(This is part 2 of a three-part post. For part 1, click here.)
“I came this day to the spring of wisdom … and now I shall enlighten you with words of understanding.”
This is the beginning of what may have been the most controversial Jewish book of the 18th century.
It was a book of Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical doctrine inherited from the Middle Ages. Most people called it Va-avo ha-Yom el ha-Ayin, Hebrew for “I Came This Day to the Spring,” after its opening words. It created a scandal when it surfaced in Germany in 1725—in manuscript; to this day it’s never been published. Its critics said it was filled with heresies that even the ancient pagans wouldn’t have dared to speak. They said it ought to be burned, along with its author.
No one knew for sure who wrote it. Rumor had it that the author was Jonathan Eibeschuetz, a brilliant young scholar and preacher in Prague who was to become the most illustrious rabbi of central Europe. Eibeschuetz denied under oath that he had anything to do with the book. I don’t believe him. Nor do most scholars. The evidence is too strong that this outwardly Orthodox Jew lived a double life, and that it was his hidden life that was the more interesting. Perhaps also the more inspiring.
As I read Va-avo ha-Yom, it’s a charter for the world religion of the future, a faith rooted in Kabbalistic Judaism but unlike any religion ever known. A religion that would bring all humanity together in universal brotherhood, men and women equal, and free in ways they’d never been before.
How to read a book like this? How to describe it? Maybe: from the very beginning.
“Know this: before any existence, before the Emanation, He was alone, the Infinite, without any end or beginning whatsoever.”
The Bible begins with the creation of the world. Va-avo ha-Yom starts out long before that—before there was any material existence, before there was God, even. God, as we know Him from the Bible, steps onto the stage much later.
In the beginning there’s only the Infinite, the primordial Nothingness. A Nothingness, however, that possesses a Will to bring Something into being.
It’s an old philosophical problem, and a Kabbalistic one. How does Something emerge from Nothing? How does undifferentiated Unity beget diversity? How, if that Unity is essentially good, does evil spring from it?
For Va-avo ha-Yom, the Infinite Will manifests itself in a duality, of what the writer calls “Mindful Light” and “Mindless Light.” The Mindful Light’s impulse is to bring forth multiplicity—that is, the existence of something distinct from the Infinite. The Mindless Light has the opposite impulse: to return to the undifferentiated Unity out of which it came. It’s not “evil,” exactly; there’s no malice in it. But by its nature it’s hostile to all existence outside the Infinite, which is to say, us.
Very abstract. And so the opening pages of Va-avo ha-Yom are.
But then it changes. It’s hard to pinpoint just where the shift comes—there are no chapters or any other divisions in the text. But after a while you notice that the quotations from the Jewish classics—the Old Testament, the Talmud, the mystical Zohar—are coming in thicker and thicker, the author giving them his imaginative symbolic interpretations.
As Va-avo ha-Yom grows increasingly scholastic, something else happens. It grows more and more mythological.
From the Infinite Unity with which we began, from the duality of Mindful and Mindless Lights, a multiplicity of divine beings spills forth. Or, to be more exact: a small number of distinct entities, wearing a multiplicity of masks.
Some are male, some female. They couple with one another, in pairings that are usually heterosexual, sometimes gay or lesbian. Occasionally some figure, male or female, will climb into the womb of a loftier female, to be reborn in new and improved form.
It’s a theogony, a myth of the birth of the gods. Maybe not quite as exuberant as that of the ancient Greeks, but approaching it. No wonder the critics complained: even the idolaters weren’t as bad as this.
Is this monotheism? I’d say yes, but not the way we normally think of it.
Biblical monotheism is exclusive monotheism: only the One is true divinity. The Many are either delusions or devils.
The ancient Greek intellectuals had a different kind of monotheism, an inclusive monotheism in which the Many are the aspects of the One. The One and the Many are both real; the reality of the One is the more profound, but the reality of the Many is the more palpable. This is the kind of monotheism we have in Va-avo ha-Yom.
The God we know from the Bible is one of that Many. The author calls him by a fixed title: the God of Israel. He’s male; and he has a Woman, or should I say a Goddess? This is She who’s called the Shechinah, or the Higher Shechinah.
(There’s a Lower Shechinah too—or sometimes two of them—for whom the God of Israel lusts, much to the Higher Shechinah’s jealous annoyance.)
The Higher Shechinah is God’s lover. She’s also His mother. At one stage of the unfolding of the sacred drama, She’s the embryonic sac in which He curls up as a fetus.
And there’s yet another divinity, higher than either God or the Shechinah. This is the Ancient One, or the Holy Ancient One. Also male, but womanless. (Or should I say, goddess-less?)
Good cast of characters. Exciting plot, too, although you have to decipher layers of Kabbalistic code to get to it: something like an end-of-the-world movie, with plenty of sex thrown in. Only, the world that’s ended is something that existed long before we came to be.
It was destroyed in a primordial cataclysm–the Mindless Light run wild–that the Kabbalists called the “Shattering of the Vessels,” which the author sees obliquely hinted at in the Biblical story of the Flood. We live in the post-cataclysmic world, rebuilt and designed so as to make our existence possible.
But what’s all this got to do with anything real?
This: once you’ve got the codes unraveled, it becomes clear that the Holy Ancient One is a representation of Christianity, a lofty being of pure Grace and Mercy. The God of Israel + Shechinah, in whom Mercies and Judgments are in balance and everybody gets what’s coming to him or her (more or less), is a stand-in for Judaism. With his story, the author wants to say something about how Judaism is like and unlike the faiths and peoples that surround it. (All of which the author chooses to include under the Christian rubric.)
Remember the old cliche? “Christianity has not be tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried.” The author will have none of that. Christianity has been tried. It “shattered the Vessels,” and thereby destroyed the world.
We can translate the writer’s mythology into historical terms. Looking back on the preceding two centuries, he could see how Christian theological quarrels, turned into religious wars, had left Europe covered in blood and ashes. He drew the lesson that pure Grace, untempered and unconfined by Judgment, begets chaos. The precise opposite of its golden promise.
But suppose it didn’t? Suppose there was some way to make that promise real, to transcend the conventional categories of right and wrong, good and evil–those that Judaism laid down with its religious law–without destroying human society in the process?
Suppose a Savior were to appear who could redeem Christianity, transform it into a fit religion for human beings? That man or woman would be the Messiah.
Of course, Christianity would no longer be Christianity but something new, unknown so far on the surface of this planet.
Jesus Christ? Forget him. There’s a new Messiah, a true Messiah, who lived and did his redemptive act just about 60 years ago.
This was Sabbatai Zevi, whom I spoke of in the previous installment of this post, and in more detail twice in the past (here and here).
His act of redemption? To convert to Islam. As Sabbatai Zevi did, one September day in 1666.
by David Halperin
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