by: Mark Kirschbaum on March 8th, 2012 | 5 Comments »
Things have a past and a present, but only Gd is pure presence…. A.J. Heschel, God in Search of Man pp 142
I’m proud to share with you all what is likely the “trippiest” piece I’ve ever written. In weeks past, we have discussed the inherent failure of artistic endeavor as perceived by contemporary theorists and earlier Hassidic masters. Every building, beautiful or sacred as it may be, is on the one hand subject to critique as a result of its being a “finished product”, and on the other hand, no matter how beautiful the edifice, it is also from some perspective also a barrier, a set of boundaries, a marked off perimeter. We have seen that in the Hassidic masters this problematic arises with regard to the texts surrounding the Mishkan, the Temple, and identifies the barriers as being erected due to sin, specifically that of the golden calf. Thus, we have seen how what is at first glance considered to be the holiest and highest potential religious creation is reduced to a continuous reminder of our mistakes and failures. However, where we in contemporary culture enjoy contemplating pessimistic works of critique, is there no way to overcome the innate tragedy of human activity, what we may deem, the “Edifice complex”? The answer leads to some very surprising and “trippy” ideas about dwelling, reality, and time.
While novel ideas regarding contemporary theory are generally presented in the academic essay form, in the Hassidic tradition these issues are discussed as part of exegesis on the Torah text, usually involving creative readings of the Midrash and Talmud. Thus, as a general principle with regards to understanding this literature, in order to reach the novel theological perspective in their writings, we must first confront a textual problem. This week’s Torah reading, which is centrally situated between the various repetitions of the various commands to construct the Mishkan, is built upon a strange order of passages . In summary, the portion of Ki Tissa contains a restatement of the command to construct all the sundry elements of the Mishkan, directed this time to the “architect”, Bezalel, and his team. After this, there is a command to keep the Sabbath, not specifically linked to the surrounding passages, and then the pivotal chapter containing the sin of the golden calf is narrated. Why is so central and lofty a concept as the Sabbath linked to the narrative of the golden calf?
The commentators find it curious that the Sabbath commandments are linked in to the episode of the golden calf. The Meor V’shemesh states that Shabbat is linked to the Mishkan because both have in common rectification (tikkun) of the sin of the golden calf- the spontaneous donations contributed by the people to build the Mishkan is a parallel and corrective for the sin committed by the people’s eagerness to contribute gold to make the idol, in other words, the Mishkan is a response to the material aspect of sin, while the Shabbat, which is intended primarily as a day of spiritual contemplation, rectifies the idolatrous thinking underlying the golden calf, as we are taught BT Shabbat 118: “He who keeps the Shabbat correctly, even if he worshipped idols as did the generation of Enosh, is forgiven”. In contemporary jargon, we might say that the Mishkan serves as a praxis-tikkun, which is necessarily paired with the Sabbath as an ideology-tikkun. Let’s go even further with this textual connection.
The opening verses regarding Shabbat in this perasha read as follows: (Shemot 31:13)
“But (akh), my Sabbaths you must keep, for it is a sign between us for generations (l’dorotaychem)…And the people of Israel kept the Shabbat, creating of the Shabbat an eternal covenant throughout the generations (l’dorotam)…”
Rashi explains the connection to the previous section, the command to build the Mishkan, as follows:
Even though you are commanded to work on the Mishkan, don’t even think about violating the Shabbat while constructing it. This is derived from the superfluous “but”, for which we have an exegetic teaching whereby “but” and “only” imply exceptions to the law being discussed, thus, here it teaches that work on the Mishkan is stopped for the Shabbat.
In other words, these perashiot are linked in order to prioritize Shabbat over and above the Mishkan. On the other hand, the Ramban has a problem in midrashic formal logic with Rashi’s approach. If “buts and only” serve to exclude a circumstance from the law, then the law where the “but” is found is the law diminished, hence, technically, the teaching seems to imply exactly the opposite position, that Shabbat is abrogated for the sake of the Mishkan!
The Ramban, however, instead sets the Shabbat farther above the Mishkan; he argues that the conjunction of these texts is to insist, with the emphatic word “akh”, that while the Mishkan may be transient, the Sabbath is eternal, and always to be observed, even in the absence of a centralized Temple. In other words, the ‘akh’ implies that even if the Mishkan were destroyed, Shabbat is still to be kept. Following this view, the Italian Renaissance commentator Seforno states “…if Shabbat is violated, then there is no place for the Mishkan…”.
The Sabbath then appears to serve as both a precondition for, and an alternative to spatial sanctity. Can we then posit an alternative to dwelling in space, to a dis-placed holiness, one that transcends the critiques of “architecture” as we discussed in the essay on Perashat Teruma?
