Sunday, December 21, 2008

Holy, Holy, Holy!

God sits on his throne in heaven, wearing purple robes and a crown so heavy as to weigh him down and make it impossible for him to move. So divine is his kingly outfit, an outfit which surely only he could don without collapsing under its great weight, that he is entrapped. From his throne, he can see only the shadows of the earth below, but not the events from whose womb they emanate. God’s rule stretches only as far as he is able to see, but seeing not much farther out of his heavenly window than we see out of our windows, God has become severely limited by his divinity. God could throw off his heavenly robes and remove his crown in order to see all and rule, once again, but doing so would immediately deprive him of the very Godliness which gives life to the possibility of seeing and ruling. For God could once again be free, but only at a price: he would cease to be.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Yom Kippur Joke

I heard the following joke from a friend and professor of comparative literature, Nauman Naqvi, who heard it from a friend, Gil Anidjar, who was a student of Derrida's. It goes as follows:

On Yom Kippur Eve the Rabbi of the congregation went up before the ark, bowed low, and said in a whisper, "I am nothing before you, O God." Whereupon he wept and returned to his place on the bimah. Then, the chazan went up to take his turn before the presence of the Holy One. He too, bowed low and uttered the words, "I am nothing before you, O God." And he too, wept and returned to his place on the Bimah. Then, the lowliest member of the congregation, who made his living as synagogue janitor, went up to ark to bow low. But as he did, saying, "I am nothing before you, O God," the Rabbi turned the chazan and gave him a little nudge, saying, "Look who feels like nothing tonight."

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Still Small Voice

The still small voice, the chilling echo that can only be heard in the subsiding (tzimtzum) of voice, is the locus in which we come to realize that the nothing is not nothing. The still small voice is the voice of conscience in us, as well as in the divine. And it is also the voice of history, which can be heard whining beneath the piles of destruction. The still small voice is the sound of the nothing nothinging. It is the disturbing sound of the silence which hopes to be left undisturbed. Traditionally, people have attributed the power to tear down walls and to awaken souls to the blast of the shofar. But really, the alarm clock of the universe, the idol-smashing instrument of the divine is not the ram’s horn, an arbitrary and only figurative ritual object, but the still small voice that hovers in the suspension of the tekiah gedolah. The still small voice is the only voice of God. Everything that was uttered at Sinai was only preliminary, symbolic, like the ram’s horn. The real reason God spoke at Sinai was so that people could hear the reverberation of His voice when he ceased speaking.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Couplets of Our Time

If one who seeks nothing will find nothing,
One who finds nothing will yet seek something.

--Indian Proverb

Hear O God, your servant, your self, is one!
(Praised be his name for all its finitude).

--Israelite Call to Worship

Where the cicadas sing in midday heat,
We discuss their reverberating song.

--Inscription on Plato’s tomb

The Great Wall divides paradise from us,
Though the angels wander to glimpse our side.

--Oracle Bone IX.22

The Nile’s defiant flow maintains us,
Our defiant flow, now dead, retains it.

--Book of The Dead (apocryphal)

Bacchus, impostor God, thus posturing,
You reveal the truth of their costuming.

--Motto of the Cult of Dionysus

I made a pilgrimage to poetry,
But hindered on my way, wrote this today.

--Chaucer’s Tale

Do I dare to lift my eyes from the well?
Hold my hands then while I look heavenward.

--The prayer of Baudelaire’s twin

Fragmented Reflections Upon a Trip to Reality

The self perceiving God is God, the self
Perceiving self perceiving God is self.

The self kissing trees is trees, the self
Kissing self kissing trees is self.

But the self beholding another self is
Not the other self, nor is it itself.

It is the between which holds the heavens
And the earth both together and apart.

Its being forever constantly displaced,
Such not-yet-self and yet-still-self becomes.

The other is God, but God is not the other.
So we await the happening of God.

Awaiting as the signs, the messengers,
Come filing in, announcing a soonness.

God is always coming soon, always soon.
But in the meantime, I have you. I am.

Disparate is my “amness” from your “isness,”
Our “areness” from “to be” and “will have been.”

And yet, how we go on trying to be,
Not as stalwart beings, but becomings.

We bridge, though bridges often fail when tried,
The cliffs, from which, after trials, gods plunge.

Gods, who are synonyms for not-the-God,
Are Thou’s accidents, if not Thou’s essence.

And as accidents, they are essential
For gathering the days of the Divine,

For gathering the daze of the Divine
Into a single daze, to gaze upon.

Thus, blessed (I think), is the self which selves,
And the self which Gods, and the self which Thous.

May, Self/God/Thou grant Me/You/Other life,
And the Nile-like overflowing of life.

In short, may fallenness become uplift,
And downcast eyes see what the angels can’t.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Sigh

Isn’t it telling that life was created with a sigh? God heaved an anxious breath, a heavy sigh, and lo and behold, earth’s nostrils were infused with the spirit of life. But what is a sigh, and what is its source? Why, after all, did God sigh in the first place? To answer this question we must first note that not all speech-acts require speech. Sometimes an inflected breath, a fleshy silence, is just as potent as any “Let there be light” or “I do.” Sighing is not simply a descriptive event; it is a colossally creative activity. Sighing finds its expression in a sudden awakening to the presence of a void. But to sigh is not simply to acknowledge that void, to bow in deference to it, and humble oneself before the incompleteness that it poses. To sigh is, in the very moment that one pays tribute to the nothing, to fill it with a cathartic gust of energy and an explosive power of desire, and thus deprive it of its very nothingness. In the beginning, when the world was not-yet a world, but a mere disunity, a nether-clump of dark and deep, a heap of indistinguishables, a pre-stage of unordered non-beings, there was much for the Divine, who was himself not-yet anything but the nothing, to sigh over. And so, it is perhaps not so extraordinary that the First Principle, the Nothing on which all turtles ad infinitum stand, sighed, and in so sighing, became the Creator of the Universe.

This sigh is a never-ending one. It can still be felt blowing the universe beyond its outskirts, casting off nowness and thisness into diaspora, and generating new horizons of possibilities. This infinite sigh, the sigh of the nothing which is the life-force of the cosmos, however, is not only a creative and productive sigh. It is also a deracinating and catastrophic ge(i)sture. It is the very sigh, which Walter Benjamin identified in his ninth thesis on the philosophy of history as the storm blowing from paradise. It is the very sigh in which the Angel of History’s wings are caught and by which he is prevented from awakening the dead. This sigh, Benjamin tells us, we call progress. And perhaps we are right to call it so. But this sigh is, even if progressive, quite violent. This sigh tore life out of Adam’s rib and blasted humanity out of Eden. And what was the weapon Cain used to kill his brother Abel, if not the sigh, the bitter and enigmatic sigh which constitutes the textual oblivion in the verse “And Cain said to his brother Abel…and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him?”[1] It was God’s sigh of regret at having created the world, which stirred the clouds to pour down rain for forty days and nights.

For, you see, the sigh, which always originates in the face-to-face encounter with the nothing, must continue to heave, since the moment that it brings the not-yet to the here, a new not-yet arises, and the nothing reasserts its omnipotence. The world is caught in the exasperating destruction of the sigh which is ever fighting to renew what is always dying. The sigh, and its counterpart, which is really not its antithesis, but its mother, the nothing, cannot be separated into neat opposing categories such as “good” and “evil” or “true” and “false.” For the sigh, and the nothing which it fills, are of one seem. If the nothing ceased to nothing, the sigh would cease to sigh. And if the sigh ceased to sigh, the nothing would become but nothing and cease to be the nothing. Thus the war that rips our souls apart in cosmic battle is not a contest between God and the Devil, as Dostoevsky would say, but rather the unsettling embrace of exhalation and inhalation, an embrace which is in one fell swoop a kiss of death and a kiss of life.

It is for this reason that the sages teach that we possess neither a good nor an evil urge, but only the empty urge itself. For no urge is unqualifiedly good or evil. And perhaps no urge is purely good or evil. The urge is, after all, the sigh. But the sigh is always an ambivalent matter, which is why the last sigh will be a sigh of relief. When the Messiah comes, his sigh will be a sigh to end all sighs.

[1] Gen. 4:8.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Mystery of Words

In Plato's Theaetetus, a dialogue that attempts to answer the question, "What is knowledge?" truth is compared to a word. A word, after all, on a mere material basis, consists of letters, which together form syllables. The word "Socrates" is nothing but the conjoining of So-Cra-Tes. Yet, Socrates is not the same as Crasotes or Tesocra. And it is not the same, not simply because the arrangement of its parts are different, but because such a rearrangement tampers with its very essence, turning its significance into nonsense. Mathematics posits that A+B=B+A. But, words show that this transitive property of addition work only on a material level. On a more "spiritual" plane, if one may use the word "spiritual" without conjuring up the spirits, it is precisely the uniqueness of the arrangement that lends identity to the whole. The Talmud teaches that each person comes from Adam, and that as a result, we are at once unique, alone, in the image of the divine, etc., and, at the same time, are earthly, commonplace, and in the image of man. None of us can claim nobler birth than anyone else, since we all share the common ancestors of Adam and Eve. This tension, the Talmud argues should be embodied by two slips of paper, one of which we should keep in one of our pockets, the other in the other. One slip says, "For me alone was the world created." The other reads, "I am but dust of the earth."

