Reading both the Sefer Yetzirah and Orlov’s Divine Scapegoats has put me back on the track of reading through the edges of Jewish mysticism proper. Obviously, I ain’t never going to be a Jewish mystic, but it’s pretty clear I’m sharing some of the same intellectual real estate. Ha, back in the day, I remember being somewhat startled when a fellow grad student accused me of being a closet Jewish mystic over my reading of Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”
It’s funny, right? That back and forth has been an abundant wellspring not just for me, personally, but for the ‘western’ philosophical tradition so-called. Some proper giants have their roots in Jewish life, whether we talk about Christianity generally or more secular figures like Husserl, Levinas, Derrida, Adorno, Spinoza, and so on down the line to folks like Judith Butler. I know folks hate (with good reason) the phrase ‘Judeo-Christian,’ but there is a certain truth to it when applied to specific strains of European thought. There has a been a strong and persistent influx of Judaic thought into the western ‘Christian’ tradition.
(Which isn’t to deny a similar pattern going on between Christianity and Islam, too. Maybe it’s time to reread The Dictionary of the Khazars? Maybe alongside Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo.)
Anyway, sorry, rambling. What I want to point out here is something I stumbled across dipping into the Zohar. In the discussion of Klippoth (I am trying to standardize my transliterations…emphasis on try), three specific sorts of Klippoth are identified. There is a Klippoth of idolatry, of bloodshed, and of sexual immorality.
Ever since I wrote about Dumezil’s functions having a Kabbalistic parallel, the two sets of three have been circling each other in my thoughts. The sympathy between them seems obvious, right? In case it isn’t, here you go:
Klippoth of Idolatry—Legislative Function
Klippoth of Bloodshed—Military Function
Klippoth of Sexual Immorality—Productive Function
In other words, the three major Klippoth are ways in which the three functions become increasingly disordered and incapable of gathering and intensifying the divine light. At the same time, they are the husks, the material which must be stabilized and ordered to receive the light.
This lays the groundwork for thinking about the role played by ritual sacrifice (the atonement rite is key to Orlov’s study). What happens in the ancient Yom Kippur rite? Well, we have the productive function yielding up animals, which are subsequently sacrificed by the priest for the preservation of the community. One is offered to the divine, while the other is offered to the wilderness and its demonic forces. In other words, it strengthens both Klippoth and light, sets them into harmony.
It does so by taking the goats (productive function), shedding their blood (military function), under the guidance of the temple (legislative function). The goat itself is also a symbol of sexual immorality and violence, thus embodying both the good structures of agriculture that secure herds but also the dangers of wildness (in part, because a herder has to follow the herd away from the safest places sometimes). It’s a precarious act, but one that reflects the precariousness of moral life and its compromises, redeeming it.
Recently, I read a Hindu opinion piece (I seem to have deleted the original email link, but it is somewhere on the Speaking Tree website) about the inappropriate extremes to which the contemporary Gadhimai Festival goes and it reminded me that this sort of balancing act occurs in the Indo-European context, too.
The article argued against the sacrifices on several grounds, but one of the prongs was that the festival goers too broadly generalized from a singular ritual act (which may have been proper in its sovereign context) to endorse the sort of thoughtless killing Hinduism ought to abhor. Consider this alongside the story of Saul in 1 Samuel. Saul loses the favor of heaven because he sheds blood without the proper sanctions. This is doubled in the rationale for his impatience—he wants to get to war.
War and bloodshed, sitting right there between Chesed and Gevurah, expansion and contraction. This suggests that the military function is about more than just military action. Rather it is what Walter Benjamin would call the function of violence, by which the will of society is inscribed in the world. It is where both military and police violence manifest. Sacrifice, then, becomes possible only when violence is constrained, when it is subject to a power that keeps it from spilling into slaughter.
Where there is blood shed, there is great danger, and a healthy society must at all times seek to restore and balance violence if it seeks to be a vessel for anything higher than itself. The United States seems presently rooted in a fundamentally toxic loop of Klippothic violence. Whether we look to the bloodshed of innocent black men, women, and children, the oppressive force long leveraged against Americans by those of largely European descent, xenophobic violence against immigrants and refugees, or the constant deployment of automated and mercenary force abroad, there is much to be repulsed by.
The war machine isn’t pretty. Though we may yet be able to extract from the wreckage it produces the materials needed to adapt and survive, we ought not glory in its operations.
Thinking about it in this way makes clear something else. The demand of the military line is the demand of consumption. It is what eats and/or destroys that which has been produced. It is also the hunger of those who starve because someone else gorges themselves, and the resentment that rises up from that. It is that by which we grow, but also that by which we decline.
It starts to make sense, too, how the Klippoth are entangled with each other in the way modeled by the diagram of the sefirot. Bloodshed fuels and is fueled by both sexual immorality and idolatry. The hunger for satiation can take on a sexual dimension and if it is satisfied only according to its urges, than the only way to resolve rival urges is through violence. Idolatry, with its fixed image of what divine harmony is, becomes Procrustean, mutilating to fit. Violence sets up its desire as an idol. And so on.
The permutations are useful, too. Consider how the idol and sexual desire are related through the roots of the symbolic in the sexual, for example. There we can see some of the positive dimensions of the process, though care seems to be taken to conceal that process, perhaps for good and quite functional reasons.
It goes on and on, the interaction between Klippoth and redemption. More than I can do justice to here. Perhaps even more than I can do justice to, period.
(Speaking of Nepal, my thought and prayers go out to those suffering in Nepal in the wake of the earthquake there.)