Judaism Beyond Words
As far as we know, Samuel Pepys ventured into a London synagogue only once. Once was enough. Pepys is the celebrated 17th-century diarist, and the day he visited the Creechurch Lane Synagogue happened to be Simhat Torah, the holiday marking the completion of the yearly cycle of Torah reading. The congregation was living it up, dancing and singing and drinking uproariously as one does on Simhat Torah. But Pepys took it to be an ordinary Jewish worship service, and drew the obvious conclusions about this bizarre and drunken race called the Jews.
At least Pepys tried. Judaism is in fact hard to know, and profoundly different from what most people expect. A casual passerby—even an active member of a typical American synagogue—sees, ordinarily, only the street façade of this oldest, deepest, and most challenging of Western religions. The actual life of Judaism goes on in hidden courtyards that observant Jews rarely feel called upon to describe.
What is Judaism? The main topics are familiar: God and man; the people Israel; Torah and mitzvot, or divine commands; prayer, the Sabbath, and the yearly cycle of sacred ritual. The great themes of Jewish history are likewise familiar: exodus and liberation, chosenness and revelation, exile and redemption, community and peoplehood. But some of Judaism’s most important themes are unfamiliar, because, like musical phrases or fragrances, they can only be described imperfectly in words.
What is Judaism? It is one continuous sacred text, founded on the written Torah (or Bible) and the spoken Torah (or Talmud), continuing through several millennia’s worth of discussion and commentary laid in translucent leaves over the foundation. One generation’s work of study and understanding never obscures, only colors, the previous generation’s. Israel developed its religion by successive glazes. You are always catching glimpses—as if you were a scuba diver gazing downward at submerged ancient cities—of older worlds beneath the surface. But you swim not in water but in voices: the Lord’s voice upon the waters of Psalm 29; the voice of the shofar, in which mankind addresses its most urgent messages to God; the still, small voice that the prophet Elijah hears on Mt. Horeb; the dark voice of Jewish history, the “voice of your brother’s blood” crying out from the earth; and the intertwined voices of unbridled joy, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride—the sound of God’s presence in the universe.
Judaism’s Themes are conveyed in words. But often, the point of the words is to convey a picture.
Christianity’s central theme is a picture—a picture that has been repeated millions of times, in millions of ways. But Judaism’s pictures are different. They are too allusive or abstract to paint, and yet they are pictures nonetheless. To understand the internal life of Judaism, you must be able to read the pictures.
Some people have the wrong impression that Judaism is an “unvisual” or even anti-visual religion. It does strongly forbid the worship of images—yet Judaism may be the most “visual” of any Western religion or intellectual system.1 Some images are readily transferred from the rich warmth of the mind to canvas or panel or plaster wall; Judaism’s theme-images do not tolerate that sort of treatment. In transit from mind to mind, they are embodied in words and sacred rituals.
In ancient manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible, there are no illustrations. The Bible is not a picture book; it is all words, only words. And yet the Bible often speaks in pictures.
I mean this in a specific sense. When you read good narrative writing, invariably you picture the people or events that are being described. The Bible has some of the best narrative prose ever conceived. But that is not what I mean by “speaking in pictures.” I mean using pictures to express ideas.
For example: traveling with his large household to meet his warlike brother Esau, the patriarch Jacob trusts God—but he has wronged his brother terribly, and he knows it. He wants to go forward but is afraid to. “Jacob was very frightened, in anguish; he divided the people with him, and the flocks and cattle and camels, into two camps” (Genesis 32:8). Jacob, torn and divided, literally tears his household in two; the torn-apart household embodies the idea that Jacob himself is torn.
“Do not worship other gods or pray to idols, however seductive.” This is a law that is asserted many times in the Bible—but embodied once, unforgettably. When the high priest Aaron makes an idol—a calf of solid gold—Moses does not merely destroy it; he pulverizes it, dissolves the dust in water, and makes the people drink. This story, like the story of Jacob, is not a mere narrative incident. The Bible rarely cares about narrative detail per se. Nor does it convey an idea directly. It conveys a picture that conveys an idea.
“The people stood at a distance, and Moses approached the deep darkness where God was” (Exodus 20:18). The Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo says: “Moses entered into the darkness where God was, that is, into the unseen, invisible, incorporeal, and archetypal essence of existing things.” In other words, Philo says, we must assimilate the whole significance of the picture—Moses slipping outside ordinary experience, disappearing into impenetrable darkness, grappling with the transcendent divine—and not misunderstand it as a mere narrative detail. We must read the picture.
An idea can be asserted or it can be embodied. When you embody an idea—in an object, or story, or story fragment, or isolated image—you show rather than say it. You make an image of the idea. Unfortunately, the besetting technical flaw of modern thought is our incompetence at dealing with images. When it comes to describing, comparing, summarizing, and interpreting them, we are like Moses before Pharaoh: halting, ponderous, tongue-tied—but with no Aaron to speak for us.
