Once upon a time, I’ve learned from reading the comic strips, schoolkids coming back from summer vacation were made to write essays on “What I Did Last Summer.” (Linus to Lucy: “What did I do last summer?” Lucy to Linus: “You read comic books and watched TV.”)
I was in elementary school back then but I don’t remember having to write any such essays. Maybe ours was a more progressive school.
Anyway … What I Did This Past Summer. Or, more exactly, the six weeks or so I took a break from blogging.
I reworked my translation of Rabbi Jonathan Eibeschuetz’s 18th-century book of heretical Kabbalah, “I Came This Day to the Spring.” (Or “Unto the Fountain,” as Pawel Maciejko’s new edition of the Hebrew text has it.) My plan was to get it done by the end of the summer–by now, in other words–and send the polished product on to publication.
Didn’t work out that way.
I’ve already put up a few posts–click here and here and here–on this extraordinary book, which created a scandal among the Jewish communities of Central Europe when a manuscript of it surfaced in 1725, discovered in the luggage of an emissary from Prague who made the mistake of trusting the wrong people. “After reading two or three paragraphs the hair of my flesh stood up,” recalled one rabbi. “Nothing like this was ever seen or known from any heretic or disbeliever of this world.” Another rabbi testified: “This book is that of a complete heretic … who uproots and destroys the very fundaments of Jewish faith. … I did not find such heresy even among all the religions of the Gentiles that ever existed.”
This “complete heretic” was the leading rabbi of his time; and yes, his book was intended to “uproot and destroy the very fundaments of Jewish faith.” To replace it with a new religion that Rabbi Jonathan Eibeschuetz thought better, truer and more humane, suited to become a religion for the entire world.
Of course he denied he had anything to do with writing the book. Very few modern scholars take his denials seriously. Like his older contemporary the atheist priest Jean Meslier, Eibeschuetz lived a double life: distinguished preacher and legal scholar by day, secret heretic by night.
Pornographer as well?
Some say so. “Sabbatian Kabbalah has a pornographic quality,” wrote Israeli Kabbalah scholar Yehuda Liebes in 1986; and it was Eibeschuetz’s “I Came This Day” that he was talking about. Hebrew University scholar Pawel Maciejko, in a brilliant essay published one year ago in his new critical edition of “I Came This Day”–the first time the Hebrew text has ever been published–seconded Liebes’s judgment. He called the book “the only truly pornographic text ever written in the rabbinic idiom.”
Eibeschuetz was a secret “Sabbatian,” diehard believer in Sabbatai Zevi, who was hailed as Messiah in 1665-66 but shocked his followers by converting to Islam. In the summer of 1989, I spent two months in Israel stuffing myself with everything I could find about Sabbatianism, photocopying like mad, learning everything I could from conversations with Liebes and from reading every article of his I could get my hands on.
The Hebrew University library had an important manuscript of “I Came This Day.” Of course I wanted to read it. Who wouldn’t, with an advertisement like the one Liebes had given it?
I can’t say it was easy going. But I did find one of the book’s most infamous passages, the one in which Eibeschuetz argues for the legitimacy of anal sex, declaring that Sabbatai Zevi as Messiah had paved the way for it by the magical-symbolic act of carrying a Torah scroll into a latrine. Someone, I suppose back in the 18th century, had hacked the offending passage out of the Hebrew university manuscript with a knife. With my own fingertips I touched the scar of the erasure.
Liebes and I nodded to each other as we spoke of the evident savagery of the censor’s rage.
Within a few months I had acquired for myself copies of two manuscripts of “I Came This Day,” the Jerusalem manuscript I’d seen in Israel and one from the Bodleian Library in Oxford. For more than ten years they sat on my shelf. Occupied with teaching and other projects, I had no time to work on them. It was only in the early 2000s, after I’d retired, that I cleared off my desk and worked through them.
Still rough going. The book might be pornographic, but not exactly Playboy style. Instead it was cast in the abstruse language of technical Kabbalah. A lot of the time I had no clear idea what I was reading.
Part of the difficulty was that the book had no chapter divisions, or anything else that might give a clue to the contours of its discourse. Jack Kerouac is supposed to have written On the Road as a single unbroken paragraph, and Eibeschuetz had done much the same thing. In a book that comes to 260 pages of double-spaced typescript in English translation (mine), that’s a real problem.
