Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Kabbalah? Kabollocks!

I probably would have kept my mouth shut if Yosvani hadn’t asked me. Antonio was explaining the meaning of his kabbalistic tattoo in terms that were all new-age-y and I sat there thinking: “This sounds about as jewish as, well, tattooing does. Kabbalistic tattoos, what next, kosher bacon?” But then Yosvani asked me what I thought of my ancestral mysticism and so, with four pairs of eyes on me, I found myself, for the first time, struggling to impose some structure on twenty years of unsystematized thoughts.

Three factors shape my opinion about jewish mysticism. That its central documents are forgeries. That, like so much other jewish “thought”, it can only survive given wilful ignorance of the texts that it is supposed to elucidate. And, that, despite the occasional evocative image or beautiful aphorism, it consists, in the main, of such infantile turgidity and frangible tenuity that the only mystical question it truly raises is why any vaguely clear-minded adult would so subjugate their powers of natural reason to entertain even a scintilla of what it says. Kabbalah? Kabollocks more like.

* * *

I first heard of the kabbalah when I was about 12, from a teacher at school (one of the best I had, who inspired hard work from me and resentment from many others). He was circumspect, describing it as a collection of secrets which would enable anyone who mastered them to build and control a golem, a human-like creature formed from mud. It’s too long ago for me to remember whether he expressed any reservations at the idea of this muddy robo-jew. But I’ve met rabbis since—ones who have had secular upbringings, even, and so have chosen, as adults, to accept jewish lore one logic-destroying belief at a time—who took the claim quite seriously. I was fascinated and wanted to know more, not so much about the golem, but about the secrets. I imagined them as a long list of questions that you had to reason your way through, like a really hard version of the logic problems that one of the school’s maths teachers used to set. But he was evasive, as if he shouldn’t have mentioned it to me. Which, of course, piqued my interest further.

My first encounter with the kabbalistic texts themselves followed a year or so later, from the school rabbi. It was the time of year when one reads of Jacob, who, having wrestled with an angel, was blessed by him. I happened to be passing the rabbi’s office and he called me in. I think it was the Zohar, the Book of Radiance, that lay open on his desk. I remember my meeting with the Zohar the way that others remember their first gay kiss: years spent dreaming of something so hopelessly unattainable and, suddenly, in a moment, with no prior expectation, you’re in someone’s arms, and they’re open to you and the world has changed, what was forbidden is actual, what was remote is tangible.

The rabbi held his auburn beard with his left hand and traced the line of text with the forefinger of his right, translating the Aramaic as he went. The passage described the blessing by the angel. How Jabob’s head rested on the stone. How his forehead was anointed with oil. How the oil seeped down—over his temples?—in and around his beard. Maybe there was a description of the stone itself. The power of the imagery remains visceral with me, even if the details are scant—I’ve never seen the passage again in the twenty years since.

Some time later, I mentioned to the sons of a different rabbi, from a more “classical” tradition, that I’d seen some of the Zohar. (I didn’t mention how. That would have been far too incriminating for the auburn-bearded rabbi.) The reaction was one of horror, far greater, I think, than if I had described to them my first gay kiss. And theirs was a father who thought it appropriate to lecture children on the evils of homosexuality.

In reality, though, kabbalistic ideas have become very ambient in judaism. If you hang around a yeshiva (jewish seminary)—and I did—you encounter them. They’re not presented as mysticism. They’re just part of what you learn, like tidbits and sweeteners. Why the bible begins with the second letter of the alphabet, why the ten commandment begin with the first, how the shape of the first letter signifies the separation between man and god… They leaven the loaf of bland Aramaic legalities: what compensation must be paid for damages inflicted by an escaped ox, what pattern abandoned money must be in for you to be permitted to claim it, …

* * *

Aramaic—the language of Jesus and my biblical namesake Daniel, lingua franca of Assyria and bureaucratic lubricant of Babylon—is the language of jewish mysticism, as well as of jewish law. And I loved Aramaic when I was a teenager. Hebrew was what we were given, but Aramaic was something you had to figure out for yourself. Whenever we were told to translate a text, I would ignore the Hebrew and read the Aramaic translation that ran, in small print, down the side of the page. And then I found that other editions offered a second translation into Aramaic, less literal, more interpretative, and with slight differences in language. I mentioned this to my senior at the yeshiva and he said that you didn’t really understand Aramaic until you could read the legal texts, which he was only too happy to show me. From there, we went onto other Aramaic texts, working, for instance, verse by verse, through the florid, expansive translation of the Book of Esther, with its detailed description of the throne of Ahasueros and, I think, a cameo from the Queen Sheba.

