Friday, January 09, 2009

Miketz (Zohar)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to this blog at January 2006.

How the Soul Grows

One of the Zohar’s central concerns is the nature of the human soul, how it comes into the body, the relationship between the upper and lower worlds represented by the presence of the soul in the body, etc. This subject, although presented in midrashic style, does not appear except in a few hints in Rabbinic midrash or aggadah. It’s presence in this particular parashah is more or less tangential, prompted by the exposition, near its end, of the verse “And the spirit of Jacob revived.” It begins with a verse from one of the “minor” prophets, describing God’s creation of heaven and earth and His forming of the human being, and goes on to ask a question on that verse based on what we have sometimes called “superliteral reading.” Zohar I: 197a-b:

“Jacob saw that there were provisions in Egypt…” (Gen 42:1). Rabbi Hiyya opened: ”Utterance of the word of the Lord concerning Israel. The declaration of the Lord, who stretches out the heavens and lays the foundation of the earth and forms the spirit of a human within him.” (Zech 12:1). … Once he said “who stretches out the heavens and lays the foundation of the earth,” what need is there to add “and forms the spirit of a human within him”? Wouldn’t we already know that He “forms the spirit of a human”? Rather, this indicates a particular rung on which all spirits and souls of the world exist. Rabbi Shimon said: This verse is difficult. If Scripture had said “And forms the spirit of a human”— and no more—that would have been fine. But why [does it add the word] be-qirbo, “within him”?

The initial section, what one might call the posing of the midrashic question and answer, begins with two questions: first, is not the creation of man’s soul or spirit incorporated within the grand sweep of creation described in the first half of this verse? The answer is that this phrase indicates that human souls originate from a special spiritual source. But if so, then why the use of the phrase beqirbo, “within him”?

This, however, is a twofold mystery. For look, from that flowing, gushing river all souls issue and soar, gathering into one site, and that rung “forms the spirit of a human be-qirbo, within itself,” specifically, like a woman conceiving from a male, forming the embryo in her womb, until all is fashioned perfectly. So, “and forms the spirit of a human within itself”—abiding within until a person is created in the world, when it is given to him.

Alternately: “and forms the sprit of a human within him”—“within him,” literally. How so? When a human being is created and the blessed Holy One endows him with a soul and he emerges into the air of the world, the spirit within him does not find enough body into which it can expand, so it remains in an ambulatory inside of him. As the person’s body expands, that spirit expands, imparting its energy; as the body grows, the spirit transmits its power within him, invigorating him. So “forms the spirit of a human within him,” literally.

Now you might ask: why ”forms”? Because that spirit needs additional power from above, supporting it, so the blessed Holy One “forms the spirit of a human within him,” providing him with assistance. Come and see: When that spirit needs assistance, in accordance with the person’s state of being and the body’s fitness, the spirit is enhanced, augmented by spirit, attaining perfection. This is “forms the spirit of a human within him.”

As I understand this passage, the Zohar here offers two different, albeit complementary answers. The “flowing gushing river” refers to the Shekhinah, the maternal element within the Divine world that is the source of souls. Like the formation of the physical body of the to-be-born person through the union of male and female, which then grows in the womb, so is the soul formed within the Shekhinah through the union of the Divine couple (Tiferet and Malkhut; cf. Zohar, Vayeshev I: 182a). Alternately, the soul is placed within the embryo from the moment of conception, but does not initially have enough “room,” so it remains in a sheltered place (translated here as “ambulatory”). It then begins to grow as the body grows, at the same time imparting to it its own spiritual energy.

Come and see: When Joseph was lost to his father, Jacob lost that supplemental spirit he possessed and Shekhinah withdrew from him. Later, what is written? “The spirit of Jacob their father revived” (Gen 45:27). Now, was he dead until this moment? Rather, that supplemental spirit had departed from him, was no longer within him, due to the sadness inside of him, and consequently his spirit lost its vitality. So, “the spirit of Jacob revived.” Here, having not yet been informed, how did he know? Simply because “Jacob saw” (ibid. 42:1)—he saw the whole country going to Egypt and bringing grain. “Jacob saw.” —English translation based upon Daniel C. Matt, The Zohar, Pritzker Edition. III: 206-207.

