by: Mark Kirschbaum on September 6th, 2012 | 1 Comment »
Perashat Ki Tavo, read this week, is noteworthy for containing a lengthy restatement of a blessing and curse sequence. Not the cheeriest or most readable of passages by any means, rather a long recitation of all the nastiness that will overtake the people should they fail to hearken to God’s word. I suspect the custom of reading these sections fast and sotto voce was not one that needed to be forcibly impressed upon the community; one wants to be done with these passages. Especially as this is a repeat performance, in that there already was a full set of curses already presented in Leviticus. So it will come as no surprise to regular readers that specifically within this bleakest and most unwelcoming of passages, the mystical commentators will find a powerful contemporary message of hope and redemption, defining a concept of self with interesting parallel to themes in contemporary cinema studies.
Rashi attempts to differentiate between the two sets of curses by finding differences between them- the first set are divine while the second set is Moshe’s own set of downer predictions, the first set are national, while the second set here refer to individual sinners (this is supported by the use of the plural in the first set and the individual in the second). Either way, best to get done with these passages quickly and hope they remain in the realm of the potential (in the course of my life I’ve had the unfortunate experience of hearing rabbis gleefully claim these passages as “predicting” the Holocaust and other such unfortunate readings).
It is thus surprising that this segment of curses provokes one of the most beautiful passages in the Zohar (to be specific, in the Zohar Hadash). The point the Zohar wishes to make about this section is wrapped in one of those poetic narratives that are often so unexpected that they strike one as truly inspired (as an aside, Gershom Scholem was dismissive of the Zohar, to say the least, because it was pseudo-epigraphic and not actually written by R. Shimon Bar Yohai. To my mind, the fact that this wild poetic riff was actually written by an individual in medieval Spain makes it one of the great works of art, a classic of world literature).
Here’s the Zohar’s literary framing of the teaching: R. Shimon Bar Yohai was hiding out from the Romans, and as per the legend, he was hiding out in a cave with his son, where the fruit of a carob tree nourished him, and a miraculous well provided him with water, and the prophet Elijah came twice a day to reveal secrets of the Universe. None of his comrades in the (anti-Roman) Resistance knew where he was. One day, his comrades (literally, chaverim) were discussing our Torah section, that of the curses, and they were perplexed as to why these curses were so bleak, as opposed to the earlier ones in Leviticus. As they couldn’t figure it out, they began to sigh, being certain that if R. Shimon Bar Yohai were not in hiding, he could explain it to them. Then, they saw a group of birds fluttering about, and among them a dove.
R. Yosi noted the dove, stated that the dove is frequently a metaphor for the people of Israel, and decided to ask R. Shimon Bar Yohai this question about the second group of curses, via the dove. He tied the message to the bird, and homing-pigeon-like, the dove brought the message to R. Shimon, who cried, saying that if he couldn’t get out the message to the people, they would never know the truth.
Suddenly Elijah the prophet appeared, saying it was hard for him to bear R. Shimon’s tears, and first gives a set of technical answers to the differences between the two sections, and makes a grand exit in a ball of fire, which doesn’t seem to comfort R. Shimon. Elijah reappears with the following teaching, which to my mind justifies this exquisite literary framing:
Fortunate are you, that God wants to honor you: All the promises and comforts of Israel are contained within this section. Check it out (pok u’chazei) A king loves his son, even when he needs to show anger in order to discipline him, he really deeply loves him (rehimu demayoi, loves him in his gut). Because this version of the curses was uttered out of love, as opposed to the first set.
The text continues with Elijah reading several of the verses in our section in this manner, with the R. Shimon’s last question being, where is the redemption hinted at in this section?
Elijah responds, look at the darkest sentence within the curses and there it is- 28:66: And your lives will hang before you, you will fear day and night and have no faith in your own living (the word hayim is used both times). The word life, hayyim, here, explains Elijah, means redemption, and while the wise people know that redemption is imminent, hanging before them, as it were, they maintain doubt about the actual time it will transpire, but the important thing is that they know it is dangling before them.
At this point, a letter is written, and put in the beak of the dove, who then carries it back to R. Yosi, still sitting at the launch site; R. Yosi carries the latter back to his colleagues who cry but are consoled that even if they know not where R. Shimon Bar Yohai is located, they are still with him through study.
From the literary set up of this teaching, it is clear, this was an insight the Zohar Hadash did not simply wish to share, but rather to emphasize, the literary framework implies a desire to shout it from the rooftops. The texts we read as curses contain not only blessings, but the secrets of redemption!
Can we go back and find these in our text? Reviewing the curses in its setting, we see that they are preceded by a set of blessings with a thematic suggesting of stability as opposed to the multiple displacements implied in the curses section. The curses are full of movement, everyone is being chased all over the place, dispersions, exile, and particularly confusion. A telling phrase for me is 28:34, that one will be driven mad (meshuga is the Hebrew word used here) by what one’s eyes see. Later in the passage, we have the line about not having faith in our own existing (or existence). Rashi uses the term “safek”, which translates as “doubt”. Doubt in what we see or visualize.