This is the explicit argument of the Degel Mahane Ephraim (DME). He begins by quoting the Baal Haturim, who note that the first letters of the phrase “et hashabbat L‘dorotam” spell out the word “ohel“, tent. Furthermore, the Hebrew term meaning “generations”, dorotam, is repeatedly spelled in an incomplete fashion, lacking the letter “vav” (in Hebrew, the vowel sound “o” can be written with or without the supporting consonant “vav”, in medieval Hebrew grammar, words spelled with the vav are called “complete” and those lacking the vav are called “incomplete”), allowing for the word to be read as “deerotam“, a dwelling place, as in the modern Hebrew term “deerah”, which means “housing”.
In other words, the phrase can be read as saying “The Sabbath is their dwelling place” , that the Sabbath is where the generations dwell, the Sabbath is the superior dwelling place, as opposed to the spatial sanctuary of the Mishkan. The Degel adds that the word ohel, tent, is also to be found in the first letters of the phrase “ot hee l’olam”, which literally means that the Shabbat serves as an eternal sign or covenant; in this reading, it is the Sabbath (not the Mishkan or Temple) that is the eternal dwelling place. A sacred edifice built out of time, “temporal holiness” is superior to a sacred edifice built out of place, “spatial holiness”.
The Meor Eynaim (ME) argues that this is Rashi’s deeper meaning as well. The ME sees in Rashi’s reading a conscious choice of words in which indeed the ‘akh’, the “but”, is intended to diminish, and in agreement with the Ramban, suggests a diminution of the Sabbath. The ME reads Rashi as implying that any physical activity, any act of construction, would serve to diminish the Sabbath. The Sabbath, as the Zohar teaches, is a reflection of God’s name, so to speak, and is complete, perfect, without deficiency. Architecture, on the other hand, always recognizes an implicit deficiency (as was discussed at greater length in last week’s Torah commentary)- one constructs because of a perceived lack, because one needs shelter or some previous form of construction was inadequate for physical or aesthetic reasons. The construction of a physical, sacred edifice is thus, a miyut b’Shabbat, a diminution of the Sabbath; temporal holiness is superior to spatial holiness. (As a footnote, the Meor Eynaim adds an existential meditation worthy of citing: Isaiah 57 states that God “dwells” within the humble person. A person who needs nothing, who is not a slave to desires, both dwells within and becomes, a dwelling place of Godly perfection.)
In summary, “spatial holiness”, the state of dwelling in sacred space, such as the sanctuary of a temple, is innately a deficient state, one subject to critique and barriers. The superior state is that of “temporal holiness”, of dwelling in time, as described regarding the Shabbat. The Sefat Emet quoted in last week’s commentary onPerashat Terumah describes God’s original vision as having the Torah open to all without a Mishkan, accessible to all who desired transcendence in an unmediated manner, without boundaries, until the people sinned and through that sin revealed a need for a lower, mediated spirituality, one which was “walled off” within a Temple. The Sefat Emet, when discussing Shabbat, explains the term “ot”, sign, in a manner similar to the way the word “sign” is used in linguistics theory, that is, as sign versus symbol, with sign here meaning a direct manifestation, rather than a metaphor of something else. “Ot” to the Sefat Emet (Shabbat Shuva, 1893 תרנ”ד) is defined as an unmediated experience of the divine. Directly referring to his teaching on the barriers of the Mishkan, he states that the Sabbath is a point of contact with the original concept of divine dwelling, in continuous and direct dialogue with the people, unmediated by barriers, God’s original vision for humanity prior to the sin of the golden calf.
The point then is that dwelling in time is superior to dwelling in space. A sacred object is fixed, it is what it is, and it is a unilateral movement on the part of the to relate to it, much as we experience a work of art. Sacred time, on the other hand, is in a relationship with us, parallel to us, changing as we change, moving forward as we move forward. Sacred objects remain unchanged, whereas individuals grow and change; whereas sacred time implies continuous, linear growth.
R. Zadok HaCohen of Lublin presents a reading, which read in this light now makes more sense, of the oft-quoted teaching in BT Shabbat 118: which states that “if Israel kept two Sabbaths, the Ultimate Redemption would be achieved”. R. Zadok asks, why two Sabbaths? He answers that two Sabbaths, instead of just one, are necessary because first a Shabbat must be experienced in order to truly learn and understand the experience ; keeping the second one after the having the first experience as a “vehicle” (to borrow a Buddhist phrase), would then be utterly transformative.
R. Zadok Hacohen was an interesting thinker, among his writings he also left us a dream notebook, printed at the end of the work Resisay Laylah. In this wonderful text has a dream that he explains at length, a dream of a Third Sabbath (like a third eye?)- He explains this dream as follows- the First Sabbath purifies from sin, allowing the Second Sabbath to be experienced in a mindset that is liberated from sin and obstruction. Then, according to R. Zadok’s dream, there would be a Third Sabbath, currently ineffable, not yet within our limited capacity of description, a Sabbath consisting of an experience which can only be understood from a mindset no one has yet attained (again, a Buddhist parallel, the Buddhists explain regarding “nothingness”, as a state of being that can only be explained after it is achieved).
