At some point around or a bit before the summer, I stopped writing here about “actual” things like politics, Covid, and Israel. There was more I am wanting to say about the “reality” or “surreality” of religion, animism, God, and world-creation. Bergson left a particular mark at the blog, with William James very much in the back of my mind. I didn’t have the time or energy to write about everything I wanted to blog, but I think I’ll continue more along this vein as I finish up a very involved project relating to a philosophical Talmud and virtual worlds. As always, thank you all for your patience with me here at the JPP.
From Twitter, Eitan Nechin@Etanetan23· Arabic-Yiddish phrasebook, New York 1918. During World War I, thousands of Jews fought with the British Army in Palestine against the Ottomans. To help them get around, Getzl Zelikovitz, editor of the NY Yiddish newspaper “The Tageblatt” wrote a colloquial Arabic phrasebook.
I especially liked the two large lenses at the recent show by Helen Pashgian, an early member of the 1960s Light and Space Movement. Instead of the more diffuse light effect in the Light Art of Turrell and others, the sixty inch in diameter lens is meant to capture and hold light and attention to light in the form of a material object. Works like these trade on the idea of presence and the presence of presence. A close look reveals the edge of the lens, standing on a column, that supports the light in place like some illuminated ritual installation. As per this statement here at Lehmann Maupin, the carefully crafted “industrial epoxies, plastics, and resins….are characterized by their semi-translucent surfaces that appear to filter and somehow contain illumination.”
About God, this blogpost tracking Hasidic thought in the commentary to the Torah, the Sefas Emes (Sefat Emet) (english: Language of Truth) is going to be a running project that I will update and complete, volume by volume, more or less in tandem with the yearly cycle of the Scriptural readings read from the Pentateuch in the synagogue. As an amateur, I am hoping to build up the post by inviting from any of you additional material, things that I overlooked and also translations, which I will add as I see fit and with full attribution.
The author of the Sefas Emes was Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (1847-1905), but he is better known by his titular work. I will refer to the book in italics and to the “author” in regular font. Despite its renown, there is very little online in English about this Hasidic masterpiece, which is itself a body of oral commentary assembled over the years by his students and transcribed as such. What follows in this blogpost is a very rough attempt at a thematic digest of the commentary to each parshah (the portion of the week) from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Deuteronomy. For an intellectual biography, including the relation of the Sefas Emes to Kotzk, see Arthur Green’s introduction to The Language of Truth, which is Green’s anthology-translation of and commentary to selected passages.
Before getting to my own digest of Scriptural readings, I want to offer a little by way of summary.
Light is the core experience in the Sefas Emet. As Green notes and others recognize, the Sefas Emes is work of acosmic mystical monism. For the Sefas Emes, there is God and only God: Ein Sof, all light (kulo ohr), source-root (shoresh), point (nekudah), inwardness (pni’miut), and animating life-force (ḥiyyut) of the world. All creaturely things in the world and the world itself are garments (malbush, libush) of material and physical distillations, a contraction (tzimtzum) in which the light of the Ein Sof is garbed.
That existence of the external physical world of creatures is ambiguous in the Sefas Emes. On the one hand, all things contain a spark of the holy; in all beings, a divine glow deep in the inside of things; there is throughout the commentarya deep and universal care for all creatures and creaturely existence. On the other hand, the holy light is concealed in the gross, external husk of thick matter; this world, the physical body is a “dark” and sad place, a pit and a prison. After the sin of Adam and after the sin of the Golden Calf and after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, this world, for Israel the world of exile (Galut) is a mix of good and evil powers. The main thing is perfection, to reveal the hidden light and inner form (tzurah) or image (tziur) in “man” and in the world of the holiness of God. Every deed, word, or thought is directed towards that telos; nothing else matters.
In relation to the external, material, physical world there are three key intentional acts: birur,bitul, and tikkun. The first term, birur, is the task of “man,” the task of Israel who is the quintessential distilment of “man,” to select out, sift through, and clarify this hidden light. The act of birur is an act of purification accomplished through the powers of thought (makhshava), speech (dibbur), and deed (ma’aseh) as these are reflected through acts of Torah study, prayer, and the practice of mitzvot more generally. For its part, bitul means “nullification.” Once the inner light is separated, one nullifies the exterior body. Holiness depends upon the intentional act of bitul. One nullifies something low for the sake of something higher. Primarily, bitul is the nullification for the sake of God of every place and time and nefesh, every creaturely thing and human will and object of thought that is not God. One nullifies the body for the sake of the soul (neshama), just as the nations are supposed to nullify their autonomous existence for the sake of Israel, who nullify their own existence for the sake of God. The highest bitul is the nullification of the self for the sake of God. The fundamental ambiguity is that, in this world, all things matter and, at the same time, nothing really matters. The “truth” is that everything is God and God is everything, which means that everything is good or for the good, even evil. The language of truth (sefat emet) is caught up in the world of lies (alma d’shikra) in which that truth is obscured. Tikkun refers to the repair of the world, to the repair of the body to transform the world and the body into receiving vessels of divine light.
By way of critique:
 The theodicy problem is especially pronounced in a body of thought in which the only thing that is real and that really matters is God. To say that everything is good and for the good is to negate the very notion that there is such a thing as radical evil and radical suffering in this world. Evil is no longer evil if it is good, not radically evil if it can be transformed into an instrument or vessel of good. To say that everything is God is to demand a fundamental negation of creaturely and human value. I do not understand how it accounts for the real reality of radical human suffering in this world.
