Start, perhaps, with Hansel and Gretel.
“Start,” that is, on the undertaking I promised at the end of the last segment of this post, of making Rabbi Jonathan Eibeschuetz’s reading of the Bible as the secret history of God feel plausible, or at least something other than arbitrary and bizarre. Recognizing that “God” may metamorphose into the human unconscious, and back again.
Have you ever seen a gingerbread house in the woods?
Of course you haven’t. And of course you know exactly what I’m talking about. An outdoor structure made of gingerbread is an absurdity, an impossibility. Assuming it could be built in the first place, it’d be turned soggy and sagging in the first good rain, impossible either to dwell in or to eat. And yet that gingerbread house is a permanent part of your awareness, as it is of mine.
(I used to tell my students: Whatever you learn in your lives, whatever you forget, you’ll remember that gingerbread house to your dying day. A bit arrogant–how do I know what they’ll remember on their dying day? Yet I’m convinced it’s true, and if I were still teaching I’d say it again. And again. And again.)
The power of that gingerbread house is that it’s something other than itself. I’m persuaded by psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim: it’s an image for the mother’s body, protective and nourishing at once. You want to stay there–of course you do! But yield to that temptation, and you’re in trouble. The devouring witch lurks within.
So the fairy tale teaches, and like Scripture the fairy tale speaks the truth–of the human condition. But it has to be read as something “other” than what it seems. It has to be read as “allegory”–from the Greek word allos, “other.”
Or, moving closer to Eibeschuetz’s bailiwick, the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Certainly the events described there never happened; if you’re reading this blog, I assume you’re willing to admit that. They’re on “a level with the Arabian tales, without the merit of being entertaining,” Thomas Paine sneered in his Age of Reason. Yet the story won’t go away, because it has a hidden power that we know intuitively to be true.
For it has an “other” meaning: sexual maturation, becoming aware of and self-conscious about your sexuality, cast out forever from the infantile bliss of unknowing. Once upon a time you were naked and unashamed, and how good that felt! But then you tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge–a word which in Hebrew has strong sexual connotations–and your eyes were opened and you knew you were naked and needed to cover yourself, and not just to keep warm.
What was the eating of that “fruit”? Sex itself?–in which case Adam and Eve never made love in the Garden, and their “fall” was a choice of mature delight over immature, with the sad result that “in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.” Or a guilty awareness, culturally imposed and inherently tragic, that put an end to innocent, frolicsome lovemaking and turned Adam and Eve into civilized, repressed human beings? (As children of the 1960s we tried to recover that “before-the-fall” bliss, I don’t think with any great success.)
The story is ambiguous. It would be less powerful if it weren’t. Its symbols shift, as hard to lay hold of as a slithering serpent; we can’t quit trying. Unlike “Hansel and Gretel” it has no happy ending. The fairy tale is true to the human experience. The Scripture is truer.
Kabbalah “allegorizes” the Scriptures; can we “allegorize” the Kabbalah itself? Michael Adzema, who calls himself a “Pre/Perinatal & Primal Psychologist,” gives it a try. Here’s what he does with the “Shattering of the Vessels,” so central to Eibeschuetz’s construct of the evolutionary history of God:
“The experiential psychotherapies tell us that birth is the second catastrophe and that the sense of catastrophe is associated initially with the time surrounding that of conception, with the first coming-into-form of sperm and egg.
“With this in mind, the myth of the breaking of the vessels does not have to be related to the time of birth, e.g., to the breaking of the mother’s water; but can more accurately be situated, once again, farther back in time to that prior to conception. From this perspective the vessels that break are those of the testicles and the ovaries. The egg breaks free from the ovary; the sperm are suddenly released from the container of the testicles in an emission.”
Heavy stuff, as we children of the 60s used to say. I don’t think I quite believe it. Do I really have an unconscious memory of my pre-natal existence inside my mother’s ovaries, my father’s testicles? How could there possibly be an “I” before that egg was fertilized?
Yet I have the sense that Adzema and Eibeschuetz were feeling their way along similar paths, and that these paths may be part of their shared unconscious. Eibeschuetz’s devastating “effluence” from above that shattered the Vessels–that slew Abel, that flooded all existence in Noah’s time, that wreaked slaughter among the Midianites–feels very much sperm shooting forth, and that’s in fact what he calls it. It’s the “uncontained ejaculate” of a superior divinity known as “the Distant One” who, unlike the lower “God of Israel,” has no female partner to contain and restrain it.
I’ve watched an incredible video of the process of conception, which if he were still alive Eibeschuetz might use as a cinematic re-enactment of the “Shattering of the Vessels.” I think Adzema posts it somewhere on his site. I also think the painting of the Shattering that he has on his site (did he paint it himself? he doesn’t make that clear) must have been influenced by it.
(Those streaks of yellow paint–surely they’re writhing spermatozoa. Aren’t they?)
Now take a look at Gustave Doré’s 1866 engraving of “the Great Flood”–
–and tell me you don’t feel a kinship between these scenes of fiery or watery chaos, the human arms swallowed up in it and the swallowing waves both thrust skyward.
Or take Doré’s “Death of Abel.” This Cain is no cold-blooded murderer. He recoils from Abel’s corpse, as though overwhelmed by the horror of what’s just befallen the two of them. The menacing skies, meanwhile, shoot a lightning bolt in Abel’s direction as if to say: We are the ones who kill. So Eibeschuetz interpreted the Bible story, as one more symbolic representation of the Shattering of the Vessels. Could his unconscious and Doré’s have resonated to the same inaudible note, which both felt humming beneath the surface of Genesis?
Well, sure they could have: two creative personalities, responding in parallel ways to the Book that’s inspired more creativity than any other. Or maybe not. I’m doing a lot of speculating; in murky areas like these, it’s hardly avoidable. The alternative is paralysis.
In the imaginative wanderings I’ve laid out here, I’ve shuttled back and forth between the heights of divinity and the depths of the unconscious. These are opposites only if we take literally the metaphor of “heights” for God and “depths” for the unconscious, which we have no warrant for doing. Better, conceive them both as within: inside us, and also absolutely real. (And capable of persisting when we as individuals die? I’m not sure of that.)
And to move back to the point from which we started: has Eibeschuetz given us a legitimate way to cleanse the poison from the 31 chapter of Numbers?
I’m not sure of that either.
It’s one thing to “allegorize” the death of Abel or the Great Flood, belonging as they do to the dreamy prehistory of the race. The Book of Numbers seems embedded in human history, at least as this was imagined by its priestly authors. Surely, whether it actually happened or not, the story of chapter 31 can be taken as nothing more than a peculiarly brutal and malign example of what rationalists a few generations back used to call “priestcraft”?
Yes, that’s what it is; no doubt about it. But “nothing more”? There’s where I’m uncertain.
Eibeschuetz has shown what “more” it might possibly be, in God or the human unconscious that goes by the name of God. For this he deserves our thanks, or at least our consideration.
by David Halperin
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