One thing I did notice about this work of “heresy,” of “pornography.” It didn’t strike me until I reached the end. The bigotry, the xenophobia, the demonization of the Gentile world and its faiths that disfigure the orthodox Kabbalah–they were nowhere to be found.
Eibeschuetz chose instead to dwell on Biblical passages like this one: You must not loathe an Edomite, for he is your brother (Deuteronomy 23:8).
In medieval and early modern Jewish usage, “Esau” and “Edom” were code words for Christianity. The Zohar, the core text of Kabbalah, has plenty to say about Esau and Edom, nearly all of it dominated by fear and hatred–as one might expect from a book written in medieval Spain, where Christian dominion was felt as a sore and bitter yoke.
Naturally enough, the Zohar never even mentions the command not to “loathe an Edomite.”
By the 18th century, things had changed. All his life Eibeschuetz was on terms of friendship and respect with Christian clerics and scholars. For him, the “Edomite” could indeed be felt as a “brother.” It took me years to understand that this is one of the key themes of “I Came This Day”: an esoteric theology of Christianity, as seen from the perspective of Kabbalah.
Eibeschuetz distinguished historical Christianity, often harsh and persecuting, from an ideal Christianity, a religion of Grace which was not only “brother” to Judaism but in significant ways a loftier “brother,” closer to the mercy and wisdom of Eibeschuetz’s world religion of the future.
Christianity, said G.K. Chesterton, “has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” Eibeschuetz wouldn’t quite have agreed. Christianity had been tried and found wanting; the limitations inherent in its pure Grace had brought about the primordial catastrophe the Kabbalists called “the Shattering of the Vessels.” Sabbatai Zevi, thought Eibeschuetz, had opened the door to a new and more successful trial.
And his “pornography”?
I’d now put it quite differently: a ringing endorsement of value and dignity of the erotic. Of the notion that heterosexual and homosexual love have equal value and deserve equal respect, that a woman is a man’s equal and has the same right to sexual gratification as he does.
The conclusion of “I Came This Day” paints a glowing picture of a future when the Shechinah, the female aspect of divinity, is sexually open, engaged in continual lovemaking with the male “God of Israel,” radiant with a light that now outshines His without dimming His in the least. If She’s on top for a change, Eibeschuetz seems to be saying, it will do Him no harm.
This is an amazing document, one that’s unlikely to make a modern reader’s hair stand on end. Stun us with awe and admiration, rather, for the flawed genius who wrote it but didn’t dare sign his name to it. Cowardice? Maybe; but which of us would be braver?
I began translating it in 2008. I finished in 2013. This past summer I returned to my translation, and the first thing I did was divide it into chapters and sub-chapters of my own devising, which gave me for the first time a sense of the book’s architectonic skill. The chapter titles–there are nine of them–came to me almost unbidden. Chapter I, “The Creation of God,” chapter II, “The Anatomy of God” … and so on, each chapter developing a different aspect of “God,” climaxing (if that’s the right word) in chapter IX, “The Salvation of God.”
God, in Eibeschuetz’s thinking, is in need of salvation no less than ourselves. God, and we, help each other toward that goal.
I understand “I Came This Day” vastly better now than when I first translated it. This is mostly good but a little bit bad, in that my reworking of my translation turned out to be a great deal more than polishing or retouching here and there. Much of it I had to rewrite practically word for word.
Am I close to being done? Hardly. I would say I’ve got the first 20% in shape to be published (maybe with some polishing or retouching here and there). The rest is going to take me at least another year.
I’m attaching to this post what I’ve done so far of the Table of Contents, the Prologue, and Chapters I-II. (Remember that all the divisions and titles are my own creations. Eibeschuetz, like Kerouac, just started at the beginning and went on until he reached the end.) Comments, and if possible encouragement, will be most welcome.
For the foreseeable future, I will no longer be able to post weekly to this blog. Finishing the translation, as well as other projects of which I’ll have more to say later, will take up too much of my time. Not that I will stop blogging: I will continue to post, and to post regularly. Only I will do it bi-weekly, and not weekly as I’ve done so far.
So I’ll be back the week of the 21st, when fall will have officially begun.
See you then!
by David Halperin
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