Words, too, reflect this tension. But in our modern/post-modern world, our danger is not in realizing that we are dust of the earth, but in forgetting that our dust is filled with the breath of life. Words are just bags of sounds, and musical notes are just vibration frequencies. And yet the words we speak carry meaning, and the notes we bellow movement. Why? It seems that from the chaos and the void spread over the face of the dark and the deep, existance raises its mighty paw against existence (Here, I am indebted to Rav J. Derrida's essay on "Differance"). This resistance, which cannot perhaps be heard, emerges as the still small voice, the last echo of the shofar blast, which The Holy One blew on the primordial Dawning of the first of days. We can hear it only in the discrepancy between the syllables that compose the word and the word itself.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Poetry and History

“The distinction between historian and poet is not in the one writing prose and the other verse—you might put the work of Herodotus into verse, and it would still be a species of history. It consists really in this, that the one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be. Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature of universals, whereas those of history are of singulars.”
--From Aristotle’s Poetics

Though Thucydides famously stated at the beginning of his History of the Peloponnesian War, “My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last for ever,” (I.22) it is clear that in order for Thucydides’ work to have lasted and to have remained a possession for all time, it also had to please its audience. That Thucydides, despite his lambasting of romantic embellishments (I.21), could have produced something as dramatic and ahistorical as the Melian dialogue attests to what must have been his profound recognition that history is far more than simply a true account of the past. Indeed, if we are to understand what truth was for the Greeks, a Heideggerian scrutiny of their word for it, Aleitheia, will reveal it to mean un-concealment or un-forgetting. That the word is etymologically given only in negative terms, with an alpha-privative, demonstrates the Greek’s underlying view of the kinship between truth and memory. This view pervades the dialogues of Plato, especially Phaedo, Republic, and Phaedrus, where Socrates argues for the soul’s immortality on the very grounds that all knowledge is recollection (Anamnesis). But if history’s object is truth and truth’s source is memory, it becomes apparent why even someone as driven towards scientific objectivity as Thucydides could not have resisted dramatic interpolation and invention.

Yet the lack of reliable source-keeping in ancient times forced historians like Herodotus and Thucydides to write histories only of their recent times, histories of wars through which they had lived and in which they had fought. But this writing about a near-past coupled with the fact that the subject of that past was war, ensured that history would blur with epic.

But in any event, could Thucydides have claimed his book to have been a possession for all time if it hadn’t been of epic and tragic proportion? Assuredly not. For, so the argument seems to run in ancient historiography from Herodotus to Polybius, not everything that happened in the past is worthy of being called history. Only those events from which we can draw universal lessons are ultimately important. Herodotus does not write history to preserve the miniscule deeds of insignificant men from the blackening of time, but to preserve those belonging to great men, political leaders, emperors, generals, etc.
But in this way history and poetry converge. For Aristotle argues in Poetics that a tragedy must take as its subject a person of high birth and exalted stature. And Homer, in the Iliad and Odyssey, when not slandering the gods, sings almost exclusively about "the best of men." Both the ancient poets and the ancient historians sought to impart lessons to their audience, and both realized that the most effective way to do this was through dramatic art.

Although Aristotle distinguished between history and poetry, this distinction did not hold up for Herodotus and Thucydides. History was, of course, the study of what had happened, yet it was this very fact that also made it a study of what might be. The kind of plague which Thucydides describes could have just as easily been the subject matter for a Sophoclean play (while the plague of Thebes in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannous could well have been a historical reality), yet the important thing is that it actually occurred, and that moreover, it actually occurred in the live memories of the Athenian people.

Even when Polybius strongly writes that history without the truth is but an idle tale (a sentence that resonates with Shakespeare’s admission that “Life is a tale told by an idiot signifying nothing”), it is important to remember that truth was a much more malleable concept for the Greeks, and one deeply tied to memory. Even Polybius, who himself attempted to write a universal history of epic proportions, consigned himself to focus on the Roman Empire, an empire that had altered his personal life by taking him away from his Greek homeland. And even Polybius could not help but invoke throughout his work the epic force, who later came to be a Roman deity, Fortune (Tyche).

History, as conceived by Herodotus, Thucydides, and Polybius, was at once the study of singulars (both Herodotus and Thucydides argue for the unprecedented nature of the wars on which they write, while Polybius emphasizes the unprecedented character of the Roman people, the unprecedented accomplishments of their constitution, and the unprecedented reach of their sphere of influence), yet it is also the study of universals (Herodotus tells stories of the great deeds of all men and shows hubris to be a condition that affects all leaders, Thucydides sees history as a possession for all time, and Polybius understands all world events to effect each other in an intricate nexus). This deep knowledge of history’s essence underscores why for all three, history could be at once theatrical, epic, tragic, and objective, disciplined, true.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

A Post-Yom Kippur Poem

“Who is like you, God amongst the gods?”

When at the heights of ecstatic glory,
And connected to a still small Nothing,
I did enter through the gates of being
Into Life, seeing the emptiness of truth,
Feeling the fullness of the Almighty,
And burying my head e’er so humbly
In a shroud of omnipresent rocking,
When, in short, I looked upon the visage,
That intimate blackness beloved by death—
Instead of vanishing I rescinded
Into the sweat beneath my testicles,
And worse, since more distracting from the Source,
To unwelcome yet no less present thought,
Thought not of the nullity but of me—
How holy I had been to feel humble,
To sway possessed of a divinity,
To mutter words that seemed to move the stars.
Ah, dreadful thoughts reminding me I am,
Would you not disperse and leave me alone?
Body guards of the king, did you trust me?
Why, when rising from the ground did you ask,
“What will others, less seized by muses think?”
Why, after my head had bowed to YHWH,
Did you petition me to look around
To see who else had bowed and for how long?
Why, when wailing words by heart, did I turn
My gaze to my book’s ensnaring bosom,
My now opened eyes weighed down with writing?

Why, Great Presider of this world and next,
Did I return from You unto myself
If not by your divine decree, now sealed?
Why, being imperfect, am I not to sing,
Exalting not in sin but that I sin,
And yet am still forgiven being dust?
Indeed, I know, thank God for that I know,
I am but a figment of creation,
And as a piece of work, a masterpiece,
A piece of your hands, a work in progress.
And thus I end, though it is up to you
When I’ll expire and become a ruins.
For now, thank you for crafting me a self
And yet giving me a preview of why,
In the midst of becoming I can see
My limbs as coextensive with the moon’s,
My heart a life-source of our universe.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

What is It like?

It is like a man of noble-birth, who has, by a series of turns, been reduced to a wandering beggar. Aware of his nobility, and thus ashamed of his poverty, the beggar dares not beg, but instead, waits for someone to recognize him as a son of greatness and restore him to his former life. Dying slowly of starvation, the beggar is too weak to speak or move, yet along comes a man who knows him from childhood, and crying out his name, falls upon him in recollective tears. But, not having any food on his body to offer his dying friend, he runs off to find some, and on his way, either gets distracted and never comes back, dies, or returns with food, but with food that is either not enough to sustain the dying man or food to which the man is allergic, and some would go so far as to say, simply not in his taste, thinking such food beneath him. In any event, the beggar dies, or if he lives, dies, returned to his nobility. Yet his death is not without spectacle and his spectacle not without story and his story not without questions. Who is this man to which “it,” that impersonal filler, is compared? And what is this “It”? These questions are the food which I offer to you as you starve.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

"The mediator between the mind and the hands must be the heart"

This epigram, which recurs as a central theme in the Fritz Lang film Metropolis, is valuable for the Creature of faith, for whom either the mind leads to atheism while the hands lead to worship, or the mind leads to divine contemplation while the hands lead to Bacchant behavior. The heart alone is able to reconcile the schism between action and theory signified by the hands and by the mind, and it is able to do this through love. For Love involves passion, spontaneity, ecstasy, and growing in the sense of becoming and blossoming, but it also requires commitment, trust, steadfastness, and loyalty. It requires, that is, on the one hand, faith, and on the other, faithfulness. And while the mind may be more prone to faith while the hands to faithfulness, the heart does not see these as being in opposition, but readily pumps its life blood all around. For this reason, it must be said, as it does in Pirkei Avot that a good heart is better than a good eye or a good ear. For as the text teaches, a good heart contains a good eye and a good ear, while a good eye and a good ear do not necessarily include a good heart. And Let Heidegger's life be proof, of whom it was said that he could not finish his training as a priest in seminary because he had a weak heart.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Coat of Many Colors

Sing, whence that much colored coat and whither,
That coat which saw deceit and love and hope,
That torn gifted garment which Joseph wore,
And which his father, Jacob, before him
donned, when he conned his blind father, Isaac,
Into blessing him with the great command:
"Be a blessing," which subsequently he
Did follow, marking himself with destiny,
Tragedy, providence, as well as guilt!
His mother, Rebbecca, had designed it
In spite of the stars' much accursed will
That he should be the father of greatness.
Alas, that he had cast the coat upon
His Son, God-like dreamer sprung from Rachel's
Womb, which barren, had opened to give life
To the world's most luminous face, a trace
Of the Face, which masquerades as surface,
But is really surface and pulse at once
And the dynamic otherness that calls
The I out from under itself to dance and praise
The grand Unrecognizability
Whose footsteps can be heard when the earth quakes,
Whose dynamic breath blows being, language,
Fantasies and ambiguities home.
For had he not bestowed and transferred it,
His most favored God-child would not have passed,
At the hands of his envious brothers,
Into the hands of other o'er-looked brothers,
The Ishmaelites, descendants of Abraham
And Hagar, a war-prize won in battle,
With the help of Elohim and Good Luck.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Stories of a House

A glimpse at the words "house" and "story" opens up some interesting thoughts:

The word "house" often enough, both in the Bible and in Homer, refers not only to a physical house in space but to a genealogy or a lineage across time as well. The House of Atreus and the House of David are prime examples. Whereas in a physical house, the entrances and exits of its residents do not affect its fate, in a genealogical house, if the members of the house leave the house or die out, the house itself crumbles. Thus, while in one sense of the word "house," the residents do not constitute the house as house, in the second sense of the word, they are the very materials out of which the house is built.