So, when I later returned to the Book of Radiance, I did so with some good Aramaic under my belt. Its murky strangeness was immediately striking. Not the ideas, but the language. It was so unnatural. Admittedly, it isn’t as eggregious what you find on www.engrish.com (“Keep Clean Environment with taking to Everyone’s heart”, “let’s feel urgently the fresh family’s atmosphere”). It’s more like the cooking instructions off a 1980’s pot noodle: slightly quirky, clearly foreign. And the book has an equally murky history: some guy in the thirteenth century turns up claiming it’s an accidental find by a deceased rabbi who sent it to him from Israel… Sometime later, some more of it pops up. In other words, provenance and language both suggest it is a fraud. Taking it seriously as an authoritative jewish text is a bit like treating the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as historical fact. So, why isn’t it recognized for the fraud it is?

To say that faith lies at the core of religion is a mistake. Credulousness does. One simply greets with credulity the texts one is given, accepting their authenticity without question. Alternatives are unimaginable. One is explicitly taught to defer to rabbinic authority. So, to reject a text is to reject the rabbinate. It’s apostasy, pure and simple.

But beyond credulity lies something more sinister. Blindness. A key part of a jewish (and other) education is the development of selective blindness. The books of Moses were meant to be given at Mount Sinai. If you’re a christian, working off a bible translated at a particular point in time and carefully edited for consistency of style and tone, then it’s easy to think that the five books are by the same author. If you’re a jew, reading the original, it should be completely impossible. To get a feel for the range—from rhythmic verse, through well paced prose, to dull and listy legalities—try reading the King James translation for one chapter and then switching to a modern translation for the other. Yes, they’re both English, but you’d never assume they’re by the same author. The grammar is different, the vocabulary is different, the style is different, even the personality is different.

The only way that traditionally educated jews manage to maintain the illusion of textual unity is by developing systematic blindness. One simply never thinks, let alone asks, about style, variation, or grammar. Sure, you may ask why a phrase is repeated with apparent redundancy. (If Noah’s children were walking backwards to cover their drunken father, why add that they did not see him? That’s the point of walking backwards.) But no one ever asks why at some point plural verbs lose their final -n (as English lost the -st from comest), or where the accusative+passives went in later books. And just as you never question the variation in Moses’ Hebrew, so you never question the unnaturalness of the mysticism’s pot noodle Aramaic. It’s like asking what your first gay kiss was like. Good yeshiva boys know not to.

* * *

There is an urban legend that goes around traditional communities—think of the rabbi’s sons horrified by my adolescent flirtations (the mystical ones, not the masculine ones)—that you do not start studying the mysticism until your knowledge of the legal texts is such that, if a pin is driven through to a random point on a random page, you will be able to say which word it has hit. In other words, the mysticisms have, supposedly, been developed and revealed by scholars whose knowledge of core judaism is as wide and as profound as could possibly be.

And, like every other urban legend, it is false. And demonstrably so. And showing that the mysticism rests on core ignorance of jewish texts is not a minor problem, but a catastrophically major one—one which not only undoes the urban legend of intellects steeped in learning who only then progress to mysticism, but which undermines one of the core branches of mystical study itself.

Gallons of kabbalistic elbow grease have been shed on the shape and symbolism of Hebrew letters. I mentioned above how aleph represents the separation between man and god. Another example is the special significance of the change in shape that five particular letters take on at the end of words (foretelling, if memory serves, the end of days). This in turn leads to such profound questions of physics as how, when the letters of the ten commandments burned like fire on the stone tablets that Moses brought down the mountain, the centres of letters like O could have avoided falling out. These are physico-spiritual matters as consequential to judaism as the angels that could cohabit a pinhead were to christianity.

Embarrassingly, however, the talmud itself, the very core of jewish law, is perfectly clear—and any archaeologist or linguist with the relevant background will confirm—that there are two alphabets, one truly of the Hebrews, the other borrowed from Babylon; the latter, the Aramaic alphabet, was sanctioned for mundane uses, where the genuine Hebrew alphabet, because it is so holy, was restricted to holy affairs—such as those very mystical relations between god and man, and god and creation, and god and his symbols, which the kabbalists make a pretence of studying. In other words, the alphabet used for Hebrew isn’t the Hebrew alphabet and it isn’t the alphabet which Moses would have used as god’s secretary.

So, the clever explanation about the separation between man and god (aleph is a bar separating two yods) is incoherent. The real aleph looks like A, with an elongated crossbar, turned on its side (looking like the head of the ox that the letter is named after). And the spiritual significance of the five letters that mutate their form at the end of a word is zero: there are none in the real Hebrew alphabet. And the question of physics is likewise reduced to absurdity: the letters to which the rabbis ascribed special significance (s & m) don’t have “holes” in the real Hebrew alphabet. But b, d, and q do—just as in English, who knew we were so spiritual!—as do four others.

