A hologrammatical approach to Torah
Imagine a still pond. Drop a pebble into it. Water ripples out until the concentric waves reach the shore. The whole surface of the pond has registered the pebble’s entry.
Drop two pebbles in at different points, and now you’ve two sets of waves in motion. The waves will radiate out until they bump into each other all across the water. And now every point on the surface of the pond can “tell” something about the two pebbles: their weights, the points where they entered and when.
What any point in the pond has to say will be both the same as any other point – “two pebbles plopped in at such and such a time and place and weighed this much” – and also somewhat different, depending on how far from the pebbles each point was. At some points the waves surge together, pushing the water higher; at other points they interfere with each other, cancelling each other out, so physics calls this behavior of waves an “interference pattern.” It is used to make holograms by recording light waves and then viewing them by shining light through them. I think the coolest thing about a hologram is not the 3D image, but if you tear off any bit and shine a light through it, you will also get a complete image of the whole, if a bit fuzzier. Every part contains information about the whole system.
This is a vastly simplified description of how holograms work, but it’s a neat metaphor for how I used to teach my students to read a particularly dense, beautiful, complex text like WH Auden’s 1945 sestina, “Paysage Moralisé,” or James Joyce’s Ulysses or almost any poem by Emily Dickinson or Wallace Stevens or John Donne. Every word and every image within the text, every deliberate allusion to things outside the poem, even the structure of the work – the length of its lines, its rhyming and metrical rhythms – reflect on every other bit and contribute to the meaning and coherence of the whole, its artistic integrity. Even when the subject is dismal, the experience of reading such a text was beautiful and brought us to a new way of experiencing the world, and the effect could transform us or be overwhelming. It almost certainly make us admire the art and genius of the author, even when its message depressed us.
The Ultimate Text
Wallace Stevens calls a work of art like this an “Ultimate Poem.” It mirrors the beauty of nature in its complexity and harmony and invites us to an unending contemplation and appreciation, an invitation to interpret it, to read and re-read it and find new meanings, trying to follow its “windings round and dodges to and fro” and come away “not with revelations” alone, but “more questions.” [http://poetry-crossfire.blogspot.com/2011/08/ultimate-poem-is-abstract-by-wallace.html]. A fashionable literary philosopher of my time, Roland Barthes, called this “the pleasure of the text.” Being French, the original word he used is much juicier, jouissance. It implies a blissful consummation, a kind of intercourse, when the active reading by the reader finds the active intentions of the writer hiding in the text. The text is a kind of seduction, and the reader and author enact a blissful tango to the music on its dance floor.
In this blog, I apply this way of approaching the text to the Torah, a.k.a. “The Five Books of Moses” or the “Chumash” in Hebrew (for “five”). I imagine the Torah as a kind of “ultimate poem” written by an ultimate Author and see it like a dynamic hologram like the 3D experiences in virtual reality simulations, but I try to look into the guts of its engineering, its computer code, if you will, and see it as formed by 83,640 pebbles, one for each word in the Torah, or perhaps 304,805, one for every letter. Its most famous interpreter, Rabbi Akiva, could make a sermon even on the visual decorations – the crowns – on individual letters. In one of my blogs below, I try to even darshan (derive a sermon) on the spaces between words.
From this reader’s view, the text is so transcendentally coherent and integrated, especially in the original primitive Hebrew, to the point that every scene, every image, every verse, word, even individual letters reflect on each other and make meaning with each other, that it forces me to believe in the obvious conclusion that it is the work of a single Mind. In the last two centuries, it is the fashion to ascribe many different authors, even committees of authors working over a millenium, to the composition of the Five Books of Moses. Its marshals quite a lot of persuasive evidence, both historical and textual, using fragmentary texts, contexts – and most powerfully – apparently inexplicable contradictions, repetitions, and changes in register, styles, lexicon and other literary elements in the text itself. Two accounts of Creation, the repetitious and sometimes self-contradictory fifth book, impossible sequences and timing of events, changing names for God, etc. etc.
