Saturday, August 27, 2005

Some Reflections on Judaism

These are just some musings I've written down over time on Judaism and Jewish philosophy and history. I hope you find my little jottings somewhat interesting. I'm planning to continue adding to it over time. Enjoy.

What terrifies the Jew today is not fear, but knowledge. The weight of the realization of our past. The past which tells us that the unimaginable horror does not exist. Horror is now imaginable, and thus possible; if we do not resist it. This is not paranoia, bit its opposite. Paranoia is terror of the void, and the fashioning of monsters to fill it. The Jewish people fears what we know; the terrible immediate of which we alone have the most intimate knowledge. That is; the living possibility of collective non-existence.

The legions who laid waste to Judea merely enacted the first in a series of descents. As Spain was a fall, so was Kishinev, so was Damascus, so was Auschwitz, so was the lie of Jenin. As each of these temples becomes an inferno; so does the return to Zion strengthen in its inevitability; because Zion cannot fall, for it as much ether as it is flesh.

The Jewish civilization conceives an identity between thought, action, and existence. It rejects dichotomy between the ephemeral and the tangible. God, Elohim, the all-consciousness, announces himself by the word, the word that is the name of his existence, “I am that I am.” Word and conciousness bear the name of action. The thought, the dream, the idea, is the real; real as the flame which does not consume; by right of the force of its being. The Jewish God is the indivisible principle, the absolute existent, the nexus of truth, justice, compassion…the wellspring of the divisions of man. To be, for the Jew, is an act of will, a divine enunciation, and; as Levinas has written; a divine apprehension as well.

The desire to escape the weight of history is understandable; if ultimately doomed. The labors and the sufferings which have constructed this labyrinth will be; either they will be weapons or they will be ghosts. To shrink from them is to be devoured forever.

Moses, so says the legend, became a prophet of God because of his kindness to an animal. This is of the utmost importance. An animal, like the slave, has no will; or he is at least helpless to effect his will. As such, he is simultaneously debased and innocent. It is this which makes his bondage perpetual. Moses, as an exiled murderer, was not innocent. He had destroyed life. God’s choice of Moses lies in this dichotomy between Moses’ compassion and his guilt. Because of his corruption, he could not be enslaved. Yet his compassion proved that his corruption had not made him a tyrant. Only the corrupted and compassionate together could face Pharoah; because no punishment a tyrant can devise weighs heavier than the compassionate man’s knowledge of his sin; and no temptation of power could be greater than that which Moses had already overcome in the face of innocence.

It is neither radical nor unreasonable to read Jewish history as a continuing struggle with the gentile world. Nor should this be viewed as a chauvinistic or contemptuous approach. Admiration, apprehension, collaboration, fascination, and the creative are equal expression of the dialectic of struggle; equal at least to violence and contempt. The dialectic of struggle merely accepts the undeniability of otherness to an understanding of Jewish history. There is no shame in this, merely the fact of a distinct and singular existence and thus a distinct and singular history.

Resistance to this principle lies in the fact of metaphysical dispossession; the dispossession of the Jewish metaphysic which is the foundation of Christianity, Islam, and the secular civilization to which they have given birth. The struggle of the heirs against the original creator (or recipient, for those of a religious bent) lies in their imperialization of a particular God and his particular revelation.

The Jewish and Hellenic civilizations were and are destined for perpetual conflict. Together, they mark the poles of human metaphysics. The Greeks conceived of truth as the end of a process, an essence reached by man through an analytical process. Judaism posed that man himself was the product of truth. Truth and man are one in the Jewish metaphysic. These two forces, the Hellenic and the Jewish, the reductive and the expansive, are as irreconcilable as they are essential. Their contention is the core of man’s conflict with his unknowable world.

The gods of the Greeks cannot and do not declare “I am that I am”, the cogito of divinity. Mere being is insufficient to satisfy these anthromorphs. They must personify. Personify forces other and separate from themselves; the rain, sea, lightning, storm…The gods of the Greeks are dualistic in their essence, their power arises from separation. There can be no Jewish Prometheus to steal fire from God; for where would he find him? The Jewish God is but himself; the unknown inseperable who is, as the Hasidim say, wherever you let him in.