Central to this passage is the issue of sexuality in the Zohar—specifically, the concept of the Divine couple uniting. This involves two problems: first, the prudish may find something inappropriate, even scandalous in the projection of erotic bodily acts to the spiritual realm. Albeit to our generation, to those raised in the atmosphere of sexual frankness of the 1960s and ‘70s and later, this very point may be one which makes the Zohar and Kabbalah attractive. Much has been written in recent decades about the sexual and erotic elements in the Kabbalah—albeit here, too, at times I suspect this fascination may be based on a misinterpretation or at least misguided emphasis of the nature of the Kabbalah (much as certain late 19th century Hasidic books are interpreted by some in a libertarian light).

The second, more weighty objection is of a theological nature. Many are troubled by what seems to be, not only the polytheistic imagery of the sefirot, of the notion of a multiplicity of different persona within God, but the notion of their uniting in a sexual manner. Can there really be sexuality in the Divine realm? Thus, in a passage from the Zohar to Vayeshev which we had originally hoped to bring here in full:

Come and see what has been said: Desire of male for female generates soul; desire of female for male ascends and blends with the one above, one and the other intermingling, generating soul. So, “She is the woman”—this surely the body destined for that desire of soul issuing from the male. (Zohar I: 182b; Pritzker, III: 107)

Is this not the sort of thing that we so forcefully reject in trinitarian Christianity?

Let us try to decipher and understand what is obviously metaphorical language. (And here I must add a reservation that one must keep in mind throughout studying the Zohar: that the inner meaning of the text is always allusive, never explicit; the esoteric levels of meaning, which are the truer ones, are left to be intuited by the reader, or transmitted orally from master to disciple, but never stated outright. As we noted some time ago, the Zohar only rarely, if at all, specifically spells out the Sefirot to which its symbols allude.) The late Prof. Yosef Ben Shlomo used to speak of this as “the purified return of the mythic.” That is: Biblical Judaism waged war against the paganism of the Canaanites and others who mixed sexuality into their cults; by the time of the Kabbalah, such things were so long gone and forgotten that their resurgence in Kabbalah was somehow safe; it no longer bore the dangers of ritualized orgies and Temple prostitution which existed in pagan antiquity.

But what does all this mean? If I may say so, I think that my essay, “The One and the Two: On God, Man and Woman,” which by fortuitous coincidence was published in the opening number of this Zohar series (HY X: Bereshit), provides one important key to understanding this. How does one bridge the gap between a perfect, and thus static, unmoving God, and a dynamic, multifaceted universe? Sexuality, understood in the broadest or widest possible sense, is a large part of the answer: sexuality, as the means through which higher life firms propagate themselves, may be seen as the instrument whereby the One creates the Many. Again, I speak here of sexuality in the broadest possible sense, whether it involve copulation, as in humans and mammals and certain other species; or pollination, be it through seed released from grain or fruit, through bees carrying pollen to flowers, or through those trees, such as the date palm, which contain both male and female elements within themselves. The essential phenomenon is the same: that each living beings contain within themselves the seed of their own progeny, of their continuation into the time beyond their own death. But not only is the moment of fertilization or pollination sexual, but also the female activity of giving birth to the new manifestation of life, of nurturing and giving it sustenance it thereafter. These two aspects, constantly being acted out in our world, may be seen as the ongoing union of Tiferet and Malkhut, the masculine and feminine elements within the Godhead, who is Him- or Her-self immanent, ממלא כל עלמין, “fills all the worlds,” and multiplying life in the cosmos.

We live in an age of what has been called the “secularization of sexuality” (a phrase used, variously, by Stanley J Grenz, Mordechai Gafni, Naomi & Steven Seidman; arguably, the concept also appears, albeit in somewhat different guise, in Herbert Marcuse). Our culture is so much caught up in the moment of pleasure, on copulation and orgasm as if they were the exclusive goal—and on “sexiness” as a marketing tool—that these broader, truly awe-inspiring aspects tend to be forgotten.

If I may, I shall conclude with some wild speculation: Is there any significance to the fact that the laws of hametz, observed on the Festival of Rebirth, stipulate that the forbidden foodstuff is specifically that made from grain, i.e., that which contains the seed of future life, but which becomes hametz once allowed to sour and swell and expand? And may there have been a similar intuition underlying the Ashkenazic ban on kitniyot; of not eating, legumes, those pod-like plants that are also a form of seed? And, to indulge in even wilder speculation: can chemical reactions of elements, the most basic activity of our cosmos, of splitting and recombining into molecules through a stray electron or proton being attracted to a complementary, oppositely charged particle, be seen in some far-fetched way as homologous to the process of sexuality? Once again, the union of opposites serves as the engine by which the One creates the many—and returns them to unity in the process.