 Scholars of religion will point out that the sacred has a negative component that is, by definition, hedged in by taboo and restriction. Holiness is a contagious quality that seeps into and dominates the world from which it separates. To say that everything is holy is to subject the entire world and everything in it to the most strict kind of strictness (ḥumrah). The Tzadik or the holy community needs to separate from the world, from the evil inclination (Yetzer Ha’ra), from the demonic sphere of the Other Side (Sitra Aḥra) in order to repair the world (tikun). But how can the righteous community repair that which has just been nullified? The withdrawal from the world for the sake of a perfect world nullifies the world as it is, not in part, but in the round.
 Consider how this gets lived out in the communal life of Haredi Judaism. Yehudah Leib was the second rebbe of the large and, in Israel, politically powerful Ger Hasidic community. Aboout this, there is this here by way of background. In Haredi society, the normative community form is based on exclusive devotion to Torah study, separation, and increasing levels of ascetic withdrawal from secular society, including stringent gender segregation as per this piece by Benjamin Brown here at Tablet. A skeptical reading would suggest that what Brown calls radical kedusha or holiness norms, going back to Kotzk and the Sefas Emes, do not lend themselves to a life lived in a larger social form outside a strict communal enclave. The Sefas Emes is itself already marked by a basic foreignness to the social and natural world. The world has existence of value only in relation to a divine emanation; it has no existence or value independent of God. The world is nullified and null once the holy spark has been sifted out from it and returned or raised to its source-root.
There is, for all that, an ungentle baroque beauty to what is an immersive world built upon acts of rough negation and the chiaroscuro vision of bright light and dark bodies. I would not want to pass over without commenting upon what I think stands out as an aesthetic consistency basic to the heart and soul of this type or mysticism in its ambivalence to physical existence and material reality
What follows are only my own rough digests of the Sefas Emet, which is itself composed of digests. The teachings are themselves ordered by year, as if recorded over the course of several years and presented more or less as such. This makes for a text that is incredibly repetitive, returning as it does to a common set of themes year after year, saying variations of the same basic things. At the same time, each parsha seems to start from and end to a certain point as if by way of conclusion. As I read it, the commentary is more than the miscellany of mystical-ḥasidic teachings. I’m not going to note every Scriptural and midrashic allusion so much as attend to the rough but consistent through-line or narrative arc with a beginning, middle, and end. I will append a digest of the holidays after the digest of the Torah commentary.
Key themes that thread throughout the entire commentary on Genesis: Shabbat, light (or), hidden light (ohr nistar), hiddenness (hester), life-force (ḥiyut), galut and redemption, Torah, tzadik, the total community of Israel (klal Yisrael)
The fundamental tension: the “truth” that is the absolute reality of God concealed IN the world of creation is ABOVE AND AGAINST this world, the world of “lies,” nature, and the body; and also FOR THEIR SAKE. Holiness is the removal from the world in order to repair the world, to make it holy. The ultimate goal is redemption, the redemption of Israel and the repair of creation and its creatures. This demands powerful acts of sifting (birur) and negating (bitul) of exterior things for the sake of the soul (neshama), Shabbat, the revelation of light without the garment (libush) of body, nature, and time. The Tzadik is a bodhisattva figure who frees himself from the Yetzer Ha’Ra (evil inclincation) and Sitra Aḥra (the demonic other side) by separating out the good from and evil. He nullifies the self, himself for the sake of God, and then comes back to repair the world.
The focus of this parsha is creation and Shabbat as its quintessence.
But already in this first opening parsha, the Sfas Emes is looking to Shabbat, linked as it is to the notion of the hidden light (ohr ha’ganuz) created on the first day of creation before the sun and the moon. God set apart on the first day the hidden light because its light is too bright for the world to contain. Less touched upon are Adam and Eve, the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, all of which will appear later in the Sefas Emes. Shabbat is Gan Eden (the garden of Eden). God is Ein Sof. Torah is the Tree of Life, composed of fruits and shells, leaves, trunk, and roots. While the supernal Torah is all light, the Torah of ordinary Jews is itself a garment that allows them to draw deeds closer to God. We learn in this parsha that the purpose of “man” is to repair lower worlds, to repair and perfect the body so that it can receive soul (neshama) and, then, an additional soul (nehsma yeteira) on Shabbat. In creating the world, the intention of God when creating the world is to stream light into the world, to nullify the world. The kind of theology reflected in the Sefas Emes highlights not so much the wisdom of God so much as power, i.e. the power and the will of God inside and over against the world. On one level, Shabbat is the intermediary link between God and this world. Higher still, Shabbat is the world to come, above nature and the six days of creation. Shabbat is without garment and all-light (kulo ohr), revealing the inner form (tzura ha-pni’mit) of the world. On Shabbat, the upper world descends into the lower world. But God is the purpose of nature. The main thing is to draw oneself and all things and creatures close up to God, to sift out the divine light hidden in the world and to negate and nullify the physical dross material, including the body, including the six days of creation, the work of Creation, which itself is a garment. Binding all Creation to its root, on Shabbat as in God, there is no garment, nothing is separate, everything is one. Reflecting the blessing and sanctification of speech and thought, Shabbat is a clear speculum through which to see hidden light.
In parshat Breishit, the focus was on Shabbat. Here in parshat Noaḥ, the focus is on the tzadik who extends illumination of light into world.