I believe much of this evidence stems from what I told my students was violation of the first rule of reading: assume the author acted in good faith and try to understand the text and author’s intention in its time and place. Don’t impose your contemporary values on Shakespeare and blame him for his sexism. Don’t blame Huckleberry Finn for using the “N-word” before understanding why Mark Twain used it and how much love he lavishes on the intimacy between the white boy Huck and the slave, Jim. I also believe incomplete comprehension of the original Hebrew or trying to find contexts for literary elements by looking outside the text first, rather than trying to see it from within the depths of meaning provided by the Torah itself. In most cases, this so-called “Documentary Hypothesis” holds sway in academia and even in the majority of the academies of Judaism that are trying to accommodate the pressures of modernity. If truth were a vote, it would win, even among Jews. But I find these arguments less persuasive than simply taking the text at face value as the work of a single Author working, you should excuse the phrase, in good faith. In this game as reader, my job is to plumb its depths intra-textually before seeking to discredit it.
To the game…
To that end, I present a growing number of attempts to read the text, usually by focusing on a single word or sometimes a single image or phrase that sticks out, either because it is unusual – even a unicorn (occurring only once) – or because it calls across the text to other occasions that illuminate its meaning and deepen our jouissance in our dialogue with its Author. For me, this literary act, this way of reading the Torah’s letterature, is a form of liturgy.
ORIGINS AND HISTORY OF CONSCIOUSNESS I Night-life. Letters, journals, bourbon sloshedin the glass. Poems crucified on the wall, dissected, their bird-wings severed like trophies. No one lives in this room without living through some kind of crisis. No one lives in this room without confronting the whiteness of the wall behind the poems, planks of books, photographs of dead heroines. Without contemplating last and late the true natures of poetry. The drive to connect. The dream of a common language. Thinking of lovers, their blind faith, their experienced crucifixions, my envy is not simple. I have dreamed of going to bed as walking into water ringed by a snowy wood white as cold sheets thinking, I'll freeze in there. My bare feet are numbed already by the snow but the water is mild, I sink and float like a warm amphibious animal that has broken the net, has run through fields of snow leaving no print; this water rushes off the scent- You are clear now of the hunter, the trapper the wardens of the mind- yet the warm animal dreams on of another animal swimming under the snow-flecked surface of the pool, and wakes, and sleeps again. No one sleeps in this room without the dream of a common language. II It was simple to meet you, simple to take your eyes into mine, saying: these are eyes I have known from the first....It was simple to touch you against the hacked background, the grain of what we had been, the choices, years....It was even simple to take each other's lives in our hands, as bodies. What is not simple: to wake from drowning from where the cean beat inside us like an afterbirth into this common, acute particularity these two selves who walked half a lifetime untouching- to wake to something deceptively simple: a glass sweated with dew, a ring of the telephone, a scream of someone beaten up far down the street causing each of us to listen to her own inward scream knowing the mind of the mugger and the mugged as any woman must who stands to survive in this city, this century, this life... each of us having loved the flesh in its clenched or loosened beauty better than trees or music (yet loving those too as if they were flesh - and they are - but the flesh of beings unfathomed as yet in our roughly literal life). III It's simple now to wake from sleep with a stranger, dress, go out, drink coffee, enter a life again. It isn't simple to wake from sleep into the neighborhood of one neither strange nor familiar whom we have chosen to trust. Trusting, untrusting, we lowered ourselves into this, let ourselves downward hand over hand as on a rope that quivered over the unsearched....We did this. Conceived of each other, conceived each other in a darkness which I remember as drenched in light. I want to call this, life. But I can't call it life until we start to move beyond this secret circle of fire where our bodies are giant shadows flung on a wall where the night becomes our inner darkness, and sleeps like a dumb beast, head on her paws, in the corner. Adrienne Rich, 1972-1974