Friday, November 07, 2008

Noah (Zohar)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog, below at November 2005.

“For all flesh had corrupted their ways”

The aspect of the Zohar’s world–view presented in the passage commenting on the above verse is one of the most difficult for the modern reader. (This passage was suggested to me by long-time reader Rahmiel Hayyim, who this year has undertaken his own Zohar project—a translation of the daily Zohar reading from Hok le-Yisrael, with his own glosses, Berahamim Lehayyim.) The Zohar, in addition to being the central work of Jewish esoteric teaching, is a mystical midrash, a work that starts from the Biblical text. It begins here with a basic question: Why were the men of the generation of the Flood punished? What did they do that was so terrible? Zohar I. 61b-62a:

Rabbi Yitzhak was in the presence of Rabbi Shimon. He asked him: This verse, “And the earth was corrupt before God” [Gen 6:11]—given that humans sinned, but how did the earth [do so]? He replied: Since it is written, “for all flesh had corrupted their way [upon earth]” [ibid., 12], as has been said. Similarly, “The earth was defiled, and I inflicted her punishment [or: iniquity] upon her” [Lev 18:25]. It was human beings who sinned. But if you ask, “How did earth [sin]?” the answer is: Human beings constitute the essence of earth—they ruin earth, and it is ruined. The verse proves it, as is written: “God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth” [Gen., ibid.].

Come and see: All sins of a human being are entirely his ruination, yet are susceptible to return [i.e., may be atoned by repentance]. But the sin of spilling seed, wasting his way [the literal translation of השחת דרכו], emitting seed upon earth, ruining both himself and the earth—of this is written: “stained is your iniquity before Me” [Jer 2:22]. Similarly, “You are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil cannot abide with you” [Ps 5:5], except through great returning. Similarly, “Er, firstborn of Judah, was evil in the eyes of the LORD; and the LORD slew him” [Gen 38:7]. This has already been explained.

Rabbi Judah asked: Why did the blessed Holy One punish the world with water, and not with fire or some other element? He [Rabbi Shimon] replied: It is a mystery! For they [the cosmic waters] wasted their ways, so that the upper waters and lower waters failed to unite fittingly [in the flood, where the upper and lower waters united joined together and destroyed the world]; so did they ruin their ways, male and female waters [by spilling seed and failing to unite with their wives]. So they were punished by water, just like they sinned.

— translation: Daniel Matt, The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, I: 355-356

A gloss within the Zohar text adds:

And what are these supernal waters? Binah. And the lower waters? Malkhut. The upper Heh and lower Heh [of the Divine name]. And when they corrupted their ways, the letters Yod and Vav, representing the masculine element [i.e., connecting the waters, but also separating them] was removed, and there remained only Heh and Heh, waters with waters [which joined and flooded the world}.

One of the biggest difficulties presented by the Zohar to the modern reader is its emphasis on sexual sin, specifically masturbation, which it sees as particularly heinous. This attitude is far removed, perhaps even diametrically opposed, to contemporary sexual ethos; many of us see such attitudes as “puritanical” and “Victorian”; we tend to see masturbation as a solitary act, an outlet for a natural physiological; need, which by definition harms no other person, and hence is hardly viewed as an ethical issue at all. (Modern ethicists by and large see what the person does by himself as having no real ethical importance at all. Is this an error?). Moreover, it is an act largely associated with the experience of the adolescent boy/man, who feels intense sexual need that he doesn’t really understand, long before he is emotionally or otherwise prepared to enter into any sort of mature sexual relationship with a girl/woman.

I should perhaps add that the classical midrashic tradition associates the “corruption of ways” of all flesh with other sins, whether more all-encompassing sexual licentiousness (of both man and beast!), idolatry, and/or theft (see Rashi on 6:12-13, after b. Sanhedrin 105a). Why then the Zohar’s emphasis on this sin?

But the halakhah, in both its Talmudic and Midrashic roots, and even more strongly under Kabbalistic influence, sees matters very differently (see Even ha-Ezer §23). Long before the Zohar, in the first chapter of Bavli Niddah and elsewhere, we find an abundance of Rabbinic aggadot condemning masturbation in the strongest terms. It is even referred to in the poskim as “one of the most serious sins in the Torah” (Torah here presumably being used in the broader sense of Jewish tradition generally, as there is no biblical verse that specifically prohibits it, notwithstanding the incident of Onan).

How then are we to make sense of this severe view? The condemnation of “wasting seed” is based on a holistic perception of the cosmos, a certain conception of harmony, in which sexuality serves as a central paradigm for the act of unification of disparities generally: the letters of the Divine Name in their correct order, as in the above-quoted gloss; the various Sefirot, particularly the combination of Binah or Tiferet with Malkhut or, elsewhere, the two intellective sefirot of Hokhmah and Binah, referred to as Abba and Imma, Father and Mother; or the primeval waters, are all seen as representing masculine and feminine. The letter vav, which corresponds to the phallus (even in its written shape), and to Yesod, the sefirah connecting the upper sefirot to Malkhut, is a central conduit between these worlds, bringing Divine blessing and abundance to the receptive Earth/ mother/ female. Male and female thus refer, not only to earthly gender, but correspond to cosmic forces; sexual union is a paradigmatic act, assuring the proper flow or functioning of Divine energy from upper to lower realms.

