtues, the Dominations. Even better known are the Cherubim and Seraphim. Isaiah says in chapter 6 that he saw several Seraphim with six wings « crying out to one another ». Ezechiel speaks of Cherubim he had a vison of, and according to him, each of them had four faces and four wings.v
The Kabbalists propose ten classes of Angels in the Zohar: the Erelim, the Ishim, the Beni Elohim, the Malakim, the Hashmalim, the Tarshishim, the Shinanim, the Cherubim, the Ophanim and the Seraphim.
Maimonides also proposes ten classes of angels, but he arranges them in a different order, and groups them into two large classes, the « permanent » and the « perishable ».
Judah ha-Levi (1085-1140), a 12th century Jewish theologian, distinguished between « eternal » angels and angels created at a given time.
Where, then, should we place Klee’s Angelus novus, that « new » angel whom Benjamin calls the « Angel of History »? Is he permanent or perishable? Eternal or momentary?
If Benjamin and Klee are right, we should believe that History is guarded just by one ‘new angel’, who therefore must be probably perishable and momentary.
But if they are wrong, History is guarded not by one, but by many angels, and they may be eternal, imperishable.
They then may also cry out to each other like seraphim with multiple wings, and in the confused battles of the angels furiously mixed up, over the centuries, progress might be hard to perceive.
There is one thing, however, that we can be assured of: the most beautiful, the most brilliant of these seraphim (though not the most powerful apparently), – these angels of « peace » keep crying out, bitterly.
iWalter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History. 1940
Mocking, John Donne provokes Deathi. He wants to humiliate, crush, annihilate her. He absolutely reverses the roles. He’s the one who’s holding the scythe now. In a few precise sentences, he reaps death and war, poison and disease. Death is nothing more than a slave subject to fate and chance, power and despair; she is chained, and there are far better sleepers than her, opiates or dreamers.
At the moment when death, the « poor death », believes it has conquered, only a short sleep separates us from eternity. Metaphysical pirouette. Great leap of the angel to the nose of nothingness.
The last line of the Sonnet reads « And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.”
This line reminds us of Paul’s formula: « O Death, where is thy victory? »ii.
Paul’s formula itself evokes that of the prophet Hosea when he pronounced curses against Ephraim and the idolaters of Judah: « And I will deliver them from the power of Sheol? And I will deliver them from death? O death, where is your pestilence? Sheol, where is your destruction? »iii
There is, however, an important nuance between Paul and Hosea. Hosea called Death and the power of Sheol over guilty men. Paul announces the annihilation of Death itself.
In this Paul does not innovate. He refers to Isaiah, when Isaiah said: « Yahweh has put an end to death forever. »iv
Isaiah, Hosea, Paul, Donne, through the centuries, share the same idea. One day, Death will die one day. No doubt, death will die.
Who better than a prophet, an apostle, a poet, can take a firm stand on this ultimate issue?
“The LORD met him, and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a flint, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet; and she said: ‘Surely a bridegroom of blood art thou to me’. So He let him alone. Then she said: ‘A bridegroom of blood in regard of the circumcision’.”i
This text is off-putting, disjointed, enigmatic and raises many questions.
For example, is Zipporah addressing her son or her husband when she pronounces these words: « You are for me a bridegroom of blood »? Both interpretations are possible, and both have been defended by learned commentators.
According to some, Zipporah has just circumcised her son and she calls him « blood husband » because he is bleeding.
According to others, Moses neglected to circumcise his child, which is why God « attacked him » and « sought to kill him”. When Moses was close to death, Zipporah called him « blood husband, » because she had saved him with her son’s blood.
The first interpretation is preferred by the majority of commentators. But it poses a problem. One could ask whether Zipporah is operating a kind of symbolic incest. The mother calls her son twice: « blood husband » and « blood husband because of circumcision ». There would undoubtedly be there, for psychoanalysis, a form of symmetry with the true husband, Moses, who made Zipporah bleed « because of » her defloration.