Briefly noted in the previous parsha, we see more completely now, in a commentary on Noah, how Israel is already separated from the nations. The idea of the nullification (bitul) of self before God is now more fully emergent as a notion. God looks and sees good, which is Torah and heaven (shamayim) and the Tabernacle and Temple. The parsha introduces as well to the image (tzelem), spirit (ruaḥ) and soul (neshama). God wanted Adam to eat from the Tree of Life, but eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil mixed up the order of creation. The Generation of the Flood are nullified. They are compared to animals. They removed the image (tzelem) of God from the human person. In the ark, God protects Noah from the wicked and from the demonic powers of the Sitra Achra. God destroys the world and gives the life-force (ḥiyut) anew to all creatures. For its part, the Generation of Dispersion (i.e. the generation of the Tower of Babel ruined the unity of speech by depending on its own wisdom instead of relying on God. They were the opposite of Israel, who build the Tabernacle and Temple to self-nullify before God. Noah is a tzadik to nature. Abraham is a tzadik above time, place, and nature. If the Generation of Babel, the world, as it were, lost the power of speech, Israel now receives the power of speech (prayer). Abraham had the power to save his generation, whereas Noah did not. Noah lacked the power to bring others to God. What we begin to see clearly now is that the power of nature is above nature. Israel not subject to time and place. Revealed on Shabbat, the power of the soul (neshama) and the rule of Heaven are freedom. The parsha of Noah reveals that nature is slavery.
Above nature and leaving nature behind, the focus in this parsha is on Abraham and Israel, on the body and the soul.
“Lech lecha” is leaving nature. Abraham repairs Adams’ sin and brings this world to teshuva. Abraham represents the nullification (bitul) of self, drawing close, cleaving to God who is the master of this burning/glowing palace (birah doleket). In this parsha, we learn about forgetting the vanities of this world, and remembering to cleave to the upper world, which is Israel’s special desire for God. In this parsha, God is crystalizing into the image of a king. The burning palace is nullified. Abraham is ḥesed, the essence of nature and above nature. Including Abraham, the patriarchs constitute god’s chariot. They are the actualization of the potential divine root concealed in the world. The parsha turns to the soul power that is the act of circumcision, which along with trials undergone, draw Abraham above nature. The covenant of circumcision binds “man” with the non-body that is the soul. It reveals inner holiness. Its work is to prepare the body to be illumined by the light of the soul (neshama). The removal of the foreskin draws down divine power. It is the quintessential act of casting off the body-garment and cleaving to the inner form. It frees the inner form from garment of externality and physicality to cleave to inner form.
The focus of this parsha is the power of Abraham and Israel formed around a bodily act.
There is more on and a lot about circumcision, removing the foreskin, revealing the point of light. Abraham above nature, which is a main component theme to the Akedah, an act that sets Abraham above nature because Abraham is above nature. In this parsha, work and deed are established over ḥesed. But the act relates only to the material garb of the body, whereas the point and the life-force are hidden in nature. Circumcision is the act that reveals the image (tzelem) of God. God’s pleasure in human action below draws that which is above. We come again to the idea of nullification (bitul) Power of Israel is shown to be greater than angels. The Akeidah teaches that Israel cannot exist without trial (nisayon) and miracle (nes). Before circumcision God appears to Abraham as ḥesed. But it is Abraham’s act that connects body and soul. The gates of prophecy open. Circumcision shows holiness in the body, not just soul. Before sin, Adam’s body shone. Now it needs repair, which establish work and deed over grace. Perhaps because he cannot bear the thought, the Sefas Emes suggests that Akeidah was only in thought. One cannot bear a trial like the Akeidah unless one above nature. The acts of circumcision and Akeidah and good deeds allow Abraham to receive light, which makes it possible for Israel to receive Torah. Mitzvot illumine and sift out and separate light from out of the dark world. They repair the Tree of Knowledge. God is revealed in the image of man by way of preparation of “man” below. Power of imagination bound up with faith. Circ opens revelation of hidden light Adams’ sin damaged the imagination, the tziur of “man.” The image (Tzelem) of God is even bodily. The act of circumcision stimulates the power of visons, allowing Abraham to see angels in human garment, something that the optical eye cannot see.
The focus in this parsha is the perfection of the patriarchs and the act-thought of nullification (bitul) and blessing.
There is a brief nod at the start of the parsha to Sara, who was perfect all her days; her ascent higher and higher was natural to her. The elevation of the tzadik demands more work. It brings all of creation to the divine root, elevating nature beyond nature. A theodicy is taking shape here. There is no fear; all is good, everything is subject to self-repair and faith, all is garbed and from God, and one should not be sad. With little mention of Isaac and no mention of Rebecca, Eliezer is the faithful servant of Abraham, a paradigm of self-nullification. Eliezer nullifies his own will for the will of the tzadik, Abraham. The patriarchs are the paradigm of perfection; they are the divine chariot; their bodies shine. The hesed of Abraham fills world. Hesed is clothed in Din. The patriarchs are pillars of the world and beyond our ken. The patriarchs are vessels that receive divine influx (shefa) into the world. For its part, Shabbat is special to Israel. On Shabbat, there is no Sitra Aḥra and blessing is revealed. The six days of creation are the preparation (hachana) of the body for, Shabbat, for the soul. The sifting-clarifying of the self during the six days makes it so that inside and outside match on Shabbat. The soul rises to root and brings body with it, which means that the body needs to nullify itself for the soul, like the six days of creation are nullified for Shabbat –so as to draw the blessing of Shabbat back into the six day work week. The last words of the commentary have to do with blessing and the realization that all is good.
