Thursday, June 02, 2011

Counting the Omer: Yesod (Foundation, Righteousness)

It's getting harder and harder to write something sensible about this stuff. But I press on, Shavuot is in sight. I promise at the end I will write something that explains/justifies for my alarmed readers why I am spending time on this nonsense.

Yesod is the sephira near but not quite at the bottom of the tree of life, a kind of gathering point for all the energies present in the other sephirot before they trickle down to reality, which is next week's subject. (Oddly enough my work involves a form of flux analysis in metabolic networks). It's identified with the "procreative organ" as the books so delicately put it. What does righteousness have to do with it? Well, the very first commandment was to be fruitful and multiply. Jews are obligated to make more Jews. The tzadik is the foundation of the world.

That's a very strange thought to my ususal materialist self. If righteousness and persons are anything at all, they aren't the foundation of the world but a late, epiphenomenal, accidental sort of thing. But maybe not. Maybe the universe was inevitably directed towards making entities that could perceive it (via anthropic selection if nothing else), and maybe such entities had to have a moral sense baked into their foundations, maybe it's an inevitable and necessary a part of intelligence. I can almost see that.

Also odd to me is the confluence of (pro)creation and righteousness. I tend to view creation as an amoral, wild sort of activity, whether it is influenced by the divine or not, it proceeds by its own rules and not some external law. But again, maybe not. Again, going back to the earliest parts of the Torah, the message is that God not only created the world but pronounced it good. And when I create something, I generally have some idea of goodness in mind that guides me. So maybe it's not so strange, maybe my ideas about creativity have been infected by a pernicious romanticism or something.

A fleeting idea of a sort of metaphysical Darwinian process: that which exists is good, what is good exists, and what exists is that which is capable of propagating itself, of procreating, of having its form persist and replicate across space and time. A tzadik is one who combines the moral, physical, spiritual, biological, and I-don't-know-what-other forms of this process into one handy human-shaped container.

Alright, that's enough of the acid flashbacks for now, got to walk the dog and take out the garbage here on planet Earth.

[and, let me just note, that while "what exists is good" may have some sort of truth in a visionary sense, that kind of thought doesn't survive for an instant once critical thought from the merely human perspective is applied to it. From that vantage, all sorts of existing things are manifestly not-so-good, from the Holocaust to polio to global warming to mundane everyday problems (we just had to have all of the heating ducts in our house replaced because they had originally been installed by incompetents and have been mostly eaten into by the local wildlife...) to all the individual tragedies of life (another suicide on the railroad tracks I ride to work on last night). The pollyanish, best-of-all-possible-worlds kind of attitude that sometimes accompanies religion is one of the major turnoffs/obstacles for me. But at least I can catch a glimpse of where it's coming from.]

Speaking of that: last week we touched on a line from the Torah that resonates with the above. Abraham tries to talk God out of destroying Sodom and Gommorrah and says "shall not the judge of all the Earth do right?" (Genesis 18:25). I was somewhat embarrassed that I recognized this from Alan Moore's Watchmen comic, but no matter. It's rather startling, in that we see a human teaching morality to God, chiding him even. There's a major part of the Jewish character rooted in that, a more familiar one than this mystical stuff, which seems linked with an unquestioning acceptance. Also contrast with Christian theology which has a whole branch dedicated to explaining away God's shitty behavior.

[[Update: Stumbled on this passage just after writing about my personal duct problems above:
Yesod means "foundation", and the sephira represents the hidden infrastructure whereby the emanations from the remainder of the Tree are transmitted to the sephira Malkhut. Just as a large building has its air-conditioning ducts, service tunnels, conduits, electrical wiring, hot and cold water pipes, attic spaces, lift shafts, winding rooms, storage tanks, and a telephone exchange, so does the Creation; the external, visible world of phenomenal reality rests (metaphorically speaking) upon a hidden foundation of occult machinery.


scw said...

Re:"Also contrast with Christian theology which has a whole branch dedicated to explaining away God's shitty behavior" - wasn't it a rabbi who wrote a recent best-selling book entitled "Why Bad Things Happen to Good People"?

If I recall correctly, God's smitings and blastings are prominent features of the Old Testament, and it does a pretty good job of explaining them away. See for example the book of Job.

mtraven said...

Yes, there is Jewish theodicy, it's true, but it's less prominent. Judaism has a whole lot of misfortune to explain, and the linked wikipedia page gives some examples of post-Holocaust theology that sound interesting, in the sense of it must be an extremely difficult feat to pull off.

As I recall the Book of Job famously fails to give an explanation for anything. God heaps troubles on Job for no good reason, and when Job asks why, he's told to bugger off, in beautiful language ("Knowest thou when the wild goats bring forth? Canst thou draw Leviathan with a hook?") It's powerful as literature; as theory or explanation, not so much.

scw said...

The book of Job explains, if not explains away, his tribulations, as a consequence of the contention between God and Satan (Job i:6-12). God brings the exemplary conduct of Job to Satan's attention; the Devil responds that, deprived of his good fortune, Job will curse God to His face. God replies by telling the Evil One, in effect, to have at it; He is confident that His servant's faith will not fail. And of course, in the end, it does not, and Job is made whole: "So the LORD blessed the latter end of Job more than the beginning: for he had fourteen thousand sheep, and six thousand camels, and a thousand yoke of oxen, ad a thousand she-asses," It is a perfect fable (though Aesop would have been more concise) - the moral, "Chi la dura la vince."

