Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Back of God

I'm working on a review of Alicia Ostriker's For the Love of God: The Bible as an Open Book, and am reminded of a certain passage in Exodus:
See, there is a place near me. Station yourself on the rock and as my Presence passes by, I will place you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with my hand until I have passed. Then I will take my hand away and you will see my back; but my face cannot be seen. (Exodus 33:18-23)

Ostriker writes:

"The imagery is suggestively both sexual and mystical. I believe that the 'back' of God, whose beauty and terror would destroy us at close quarters, may be apprehended through the hints, indirections, and subtleties of poetry and storytelling" (7).

Given my own never-ending fascination with Emmanuel Levinas's idea of the face-to-face encounter, and the importance of learning what it means to "see" the face of the Other, the juxtaposition here of G-d's face and back is troublesome. Are we being shielded from the literal face of G-d because it would distract us from seeing and sensing his presence? Are we not yet ready to see his face?

But maybe this is one more prophetic moment for which the Hebrew bible has become notorious. Is it possible that G-d's face, here, cannot be seen because the G-d that we have created and placed in the heavens is always already a reflection of our own failings? I wonder if the prophetic moment, here, rests not in the suggestion that G-d is hiding his face, but in the possibility that we cannot see it. And if we cannot see it, are we not responsible? Responsible for everything?

Or, perhaps there is no face--who, then, is this G-d without a face? I can almost buy into this possibility. Ostriker's reading of this passage reveals all of its human elements: sexuality, beauty, terror, ambiguity, storytelling. One wonders whether this passage is not, on some level, also an indictment of those who have lost sight of the face of the human Other, and, further, whether the pathway to repair lies solely in the art of storytelling.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

All the Textures of Sadness

I'm halfway through Janette Turner Hospital's Due Preparations for the Plague, and I'm forever indebted to the person who recommended it to me. Its pieces are all of loss and trauma, terror and obsession, memory and forgetting, absence and presence, gaps and silences. The language of midrash is all over it.

But every time I say that about a book--that is, every time I read midrash into all its cracks and crevices--there is something deeply sorrowful in the narrative. Think of David Grossman's See Under: Love or Aryeh Lev Stollman's The Far Euphrates--two of my favorite midrashic finds. There is sadness all over them.

Somehow, it is always the silences and sadnesses that summon the midrashic impulse from the ruins of atrocity or the apathy of contemporary living.

All day I have turned a passage from this novel over and over in my mind, unable to shake a particular phrase: "all the textures of sadness." The entire passage goes like this:

He remembers all the textures of sadness, his father's sadness, his mother's, and his own, and he remembers the absences, the loneliness, the sound of his mother crying at night. Lowell remembers, remembers...too much, and the silences between his revelations grow long. (97)

All the textures of sadness.

Sadness must be as gray and nuanced as anything else--of this I am certain. How many textures have we forgotten, failed to feel with our hands?

Every once in a while, I feel forgotten textures, misplaced among bright smiles, painful hopes, and feigned optimism. It's been a while, but lately I've felt them again, watched in agony as they materialize in so many new forms. Each texture has the capacity to rock us in a different way. Some are razor sharp, cutting so deeply and precisely that we know we cannot go on. But we do, given the surprising ease with which such clean cuts heal.

Then there are those whose edges are not define-able; they cannot be traversed, their boundaries are both impassable and imperceptable. And it's Emmanuel Levinas's concept of the il y a again. The "there is"--the silences that become rumblings, the emptinesses that are suddenly full of something we cannot touch, yet cannot help but feel.

Turn it and turn it, say the rabbis of Torah, for all is contained within it. What if we might say the same of sadness, that every time we turn it--every time we are turned by it--we find it contains the whole world?

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Stones, Messiahs, and Revelations

There's something I love about this world, and it's that every time people think they've figured something out and that they have all the answers, a new piece of information somehow manages to materialize and calls everything into question. Depending on how you look at it, this can be either frustrating or liberating. I tend to think it is, most often, the latter.

A three-foot-tall tablet with 87 lines of Hebrew that scholars believe dates from the decades just before the birth of Jesus is causing a quiet stir in biblical and archaeological circles, especially because it may speak of a messiah who will rise from the dead after three days.

If such a messianic description really is there, it will contribute to a developing re-evaluation of both popular and scholarly views of Jesus, since it suggests that the story of his death and resurrection was not unique but part of a recognized Jewish tradition at the time.

The tablet, probably found near the Dead Sea in Jordan according to some scholars who have studied it, is a rare example of a stone with ink writings from that era — in essence, a Dead Sea Scroll on stone.

It is written, not engraved, across two neat columns, similar to columns in a Torah. But the stone is broken, and some of the text is faded, meaning that much of what it says is open to debate. [...]

Daniel Boyarin, a professor of Talmudic culture at the University of California at Berkeley, said that the stone was part of a growing body of evidence suggesting that Jesus could be best understood through a close reading of the Jewish history of his day. “Some Christians will find it shocking — a challenge to the uniqueness of their theology — while others will be comforted by the idea of it being a traditional part of Judaism,” Mr. Boyarin said. [...]

“His mission is that he has to be put to death by the Romans to suffer so his blood will be the sign for redemption to come,” Mr. Knohl said. “This is the sign of the son of Joseph. This is the conscious view of Jesus himself. This gives the Last Supper an absolutely different meaning. To shed blood is not for the sins of people but to bring redemption to Israel.”

They're calling it "Gabriel's Revelation," but my favorite thing about this is the fact that the stone is broken, and that some of the text is faded. Even revelations often fail to reveal all. I'll be interested to read about what comes of us over the next few months.