Saturday, August 22, 2009

Vaethanan (Zohar)

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

The Zohar and God’s Unity

Vaethanan features the Shema’, the declaration of God’s unity recited twice daily which stands at the very heart of Jewish liturgy. Through the ages, theological and philosophical criticism of Kabbalah and Zohar have focused on the notion that it somehow runs contrary to the idea of God’s unity. How can God be one if He, so to speak, contains within himself a system of ten sefirot? As one particularly vehement late-medieval critic put it: The Christians believe in three gods, but the Kabbalists believe in ten!

To a classical Maimunidean, a passage such as that from Zohar Balak which we presented here a few days ago (HY X: Tisha b’Av), in which God and the Shekhinah converse with one another, would seem at best absurd and childishly naïve and, at worse, sheer blasphemy. Shekhinah is the apotheosis of God’s presence, His Indwelling in the world, not an independent personality with a mind of its own who can argue back and forth with the Almighty!

The solution is to be found on the notion that God is ultimately ineffable, unknowable, far beyond human comprehension. We do not and cannot know Him as He is in Himself. Hence, everything we say about God is ultimately an image, a metaphor. Not only God’s voice, His mighty hand, His concealed face and the back that was revealed to Moses a figure of speech; not only His anger, His love, His will; but also Shekhinah, Hesed, Tiferet and all the rest, the supernal Father and Mother and their union, are all metaphors for things which we cannot ultimately grasp. The path of the rational intellect cannot prove the existence of God or bring a person to knowledge of Him (this is shown, I think, by the whole thrust of rationalist thinking and philosophizing over the past few centuries, which by-and-large rejected the medieval proofs of God). But a person whose life has been filled with deep reflection, mental and spiritual discipline, right action, and study of Torah over a long period, can perhaps to apprehend the Divine. But such apprehension must not be confused with a purely rational, intellectual apprehension; it is attained, not through the reasoning faculty of the mind, but with the mind, the soul and the entire being acting together. (Might this be a new peshat of בכל לבבך ובכל נפשך ובכל מאדיך?) This is the ultimate goal, purpose and path of the Kabbalah.

I would add that those who would present Kabbalah as a science, a rational systematic scheme of theosophic knowledge of the Divine, as a kind of alternative to the rational philosophical path, are also not on the ideal path.

On what does a Kabbalist meditate when he says Shema? My friend Stan Tenen has articulated this in a way that speaks to me deeply. On the verse “כי שמש ומגן ה' אלהים (“for HWYH God is a sun and a shield”; Ps 84:12), he notes that these two names express two salient aspects of the Divinity: absolute Singularity and all-inclusive Wholeness; His unique transcendence, and the all-inclusiveness of His immanence, the Divinity as source of our life, as flowing down into everything. 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.” Thus, the phrase in the Shema, ה' אלקינו, is not a mere tautology, but an important statement drawing an equation between two very different things The basic mystery addressed by the Kabbalah is that of unity and multiplicity: how can God be one, and at the same time be the Author and Being of the life of this universe, teeming with multiplicity: with varieties of living creatures, with far flung galaxies and stars, with life constantly emerging from the earth and sea and air?

This is the reason why, in my humble opinion, sexuality is such a central metaphor in Kabbalah: not only is it something which we, as human beings, experience as one of our most intensely-felt experiences—a focus of our own passion and desire as well as a source of intense (what in Kabbalistic lingo might well be equated with ענג and רצון). It is also the device, the mechanism, so to speak, that makes for multiplicity, for renewal of life, for diversity. Moreover, for us human beings—that unique form of sentient life that speaks and thinks and wills—the unpredictable vagaries of sexual attraction is the “dice” (contra Einstein’s famous remark) that leads to genetic scrambling and to the infinite permutations and combinations that creates the seed of individuality (for more on these ideas, see HY X: Bereshit = Bereshit [Zohar]).

