More on cosmogonic myth

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In a previous mention of creation mythology I neglected to point out what may not be obvious to some: that the dominant image for what preceded the physical universe as we know it is water. The KJV’s “form, and void” may be too Greek, but the following two clauses cannot be surpassed, either as myth or as poetry. In fact, when the Roman philosopher Longinus wrote his famous treatise On the Sublime, he cited the opening of the Hebrew Bible as Exhibit A:

And the earth was without form,
and void;
and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
And the breath of God moved upon
the face of the waters. (Gen. 1:2)

– changing only the KJV’s Spirit to breath (ru’ah).

Now it goes almost without saying that this imagery has an ancient pedigree among dwellers of river-valley civilizations, for example among the worshippers of Marduk, among whom the exiled composers of the core of the Hebrew Bible found themselves. (This historical circumstance explains why, as many times as it surfaces in the non-historical books of the Bible, the primordial sea-monster mythos is expunged from the Genesis account. That would have been just too close to the Marduk religion for comfort.)

What is more interesting to me is how widespread this myth is, even among people who were swidden agriculturalists or hunter-gatherers. There is obviously a profound phenomenological basis for it: Earth is the Water Planet, after all. But the true connection undoubtedly is to the waters of the womb.

(Parenthetically, I suppose that the religious significance of shedding blood, as in the act of sacrifice or in holy war, is to mimic or in fact expropriate the birth-giving power of the divine feminine. I freely admit I am poorly read on this subject, however; I invite readers to correct me on this point. My only direct evidence for this substitution was something I recall from an interview with AIM leader Russell Means, where he described the Lakota Sun Dance as men’s attempt to experience something of the pain that women go through in giving birth, through the shedding of their own blood.)

How well the ancients may have anticipated modern, scientific theories of the origins of the universe or solar system is little more than a curiosity as far as I am concerned, being more agnostic than gnostic. But I have to admit it is pretty darn nifty that the notion of precipitation, of stuff kind of gelling, figures so prominently in Genesis and in its immediate antecedent:

When there was no heaven,
no earth, no height, no depth, no name,
when Apsu was alone,
the sweet water, the first begetter; and Tiamat
the bitter water, and that
return to the womb, her Mummu, when there were no gods —

When sweet and bitter
mingled together, no reed was plaited, no rushes
muddied the water,
the gods were nameless, natureless, featureless, then
from Apsu and Tiamat
in the waters gods were created, in the waters
silt precipitated . . .

– The Babylonian Creation, translated by N.K. Sandars in Poems of Heaven and Hell From Ancient Mesopotamia (Penguin, 1971), 73.

Apparently – my source for this is Natural History magazine, sometime in the last two years – a new theory gaining currency is that the “original” Big Bang (a ridiculous and inaccurate term) may in fact have been, in some sense, a precipitation from within a larger Whatever, and that thus there may be many other universes like our own. But whatever. I am mainly interested here in the microcosmos, and the extent to which such formless Beginning may be conceived anew within the human soul.

One can apply the traditional Christian hermeneutic of allegory to the Old and New Testaments and come up with a myriad echoes of the original watery creation: Noah’s Ark, the parting of the Red Sea, the parting of the Jordan at the entry into Canaan, the baptism of Jesus. Not to mention numerous references to YHWH’s power as a sustainer of creation/civilization against the waters that are always threatening to break loose.

I encourage anyone interested in pursuing this topic to read Jon Levenson’s excellent Sinai and Zion: an Entry into the Jewish Bible (Harper, 1985). Referring to the extra-temporal dimension of the sacred, Levenson declares that “These great founding acts, which order reality, we shall call protological, that is to say, partaking of the nature of the beginning of things, on analogy with the term eschatological, which is commonly used by biblical scholars to describe the ‘last things,’ which occur at the ‘end of time.’ According to [B.S.] Childs [in Myth and Reality in the Old Testament], ‘the present world order established by a victory in the past does not continue automatically. It must be continually reactivated in the cult’ (103).”