Moses tore Zipporah’s hymen, as a husband of flesh. Zipporah cut off Eliezer’s foreskin, as a « husband of blood ». A symbolic parallel, heavy with analytical consequences, but also a saving act. Just after Zipporah cut off the foreskin, YHVH released Moses, and it is then that Zipporah clarified: « A husband of blood because of circumcision. »
But why would Zipporah feel the need to « touch » the feet of her son Eliezer with her foreskin?
The second interpretation is perhaps deeper. Zipporah saves her husband’s life by circumcising her son Eliezer in a hurry, while YHVH (or his angel) is about to kill Moses. Then she touches « his feet » with her foreskin. Whose feet? In the second interpretation, they are the « feet » of Moses, and it is to him that she addresses herself. But why the “feet”? Why touch the feet of Moses with his son’s foreskin?
In biblical Hebrew, “feet” are a metaphor often used to signify sex, as in Isaiah 7:20: « He shall shave the head and the hair of the feet ». Zipporah touched the sex of Moses with his son’s foreskin and said to him: « You are a blood husband to me », because it was also his blood that flowed, with the blood of his son. Circumcision is the figure of a new marriage, not with the son (which would be incest), but with Moses, and this in a symbolic sense, the sense of the Covenant, which is physically concluded in the blood of both spouses, as they are united by the blood of Eliezer.
In other words, Zipporah saved the life of Moses (who was uncircumcised) by simulating his circumcision. She touches the sex of Moses with the foreskin of her son, who has just been circumcised, and thus appeases the divine wrath, which was twofold: because the father and the son had not yet been circumcised.
At that very moment, YHVH « let him [Moses] alone ». This translation does not render the richness of the original Hebrew word. The verb used, rafah, has as its first meaning « to heal »; in a second sense, it means « to decline, to weaken, to desist, to release ». Healing is a weakening of the disease. It is worth noting this double meaning. YHVH « releases » Moses, « desists » from him, and thus He « heals » him. He « heals » Moses of his capital fault, and he also « heals » the child who is bleeding, and who might have died as a result of the operation, carried out with a stone in the middle of the desert, without much hygiene, and in an emergency.
There is yet another angle to this story.
Rachi comments: « He deserved to die because of this negligence. A Baraïta teaches us: Rabbi Yosef said: God forbid, Moses was not guilty of negligence. But he thought, « Shall I circumcise the child and set off? Will the child be in danger for three days? Shall I circumcise the child and wait three days? Yet the Holy One Blessed be He, who commanded me: Go, return to Egypt. Why then should he deserve death? Because he had first taken care of his bed at the stage instead of circumcising him without delay. The Talmud in the Nedarim Treaty (32a) says that the angel took the form of a snake, and swallowed him starting from the head to the hips, then rejected him and swallowed him again starting from the feet to the place in question. That’s how Zipporah understood that it was because of the circumcision. »
Rashi presents Moses in the throes of procrastination. Which of God’s commandments should be obeyed first: that of returning to Egypt, or that of circumcising his son? He falls into the fault when he does not immediately take care of the circumcision. But the Nedarim Treaty goes further. It evokes Moses swallowed by a snake. The snake starts at the head and stops at the hips (at the sex), then spits him out and starts again by swallowing him, starting by the feet.
Let’s try our own interpretation.
One can speculate that this « snake » metaphorically represents disease. Moses, uncircumcised, may have been the victim of a genital infection, which resulted in high fevers, with pain extending to the sex. Then, after a remission, the infection would start again from the « feet » (the sex). The kind of fellatio performed by the « snake » is a rather crude metaphor, but « biblical » after all. In any case, the Talmudists thought about it allusively, and felt that this was how Zipporah understood what she had to do.
But if Moses had a genital infection, why did Zipporah operate on her son’s sex rather than on Moses’?
