That’s Not How Trees Work

In this week’s parsha, among all the “G!d will totally wreck you if you don’t love Him” stuff, there’s this interesting passage:

Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.

Deut. 30:11-14.

My Jewish Study Bible identifies this as a dig at contemporaneous Southwest Asian mystery traditions. However, reading it in the context of simultaneously doing Daf Yomi and Zohar Ammud Yomi (still catching up – I’m working on Zohar 1:20) is interesting. Bear with me, if you read this, you’re going to see several metaphors mangled – there are a few not-quite-coherent trains of thought I’ve been having.

If there’s one thing that the Talmudic Rabbis and the Kabbalists agree on, it’s that the plain meaning of the Torah is not what the Torah really means. But, if there are two things that the Talmudic Rabbis and the Kabbalists agree on, it’s that you can always bend the meaning of two seemingly-contradictory texts enough to reconcile them. I feel like that’s obvious in the case of the Kabbalists, but the Rabbis are the ones who brought us things like “oh, when the tanna’im said you couldn’t put your eruv in a tree even though you normally can place it off the ground, they clearly must have meant a tree that bends at 90 degrees ten handsbreadths from the ground and then goes for four cubits horizontally, and then turns 90 degrees again to grow straight up – that was just so blatantly obvious they didn’t think they needed to mention it.

So can we make up some clarifications that bring together this democratization of the meaning of the Torah in the Torah itself with the idea that there are esoteric meanings? Probably!

Anything done for the first time unleashes a demon

The first thing this passage puts me in mind of is this interesting bit of the Haqdamat Sefer ha-Zohar (the introduction to the Zohar):

[E]very word innovated in Torah by one engaged in Torah fashions one heaven… each and every word of wisdom is transformed into a heaven… He calls them new heavens, newly created heavens, hidden mysteries of supernal wisdom. As for all other innovated words of Torah, they stand before the blessed Holy One, then ascend and are transformed into earths of the living (Psalms 116:9). Then they descend, crowning themselves upon one earth, which is renewed and transformed into a new earth through that renewed word of Torah. Concerning this is written: As the new heavens and the new earth that I am making endure before Me… (Isaiah 66:22). The verse does not read I have made, but rather I am making, for He makes them continually out of those innovations and mysteries of Torah… Just as I made heaven and earth by speaking, as is said: By the word of YHVH, the heavens were made (Psalms 33:6, so do you.

Zohar 1:4b-5a (Pritzker Ed. 25-28)

Ok, that’s a lot. The distinction, according to Matt (the translator/editor of the Pritzker Edition, who I assume very much knows whereof he speaks) between these “words of wisdom” other words is between mystical and non-mystical Torah “innovations.” However, even the fate of the non-mystical insights seems pretty worthy – creation of new temporal worlds and/or renewing the temporal world.

In light of the parsha, though, what strikes me is the phrase “hidden mysteries of supernal wisdom.” Mystical insights, while they become “hidden” are not, in this account, merely discovered by mystics through revelation – they are innovated. They require a partnership with the Torah, and hence with G!d, but they are co-created, and they flow from the activity of humans to the hidden realm. So we have a story where the Torah both has an esoteric/mystical side, and that side is created through human action, in a fashion that can arguably be read democratically (somewhat ironic, since the ostensible author of the Zohar is Rabbi Shimon, of judgmental laser eyes fame). The idea also reminds me of the concept in Chaos Magick (to the extent that I understand that approach at all) of treating esoteric material as something that you infuse with meaning that works for you, rather than something that you must defer to as revealed to your betters.

Now, a few pages later, the Zohar seems to take this back, enjoining you not to innovate anything you didn’t learn from a Sage. I asked Matt about this via Facebook, and he kindly took the time to explain to me a couple of approaches that Kabbalists have used to try to reconcile these two claims. Some say that it just means not to “innovate” about the basics of the Kabbalistic system (like the names of the Sefirot) – sorry Chaos Magicians. Others say that so long as your innovations are discovered by the power of the roots of the Torah you’re good – so re-emphasizing that it’s a partnership with the Divine, rather than anything-goes make-stuff-up. Given that it’s common in Jewish Torah interpretation to grab random phrases out of context to construct ideas, this is probably less a constraint on content and more on process – you should be inspired by the Torah, though that inspiration might take you many odd places.

