Once upon a time, according to the Jewish mystics known as Kabbalists, there existed a system of worlds–shall we call it a universe?–very much like our own, yet not the one we know today.
One day–but back then there were no “days,” no time as we know it, because sun and moon and everything that might make time meaningful didn’t yet exist–this universe was shattered, exploded, devastated. Through its own instability, perhaps; or through the assault of some force beyond its bearing. Or some combination of both. The 16th-century Kabbalist Isaac Luria called this catastrophe “the Shattering of the Vessels.” For the older Kabbalists it was “the Death of the Kings.”
When the 31st chapter of the Book of Numbers describes the massacre of the Midianite tribes at the hands of Moses and the children of Israel–the Bible’s worst and most disgusting story, whose outrage to normal ideas of decency and morality I blogged about in my last post–it’s not really talking about Midianites or Israelites or Moses. Rather, it’s a coded account of the Shattering of the Vessels. No need to worry about genocide at the Lord’s command; no human being was harmed in the process. The only victim of the slaughter, its only perpetrator, was God.
So we learn from the underground masterpiece called I Came This Day to the Spring (Hebrew Va-avo ha-Yom el ha-Ayin), written shortly before 1725 by Rabbi Jonathan Eibeschuetz of Prague, the 30-year-old rising star of the rabbinic world and also a secret heretic whose ideas, if translated into reality, would bring that world crumbling down.
Several years ago I undertook an English translation of this text, with the challenge of making its mind-bending paradoxes intelligible to 21st-century readers whose God–if they even believe in one–bears scant resemblance to Eibeschuetz’s deity. I committed myself to that challenge nearly a year ago when I contracted with Wipf and Stock Publishers, a small but highly respected theological publishing house in Eugene, Oregon, to bring out the translation.
I Came This Day is a work of technical Kabbalah, super-esoteric in its terminology and thought. It’s also an extraordinary work of the human spirit, a charter for the world religion of the future, rooted in Kabbalistic Judaism but unlike any religion ever known. Wipf and Stock has done me the honor of trusting me to present it in a way that contemporary readers can make sense of and even resonate to.
Where do we start? Maybe with the word “world.”
Close your eyes and think of a “world.” If you’re like me, the image that will come to mind is of a greenish-blue sphere floating in a blackness. There are other “worlds” too, one of them red; and when the denizens of that “red” world invaded ours this was The War of the Worlds that H.G. Wells wrote about. (“But who shall dwell in these worlds if they be inhabited?” Wells quotes Kepler in the epigraph to his novel. “Are we or they Lords of the World?”–and I assume the capitalized “World” has a different meaning from the same word in lower case.) All these “worlds,” inhabited or not, are in themselves lifeless rocks, moving without mind or intentionality, in paths dictated by mathematical and physical law.
But all this is modern, Newtonian. The Kabbalists, even if they lived after Newton’s discoveries–Newton died in 1727, two years after the manuscript of I Came This Day To the Spring first came to light–didn’t think of “worlds” in this way. Their “worlds” were conscious entities, not creations of God but God Himself. Or God Herself; for the Kabbalists believed at least in theory that God was an androgyne even though when they actually spoke of God, it’s the blustering patriarch of the Hebrew Bible who tends to emerge.
(Eibeschuetz was an exception. He took God’s femaleness, no less than God’s maleness, with absolute seriousness.)
Eventually God would get around to creating our heaven and our earth, as the first verse in Genesis tells us. But this was a postscript, an afterthought. The essential act of Creation was God’s own self-unfolding, and with it God’s self-diversification.
From an undifferentiated One, God became many, rather like a ray of light passing through a prism. The Colors that were God came into being, not in place of but complementing the colorless substrate that was also God.
The Colors: some gracious and expansive (the “Graces”), others harsh and restrictive (the “Judgments”). Both were necessary; for the unbounded expansion of Grace, unchecked by the boundary-setting of Judgment, can be just as devastating, just as dangerous to structure (that is, God’s self-construction), as Judgment’s own strictness.
All of these were potentials inside God, evolving with God into the 10-fold patterns fundamental to Kabbalah. Also present from the beginning in potential, growing increasingly real and distinct as God ripened and matured: the male and the female.
In Eibeschuetz’s terminology: “the God of Israel” (male) and “the Shechinah” (female). Eventually to become lovers, the great God and Goddess of Kabbalah. But at the beginning the Shechinah is “the mother of all living,” as Genesis 3:20 calls her (for the Biblical Eve, like the Bible’s whole vast pageant of men and women, is a symbol for one or another aspect of God). She’s the womb into which the God of Israel crawls to be reborn, a dormancy during which the Shattering of the Vessels takes place.
All this takes place long before the Bible’s beginning, when something called “God” created physical objects called “the heavens and the earth.” Yet the Bible describes it again and again, in riddles and symbols and mysteries.
The story of Noah’s flood is, if you read beneath the surface, the story of the Shattering. So is the story of the death of Abel–whom his brother Cain didn’t kill, but for whose death he was, through ambition followed by cowardice, indirectly responsible. (And Cain is also part of God, the part called Primordial Creation-Human.)
So is Numbers 31, the massacre of the Midianites.
Through all these different lenses, provided by a sacrosanct Scripture, Eibeschuetz lets us glimpse the prehistoric times before there was any such thing as time. He also gives us a Bible utterly different from what we once imagined it was. Not to mention a God utterly different from what we once imagined She/He was.
I’ll take a closer look at that prehistory–that Bible, that God–in the next installment of this post.
by David Halperin
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