Now, we all know that a large house tends to have several stories, and that the residents of such a house rarely sleep on the first story. Taking "story," then, in its two senses, we come to the following: A large house possesses stories. As a physical fact, this is no marvel. The number of stories and even the plurality of stories does not impact the being or non-being of the house. But on a deeper level, on the level in which the house is not just a shelter from the elements but a shelter from the decay of time, stories are the mortar and cement that keep in place our lives which are the very bricks of the great structure.

The story/stories of the Jewish people, for example, is/are largely what keep/s the Jewish people alive, and what ensure/s that the house of David does not crumble. Physically and logically one would say that a house must exist for there to be stories, but temporally and thus existentially, one should say that for there to be a house there must be stories.

A story is never original, and yet it is always new. This is the metaphorical meaning of why the master of the house sleeps on the second floor. A story is always a commentary, and thus can never be the foundation, the house, but only a part of the house. A story is always grounded, framed, contextualized, inspired, etc. In the beginning, after all, was not a story, but a word, the word. The word is the house. (Heidegger states that "Language is the house in which Dasein poetically dwells). And it is no coincidence that in Hebrew, the Letter Hay which is said to be a holy letter because it frequently appears in the divine name/s also looks like a house, and comes from other Semitic alphabets in which the letter itself stood for the word "house." Yet the assembly of words, the ordering of them in chiasmus, antithesis, synthesis, or what have you, is the story without which the house could never stand. Words after all, only exist, because of the need and desire to communicate. And communicating is nothing less than storytelling. Even when I say, "Go to the store!" or "Did you go to the store?" I am telling a story. In the first case, I am telling the story of something that has not yet happened but something which I hope, through speech, to make happen. In the second case, I am telling the story, whose end awaits a response from the Other. For if the Other responds in the affirmative, then I have told a story whose conclusion is affirmative, and if negative, negative.

Thus, we see that the story, although it is not original in the sense of being primordial, functions as the ever dynamic layering of the house, whose continuous existence breaths life into its darkest corners, shielding it from demise.

The tower of Babel fell down. Yet, though the house of Babel fell, its stories continue. And thus, the house hasn't fallen, it has simply proven to be a house not of bricks, but of words. It is a house which extends not to the heavens but, even more miraculously, across time. Since languages continue to change, to grow, to die, but also to emerge, we can see that the tower of Babel is still being constructed, that the workers have not yet thrown in their working cards, but continue to toil. Each story builds upon the next, and thus the house that is humanity sits enthroned on the layers of its past. Proust says that the self is but a graveyard of all of its deceased selves, and archaeologists apply this very idea to the study of civilizations when they excavate the layers of history buried below ground. The tower of Babel towers over us in the towering image of history, a towering image, because it is imageless, as imageless as the imageless God. For that which is imageless, ungraspable, unfathomable, is also towering, the way that the galaxies millions of light years away tower over us, not because they appear big, but precisely because they don't, and their smallness, and invisibility (at least to the naked eye), suggests our own smallness.

In any event, we can see now why though the Jews have been homeless, they have not been without a house. The House of David (beit david) endured even when Jewish houses of worship and study (beit midrash and beit knesset) saw their fiery destruction, and even since the destruction of the Second Temple (The Beit Hamikdash, literally, the House of Holiness). Stories, therefore, are the lifeblood of the House. But stories are not mere words. They are the dialectic of words and memories.

Though I have seemingly asserted a dichotomy between the two notions of house and the uses story, it is not without saying that their difference is grounded in a unity, a unity which ambiguates the difference between body and soul, or existence and essence. For, on some level, it has been shown that all language, and thus all stories, are deictic. That is, are physical, are demonstrative and gestural. Every statement we make refers to a this or a not this, and every time we speak, we open our mouths. Indeed, every time we speak, we presuppose ourselves as selves and our interlocutors as not selves, and both require that we have an image of ourself and of the other. I, when I think about who I am, do not simply come up with a list of activities or attributes, but a picture or a video, at any rate, a characterization that not only includes but assumes my identity as a body, as a brown haired, brown-green-eyed, 180 lb. male with the build and glare of a 20 year old.

Thus, we see that the story and the house, in the sense in which I have expounded them, are not mere concepts, but things. And it is fitting that in Hebrew the word for word is the same as the word for thing. A world without words, without stories, is literally nothing.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


When Yaakov (Jacob) tricked his blind father Yitzhaq (Isaac) into blessing him as the first born, he did not know that the trick would ultimately backfire, that the blessing of the first born-- that providential but no less onerous grace--would be as the mark of Cain upon him and his descendants. Yaakov received the blessing, but immediately had to flee. Even when he reconciled himself with his brother, the hairy Edomite, he never ceased fleeing. To this day, the children of Yaakov can be seen holding onto the heel of history wishing often enough, though blessed in some fateful and fatal sense, that they had just let go, that they had eaten their lentils in silence, that they had not listened to their treacherously wise mother, Rivka (Rebecca)--that recurring instantiation of Chava (Eve), whose knowledge and curiosity brings life and death into the world.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


When Pygmalion, either out of vanity or selflessness, fell in love with one of his sculptures, and when, with his powers, brought it to life, transforming it from a stone It into an enfleshed Thou, from an unnamed thing into a woman named Elise...

Pygmalion could not continue sculpting other beautiful forms, having already attained perfection. But what had most impressed Elise about her lover and creator, what had urged her out of ur-life into the broad and much enduring world, namely, that Pygmalion was an artist, ceased to be the case. And when this happened, although it happened before history itself could take place, in the primordial occurrence of their twain metamorphoses, she became a sculptor, while he became nothing but a fawning, yet impotent lover.

Elise went on to sculpt her own idols, until one day, she, like her creator before her, became enraptured by the lifeless form she had rendered so full of life. She went on living as if it were alive, but nobody can say for sure, whether her power proved to be sufficient. Pygmalion, for whatever it's worth, however, never ceased loving her.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Orpheus and Eurydice

As Orpheus ascended the steps of Hades, returning to the Black Earth, he could hear the footsteps of his beloved Eurydice behind him, and could even feel her panting breath upon his neck. But he knew that if he turned around to face her, it would be the last time he would ever see her, and that she would remain a prisoner of Death forever. And so, Orpheus, out of great fear, refused to give into his temptation. Even when he made it out of the Underworld and could see the radiant light of Helios, he didn’t dare turn around. Orpheus walked the Black Earth one long step at a time, as if still climbing out of Hades, still waiting for the safe moment when he could rush upon Eurydice and welcome her back from the dead. And Eurydice followed him. For years he walked, and Eurydice right behind him. Her sweet footsteps provided the only energy keeping him from collapsing. But one day, Eurydice grew tired, and perhaps bored. She was unable to cry out to her lover, since Hades had ordained that she could speak only when Orpheus turned to look at her. Believing that Orpheus would never turn to look at her and that she would remain mute forever, Eurydice quietly slipped off and walked back down to Hades. When Orpheus noticed that he could no longer hear Eurydice’s footsteps behind him, he turned around. But she was gone even before he could see her.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Dead God, Dead Author, Live Text

The academic world often points to Nietzsche and his posterior cohort of existentialists, phenomenologists, and post-structuralists, as the heralds of the anti-metaphysical worldview that so pervades the way we relate to the concepts of "God" and "Author." For not only, of course, did this sweep of thinkers offer God one final blow, but even the human god that had long been an object of our great adoration, the artist. By proclaiming "The death of God," they sought to liberate humankind from the pitfalls of projecting, wishful thinking, and ultimately, "inauthentic" living. But by announcing "the death of the author," they believed they had absolved humankind from another metaphysical yoke, "Intention." No longer, did we have to enslave ourselves to biographical knowledge of the author, a doomed project. Instead, we could find, in the text, truths that spoke in spite of the author. (Of course, this view itself is not without mystical resonance. "Letting the text speak," and "Being silent before Being," are simply modern reformulations of the medieval mottoes held by the Scholastics.)