VAYISHLAH Postscript: Jacob’s Struggle With the Angel

Reading the story of Yakov’s eerie encounter with the mysterious visitor the night before his encounter with his brother Esau, I found myself reflecting on its location at the river crossing of the Jabok River. In later Jewish folklore and Kabbalistic symbolism, this name cam to be associated with the perilous and hazardous journey the soul makes after death intoto Olam Haba, the world of the Afterlife—however that may be understood. Specifically, the book entitled Ma’avar Yabok, by Judah Medinah (Mantua, 1626), which at one time enjoyed some popularity among Jews, deals with this subject.

It occurred to me that Yakov’s confrontation with the angel at this critical moment may be understood as a death and rebirth experience, as symbolized by the new name he was given on that occasion. Indeed, a new name is often associated (in various cultures) with such crucial, life-altering experiences. In Judaism, the proselyte assumes a new name, symbolic of his/her new identity as a Jew or Jewess; a person who is gravely ill is often given a new name, generally symbolic of life or healing, such as Hayyim or Raphael, indicative of the hope that that person receives a new lease on life. In both cases, the idea is that one has in some sense become a new person (indeed, autobiographies frequently focus on a conversion or other life-changing experience, as the focal point of the author’s life narrative).

But in the case of Jacob’s change of name to Israel (which some read as “the God –Wrestler,” from the verse כי שרית עם אלהים ועם אנשים ותוכל; “for you have struggled with God and with man, and have prevailed”—Gen 32:28) there is a problem: unlike Abram’s change of name to Abraham, or that of Sarai to Sarah, Yaakov continues, in the majority of cases, to be referred to by his original name in much of the remaining 28 chapters of the Book of Genesis. Moreover, in many poetic passages—in the Psalms, in the Later Prophets, and most notably in Jacob’s blessing to his children in Genesis 49—the two names are used in parallel, as poetic synonyms.

I discussed this idea with a friend, who mentioned the concept, found in Fritz Perl’s Gestalt psychology, of an “upper personality” and “lower personality,” in which two names may signify two persona within a person. Thus, Israel would symbolize the higher persona, striving for godliness, for the realization of ideals, godliness; while Jacob would signify the ordinary, work-a-day persona, the father of fractious sons who worries about their conflicts and their well-being. But is this in fact the case?

It is interesting to read closely the last four and a half sections of Bereshit, following the name change, to trace the underlying patterns in the use of the names Yaakov and Yisrael. (Albeit, interestingly, in many passages, since the focus of the story is really about the sons, he is not referred to by name at all, but using the relational noun: “my father / our father / his father”—אביו, אבינו, אבי) What I have found, in an admittedly quick and superficial survey, is that the name Yisrael is used most consistently in connection with Yosef, in particular—as if to say, the higher hopes associated with the more spiritual {?} name are somehow associated with his hopes, fears, aspirations fir his penultimate son. But I have no simple answer to the question of the whys and wherefore of this usage.

Mickey Rosen: Correction

Two small comments in wake of my eulogy for Mickey Rosen (“A Man of Prayer”; HY X: Vayishlah). Ofra Kaplan pointed out that my statement that “Mickey believed in principle in pluralism and tolerance” was incorrect. He was deeply tolerant, and interested in a vast variety of subjects and open to friendship with many kinds of people, but he did not believe in pluralism—certainly not in the sense in which this word is used today, where it is associated with a kind of post-modern, relativistic approach, in which there are no absolute truths and in which all religious beliefs and identities are equated as essentially the same. (like in the Beatles’ song “Imagine”). I agree that this not at all how Mickey thought. Indeed, this is an important point, that helps to explain certain things about him, esp. re some of his halakhic positions, which not everyone understood.

This takes me to the second point. One reader write an angry letter complaining that, in the paragraph on Mickey’s approach to religious feminism, I was insulting Shira Hadasha and those minyanim which have adopted a more egalitarian approach based on a more liberal interpretation of the halakha than hitherto accepted or propounded within Orthodoxy. If I created such an impression, I apologize; but, as I wrote to my interlocutor, nothing could have been further from my mind. This paper was celebrating Mickey’s life, and that was all.


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