Perashat Breishit: Being and Prayer
…the Word is the Word,
the Word shows the extent of our
Cut off from reality,
The sound of these words serving us deceptively.
Yet the value of imagery,
What we put into these words…
The problem with the opening passages of the Torah in a sense is the problem of being. As Rashi points out from the outset with the teaching of R. Yitzchak, the narration of the creation is meant to teach us not basic lessons in science and cosmology, but rather something about our being in the world (the fact that all through my early Jewish Day School years all the Rabbis seemed to be concerned with was attacking “evolution” is, I believe, a phenomenon of the internalization of certain Protestant agendas, but that’s a subject for some other discussion). At any rate, as this question of “being” is so fundamental an aspect of contemporary discourse, it is worth addressing, right at the Beginning, as it were.
Heidegger posed the question most influentially when he asked, following Schelling: Why is there Being rather than nothing? To him, the most urgent and overlooked question was what does it mean to “be” in the world, what does our existence mean, this recognition of nothingness, of our own impending non-being, our personal sense of uniqueness in the face of a world of mute and unconcerned objects? Heidegger posited that disconnection from this being, from Dasein, was at the core of our angst, of our disconnection from our authenticity in the universe to which we are thrown. This almost mystical conception, which has such a powerful hold on the imagination because it addresses that sense we have that there is something bigger and greater to our existence, became a full blown theological position in Heidegger’s later years, after the “Kehre”, when Being became essentially an independent existing thing that attempts to speak to us and through us (in Eco’s wonderful phrase: “this intensionally slippery being becomes a massive subject, albeit in the form of an obscure borborygmus wandering about in the bowels of the entities. It wants to speak and reveal itself”). This mystical sense of Being has been concealed by conventional metaphysics that wishes to make an object out of it, rather than a vital living force, and is only revealed by the Poets, who with their ability to name things as they are, reveal the truth of Being. (As a bonus aside, there is a teaching attributed to Rav Soloveitchik on this, which I heard second hand from his grandson, in which the episode in which Adam names the animals, and then suddenly senses loneliness and is given Chava as his mate, is directly a result of the recognition by Adam that objective zoological terms do not satisfactorily related to the Being that Adam senses that he is. He attempts to give them “names”, that is, personal names, but realizes rapidly that calling a cow “Betsy” does not mean anything to the cow, as far as we can tell they do not see themselves as individual beings to whom a “name” would matter. Thus he recognizes that he is alone without a partner, and is then ready for a mate, who he can appropriately call Chava.)
In my Vayera piece, we shall address one cardinal set of problems with Heidegger’s approach (and which may be related to deeper problems with Heidegger as a human being), as recognized by Levinas and Derrida, when we discuss the Akedah. For now, however, as what I am striving to present is a reading of the Kedushat Levi, we need to examine other possible explanations for what this angst derives from, and from where our sense of the missing mystery of our being may stem.
Umberto Eco’s recent work “Kant and the Platypus” begins with a long essay entitled “On Being”, which suggests convincingly that all the problems Heidegger solves by summoning up Being can be explained more fundamentally as a result of language, or more exactly our built in failure of language. In order to represent the world as it appears to us, we use language, which essentially works as a shorthand set of signs so that we can communicate in some way the objects we are presented with. We use the word “man” to cover the infinite variations and subtypes in genus, age, disposition, etc, in other words, all our words are very abstracted ciphers the use of which immediately robs the universe in front of us from all its variability. We impoverish our perceptions when we choose words, sacrificing all the elements presented to us in order to communicate. Technically, every object in every state would require a bundle of words to adequately be communicated. Thus, contra Aristotle and Plato, there are no essences at the core of being (neither subsistent nor derived), just hard choices. We should really even need to factor in changes in our mental states when using descriptive terms (say, the happiness we experience in smelling flowers when in that sort of mood, as opposed to how we see flowers when we aren’t in that sort of mood). This is why poetry works, it causes us to desist momentarily from what Vattimo calls the “suspension and shirking” of the perceived world that we are forced into in order to use language. Here is Eco:
…the language of the Poets seems to occupy a free zone. Liars by vocation, they are not those who say what being is but seem to be those who instead often permit themselves (and us) to deny its resistances- because for them tortoises can fly, and there can even be creatures that elude death. But their discourse, in telling us sometimes that even the impossibilia are possible, brings us face to face with the immoderate nature of our desire: by letting us glimpse what could be beyond the limit…
This is, as well, at the core of what is known as postmodern thought–the problem of legitimation. Since our discourse is really contingent on choices that we make in language, and there are infinite ways to present and represent, who can privilege and legitimate one approach to another? Midrash works in this manner. There are, in Midrash, many possible ways to read every text, every word, even the shapes and forms of the letters. (In the medieval period, the concept of “peshat”, a core meaning of the text was privileged for apologetic reasons, hence Midrash was not appreciated; it seems to have required the Hassidic hermeneutic to unleash Midrash again.) This Midrashic approach to reading is continued in the Zohar and the Tikkunei Zohar.
The Tikkunei Zohar is built around a set of readings of the first few words of our perasha, in which the letters of the word Bereishit are scrambled and broken down to reveal multiple possibilities. The Kedushat Levi (R. Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev) borrows one, where Bereishit, in the Beginning, is read as Bet Reishit, that is, two beginnings. Existence is composed of a split at its core. The plenitude of Gd, all the possible meanings and intentions encoded in creation, undergo a zimzum, a constriction, by virtue of language. Kol, raw sound, that is, the most basic response to the world, is constricted through speech, through choices of words that filter reality, “kol ehad lefi haratzon shelo”, every one’s choices corresponding to their will. Our choice of words, however, is from our prayers. On Rosh Hashana, which is our day of prayer relating to creation, we choose our world, so to speak, through Malchuyot, Zichronot, and Shofarot. As we said in the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur pieces, the first act of creation, as signified by the word Bereishit, the Ma’amar (speech act) that is prior to speech, represents the infinite set of possibilities that existence presents before limitation by speech. We reach back to that once a year by virtue of the shofar, that raw undifferentiated sound, prior to speech. From that point on, R. Levi Yitzhak explains, existence is carved out from the plenitude of being by the restriction and channel of language. This living grappling with reality is the second, “corresponding” Torah, Torah sheb’al peh, the Torah of words, our words, the set of readings that we choose and legitimize. Our choices in language determine our choice of shefa, of divine efflux; we create of the routes and funnels by which we experience Gd’s totality. Our prayer is this action, it is another act of creation, a creation anew of the modes by which we communicate with the world, and at the same time it is through prayer that we become capable of this act of creation. R. Pinchas of Koretz, one of the earliest Hassidic masters, used to say that just as Oral Law is Torah, and as such in essence an aspect of the Divine, then obviously prayer is a form of the Oral Law, and thus is also an aspect of the Divine Presence.
The creative aspect of prayer (in the sense that the sacrifices have become transvalued, or even sublated, into prayer) is clearly expressed in the Jerusalem Talmud, Rosh Hashana (chapt 4, halacha 8), the sacrifice of Rosh Hashana is commanded with a unique verb. In all other offerings the text says “you shall sacrifice”, in this one it commands “you shall make it”. Thus, the JT continues, by virtue of the Rosh Hashana observance it is as if you have created yourself anew. This concept of personal re-creation through words is at play in BT Sanhedrin 99:, in which teaching another Torah is described alternately as recreating the student, recreating Torah, and recreating yourself. Thus, every creative act is more than an expression of being, it is in fact an act of Creation in the fullest sense.
Perhaps, then, if prayer brings about creation, then now, more than ever we must pray for peace…