Levenson goes on to stress that “The perception of time cannot be disengaged from the perception of space. In fact, the mythic symbols to be analyzed exist in radically different modes both of space and of time (p. 104).” This point is essential preparation for his discussion of Zion as the cosmic mountain.

At a secular level, Sinai and Zion should interest anyone who wants to understand how Jerusalem became such a charged place, a preeminent “world navel.” I close with a rabbinical midrash translated by Levenson (118): “The Holy One (blessed be he) created the world like an embryo. Just as the embryo begins at the navel and proceeds onwards from there, so the Holy One (blessed be he) began to create the word from its navel and from there it spread out in different directions.”

There’s no place like OM!

Note to self

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The blogosphere, the noosphere, the world-wide web. The labyrinth, the Matrix. The garden of the text. All variations on an age-old gnostic dream that we must finally repudiate, lest it become the altar on which the dismembered corpse of the real world is offered up. Within the world of literature, readers and scholars must remember that all the texts ever committed to writing – let alone those that have survived to the present – represent a tiny fraction of the total body of songs and stories ever created.

If the term texts seems biased, what shall we call them? The critic George Steiner writes about art in general as counter-creation. So for works of language, I am thinking of something like answers to Creation, in the sense of both response and explication. What the world calls up within us.

But we must remember too that words are made by spelling; speech can be charming. The world can still be enchanted, could still be spell-bound. Words are as alive as that other invisible thing, the wind or breath (pneuma, ru’ah, anima): in fact, they are almost the same phenomenon. For the right words can penetrate to the farthest corners of the cosmos, can reach to the very beginning of thought. Like breath they can create and destroy in their own right, and they animate every element of creation: earth and sky, water and especially fire.

These originary sparks of meaning may once have been more concentrated, true, but their scattering throughout the visible world does not make them any less real.

Nor does that scattering challenge the facticity of matter: the maternal, the universal matrix or womb/network that is still essential to survival, even (or especially) for us arrogant moderns, who have devised so many devilishly clever ways to deaden our senses.

Poem for the New Year

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The squirrel says: the trees
in which I have slept
are the color of the sun.
Leafless now and clear
all likely pathways. The tree peers
bleary-eyed through every scar
that used to be a leaf,
she is stiff and cold
and full of old voices.
I rub my face and neck against
her bark: wake up!
My tail trembles.
I am rainwater running
up and down the trunk,
from tree to tree I am wind
leaping, making the treetops sway.
Every possible gulf
of space is spanned
by a possible branch, look!
I can taste the kernels
at the tips of possible twigs.
And within me, now, too,
sunlight on branches.
Aching blue sky of January.
Cries of thirst.

Dreaming the garden of the text

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Sometime after 3:00 a.m. I had the following dream. In the heart of a large Western city there is a massive building complex that combines a national museum, national library and botanical garden. It is past closing time, but I cannot find the exits.

I am lost in the Medieval section, which appears to contain an authentic cloister, a Romanesque church and a formal garden. It is winter in the garden. I know that the city is right on the other side of the high wall, but how to get there? Useless to ask the guards – I know they will only arrest me and, as an anarchist, I am afraid of falling victim to the terror war that now imprisons all suspected enemies of the state indiscriminately, with no recourse to due process.

In the dusting of snow I notice a set of human footprints disappearing into what looks like a groundhog burrow. I have to take my coat and shirt off to fit inside, but once I do so it turns into a tunnel, then a hallway in a decrepit student housing unit like those I used to party in years ago in State College. The only occupant is a young, very serious-looking woman who looks up from her reading with a kind of calm surprise.

I throw myself on her mercy, imploring her to help me get out, without explaining why it is so urgent that I not be caught. To my surprise, she consents without a word: with one glance she is able to tell that I am both sincere and harmless. I hear the guards coming down the hallway, so I quick grab a volume from the bookshelves that cover the walls of her room and try to act casual.

