Monthly Archives: October 2012

Jewish GA

The Jewish revelation establishes the principle that all humans are created equal because and insofar as they are created in God’s image. We are all like God because God is equidistant from all of us and from Himself: the “I am that I am/I will be what I will be” removes from God the self-sameness that would enable us to figure out how to get Him to do what we want him to do. But God did make a covenant with a people, in which He promised to protect them and have them prosper if they would obey His law. Judaism has an account of how that came to be. The immediate presence of God to man, from Adam and Eve to the generation of the flood, was a failure, as God Himself acknowledged. God cannot walk among men: His presence becomes the source of murderous envy, and tyrannical and mob-like emulation, until God is finally utterly repudiated and the world filled with violence, necessitating the destruction of His creation. I imagine that we see here a history of humanity subsequent to the emergence of the Big Man, the patriarch, the tribal leader and ultimately the emperor, which would have been the first forms in which the human being was divinized. Maybe Christianity’s re-divinization of man is predicated upon the judgment that Judaism had not settled that question in its absolute separation of God and man. So, we could ask whether Judaism might, in fact, have settled it, if only there had been sufficient patience and ingenuity to spread its more rigorous word of God throughout the world; or whether Christianity re-opened the question only to make it worse; or, whether both have failed, or reached their limits, which is to say have not exhausted the possible models through which we can think the originary scene. The means by which God proposes the separation of God from humanity is the covenant that founds a people governed under the law. Already subsequent to the flood this approach had been introduced as God imposed a code of 7 laws on Noah and his descendents (the “Noachide code”) as means of distancing the divine from the human while leaving the latter with an “image” of the former (God, then, is conceived less as a source of sustenance than as the origin of our capacity to covenant with each other and live under publicly shared laws). At any rate, we end up with the paradox that Eric Gans and others have noticed: the universal principle of human equality under God can only be proclaimed and instantiated in a single, small, weak people, in the midst of imperial orders predicated upon man creating himself as God. Judaism later (mostly powerfully in the thought of Maimonides) devised a perfectly plausible theory of how this paradox was to be resolved: the Jews, by living a well-ordered and holy life in observance of God’s law would be a “light unto the nations,” living propaganda for the superiority of living under God’s word over the merely man-made laws of other nations. Perhaps some peoples would convert to Judaism, but for the most part one could readily imagine other peoples treating the Bible’s history of humanity as their own and revising the law it provides according to their own national peculiarities and, finally, their own “oral law.” But this seems like a recipe for anti-semitism, doesn’t it? The Jews would still be at the center of this monotheistic world, they would still be responsible for preserving and exemplifying the law, any success they enjoyed would be taken as a sign that they were still god’s privileged children, and any catastrophes suffered by others blamed on the false promises of the Jews. In other words, the same problem of God’s too present presence because Judaism cannot shed the signs of its birth in a world of violent God men. It can’t be originary enough. As Eric Gans argued (or I, at least, took him to be arguing) in Chronicle 432, we should have some respect for our egalitarian ancestors, and not only because of their blissful lack of knowledge of fixed hierarchies but because of their richer and more diverse experience of the divine. All contemporary attempts, most egregiously through the UN, to create a global law under which we could all live as equals, can only lead to monstrous tyrannies or, perhaps, disorder. Even national systems of equality under the law are seriously fraying, as no one has yet found a way to resolve the twinned freedoms of economic initiative and of generating resentment towards the results of that first freedom. We then end up with endless, fruitless and acrimonious disputes over the real “meaning” of the law, our founding principles, freedom and equality and so on. The only spaces in which we can be free and equal are those where we multiply endlessly rather than withholding the names of God. I don’t expect colloquies with insects and mountains, or that every spring will have its own nymph, or that we will “Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea; Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.” The gods are already separate from humanity under the original egalitarian order—the entire problem posed by the Bible doesn’t exist in equality under the sign rather than under the law. The gods are in language—any possibly meaningful utterance at least slows down our rush to appropriation, enough to make sense before proceeding. We can always pry open utterances and the materials of language so as to hear from the divine—struggle with a mistake, pretending that it makes sense, and miraculously, it will; add or subtract a letter from every other word from a sentence and you create a new sentence, in an oddly revelatory dialogue or argument with the original; the same if you reverse elements of a sentence—the declarative sentence is still the name of God, albeit in infinite manifestations. And maybe this is Jewish after all—the Judaism, most famously of the Kabbalah but certainly going all the way back to the Rabbis and no doubt beyond, to the very beginnings of the divinization of God’s word through the alphabet—the Judaism which contends that God looked into the Torah and created the world out of its linguistic materials.