But are these views, at once decried and extolled, really so radical? Are they even a blow to God and to the Author, at all? Or do they simply suggest something that was already present in our conceptions of "God" and "Author" from the start?

A famous story in the Talmud, with which Dostoevsky's "Grand Inquisitor" bears a striking affinity, recounts the details of a debate among the Rabbis of the Assembly:

The Rabbi who holds the correct opinion, time and again calls on God to give his adversaries signs that he is in the right. First, God causes a carob tree to sprout up, then He stops the flow of a river, next He causes a wall to come crashing down, and finally, He opens up the heavens and sends a heavenly voice to proclaim that the truth is with the lone Rabbi. But the other Rabbis, who witness these miracles, protest by saying that "one cannot bring proof from a carob tree" and that "the rule is with the majority." The story culminates with the Rabbis lifting Scripture out of its original context, and thereby thwarting its simple meaning to support their claims. In a jarring speech-act they shout the words of Scripture as a response to the heavenly voice: "It (Scripture/Law/Meaning) is no longer in heaven to decide." The Talmud goes on to say that at this point, God laughed, and chuckling to himself, cried, "My children have defeated me, My children have defeated me."

But isn't this what every God, Parent, Author, wants, on some level? To be surpassed by one's pupils, one's progeny, one's readers? Were the Rabbis, in their benign disobedience, not indeed, carrying out the divine intention? Were they not, paradoxically, in overturning the decree of the Source, simply bearing testimony to the Source's continual vitality? Does not the Author write for an Audience, knowing that once he has completed it, his text is no longer his? And does he not know that this very fact holds the key to his immortality? For God and Author alike require worshippers, readers, interpreters, creators, writers, even critics and blasphemers, to ensure their existenz. Heidegger's central point, that without Da-sein (his ontologically richer synonym for Man), the world would be but a heap of things, without worldiness, without meaning, a view that the Rabbis, no doubt, understood, guides the actions of God and of the Author. It is why God creates, reveals, redeems, and why the Author writes, revises, and submits a final draft. For God knows that the redemption of Man carries with it the redemption of his own divine self. And the Author knows that the redemption of Reader via his text bears, most of all, his own redemption.

This passage, which already bears the seeds of the modern concepts of "Death of God" and "Death of Author" is not an exercise in nihilism and relativism, but far from it, is an example of "walking with God." For the Rabbis, after all, on the one hand are debating a trivial matter, the criteria for a kosher oven, but on the other hand, are doing so in the belief that even the smallest details bear the potential for holiness and righteousness if done with the proper intention.

Whether thinkers like Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, who say "all things are possible, and none necessary" or Blanchot and Derrida, who say, "there is nothing outside of the text," are executioners of the Master of the Universe or Princes bearing his Name to the dark corners of the world, depends on how we take them. If we believe that they expose and assay the questions that God himself compels, we must also say that, in all likelihood, though they are"defeating" God, the Holy One laughs with pride, pleased that his children continue to grow into free-thinking, free-willed beings, demi-gods, even, or images of the Nothing, perhaps. At any rate, Princes of the All.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Indisposable Self

Some Saioian self delights in a flawless shield, which
I abandoned by the side of a bush, fleeing unwillingly.
But I saved my self. What is that perfect shield to me?
Let it disappear. I will possess another not worse.

--My Translation of Archilochus, Fragment 5

The World is God's Bible

If the Torah is a redacted document, a cut-and-paste of fragments-from-different-contexts, this provides insight into the nature of God, the Author of the Book of Fragments. For just as the Torah cannot possibly succeed in correcting its own inconsistencies, God too, can never fully patch together all the modes of his Being.

But just as the textual problems of the Torah open it up for interpretation and call upon its readers, in a way, to rewrite it, and ultimately, to complete it, the very textual problems of God which are manifest in his universe as scribal and syntactical errors, anachronisms, ambiguities and plot inconsistencies, ensure that the Cosmos will continue to interpret itself, and in so doing, complete the creative word of God. God spoke, and perhaps still speaks, but the world must punctuate, must turn the word into sentence. Just as poetry must be sung to be brought to life, and the words of the Torah chanted (on the page they are consonants without vowels, unpronounceable), the world must make itself audible to itself, by continuing to rotate on its axis and revolve in orbit, like a dog chasing its own tail, like a historian chasing his own tale. The song of the world is the music of inexorable flux, of the great ball of earth and clay seeking to sing and listen at once, to participate and reflect all in its one, but ever drawn out, breath.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Some Epic Introduction

Of God and of the instruments of his will, I sing,
With celestial influence and passion from the deep,
A man, no less, myself, an organ of the Lord of Hosts,
Spurred on by the applause of fate and by the music,
Which ever intones the curves of the earth,
And enchants the feet of those proud wanderers
Whose legs provide the measure of its soil.
I sing, then, by divine decree, not as a self,
But simply as a poet, supplied with an ephemeral voice,
As I descend into the hearth of Erebos,
And crawl into the decaying pages of history,
Which once opened the manifest Book of Life.
That by resurrecting the story of another,
I may, for a moment, experience the suspension of my own,
And unite what was with what is yet to be.

Sleeping Through Revelation

On that mythical day, on which it is said that myriads of souls not yet born traveled all the way from the underbelly of time to the foot of Mount Sinai to hear the divine word, I who had been alive to witness the parting of the Sea of Reeds with my own eyes, was sleeping. So tired was I from a week without sleep that I slept through the thunder and the lightning, the bellowing of Adonai and the responsive cry of his people. I was not awake to accept the yoke of the law. Yet in my oneiric slumber, I dreamt that I was there, bowing, face falling to the earth, hands lifting to the sky; and that when Adonai spoke, my heart ceased, and when he paused, it resumed, coming back to life. I dreamed that the mountain was held over my head by a celestial longing, sheltering me from the golden rays of the sun. I dreamed that the mountain spoke and the ground echoed its utterances and the world shook, but the trees stood fast. So vividly did I dream, that I do not know if I am now awake. But I hope not.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Socrates is the wisest...wise-ass

Yehudah ben Leibovitch of Lublin: In Apology, Socrates famously recounts how he set out trying to disprove the Delphic Oracle's proclamation that he was the wisest man, only to realize that, in fact, the oracle was right along. Socrates explains that he is the wisest man, not because he possesses any positive knowledge, but simply because unlike the other men who claim to know, he knows that he does not know anything, and in so knowing, knows slightly more than anyone else. What say you of the matter, friend?

Friedrich Philosophicus of Tübingen: It is as you say, then, Yehudah.

Y: This argument is quite sophistic, especially coming from a man who allegedly spent a great deal of time arguing and refuting sophists. For according to Socrates' espoused views, in order to judge in any matter one must possess knowledge of that matter. Only the prophet may distinguish between true and false prophecy. Only a doctor may separate the good doctor from the bad one. How then, is Socrates able to judge that the men he comes into contact do not actually know what they claim to know. How can Socrates, in short, say that such men know nothing, and at the same time claim that he himself knows nothing? For if Socrates knows nothing, by what authority can he disprove his interlocutors who claim knowledge for themselves?

By reason, this seems likely.

Y: We see, then, that Socrates, at least the way Plato portrays him in his Apology, is nothing but a skeptic. And we also see that his skepticism cannot hold up. Since all skepticism which is unmitigated and dogmatic inevitably collapses upon itself, just as a band of thieves, once it has stolen all it can from the innocent, rips itself apart out of sheer greed, it is no coincidence that Socrates can do nothing but die. And one of his friends subtly points this out in Crito. Socrates refuses to escape from his death not because of any commitment to justice, but simply because he is lazy. Do we agree?

F: Assuredly, unless the poet lies.

Y: Of course, brother, Socrates does make many positive arguments in other dialogues, concerning beauty, love, the soul, etc. But it cannot be ignored that whenever Socrates is at his most profound, he is often also being a wise-ass. Socrates treads the line between wisdom and cunning. But is Socrates' cunning an enemy to wisdom or an asset to it? I guess the answer to this question depends on how we understand the complicated role which Socrates plays for Plato, the writer of the dialogues. What say you?

F: This seems likely enough.

Y: One possibility is that Plato uses the dialogue form precisely so that he can make wise-ass arguments, but instead of taking the blame for them, can simply say, "Socrates said it, not me." Another possibility is that Plato uses the wise-ass moments in Socrates as a way of inviting us to challenge Socrates just as Socrates challenges his interlocutors. And yet another option: Socrates isn't a wise-ass, since in a paradoxical way, being but a mere character in a dialogue, his words and actions must are not real, and thereby are not ingenuine either. That is, within the frame of a dialogue, Socrates' words may be excused, even if otherwise they could be seen as annoying, petty, and self-important.

F: This dialogue is over. Since we only agree and since you do not let me speak.

A textual explanation for the coexistence of good and evil

If the world is a text, and the things in it, its words, then good and evil are its letters. Good are the consonants, evil are the vowels. Neither can exist without the other. For a world without evil would leave the world's words unpronounceable, while a world without good would leave its words as mere sounds, pronounceable, yet without life.