It turns out to be the first volume of a complete, bilingual edition of the Babylonian Talmud, with the Hebrew and English on facing pages. It’s full of bookmarks, which lead to pencilled notes in the margins in a mixture of both languages. I glance quickly over the shelves and realize that every volume is bristling with bookmarks.

When the guards enter, without giving me a name she introduces me simply as her “friend” (which is especially believable because of my shirtless state). I realize with some shame the awkward position in which I have placed this apparently shy and circumspect young scholar.

At this point the details grow fuzzy, but I remember we all go outside together, escorted by the two or three guards, and accompanied also by a girlfriend of my benefactor who shows up from a nearby apartment. The two of them are laughing and talking together like ordinary women – no sign, now, of a typical intellectual’s introversion. When we hit the streets, my benefactor – who I notice suddenly is very good-looking – sees me off in a way that is meant to appear casual (for the benefit of the guards) but is in fact completely indifferent. A sideways, halfway hug. The suggestion of a smile.

Why did you do this – why not just turn me in? I wanted to ask but could not. I glance back for a final look, and she and her girlfriend are talking animatedly about something else entirely, disappearing among the crowds of revelers on the streets.

Male and female

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Addendum to yesterday’s entry on feminist aggadah

Actually, Jewish feminists working to reclaim their heritage do have one advantage over their Muslim and Christian sisters: they already have an abundance of female images of the godhead to draw from. In the book of Proverbs, Wisdom (Hokhmah) is co-eternal with YHWH and is represented there as a goddess of sorts. (This becomes the Christian Sophia.) In later Kabbalah, however, Hokhmah is thought of as male. As the first (or second*) manifestation of godhead – also called the Beginning – it is the point from which Binah (Knowledge) expands. At this point, Binah and Hokhmah become explicitly female and male, egg and semen (to update the imagery slightly from the no-longer-valid notions of semen as seed and womb as passive medium). Of all of Binah’s “daughters” the most famous, which surely predates this schema of the ten Sefirot by hundreds of years, is the hypostasized Divine Presence, the Shekhinah. The central focus of religious effort is to join Tif’eret – the sixth of the ten Sefirot, representing Heaven, Sun, Harmony, Compassion – and Shekhinah, associated with Earth, Moon, Garden of Eden, Justice. A kind of Jewish tantra encourages married mystics to make love on Sabbath Eve in an attempt to realize this divine union in their own bodies. Finally, it’s worth noting that the Sabbath itself is also commonly hypostasized as female.

All this is a little apart from the theme of this blog, except to show the flexibility and creativity of the Western religious imagination once it divests itself of rigid subject/object and mind/body dichotomies. And I don’t think any of it would have been possible without the prior determination of the divine’s absolute unknowability. Putting ultimate reality beyond all conceptual reach licensed the invention of the Sefirot as a kind of heuristic – in fact, it probably necessitated it, both as a focus of devotion for ordinary believers and as a mandala or source code for divine autopoiesis.

*Depending on how closely one identifies Keter with Ein Sof. Multiple versions of the Sefirot diagram (with sometimes divergent descriptions) may be found on the web. Here’s one that’s particularly well done and easy to navigate. Read especially the descriptions of The Right Side (male) and The Left Side (female). The diagram can of course be used as a map of the human body. But I can’t help thinking that there are probably many, more esoteric interpretations that have never been put into print (or at least into translation).

