It’s a challenge–to make Rabbi Jonathan Eibeschuetz’s Bible, Rabbi Jonathan Eibeschuetz’s God, intelligible and even relevant to a secular world where God as an active force is hardly detectable. Where “nobody ever reads the Bible”–as a speaker in a propeller beanie proclaimed at a science-fiction convention a few years ago, almost provoking me to announce that I did and had.
Where to start? Perhaps with a table of contents.
Eibeschuetz’s masterwork of heretical Kabbalah, I Came This Day to the Spring, came to light in 1725 under almost cinematic circumstances. It was found in the luggage of an emissary from Prague who, arriving in Germany, made the mistake of trusting the wrong people. He was detained by the Jewish communal authorities, his bags ransacked, his manuscript of I Came This Day confiscated. Its earliest readers understood its thrust well enough–“the hair of my flesh stood up,” one of them wrote, “for it contained many curses and blasphemies against the word of the Living God and it turned Kabbalistic mysteries upside down”–but it can’t have been easy even for them to follow its argument.
Like Kerouac’s original manuscript for On the Road, it was one long piece of stream-of-consciousness, without chapter or even paragraph divisions. As I prepared my translation of I Came This Day for eventual publication by the small but distinguished theological publishing house of Wipf and Stock, I decided the first thing I needed to do was provide them.
Chapter 1: The Creation of God
Chapter 2: The Anatomy of God
Chapter 3: The Gestation of God
Chapter 4: The Shattering of God
Chapter 5: The Restoration of God
Chapter 6: The Symbolisms of God
Chapter 7: The Geography of God
Chapter 8: The Virgin of God
Chapter 9: The Salvation of God
Those are my titles, not Eibeschuetz’s, but I like to think he’d be pleased with them. They bring across the essential fact about I Came This Day: it’s all about God. Not, however, a God that modern Westerners are likely to recognize.
The ancient Greeks, or the Hindus, would probably fare better with Him (or Her, but most essentially It): a fantastic multiplicity, throbbing with sex, all of it pointing back to the inconceivable One from which it emerged. We humans are Its shadow, Its fate reflecting, controlling, and controlled by our own. The Scriptures are Its guidebook.
When God is “shattered” through Its own unrestrained outpouring of grace and power, this is an event described again and again in the Bible. In the story of Noah’s Flood, of the “windows of heaven” (Genesis 7:11) that opened themselves to erase all existence. In the story of Cain and Abel, where the divinity called “Cain” doesn’t exactly kill his brother-divinity “Abel,” but brings about Abel’s death by failing to shield him from the torrential “effluence” of grace and power that Abel’s frail constitution can’t withstand. In the stories in the Book of Numbers, of the Moabites’ and Midianites’ dread of the Israelite hordes pouring out of Egypt, symbolic of that “effluence,” about to wash them away.
All of it standing for processes within God.
“When they”–the “Moabites” and “Midianites,” symbolic of God’s “gracious” and “judgmental” aspects–“saw the vast quantity of effluence that was about to overtake them, they trembled greatly. … They sought to copulate with the female and thereby to achieve the Contraction [orgasmic, apparently] of which we have spoken, for there are multiple reasons why it is copulation that gives life to all. In this way, they thought, there might be hope. But the effluence poured plenteously from above like a swollen stream, separating the light and making copulation impossible.”
Again, cinematic. Of course we’re talking, not about human beings, but about the several diverse aspects of God, sexual in their character, that the Kabbalists called sefirot. But they act human; one imagines them as human; the Bible uses human actors to depict them.
“Thus the elders of Moab, i.e. the Graces, said to the elders of Midian, i.e. the Judgments, ‘Now this mob will lick up everything around us,’ i.e. devastate it, which is what in fact happened.” (Quoting Numbers 22:4.)
