Thursday, August 03, 2006

Vaethanan (Psalms)

Psalm 85: “You have been favorable to Your land, O Lord”

Psalm 85 seems an appropriate choice for this week for several reasons. First of all, it coalesces with the themes of Shabbat Nahamu (the “Sabbath of Consolation” that follows Tisha b’Av), with its haftarah of comfort and hope. Second, verses 11-12, in which several of the Divine attributes are personified or apotheosized, are theologically interesting in the context of this week’s Torah reading, that strongly emphasizes God’s ineffability and incorporeality (Deut 4:9-19) and, of course, His unity (in the Shema, 6:4ff.). Moreover, certain offshoots of those verses—namely, the preference for compassion and leniency over strict judgment and impartial truth—are also key components of what we might call the Nahamu mode—forgiveness, consolation, acceptance of repentance after sin and punishment: in short, the idea that the world cannot exist on the basis of pure judgment. (This message is one particularly needed by Israel, especially so after the traumatic events of the past week; in recent months, there has been far too much self-righteousness and dogmatism on both sides of the political fence.)

To turn to the text itself: Psalm 85, part of the second group of Korahite psalms, begins with the words: “You have favored Your land, O Lord; You have restored the captivity of Jacob.” The situation depicted seems to be one in which the Divine wrath has been visited upon the people Israel, and by extension upon the land, but that now God has restored the situation of harmony and Divine acceptance. God has “withdrawn”—literally, “gathered in” His anger, and turned away from his burning rage. (The concrete imagery here, in which the Divine anger is visualized as an arm that had been stretched forth wreaking mayhem, and now has been gathered inwards, is reminiscent of Psalm 74:11 [see our recent study on Masei], in which the situation is the exact opposite: the psalmist complains that God is holding back his arm, which he should use to destroy the wicked nations who destroy Israel: “Why do you hold back Your right hand; Draw it out of your bosom!”).

But this is immediately followed by a prayer that God forebear from His wrath, which may still be active, and instead give us life and joy, showing us His kindness and salvation. Hakham describes the first half of the psalm, vv. 2-8, as a prayer, containing equal portions of thanks for His kindnesses, and prayer for the future. But if so, the transition to “Will You forever be angry with us” (v. 5) seems out of place. Indeed, there is some ambiguity as to how whether vv. 2-4 are to be read as describing an existing situation, or as prayer for the future. Thus, NJPS translates these verses in the future tense, but in the marginal reading gives an alternative translation of each verb in the past perfect.

The second half (vv. 9-14) contains, as it were, God’s response to the prayer, with an enumeration of the blessings that may be anticipated. Verses 11-12 are particularly interesting. Here, various abstract attributes are depicted as autonomous personalities: “Loving-kindness and truth meet; justice and peace kisse; truth shall spring up from the earth, and justice will look down from Heaven.” The encounter of these attributes, even without the midrashic elaboration that I shall bring below, suggests that they somehow complement one another: hesed and emet (loving-kindness and truth), tzedek and shalom (justice and peace), are each incomplete without the balancing and mitigating effect of their opposite number. What we have here are essentially two pairs, each one consisting of what might be called a “hard” and ”soft” attribute, confronting one another. Truth and justice are absolutes, which tend to harshness and severity; uncompromising, unyielding norms, without any “taking into consideration…” Love and peace are beautiful, humane values, that automatically appeal to every sensitive, caring person; but their very softness—their very pliability and flexibility and tolerance and openness to compromise can ultimately be a kind of weakness. Thus, the meeting or embrace of one with the other lends a completeness to the picture that would be missing were each taken by itself.

There is a marvelous midrash on this passage, which applies this verse to the riddle of human nature, in the chapter dealing with the creation of mankind. Genesis Rabbah 8.5 reads:

R. Simon said: When the Holy One blessed be He set out to create Man / Adam, the ministering angels were divided into different factions and groups. Some of them said: “May him be created,” and others said: “May he not be created.” Concerning this it is said: “Loving-kindness and truth met; justice and peace kissed” [Ps 85:11]. Loving-kindness says: “May he be created, for he will perform acts of kindness.” Truth says: “May he not be created, for he is full of lies.” Justice says: “May he be created, for he does acts of righteousness/justice.” Peace says: “May he not be created, for he filled with disputes and quarrels. “ What did the Holy One blessed be He do? He took truth and threw him down to earth, as is written, “And He threw truth to the earth” [Daniel 8:12].

The ministering angels said…: “Master of the Universe, why do you insult Your seal [an allusion to ‘Truth is the seal of the Holy One blessed be He’]? Raise truth up from the ground!” Of this it is said, “Truth shall blossom forth from the earth” [Ps 85:12].

The closing section of this midrash, which no longer relates to our psalm, has a certain ironic humor: the angels go on arguing with one another, while God simply goes ahead and creates man, and then tells them, “Why are you go arguing? I’ve already created Man!” (In this respect, one might say that the Almighty was the first ever to use the well-known tactic of overcoming fractious opposition by “creating facts on the ground.”)