The Book

The book is like a cage. If you leave it open, the characters inside will escape; and when you return, it will be empty, and you will have to crawl inside it and remain there until they return. For does not the zookeeper, when his lion has eluded him, feign the lion so as to trick others, and mostly himself, into thinking that the lion is still there. If God once wrote us into the book of life, now we have escaped, and he is held captive in it. Until we return, God will be imprisoned in the blank recesses of a book he was meant to author.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Rabbinic Fragment 18c

"The text is a commentary on its interpretation."
--Reb Yitzhaq HaRodef

"What does the text say of this, but what birds say of their hunters?"
--Reb Yaakov ben Yitzhaq HaRodef

"It says what hunters say of the birds saying of their hunters. Does it not?"
--Reb Gad

"Who, but the text can answer?"
--Reb Potiphar


Hell is an old library, in which the books, instead of resting ordered on shelves, lie in chaotic heaps on the floor. The same books exist in hell as in heaven, but in hell, nobody can find the books they want, except by chance, and then, usually, never again. The librarian of hell never burns books, but always banishes them to the nether parts of his kingdom, hidden beneath piles and piles of trivial and obscure monographs and brilliant books in indecipherable languages, not wanting to extinguish the sinners' hopes of finding them. In this way, the burden of unquenchable hope being a far greater punishment than the incineration of it, the souls of the wicked are consumed by a fire of longing, a fire whose flames are fed by the self-perpetuating avariciousness of knowledge. And in this way, the wicked suffer not at the hands of anyone else but themselves. The murderous poets and adulterous philosophers, the idolatrous historians and dishonest politicians, each seeking to take a page from their heroes, are denied, and forced to read only into themselves.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Why Children Cry

Just as dogs, possessing certain heightened sensitivities as compensation for their lack of other senses, can detect when someone is at the door, and, consequently, often bark out in recognition, if not in alarm, do children cry. For dogs, on the one hand, man is at the door. For children, on the other, the messiah.

The dog either drools with excitement or pisses himself with terror, depending on whether he expects the man entering his house to be a friend or an enemy of his master, while the child similarly cries out in exclamation or for help, depending on whether it believes the messiah at the door to be a restorer or a destroyer of worlds.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

For heaven's sake

The miracle of Sinai is not that a Torah was given, but that a Torah was received.

Of this, Rav Ehyeh ben Self said,
"Without the receiving of the Torah, no giving of the Torah could be possible. As the Psalmist proclaims, 'Blessed is the One who hears prayers.'"

Monday, July 14, 2008

On Pride

The sin of pride was invented by those who took pride in their lack of pride.
--Reb Mutar

Remembering to Forget

What was it I knew when as a not-yet being felt
the imprint of an angel’s finger above my lips?
And soon will know, when the same angel of death
removes his index governing my breath?

For I know many things as a result of my forgetting:
the creak of a wagon wheel, the hum of a radiator,
the heavy silence of anger, the heavy silence of love.
But I do not know what I do not know,
since knowing what I know, I do not dare to know.

What I knew was nothing and nothing will I know.
Yet now, I have forgotten nothing, plunging into life,
into self, and detailed darkness,
distracted by the imagined fragrance of the stars
and by the thought of how I smell to them,
and by the prospect that everything makes sense and grants consent to me.

And so I’ll say, while I’m alive and beclouded by the vividness of this earth,
I would rather bask in the poetry of what is, than the truth of what’s to be.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Rush Before the Rest

The possibility arises that the Sabbath was a pre-established law. And God, far from finishing his creation in six days, had only begun. As the Sabbath was approaching, God was rushing around in a panic trying to finish creating the world. God was so scared he wasn’t going to finish in time for candle lighting, which is why he didn’t come up with a new image in which to create human beings, but simply created them in his own image. For is it not more difficult for an artist to produce something not in his image than something based on himself?

For ages, the sages have wondered how Adam and Eve could be held accountable for disobeying God, since before eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil they had no knowledge that what they were doing was wrong.

But now it becomes clear that they already had knowledge of good and evil before eating from the tree. Since, having been created in a hurry, in God’s image, they already possessed much of the knowledge that God already had.

The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life possessed no powers that Adam and Eve didn’t already have. God could not have been worried that Adam and Eve would be like him, since he made them already in his image. Rather, God was worried that if they ate from the trees, they would know that the universe was incomplete and that God’s glorious work had been interrupted by the setting of the sun.

Thus, God banished them, leaving us to think, up until now, that God had intended to create the world in six days, as if a sheer six days would ever be enough time to create a complete world.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

An anthropodicy of philosophy and a theodicy of philogeosy

In trying to explain why brilliant thinkers often do foolish or evil things, the story of Thales is often cited. According to legend, while Thales was staring at the stars and contemplating the heavens, he fell into a well. Those who use this story to account for the totalitarian streak in philosophy, from Plato, who supported the tyrant of Syracuse, to Heidegger, who pronounced Adolf Hitler the redeemer of the German Volk and Western metaphysics, accept, at least implicitly, a view that opposes theory and practice. Thus, the more worldly one is, the less philosophically enlightened; the more philosophically enlightened, the less able to negotiate one's way in the world. According to the view, then, we face an either/or. We can either reach for the heavens while forsaking the laws of the earth (an option endorsed by mystics and ubermenschen alike) or we can make ourselves at home in the world around us. This either/or position would have us choose between falling into a well while appreciating the heavens and avoiding the well while only being able to stare at what's in front of our feet. If we elect a quixotic life of searching for meaning, we leave ethics behind. If we elect a en ethical/practical life, we abandon identity/authenticity and become mere automata in a social machine.

Now, thankfully, this dichotomy is not so markedly true, and there remains a way to synthesize heaven and earth, love of God and love of Man, dynamic striving and firm commitment, mysticism/nihilism/antinomianism and materialism/rationalism/positivism. But before sketching out why and how such a middle ground is achievable, let us see whether this dichotomy is not simply born out of a disappointed faith in man, but rather additionally out of a disappointed faith in God.

Imagine, for a moment, that the tension between heaven and earth plays out not only for us, but for divinity as well. Thus, just as we must decide between a life of meaningful thinking and rightful doing, God must also elect between the two. For God, the earth is his heaven. And as he stares contemplatively at the earth above (existentially, for God, earth is higher than heaven), he stumbles into a heavenly well. That is to say, he forgets his obligation to be Master of the Universe. Just as the mystic seeks to lose his I-hood in ecstatic experience, God desires the same. But leaving behind his Godly ego, God forgets his duties to judge the wicked, reward the just, revive the dead, etc. So ensnared in the aesthetic and transcendental experience of existence, God is paralyzed, or perhaps, worse, God acts unintentionally or wrongfully. He mistakes the laws of earth for the laws of heaven, just as the mystics mistake the laws of heaven for the laws of earth.

Man being in the image of God, or God being the reflection of man (Xenophanes famously said that if humans were horses, God would have hooves), this scenario is not entirely absurd. Indeed, if we understand humans and God to be in covenant and to shape each other as only Others can (Philosophy from Kant to Sartre has stressed the role that an a priori existence of a not-I, of an Other, plays in forming who we are, and indeed, in allowing us "to be" or "to be conscious of our being"), then the trade off may have originated in earth or in heaven and inexorably assimilated itself into the other realm. That is, the trade off either originated in God's very creation of the world, or emanated from man's pursuit of his free-will in opposition to the will of God. (Of course, logically and paradoxically, that we should violate God's will must also have been part of God's will).

Now we can see that on some level, the question of theodicy is one of anthropodicy. A.J Heschel makes this very point in God in Search of Man. And the subscribers of the aforementioned dichotomy do not simply express a dismay at the inability of philo-sophy, of love-of-wisdom, to prevent atrocities, but at philogeosy (God's love of earth, a love that renders him impotent) as well.

Now, to zoom out and solve the problem of this either/or, which if unmediated, would be sure to cause us disappointment.

Fichte, an ethical idealist, offers us the groundwork. According to him, reason alone, philosophy alone, meditation alone, can prove nothing. Theory cannot prove that there is a God, that we are free, that knowledge of anything can be attainable, that there is a moral imperative. Theory cannot prove anything precisely because what it seeks to prove can only be proven while it's in motion. Thus, we prove that there is a God by acting as if God existed. And in so acting, bring God that much closer to the reality we desire our concept of him to posses. We cannot prove that we are free, since so long as we are in our armchairs thinking about freedom, we are not. Yet by acting as if free, by seeking to do the moral thing, dictated not necessarily by political laws, but rather by our consciences, we bring ourselves that much closer to freedom. Though we don't possess any pre-suppositionless first principle of philosophy, by questing for a system of knowledge, we intimate ourselves to the reality of the possibility that there is a system of knowledge with a first principle, and in so doing, climb the asymptote that separates us from it.

