Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Matot-Masei (Zohar)

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

Male and Female, Red and White

From this point on, the Zohar becomes sparser; there is less material in most of the parshiyoit. In Sefer Devarim (the Book of Deuteronomy), the final book of the Torah, which we begin reading next week, there are many parshiyot which have no Zohar at all, or in which the Zohar consists mostly of material from the Ra’ya Mehemna. More on this issue—what I referred to earlier in this series as the “top-heavy” nature of the Zohar—next week.

This week, notwithstanding the lengthy, double Torah reading, the Zohar is very short: less than one-half of one side of a page on Matot, and no Zohar whatsoever for Mas’ei. I present it here in its totality. Zohar III: 259b:

“These are the leaders of the tribes” (Num 30:2). “And all the children among the women who had not known man carnally…” (Num 31:18). It has been taught there: Rav Yehudah said: The world is conducted by means of two colors which come from the side of woman, for she is found to be wise of heart. This is what is written, “And every woman who was wise of heart spun with her hands; and they brought the spun stuff, azure and crimson…” (Exod 35: 26, 25). Why did they bring the azure and the crimson? Colors that include many colors. Of this it is written, “She sought out wool and linen, and made it with her hands” (Prov 31:13) And it is written, “with her hands she spun.” What is meant by “spun”? Rabbi Yehudah said: She spun mercy with judgment. Rabbi Yitzhak said: Why is she called “woman” (ishah)? Because she is made of judgment and is made of mercy [this possibly alludes to esh, “fire”; and the letter heh, which denotes Mercy]. Come and see: Rabbi Eleazar said: Every woman is called Judgment until she has tasted the taste of Mercy, as we have taught: From the side of men comes the color white, and from the side of the woman comes the color red. [When] the woman tastes of the white, the white is preferable.

The Torah describes here the battle of the Israelites against the Midianites, who had attempted to undermine them morally, and includes the command to utterly destroy all their menfolk, as well as those women who had been known carnally by men; only the young virgin girls were allowed to live. This verse—certainly problematic for most modern readers—is the starting point for a reflection on masculinity and femininity.

The Zohar begins with the women spinning threads for use in the Tabernacle in the desert. Woman, in and of herself, is seen as being related to the color red, which symbolizes Judgment (Din); but she also “spins” threads of various colors, thereby combining and intermingling the various attributes, especially the basic dichotomy of Hesed (Mercy/Compassion) and Din. As we shall see later, the sexual act, in which man and woman unite, is also seen interpreted in terms of mingling and combining of Din and Hesed—hence the crucial importance of sexuality in Kabbalistic thought as one of the central symbols of tikkun, of repairing the world through the reuniting of sundered opposites.

In the background here, one must remember that man and woman, male and female, initially came from the androgynous Adam Kadmon, the archetypal Human Being, who was at a later point severed into two to make man and woman as distinct beings. Thus, while in terms of the archetypal, polarized schema man is Hesed and woman is Din, man is white and woman is red, in reality each contains both their own attribute and that of the other sex; thus, in sexual union, the attributes of each are commingled once again.

Why is woman Din and redness, and man Hesed and whiteness? This idea seems counterintuitive: we usually think of woman as embodying love and compassion; through her natural role as mother, she is constantly foregoing her own needs and giving to her children. One explanation I heard which, if I remember correctly, I heard in the name of Yoram Jacobson (or perhaps in that of Ze’ev Gries?) is that woman, as mother, is focused on the individual, on the particular, on her own specific children, whereas the man is supposedly more universal and generalizing in his scope. But even if this is true, why does this make the woman Din and the man Hesed? Unless, perhaps, we translate these concepts into limitation / constriction vs. expansiveness.