Hence masturbation, as an incomplete, solipsistic act (i.e., one focused on the self and its own experience), avoiding or missing the opportunity for union, is seen as a tragic error of cosmic proportions. Where contemporary thought might see the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake as a legitimate goal, if not as one of the central goals of life (eudemonism), the Zohar would see this in negative terms, subsuming individual pleasure to the larger, universal, cosmic unity. The Generation of the Flood are seen, a bit later in this same passage, as “burning with lust,” and hence being punished with the boiling waters of the Flood.

Hail to the Chief

Though many words have been written and spoken on the media since last Tuesday about the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, many by wiser and better informed people than myself, I cannot pass over this event in silence.

First, naturally, I share in the excitement and joy expressed by so many people. It is a truly remarkable even, one that most of us could not even imagine happening within our lifetime, a mere ten or twenty years ago. He seems to have instilled a new sense of hope and optimism into the American people. While one is tempted to dismiss this as a mood, an artificial atmosphere built up around the campaign, I feel that it is something more than that. One should not underestimate the importance of the psychological component in the life of a nation, as in that of the individual. The United States seemed to have been under a cloud during the past eight years, dominated by a mood of fear, of being threatened, and a dependence of its leadership on military solutions. All that, overnight, has changed.

A few major points, beyond his being the first “African-American” president:

First, that he symbolizes a new image of leadership for America, different from the stereotypic middle-aged, “old-boy” white male, oriented towards the twin worlds of business and the military as his central focii. He is young, thin, energetic. A civilian president who will of necessity focus his attention on the deep problems of US society: economic, but also cultural, educational, health, and other basic needs of its citizens. He comes as a conciliator, a healer, hoping to unite the deep cultural divisions in the country, between the “red” and “blue” states. Will he be able to unite them? Will the Republican heartland—the small towns, and the Evangelical Christians, in particular— accept him? As a black man, he is not a part of the hated, “snobbish” liberal intellectual establishment of the two coasts. Perhaps the fact that he is coming from someplace else again will help. And, if nothing else, his election will change how the 20 million or so black Americans will feel about themselves and their place in society.

Second, as a civilian president, he will turn away from overly facile use of military power as a solution to international problems. This, too, can be a danger: he has inherited an extremely dangerous world, and there is danger in placing excessive trust upon the goodwill of one’s adversaries, when dealing with hate-filled, dangerous, and arguably evil countries and leaders (I think of course primarily of Iran’s Ahmadinejad and other Islamic extremists, both in power and those who would seek power, but also of other figures around the world). Let us hope that he will not succumb to the naivete of the opposite extreme from Bush (e.g., of a Jimmy Carter), but will know how to use power in a judicious and considered manner, and only when absolutely necessary.

Third, he is cosmopolitan: He is one of the few people of whom the hyphenated PC term “African-American” is literally correct. In a vast continent-nation like the US, there is a great potential for cultural insularity. As a young man, I thought of myself as a cosmopolitan simply because I had a certain interest in Europe: I went to see “foreign” (i.e., European) films in the Thalia, I read French and German and Russian literature (in translation), and I was aware of the existence of foreign languages. Obama, who has an old grandmother living in a dirt hut in the interior of Kenya, in a town without running water, is aware of a much broader cosmopolitanism: that there is a whole world out there, filled with real people, including many poor people—in India, Africa, South America, the Pacific Rim—which will be of decisive importance during the course of the 21st century. The presence of such a man as head of the most powerful country in world is like a breath of fresh air.

Finally, two comments as a Jew and an Israeli. There were those who feared Obama’s election; in recent weeks I received dozens of emails with headings like “Why you should be afraid of Obama.” His first appointment, of an Orthodox Jew with a Hebrew name, Rahm Emanuel, as his Head of Staff, suggests that these fears were exaggerated. Let us hope that he will learn to negotiate his path in the tangled labyrinth of the Middle East in a strong but fair-minded, and that he will know the difference between twisting Israel’s arm in its own best interest (which our own leaders at times seem to have forgotten), and forcing her into unacceptable and dangerous risks.

Secondly, I frankly envy the American people for their ability to renew their nation politically. A twinge of jealousy: when will Israel have leaders who are people of true vision, who will see beyond the perks of office and the next election and “putting out fires,” who will talk to the people in a way that respects their intelligence, who will lead with a real vision of change and solving the problems of the country? What a difference between our Barak and their Barack!


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