Yet this is the way Judaism often expresses itself, and we cannot read Judaism unless we notice and adjust ourselves to its way of operating—unless we look carefully. When we do, a new set of themes emerges alongside the traditional ones, like moonlit trees growing gradually visible as our eyes adjust to the dark. These new themes are “hidden,” but hidden in the trickiest place of all: in plain sight.
I am going to discuss four such image-themes, in a series beginning this month: separation; the “sacred screen” that hides God from man and man from God, and draws them together; Judaism’s relentless spiraling inward; and the perfect asymmetry between man and woman that shapes the universe.
My aim is to speak as simply as I can, reducing citations to a minimum and assuming no prior knowledge of Jewish texts. Although occasionally I say “we” in describing religious rituals, I do so only in order to speak as an observant Jew, not to exclude readers who are non-observant Jews or not Jews to begin with. On the contrary, these profound image-themes are like The Iliad or Chartres or The Well-Tempered Clavier: they belong to mankind, and every human being should have the chance to see and understand them.
In synagogue, after the reading of the Torah, the open scroll is lifted overhead so the whole congregation can see it. At least three columns of text must be visible. You see the open scroll supported by two strong, tensed arms, wide apart. (The arms had better be strong. The scroll is heavy.)
Why is the moment so resonant? Where have we seen this before? When Israel escaped Egypt through the rolled-open sea, the waters were “piled up, erected upright”; the sea became “a wall to their right and their left” (Exodus 14:22).
Two powerful verticals—and in the space between, Israel’s salvation. Sea and scroll are each rolled open temporarily. While they are open, God’s holiness is manifest.
The act of hagbah—holding the open scroll high—also recalls two other powerful verticals, the matching spires or towers that frame the fronts of many large 19th-century synagogues: for example, the Central Synagogue in midtown Manhattan, built in 1872 and inspired by the gigantic Dohany Street synagogue in Budapest. Synagogue architects did not consciously mimic the shafts of the raised scroll—the matching-spires motif was borrowed from churches and mosques—but these spires, when they are done properly, have a resonant Tightness they never had in any mosque or church.
Reading a large number of legal rulings allows you to formulate a principle, an abstract rule. Looking at many pictures allows you to formulate an abstract image. A portrait of Judaism must include the thrust-open waters of the Exodus, the rolled-open Torah scroll raised high, and the façades of certain magnificent synagogues. The underlying theme is separation. This abstract image recurs in many types of divrei Torah (“words of Torah” or “things of Torah”), and opens up a vista through the center of Judaism.
In the beginning, says the book of Genesis, was chaos—tohu va’vohu. Chaos is the starting point, and chaos means mixed-togetherness, unseparation. To banish chaos, you must separate. In the story of creation, God separates light from dark, the waters above from the waters beneath, day from night. To make room for the earth and for man, God forces the chaotic primeval waters open like the Red Sea; the waters are pushed up high and down low.
Creation and Exodus are a pair. When Israel is born at the Red Sea, God separates the waters once more, just long enough for Israel to emerge, to escape into nationhood. God forces an opening: “Raise your rod and stretch out your hand over the sea,” He tells Moses, “and split it” (Exodus 14:16). The forced-open sea stands upright in two walls and then tumbles closed over the pursuing Egyptians, no doubt with a waterfall roar and a mist cloud rising afterward.
Creation is a story of God’s ruah (breath or spirit) suspended over “the face of the water,” or “the deep,” or the “seas,” and of “dry land” appearing in the midst of the water. Exodus is a story of this same ruah “pushing back the sea,” and of “dry land in the midst of the sea.” Creation and Exodus are two versions of one story.
This kind of cosmic separation is unnatural, like a hole in the water—a temporary opening that is bound to close, that is created by force, in the teeth of nature. Left to its own devices, nature flows together. Nature is muck, mixing, impurity, chaos. If separation is salvation, throughout the Bible tin-separation means disaster.
When God decides in Noah’s time to destroy the world, He simply allows the upper and lower waters to run back together again from above and beneath the earth: from “the floodgates of the heavens” and from “the springs of the deep.” In the incident just prior to the flood, a culminating example of corruption, “The sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful, and took themselves wives” (Genesis 6:2): a mysterious and ominous story of mixing, unseparation.
Unseparation is a form of divine punishment. When the men of Shinar try to build a tower to heaven (afterward to be known as the tower of Babel), God scatters them across the earth like skittering bowling pins, and turns human language into chaos.