The symbolism of red and white as corresponding to Din and Hesed, female and male, runs deep in the Zohar. The opening page of Bereshit refers to a primeval rose with red and white petals, as part of Creation. In the Lurianic ritual for Tu bi-Shevat, four cups of wine are drunk, beginning with red and ending with pure white, symbolizing the gradual “sweetening” of harsh Din by increasing admixtures of Hesed. And, of course, in the atonement ritual in the Temple in ancient times, the scarlet thread tied on the altar miraculously turned white once the scapegoat reached the wilderness, thereby symbolizing the purification of Israel (cf. Isaiah 1:18: “If your sins shall be red as scarlet, they shall be pure as snow…”).

On another, more concrete level, the whiteness of seminal fluid and the redness of menstrual blood, are emblematic of the two sexes,as in Niddah 31a.

Come and see: Why are those women of other nations who have known men carnally prohibited [i.e., not allowed to live]? Because we have taught: There is right, and there is left; Israel and the other nations; the Garden of Eden and Gehinnom; this world and the World to Come. Israel [leans towards] Mercy, and the other nations towards Judgment. And we have taught: a woman who has tasted the taste of mercy, the attribute of Mercy is uppermost within her. A woman who has tasted the taste of Judgment, judgment is attached to judgment. Concerning this it is written: “And the dogs are cruel of soul, they know not satiation” (Isa 56:11). And concerning this we have taught: one [i.e., a woman] who had relations with an idolator is connected to him like a dog. Just as a dog attacks with an arrogant spirit, so here judgment united with judgment arrogantly in all.

But concerning one who has had relations with an Israelite we have taught: It is written, “And you who are attached to the Lord your God are all living to this very day” (Deut 4:4). What is the reason? Because the soul of the Israelite comes from the spirit of the living God, as is written “for a spirit comes before me, wrapped up” (Isa 57:16). Meaning, it is written “before Me.” And for that reason, a woman who is a virgin and had been attached to the harsh Judgment of the other nations and is attached to an Israelite, Mercy is utmost and she has become fit (kosher).

Come and see: It is written “I have said, the world is built with mercy” (Ps 89:3). What is Mercy? Is one of the supernal crowns of the King, for the soul of Israel is called Mercy by the blessed Holy One, on condition that it be built and that Mercy not be chased away from the world; this is the meaning of the verse, ”shall be built.” For that reason we taught: One who chases Mercy away from the world, he is chased away from the World to Come. Concerning this it is written, “The wife of the dead one shall not marry outside [his family]” (Deut 25:5), so as to do Kindness with the dead one and to perform an act of building up [i.e., through yibbum, levirate marriage], as is written, “the world is built upon Mercy.”

I cannot discuss this entire passage, but will only focus upon one point. From a current perspective, this passage would be seen as highly politically incorrect, easily being read as both racist and sexist. We need to understand two axioms of the Zohar, which will doubtless be unacceptable to many contemporary people: first, that the sexual act is seen not only as a physical-biological act, or even in emotional-interpersonal terms, but as a metaphysical act: as one in which the essences of the parties involved are transferred from one to the other. In particular, the woman “tastes” the essence of the man whom she is receiving into her body—and thus receives and incorporates certain mystical qualities of that man. This is particularly true, in this context, of first intercourse. (By the way, for those readers to whom this seems sexist, it must be remembered that, in the Zohar, a man who has never been married, who has never been with a woman, is likewise seen as incomplete, and thus incapable of the same degree of spiritual ascent, of holiness, as one who is married. The presence of a flesh-and-blood woman somehow makes it possible for the Shekhinah to be present to him.). We must remember here that, in a number of Rabbinic sources, the man’s seed is seen as containing the essence of the future or potential child, as a kind of homunculus. Second, there is a belief that non-Jews are essentially different from Jews, again, in a metaphysical sense. Hence, if the woman, in whom Din is predominant, connects herself to a non-Jew, who is also seen as coming from the “side” of Din, that aspect becomes completely predominant. By contrast, through relations with a Jewish man, who “comes” from the realm of Hesed, that aspect thenceforth becomes predominant in the woman’s persona as well.