The focus in this parsha is this world, lies and truth, earth and blessing.
Jacob goes out into world, into the world of lies, and raises sparks there, to do tikkunum in the world for the sake of the world and to raise the animating sparks in all things to God. The point is to bring to God things that are far from holiness. Like Jacob, Shabbat extends inner divine illuminations out to the external world, expanding the inner hidden point which is in all things and which is the essence of the divine life force (ḥiyut). There is a part of Abraham in every Jew, revealed through trials-suffering and self-nullification, the nullification of all wills for will of God. Whereas the wicked want all things to belong to them, the tzadikim do not possess and by this they come to possess. Everything belongs to God. Esau goes out hunting. Isaac digs wells to find hidden lights. Jacob leaves home for the world. Jacob is the man of truth who lies and repairs lies on the basis of truth. There is no other way to come to truth. Lies, this world of lies has no permanent or enduring reality. A point of truth nullifies a lot of lies, but that requires the help of heaven so one does not cleave to the will of the lie, God forbid. About the blessing that Jacob stole, it was not Isaac’s to give. Jacob received Abraham’s blessing, the covenant-blessing, whereas Esau’s intended blessngg, which Jacob took by deceit, only involved this worldly goods. Isaac wanted to turn Esau to teshuva, but the intent was never actualized. There is divinity even in dew and in the fat of land. Every place is full of God’s glory. At the Temple, all these physical goods (crop, livestock) were brought back to divine the source. The parsha ends with God’s renewal of creation everyday, with the smell of the field and the smell of sacrifices.
The focus in this parsha is Jacob out in world, exile, and the illumination drawn by Jacob.
Jacob is the man of truth. Jacob is involved in this world which is a mix of body and spirit. Jacob goes from Beersheva (Shabbat) out to Haran (dark place, this world, exile, a mix of good and evil). Jacob goes any place without fear. He does so to draw light from every place where God’s kavod (glory) and the divine life-force are hidden. Jacob can sense its presence. There is interesting material in this parsha and the life-force in all things, even in stones and in physical places. “God is in this place.” The power of sifting-clarification is the power to make all things good, even the Yetzer (stone). Us too today. In the war of God against the Yetzer and exile, and dangerus places, there is faith in God. Exile is a dream. A dream at night in a dark place, Jacob’s ladder is a vision of body and soul, of the form (tziur) of “man,” uncovered when the foreskin is removed, in the image of God. God renews Creation everyday, steps and levels up the supernal root, that which draws Torah down to earth, in every place, with the body-nefesh at the bottom of the ladder on earth and angel-ruḥot flying up and down its rungs, the soul seated at the top of the ladder. God contracts into place (the Temple), into world. There are secrets of Torah in every act of Creation revealed by tzadikim. The evening prayer is the aspect of nefesh (animating spirit) that illumines the body at night. When the body is repaired, it repairs the image of God in man. The Land of Israel and the Temple contain all places, Shabbat contains all times, Jacob, in the image of God, contains all souls. The actions of Israel awaken the power of angels in all things. The human soul is greater than the angels, but the human body is not. Jacob is higher than the six days of creation. Mitzvot create angels to fight the Sitra Aḥra. That’s why there are many mitzvot.
The focus in this parsha is work, mitzvot in the world, tikkun in this world by way of struggle and strife (milḥamot) with the Sita Aḥra, the Yetzer.
There is a lot on the struggle between Jacob and angels and the yetzer by way of which God and Isael renew this world and raise the divine life-force hidden in it. Angels are the principle of desire (Yetzr) and work. Angels are the life force in all things whose power is awakened by Israel to raise everything to God. Proud Esau has everything he needs whereas it is God who sustains the tzadik who receives God’s blessing. The human soul is greater than the angel which is the life-force of creatures. Jacob is higher than all that. Mitzvot create angels to vanquish Sitra Ahra. Jacob perfects the whole world. Jacob returns to the Land of Israel unafraid of Esau who has no control over him. Jacob want to draw in Esau but Esau is unable to nullify his will to Jacob. Jacob gets God’s name (Israel) in life. Jacob is the physical garb, Israel the spiritual garb. Jacob returns to the Land of Israel which is the aspect of Shabbat in this world. Jacob is kept safe by the promise of God and protected by the prayer that actualizes the potential divinity in all places, times, and neshafot. There is no tikun, no repair of the body without strife and hidenness. Nefesh refers to action and to the body, the nefesh in body needs protection. Ruaḥ is the perfection of speech in prayer and in Torah study. Soul (neshama) is perfection of thought. God is far (hidden) and near (in this world). Jacob cleaves to the root of unity, to Shabbat which is perfect rest with no admixture. Israel nullifies the six days of creation for Shabbat. Torah is truth, which Jacob plants in Israel, now the Sefas Emes says, without lie, only to say that truth includes everything, even lies. The dust dusted up in the forever struggle (war) with the Sitra Aḥra and Yetzer ascends all the way up to the divine throne.
In this parsha, there is a strong emphasis on “place” and faith (emunah) in divine providence over against exile (galut), which itself contains sparks of holiness, etc.