In passing, a few words about a pet peeve. Some people, in a sincere attempt to daven in a deeper, more spiritual, meditative way, following mentors who have perhaps been influenced by Eastern models, recite the first verse of Shema as six separate, evenly emphasized words, in an even tone, as if it were a kind of mantra. This seems to me to incorrect: a casual examination of the ta’amei hamiqra shows that Shema is composed of three distinct phrases, whose words are connected with one another by subsidiary te’amim to make a statement: Shema Yisrael — HWYH Elohenu — HWYH Ehad. “Hear O Israel”: the call to listen or hearken; “HWYH is our God”: the identification of HWYH, God’s particular sacred name of Being as the supreme Lord and Ruler of the cosmos; “HWYH is One”: the declaration of His unity / singularity / uniqueness (which, in terms of universal human consciousness, is no more than an eschatological vision for the distant future).

POSTSCRIPT: Job and Tisha b’Av

This year I noticed something strange. As is well known, on Tisha b’Av one is forbidden to study Torah, which in the words of the Psalmist “rejoice the heart” (just as one is forbidden to do so during shivah, the week of personal mourning after the death of a loved one). The Talmud, however, gives a short list of texts of a sad character that one may study on this day: Kinot (lit., “elegies”; i.e., the book of Lamentations), Job and “the sad things in Jeremiah.” Later halakhah added to this the passage in Tractate Gittin about the Destruction (the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza), the medieval kinot which constitute the liturgy for Tisha b’Av morning, and a few other such items (see b. Ta’anit 30a; Rambam, Hil. Ta’aniyot 5.11; Shulkah Arukh, Orah Hayyim 554.1)

The question is: why Job? (I once saw a Sephardic Kinot in which the Book of Job is printed in its entirety, as the suggested, customary reading for the long hours between Shaharit and Minhah). Job is of course a melancholy book, one that deals with death, tragedy, and how its hero copes with his tragic situation. But beyond that, there are two anomalies in its choice as reading matter for Tisha b’Av.

First, it has nothing to do with the specific events commemorated by this day. There is absolutely no mention of Jerusalem, the Temple, the Land of Israel, or for that matter of Jews. Job himself is “Everyman”—a person of no particular nationality; a denizen of the land of Uz, which may be a district on the Arabian peninsula, or an ancient counterpart to James Barrie’s Never-Never Land or Frank Baum’s land of Oz; its protagonist, Job, may well be a fictional character invented by the author (whomever that may have been) to serve as a foil for his own theological reflections (thus Shmuel bar Nahmani in b. Baba Batra 15a).

More important, the Book of Job seems to run squarely against the implicit theology of Tisha b’Av: “because of our sins we were exiled from our land.” That is to say: that God runs His world in a just manner, and ultimately rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. To summarize the story of Job in two sentences: Job was a good, decent man who, out of nowhere, was visited by catastrophe: he lost his children, his property, and his own health. His wife suggests that he “curse God and die,” but he refuses: heroically, he attempts to maintain his faith in God and, simultaneously, his conviction of his own innocence, his own knowledge of the uprightness of his behavior. He is visited by three friends who, in beautiful poetic Hebrew, articulate the conventional theological stance of the day (which, inter alia, is that found in the Book of Deuteronomy and most other biblical books) and try to convince him that he is wrong: that he must have committed some grave offense against God, and that he should admit his own guilt. God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked, on both the micro level of the individual and the macro of the community, and to pretend otherwise is wrong, pig-headed and sacrilegious. But Job holds to his own, and is in the end vindicated when God speaks to him out of the whirlwind, even though He does not give him any clear alternative answers.

Why then is it read on Tisha b’Av? My impression is that the Rabbinic tradition is reminding us, on this day of stark tragedy, destruction and exile, that the whole question of theodicy is far more complex than we might think; that the simple answers of humble, submissive piety are problematic. That this day is in fact one on which, as Rav Soloveitchik repeatedly stressed in his famous Tisha b’Av shiurim, one is allowed to challenge God and to ask these difficult questions: Why did you make Your world in such a way that there is so much seemingly needless suffering? Why do the righteous suffer or, as in the title of a popular book, “why do bad things happen to good people”? Why does it feel, so often, that You have hidden behind a cloud, through which no prayer may penetrate (Lam 3:44)? In this reading, Eikha is best translated as “How can it be?!” or “Why?”—the classical question of theodicy. Rather than accepting the horrible events of Jewish history in humble, chastened silence, this view sees the Destruction as a template for later events (including the Shoah), and the believer who shakes his fist at Heaven as the true religious hero.


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