Feminist aggadah

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From poet and critic Alicia Suskin Ostriker’s wonderfully iconoclastic The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions (Rutgers UP, 1997):

“To the rest of the world the Jew is marginal. But to Judaism I am marginal. Am woman, unclean. Am Eve. Or worse, am Lilith. Am illiterate. Not mine the arguments of Talmud, not mine the centuries of ecstatic study, the questions and answers twining minutely around the living Word, not mine the Kaballah, the letters of the Hebrew alphabet dancing as if they were attributes of God. These texts, like the Law and the Prophets, are not-me . . . ” (p. 6)

“Touch me not, thou shalt not touch, command the texts. Thou shalt not uncover. But I shall. Thou shalt not eat it lest ye die. I shall not surely die.” (p. 8)

“Reader, you are supposed to ask: does God exist. Is the Holy One in that book real or imagined. And then what about Abraham, Moses, and so on, what is their status vis-a-vis ‘reality.’ Is Abraham in other words a body, a material fact, or is he a spirit, an imagined fact. I confess these questions do not interest me. For who among us, solid flesh though we are, is not partly fictional. And who among us supposes herself the inventor of her own fiction. And who is not just such an aggregation of scraps, just such a patchwork as Abraham, a basket containing millennia. Is God a myth? A set of myths? Then so am I, so are you.” (p. 13)

No doubt an analytic philosopher would laugh us both to scorn, but that’s always the way I’ve reacted to those kinds of questions, too. But here’s the part I really wanted to quote. This is from Ostriker’s commentary on the Garden of Eden:

“Between a child and a parent the initial game is hiding and showing. At first the parent takes the initiative, leading the child into the game. The child is lying flat on her back in the crib, kicking her heels rhythmically, gazing devotedly up at the face of the parent, who gazes in her usual devoted way down at her. Now the parent has the impulse to stimulate extra happiness. So she covers her face for two seconds, then removes her hands, beaming at the child, who instantly breaks into chuckles, wriggling her fat body and beating her fists and feet against the crib mattress. Every time the parent plays I’m-gone-I’m-here, the child laughs, gurgles. To laugh is to understand. To understand is to laugh. Later the child herself will play I’m-gone-I’m-here, putting her fat hands over her face, perhaps peering through her fingers but confident that she herself is invisible or rather pretending to be invisible and then opening her hands and flinging them apart to show her radiant face . . . ” (p.20)

One begins to see the enormity of the sages’ error in barring women from the garden of the text!


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Yes and No are not true opposites, says Bergson (Creative Evolution), and I agree. Every No is a swallowed Yes . . . or may we say that some Nos are pregnant with a Yes? Atheists are such monists; the gods they don’t believe in are all the same, like the black stone of the Kaaba to the deniers of idolatry. Listen carefully: Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night showeth knowledge (Psalm 19:2). The very first twins are Time and the Word; before them, tohu-bohu: formless, dwelling in possibilities. Definitely not chaos – that aristocratic nightmare of a world without up and down. Eventually some people ventured an accounting of this, which has “more being than any other being in the world, but since it is simple and all other simple things are complex in comparison with its simplicity, in comparison it is called Nothing” (David ben Abraham ha Lavan, quoted in D.C. Matt, Zohar: The Book of Elightenment. Paulist Press, 1983, p. 34). But the less said about that, the better. Selah!


“Protiston mein ariston kai Nuktos.” Parmenides’ Poem

Translation: “First of all things there was Night.”

– Phila B.


Thanks. Yet another example of the usefulness of quoting out of context!

I cannot resist adding parenthetically (but all my thoughts are parenthetical) that, in my view, Parmenides’ infamous poem marks the precise point where Western philosophy took a wrong turn down a 2500-year-long blind alley. Self-identity the sole attribute of reality? Give me a break! Take away the grammatical copulative and the whole project of Being vanishes like smoke. Or should I say like smoke and mirrors, with the mirrors positioned to face each other and the impossibly transcendent (male) Thinker improbably multiplied ad infinitum . . . ad absurdam . . .