Thus, by striving to prove what we can only believe, by seeking to incarnate in ourselves and our world what we can only observe from afar in the shadows of the milky way, and in attempting to instantiate through works, moral and artistic, what we hope to already be built into the the fabric of existence, we are able to "bring heaven down to earth" and earth up to heaven. In bridging the two, we save God from facing his either/or. We redeem God, allowing him to find meaning in redeeming our world.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

A post-Kantian theology

If our problem is that we can only see things as they appear to us and never as they really are in themselves, God has the opposite problem. God can see things only as they are, but never as they seem. Thus, when God sees the world as it really is— good, beautiful, ordered, just— he cannot see it the way we do, as often evil, ugly, chaotic, and unjust. This schism, between the way we inhabit our reality and the way God inhabits it, bears the reason for why God is often absent, or, I should say, “seemingly absent” from the world. For God, who sees the whole world and all of history in the blink of an eye, a hurricane here or an earthquake there, a holocaust then or a genocide now, blur together and become as small as a brushstroke on an enormous canvas.

But just as we are aware of the division between things as they seem and things as they are in themselves, so is God. And just as we lament our inability to have certainty about anything, God bemoans the fact that he can only see reality, but never reality as it seems to us, his creation. For us, we struggle to break out of a world of time and space, of determinism, fatalism, and even nihilism. For God, the struggle is to break out of a world governed by total freedom and optimism. God wishes he could possess a tinge of nihilism, enough that would allow him to doubt his world, his goodness, and bring him to act. For God would long to be a humanist if only he could bring himself to disown himself, even if only in part. But such would require that he see himself only as he seems and not as he really is.

For us, we are able to glimpse the world of things in themselves through moral living and through an encounter with the sublime, which we often find in observing nature or a work of artistic genius. For such experiences reveal a hint of purposiveness in the universe. For God, a peek into the world of things as they appear comes in moments of arbitrariness and angst, when purpose seems to slip away. Such moments are rare for God, but they come, whenever someone does something really absurd to try to get God’s attention. Back in the day, when people offered sacrifices, erected temples, built towers and totems in dedication to the gods, God was amazed by all of this, and was heavily involved in the world, since such rituals on the part of human beings made God see the seeming ridiculousness of his universe. Over time, however, human beings have sought less and less to gain God’s attention through ritual and have resorted instead to seeking out reason and enlightenment. Now that people are less “superstitious,” no longer making pilgrimages in search of the Holy Grail or kissing the bones of saints, God is less on edge about the chanceness of his creative enterprise. But every now and then, when, for example, Jews circumcise their boys or shake the lulav and etrog in their huts, when Catholics take the Eucharist, pronouncing a wafer the body of Christ and a cup of wine, his blood, when Charismatics speak in tongues, when Muslims refrain from eating pig and Hindus from cow, God somehow becomes more attuned to the world of things as they appear, and out of the totality of being jump these isolated and unaccounted for images that threaten the entire order of the universe.

Before the industrial revolution, when one could see the stars clearly every night and sunrises every morning, it was no doubt easier to raise one’s eyes to a beyond, to a possibility of a world of things as they are. Now, with nature no longer what it was and modern and post-modern art in rebellion against such notions as order, beauty, and goodness, our view of the noumenal is much more scant. It seems so difficult to see things beyond the way they seem, that we have even given up on the notion of “things in themselves” altogether. We live in a world that has ceased caring about things in themselves and has begun to call things as they appear “things themselves,” at least since Husserl, as if to say that our reality is entirely how we construe it, with no primordial source behind it.

Perhaps, too, in heaven, the angels have urbanized, and it has become harder for God to see the sacrifices down below, the suicide bombings in the name of Allah and the 70 virgins, the banning of Harry Potter or the peyote circles in remote wastelands.

With a large part of humanity that has given up on a world besides the physical and a God who is a blind to a world beyond the spiritual, it becomes clear why there is a “seeming” disconnect between God and the world.

God knows whether and how such a divide will ever be bridged.

Menachot 29b, Talmud Yevani

When Aristotle ascended into the first heaven, he saw the Prime Mover writing long hyphenated words in a language with which he wasn’t at all familiar.

Said Aristotle, “Cause of Causes, Who requires you to do this?”

Replied the First Principle of Philosophy, “One day there will come a man who will grasp the ideas behind these words and derive pages and pages of philosophical insights from them.

Said Aristotle, “Being qua Being, reveal this man to me.”

Replied Being qua Being, “Turn around.”

Aristotle turned around and found himself in the back of Heidegger’s classroom at the University of Heidelberg. Aristotle could not follow the discussion and felt dizzy. At a certain point, one of the students asked, “Herr, Heidegger, how does your distinction between the factical and the existential or the ontic and the ontological bear out in terms of the relation between one’s thoughts and one’s actions?” Heidegger replied, “This distinction is one given to us in the works of Aristotle. Aristotle’s life may summed up as follows: Aristotle was born. He thought. He died. What matters is that he thought. This is the unveiling revelation given to us by Being through Aristotle.” Then Aristotle felt relieved.

But Aristotle turned back to face the Ground of Grounds, and he said, “You have such a mind, yet you give the question of the meaning of Being through me?”

Replied, Thought Thinking Itself, “Shush. This is the way my thoughts ascend me.”

Replied, Aristotle, “Reason of the Universe, you have shown me his insights, show me his life.”

The Reason of the Universe said, “Turn around.” Aristotle turned around and saw Heidegger shouting, “Heil Hitler.”

Said Aristotle, “Source of Sources, such is his knowledge and such his life?”

Replied Being, “Shush. This is the way my thoughts ascend me.”

Friday, July 4, 2008

Some reflections on History and the Story

The power of the story, which the historian grasps as the means for reenacting the past and for bringing it into the present, comes through in the following tale:

And here it is, as I have heard it told by the great Hebrew novelist and storyteller S.Y. Agnon: When the Ba’al Shem Tov [Founder of Hasidism, 1698-1760] had a difficult task before him, he would go to a certain place in the woods, light a fire, and meditate in prayer – and what he had set out to perform was done. When a generation later Dov Baer, the “Maggid” of Meseritz [1710-1772] was faced with the same task, he would go to the same place in the woods and say: We can no longer light the fire, but we can still speak the prayers—and what he wanted became a reality. Again, a generation later, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov [1745-1807] had to perform this task. And he too went into the woods and said: We can no longer light the fire, nor do we know the secret meditations belonging to the prayer, but we do know the place in the woods to which it all belongs—and that must be sufficient; and sufficient it was. But when another generation had passed and Rabbi Israel of Rishin [1796-1850] was called upon to perform the task, he sat down on his gold chair in his castle and said: We cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayers, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story of how it was done. And, the storyteller, adds, the story he told had the same effect as the actions of the other three.

This story, which Gershom Scholem, the great historian of Jewish mysticism, recounts, gets at the center of what history is. The ancients had their temple rituals and the medievals had their sacraments. We moderns have our histories. As collective members of a secular and technological age, we are unable to free ourselves from the scientific paradigms that govern our experience and cloud our faith with skepticism. We no longer know the prayers or how to light the fire or even where to go. But we are able to tell the story of those for whom faith was a precondition of experience. And in telling the story, in believing that others could believe, we ourselves take the leap of faith. The previous ages found meaning in space, but we find it in time. We enter the woods to say our prayers and light our fires when we enter the library archives and when we fill them with our own writings. If it is enough that Rabbi Israel Rishin told the story of his forefathers, it is enough that S.Y. Agnon told the story about Rishin telling the story, and it is enough that Scholem told the story about Agnon telling the story about Rishin telling the story. In every retelling, the story changes slightly with its storyteller. But in effect, the truth of the story is preserved, since the story is itself simply about telling the story. No matter who tells it or how, the story remains. Historians, the “scientific” bards of the modern age, may revise their stories as certain facts come into and out of favor and as modes of causal analysis change, but the ultimate importance that they serve in all of their writings and rewritings is not so much in the stories they tell, but in the fact that they tell a story. The historians tell the story of humankind not as omniscient narrators, but as characters. The histories they write do not capture the plot so much as they drive it.

Faith that all of the conflicting histories will resolve themselves into one historical truth and that all of the characters on the stage of history will come together in unity, a Hegelian transmutation of Smith’s notion of the “invisible hand,” is dogmatic if we conceive it to mean that a conscious absolute spirit operates within the world as its driving force. To posit that history is moving toward an “end of history,” and to claim knowledge of what such an end of history entails is unduly orthodox. But to believe that the story will continue and that every telling of the story is an end in itself— that history, in a sense, occurs so that it may be told and retold —this is the courageous leap that the historian must, on some level, make. The historian cannot prove the truth of such a claim except by accepting it. Only by striving to tell the story does the historian show that history is the telos of history.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Deconstructing "Analysis"

The word "analysis," from the Greek, ana-lysis, literally meaning to un-tie or dis-entangle, suggests, in its place in the word "psycho-analysis," an untying of the soul, or to put it crudely, a disentangling of consciousness.

