(Theo-Political Aesthetics) Buber (Event Object Vision)

Having reading Schmitt about representation and visibleness in the political theology of the Catholic Church, the question was raised by C. about “representation” in the theopolitics of the Hebrew Bible. We were reading in Prophetic Faith. I could have said the prophet. But I realized that for Buber in the Bible the figure of representation is a ritual object, the holy ark, not the holy person. I have argued elsewhere that Buber always proves his aesthetic mettle especially when writing about ritual and holy place. Prophetic Faith does not disappoint. The chapter “Holy Event” is my key locus for this discussion. First there is the holy object that the ark constitutes; and then more magnificent writing about the vision of God in Isaiah chapter 6. The basic structure of theological sense-thought moves from Event to Object to Vision, which makes sense of Buber’s oeuvre in the round if not “religious experience” as such.

I’m pasting relevant passages below from Prophetic Faith. I’m noting that the language of revelation in our first section is taken straight from I and Thou (“something happens to us”). And the revelation scene described in Prophetic Faith is drawn from Exodus 24, not from Exodus 19, as in Buber’s book Moses. In Prophetic Faith, a postwar text after world war and fascism, at this “theopolitical hour,” revelation has been transposed by Buber into a political frame (p.126). Therein lies the aesthetic fusion together of holiness, the presence of God, and the political around event, object, and vision.   For clarity, I’m breaking up what are long paragraphs in the original text by Buber (without quotation marks).

Holy Event (Revelation)

(Prophetic Faith, pp.46-7)

What is preserved for us here is to be regarded not as the “historization” of a myth or of a cult drama, nor is it to be explained as the transposition of something originally beyond time into historical time: a great history-faith does not come into the world through interpretation of the extra-historical as historical, but by receiving an occurrence experienced as a “wonder,” that is as an event which cannot be grasped except as an act of God. Something happens to us, the cause of which we cannot ascribe to our world; the event has taken place just now, we cannot understand it, we can only believe it (Ex. 14, 31). It is a holy event. We acknowledge the performer (15, 1, 21) : “I will sing unto YHVH, for He has verily risen, the horse and its rider He has cast into the sea.

In this undeniably contemporary song the deliverance is asserted as a holy event. A later song, which nevertheless is very ancient in form, vocabulary, and sentence construction, the song framing “the Blessing of Moses,” praises in its first half (the second half tells of the conquest of the land) a series of divine appearances in the wilderness, beginning with the appearance at Mount Sinai. From the difficult text it can be understood that the “holy ones” of the people collect round YHVH, when they camp “at His feet” (cf. Ex. 24, 10) ; that later the people receive from the divine words the “instruction” (torah) which Moses “commands”; that so “the congregation of Jacob” becomes YHVH’s “inheritance”; and that finally the heads of the tribes gather together and proclaim YHVH to be king over them.

What is recorded here of the holy event can only be reconstructed incompletely out of the exodus story. The fact that the proclamation is lacking here is probably to be explained by the fear which they felt for the influence, combatted by the prophets, of the melekh cult of the neighboring peoples, that is to say, for the penetration of child sacrifice into Israel. Isaiah is the first (6, 5) directly to give YHVH the title melekh, king, after forcibly demonstrating the uncleanness of the people over against Him. But we still have preserved for us another echo of the proclamation, namely the last verse of the Song of the Sea (Ex. IS, 18), which although it is not so near in time to the event as the opening of the Song, yet clearly is ”not long after the event about which it tells.” Here proclamation is made triumphantly that the divine kingdom will stand forever. This is to be understood not in the light of the state concept of kingship, nor on the basis of the later idea of a cosmic-cultic kingdom of the God, but only as the recognition by wandering tribes of their divine leader: the sovereignty of this leader over his people is proclaimed.

The Ark (Holy Object)

 (Prophetic Faith, pp.49-50)  

The paradox on which the sanctity of the ark is based (every “holy” thing is founded on a paradox) is this, that an invisible deity becomes perceptible as One Who comes and goes. According to tradition, as far as we can still recognize it, the ark must be brought into the “tent of meeting”—not the tent which is described in all its parts in Scripture, and which really cannot be conceived in the wilderness, but the tent of the leader (“the tent” of Ex. 2>2>, 7ff)—after atonement for sin had been made. The image of the steer, which has no other design than to be a likeness of that very God, “Who brought you up from the land of Egypt,” (32, 4), was put up to make the leadership permanently perceptible. In the hour of forgiveness God grants {ZZ^ 14, 17) that His “face” will go with the people.