– Dave

Presence and prescience

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To follow up on the topic of history and freedom, check out Octavio Paz’s Nobel Acceptance Speech. A typically brilliant, brief overview of the history of the idea of history, with some of the implications for politics and literature spelled out in a fairly prescient manner (as it now appears 14 years later). He says, among things,

“Ours is the first age that is ready to live without a metahistorical doctrine; whether they be religious or philosophical, moral or aesthetic, our absolutes are not collective but private. It is a dangerous experience. It is also impossible to know whether the tensions and conflicts unleashed in this privatization of ideas, practices and beliefs that belonged traditionally to the public domain will not end up by destroying the social fabric. Men could then become possessed once more by ancient religious fury or by fanatical nationalism. It would be terrible if the fall of the abstract idol of ideology were to foreshadow the resurrection of the buried passions of tribes, sects and churches. The signs, unfortunately, are disturbing.”

And here’s an excerpt from the concluding paragraphs:

“Reflecting on the now does not imply relinquishing the future or forgetting the past: the present is the meeting place for the three directions of time. Neither can it be confused with facile hedonism. The tree of pleasure does not grow in the past or in the future but at this very moment. Yet death is also a fruit of the present. It cannot be rejected, for it is part of life. Living well implies dying well. We have to learn how to look death in the face. The present is alternatively luminous and sombre, like a sphere that unites the two halves of action and contemplation. Thus, just as we have had philosophies of the past and of the future, of eternity and of the void, tomorrow we shall have a philosophy of the present. The poetic experience could be one of its foundations. What do we know about the present? Nothing or almost nothing. Yet the poets do know one thing: the present is the source of presences.”

– Octavio Paz, “In Search of the Present,” 1990 Nobel Acceptance Speech

(N.B: I found the link while roaming through the Borgesian labyrinth of Stephen Cullinane’s blog,

Afterthought: Reading this over from the top down, I see that I have allowed Paz to steal my thunder. By the time readers slog through to the end of my own disquisition on time and narrative, they’re likely to feel an acute sense of deja vu warmed over! But so what? The synchronicity of discovering Paz’s thoughts on this subject (on a site devoted in part to the celebration of synchronicity) right after fleshing out my own sends a shiver down my spine. Maybe there really is something to this “whole lotta nothin’!” Words aren’t just words, words have something to say. (Quoting someone here, can’t remember who.)

In lieu of an omen

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First natural observation of the New Year: a gray squirrel running through the branches of the five black walnut trees in the yard of my parent’s house. I’ve drunk my coffee, have gotten up to go back inside my own cottage (it’s 30 degrees F) and I notice the squirrel as I glance west, toward the sunlight seeping down Sapsucker Ridge and across the field. The walnut trees are still half in shadow, their crowns glow a rich gold. The squirrel – probably resident in the cavity of the largest tree – is racing up and down the sunlit limbs and flinging itself from tree to tree in a manner I can only describe as ecstatic. When it pauses, its tail vibrates spasmodically and it rubs both sides of its face and neck against the tree bark, left side then right.

I know this behavior from having observed it often among squirrels in the butternut tree that stood in my own front lawn until this past August, when it toppled over onto the porch one morning shortly after I’d gone inside. (Losing this butternut was almost as traumatic for me as the death of my grandfather the month before; both left a sizable hole.) I assume, based on what I’ve seen and what I’ve read in the scientific literature, that this behavior is associated with the onset of estrus. But something can have an “explanation,” be fairly familiar and still seem strange and wondrous. My only resolution for the New Year (and lord knows I could make many!) is to see the world more frequently in such a light.

History and freedom

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Nowhere is the Bible’s status as the fountainhead of Western civilization more in evidence than in its conception of time, its invention of history as a purposeful narrative with a beginning and an end. Some of that is in the interpretation rather than the literal content: for example, contrary to the vast majority of translations, Genesis begins with A beginning, not THE beginning. That is, it should read “When God was beginning to create the heavens and the earth . . . ” But this is almost irrelevant if we are interested in the Bible’s cultural influence. In fact, one of the things that makes it still so rich and rewarding a text, even for agnostics like me, is the immense multiplicity of voices one hears as one reads. Impossible to find a passage that has not been freighted with meaning by some faith community or another in the past 2500 years.