Birth itself—the creation of life—is separation, “parturition.” “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water; let it separate water from water” (Genesis 1:6). The waters pull apart, leaving virgin emptiness, wet like any newborn. The birth imagery is explicit: the spreading apart, the broken waters.
Death is mixing. Flesh rejoins the earth. (In biblical times, dry bones themselves were mixed together in what archeologists call charnel piles.) Judaism turns these homely facts into a huge universal truth, an image of creation-separation-life eternally at risk of plunging downward into jumbled death, a sort of monstrous pounding waterfall, with man (at God’s urging) stubbornly refusing to slip over.
Separation is a mere physical gesture. But Judaism gives it the force of an eloquent pictograph, filling it with meaning.
“Be separate!” This could have been Moses’ command to the waters of the Red Sea. Issuing commands to nature was (after all) part of his job: during Israel’s desert wanderings, he is told to command a rock to yield water. But in fact Moses did not speak to the sea. “Be separate!” is the rabbis’ paraphrase in a midrash (rabbinic commentary) on this commandment in the Torah: “Make yourselves holy and be holy, because I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44). The midrash comments: “As I am separate, so you be separate.” The standard English lexicon of biblical Hebrew, first published in 1907 and known after its principal authors as Brown, Driver & Briggs, gives the following on the Hebrew kadosh, holy: “possibly the original idea is separation, withdrawal.”
Why? Holiness is a spiritual ideal, and separation is just a physical gesture. Why does “be holy” mean “be separate”?
If you start with chaos, you must separate to create. Because God is the Creator, and because man’s central obligation is to imitate God, it also becomes man’s duty to create. Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, the preeminent talmudist and theologian of 20th-century Judaism, wrote: “When a Jew on the Sabbath eve recites the kiddush, the sanctification over the wine, he testifies not only to the existence of a Creator but also to man’s obligation to become a partner with the Almighty in the continuation and perfection of His creation.”
To be a scientist, artist, or intellectual creator is thus an expression, in Judaism, of the highest sort of piety. But for most people, intellectual creativity in this sense is impossible. Most Jews fulfill their duty to create symbolically, by separating. The halakha is a complex thing, but separation is one of its most important unifying themes. (“Halakha” is the body of Jewish law that is based on the Bible and the Talmud, which are root and trunk. Literally it means a way of walking.)
How do we understand the evil consequences of mixing, as of angels (“sons of God”) and women? Set the story in its halakhic context. In the prescriptive legislation of the Torah, mixing different species in the breeding of animals is forbidden; it ruins the walls of separation God has built against chaos—dikes against the permanently impending flood. Mixing different types of seed for sowing, or different stuffs in a garment, is also forbidden. The mixing of Jews and the people of Canaan is strongly forbidden: “Separate yourselves from the peoples of the land!” (Ezra 10:11).
Men are not to dress like women, or women like men (Deuteromony 22:5)—the point being, according to the great 12th-century exegete Abraham ibn Ezra, not to specify how men or women should dress but simply that they should dress differently.2 Many people over the years have been surprised at the vehemence with which Rabbi Soloveitchik (who epitomized everything humane in Orthodox Judaism) affirmed the requirement that men and women sit separately in synagogue. But one does not lightly pull up and toss out a rule whose roots reach as deep into Judaism as this one’s.
More fundamental still are the rabbinic elaborations of kosherness or kashrut (milk and meat must be separated) and family purity (husband and wife must be separated, periodically). Even more fundamental is the Sabbath, a separation in time that is connected explicitly in the Torah to creation and Exodus.
The struggle between chaos and separation is constant and ongoing. Left to itself, the world goes back to chaos. Maintaining separation and holiness is an ongoing fight requiring a constant outpouring of energy. Death is not just a fact, death is a force. It is the force of unholiness, unraveling, unseparating, yielding in the end the chaotic desolation of the valley of dry bones.
The Jew is separate from the non-Jew; man is separate from all other creatures. Thus, the prayer-book addresses God: “You separated man from the beginning.” The Torah says: “Do not follow a multitude to do evil” (Exodus 23:2). Nothing is easier than to melt into the mass. Nothing is harder than to be separate. The Talmud says: “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” To separate the waters of chaos, to separate yourself from the crowd—both are acts of holiness. The halakha requires that we swim upstream against nature, against time, toward light, toward sanctity. To separate yourself is to imitate God, the “Separator”—in the words of the end-of-Sabbath, end-of-holiday blessing—“between holy and ordinary, between light and dark, between Israel and the nations, between the seventh day and the six days of creation.”
Each ritual act a Jew performs has private significance, but at the same time makes a philosophical proclamation. Each time he makes a separation or looks through a separation or marches into a separation, he shouts out loud his defiance of chaos and nature and death—acting (on however small a scale) against them, replacing one stone of the wall that nature constantly tears down.