These are the people who appear in the Bible as villains, the would-be destroyers of God’s chosen. But that’s only if you take the Bible at face value. Eibeschuetz, looking beneath the surface and finding what few others have ever found there, presents the dilemma of the terrified sefirot dispassionately and indeed sympathetically.
(Does that mean, staying on the human plane for another moment, that he was able to understand and sympathize with the Jewish people’s contemporary enemies and persecutors? I think so. I think at bottom that’s what I Came This Day is about: the ultimate union of all humanity, brought about through the unification and salvation of God. “Your magic binds together / What custom has strictly divided,” Schiller would write 60 years later, and I think if Eibeschuetz had lived long enough to read Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” he would have nodded his approval.)
The sefirot‘s efforts to shield themselves prove futile. The Shattering begins.
“When the God of Israel embarked upon total devastation, the Shattering of Tif’eret and the Graces had to be preceded by that of the Judgments included among the Mercies. Afterward would come the Mercies’ turn to be shattered. …
“You must be aware that the Shattering was executed in its entirety by [the sefirah] Tif’eret, he being the Central Connector with power over all. This is why God told Moses to ‘wreak vengeance on the Midianites,’ that is to say on the Judgments, of which we have seen the ‘Midianites’ to be symbolic representations. Moses himself stands for the Tif’eret of the Vessel-Shattering … and was therefore ordered first to wreak vengeance on [the Judgments] and kill them, and afterward himself to be killed. Hence the Bible says, ‘afterward you shall be gathered to your people.'”
(You recognize here that awful Biblical verse, Numbers 31:2, which which I began the first post of this series: God orders Moses to “avenge the children of Israel of the Midianites: afterward shalt thou be gathered unto thy people.”)
“Their Shattering was indeed effected through the making of a wound or puncture in the sefirah Tif’eret. The effluence than poured forth in a torrent, destroying and shattering the Judgments that were ‘in the field of Moab’ … for their plan had been to copulate with the female as we have said earlier.
“This is the intent of the verse ‘the windows of heaven were opened,’ and why Lamech [a descendant of Cain in Genesis 4:19-24], symbolic of Tif’eret, says that ‘through my bruise I have killed a man’ … the ‘bruise,’ that is, inflicted on me. ‘And a boy through my wound’ … [which] means, by the force of the ‘wound’ inflicted on me.”
So this is how the Kabbalist–Eibeschuetz, and as far as I’m aware no other Kabbalistic writer–treats the genocide of Numbers 31. It’s not genocide but deicide, or a deicide that’s a suicide: God killing Him-, Her-, Itself.
A suicide that fails, by God’s own will destined to fail. God emerges from it stronger than before, treading the long and tortuous path to His/Her/Its own salvation. Which, in Eibeschuetz’s theology, will be the salvation of the entire human race.
(Not just Judaism or the Jewish people. Eibeschuetz envisions a new religion rising out of Kabbalistic Judaism: the world religion of the future, with I Came This Day as its charter. As another early reader of the confiscated manuscript put it: “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.”)
The Bible story is saved, too, and with it the whole of Holy Scripture.
No more can anyone launch the charge made by Thomas Paine at the end of the 18th century, that “the character of Moses, as stated in the Bible, is the most horrid that can be imagined. … Among the detestable villains that in any period of the world have disgraced the name of man, it is impossible to find a greater than Moses, if this account be true. Here is an order to butcher the boys, to massacre the mothers, and debauch the daughters” (Paine, The Age of Reason). My sense is that this assault on the Bible via Numbers 31 was far from original with Paine, that it had been part of the Deist polemic arsenal for decades. I suspect that Eibeschuetz, whose interests and knowledge ranged far beyond the borders of Judaism, was familiar with it. That countering it was part of his agenda.
But at what a price! The Bible survives as the word of God and indeed the secret history of God, but at the cost of reading it in a way no one normally ever would. Is there any justification for this kind of reading?
I’m not sure … but maybe, just maybe.
I’ll ponder that question in the final segment of this post.
by David Halperin
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