The imputation of meaning to Biblical and quasi-Biblical texts is probably a topic I’ll return to frequently in the course of my blogging. Today I am thinking about freedom and authority. Originally, of course, the core of the Bible was simply an ingenious anthology designed to give comfort and guidance to a priestly people in exile; only later did it become – let’s face it – something of an idol. (1) Faced with the nearly unquestionable authority of these ancient writings, what was a religious thinker to do?

The Christians, for 1500 years or so, allowed themselves the freedom of allegorical interpretations. This strategy did lend an air of legitimacy to a wide range of beliefs and propositions, many of them mutually contradictory. The downside was that it tended to vitiate characters and events and deracinate story qua story. The rabbis – probably partly in reaction – rigorously avoided allegory; their main interpretive strategy was to posit a timeless quality for each major event and character. That is to say, any given phrase or incident could be liberated from its immediate context and applied to other, superficially irrelevant situations, according to a continuously elaborated set of interpretative rules. Since the Rabbinical Fathers, like the Christians, assumed perfect internal consistency for the Tanakh as a whole, they could draw an effectively infinite number of lessons from the text simply by connecting discrete passages in new ways. In this way they, too, altered the original narratives to allow for multiple potential beginnings and endings, while preserving the particularity of beings and incidents.

The rabbis permitted themselves an additional freedom that the Church Fathers did not: the power to construct new, authoritative texts. It is interesting, however, that they studiously avoided all narrative in the first and most impenetrable of these, the Mishnah. Historian Donald Harman Akenson (Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds, Harcourt, 1998) sensibly suggests that this avoidance stemmed from a heartsickness over the disasters that befell Palestinian Jews in the first several centuries of the Christian era, when the Mishnah was assembled. They were sick to death of the history they and YHWH had co-created.

The rabbis asserted a patriarchal version of vox populi, vox dei. There’s a wonderful story in the Talmud of a rabbi who successfully contended against multiple signs of displeasure form Heaven, including an earthquake, in a dispute over the interpretation of a law. He won by asserting that the Torah (Law, Dharma) is for human beings, and the majority were on his side, whatever God might think! Thus, the Mishnah – the great, lawyerly text upon which the whole grand edifice of Rabbinical Judaism is based – does not claim to derive authority from the written Torah, though Biblical references abound. Instead, it claims the cumulative authority of hundreds of communally sanctioned elders engaged in passionate and intense debate over the course of several centuries. According to Akenson, the Babylonian Talmud (a.k.a. Bavli) makes this freedom from the tyranny of the text explicit, on a few occasions going so far as to reinterpret passages from the Torah to mean essentially the opposite of their apparent meaning! And of course, the real wealth of the Bavli lies in the countless short stories that are introduced to illustrate one point or another. (Pretty much my whole exposure to the thing has been through translations of this Aggadah.) By hook or by crook, within or without the meta-narratives of historians, the real world in all its flawed and multifarious splendor will sneak back in!

But what I am wondering today is whether it makes sense to talk about freedom at all in the context of Jewish and Christian eschatology. This strikes me as the real problem with monotheism, as far as human rights and the self-determination and dignity of all creatures is concerned. Conceptions of the divine can shift (in some circles, have already shifted) to accommodate non-hierarchical and immanentist modes of thinking. But how do we escape from the finality of history, from the apparently arbitrary choice of yes or no, hope or despair? Isn’t the notion of a once-and-for-all judgement inimical to freedom? Can a freedom whose true, realized form inhabits the future alone ever be anything but a mirage? Isn’t it, in fact, like the proverbial carrot suspended forever out of reach, luring the donkey forward? Objectively speaking, isn’t the donkey as much a slave to his desire for the carrot as he is to the master who drives him with a switch?