To “choose life,” as the Torah commands, is deliberate futility. No matter what you choose, death is what you get. But Jews are commanded to defy the futility and choose life anyway.
A Gap in the Week
Being Separate can mean separating yourself from the world around you—a social separation. It can mean forcing open a gap in the cosmos. It can also mean creating a gap in time. There is no other way to understand the Sabbath, which starts with the kiddush, in which the Sabbath is linked explicitly to creation and the Exodus—Judaism’s two fundamental separation events—and ends with the havdalah, or separation blessing.
The Sabbath begins on Friday evening with candlelight and a blessing over a raised cup of wine. It ends Saturday evening with candlelight and a blessing over a raised cup of wine. There are braided loaves of bread at the start of the Sabbath and a braided, many-wicked candle at the end. Symbolically we might almost be frozen in time from start to finish—blessing God in candlelight with cup raised, as if no time had passed.
The Sabbath is a gap in time—which must be braced with strong laws or it will be overwhelmed by ordinary daily life, and close like a hole in the water. It is hard to open a gap in time or nature, however temporary. The splitting of the Red Sea shows God’s awe-inspiring power. (“When God divided the Red Sea for Israel,” says a midrash, “it was heard of from one end of the universe to the other.”) Other kinds of separation are hard, too. It is hard to separate yourself from the world at large; hard to pull free from your daily life to keep the Sabbath; hard to carry out all the distillations, purifications, and holiness-creating steps that Judaism requires. Keeping the Sabbath, forcing a separation in time, is just as hard in its way as commanding the sea to part.
It is supposed to be hard to keep the Sabbath. It takes effort, and transforms you. The gap must be forced open and you must act, physically and spiritually. When a man lifts the Torah scroll by its two handles, raising it high, and wide-open enough so that we can see three columns of text—a separation through which we glimpse holiness—how long can he hold it there? A Torah scroll is heavy. Not long.
To fulfill God’s commandments as Judaism understands them is difficult, but is rarely felt by observant Jews to be a burden. To see why, consider one of the liturgy’s most haunting phrases: Jews ask of God that He “spread over us the shelter of Your peace.” God’s commandments seem to intrude into every corner of life, but those who observe them feel sukkat shlomekha, “the shelter of Your peace,” overspreading their lives. Unlike his friend and fellow-philosopher Martin Buber, the German-Jewish thinker Franz Rosenzweig “needed no theological theory when life itself—lived under the law—testified to the presence of the divine.”3
To separate is to prevent mixing, to keep the waters apart. But once the “sacred gap” is (briefly) opened, there is a different kind of mixing—man goes to meet God, God to meet man. The Sabbath, the rabbis say, is a foretaste of olam ha’ba, of the world to come. Jews rush out (like surging water) through the forced-open gap in time, to live for a moment in a paradise outside the walls of the universe. If all Israel were only to keep one Sabbath perfectly as halakha prescribes, say the rabbis of the Talmud, the messiah would come: God’s messenger would enter the world through the forced-open gap. (Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai differs: if all Israel were only to keep two Sabbaths.)
A Gap in the Year
The ceremony that concludes the Sabbath is called “separation,” havdalah. God has used the Sabbath to create a gap or separation in the loop of time, as you might snip a gold ring and force the cut ends apart. The Sabbath, writes the historian Yosef Yerushalmi, “came to be experienced as a day beyond the bounds of historical time, and eventually even as a weekly anticipation of the end of time.” But observant Jews do not simply let the Sabbath lapse. No work is done, the normal routine is not resumed, until, by saying the havdalah blessing, we cross between sacred and profane time.
There is another sacred gap in time: the ten days beginning on New Year’s and ending on the Day of Atonement. The rabbis understood these two occasions, and the “days of awe” between them, in terms of a held-open gate. Through this open gate man presses toward God and God toward man. “Even though penitence and appeal are always beautiful,” writes Maimonides, “in the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur they are more beautiful and are accepted immediately.” When the gate is open, divine forgiveness flows outward and Israel is urged to come in; in Hebrew, “penitence” and “return” are the same word. “Open to me the gates of righteousness; I will enter them, praising God” (Psalms 118:19).
The Talmud introduces the idea of three books of judgment that are opened on the New Year. The books of the wholly righteous and the wholly wicked need not stay open long. But the third book, for everyone else, stays open until Yom Kippur. “Man is judged on Rosh Hashanah and his decree is sealed on Yom Kippur”: as the commentaries make clear, the rabbis do not believe that good men can expect to thrive and bad men to suffer, but the image of judgment books opening and shutting embodies a state of mind. To live a life of intense self-examination is beyond most of us, but to live that way for the ten days from New Year to the Day of Atonement is—perhaps—just barely possible.