* * *

So, the central documents of the mysticism are forgeries, to which the rabbinic community remains wantonly and wilfully blind. And this tradition, supposedly steeped in deep scholarship, is fundamentally ignorant of the texts it purports to elucidate. Which raises a very basic question: given that false premises sooner or later yield false conclusions, why, in a thousand years of study, has none of its students ever noticed those false conclusions?

The answer is simple. Because the mysticism is entirely bereft of content. No conclusion you can ever reach, no lesson you can ever learn, is of any significance to the real world. The whole enterprise is just a bunch of guys noticing that the same sequence of letters occurs in two places and saying, “That’s like totally cool man”, “Yeah it’s like mystical dude” and adding it to an ever expanding list of observations that ought to have no other purpose than the design of crossword clues.

I’m not going exaggerating with analogy to the crossword clues. The full absurdity of mystical thought needs seeing to be believed. Or disbelieved.

The answer to “The very thin girl has it all”—a Times clue from years back—is EVERYTHING: thE VERY THIN Girl has a part meaning “all”. Compare that to the idea that real blessings are associated with kneeling because “knee” (berech) is part of the word “blessing” (berachah). Crossword adepts might also think of the trick of using flower to refer to rivers, because one can “misread” flower as flow-er, thing that flows, as a river does.

Here’s another, even older clue: “Stone recognized only by ten, not fifty”. The answer is ONYX. One gets to that stone by placing ONLY by X, the Roman numeral for “ten”, and making sure that there is “not fifty” by removing the Roman numeral L. Again, this is the quintessentially kabbalistic principle of treating letters as numbers and using them to transition between words of unrelated meanings. For instance, the kabbalistic proof of the evils of speaking badly is that, if you subtract “tooth” from “evil doer” (both interpreted Roman-numeral style, as numbers) then you end up at the number corresponding to “righteous man”—though one might also take this as an argument for good dental care. This enterprise (gematriah) is huge amongst kabbalists and crosswords buffs alike.

Other great kabbalistic principles involve such standard crossword fare as muddling with the order of letters and interpreting a word according to a meaning that has in an entirely unrelated context. Doubtless, a kabbalistic “proof” that Columbus discovered America would run: Columbus means “dove”, which in Hebrew is yonah, and the prophet of the same name (Jonah) was swallowed by a whale and crossed an ocean, just as Columbus later did. Nothing but a loose string of associations, which should be no more than an amusement for kids. And yet these infantile absurdities are promoted as the crowning intellectual and spiritual achievement of the jewish tradition.

Why is the mysticism kept away from teenagers and only “revealed” to people inextricably embedded in the community? Because blindness comes with age. It was a child who had the courage to announce that the emperor had no clothes. The adults didn’t dare but play along.

* * *

When I told Yosvani my considered opinion a day after our original conversation—that the kabbalah is a fraud, founded on ignorance, fuelled by absurdities, and perpetuated by wilful blindness--he had a question of practicalities. Does the kabbalah make you a better person? Does it teach things that are fundamentally good?

My memory is patchy here. I do remember that there is a strong emphasis on not defaming people, on acting in such a way as to preserve the good reputation of others. But within the context of judaism, that is not uniquely a kabbalistic concern. And, in fact, the great quantity of the jewish moral teachings belong to the nonmystical canon. The mysticism is mostly concerned with absurdities outlined above, fake questions with even faker answers.

This is not to deny that, amid the tumult of turgidity and tenuity, there are passages of real radiance. The force of the imagery of Jacob’s blessing, as said, stays with me some twenty years later, after just a single exposure. And the references to kissing above are not gratuitous. One passage, which I can still recall in Aramaic, is as ready on my tongue as some of the sonnets I learned as a teenager: “True love of spirit for spirit can be expressed only with a kiss. For a kiss is with the mouth, and the mouth is the source and the outlet of the spirit, and when they kiss one another, the spirits are one, and the love is one.” Mysticism always inspires poetry. So, if you sift the inordinate sludge and slurry, you will find the occasional gem. If only someone would anthologize the good bits, so we could ignore the dross.

And what, then, of Antonio, for whom the kabbalah has deep personal significance? Shortly after we met, he flew overseas to be with a close friend in his last days. I hesitate to snatch a crutch from anyone whose spirituality offers fixedness in a world so suddenly full of pain and flux. However, if his interpretation of the kabbalah is not true kabbalah, then it is one he has invented for himself. Therefore, the strength he sees in the texts is simply the reflection of a strength he carries within him. He has no need of mystics to survive this or any other crisis. A berachah (blessing) pure and simple—no beardy word games, no pot noodle Aramaic.