Just this kind of doubt in what we see is a very modern problem, much discussed in the context of our current “information age”, where vast quantities of data and information are continuously passing before us in a manner previously unknown in human existence. What’s more, the form of this information, more and more of it digital, has itself raised challenges to our understanding of our own ability to understand or center ourselves in this world. The media theorist F.A. Kittler has noted that the concept of digitization, where all information is reduced to pixels, has altered much of our conception:
…The general digitization of channels and information erases the differences among individual media. Sound and image, voice and text are reduced to surface effects, known to consumers as interface. Sense and the senses turn into eyewash. Their media-produced glamour will survive for an interim as a by-product of strategic programs. Inside the computers themselves everything becomes a number: quantity without image, sound, or voice. And once optical fiber networks turn formerly distinct data flows into a series of digitized numbers, any medium can be translated into any other…
At first glance, then, we find ourselves in a world without mooring, where we have no certainty about any reality around us, images are no longer photographic units but rather collections of pixels to be manipulated. This is a world in which one can feel threatened and lost. However, as argued beautifully by Mark Hansen in his recent “New Philosophy for New Media”, perhaps this apparent challenge actually opens up a role for a more central human experience- in a world abuzz with digital information, which we can longer assume as real and “self-sufficient”, the role of the body as processor, of the human mind as crucially central to the act of perception and giving meaning-
When the body acts to enframe digital information-or, as I put it, to forge the digital image- what it frames is in effect itself: its own affectively experienced sensation of coming into contact with the digital. In this way, the act of enframing information can be said to “give body” to digital data- to transform something that is unframed, disembodied and formless into concrete embodied information intrinsically imbued with (human) meaning.
Through the concept of ‘affection’ in Bergson, in which the act of perception is essentially a creative one, on through Deleuze, to whom perception is an assemblage of perception-images, action-images, and affection-images, Hansen notes that the epistemological challenge of the digital information age actually makes more clear to us our human role in creating reality out of indeterminacy.
…The “image” itself has become a process, and as such, has become irreducibly bound up with the activity of the body…the image, rather than finding instantiation in a privileged technical form (including the computer interface), now demarcates the very process through which the body, in conjunction with the various apparatuses for rendering the information perceptible, gives form to or in-forms information… (pp 10).
Deleuze sees the centrality of the body as processer of information with regards to film, even before the digital age, much of our cinematic experience is ‘filled in’ by the viewer, such as relations between characters, motion, what transpires between cuts and outside the frame. The centrality of the viewer in the construction of the cinematic image, the “gest”, leads him to the following conclusion:
The reaction of which man has been dispossessed can be replaced only by belief. Only belief in the world can reconnect man to what he sees and hears. The cinema must film, not the world, but belief in this world, our only link. Restoring our belief in the world- this is the power of the modern cinema (when it stops being bad). Deleuze, Cinema 2, 172
In fact, Hansen argues, the ability to expand the normal capacity for perception through new media actually leads to an intensified recognition of the humanity of affection. The artist Bill Viola captured the emotional responses of actors using high speed sensitive video played back at normal speed showed “supersaturated” emotional expression that goes beyond what we normally perceive, leading Viola to conclude that “emotions are outside of time” (pp 264).
This leads us to the Baal Shem Tov (Besht)’s reading of verse 66. The Besht read this verse (you life shall dangle before you… you will not have faith in your life) as a means to fine tune one’s self-determination and perception.
Life is not a static image, the Besht argues, quoting from the first chapter of Ezekiel, where the chayot of the chariot (here read as cognate with chayim, life) were seen to flit to and fro, and thus one’s own spiritual life is ever changeable and indeterminate.
For this reason, one must always see ones “self”, dangling, as it were, before oneself. One must examine ones love or fear of God, or for that matter, any activity one has done, and break it down to the tiniest constituents (pixilate it, so to speak) and seek out any inadequacies, any deficiencies, in order to rectify them.
Following the Zohar’s lead, in the Besht’s view, the text read as the darkest existential curse is really an analytic technique to self modification and “supersaturated” self understanding.
His son in law, the Degel Machane Ephraim reads this passage as teaching us a creative visualization, so that seeing one’s life before them means training oneself to be able to visualize Gods name before one, as in the mystical reading of the verse “shiviti Hashem linegdi tamid”, “I have placed God before me” as being a meditative ability to “see” the name of God in one’s field of vision (one might say seeing as with a third eye).
Hansen ends his work with the argument that the challenge of digitalization and machine time should lead us to “explore this machinism as the very catalyst for an empowering technical transformation of the human (pp 271)”. It seems to me that the Zohar, with its argument that the darkest, most intense confusion is exactly where one will find the path to redemption, would be sympathetic, and the literary framing of this argument in the Zohar, so cinematic, really, where a simple statement of the theory might have been adequate, is itself supportive of the role of the “soul”- the capacity of the individual to extract beauty from the apparently ugly, “cursed” raw data of empiric perceptions, and truly create with one’s unique imagine, a transformed and “blessed” world.