In the previous post, I began to describe the scandalous book of Kabbalah that surfaced in Germany in 1725, with the title Va-avo ha-Yom el ha-Ayin, “I Came This Day to the Spring.”
Rumor had it that the book was the work of the brilliant young Rabbi Jonathan Eibeschuetz, the rising star of the Prague academy of Jewish learning. Rumor had it that Eibeschuetz, who went on to become the most distinguished rabbi of Central Europe, was a member of a secret cult of believers in the false Messiah Sabbatai Zevi. That his book Va-avo ha-Yom was part of a conspiracy of “the Enemy Within,” to undermine the Jewish religion and all it stood for.
Was it? You be the judge.
Va-avo ha-Yom is a strange book, very difficult to understand. (I should know–I’m working on translating it from Hebrew into English.) The story it tells begins eons before the Creation, in the midst of primordial Nothingness. It ends on September 16, 1666, when the Messiah Sabbatai Zevi became a Muslim.
The book’s final sentences:
“This is why David, when ‘he came to the Head’ (symbolizing the Ancient One) ‘where he was to prostrate himself for God’ (indicating sexual coupling), ‘he sought to engage in alien worship,’ in accord with, ‘He even loves the nations.’ Understand.”
“Understand”–meaning, I’m hinting at a lot more than I’m saying; you’ll have to decipher my meaning by yourself. “Understand”–and we’re left scratching our heads, and hunting up the source of the author’s quotations.
That’s Kabbalah for you. It’s an esoteric literature, written in code. The keys to the code are the ancient texts embedded within it. The author quotes three of those texts.
The first is from 2 Samuel 15:32. King David, in flight from his rebellious son Absalom, has just arrived at the summit of the Mount of Olives–the Hebrew word for “summit” is rosh, literally “head”–“where he was [accustomed] to prostrate himself to God.”
Then, in steps the Talmud (Sanhedrin 107a) to explain that “head” doesn’t really mean “summit.” Rather it’s a pointer toward another Biblical passage that refers to idol-worship, clueing us in that David’s intent was “to engage in alien worship.” David’s motive? To keep people from speaking ill of God’s justice. He therefore set out to commit a crime so abominable that his son’s trying to kill him would seem a fair punishment. What could that be, but worshiping alien gods?
The third quote, “He even loves the nations,” is from Deuteronomy 33:3. But and already we’re starting to get the point. “David” is code for King David’s most illustrious descendant, the Messiah Sabbatai Zevi. His “engaging in alien worship” is his conversion to Islam in 1666, in the presence of the Turkish sultan. Why did the Messiah do that? “In accord with, ‘He even loves the nations'”–to bring salvation to all the people of the world.
This is something new and startling. The work of a conspiracy? If so, a welcome one.
Traditional Judaism, for all its virtues, was afflicted with a deep streak of xenophobia. The Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, did nothing to ease this burden of fearfulness and resentment. On the contrary, it made it worse, by conjuring up spooky connections between the outsiders’ religions and the powers of evil. Even Sabbatai Zevi’s followers, when they tried to explain why he’d converted to Islam, normally found explanations in terms of the benefits of that act for the Jewish people. For them alone.
Now here’s a Sabbatian writer who sees the Messiah’s mission as the redemption of the world. And, if the attribution of Va-avo ha-Yom to Jonathan Eibeschuetz is correct–as I think it is–this Sabbatian writer was the greatest rabbi of the 18th century.
Let’s dig deeper.
“He even loves the nations.” This is the second time the author has quoted these words from Deuteronomy. A few pages earlier in his book, he’s applied this same quote to the lofty divinity he calls the Holy Ancient One. “‘He even loves the nations,’ even the Gentiles,” because “the Ancient One consists of pure Mercy, without any Judgment whatsoever, even for those who violate the Torah.”
I told you in the previous installment: this “Holy Ancient One” is a representation of Christianity, a lofty being of pure Grace and Mercy. He’s higher in the scale of divinity than the entity called the God of Israel, in whom Mercy and Judgment are in balance and everybody gets (more or less) what’s coming to him or her. Which is, of course, the God of Judaism.
The picture is coming into focus. Sabbatai Zevi, by leaving Judaism, has made a direct connection with the higher divinity who represents Christianity. He thereby brings the Gentiles into connection with this divinity, who loves them as well as he loves the Jews.
No wonder the book was denounced as heretical by rabbis all over Europe.