The atheist has a simple exit strategy, of course. I would suggest, however, that the person of faith might do well to avail herself of much the same strategy! After all, didn’t Meister Eckhart say “For the love of God, get rid of God” and Linji exclaim that “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”?

To return once more to this weblog’s main theme, that ultimate reality is ultimately recondite: it is not that It has no name, but that Its name must remain hidden until the end of time. What if time may be annihilated through a sudden act of grace? Does it even make sense to hope for such a revelation, given what we have just said about hope? But from long wrestling, the tradition suggests, some kind of grace or deliverance may come.

Recall again the trickster Jacob, journeying home and in fear for his life – walking, for all he knew, straight toward his doom (Genesis 32 and 33). Recall that Esau had been cheated out of his birthright for no good reason: that is to say, only the zero-sum determination that their father Isaac’s blessing could go to one son or the other, but not to both, had made his lying brother the favorite and him the outcast (Genesis 27). In some mysterious way that the text does not spell out (thankfully, for untold generations of exegetes!) Esau’s forgiveness is prepared by the “angel’s” act of grace in granting Jacob a new name and a deeper wisdom. (2)

The obvious anthropological precedent here is the initiation ceremony, the end product of which is a new name and a new man. (3) Enhanced self-knowledge and re-integration into society are the expected corollaries. In this case, Esau recognizes that the former sociopath has been transformed.

I can’t help thinking that the reconciliation between these archetypal warring brothers offers hope for the present-day situation in Palestine: “And Esau said, I have enough, my brother; keep that thou hast unto thyself. And Jacob said, Nay, I pray thee, if now I have found grace in thy sight, then receive my present at my hand: for therefore I have seen thy face, as though I had seen the face of God, and thou wast pleased with me. Take, I pray thee, my blessing that is brought to thee; because God hath dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough. And he urged him, and he took it.” (KJV, Genesis 33:9-11. Italics are of course my own.) Without a spirit of generosity and forgiveness, without a willingness to see God’s face in the adversary, there will never be true freedom for either side. And is it not in fact this sense of limited blessings, of a zero-sum game, that turns reality from a superabundance of “lights and mysteries” into a narrow tunnel leading toward a single, blinding light?

I must confess at this point that I cannot take full credit for the foregoing chain of thought. This whole meditation was sparked by my reading of the following passage from Abraham J. Heschel right before I drank my morning coffee:

“The opposite of freedom is not determinism, but hardness of heart. Freedom supposes openness of heart, of mind, of eye and ear. . . . Freedom is not a natural disposition, but God’s precious gift to man. [I can hear my anarchist compatriots howling already!] Those in whom viciousness becomes second nature, those in whom brutality is linked with haughtiness, forfeit their ability and therefore their right to receive that gift. Hardening of the heart is the suspension of freedom. Sin becomes compulsory and self-destructive. Guilt and punishment become one.” (A. J. Heschel, The Prophets: An Introduction, Harper, 1962, 191.)

Among other things, this offers a neat solution to the theological conundrum of how hell – a place without god – can exist, if god is omnipresent. Illusory as it may ultimately be, it is human beings in the midst of history who manufacture such an absence. I would add that, anywhere nihilistic thinking is allowed to predominate, anywhere that the “nothing more than” mentality holds sway over “nothing less than,” a kind of hell is created. But let’s hear the rest of what Heschel has to say.

“In other words, the ability to understand, to see or hear the divine significance of events, may be granted or withheld from man. One may see great wonders, but remain insensitive.” And drawing upon numerous Biblical examples, Heschel makes the following startling (to those unfamiliar with the via negativa) pronouncement: “It seems that the only cure for willful hardness is to make it absolute. Half callousness, paired with obstinate conceit, seeks no cure. When hardness is complete, it becomes despair, the end of conceit. Out of despair, out of the total inability to believe, prayer bursts forth.” (Ibid., 191-192.)