As an unrepentant rationalist, I shall attempt a medical explanation.
Zipporah touched her husband’s sex with her son’s bloody foreskin. The son’s blood contained antibodies, which cured Moses’ genital infection.
Quite a rational solution. Yet it was a (rather irrational) angel who suggested it to Zipporah…
The prophet Isaiah was sawed in half with a wood saw by order of Manasseh, king of Judah. It was Belkira, also a prophet in Jerusalem, who had accused him.
What was the accusation? Isaiah had called Jerusalem « Sodom, » and had foretold that it would be devastated along with the other cities of Judah.
He also prophesied that the sons of Judah and Benjamin would go into captivity, and that king Manasseh would be put in a cage with iron chains.
Belkira claimed that Isaiah hated Israel and Judah.
But the most serious accusation was that Isaiah had dared to say: « I see further than the prophet Moses ».
Moses had said: « No man shall see the LORD and live. »
Isaiah had contradicted him: « I have seen the LORD, and behold, I am alive. »
Isaiah had told his vision in detail to Hezekiah, king of Judah and father of Manasseh, and to several prophets, including Micah.
Let’s summarize it here. An angel took Isaiah up to the firmament and then to the first six heavens. Finally he reached the seventh heaven. There he saw « someone standing, whose glory was greater than all else, a great and marvelous glory ». The angel said to him: « This is the Lord of all the glory that you have seen ». Isaiah also saw another glorious being, similar to the first. He asked, « Who is this one? ». The angel answered, “Worship him, for this is the angel of the Holy Spirit, who has spoken in you and in the other righteous ones.”
That was just foreplay.
“And my Lord, with the angel of the Spirit, came to me, and said: ‘Behold, thou hast been given to see the LORD; and for thy sake this power is given to the angel that is with thee.’ And I saw that my Lord worshipped, and the angel of the Spirit, and they both glorified the LORD together.”i
Isaiah also claimed to have seen the LORD, Yahweh-God, in the year of the death of King Uzziah (~740). « I saw the LORD sitting on a great and high throne (…) ». And he cried out in anguish: « Woe is me, I am lost! For I am a man of unclean lips, I dwell among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of Hosts.”ii
The price to pay for this vision was relatively small. A seraphim flew to Isaiah, and touched his mouth with an ember caught with pliers.
It was only later that he finally had to pay with his life for this vision of God: his body was sawed in half.
When Isaiah saw God, the Lord said to him, « Go and tell this people, ‘Listen, listen, and do not understand; look, look, and do not discern’. Make the heart of this people heavy, make their ears hard, swallow up their eyes. »iii
Two lessons can be drawn from these texts.
Firstly, Isaiah sees God face to face in all his glory, but does not die, contrary to what Moses said.
Secondly, though all this divine glory is clearly revealed to Isaiah, it only entrusted him with a rather disappointing and illogical message to deliver on his return to earth.
God sends Isaiah back to his people with a warning that is inaudible, incomprehensible, and above all paradoxical, contradictory. He must tell the people to ‘listen’ to him, but at the same time make them hard of hearing, and incapable to understand.
He must tell them to ‘look’ and and make their eyes glaze over.
Isaiah did not call into question the rather lousy mission he had been given.
Why so much glorygiven to Isaiah, and at the same time so much severity for the people?
As a matter of strong contrast, let us recall what happened to Ezra.
Ezra also had a vision.
The angels Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel placed him on a « cloud of flames » and took him to the seventh heaven. But when he got there, unlike Isaiah, Ezra saw only « the back of the Lord, » noting, « I have not deserved to see anything else. »
In front of the Lord’s back, Ezra tried to intervene on behalf of men. He told him without delay and spontaneously: « Lord, spare sinners!”
Then began a rather long quarrel between God and Ezra.
Ezra said, « How righteous are you, how almighty are you, how merciful are you, and how worthy are you? «
He also asked what will happen on Judgment day.