The Sefas Emes has a lot to say about Joseph, who will be compared to Shabbat. The clarification-purification (birur) of the good from evil, principally from the Yetzer, or evil inclination, The peirush starts with Jacob who sits and settles into this-world in peace after the long struggle with Yetzer and demonic shells (klippot). Jacob brings the holiness of Shabbat to the six days of creation. The in-a-way secular task of the twelve tribes is to attach all things in this world to the divine life-force (ḥiyut) in all things. The tzadik must repair this world but first must repair self, removing contact with this world. Being above nature, Jacob cannot draw holiness into this world. Enter Joseph, an intermediary figure, who is identified with the type of tzadik who comes back to repair the world from which he has freed himself, who draws holiness to the twelve tribes and to the world. Now we have two types of tzadik, those like Jacob who acts for the sake of Heaven, others like Joseph who act for this world. The relation of the tzadik to this world plays out in a set of three.  Jacob is above nature and is fire, whereas Joseph connects with tribes and with nature and is flame.  Joseph is a tzadik for the sake of Heaven (Shabbat), also above nature, whereas the brothers want to settle in this world; they are tzadikim for the sake of the world (the repair of nature, the six days of work).  Joseph represents truth, Judah faith. Adam’s sin turned this world into a mix of good and evil. Israel acts to clarify-purify (birur) God’s name in world. There is no birur, no sift-clarifying needed on Shabbat, because Shabbat is already all good. The work of Israel in exile is the work of clarification-purification, to illumine hidden illuminations in wicked people and their places. Shabbat is special for Israel. The name “Jacob” is body and “Israel” soul, whereas the name “Yeshurun is the settling of the body and soul into a unity. The brothers are angry with Joseph. They represent nature and must nullify and bow before Joseph who is above nature so as to bind the lower and the upper. At the same time, Joseph is angry at Jacob because Jacob wants to settle in place without going out into world. There is a lot in this parsha about repairing the body-garment, and about Shabbat and circumcision as that which distinguishes Israel from the nations.
The focus of this parsha is theodicy.
This parsha is focused upon the dark place of the pit, prison, and exile into which Joseph is thrown. It underscores again the principle of faith (emunah). It starts with Sitra Aḥra and Hester (hiddenness). The power of the Sitra Aḥra is only in exile, of Shefa (divine flow) within Hester. The Sefas Emes returns to the idea of nullification, to nullify all action for the inner point (nekudah), to find the point of Shabbat even in the six days of creation. Joseph power was concealed from the twelve tribes. Joseph nullifies his own will for will of God. Pharaoh’s dream is about the mix of good and evil in world, the existence of darkness in world, lying thoughts that have nothing real and substantial (mamash) in them. Evil and exile have no reality, being just a shadow or dream. Joseph breaks the shells and represents inwardness, finds good in evil. Egypt is the prototype of exile in which everything good is hidden, in hester. Joseph in Egypt is preparing Galut-Mitzrayim (exile of Egypt), which prepares for Torah and the repair (tikkun) of speech. It’s only in Egypt that Joseph learns all the seventy languages of the nations. Preparation (hachanah) is the key term here. The body prepares to receive soul. Joseph and Israel and Torah reveal the inner soul light even in Egypt. The human soul is the candle of God. Darkness itself was created so that Israel can illuminate hidden illuminations. The Sitra Aḥra is drawn to holiness, the Yetzer is cancelled by Torah, which means the separation of good from the Yetzer in this world to strengthen the good, Israel from the nations. There are a few mentions of Hanukah, the renewal and time of the Temple and the nullification of the kingship of Greece. The special providence of Israel is above time, is Shabbat, while Joseph rules and sustains this world. It is a marvel to the Sefas Emes that Israel can receive and “feel” the light of inwardness in this world. The tzadik repairs the nefesh and body and changes dark to light, testifies before God in all the seventy languages of the world. The patriarchs are again revealed as God’s chariot. Joseph is a little chariot connecting soul and body. God mounts nefesh onto the body and prepares it to receive the image (tziur) of soul. For his part, the tzadik is the image of the image. Israel above time draws holiness into time, nature and the body, whereas the Yetzer darkens the soul. Israel and Torah illumine the power of soul from above time and redeems the soul not so much “in time” as “from time.”
Judah and nullification (bitul) are the focus of this parsha in the Sfas Emes. I think it is the highpoint of the commentary on Genesis. It is where we recognize the truth about the oneness of God, that there is nothing but God. It involves a social vision that subordinates what we would call the secular to the spiritual.