In this dream of R. Zadok, in the spiritually perfected world of Tikkun, the Shabbat would have a duration of three days (I would like to believe this is a covert message of future world harmony where the Sabbaths of all the Abrahamic faiths are unified). Thus the temporal sequence of the temporal experience is constructive of an entirely different individual (or people) then having subsequent enhanced experiences. In summary, dwelling in space, spatial holiness, then, is an innately limited experience, fixed and unchanging, as an icon or statue or building is, in essence, a dwelling in place, without movement. Temporal holiness, dwelling in time, is, like time, infinite, a spiritual journey that is only limited by how much we choose to grow in the relationship. Sabbath, then, is our unmediated transformative gateway.
Heschel’s argument regarding the advantage of holy time over holy object, as in his work, The Sabbath (contra Eliade’s centrality of sacred object, axis mundi, etc.), is in perfect alignment with this set of readings by the Hassidic masters. However, if we contemplate the potential meanings within the idea of progressive transformative experience, we might begin to sense that these spatial and temporal forms of holiness are themselves only a vehicle, steps in a path to even greater spiritual growth and transformation. Perhaps it may dawn upon us that time, like fixed objects, like spatiality, that even time itself is corruptible and can be transcended. Sins, after all, occur in time, and certainly one can experience unpleasant times (Borges, describing one of his ancestors: “like all men, he was given bad times in which to live”)…
The mystical thinkers of the Kabbalah recognized this sad truth. R. Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto, one of the great original thinkers of the Jewish mystical tradition, in his commentary to the Zoharic text called Arimit Yadi B’tzlotin, argues that time itself is transient. He reads the line in Kohelet 3:1 which reads (or is sung by Pete Seeger and the Byrds), ‘there is a season and time to every purpose under heaven’ as a statement of scientific fact, taking the phrase ”under heaven” as declaring that time itself is provisionally ‘under heaven’, that is, not eternal like heaven, but transient, let us say, the temporal is itself temporary. In mystical language, zeman, time, is numerically equivalent to the kabbalistic worlds of ‘mah’ and ‘ben’, which are the numerical symbols of the two lower universes (of the four in traditional Jewish mystical thought). Time does not exist beyond our material spheres, time is superceded in the supernal worlds.
What does this possibly mean, a world above time? JL Borges has a fantastic (in the actual sense of the word) essay, entitled ‘A New Refutation of Time’, in which he denies the linearity and contemporaneousness of time:
I deny, in an elevated number of instances, the successive; I deny, in an elevated number of instances, the contemporary as well. The lover who thinks ‘While I was so happy, thinking of the fidelity of my love, she was deceiving me’ deceives himself: If every state we experience is absolute, such happiness was not contemporary to the betrayal; the discovery of that betrayal is another state, which cannot modify the ‘previous’ ones, though it can modify their recollection. The misfortune of today is no more real than the happiness of the past. I shall seek a more concrete example. In the first part of August, 1824, Captain Isadoro Suarez, at the head of a squadron of Peruvian Hussars, decided the victory of Junin; in the first part of August, 1824, De Quincy published a diatribe against Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre; these events were not contemporary (they are now), since the two men died- one in the city of Montevideo, the other in Edinburgh- without knowing anything about each other? Each moment is autonomous? Each moment we live exists, but not their imaginary combination.
Again, Borges, in his story ‘Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ alludes to this conception, arguing that
…all men, in the vertiginous moment of coitus, are the same man. All men who repeat a line from Shakespeare, are William Shakespeare…
Without needing to resort to complex mathematics and physics, from a cognitive point of view we have all had that sense that there are greater and lesser moments in our lives and in the course of history, that resonate for each one of us in a manner beyond the mere facticity of time.
Thus, in light of all we’ve seen in this week’s perasha, we can posit a thought experiment one step beyond that of Nietzche’s “eternal return”. Nietzche argued that we would choose to live our lives differently if we perceived our actions as being repeated endlessly through infinity. I would suggest that perhaps all our ideas of reward and punishment beyond the crassness of the physical, of spiritual growth unlimited by the vicissitudes of time or space; all these ideas may be conceptualized if we postulate a world constructed from time. That is, that which we have lived, that which we have chosen and prioritized, those moments may be viewed as the building blocks of another type of existence.
This may explain why the Sabbath is viewed as far more important than any temple- for the Sabbath experience, as we’ve seen, as in the first letters of ‘ot he l‘olam’, spelling out ‘ohel‘, “dwelling”, may perhaps represent the building blocks of a far greater way of being, a timeless existence beyond in a state of ineffable beauty peace and joy.
Perhaps we can create, with every positive moment we experience and share, a new kind of dwelling! The edifice, for example, that we construct out of positive experiences such as those of the Sabbath, the holy moments at the table with our families, in prayer, in lofty thought- let us posit that these and all beautiful moments experienced by the totality of consciousness may represent the building blocks for the transformation of our world into a more beautiful world, one literally “built out of time”, the building blocks of our new world being the happy and positive experiences of all of humanity!