(Aside: I don’t think this is no constraint at all. Mumble-mumble years ago, when I was a baby undergrad philosophy student, I got into an argument about Kierkegaard with a classmate. On at least one plausible-enough gloss, Kierkegaard claims that anything can potentially be regarded as divine, so long as it generates awe, fear, and respect in its worshippers. This guy said, “That’s stupid – so if I worship the Giant Space Carrot [note: pre-FSM], that’s G!d?” My retort was that the problem is that the GSC sounds silly to us, and that’s why we think it can’t be G!d. On the other hand, if you were to meet someone genuinely filled with awe and reverence for the GSC, if you can imagine a situation like that, it will likely stop seeming so silly. I might not be able to take it seriously, but the fact that someone else does would change my perception of the situation. I stand by freshman me on this! And I think it’s relevant here: there’s no ab initio limit on what ideas the Torah might inspire in you. But that’s different from saying that you are allowed to claim mystical significance for ideas you make up that weren’t actually inspired in you by the Torah.)

There’s a particularly nice expression of this at Zohar 1:15b: “the letters are body; the vowels, spirit.” Traditionally, Torah scrolls are written without vowels – the reader interprets where the vowels will go (and there’s a long tradition of creating multiple interpretations by changing the vocalization). In order for the Torah to be read, you need both consonants/letters and vowels – a partnership of text and reader, G!d and human.

Black-letter law

Speaking of slicing things out of context: In the Zohar, the sefirot Tif’eret (beauty, compassion, YHVH, masculine) is associated with the written Torah, while the “lowest” sefirot, Shekhinah (Kingdom, the world, Adonai, feminine) is associated with the oral Torah (orally transmitted interpretive traditions). See, for instance, 118n73 in the Pritzker.

When I initially read this, in light of my current theological concerns, it felt “backwards.” Shekhinah is also associated with Judgment, and is sometimes treated as a reflection of Gevurah. Gevurah is the unfettered power of Judgment, and is associated with the extremely harsh punishments and even genocides meted out against the enemies of Israel in the Torah, or against Israel itself if it fails to do what G!d wants. Meanwhile, many of the later traditions are significantly more merciful – such as the principle in Sanhedrin that a court which sentences someone to death every 70 years is bloodthirsty, leading the Rabbis to place many safeguards around the calls for the death penalty in the Torah, ensuring it will rarely if ever be applied (I haven’t read Sanhedrin yet, but knew about this, so I think it must have been in a note to the Koren BT).

Then I was thinking: if there’s one lesson so far from the Zohar, it’s that everything is ultimately unified, and opposites are not opposites. So consider: the oral Torah is actually about as written as the written Torah! Ask Atomic Books how many volumes of the Babylonian Talmud I’ve special-ordered through them so far if you need proof.

On the other side… Tif’eret is often associated with the color white, and Shekhinah with black. At Zohar 1:12b, they are the (inseparable!) lights created on the fourth Day of creation, one white (sun, Tif’eret) and one black/without its own light (moon, Shekhinah). Similarly, when Rabbi Shimon talks about the levels of existence/soul using the metaphor of a candle at 1:51a (I’m not there yet in Pritzker, but read it in Scholem’s slim volume of selections), Shekinah is the dark region at the base of the candle’s flame, while Tif’eret is the pure white light above it.

And… there’s a midrash that the Torah is written with black fire on white fire. That is, the white space that surrounds the letters is as important as the black letters themselves. There’s a trivial sense in which that’s true – and also it’s often understood as alluding to the legitimacy of interpretive techniques that involve substituting letters, forming acrostics and anagrams, and otherwise playing with the text (I initially wrote “otherwords playing,” a felicitous typo/accidental innovation) to find deeper meanings. By moving the black letters through the white space, you create new meanings. One can read the “white fire” as the possibility space for innovation and interpretation.

And… this possibility space is massive. At Eruvin 21a, the Rabbis calculate that the Torah is 3,200 times as large as the entire Earth. And yet that might not even be big enough. The Torah contains 304,805 letters and 304,805!, the number of possible permutations of that is… is… uh, it’s really, really big. And that’s not even counting the possibilities opened by alternate vocalizations, by alternate lengths… if you allow repetitions, then the size of the Torah is infinite, because it contains all the Hebrew letters, aka the tools to express anything that can be expressed in language.

What does this mean? Well, it means that one can reverse the interpretations. The oral Torah, the black fire, is limited by time. Here and now, only a finite number of interpretations have been made by humans on Earth. The written Torah, the white fire, may initially appear to be the more limited one, but it is in fact potentially infinite. So it can be understood to embrace the very Gevurah-y genocide commandments, as well as interpretations that blunt, reinterpret, or negate them in the name of a more compassionate, Tif’eret-inflected vision. That’s pretty fitting for something associated with the sefirot whose mystical meaning is the unification of opposites (judgment/love, evil/good).