A quintessential figure of faith (emunah), Judah represents the shame of the tribes for not seeing the hidden holiness of Joseph. He represents the nullification of the self, of his own will for the will of God by sifting-clarifying the ḥiyut and illumination in the hester. We see here in the Sefas Emes the social critique of contemporary Jewish society: the shame of the brothers anticipates what will be the shame of all Israel at the future messianic redemption for having been solely concerned with this worldly vanities. The root of Galut is redemption which empowers Galut. Israel becomes a great nation only in Egypt. No fear. The tzadik must go down with all Israel (Klal Yisrael). The revelation of Joseph before his brothers is the revelation of the hidden holiness and the divine life-force hidden in all things. Judah now recognizes that all is from God, that Jacob is above nature, that Joseph is involved in this world, that God is everything. Judah nullifies himself, his own will towards Joseph in order to transmit Torah to the larger public. Joseph, identified in Kabbalah with pillar-foundation-phallus, reflects the inward covenant of circumcision, the guarding of the covenant of circumcision in every narrow place and exile. Judah represents the external covenant of mouth-speech. Combining all souls of Israel, Joseph and Judah prepare the way for Jacob who brings Shechina to Egypt. Each tribe is its own channel connecting all things to the divine root. But they nullify the separate channels for the sake of unity. Judah submits everything to God helps the lowly. The tribes unite at the Temple in Jerusalem. The truth, the truth of the sefat emet, thelanguage of truth, is thatGod is all in the world, whereas Judah is the faith that comes to this truth, that that there is nothing (!!) but God and God is all, that in the person is the soul of the living God. (For a translation of the relevant source, see Green pp.67-8). God is with us in Galut which is no longer narrow (tzar). As I read it, in the Sefas Emes, exile is the necessary but insufficient condition for holiness. Actualization of Torah is first only in Galut. Every person sometimes feels/senses in their nefesh the illumination of holiness, even in exile, wanting to serve God, above all other wills
The last parsha of Genesis and the conclusion of the Sefas Emes on Genesis that sums up the commentary so far, giving it its coherence. It constitutes the consolation of all Israel (klal Yisrael) and pays attention to the Shema, the “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one” as an expression of faith in exile.
Jacob and the children of Israel are the clear focus of the parsha. The emphasis on the inwardness of all things carries forward, the creation of all things with the divine life-force, that there is revelation only through hester and galut. After the high point revealed to Judah in the previous parsha, i.e. the language of truth about the allness of God, Va’Yehi is a decrescendo that brings the Sefas Emes back more firmly into this world of lies. The assembly of all-Israel (klal Yisrael) on Shabbat is the preparation for the revelation of Torah in the book of Exodus. As Arthur Green notes, truth (emet), represented by Jacob, is silent, and is given language (safa) by the tribes, again being the truth that God is everything and everywhere, even in the hiddenness of Hester. Va’Yehi is a messianic tiding that all languages and the nations they represent will be repaired one day. But with death of Jacob, the truth is closed. Joseph assures the tribes that all is for the good and that tikun is only through galut, that if we could only grasp that the holy life force is hidden even in Egypt, that there would be no galut. Power of a person of Israel to awaken the divine life-force depends upon subjugating the body to soul. Torah protects. Torah protects the life force from the Sitra Aḥra. Truth awakens life force even in the meitzar (straits) of Mitzrayim (Egypt), in its prison. In Galut, Israel cannot gather as one. Truth is hidden in exile. Renewal of nefesh everyday is a small if not complete redemption. In exile, we are reminded that on Shabbat there is no barrier between Israel and God, that Israel clarifies-separates God’s kingdom among nations. The Shema preoccupies the closing thoughts of the commentary on Genesis. In exile, the future tikun is sefat emet, the repair of language. The everyday recitation of Shema everyday is the testimony of Israel to the divine oneness, clarified before all the nations, the language of truth extended into the world of lies. Torah is truth garbed in corporeality and mitzvot in this world. The repair of speech is the coming to the truth which is concealed in world of lies, revealed through the power of the divine impression (roshem) in the animating spirits (nepashot) of Isael, the illumination of divine nefesh in nefashot of Israel. The name Israel carrries the name of Jacob, the witnessing of God via klal Yisrael, in their collecting and gathering (kibbutz and asifa).
The holiday commentaries are inserted in their order of appearance starting with the reading of the Torah cucle. Following Green in his anthology, The Language of Truth, I am setting these at the end of my own digest. Pulled out of the parsha, but that way the holidays can be read as constituting their own separate statement. Unlike Green, I’m not starting with the holiday cycle, but with their order of appearance. That means that the holiday readings start with Hanukah in Genesis and end with Sukkot in Deuteronomy. Purim and Passover are placed in the middle of the cycle. Changes the total impression of the ritual calendar, highlighting the narrative arc of light in the darkness of exile and concluding with the teshuva of Yom Kippur and the joy that is the appearing before God at the Temple.
Already in Miketz (Genesis) The main theme in this very long and elaborate commentary to Hanukah is the transformation of darkness into light, finding light in the darkness of exile, etc. Hanukah is the renewal via miracle and song. The essence of miracle is overcoming the wicked who want to nullify Israel from Torah and mitzvot. The basic story line is that the Greeks want to “darken” and make Israel forget Torah and interiority. With the Septuagint, Yafet was supposed to nullify its own will for the sake of Israel. Because Torah, truly, belongs only to Israel. There is a lot on prayers of praise and thanksgiving (Hallel and Hodayot). Thanks are for the particular miracle, Hallel-praise for the totality of God’s acts. The Hanukah candle is situated on the left side the door across from the mezuzah on the right, the light of the candles at the left illumining words of Torah on right. The mezuzah stands for eternal life, lengthening of days. Hanukah candles mark the trace of the Temple even today when gentiles rule Israel. Even if one is subdued to Yetzer, looking at candles on the left illumine truth of Torah-mezuzah on right and helps with teshuva. There is on Hanukah a lot of broiler plate Sefas Emes that is in consonance with the thematization of light and corporeal darkness: the illumination of body so as to repair it and make it a vessel, and so on. Hanukah candles are a consolation in exile, a reminder of the menorah in Temple. They illumine great darkness. They are the forgetting of the vanities of this world, including Greek Wisdom (natural knowledge of the stars). The power-potential of Hanukah candle to nullify the body for the sake of the illumination of soul means that the service of Israel in exile merits the building of Temple as a place for the Shechinah. Torah awakens power of soul which overpowers the body. All depends on thought and intention Israel created for Hallel and thanks. Israel is the mouth of world and testifies to the overwhelming oneness God.