The ceremony that ends the Sabbath dwells on God the Separator, opener of sacred gaps; similarly at the ending of Yom Kippur, in the ceremony called ne’ilah—“closing.” Originally this “closing” referred to closing gates on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. By developing the idea of divine judgment books and heavenly gates, the rabbis connect this physical closing to the metaphysical closing of the sacred gap in time. At the end of Yom Kippur, the prayerbook speaks urgently of the cosmic gap and how temporary it is, how necessarily, intrinsically impermanent. “Open the gate to us, at the time of the gate-closing, for the day fades, the day is fading—the sun sets, fading—let us enter your gates!” (When night falls, the city gates are shut.)
Over the years the connection has grown clearer. Today the ne’ilah service is performed before the open ark. Ordinarily, the ark is kept open (a sacred gap, revealing the holy Torah scrolls inside) only for very brief periods. But it stays open throughout ne’ilah, which can last three-quarters of an hour or longer, and this unaccustomed, drawn-out opening focuses our attention on the open but soon-to-shut gates of judgment. During ne’ilah we say—this is the climax of the Yom Kippur prayers—“You give your hand to sinners; Your right hand is outstretched to receive penitents,” to help them through the closing gates. Which recalls Israel’s escape through the separation of the Red Sea, where Moses said: “Your right hand, Lord, is gloriously powerful . . .; You stretched out Your right hand; the earth swallowed them.” There, God’s right hand drowns His enemies; here, it rescues the drowning.
The final declarations of ne’ilah are the ones prescribed for a man on the point of death (the closing gap of time). We end the service by stretching out one final moment with a single drawn-out blast of the shofar. Yom Kippur ends, the books of judgment close. The separation disappears. The gates are shut.4
Combine the gesture of separating and the idea of time instead of space and you arrive at time drawn thin—not broken like the sea but drawn so fine we can see right through it, to God on the other side.
Israel’s salvation begins at the burning bush, which draws Moses through the desert to God’s presence. Moses is astounded: “The bush burns with fire, yet the bush is not consumed” (Exodus 3:2). The miracle is not the burning but the continued burning. The dry thorns should have burnt to black dust in an instant. But time has been stretched out. That burning bush (a midrash says) is Judaism—a fire too hot to last, a life too intense to continue, a gap bound to close.
Separated from the World
Rabbinic Judaism was created by a group of thinkers called Pharisees—in Hebrew, perushim, “the separate ones.” In talmudic Hebrew, betrothal is kiddushin—sanctification, from the root kadosh, meaning “holy” and suggesting “separate.” A betrothed or “sanctified” woman declares herself separate from other men, set apart for her husband.
To separate yourself from the world around you is hugely difficult—harder than holding the rolled-open scroll overhead. Pull yourself away, pull apart, go off by yourselves, on your own: a command that Jews find terribly hard even when their lives depend on it. Pulling loose from Germany in the 1930’s was just as hard as pulling loose from Egypt three millennia earlier. Moses predicted that Israel would be reluctant to follow him out of Egypt, and he was right.
To pull yourself away from the society in which you live may be the hardest separation of all—like dragging yourself awake in the dead of night. “Man’s general way of behaving,” Maimonides notes matter-of-factly, “is to be influenced in his opinions and his deeds by his neighbors and friends—letting his customs be like the customs of the people of the country.”
But separation governs the Bible’s view of how Israel should live among the nations. The entry into the promised land across the Jordan is modeled explicitly on the Exodus from Egypt: “The priests, bearers of the ark of God’s covenant, stood solidly on dry ground in the midst of the Jordan; all Israel passed on dry ground” (Joshua 3:17).
But it is not just the river waters that are rolled apart: the Lord “will displace indeed, displace from before you the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Hivite, the P’rizite, the Girgashite, the Amorite, the Jebusite” (Joshua 3:10). Later, King David wins a victory over the Philistines and proclaims: “God has broken my enemies before me like the breaking of water” (2 Samuel 5:20).
The Bible insists on it: Israel was no virgin territory, the land was not empty. Its pagan inhabitants were rolled apart, and the Jews occupied a forced-open gap still wet with an earlier culture. Where is there a more astonishing passage than Deuteronomy 6:10-12? When, it says, God brings you to the promised land of “great good cities that you did not build, houses full of everything good that you did not fill, and hewn cisterns you did not hew, and vineyards and olive-groves that you did not plant, and you eat and are satisfied, watch yourself!—lest you forget the Lord Who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”
The clearing-out of the land is here connected explicitly to the parting of the Red Sea; later, the children of Israel (for their sins, the rabbis taught) would be engulfed by the returning pagan peoples just as Egypt was engulfed by the “returning” Red Sea waters. A lament for the black fast of Tisha b’Av, the darkest day of the ritual year (on which, tradition holds, both the first and second Temples were destroyed): “The sea-waves pounded but stood up like a wall—when I left Egypt; the waters overflowed and ran over my head—when I left Jerusalem.”