Roots to Branches

On a more personal note…

A little while ago, as part of a discussion about whether or not to maintain the sparsely-attended Hinenu Daf Yomi meetup, my Rabbi mentioned that for her, the Torah was her first love, rather than the Mishna and Gemara.

As I have been working through Jewish texts (again/for the first time) and thinking about what my connection to Judaism is/was/should be, it’s been kind of the opposite for me. I find myself most attracted to the living Jewish community I’ve found in Hinenu. I’ve realized that a lot of the ideas I find most intriguing in Judaism are actually from the Lurianic Kabbalah. From there, it’s pretty much a descending path through time – from there to the Zohar, then the Talmud. Until finally, we arrive at the Torah, which I as often as not find problematic, even repulsive. It’s an odd inversion of the calls I see for USian Christians to be more like Christ – I am relieved that the Jews in my circles act in ways so different plain meaning of much of the Torah!

I don’t entirely know what to make of it, but here are some stray thoughts.

As part of Hinenu’s “Blessing of the Backpacks” back-to-school ritual (that only Ruth and I made it to), my Rabbi asked us to take inspiration from Jewish calligraphic art (there’s a special name for it that I’m totally blanking on) and draw something that we could focus on to represent our feelings about the coming school year as a teacher/parent and student. Not quite sure where I was going with it, but with the Zohar on my mind, I sketched out a version of the sefirotic system with books as the nodes. Not knowing where to go from there, I sketched in a background that literalized the idea of the sefirotic “tree,” with Shekinah as the roots, and Keter (the ineffable divine “crown”) as the top of the tree.

In Kabbalah, the divine power/light is understood to flow from Keter down through the various nodes into Shekhinah – who, remember, is associated with the color black and the moon because she receives light but has no light of her own.

However, staring at my amateurish sketch, it occurred to me:

That’s not how trees work.

The first time we went to High Holy Days services at Hinenu, I was fascinated by a footnote in the Siddur (I wish I had taken a photo, or remembered what page it was on) talking about a strand of Reconstructionist thought that put G!d in the as-yet-unrealized future (or at least that’s how I remembered it), not an all-powerful domineering King but something fragile and growing. The image has stuck with me (even if I’m misremembering it!). Similarly, the sefirot Binah, in Kabbalistic thought is described both as a sort of cosmic womb, and as the-world-to-come.

What if, instead of seeing the Torah (the plain meaning of the physical scroll, I mean) not as the ultimate ideal of which all things are lesser reflections, we saw it as a kind of seed (or nut, in Kabbalistic imagery) that has been planted and is in the process of growing? Just like you may not see the connection between some mystical innovation and the Torah in terms of logical derivation, but it’s connected through inspiration, somehow there’s a line to be traced between Deuteronomy’s commandments to genocide everyone who opposes you through the Zohar’s worry that having sex with the lights on will create demons, to the living breathing community of anti-racist, anti-Zionist, anti-imperialist, welcoming, diverse Jews that are most of the ones I have the pleasure of interacting with now.

Do I have to love the seed to love the community? Or maybe the right way to ask it is – can I love the seed because of what I see in the tree, not because of what I can find in the seed?

Or maybe:

There’s a bit at the end of noted-Chaos-Magician Grant Morrison’s The Filth (his lesser-read companion to The Invisibles) where the main character has lost all grip on the meaning of the things he cares about, and everything is turning to literal shit in his hands, asks what he is now supposed to do with everything. And the answer is: put it in your garden.

Does it disrespect the Torah to think of it as like fertile soil, which may be full of death/decay and repulsive things (sorry, worms), but in which beautiful things can grow? I don’t know, and I certainly don’t mean to offend anyone. But, while the Talmud is clear that you’re not even supposed to think about the Torah in the bathroom, it also tells us about a Rabbi who opines that the greatest feeling in the world is when you find a great place to poop (I can find you references, imagined reader, if you want them – but trust me). It’s important to the Rabbis that we appreciate all of G!d’s creation, even the bad things and the things that bring us pain, so I think it’s actually churlish of the Rabbis to occasionally be so down on things that may repulse some people like bathrooms, old age, nudity, and sex. So I think we can understand the Torah as something like a seed, or soil, and just mean by that that we don’t have to like all of it to recognize its importance in a spiritual ecosystem.

One last non-duality (I originally de-metaphorized it, but I think I like it better this way).

Of course, trees do work like that.

If we think of Keter as at the top of our image, not as the crown of the tree, but as the sun, the metaphor changes again. The light of the sun flows to the leaves of the tree, which photosynthesize sugars with its energy. This sugar/energy flows down from the leaves into the branches, and thence to the trunk, to the roots, which it makes grow.