If, then, we give the name of healthy-mindedness to the tendency which looks on all things and sees that they are good, we find that we must distinguish between a more involuntary and a more voluntary or systematic way of being healthy-minded. In its involuntary variety, healthy-mindedness is a way of feeling happy about things immediately. In its systematical variety, it is an abstract way of conceiving things as good. Every abstract way of conceiving things selects some one aspect of them as their essence for the time being, and disregards the other aspects. Systematic healthy-mindedness, conceiving good as the essential and universal aspect of being, deliberately excludes evil from its field of vision; and although, when thus nakedly stated, this might seem a difficult feat to perform for one who is intellectually sincere with himself and honest about facts, a little reflection shows that the situation is too complex to lie open to so simple a criticism.
–William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience
Ripe for parody, this article at Slate about an online lecture-course hosted at Concordia by a professor of art history who had passed away sometime before says a lot about the neo-liberal university and the degradation of higher education, about profit, academic precarity, and death. At its best, the art of education builds upon the live combination of spontaneous dialogue and expert instruction. Critical in tone, the article speaks to the limits of technology and machine learning to meet in a complete way the demands of pedagogy and other arts of social interaction. We can moan all we want about late capitalism, about the collapse of time into a digital miasma. But where will it get us?
A product of capital and a part of its culture, the phenomenon indicates the degree to which digital technology is constituting something like a spectral apparatus. Books and old movies and musical recordings have always done this. But not really. When I read a book or watch a movie or listen to a recording, it’s all in the third person. This is different. The sense of being addressed directly, the sense that here is the professor in a place where there is supposed to be give-and-take, right over there across from me, performing, or rather continuing to perform, teaching as if in real-time at a recognized institution of higher learning (as opposed to on Youtube) will have crossed more deeply those lines that separate the living and the dead.
While not forming a perfect analogy, the story about the online class, already a year or so old, reminds of this teaching from the Babylonian Talmud about dead sages. It turns out that the Babylonian rabbis were not so unlike scholars today. They too got enraged when their teachings were taught without attribution. Unlike us, however, they had a more robust lens into the hereafter.
“For Rav Judah stated in the name of Rav: What is the meaning of the Scriptural text, I will dwell in Thy tent for ever? Is it possible for a man to dwell in two worlds! But [in fact it is this that] David said to the Holy One, blessed be He, ‘Lord of the Universe, May it be Thy will that a halakha may be reported in my name in this world’; for R. Yohanan stated in the name of R. Shimon b. Yohai: The lips of a [deceased] scholar, in whose name a halakha is reported in this world, move gently in the grave. Said R. Isaac b. Ze’ira, or it might be said, Simeon the Nazirite: What is the Scriptural proof of this? ‘And the roof of thy mouth like the best wine that glideth down smoothly for my beloved, moving gently the lips of those who are asleep, like a heated mass of grapes.’ As a heated mass of grapes, as soon as a man places his finger upon it, exudes immediately so with the scholars as soon as a traditional statement is made in their name in this world, their lips move gently4 in the grave” (Yevamot 96b-97a).
Would that my own learning could take on that same semblance of a heated mass of grapes before being pressed into wine.
To fantastic effect, Larry Yudelson put a bunch of images together at NeuralBlender, an AI site. From what I understand, you enter the prompt and the machine folds, in this case, a synagogue-look into 1970s sci fi cover art. For more space and some martian synagogues, go here to Larry’s Twitter feed, which is where I first saw them. At the blog, I wanted to enlarge the image, but they look much better, sized better and more crisp, there at Twitter. This one is “Space Synagogue by Rick Sternbach.” Three things I take from this, one concerning the futuristic and space-ship quality of the synagogue, the second concerning the ability of the imagination to mix and match material, the third concerning the potential quality of digital art.
I’ve been struggling with the caricature according to which the definition of religion suggested by James is “Protestant.” This is to claim that for James, religion is a private matter, The problem is this. On the one hand, the caricature comports exactly with how he defines religion in the second chapter of The Varieties of Religious Experience. On the other hand, the caricature does not comport with the larger body of work. A Pluralistic Universe is given to a model of human mind and awareness vis-a-vis a world in which distinct and finite beings, including God who is finite, are interconnected into a larger, animate matrix.
In that light, I would emend James famous definition of religion to square with what religion means in a pluralistic universe.
According to James:
Religion…as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.
Careful readers might note a tension in the original wording by James between “solitude” and “in relation.”
On that basis, I would like to align the definition this way. Adding only three words, my emendation is in bold font:
Religion…as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine in the world.
Once “the world” is introduced into what it is that James meant and what we mean by “religion,” all kinds of variations are possible that are not possible when we lose sight of what for James was the object of mental states or intentional consciousness. Feelings, acts, and experience always stand in relation to a defining vis-a-vis.
I would like to think that adding “in the world” is what parliamentarians call a friendly amendment. James was an anti-theist. The revised definition embeds religion onto the material topographies of a pluralistic universe in ways that the original language does not.