BALAK—Postscript: More Thoughts on Child Prodigies

Two weeks ago we presented part of the Zohar passage about the Yanuka, the wonder-child who overwhelmed his distinguished visitors, both with his knowledge and insight into of Torah and Kabbalah, and by his charismatic gifts. Reflecting on this passage prompted some unsystematic thoughts about child prodigies. What is it about such prodigies that so impresses us? Doubtless, if the Yanuka had been an adult, R. Yehudah and R. Yitzhak might still have been impressed by his erudition and creativity, but they would not have been “blown away,” and would not have said, “I don’t think he is a human being!”

The theme of the prodigy is common in many human cultures. In general cultural attainments, Mozart, the mathematician Gauss, and Picasso were among those who began to create significant works in childhood. In almost all religions, we find legends of holy men who behaved like adults, followed a strict religious discipline, and knew a great deal from an early age—in some cases, we are told this as an extension of birth legends. In Judaism, the ilui, the child genius, is a familiar type. There are tales of children who knew all of Talmud before their bar mitzvah or well before; some prodigies, shown a given page of Talmud through which a pin was stuck, could tell the exact word that appears ten or twenty pages on. (Such tales are told of Torah scholars who are among us today: Rav Aharon Lichtenstein and Prof. David Ha-Livni Weiss are two examples that come readily to mind.) Some of these grew up to be learned rabbis and teachers– but, no matter how notable they may be as adults, the sense of something totally outside of the realm of normal expectations, is no longer present. We expect a certain number of adults to be learned scholars, even to possess what we call “encyclopedic” knowledge in a certain area, whereas for a child to do so is somehow uncanny.

The old saw has it that the child is father to the man. It seems to me that the prodigy is particularly celebrated in traditional cultures, which celebrate adult culture above all else, or in excessively serious cultures, like that of Victorianism. The prodigy is a child who somehow surges ahead, becomes a little adult while yet young in years, who somehow bypasses the stage of childhood with its immature and “childish”—i.e., trivial—concerns.

By contrast, there are other kinds of culture that celebrate childhood per se. I jave in mind the romantic movement of early modernity, and its offshoots that are still with us, which celebrate the naivete, purity, innocence and innate spirituality of the child—or of the savage, the human being from a more primitive, less-developed culture: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his “noble savage,” William Blake wit his “Songs of Innocence,” and all their latter-day descendants, with the various “back-to-nature” movements, like the Hippies. The man of simple faith, like R. Nahman of Bratslav’s tam, is another variant of this idea. In any event, I question whether such cultures would celebrate the prodigy or, to the contrary, might see him as someone who is somehow deprived or stunted of those qualities unique to the child, that are of value in themselves.

In the Zohar, the prodigy, such as the Yanuka of this chapter (who reappears in various places in the Zohar; it is not clear whether he is seen as literally the same person, or different manifestations of the same archetype) is interpreted in mystical terms. His soul is one that has undergone a process of birrur, of perfection, of sorting out and purifying the dross, and which came back to earth with the knowledge and insight from previous lifetimes—and who is somehow able, from the very start, to avoid the usual pitfall of human life and the inner struggle between the Yetzer Hara and Yetzer Hatov. In the Yanuka of our chapter, there is also a hint that the child somehow has some of the knowledge and perhaps other qualities of his father, Rav Hemnuna Sabba, a perfected man who died young.

Talmudic legend has it that the infant in the womb learns the entire Torah; then, at the moment of birth, an angel hits him on the upper lip and he forgets everything. Perhaps prodigies are those who did not forget tehri pre-natal lessons or experiences. (Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz once explained this idea by saying that the essential thing the infant learns in the womb is the existence of God: his basic experience is that of the Self and the Infinite Other, i. e. God.)

Or perhaps one may view it in a quasi-Jungian manner: the prodigy is one who is somehow “plugged in” to the collective mind of the Jewish people, so that his extraordinary knowledge is not really “his,” but that he somehow channels the eternal wisdom of the ages, to which he has access through special qualities of his soul.

The above has been a somewhat free-flowing associative reflection on the nature and meaning of the prodigy; my apologies if I have rambled somewhat.


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