This seems rather odd, at first, given that psychoanalysis claims to understand consciousness and the inner-symbolic structure of the psyche. Yet further reflection leads us to notice that psychoanalysis can only make its claims to knowledge by arguing that it is an objective science. And so, while psychoanalysis focuses on subjectivity, it does so at its desk, observing its "cases" reclining on distant sofas. Psychoanalysis seeks to untie itself from its subject in order to know it. How gloriously paradoxical! How senseless one would be, on the one hand, to study a subject one has no interest in, yet how doomed one would be, if one was so invested in one's subject so as not to be able to reflect upon it.

There is, I believe, a solution to this paradox, and one which extends beyond the bounds of mere psychoanalysis. And that is that the untying which psychoanalysis seeks to accomplish is not simply an untying of itself as a science from its "patients," but an untying of the patients from themselves. If both subject and object are untied, somehow they are able to meet in the atopological between, a between as easy to miss as the Hogwart's Platform 9''3/4 (See J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter).

Analysis of anything, be it of the psyche, of the divine, of culture, music, geometry, algebra or rhetoric, succeeds when subject and object are able to untie from themselves and from each other in order to meet in non-space. I use the metaphor of space, simply because space is most obviously relational. Something is here in relation to this over there, but it is never here in virtue of itself. Hereness and thereness are contingent and contextual, but analysis brings them to an ec-static level.

Thus, analysis, though it often seems dry and forced, can, if it succeeds in doing what it's name suggests, truly un-knot the obvious and open up the secret. And this, I add as a footnote, is why religion must be critical and analytical if it is also to be spiritual. For spirituality is not opposed to analysis. Rather, it is what analysis, what thought, what deconstruction, make possible. The mystical experience is founded on doubt and skepticism, and this is what makes it especially powerful. For in the words of Franz Rosenzweig, "the mystic and the atheist shake hands."

The Trauma of the Wound: Some Graeco-Judaeo-Christio Thoughts

In Greek, the word "trauma," means wound. And modern thought rightly understands a traumatic experience to be one which stays with us even after its occurrence and passage, just as a scar remains even after its aboriginal wound has healed. Yet there is something negative in our use of the word trauma, and by association, in our conception of the wound. It's as if the wound and the trauma that it leaves behind are things we'd like to avoid altogether. Initially and for the most part we believe that wounds are crippling. We do not realize that they are often what stirs us to walk.

For if the wound is that which cannot close, or which, upon closing, leaves a trace, a sign, a memory, in its place, is the wound not something necessary for our self-consciousness? For without a wound, that is, without a past, who are we? Without the wound of heritage, the wound of history, the wound of temporality, do we not become simply still-lifes in a stagnant, albeit beautiful painting? We would "be," if we can even use that verb, like a vibrantly painted pear that has no knowledge of the painting in which its presence is illuminated and no knowledge of its creator in whose absence its vitality is substantiated. Thus, the wound, opens us, in its opening, not to be the fruit that hangs in paintings and on trees, but to be the painters and pluckers of such fruit. The wound, the opening, out of which the inner "elements" flow, brings us out of hiding and into a "there," into a context. The wound is our pretext. Trauma is our pretext. The life-force that grounds us and is begrounded by us is not, then, dirt or clay, water or fire, or even energy, but trauma, understood as the wound.

Now, if in Christian theology, the wound of Christ, functions as a symbol of his selfless suffering which makes possible salvation, it becomes evident why such an image is powerful, moving, traumatic. The wound signifies all of the problems that accompany a state of post-Edenic falleness. The wound signifies suffering, evil, death. The wound of Christ is traumatic, not simply in its graphicness, but in its allusion to the primordial wound, the wound man supposedly caused to God when he disobeyed him and lied to him (evidenced by the line, "And the LORD called out, 'where are you?'") and the wound God assuredly caused to man, when he banished him. With the repetition of the wound in Christ, the underlying meaning is not salvation in the obvious, orthodox sense. For since Christ's death we do not live in Eden, we do not live in the garden of innocence so awesomely painted over the centuries. Christ's wound offers salvation not in a return to Eden, for Eden is a world free of wounds altogether, but salvation through being wounded, salvation through accepting memory, suffering, death, change. What it means to find salvation in Christ, then, is not to be transported into Eden, not even in regards to the soul. Rather, the salvation that the wounded God-man offers is one in which Eden becomes a wound of which we are proud, a wound on whose existence we depend for our being. Christ's acceptance of death, of the wound, offers us an opportunity to reject with joy any longing for eternity, immortality, concepts which exist only in the mindless world of the painting, and encourages us to find redemption in the wound in itself. We must become attuned to our wounds, and we must do so, never once and for all, but progressively and repeatedly. And we must do this not as despairing and troubled children "traumatized" by the wound, but as heroes "dramatized" by it, brought to life by it, "ekked" on by it.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The "miracle"

"The miracle of creation was not that when God said 'Let there be light,' there was light, but that God said 'Let there be light.'"
--Reb Logos

What we notice is truth

Though Heidegger has already elaborated, through his analysis of the Greek word for truth, aletheia, a notion of truth as unconcealment, as a-letheia, as un-forgetting, an opportunity opens up for an even more precise elaboration on Heidegger's etymological unconcealment of the word.

For in Greek, a verb closely related to the noun letheia, forgetting, is lathonai, which means to escape the notice of. We might say, then, that truth is not unhiding or unforgetting, but simply noticing.

Truth is what we notice. Or to put it more powerfully, what we notice is truth.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Purloined Letter

It occurs to me, upon reading Poe's "The Purloined Letter" and several interpretations offered by Lacan, Derrida, Shoshana Felman, and Barbara Johnson, respectively, that literature itself is the "purloined letter." Allow me to explain:

Literature draws words from the world and assembles them or frames them. In a sense, it purloins them from language. Literature says, "Out of all the possible words which make up the ever altering universe, I am telling you to look here, at me, and find an example, a blueprint, a representation, in my finite words, in my beginning, middle, and end, a basis for relating to all that I have left out." Literature says, "I am the epigram to life. Do not overlook me for the narrative. Do not dismiss me as fiction posing in a shop window as you pass on to reality! I am the meaning." Literature says, "Do not ask from where I gather my authority. Do not seek out my origins, which will lead you only into darkness, but simply accept me as I am, a text, in your hands. Only do not merely accept me. Rather accept me by challenging me."

Literature is an illicit letter, illicit because in its finititude and framing, it has undermined the authority of language. For literature is always unfaithful to the law, to ideology. No matter what motivations drive literature, its letters always disseminate that its meaning is engaged in an affair with something besides the letter of the law. Literature, in its illicitness, in its subversiveness is guilty of a crime. Perhaps, guilty is too strong a word. Rather, it is framed of a crime. (We are always guilty of the crime of framing). The crime of literature, however, is never detected by those against whom it does violence. For the laws which literature, in its sheer presence, dissolves, are blind. Blind justice cannot see the letter whose contents spell mutiny for the law. And blind justice does not want to see. For if it saw, it would indeed be undone. Its tenacity lies in the fact that it is oblivious.

Literature, on the other hand, thinking itself to be invisible because it is unseen by the law is vulnerable to theft. Literature, when its letter is stolen, cannot protest, since in protesting, it would call attention to itself, awaken justice, and bring down judgment upon itself. And furthermore, it cannot prosecute anyone of theft, since to do so would be to invoke the law, a bond to which it itself has repudiated in its very act of existence.

Those who purloin literature, or the letters of literature, are bound to have their letters purloined in turn. For in so far as letters exist, they inexorably give way to purloinery. Which is why, Lacan tells us, the word "purloin" also means "prolong." The cycle of theft can never be escaped, since in so far as we as selves are creating, we are stealing. Even when we put words in quotes, we are putting them in quotes. We are choosing them out of all the other words and phrases.

If in the beginning, according to one purloined letter, God created the world with words, with speech, this suggests that God purloined from language, and in so purloining, in so framing, gave way to existence. Thus, from the dark and void depths of language itself, God spoke, "Let there be light." There was light not simply because God said so, but because God didn't say all the other things that God could have said. God didn't say let there be sand or ^*T%()% or *&^^5^).

But creation, too, if it is a kind of framing of infinity in finitude, can never cease.

For as authors, readers, interpreters, and indeed, mere characters on the stage of nothingness in which all things appear simply as holes in the nothing, we are always creating in our very act of perceiving, existing, comprehending, and feeling. And we are creating because we are purloining. Because we are signifying the unnamed signified.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Before Words

I am a cello that plays itself, creates itself, listens to itself, takes pleasure in itself.
I harmonize with myself, fight with myself, lament and exude in myself.
I have no audience except for myself.

I am the ever altering pulse of life, enjoining vitality to duet with death,
transmuting the vibrations of strings into vibrant breath.
I am the melody to which the winds of fate sway on a mundane day,
and the deep bellow of content that grounds the way.
I sound eternity into time with my every bow’s brush,
my fingers pluck the strings that separate night and day.
I resound with mystery and tremor, even when I hush.
My silence signifies the truly new, the wholly other,
the pause from which all emanates I never dare to rush.

For in the pause, existence hinges,
my freedom rosins up, since nothing is contingent.
The heavens in the hollows of my soul,
whisper to each other their predictions,
but my next move will suffer no depictions.
My past may be explained, my present analyzed,
but my future walks the bridge of noreason,
appealing to the ears, but never to the eyes.