The Lord answered, « The Moon will become blood on the last day, and the sun will flow in its blood. »
This prompted Ezra to reply, « In what has heaven sinned? «
The Lord replied, « This heaven looks down upon the wickedness of mankind. »
Ezra wanted to plead the cause of men once again.
He attacked on a sensitive point, the election.
Ezra: « By the life of the Lord! I am going to plead for good against you because of all the men who have no place among the chosen ones! »
The Lord: « But you will be chosen with my prophets! »
Ezra: « Sinners, who shaped them? »
The Lord: « It’s me. »
Ezra: “If I too, like sinners, was created by you, then it is better to lose myself than the whole world!»iv
Here is a great prophet, Isaiah, who had the great privilege, denied even to Moses, of seeing the glory of God without dying, and who returns to earth with the mission to weigh down the hearts of his people, to make them deaf and blind.
And here is another prophet, Ezra, who could only see the « back of the Lord », but who did not hesitate to plead the cause of men on several occasions, and who said he was ready to renounce his election and to lose himself in exchange for the salvation of the world.
How should this be interpreted?
The Lord agreed to do men a favor, and said to Ezra: « Let sinners rest from their labors from the ninth hour of the Sabbath eve until the second day of the week; but on the other days let them be punished in return for their sins. »
From Friday afternoon until Monday midnight, three and a half days of grace.
One half of the week filled with grace. Half of the time then.
A good result for a prophet admitted to see only the « back of God ».
Think what Isaiah might have gotten if he had only tried to bargain with God.
Maybe, being captivated by his vision of God’s glory did not prepare him to engage God into a serious bargaining….
According to the Talmud of Jerusalem, a Jew, named Sabbathai of Ulama, one day entered the temple of Pe’or, then « fulfilled a need and wiped himself on Pe’or’s face. All who heard of it praised the man for this deed and said: « Never has anyone ever acted as well as he did.»i
What to think of this curious scene? The Talmud seems to regard it as a great deed, an act of courage showing the contempt of an Israelite for the idols of the Moabites. A Jew, defecates on the idol, wipes himself on the idol’s nose, and receives praise from his fellow believers.
In reality, no blasphemy, no transgression happened then: the cult of Pe’or consisted precisely in doing this sort of rite. Rashi explains it very well: « PE’OR. Named so because people undressed (פוערין ) in front of him and relieved themselves: that is what his cult consisted of. »
One may infer from that indication that the Talmud’s comment (« No one has ever acted as well as he did ») could not come in fact from other Jews, supposed to be gleefully approving of Sabbathaï desecrating the idol.
How could law-abiding Jews approve of a Jew who would have just strictly followed the rites of a pagan cult in the temple of Pe’or?
It is more likely that the praise for Sabbathai came rather from the Moabites themselves, being surprised (and maybe flattered) to see an Israelite following the rites of worship of Pe’or, and even adding a final touch of perfection, a remarkable pirouette.
The name Pe’or comes from the verbal root ָפָּעַר which in Hebrew means « to open one’s mouth wide ». The god Peor, a.k.a Ba’al Pe’or, (and better known in the West as Belphegor), was the « god of openness ». Whether this openness is that of the mouth or that of the anus is of secondary importance. It could just as well be a reference to the opening mouth of the Earth or of Hell.
In fact, Isaiah uses the word pe’or in an infernal, hellish, context: « Therefore the Sheol expands its throat and opens its mouth ( וּפָעֲרָה פִיהָ) inordinately.»ii
Another word, very close phonetically (פָּצַה), means « to split, to open wide », and in a metaphorical sense « to unchain, to deliver ». The Psalmist uses it in this way: « Deliver me, save me.»iii
Ba’al Pé’or, god of « openness », is a god over whom one could defecate “religiously”. That was a metaphor for deliverance…
One may say, rather counter-intuitively, that Ba’al Pé’or also prefigured, beyond what could be considered the apparent nothingness of idols, and their laughable inanity, a more disturbing idea: that of a Godhead ultimately despised and humiliated, – by the defecation of human excrements.