Heschel goes further and posits that God is not without blame: “The dark fact of callousness, just like the luminous power of understanding, goes back to God who creates light as well as darkness in the heart of man. The weird miracle of callousness, resistance of God, may be due to an obstinacy imposed by God. Punishment and guilt become one.

“While not denying that the people sin of their own free will, there is a subtle awareness of God’s being involved in man’s going astray, an involvement that adds bafflement to injury.
Oh lord, why dost Thou make us err from Thy ways
And harden our heart, so that we fear Thee not?
(Isaiah 63:17)” (Ibid, 192.)

And there, save for some additional quotes from Job (39:16-17) and the rabbinical commentator Kimhi, is where Heschel leaves us: with the bafflement. Theodicy (how God can be good and omnipotent, if evil exists) must remain an unsolvable dilemma, comparable to the existence of samsara in Buddhism.

My favorite approach to the problem is to turn it back on itself. Setting aside the question of how biological existence would be possible if no sentient being ever suffered, imagine a world where bad things simply couldn’t happen to good people. If good were automatically rewarded and evil automatically punished in an obvious way, then freedom would become hollow and meaningless. Good itself would lose all meaning, given the consciousness of an automatic reward. (If someone is being good solely or primarily because they think that will get them into heaven, are they really being good – or just looking out for number one?) The sad thing, I think, is that many, many people – of all faiths and none – would view this as a perfect world! In fact it would entail complete totalitarian madness; the only rational response to such a world would be suicide.

So where is the true freedom of heaven to be sought? My friend Fred Ramsey includes at the bottom of his e-mails the following quote from the great Yoruban-Nigerian drummer Olatunji: “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow, a mystery. And today? Today is a gift. That’s why they call it the present.”

“Ah, purported truth through punning – how simple-minded, how low-brow!” How come? Puns and rhymes and rhythms tell us as much about the way the world works as, say, mathematics. In any case, I think it’s true. Actually, I arrived at a similar spot at the end of a long poem – which, oddly enough, pivoted on a quote from a Yoruba hymn comparing the Creator (Obatala) to a swarm of bees. Trying to sound as vatic as possible, I ended up pouring this thought into a reductionist mold: “The kingdom of heaven is nothing but the world in bloom.” (See the last poem in Capturing the Hive.)

So yes, I believe this much: that we must allow the gift of the present to become fully present, within and without. How we get there, individually and collectively, is another question.

(1) The relentlessly monistic and iconoclastic Sikhs are honest enough to refer to their main religious text as a guru – the Guru Granth – and pay it frequent homage as the one licit object of near-worship. I gather that many Jewish congregations have a similar relationship with scrolls of Torah, and of course for many Christians – especially those of a Pentecostal bent – a physical Bible is far more than just a book. In each case, the text has become a talisman or icon. The terms fetish and idol now seem derogatory, but phenomenologically it’s all the same thing. I fail to see how the supposedly naive belief in a spirit literally inhabiting an image differs from the belief that the sacred may be concentrated anywhere – in mountain, temple, ark or book.

(2) Jacob is far from the only major character in the Bible to wrestle with god, literally or figuratively. Among other examples of note we should consider Abraham’s argument with god at Mamre (Genesis 18:23-33) and – most perilous of all – Zipporah’s defense of Moses against YHWH’s murderous intentions at the inn on the border of Egypt (Exodus 5:24-27). The latter case apparently had to do with the blood-guilt Moses had incurred through his earlier murder on Egyptian soil, which a diety committed to retributive justice would be bound to exact payment for – against what must have been Its own intentions. If this line of interpretation is correct, this is one of the few places in the Bible where something like the Greek notion of universal laws overriding the divine will appears to be invoked.

(3) Or woman, except that women don’t undergo initiation in most societies. The Pueblo Indians generously spin this as a mark of women’s natural superiority – they are already “finished” in some sense that men are not – though I doubt that such a perception has ever had a very wide currency.