For you see, I do have an audience, several, in fact,
who watch me as I stroke a wooden vessel of fine craft,
but they do not hear the wordless words I speak,
too busy admiring the wood and the bow, and my arms,
and thinking about their week.
They speak of my virtuosity,
write reviews encapsulating me to satiate their curiosity.
But do they hear me as they return from the theatre in their cars,
when they go to their dull work, twirling in their chairs, rearranging their desks
or when they play my CD to entertain guests?

I play for the omnipresent corners of the universe,
I bow to the applause not of laws and maxims,
but to the pastures of consciousness,
to those who inhabit their worlds,
and graze not in the details, but in the sheer magnificence—
who role in the snow, because they are snow,
or revel in another creature’s face,
because its countenance unveils that it is boundless.

I do not play the cello. I play the me.
But if I did not say I played the cello, would you understand?
Listen to my words as the soil does.
Rescue me from myself, but do not capture me.

The Last Storyteller

One can imagine a last storyteller, who in addition to no longer being able to recite the prayers or light the fires, or travel to the woods, can no longer tell the story and can no longer even speak. From the depths of his soul, this storyteller issues forth a still small voice, the tekiah gedolah of his unbeknownst and unclouded Godliness, a blast not even loud enough to wake the birds, but a blast whose vibrations are just strong enough to disturb the slumbers of the heavenly hosts.

The Magic Trick

It was one of the angels’ birthdays. He was turning five, an age when everything seems incredible. God said to him, “Do you want to see a magic trick?” The angel eagerly replied that he did. God said, “Look.” The angel looked and saw that a world existed, but the sight was not as pleasing to him as it was when God pulled animals out of his hat. The magic trick was too intricate for the angel to appreciate. The angel told God that creating a world wasn’t magic; it was creating in a world that was the difficult part, making something out of something, not making something out of nothing. So God banished the angel to the world that he had created in order that the angel might come to recognize the awesomeness of his power. Instead, however, the angel found the real magic to come in manipulating God’s power. He had no cares for the creation of fruit trees, but God knows he loved to pluck from them. The angel sought to show that more divinity lies in rearranging things than in forming them. Although God banished the angel, he found truth in the claim of the devil’s advocate, and so he said to himself, “I will withdraw now, that way the world will be left to morph into magical things.” And so God put the world in one of his filing cabinets, where he stored all of his magic-tricks-in-progress, tagging a reminder note on the front telling himself to open it and check on the world in a certain amount of days. (Different versions of the story give different lengths of time. This storyteller believes that God wrote “Tomorrow,” and that every time he saw the note he understood it to mean the next day).

By now the angel is an old man, breathing out the last of his breaths. But he is not sad to go, for death is his magic trick. God said, “Now you see me,” but the angel says, “Now you don’t,” and vanishes.

The last part of the magic trick, the reappearance, or as some call it, the prestige, is of course, God’s rebuttal to the angel. And every now and then God is allowed such victories, as when he opened the filing cabinet that was housing his world and brought down plagues and commanded the Sea of Reads to part, and brought down manna and commanded the Hebrews to part with their gods. Who knows what will happen when he opens the filing cabinet again? Some say that the last time God opened it, he forgot to close it all the way, and so while we can’t see much of God’s office, we can hear him practicing for his next big trick. “What precisely can we hear,” you ask? A long blast of a ram’s horn, it sounds like from over here. Perhaps the sound’s vibrations will shake the cabinets, spilling forth our world. Perhaps that is the trick. We are not the spectators of the magic trick, after all. We are the trick itself. But the real trick, if you ask me, is that we are both. And for that, we have both God and the angel to thank.

Circumcision: Engraving Ourselves in the Divine Image

In Lurianic Kabbalah, the idea of tzimtzum ties cosmogony to theodicy. In Lurianic Kabbalah, the creation of the world begins, not with the contraction of God into the world, as earlier Jewish mystical traditions had posited, but with the retraction of God from the world. The retreat of the infinite to make way for the finite explains why there is something and not nothing and why the something that is the world is filled not simply with good but also with evil. Developed against the traumatic historical backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition, the exile of the Jewish people could be explained by the aboriginal exile of God. The Jews, far from being punished by God for any sin, were simply playing out the heavenly struggle, in which God sought to reunite with himself. For Lurianic Kabbalah, the exile of the Jewish people is, despite its violent reality, also a metaphor for the cosmic exile. The house of Israel is not only cut off from itself, and God severed from his beloved people, but God is alienated from himself. It is humanity’s task to repair the world, to piece together the shattered sparks of divinity and elevate them to their splendorous source. But humanity can only begin to exhume the dry bones of divinity, to resurrect the dead deity who was once Master of the Universe when it accepts the world’s imperfections and the imperfections of its Creator as real, yet alterable.

If God is cut off from himself, this provides new insight into circumcision as a kind of immitatio Dei. Just as Jews crush a wedding glass to remind themselves of the destruction of the Temple and the Jewish exile, even, and especially in times of great joy, Jews circumcise their baby boys as a way of celebrating life while remaining cognizant of its imperfections. According to some of the Sabbateans, when the Messiah comes, circumcision will be abolished. On this view, Jews circumcise as a reminder that the Messiah has not yet come. And if the discrepancy between Judaism and Christianity is precisely over whether the Messiah has come, it is quite fitting that Christianity broke with Judaism precisely by freeing its pagan converts from the “old covenant” and the commandment of circumcision. The early Church often cited the injunction to “circumcise thine heart” (Deut. 30:6) as proof that circumcision was not a physical act, but rather a spiritual one (see also Rom. 2:29). For Christianity, the circumcision of Christ from God in the form of the Crucifixion, in which Christ called out, “Oh Lord, why hast Thou forsaken me?” is meant to cleanse Christ’s followers of sin and relieve them of the “Old Testament” laws, of the “old covenant,” and thus, of circumcision. Ironically, however, it was Christianity that posited original sin, while Judaism, posited original purity. That the circumcision is carried out on the eighth day and not the first, testifies to the Jewish notion that we are not fated to imperfection and that redemption can occur in the world and not just in the soul. In the context of Nazi Germany, in which Jews could be discovered if by nothing else than by their circumcisions, the mark of imperfection takes on additional meaning. In this way, the circumcision is the Jewish symbol of iconoclasm, of the refusal to worship graven images. It is the mark of the stiff necked people’s refusal to bow to the Hamans and Nebuchadneczars of the world.

The Red Heifer

I am the red heifer of whom so much and so little is said. Most people do not realize that though I am called the red heifer, I am not in the slightest bit red. But that is the least of their misunderstandings. For they believe me to be some kind of feat, a rarity, a miracle, whose existence promises redemption and whose sacrifice fulfills it. They believe my blood possesses purifying powers, and that somehow my body holds the power to undo the smirch of death and reinstate a Holy of Holies in which the Divine Presence can dwell. But I tell you that even if I were red, no such powers would I have.

You must be thinking that if I am not red, I am not the red heifer and there must be another one somewhere. But this is not so. It's just that when your ancestors saw me long ago, I blushed, for they caught me singing to myself. And when I blush, I blush in my soul, which reddens my whole body. Your ancestors caught me singing a song, which I had composed, “yibaneh hamikdash” (He will build the Temple). And when they caught me, I was standing on my hind legs and pointing to the heavens with my front legs. They were impressed by this and believed that I had mystical powers as a result, especially since I was giving praise to their God. But they were wrong to think that I was singing about their silly temple; I would no sooner sing about the pyramids of Egypt. For “Hamikdash” simply means the holiness, it does not mean the “Beit Hamikdash,” the house of holiness. I was saying, “He will build the holiness,” meaning that the Almighty One will build the holiness in himself, in his heart. Would you say that the heart of God is made of physical gold and jewels and dolphin skins? Have you not learned from the tale of Mitus, about how the king whose touch is gold brings misery and stagnation upon his house? The red heifer who is red is a red herring, but the red heifer who is a heifer is not.

The Messiah

The Messiah had finally summoned the courage to redeem the world, and was on his way to bring about the end of days. But as he ran with great speed through the long corridor connecting heaven and earth, he thought to himself, at this pace, I will arrive on earth depleted of all energy and smelling of toil. Surely, this is no way for the Messiah to greet his world, for would a man arrive at his own wedding in tattered clothes? But I dare not walk, for the world needs me. Therefore, I will run to the world of thisness, but camp just outside of it, so that I may cleanse myself before my arrival. For who knows if showing up as I am now, people will not just mistake me for a mad and errant knight. Thus, the Messiah arrived on the outskirts separating the world of thisness from the world to come, and set up tent there near a large lake. In the morning he arose, said his morning prayers, and entered into the lake, intending to purify himself. But so refreshing were the waters, so cleansing were they, and so engulfing, that when the Messiah returned to his tent, he had forgotten where he was and what he was doing there.

By now, his tent and his clothes have withered into nothingness, and all that remains is his eternal nakedness. If only he could find his old, dirty clothes and put them on again, he would remember his task and be here in no time.