A very modern idea.
iQuoted in Georges Sorel, in Le système historique de Renan, Paris, Ed. G. Jacques, 1906
All religions, all beliefs, play their part in this world.
They are all quite different in a sense, But they all play a role in the current global, political and moral crisis.
Whether Vedic, Egyptian, Zend, Chaldean, Jewish, Buddhist, Hinduist, Christian, Islamic, all religions have something essential in common: they all have some kind of responsibility for the misfortune of the world.
they say they are « outside » the world, or « inside »
the world, they are responsible for what they say or let say, for
what they do or let do on their behalf.
are part of the world, taking on the most eminent place, that of
judge, master and sage.
could they not be linked to the actions and speeches of their
can we not judge them as much on what they say as on what they don’t
can we not bring their great witnesses to the public arena and ask
their opinion on the state of the world, as we would on election
night or on a day of disaster?
don’t really know where the chain of prophets began or when it will
the seal of the word sealed for eternity? Who will tell?
the Messiah return? Who will see that day?
eschatology come to an end? Who will hear the final Word?
ten thousand years is not enough to lower the pride of the
presumptuous, let us give ourselves a hundred centuries or a million
millennia, just to see what will remain of the dust of words once
tables, once stones, once laws.
of names can be listed, to stimulate memories. How far back do we go?
a few million years, we will see that they all shared their
differences, their aspirations, their visions, their breaths, their
does the « religion » of these prophets have to do with
« entities » now called Palestine, Israel, Saudi Arabia,
Kuwait, the United States, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Egypt,
India, Greece, China, France, Germany?
History teach us some day the essence of the difference between the
« religion » of the Khârijites, the Zaydites, the Imâmites,
the Ismaili Shi’ites and the Sunni ‘majority’ of Islam?
was really the origin of the « religion » of the Nizarrians,
and that of Hassan ibn al-Sabbah’s Assassiyoun?
is the « religion » of the Taliban?
questions are pointless, useless, apparently. There are better things
to do, as it seems, such as fighting, killing people, bombing cities,
beheading bodies, murdering children.
religions of the past illuminate the wanderings of the present and
those of the future with a special light, a premonitory aura.
slow epigenesis must be observed.
(implicit, slow) convergence must not be excluded, in the long run,
beyond their differences.
is necessary for understanding the present, as time takes its time.
who still has time to remember?
highlight, with words, curses and targeted blessings, much of the
reveal the fragility, weakness, instability, irreducible fracture of
encourage us to take a long and global perspective, to observe the
events of the day, to understand them, to anticipate their
consequences, and to overcome pain, anxiety, fatigue and the desire
for revenge, the drive for hatred.
more than fifty-five centuries, several religions have been born and
deployed in a limited geographical area, it is worth noting.
privileged area, this node of beliefs and passions, extends from the
Nile Valley to the Ganges basin, via the Tigris and Euphrates, the
Oxus, and the Indus.
changes more slowly than the hearts of mortals….
the Indus and the Oxus, which country best reflects today the past
millennia, the erased glories?
can we forget that Iran and Iraq (like Ireland) take their names from
the ancient Aryas, attesting to the ancient Indo-European ties of
Persia, Elam and Europe?
Aryas, long before they even received their « Aryan » name,
founded two major religions, the Veda in India, and the Zend Avesta
forces! Immaculate memories!
Fabre d’Olivet reports that Diagoras de Melos (5th century BC),
nicknamed « the atheist », a mocking and irreverent
character, discredited the Mysteries by disclosing and ‘explaining’
them. He even went so far as to imitate them in public. He recited
the Orphic Logos, he shamelessly revealed the Mysteries of Eleusis
and those of the Cabires.
will dare to unveil today, like Diagoras, the actual mysteries of the
world to the amazed crowds?