The meaning of this is that a visibleness is conceded which in fact is none ; that is to say, not the visibleness of an “image” or a “shape” (20, 4), but as in the vision of the ancients (24, 10) the visibleness of a place. This is the hour in which the holy object is born. Later, men attempted to render the principle, that could no longer be reconstructed in its reality, more conceivable by means of a concept of the kabhod, that is the fiery “weight” or “majesty” of the God radiating from the invisible, which now “fills” again and again the “dwelling” of the tent (40, 34), just as it had ”taken dwelling” upon the mount (24, 16). In truth this idea of a filling of the tent, so that] Moses “cannot come into the tent of meeting” (40, 35), contradicts its character and purpose.

The true tent—formerly Moses’ leader tent, and now that of the leader deity—is characterized by just this that Moses enters it for the sake of “meeting” the deity, and that “everyone who seeks YHVH” (33, 7) can hand over his petition to Moses who will talk it over with the deity. It is of the essence of the leadership that there is the divine word in dialogue: informative and initiative speaking. The informative function passes afterwards from the divine speech to the oracle vessels called Urirn and Thummim, and from the nabi—for as such the former writing prophets know Moses from tradition (Hos. 12, 13)—to the priest. Whereas the initiative speech, the genuine speech of the leader which is no answer but a commission and a command, is henceforth also spoken only to the nabi, whom “the hand” seizes and sends. Kings rule, priests minister in their office, while the man of the Spirit, without power or office, hears the word of his Leader

Isaiah Sees God in the Holy of Holies

(Prophetic Faith, pp.127-8).

THE THEOPOLITICAL HOUR: Isaiah declares God THE KING: A hint is given us : it is not he who sits upon the royal throne, who is the true king, but He Whom mine eyes now see.

At the time of the vision Isaiah is apparently in the hall of the temple, looking into the depths of the sanctuary right into the darkness of the Holy of Holies, where the ark, YHVH’s throne, stands. At this moment the darkness becomes light, the confined space extends without limit, the roof is lifted, in place of the ark a throne is raised up to heaven, so great that the skirts of the clothing of Him that sits upon it fill the temple. Isaiah says : “I saw the Lord,” but this seeing is probably like that related of the elders on Sinai who “saw the God of Israel” (Ex. 24, 10) : what is said of what was actually seen is on that occasion what is “under His feet,” and here “His skirts.” The antiphonal cry of the seraphim in its second half helps us towards an understanding : as the skirts of God’s clothing fill the temple, so His kabhod, that is to say, His radiating “weight,” fills the earth. Tradition tells (Ex.40, 35, a verse which, whatever its date from the literary point of view, is at all events from the religious point of view earlier than Isaiah) that His kabhod once, when it descended in a cloud upon the wandering tent in the wilderness, filled the “dwelling place” while the covering cloud “dwelled” upon it ; whereas now Isaiah hears that it is not only the earthly-heavenly sanctuary which he sees, but the whole earth that YHVH’s kabhod fills. Whenever we see “Him,” we really see His radiation, which the earth can scarcely contain. The earth contains the kabhod which fills it, because this kabhod is merely God’s radiation, the nature and purpose of which is to fill the earth. The point about this cry of the seraphim is the present tense used. It is not in the future that the kabhod is to fill the earth, as later “eschatological” passages, already apparently influenced by Iranian religion, have it (Num. 14, 21b,^ Ps. 72, 19), now and ever it fills it, as the skirts fill the temple ; but no one sees it except he to whom it is given to see it. This means here the prophet ; it is only later passages (Is. 35, 2 ; 40,5) that represent all creation as seeing it. Isaiah sees it as he sees the “skirts.” More than this even the seraphim, who cover their faces, do not see.”

[[[Image note: I found this image for the post having stumbled upon Scott Noegel’s The Egyptian Origin of the Ark of the Covenant]]]

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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1 Response to (Theo-Political Aesthetics) Buber (Event Object Vision)

  1. dmf says:

    thanks haven’t looked at that stuff since the 80s, lots of resonances with Tillich as I remember him.

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