Three different but related crises in Jewish history:
Moses knew that the Jews would resist separation from Egypt. They suffered there, but Egypt was their home. “My Lord,” he says, “Why did you send me?” After they have escaped to the wilderness, they complain to Moses: “There weren’t graves enough in Egypt, so you had to take us to die in the desert? What is this you have done to us, bringing us out of Egypt?” (Exodus 14:11). In the Torah’s vivid prose you hear their voices, and ours.
After the Nazis took power in 1933 and before the war in 1939, it was hard but usually not quite impossible for a Jew to leave Germany. Some tore themselves away. Some did not. It was not only a matter of Nazi-created obstacles. These Jews were required to take the enormously painful step of separating themselves from their native worlds.
American Jews are asked to take a vastly smaller step of separation, on a vasdy easier scale, when they are requested to disapprove of their sons and daughters marrying Gentiles. Overwhelmingly, they refuse.
“Be separate!” says that midrash; otherwise Judaism ceases. But it’s not so easy. The waters desperately want to close.
Judaism calls on Jews to be separate; Jews have often been forced by their anti-Semitic neighbors to be separate. These two facts could hardly be unrelated. We will never know exactly how anti-Semitism began, but we do know that the separateness of Jew and Gentile represents a collaboration.
Historically this separation took a peculiar and characteristic form: Jew and Gentile rarely glared at each other across a shared border. More often the Jew hid out among Gentiles, by choice or necessity, often in a separate section of town. But even before the ghetto there was the cave. The cave foretold the ghetto.
We read in the Talmud about the 2nd-century teacher and patriot Rabbi Shimon ben (or bar) Yochai, a student of Rabbi Akiba who withdrew from society and lived in a cave for thirteen years: he had spoken against Rome, and the Romans, true to form, had sentenced him to death. Eventually the sentence was lifted, and Rabbi Shimon returned to society. According to the Talmud, one result of his long withdrawal was a huge increase in his mental powers.
Naturally. Life in a cave is a life of sensory deprivation, and sensory deprivation leads to vivid imaginings. To be cut off from your surroundings in a cave or ghetto is to be put in a desperate position—and partially explains the unique passion and intensity of Jewish culture. Not for nothing does the Zohar put its most important thoughts in the mouth of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai.
The Zohar is a mystical treatise, in part a commentary on the Bible, written by Moses de Leon in Spain between 1280 and his death in 1305. It occupies a unique position in the history of post-talmudic literature. It became the central text of the kabbalah, a school of mystical thought that originated in Provence and Catalonia in the late 12th century, and it “gained a place in the national consciousness as a canonical text third only to the Bible and Talmud” (in the words of Isaiah Tishby). The Zohar has also been associated almost from the first with quacks who have hitched it to all sorts of vague and vacuous machines; nowadays you find the “New Age” crowd gathered around it. But the world of the Zohar itself is a world of serious Judaism.
The Zohar is a strange, brilliant, fantastically vivid stream of consciousness, the work (writes Arthur Green) of “a poetic imagination so extraordinary that any attempt to account for it, either by the author himself or by his readers, seems to lead beyond theories of poetics and toward some form of prophecy or revelation.” Perhaps that is why it seemed natural to atttribute the Zohar to Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, who was known as the man who had spent long years in a cave. From persecution and withdrawal to the dark of the cave—where you see little and imagine much—to the dreamlike profusion of the Zohar.
The Zohar begins as a commentary on the Torah. It explains the Bible by offering unexpected connections, and the best way to picture the Zohar itself may be in terms of other unexpected connections. The Zohar suggests the illuminated insular gospel books of the Dark Ages, especially the Book of Kells; it resonates with the 20th-century novels of Vladimir Nabokov, especially Pale Fire.
Like the Zohar, the Book of Kells is a commentary-in-art that overwhelms us with its colors, its dazzling imagery, its sheer imaginative density. “The student engrossed in the exploration of these unexpected patterns,” writes the art historian Françoise Henry, “is soon overpowered by a feeling of both strength and mystery.” She might have been writing about the Zohar. As for Nabokov, his Pale Fire resembles the Zohar in many ways, from its unorthodox combination of narrative and commentary, its obsession with an invented world complete with invented books, and the seeming sprawl of its artfully contrived stream of consciousness, to its fascination with light and color and mirrors.