This midrash sheds sharp light on both the good and evil impulses within humankind. Every person has within him/her a certain potential for love, an ability to act kindly and selflessly, to overflow with generosity, caring, empathy, nurture, etc. But by the same coin, every human has a tendency towards weaknesses, which most typically come out when he/she withdraws into the self, adopts an egocentric attitude, and thinks only of his own interests: then he lies, conceals, tries to get away with various kinds of bad behavior, mislead other people to his own advantage; and this often also leads to arguments, quarrels, which then may cross over into violence and even bloodshed and, on the tribal or national level, war. What is one to do with such a contradictory creature? At one moment he is filled with the most elevated, sublime, giving impulses; at the next, meanness, cruelty, xenophobia, pettiness, and hatred. Every group endeavor of human beings—whether religions, political movements, aesthetic streams, even self-help groups—seems destined to split into groups, sub-groups and sub-sub-groups.

What is meant by the image of God thrusting truth down to the earth? (Needless, to say, in its original context in Daniel this verse has nothing to do with such an image, but alludes to the great “he-goat,” symbolizing the Grecian empire and its offshoots, which desecrated the Sanctuary). I think the point made by the midrash is that God’s creative impulse, His love, His “need” for man, are stronger than His adherence to the absolute yardstick of truth. The world—meaning: life, vitality, with all the adyances and tempestuous change implied by the word—cannot survive under the hard coin of immovable truth. Ultimately, God desires life, with all its imperfections and troubles, above the unsullied, perfect, quiet, peaceful purity of the undifferentiated Infinite.

On Rambam and Kabbalah: Thoughts on the Meaning of Divine Unity and Idolatry

What follows has been brewing for several months now. Towards the end of Parshat Mispatim, in the section describing the Sinai epiphany, there appears what must surely be one of the strangest verses in the Torah. After describing a ratification ceremony of the covenant made between God and Israel at Sinai, the atzilim (“nobles”?) ascend the mountain where Moses had been for forty days and nights, experience an epiphany of the God of Israel, “and beneath his feet there was like the shining of sapphire for purity…. and they saw God, and they ate and drank” (Exod 24:11). This verse presents a double problem: first, contrary to the ineffable, incorporeal nature of God on which we’ve all been raised, we read here a plastic, tangible description of the Godhead—a concrete image of God. Second, how could people eat—even “holy bread,” ritual sacrifices—after experiencing such an overwhelming nominous vision?

These verses clash particularly sharply with the iconoclastic tenor of this week’s parsha, with its insistence that ”you did not see any image on the day that God spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire” (Deut 4:15), the admonition against making any image of God, whether man or beast, fish or fowl, sun, moon or star, male or female (ibid., 16-19) and, of course, its repetition in the Ten Commandments (5:7-10).

The upshot of a discussion I had with some friends at that time was that this verse is a kind of watershed between Maimonidean and anti-Maimunidean approaches to Judaism. The former find such tactile descriptions of God an offence, a serious problem that can only be resolved by explaining them away as metaphor; the latter—mystics and Kabbalists—see the selfsame verse as an attempt to embody in words a real albeit ineffable experience, a revelation of the highest order, while the eating and drinking in the presence of the holy is a supreme expression of what Hasidim call avodah begashmiut, the service of God in a bodily, and not only a spiritual, manner.

Contrary to what we’ve been taught to regard as “fundaments of the faith,” there is much to be said in favor of anthropomorphic language about God. The Merkabah literature (Jewish mysticism of the Byzantine or late Talmudic period), and before it much of the so-called inter-Testamental literature—many of the apocryphal and pseudepigraphic books, some of the poetry of the Dead Sea Scrolls, certain midrashim—map out an entire heavenly geography, so to speak, of palaces (hekhalot), thrones, vestibules, pavilions, and what not. Indeed, several of the prophets themselves convey visions of God in concrete, bodily terms (thus Isa 6:1-3; Ezek 1, esp. 26-28; Daniel 7:9; etc.).

All of which brings us to our central question: are these two approaches—the rational, zealously anti-mythical approach of Maimonides, which works out through rigorous philosophical argumentation what one can or cannot say about God; and the midrashic-Kabbalistic view, with its riot of concrete images—really so totally mutually exclusive? Is the attempt to create a “synthesis” or at least “rapproachment” between Kabbalah and Rambam tantamount to squaring the circle or finding the lost continent of Atlantis? There are some people who claim that, had Rambam lived to read the Zohar (first circulated 90 years after his death) he would have believed in Kabbalah. Are such people any more than benighted eccentrics or even obscurantists? On the other extreme, I have a friend, a kind of Maimonidean and disciple of Rav Soloveitchik, who asserts that Kabbalah is complete heresy and inauthentic as Jewish teaching. Are the two worlds really so totally irreconcilable?

I would like to propose that the gap between the two is not quite so great as is usually thought, and that the differences have less to do with the heart of the theological matter—that is, the actual conception of God—as it does with issues of language and how to translate the ineffable into human language.