« Religion »
is a prism, a magnifying glass, a telescope and a microscope at the
« Religion »
is above all an anthropological phenomenon.
bring nothing to this debate, or rather ignite it without benefit to
the heart or the mind.
global anthropology of « religion » could possibly reveal
some constants of the human mind.
constants do exist. Thus, the latent, impalpable or fleeting feeling
of « mystery ».
« mystery » is not defined. It escapes any categorization.
But implicitly, indirectly, by multiplying approaches, by varying
angles, by accumulating references, by evoking the memory of peoples,
their sacredness, perhaps we sometimes manage to see the shadow of
its trace, its attenuated effluvium.
is also the idea of a unique, principal, creative divinity. It is
found in various forms, in ancient times, long before Abraham’s time,
before the Zend, even before the Veda.
again is the question of origin and death, the question of knowledge
of what we cannot know.
breath then goes through the pages of the Book of the Dead, the
manuscripts of Nag Hammadi, the hymns of Ṛg Véda or the Gāthās
of Zend Avesta? What breath, even today, runs through the world, in
a time so different from the origins?
breath, it is still possible to perceive it, to breathe its smell.
world of ideas and beliefs, distant, astonishing, serves as a
foundation for today’s world, filled with violence and lies,
populated by « saints » and murderers, wise men and prophets,
fools and crooks, death cries and « divine winds »
today, thinks the world’s destiny?
reading the Upaniṣad, let us also think of the « masters of the
world », the « gnomes » enslaved to the banks, the
political « dwarves » governing the peoples, perched on the
shoulders of centuries?
who are agitated in ignorance consider themselves wise. They run
wildly around like blind people, led by a blind man. »i
is a fact that we often observe, at the highest level, hypocrisy,
lies, baseness, cowardice, and much more rarely wisdom, courage,
it is also a fact that anything can happen, always., at any time.
is possible, on principle. The worst. The best. The mediocre. The
unspeakable. The unheard of.
world is saturated with ideas from all ages. Sometimes, from nowhere,
new forms are born, shimmering above the rubble and catacombs, relics
and hypogoria, crypts and hidden treasures.
will see these incredible visions, yet to appear?
who will be able to « meditate on what is difficult to perceive,
penetrate the secret that is deposited in the hidden place, that
resides in the ancient abyss ».
has revolutionized the notion of mathematical space, as Einstein did
in physics. He invented a new geometry, in which « the arithmetic
world and the world of continuous quantities are now one ».
combine the discontinuous and the continuous, the numbers and the
quantities, to make them unite intimately, Grothendieck conceived the
metaphor of their « marriages ». This marriage of paper had
to be followed by proper consumption, in order to ensure the
generation of new mathematical beings.
the expected ‘brides’,’of numbers and greatness’, it was like a
decidedly narrow bed, where only one of the future spouses (i.e., the
bride) could at least find a place to nestle as best as they could,
but never both at the same time! The « new principle » that
remained to be found, to consume the marriage promised by favourable
fairies, was also that this spacious « bed » that the future
spouses were missing, without anyone having only noticed it until
then. This « double bed » appeared (as if by a magic wand…)
with the idea of topos. » i
the greatest mathematical thinker of the 20th century, explained a
revolutionary breakthrough using a matrimonial metaphor, and all that
the metaphor of « marriage » has always been used to
translate difficult ideas into philosophical contexts.
thousand years ago, the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria used
this same metaphor to present the « mystery of the divine
generation ». To translate the idea of « divine generation »
into Greek, Philo uses the word τελετή (‘telete’).
mystery is composed of three elements. There are the two initial
« causes » of the generation and their final product.
causes are God and Wisdom (who is « the bride of God », –
remaining « virgin »)ii.