Judaism is Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai. In the broadest sense, sensory deprivation has been its deliberate strategy for three millennia. This is the ultimate philosophical outcome of “separation.” Judaism starved its appetite for pictures of God (proscribed in the Ten Commandments), starved its need for contact and companionship with neighboring peoples. From the destruction of the second Jewish state by Rome in 70 C.E. until the Jews’ gradual emergence into Western civilization starting slowly in the 17th century, the Jewish people lived in Rabbi Shimon’s cave.
There is no need to overstate the degree of isolation; influence flowed steadily across the Jewish-Gentile border, in both directions. Yet the cave existed. No nation was ever so scattered; none was ever so coherent.
Their enemies forced the Jews into it, as Rabbi Shimon’s enemies had; the Jews chose to be inside because they despised their enemies, as Rabbi Shimon did. When the threat abated and they staggered out into daylight, their pent-up power, like his, was astounding. They emerged ravenous, with their thoughts racing.
The whole story of Jewish achievement in modern art and science has yet to be told. But more astounding still is the story of what happened inside, when the whole genius of the people focused on the practice and poetry, the art and philosophy of Torah. Because of its long confinement, Jewish intellectual history has the strange, brilliant intensity of a communal dream. The best word for what the Jews accomplished in the cave of exile, set apart and alone, is zohar—the Hebrew word means “dazzling splendor.”
Moses de Leon’s story about the authorship of the Zohar is thus false historically but true artistically. “In a vision I will make Myself known to him; in a dream I will speak to him” (Numbers 12:6). The Zohar says: “A dream needs a good interpretation.”
Every literary text represents or approximates a train of thought. Every “thought style” has its place on a continuous spectrum of possibilities, ranging from highly-focused analytic thought at one end to the richer, more complex, and more enigmatic possibilities of dream-thought at the other. Our own styles of thinking (as of speaking or living) reflect our fixed personalities and our varying states of mind, which change over the course of a day or a lifetime.
Judaism’s sacred literature is epitomized by the Bible, Talmud, and Zohar. The thought-style represented by these sacred texts tends to be closer than nearly anything else in Western literature to the “dream-thought” end of the cognitive spectrum. I have mentioned the central role of images in the Bible, and the dreamlike character of the Zohar; many people have commented on the “stream of consciousness” quality of talmudic and midrashic literature, most recently Jonathan Rosen in The Talmud and the Internet. As the Red Sea escape “resonates” with creation, with the lifting of the Torah, and with certain synagogue façades, so the cave of Rabbi Shimon resonates with the command to “be separate,” with the history of Jewish ghetto life, and with the dreamlike character of Jewish sacred literature.
The world 3,000 years ago was divided into theists and atheists; so is the world today. Science has not changed the equation. Most of today’s scientists are nonbelievers—and would have been nonbelievers had they lived three millennia ago. Meanwhile, no religious man has ever been made irreligious by science.
In recent decades, some thinkers have decided to use science to support religion. Fair enough; but the way to do it is not to drag science down—not (for example) to promote a spurious “creation science” that testifies mainly to the creation scientists’ own weak imaginations, their inability to grasp the power and beauty of the scientific case and the raging, awe-inspiring force of large numbers, like crashing breakers that consume rock. And they miss the point of the Bible’s creation story, which is not to teach about cosmology but to teach about God and man. The scientific facts are of no interest to the Torah.
The way to employ science on behalf of religion is to leave science alone but use its discoveries to write a commentary on the deep, sometimes inexplicable discoveries of religion. Or, start with an observation by Rabbi Soloveitchik: “The modern scientist does not try to explain nature. He only duplicates it.” He duplicates it in mathematical models that allow him to make predictions. He cannot answer and does not ask the question: why should it be this way?
Thus we have a basic image of Judaism—separation—an image to which the Bible and the rabbis return obsessively. We try to understand: why is it so important? What does it tell us? Thermodynamics can help explain: ultimately, physics tells us, the universe runs down. Not that the rabbis anticipated or could have cared less about thermodynamics, but the Bible and the rabbis saw and felt intuitively what scientists have since succeeded in measuring and codifying. They saw and felt that the universe runs down. “Entropy” increases. Entropy is disorder, mixing together. In physical systems, it can be measured precisely. Nature works inexorably to disperse, to eliminate distinctions, to bring all things up or down to the same level.
