« I don’t Need a Face »


-Angelus Novus. Paul Klee-

Gershom Scholem immigrated to Israel in 1923 and settled in Jerusalem. He was very disappointed, there. With raw and disenchanted words, his poems testify to his feelings.

Under the title « Sad Redemption », Scholem wrote in 1926:

« The glory of Zion seems to be over.

Reality has been able to resist

Will its rays know unexpectedly

how to penetrate to the heart of the world?

(…)

God could never be closer to you.

When despair eats away at you

In the light of Zion, itself shipwrecked. »i

It is possible that these poems were also, maybe, the bearers of yet another hope, a secret one, – obviously a burning one, which could however not be formulated.

But it is fact that he had lost his faith.

For him it was already nightfall.

« I lost that faith

Who led me here.

But since I recanted

It is dark all around. » ii

On June 23, 1930, he wrote another poem, which shows the depth of his dereliction, – and also opens a path, pierces every fence, projects himself in the broad, in the vast, – in the world, and exile himself, in thought, again.

« But the day has desecrated us.

What grows requires night.

We are delivered to powers,

By us unsuspected.

Incandescent history

Threw us into its flames,

Ruined the secret splendor,

Offered to the market, too visible, then.

It was the darkest hour

An awakening out of the dream.

Yet those who were wounded to death

Barely noticed it.

What was inside

Transformed, passing outside,

The dream has turned violent,

We are out again,

And Zion is formless. » iii

How to interpret this radical change in his state of mind?

Should we understand it as the terrible disappointment of an idealistic soul, unable to bear the violence of the reality, the one he had before his eyes, or to stomach the repetition of yet another violence, known to him, under other forms, and under other longitudes?

Or should we understand it as a terrible naivety, not suspecting what was inevitably to come, and which was already looming in 1930, on the slimy, red and black threatening stage of History?

Two years before leaving for Israel, Gershom Scholem had addressed a poem to Walter Benjamin, on July 15, 1921, – entitled « The Angel’s Salute ».

At his friend’s request, he had kept on his behalf Paul Klee’s famous drawing (belonging to Walter Benjamin) at home and had placed it on the wall in his Berlin apartment.

Klee’s « Angelus Novus » was to be later on called the « Angel of History », by Walter Benjamin himself, shortly before his suicide in France.

In his poem, « The Angel’s Salute », Scholem made the « Angel of History » say :

« I’m on the wall, and beautiful,

I don’t look at anyone,

Heaven sent me,

I am the angelic man.

In the room where I am, the man is very good,

But I’m not interested in him.

I am under the protection of the Most High

And I don’t need a face ». iv

Gershom Scholem obviously sees himself as this « good man », who houses the Angel in his « room », – but Scholem, apparently, was struck that he did not interest the « angelic man ».

In fact, Klee’s Angel really does not « look at anyone ».

But it was Scholem’s idea that the Angel allegedly did not « need any face »…

Why this angelic indifference?

Maybe because Klee’s Angel only sees Elyon’s Face?

Or maybe because any angel’s face is already « all faces » (panim)?

Or perhaps because any face, as the Hebrew word panim teaches it, is in itself a plurality.

And then all the faces of History form an infinite plurality of pluralities.

Or maybe the Angel does not need plurality, nor the plurality of pluralities, but only needs the One?

There is something overwhelming to imagine that the « Angel of History » is not interested in the « good man » in the 1930’s, and that he does not need to look at his good face, or at any other human face for that matter.

What does this jaded Angel come to do, then, on this wall, in this room, in the center of Berlin, in the 1920’s?

Thinking of it, a century later, I had to turn to yet another voice.

« At least one face had to answer

To all the names in the world.» v

_________________

iGershom Scholem. The Religious Origins of Secular Judaism. From Mysticism to Enlightenment. Calmann-Lévy, 2000, p. 303.

iiGershom Scholem. « Media in Vita ». (1930-1933) The Religious Origins of Secular Judaism. From Mysticism to Enlightenment. Calmann-Lévy, 2000, p. 304.

iiiGershom Scholem. « Encounter with Zion and the World (The Decline) « . (June 23, 1930). The Religious Origins of Secular Judaism. From Mysticism to Enlightenment. Calmann-Lévy, 2000, p. 304.

ivGershom Scholem. « Hail from the angel (to Walter for July 15, 1921) ». The Religious Origins of Secular Judaism. From Mysticism to Enlightenment. Calmann-Lévy, 2000, p. 304

vPaul Éluard . Capitale de la douleur. XXIX – Poetry/Gallimard 1966 (my translation)

All Religions Belong to Us


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

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

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

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

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

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

Philo had no connection with Christianity, the birth of which he was a contemporary. Of Greek and Jewish culture, he was well acquainted with the Greek philosophers and had a perfect knowledge of the texts of Judaism, which he interpreted in an original way. He was also interested in the religions of the Magi, the Chaldeans and the Zoroastrians.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us judge by this text:

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

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

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

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

This idea of a “virgin-mother-wife” is found almost everywhere in various traditions of antiquity, especially among the Orphics. The symbolic fusion between the wife and the daughter of God corresponds to the assimilation between Artemis and Athena among the latter. Korah, a virgin, daughter of Zeus and Demeter, unites with Zeus, and is the life-giving source of the world. She is the object of the mysteries of Eleusis. In the Osirid tradition, Osiris is the ‘principle’, Isis the ‘receptacle’ and Horus the ‘product’, which is translated philosophically by the triad: ‘Intelligible, matter, sensible’.

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

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

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

What does Marranism testify to? The deep ambivalence of a worldview based on messianic consciousness. « Messianic consciousness encourages the Jew to live the life of this world while waiting for the world to come and thus to develop a cantilevered attitude towards this world. »

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

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

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

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

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

We must not forget this lesson. At a time when the most « democratic » nations are actively preparing the means of mass surveillance, intrusive to the last degree, at a time when the prodromes of new barbarities are rising on a planetary scale, we will need this ancient lesson of duplicity in order to survive.

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

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

iiIbid.

iiiIbid.