Sunday, October 3, 2010

Bereishit: Understanding Light and Dark, Five Strategies

Torah begins, appropriately enough, with Beginning:

“When God began to create heaven and earth, the earth was a chaos, unformed, and on the chaotic waters face there was darkenss. Then God’s breath glided over the face of the waters and God said, “let there be light and there was light. And when God saw the light, that it was good, God divided the light from the darkness."

Okay. So there was darkness but there was no light, thesis with no antithesis, but how can darkness exist if light does not exist as its opposite? Then God speaks, God uses words and describes the existence of light, so there is light? But light still wasn’t separate from darkness, light and dark were one! So God divides the light and the darkness, there is now morning and night and bang, we have a day, the first day. But how can dark and light exist and not be divided? So was there light before God created light? When God began to create the world, but there was already the earth, though it was in chaos? So …so when did the chaos get created? What was before the chaos? And what was the source of the light? The sun wasn’t created until the fourth day!

Questions. Many questions. I guess at this point, we need citations…
As it is written by Shalom Noach Berezovsky, in the Netivot Shalom,(and thank you to Rabbi Jonathan Slater and the Institute for Jewish Spirituality for passing this on):

The Zohar (II 148b) teaches that the light of the first day was hidden away, but not completely. If it were completely hidden, the world itself could not exist for a moment. Rather, it was hidden as a seed which, obscured in the earth, produces seeds and fruits, and through it the world is sustained. This means that God’s light is always present, even if it is hidden. But, the whole of creation is made up of earthy, material things which would, of themselves, lead us astray. The response is to bask in the divine light that is always present in that very creation.

Okay, good. Another one!

Rabbi Larry Kushner, on, says “Let there be light wasn’t optical light, the light of day one was consciousness, or awareness.”

More! The Women’s Torah Commentary says that, “as the first of Gods creative acts, light becomes not only a physical phenomenon but also a symbol of clarity and illumination that extend beyond the physical.”

Fantastic~ And…well, I could go on. And on.

I could cite Talmud, midrash, commentaries and the internet along these lines all day. I was doing the research for it, I had an outline, but what was I doing? What was I trying to accomplish? I’m trying to make something that is ancient into something contemporary, trying to interpret something that comes from a culture that shares almost no references or paradigms with the culture I live in, trying to find linear rationality in a creation myth that was never meant to be linear or rational. Why?

Don’t get me wrong. I love this stuff. I’ve barely dipped my toe into Talmud and midrash, in how the rabbis and scholars have worked to understand the anomalies, or as Larry Kushner calls it, the “not fitting of ideas”, but it’s fascinating and deep. I’d happily spend the rest of my life learning this cumulative and associative way of thinking, but, at the start of a new year of Torah study, is a list of citations in the search for logical consistency of a few lines really where I want to start? Where we want to start? How else can I reconcile the contraditictions and gaps of Torah?

What is to be done? Thus far I have found five possible strategies for reconciling the ancient and the contemporary:

One. Scoff at the contradictions and walk away from the whole thing. I hit upon this brilliant idea at the age of fourteen. And it worked for me for over twenty years. But I couldn’t stay away so then I tried-

Two. Live with the contradictions and don’t try to make then work. I used to think that the only way to have intellectual integrity was to have consistency. I thought that God as I was taught God as a child was nonsensical, then I had to reject everything else that came along with that God. I decided I could resolve this by giving up consistency, by saying, okay, I want rational empirical thinking and transcendent religion and Torah knowledge in my life, I will just wall them all off into their separate worlds, won’t try to make them gibe, enjoy them all just as they are but separately. After all, am I not capable of holding more than two opposing ideas in my mind at the same time without my head exploding?
But then I started to do study, really started to see a glimmer of the coolness of midrash. Those guys, they wanted consistency, too, and they were gonna make it work, which led me to -

Three. Intellectualize the contradictions away. At least on some level, that’s what a lot of midrash and Talmud is about. Reason your way through all the permutations until you can come up with a rational reason why the Torah is sometimes inconsistent, nutty or creepy. Much of their work is brilliant and forms the basis of how we think. Some of it is kind of sad and ridiculous but dazzling nonetheless. I adore the intellectual gymnastics but it’s not always enough. So,

Four. Meld the contradictions with feelings and stories so that they make a kind of sense: stories that are the Hasidic equivalents of the Zen koan, the sound of one scroll clapping, more or less; poems that capture the basic human needs and feelings and perceptions within the framework of Jewish thought. They sound right, they feel good, they capture the essence of what we know to be true. But it’s often a feeling thing, for me anyway, not a thinking thing. And I need both. Lately I’ve begun to glimpse an alternative.

Five. I begin to think that they’re not contradictions at all, that they’re part of a larger understanding of connection and learning and yearning, that it’s okay if I can’t always see those connections, I can just let them be there, and if at some point I manage to put it together, great and if not, that’s fine.
I think all five approaches are a necessary part of understanding the light and dark of Torah. Each approach is just one aspect of a Torah life. God’s light is in the questions, not the answers, the argument not the resolution. This is truly doubt as an act of faith. As we begin the year of Torah study, I can't help but feel lucky for the opportunities to scoff, ignore, intellectualize, poeticize and accept it all, as God (however I understand that at any given moment) speaks and creates.

One last citation, again from Netivot Shalom,

"The light made available to those who study Torah is a “thread of light”, which in its source in the Talmud is a “thread of love (chesed)”. The light in the Tabernacle was the cloud of God, the Shekhinah. The Shekhinah and God’s love are always present to sustain the world, and those in it. Those who study Torah bring this light into the world."