1. Rambam insists that God be spoken about in true terms. His doctrine of negative qualities is based on the view that, since one cannot say anything meaningful about God, due to the limitations of human language, which is necessarily taken from the realm of human experience. Rambam would doubtless concur with Rudolf Otto’s description of God as the ”Wholly Other” (Gantz Anders). Maimonides’ entire philosophical enterprise is really devoted to this issue: to clearly defining what the anthropomorphic figures of speech in the Bible are in fact speaking about, and thereb arriving at a true, intellectually and philosophically tenable belief. This is vitally important to him, because belief in an incorrect doctrine about God, meaning, a figment of ones imagination rather than the true God—is tantamount to idolatry.

Kabbalah, by contrast, sees human being as understanding things intuitively. The function of the sefirot is not merely to function as one-to-one symbols (like Rambam’s explanations of the seemingly anthropomorphic or “homologous” words in the Guide) that must be “translated” into rational, coherent terms. Rather, they appeal to the subconscious mind, they elicit multiple associations, addressing the non-rational, non- conceptual part of the mind—and the soul. The Kabbalah is thus a kind of symbolic language, that is grasped as a whole, a kind of holistic gestalt, even if not fully articulated in conceptual terms. (I am of course using modern terminology here to point towards insight cast in a medieval lexicon). The classical Kabbalists sensed that the type of visionary experience of the Godhead that was at the pinnacle of the experience of prophets and the handful of “ascenders” could not be conveyed in human language of any sort, but can only be suggested, hinted, so that those who are capable of doing so will understand by themselves (cf. m. Hagiggah 2.1)—perhaps a bit like a Zen koan.

Understood properly, there is thus no real conflict between the two worlds in terms of basic beliefs—especially if the sefirot are understood, not as parts of God Himself (atzmut), but as vessels He created through which He acts in the world (kelim). Kabbalistic symbols and language are thus not in real contradiction to Maimonides, but rather reflect different approaches to the nature of human thought and perception—what would today be called “Left Brain” and “Right Brain” modes of thinking.

2. The second area of conflict, in which I see a more substantive conflict between Kabbalah and Rambam, has to do with two intertwined issues relating to the image of the Godhead; one, that of immanence and transcendence; second, that of multiplicity and unity.

In terms of theological conceptions, the multiplicity of this world presents a real problem for the Neo-Aristotelian conception of God. Rambam places strong emphasis on the absolute perfection of God; hence, also, his strict conception of the nature of Divine unity. His stable, almost static image of the “First Cause” requires that everything in the created world be seen as one, or many, steps removed from Him. God Himself is thus wholly transcendent, and His involvement in the world, in history, and certainly in the lives of individual people, is always kivyakhol—“as it were,” “so to speak.”

By contrast, Kabbalah has more room for the immanence of God. This world is dynamic, in constant motion and change, with endless cycles of birth and death, growth and decline. The imagery of the sefirot lends itself to such a view, in which God Himself is both immanent and transcendent. A “Dancing God,” whose four-letter name, itself composed of breathy, vowel letters, symbolizes the constant motion of a God who dwells within this world. (Arthur Green has explained this well, in language accessible to the modern reader, both in Ehyeh: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow and in Seek My Face, Speak My Name.)

Another friend, Stan Tenen, who has developed some interesting ideas about the Hebrew letters as universal ideograms, elaborates an insight concerning the verse “For the Lord God (HVYH Elohim) is a sun and shield” (Ps 84:12), in which the two names express these two aspects of Divinity: the complete oneness of transcendence, and the all-inclusiveness of His immanence. Or: YHWH as the name of God as perfection in Itself, like the light of the sun, which is sufficient onto itself; and Elohim as He who interacts with the world, like a “shield”:

From this perspective, the Biblical commandments provide the logical informational boundary conditions. The prime example of this is the Shema. “Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One” (Deut 6:4-9) establishes that we are to hear [i.e., be in the field of] the Unity of Hashem and Elokim (Lord/God). Thus, the primary boundary conditions of Torah are the utter identity of the complete Oneness of Hashem, and the all-inclusiveness of Elokim. These are the boundary conditions of the universe/cosmos and of our minds. By logical definition, everything must exist somewhere between absolute Singularity and all-inclusive Wholeness. This is [the significance of] the reference to Hashem/Elokim as “Sun and Shield” in Sha’ar ha-Yihud veha-Emunah of Tanya [the principle text of Habad Hasidism].

Come to think of it, Psalm 85 and the midrash we cited on it are also quite pertinent to this dispute: Rambam’s approach is like unbending truth, while the Kabbalah, which uses language based on the limitations and imperfections of the human mind, and which sees a God as interacting with the world in a “hand’s on” way, is like hesed without limit or boundaries.


Blogger Shavey Zion said...

The Rambam explains well enough how emotions and imagination function and for what purpose, in relation and coordination to intelligence and rationaltity so there is no need to make of these two separate and contradictory worlds - especially since each man possesses both faculties, only in different measure and balance.

As for the Zohar, it is so obviously trinitarian that there is noo doubt Rambam would have discarded it!

12:35 PM  

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