The Jewish civilization stands against the banal. It cleaves to the primal forces of life; the indivisible seed. Kohelet, the despairing king, declares that even hedonism must be undertaken with knowledge; the immutable knowledge that man is but a shadow, and his end is ashes. The rejection of life, of the earth, of flesh, is nowhere to be found in Judaism. But the acceptance but also be an apprehension. It must be undertaken with eyes wide open. One must act, and act with knowledge; in the acceptance, the action, and the apprehension lies a truth. It is the charge of Judaism to look upon the world, and to neither blink nor waver.

Any study of Jewish history must forego the formal tools of the profession. Judaism’s battles are fought in dreams. Its warriors stalk an amorphous realm. Its upheavals and its lie between words; its triumphs in the rabbi’s conquest of death through his dialogue with those who will one day read; in the ascension of his words beyond his brief mortality.

We may read Kohelet as the first and greatest of the existentialists; the first prophet of enlightened despair. For him, even the existence of God cannot comfort; and yet he does not turn away.

The Jew cannot be satisfied with still waters. We are charged to seek out depths; and blood and fire with them.

To live as a Jew is to live a mosaic existence. To live as warrior, as weaver, as king, as rabbi, as slave, as prophet; to be the wise child and the child who does not know.

Judaism exists as a labyrinth of signs. They state and imply, they are direct and oblique, they reject and embrace, they howl and they whisper; they encompass worlds.

The legend of Abraham, the first Jew, the son of an idol maker, marks Judaism as an act of metaphysical revolt. Its origins lie in rebellion against the hypocrisy of a world which hallowed the worship of stone; and thus of death. Judaism rejected the idolatry of the inanimate in the name of that which existed beyond manifestations; that which was the seed of manifestation itself. Two millennia before Descartes, it thought and it was.

When we speak of Judaism we are not speaking of a single Judaism, a single phenomenon, we are speaking of a multitude, a series of Judaisms; which exist both as a progression and in a series of simultaneous paradoxes; intertwined and alien, the each to the other. The Rambam's Aristoltelian God stands in opposition to the furious systemic mysticism of the Kabbalists, and yet the latter is impossible without the former; as the Halachic isolation of the Orthodox stands hand in hand with the ecstatic God of joy and intoxication invoked by Hasidism. These too stand entangled with the godless Messianism of the Zionist movement, and even the numinous wastelands of Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin. Judaism cannot be understand as a catechism or a creed. It is not an ideology but a series of reflections; mirrors facing each other in an infinite corridor.

The widest tapestry, however, has its limits; even the infinite has its heresies. The Jewish civilization does not encompass all and does not seek to. Vertically, it is many; horizontally it is only one. Judaism exists upon this principle of the particular, or it is nothing at all.

It is in this particularism that Judaism offends modern religous and secular universalism, whose heart is the elimination of all distinctions. Judaism stands on the first distinction; between the sacred and the profane. Even time, the fundamental movement, matter itself in action, is divided between the six days of toil and the Sabbath. In its capacity for judgement, for apprehension and discernment, Judaism is the antithesis of modern nihilism. Hillel says do not jusge a man until you have been in his place; but he does not say do not judge him. For those who believe everything sacred and simultaneously profane; such a creed can never be anything but an enemy.

The line between madness and the ecstacy of the religious trance is not as thin as some believe. Insanity is the embrace of dissonance; the annhilation of the essence of all forms. For the mystic, form merely speaks a deeper essence. He is guided.

The Midrash speaks of a thrice created world; once on the principle of mercy alone, and one on the principle of justice alone. Neither world could stand. It was only the third manifestation, of both justice and mercy, which could sustain itself. In Judaism, mercy cannot exist without justice, nor justice without mercy. In this paradox, we percieve the paths of its children; Christianity, with its adoration of mercy, and Islam, with its fetish of divine justice. Both have sought to destroy the synthesis which alone gave birth to the world.

If there is to be a way out of the human impasse, a way up from the emptiness of modern paganism, it may lie in the first rebellion; Abraham's revolt against the tyranny of forms.

Zionism is not nationalism or secular messianism per se, although it encompasses both. The truth is best expressed in Walter Benjamin's musing on the Angel of History, an angel blasted backwards into the future by the force of the catastrophe, an angel whose one desire is to return, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. This desire is Zionism.


Anonymous C. Jones said...

Greetings, Benjamin

I enjoyed this very much; I am printing it.

My favorite was the section about Mercy and Justice, but I thought every one of them was well worth reading.

I am a former Catholic, now a Noahide, and I love the Jews.

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