Lots of excitement is instantly surrounding recent news about the trove of notebooks by Monsieur Chouchani. The legendary Monsieur Chouchani was the teacher of Elie Wiesel and Emmanuel Levinas. Born in Russia “around the turn of the twentieth century,” he died in Uruguay in 1968. Almost nothing is known about him, including his first name. Ilan Stavans writes about him here, with reference to his book, The Seventh Heaven: Travels through Jewish Latin America (2019). This piece here in Yisrael Hayom (Hebrew) is interesting, but if you read carefully between the lines, the corpus of notebooks feels like a nightmare. According to this at the JTA, Chouchani’s writings are “difficult to decode and contained everything from his thoughts, to memory exercises, to mathematical formulas and original ideas in the field of Jewish thought.” The notebooks went to Shalom Rosenberg and they are now available to the public, assuming their rightful place in the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem. But what if, but what if, but what if Monsieur Chouchani turns out to be nothing more than a cipher, a lunatic-charlatan? What if the thinking remains undecipherable? What if there’s no there there behind the legend? What if it;s gibberish? Reports so far have said nothing by way of actual ideas. Waiting to see if the notebooks get published in Hebrew and translated into French and English.
On old thing in mint museum-comdition here at Pitt Rivers Museum
Onion stuck with pins and a metal coil, used in sympathetic magic [SM 07/01/2008]
Place details: EUROPE. United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland / England Somerset near Wellington Rockwell Green. Cultural Group: European, British, English: Local Name: Unknown. Materials: Plant Bulb / Metal Wire / Paper Plant / ?. Processes: Written / Coiled / Bound / Inscribed / ?. Dimensions: max L = 85 mm Max W = 50 mm Maker: Unknown Field Collector: ?Edward Burnett Tylor When Collected: By 1891 Other Owners: John Milton; by 1891, Edward Burnett Tylor PRM Source: Dorothy Tylor and executors of Anna Rebecca Tylor Acquired: Donated (Bequeathed) 1921
Object description: Onion stuck with pins, used in sympathetic magic. The onion has a piece of paper wrapped around it. The paper has the name John Milton written on it and it has been pinned to the onion. A piece of wire is pushed through the onion. One end is coiled, the other has a hook on it. [SM 07/01/2008]
Publications history, trails & websites: Discussed on pages 389-90 of ‘Exhibition of Charms and Amulets’, by E. B. Tylor, in The [of the Second International Folk-Lore Congress held at the Society of Antiquaries, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London, from Thursday 1 to Wednesday October 7 1891], edited by Joseph Jacobs and Alfred Nutt (London: David Nutt, for the Organizing Committee, 1892), pp. 387-93. Tylor writes: ‘A similar charm [to 1917.53.600] now exhibited is interesting from the fact that not only its genuineness, but its exact history, is known. It is an onion stuck full of pins, and bearing on a label the name of a certain John Milton, a shoemaker in Rockwell Green, the hamlet where the onion was prepared to bewitch him. In a low cottage-alehouse there, certain men were sitting round the fire of logs on the hearth, during the open hours of a Sunday afternoon, drinking, when there was a gust of wind; something rustled and rattled in the wide old chimney, and a number of objects rolled into the room. The men who were there knew perfectly what they were, caught them up, and carried them off. I became possessed of four of them, but three have disappeared mysteriously. One which has gone had on it the name of a brother magistrate of mine, whom the wizard, who was the alehouse-keeper, held in particular hatred as being a strong advocate of temperance, and therefore likely to interfere with his malpractices, and whom apparently he / designed to get rid of by stabbing and roasting an onion representing him. My friend, apparently, was never the worse, but when next year his wife had an attack of fever, there was shaking of heads among the wise. That publican-magician was a man to have seen. He was a thorough-going sorcerer of the old bad sort, and the neighbours told strange stories about him. One I have in my mind now. At night, when the cottage was shut up, and after the wife had gone to bed, there would be strange noises hard, till the neighbours were terrified about the goings on. One night his wife plucked up courage and crept downstairs to peep through the key-hole, and there she saw the old man solemnly dancing before the bench, on which sat “a little boy, black all over, a crowdin’ (fiddling) to ‘un.”‘.’ This is presumably one of the ‘Charms’ listed under Tylor’s name on page 460 of ‘Catalogue of the Exhibition of Objects Connected with Folk-Lore in the Rooms of the Society of Antiquaries, Burlington House: Prepared by the Chairman of the Entertainment Committee’, same publication, pp. 433-60. [JC 23 11 2007, 7 12 2007]
Discussed on page 246 of ‘Documents of British Superstition in Oxford (A Lecture Delivered before the Oxford University Anthropological Society, on the 2nd of November, 1949)’, by Ellen Ettlinger, in Folklore, Vol. 54, no. 1 (March 1943), pp. 227-49: ‘The fourth object in the Pitt Rivers Museum that was used as a malignant charm is an onion, stuck full of pins, and bearing on a label the name of a certain John Milton, a shoemaker in Rockwell Green. E. B. Tylor has handed the story of this onion down to us: In a low cottage-alehouse in this hamlet certain men were sitting round the fire of logs on the hearth drinking when there was just a gust of wind. Something rustled and rattled in the wide old chimney, and a number of objects rolled into the room. The men who were there knew perfectly well that these stabbed and roasted onions were personifications of the enemies of that publican magician, who wanted to get rid of them.’ [Unsigned, no date; JC 23 11 2007]