In human society (where physics comes in only by analogy), a people disperses—mixes with other peoples and gets lost like a teardrop in the ocean. But Judaism is against dispersal. “He will gather you together again, from all the nations where the Lord your God has scattered you. If your outcasts are at the heavens’ very edges, the Lord your God will gather you thence; thence will He take you” (Deuteronomy 30:3-4). Every organism dies, its physical stuff disperses, it rejoins the earth. The Torah and the rabbis know it, but they are against death. Of course death is natural; but Judaism is against nature, too. It is against entropy. It is against the inevitable unraveling of the universe. “Today I call heaven and earth to witness against you—life and death have I laid out before you, the blessing and the curse; choose life and live, you and your children!” (Deuteronomy 30:19).5
The rabbis see the dangers clearly; they see chaos in the inevitable rising tide. (But they do not believe in “inevitable.”) They have always seen the danger that Judaism will vanish as kosher mixes with treif, holidays with normal days, Sabbath with the rest of the week; as Jews return to nature and become worshipers of the earth or skies or ecosystem; as they marry Gentiles, do as Gentiles do, and sink back, with a well-earned sigh of relief, into the muddy ocean of mankind. “It is very hard to drive out pagan spirits,” the scholar and historian Shalom Spiegel notes coolly, “and each generation must renew the battle against them.”
The rabbis have always understood that the opposite of sanctity is unseparateness—which makes the Red Sea escape the defining version of “sacred separation,” and Judaism’s basic image. With the Egyptians chasing them and the terrible power of the split-open sea pressing in from both sides, a frightened line of Jews keeps chaos at bay, interposing their bodies between the piled-up waters. When they are gone, chaos returns. Mankind is overwhelmed. Sanctity vanishes like a hole in the sea.
Israel, the Jewish people, believes that it is God’s messenger, and that its presence on earth is God’s presence, holding the waters back. It is an arrogant belief and also a humbling one, and it is nearly impossible to bear. Jews are forbidden to pray for the one thing they want most: to be like everybody else. “Happy are Israel!” says the Zohar. “The Holy One Blessed be He has separated them from all other nations.” Israel’s arrogance, its greatness, and its noble defiance are all there in that one word, happy.
The Ark Closes
Although the “separation theme” is in some ways slippery and subtle and allusive, in the end there is no way to miss it. The public life of Judaism centers on the synagogue, and synagogue worship centers on the openings and shuttings of the holy ark. This is Judaism’s heartbeat. When the ark is opened, we see holiness in the tangible form of the holy scrolls. Whenever it opens, it is bound to close again soon.
After we open the ark on the Sabbath and festivals and before we remove a scroll and open it, we sing words from the Zohar: “May it be Your will to open my heart to the Torah.” (The ark opens, the heart opens.) We read from the Torah; then we display it held high, open; then we roll it closed. Having replaced the scroll, facing the ark and prepared to shut its doors, we repeat a plea from the end of the book of Lamentations: “Make us return to You, Lord, and we will return!”—as if we wanted to squeeze through the ark’s closing doors and disappear into a different order of existence; “make our days new again, as of old!” As if we wanted not merely to stretch time thin or break it in two but to run it backward—from age to youth, scattered to gathered, broken to whole, death to birth. Judaism stands not for acceptance but defiance. The ark closes.
1 If Christianity has one main emblem or graphic symbol, and maybe two or three secondary ones, Judaism has four main emblems and six others that are nearly as important—some old, some fairly new, all in use today. The basic four are the seven-branched Temple menorah, the six-pointed “Jewish star,” the tables of the Ten Commandments, and the four Hebrew letters of God’s proper name (the four letters appear often in synagogue interiors, not as a word to be read but as a symbol to be seen as a unit). Six others, also ubiquitous in Jewish art and architecture: the lion of Judah; the crown of Torah; the shofar or ram’s horn; the lulav and etrog of the festival of Sukkot; the open Torah scroll in outline; and a pair of hands with fingers arranged in the distinctive pattern of the priestly blessing. Many others are fairly common, or used to be. Obviously Judaism has a predilection for pictographs—and not because of illiteracy among the Jewish masses.
2 This biblical verse seemed nearly inexplicable to some medieval biblical commentators; do men want to dress like women, or vice versa? A civilization in which men shaved their chests and women built their biceps was beyond their wildest nightmares.
3 Nahum N. Glatzer, ed., Franz Rosenzweig on Jewish Learning (1955). This fact frees Judaism from the “problem of faith.” It has long been observed, even by Jewish atheists, that keeping the commandments creates a “shelter of peace” whether one has faith or not. (Of course it is possible that, having noticed this fact, one acquires faith.)
4 Unless they remain open just a crack until the day known as Hoshana Rabba toward the end of the festival of Sukkot (which follows Yom Kippur), when widespread belief holds that one’s judgment is “sealed.” The rabbis know the gates must close, but try to make them stay open till the last possible moment.
5 Judaism is against nature, but that does not mean that man is entitled to abuse nature. A midrash: “At the time the Holy One Blessed be He created the first man, He took him and showed him again all the plants of the Garden of Eden and said to him—look at My work, how beautiful and blessed! And everything I created, I created for your sake. Beware that you do not damage or destroy My universe! For if you damage it, there is no one to repair it afterward.” At the same time, man is not allowed to erase the separation between himself and nature. There is no greater sin than that.