is Virginity itself. Philo relies on the authority of the prophet
Isaiah, who affirms that God unites himself with Virginity in
specifies elsewhere: « God and Wisdom are the father and mother
of the world ».iv
Christian tradition, there are similar metaphors, derived from Jewish
ideas, but transposed into the « union » of Christ and the
century Christian cabalist, Guillaume Postel, uses the metaphor of
the love of the male and female to describe this union:
as there is love of the male to the female, by which she is bound, so
there is love and bond of the female to the male by which she is
bound. This is the mystery of the most wonderful secret of the
Church’s authority over God and Heaven, as well as over God and
Heaven on Church by which Jesus meant it: Whatever you bind on earth
will be bound to Heaven. »v
of Avila, a contemporary of Guillaume Postel, speaks through
experience of « perfect union with God, called spiritual
and the soul are one, like crystal and the ray of sunlight that
penetrates it, like coal and fire, like the light of the stars and
the light of the sun (…) To give an idea of what it receives from
God in this divine cellar of union, the soul is content to say these
words (and I do not see that it could better say to express something
my Beloved I drank.
the wine that we drink spreads and penetrates into all the limbs and
veins of the body, so this communication of God spreads to the whole
soul (…) The Bride speaks of it in these terms in the book of
Songs: ‘My soul has become liquefied as soon as the Bridegroom has
of Avila speaks of the Bride « burning with the desire to finally
reach the kiss of union with the Bridegroom », quoting the Song
of Songs: « There you shall teach me ».
Song of Songs has incestuous resonances:
what a brother to me, breastfed in my mother’s womb! Meeting you
outside, I could kiss you, without people despising me. I’ll drive
you, I’ll introduce you to my mother’s house, you’ll teach me! I’ll
make you drink a fragrant wine, my pomegranate liqueur. »vii
spicy passage was strangely interpreted by S. François de Sales:
these are the tastes that will come, these are the ecstasies, these
are the summits of the powers; so that the sacred wife asks for
pillows to sleep. »viii
Metaphors! Where do you lead us to?
et Semailles, §2.13
Les topos — ou le lit à deux places
Guillaume Postel (1510-1581). Interprétation
du Candélabre de Moïse
(Venise 1548).« Car comme il y a amour du masle à la
femelle, par laquelle elle est liée, aussi y a-t-il amour et lien
de la femelle au masle par lequel il est lyé. Cecy est le mistère
du très merveilleux secret de l’authorité de l’Eglise sur Dieu et
sur le Ciel, comme de Dieu et du Ciel sur icelle par lequel Jésus
l’a voulu dire : Ce que vous lierez sur la terre sera lyé au
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
How would one interpret that
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
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
Isaiah calls out to God by a simple
« you », in Hebrew « attah ».
This « you » mocks the
cynic, the incredulous. It testifies to the immediate proximity of
what is revealed, the certainty of the idea.
But this « you » hides more
than it reveals itself.
The adjective « hidden » is
said mistatar in Hebrew. Esther of the Book of Esther,
bears this name, she is « the hidden one » (מִסְתַּתמִסֵר
mistatèr). These words come from the verb סַתָר
« to hide, protect, shelter ». This word is
often found in the Bible, with a wide range of possible meanings: to
cover, conceal, eclipse, bury, wrap, bury, blotch, mask, shut in,
shut up, hold, drag, veil.
In the substantive form, three main
meanings emerge: 1) What is hidden, secret 2) Envelope, cover, veil
3) Protection, retirement, asylum.
It is revealing, I think, that the
meaning of a word that means « veil » can have hidden depths,
and refer to other words, just as deep, just as veiled.
The verb tsamtsem, related to
the concept of tsimtsum, also means « to veil ».
The God who hides and veils himself
is also the God who contracts Himself, and makes Himself silent. It
is also the God of kenosis, the God who humbles Himself
( the word humble comes from Latin humus, earth, which
also gave homo, man).
What is God hiding in His
humiliation? What is He hiding in the humus, in the
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