And of course there could hardly be a better example of trying to justify God's ways to man than explaining the necessity of a daily struggle for existence as the consequence of man's disobedience to God in Eden. See Genesis iii.

The Gospels seem quite milkwater compared to the Grand Guignol of the Old Testament. The ancient Jews therein may be the Chosen of God, but are mostly portrayed as a stiff-necked and hard-hearted people, who fall constantly from the straight and narrow, and, like recalcitrant children, are constantly being taken to the woodshed by their distraught Father.

The typical hero of the Old Testament is either a hard man like Jephthah, who wins divine approval by committing genocide in the Lord's name, then making a human sacrifice of his only daughter in thanks; or else a thundering prophet like Isaiah or Jeremiah, who admonishes the Jews for their manifold failings. We may contrast this with the Gsopels, in which there are no divine smitings or blastings, but rather where the Second Person of the Trinity makes himself a voluntary sacrifice at the hands of the wretched human race for their redemption.

I have little acquaintance with Jewish literature outside of the Bible, Flavius Josephus, and some of Philo Jud├Žus, so have no idea of the extent of its apologetic writings or the part of them devoted to theodicy. Judaism is not a proselytising religion, and perhaps did not feel the need to explain its punishing-father concept of Deity to the rest of the world.

Christianity, on the other hand, had to take this aspect of its Judaic inheritance and reconcile it with the concept that God was omnibenevolent, in such a way that was satisfactory to its pagan converts. The pagans, of course, had harsh and capricious gods, but entertained no notion that they were benevolent or morally exemplary. Their sky and thunder god Zeus/Jupiter (Sansk. Dyaus pita = Lat. Deus pater, i.e., God the father) was neither moral nor benevolent. The Greeks and Romans were philosophically sophisticated enough to want to know why they should see the Christian God, with all his Jewish baggage, as differing significantly from the divine tyrant they already knew. This may explain the greater volume of Christian writing devoted to theodicy.

It is noteworthy that the fathers of the pre-Reformation Church thought the Old Testament had to be understood and explained metaphorically, especially in ways that elucidate the New Testament, as St. Augustine held. Thus, for example, the faithless Zedekiah is a "type" of Herod, and Jeremiah a "type" of St. John the Baptist, and so on. This style of exegesis required learned clergy, and posed dangers to the layman who read the O.T. without their guidance. Of course the Reformation, which disseminated the Old Testament promiscuously amongst the laity, and claimed its literal truth, was responsible for loosing a great deal of Old Testament-style violence in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, giving rise to many imitators of Jephthah who thought of themselves as good Protestants.

TGGP said...

What do you think of antinatalism? Or maybe you've already given your opinion before.

When I still believed in God, Job was my central text. As I mentioned before, my Lord bore a striking resemblance to Azathoth.

mtraven said...

That explanation is not given to Job, and would seem unlikely to satisfy him.

The end of Job seems to detract from its literary force; I believe some scholars think it a late addition, and I prefer to as well. The modern equivalent of Job is Kafka's The Trial, with the State taking the place of God as unfathomable source of torment. Kafka at least does not pull his punches with a redemptive end for his protagonist.

I'm hardly one to defend the God of the Old Testament, but I think your characterization of it is simplistic in the extreme. Take the line from Abraham mentioned above. Recall that a few chapters back Abraham was ready to sacrifice his only son on God's say-so; now he's giving moral instruction to God. What's his real character? The answer is that the bible is a set of ancient texts by diverse writers that happens to be one of the founding documents of our civilization, but it's probably a mistake to try to have any simple or univocal interpreation of what it or its characters are about.

mtraven said...

tggp: antinatalism seems pretty silly, although I guess it has a family resemblance to anarchism and atheism, two ideas that have some appeal. They are all attempts to deny a fundamental truth of existence -- often for good reasons, but still ultimately doomed. Antinatalism is battling Darwin, which may be an even more powerful and fundamental force than god or the state.

scw said...

The explanation is given to the reader, not to Job. Needless to say, theodicy is always propounded for the benefit of the reader, not the characters in whatever fable or parable may be at issue.

Indeed, the Old Testament is a 'massa confusa' of texts, diversis manibus scriptis, and replete with the superstitions and taboos of an obscure and primitive tribe. It contradicts itself on such prosaic details as the height of the pillars of the porch of Solomon's temple; cf. III Regnorum vij:15 and II Paralipomenon iij:15. All the more reason why it needs careful and metaphorical/allegorical interpretation, as even Philo had to admit in defending it to a philosophically learned Hellenic audience in the first century A.D.

Of course, the only way that the Old Testament became "one of the founding documents of our civilization" was through the wide dissemination it received through Christianity, and particularly the Catholic Church in mediaeval western Europe. Without that, public awareness of Judaism would be on the level of public awareness of the Sabaeans or the Yezidis.