But it isn’t exactly orthodox Christianity, either. Sabbatai Zevi, not Jesus, is the Savior. And he accomplishes his salvation in a way that’s bound to offend Christians no less than Jews. He “prostrates himself for God”–which means, says our author, that he offers his buttocks to the Holy Ancient One for anal penetration.
There’s a lot of sex in Kabbalah; the author of Va-avo ha-Yom didn’t have to invent that. The divine energies are spoken of as “effluence,” a kind of liquid light, whose transmission from one level of divinity to the next is reflected in our bodies as the spurting forth of seed. (We’re in the image of God, after all; we’re sexual beings, precisely because our Creator is.) The bestower of “effluence” is seen as male, the receiver as female. The God of Israel is incomplete without His Shechinah, His Divine Female, into whom He spills his effluence and the lower worlds get it from Her.
To which our author adds: the divine sperm, unmediated by a female, is dangerous stuff. Too potent for the lower worlds to tolerate. When it flowed down unmediated from the Holy Ancient One–who has no female, who is pure Grace, pure expansion, unrestrained by any vessel of Judgment–the result was disaster. The fledgling structures of divinity crumbled before it. This was the primordial catastrophe that the Kabbalists call the “Shattering of the Vessels,” that’s hinted at in the Bible’s story of the Flood.
That’s why the God of Judaism, with His restrictive Law and Judgment, had to come in between.
But now Sabbatai Zevi performs his saving act. He offers himself to the Ancient One, in place of a female.
“Know this: the true Messiah couples with the Ancient One. He stands in for the Shechinah [that is, the Female], and with him there to receive it, the ejaculate [of the Ancient One] is not uncontained”–as it once was, at the Shattering of the Vessels. Now it is safe. Now we can receive it.
So the Ancient One, embodiment of Grace and Mercy, becomes the God of us all. “Do not loathe an Edomite, for he is your brother.” The author quotes these words from Deuteronomy 23:8; he means, in his code language, that any Gentile is brother or sister to any Jew. This is part of his world religion of the future, a kind of neo-Christianity redeemed and made viable by the Messiah Sabbatai Zevi: universal brotherhood.
The author takes up the Kabbalah’s sexualization of divinity. But whereas the traditional Kabbalah thought only in terms of heterosexuality, Va-avo ha-Yom finds a place for gay sex as well. This is among divinities, of course. Yet he envisions a time, perhaps already here, when the Mindless Light no longer poses a threat to the stability of Creation, and “the lower realms” can safely share in the divine freedoms.
And what of men and women? Is there a glimmer, in Va-avo ha-Yom‘s world religion, of what we’d call gender equality?
Just before the end of his book–just before the passage I quoted at the beginning of this post–the author gives a glowing picture of the transformed relations of the God of Israel with His Shechinah. (Recall, as you read it, that Jonathan Eibeschuetz and his wife Elkele had a long and loving marriage, which came to a tragic end with her death from breast cancer.)
In the traditional Kabbalah, the Shechinah is the junior partner, subordinated to the male deity. But …
“A time will come when the Higher Shechinah will be above the God of Israel, as represented in ‘a noble woman is her husband’s crown’ [Proverbs 12:4]. This is the significance of ‘then Moses shall sing’ [Exodus 15:1]. As matters now stand, whenever the Shechinah wants sex, She does the serenading, as in, ‘I am a singing rose’ [Song of Songs 2:1, Kabbalistically interpreted]. But a time will come when the God of Israel will serenade Her, and this is what is meant by ‘then Moses shall sing,’ ‘Moses’ being symbolic of the God of Israel.
“This is the inner meaning of the verse, ‘The moon’s light shall be like the sun’s light’ [Isaiah 30:26], conveying that the Shechinah will be in a lofty place like the God of Israel, who is symbolized by the ‘sun’ … ‘and the sun’s light shall be … like the light of Seven-days,’ i.e., like the light of the Shechinah, who is called ‘Seven-days.’ Not meaning, of course, that His light will be diminished; rather, that the Shechinah will be elevated until the God of Israel will be in comparison to Her as the Shechinah is now in comparison to Him.”
Male and female, God and Goddess, man and woman–they’re equal. Or they will be, in some longed-for future. It won’t diminish him if she’s on top for a change.
So taught the illustrious rabbi of Prague, in the treatise that was the charter of his egalitarian, universalist “conspiracy.” The book that may have been the greatest and most humane of his works, but to which he could never sign his name.
by David Halperin
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