Love creates its own savage boundaries, and the attribution of those to divinity is the beginning of cosmic terror: the King of Kings and Master of All Worlds has a preference, and it’s for one brother over another. This is the first and central lie of all personified divinity, and one of the very curious anti-rational conceits fundamental to Biblical religion: You/We are special. Judaism, rabbinic and pharisaical, is built on engaging the poetic and romantic delusion inherent in this language and phraseology, this borderline deification of Us as a central priority of the sacred and worthwhile in this Mosaic world. You/We is special to me, or you’re not. As much as stories and songs aspire to humanize Others, care and identification are, on some level, choices, or at least experiences born out of collaboration and/or co-operation. Some people are more familiar, and therefore sacred to us. Love your Neighbor as Yourself; I don’t know about anyone I don’t know, until they can be experienced as Us.
The Pharisee in my heart presumes depth and sublime meaning in this language and implicit priority, as well as intuitive outrage at where there might be only manipulation and priestcraft expressed through it. My Jerusalem traditions aggressively assume that this narrative language, that You/We are Special, exists so emphatically for the sake of meaning and moral: That You and/or We insist that a great life be shared. Or that for a life to be great it must be shared. The special that I know I am is the special that I can know you are. From this all other exclusive devotions are facilitated, from Marriage to Nationalism. My one. I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine, utterly, definitively. Mine mine mine, treasured and responsible to.
Is this theology, this language, exploitive or satiric? Lots of both, once context and personal value/intention/purpose demand overcoming the You Are Special delusion. Ultra-modernity, with its vicious hostility to loyalty in service of the economic, aesthetic or epicurean priority, demands mercenary pragmatism for the “better deal.” And so all commitments and responsibilities are secondary to personal sensitivity, and the benefit of religion, marriage, community and politic all reduced to the conditional and finite. This too is natural, and important, as expressed in the very pragmatic arrangements described in traditional Jewish contract law: why pay more for the same potatoes? Only if there’s some understood benefit in the relationship, in the relationship to supplier, only for as long as. And so, rabbinic judaism has been, since its inception, abandoning all temple and social practices not viewed as somehow worthwhile through discussion, insistence, and just popular practice.
The small earthenware pitchers that Father Jacob goes back for in rabbinic tradition1 compel him to confront the angel, because he goes back for what is his. Moses becomes G-d’s vessel for his revelation, according to the story, because of his attention to every sheep in his Midianite flock.2 Something is special; I am responsible for what is Mine. Property is made sacred. And so, most anti-Jewish, and then antisemitic, narrative criticism (from Marx to Nietzsche, for example) finds itself looking at this notion as The Problem. As St. Francis of Assisi said, as long as one person has something that someone else doesn’t have, the Kingdom of Heaven cannot be with him. Uh oh!
I’ve long, since childhood really, suspected that a major part of religious imperative functions as a sort of exact opposite to the priorities that actually demand imprinting. The more a religion demands of us that we give something up, the more that thing becomes infinitely more meaningful to us. My mother deeply resented the Ecuadorian Catholicism under which she grew up, its pleas for Your Humility sounding deeply suspicious coming from an ambitious and wealthily-dressed priesthood. When she encountered Judaism’s almost shocking self-interestedness, she found herself deeply appreciative and inspired. I was raised under a grandmotherly gospel (on my father’s side, Brooklyn for generations, Jersey farms before that, since the need to flee a Russian army draft in the early 1900’s) of “don’t be too good” and “take care of yourself first,” and I couldn’t help but notice how much those same mothers and grandmothers appeared to be the least self-absorbed people in the world, utterly devoted to service and authentically drawing joy from attention to the needs of children and guests. This was not identified with kindness or charity, but with opportunity and self-satisfaction. “I’m just not comfortable sitting down to eat until everyone else has. That’s just me.”
And so, many of us grow up So Progressive, raging against the empty selfishness asked of us, and maybe that’s the point—as opposed to certain unwittingly hyper-idealistic religions that seem to cultivate and fetishize personal property and unfettered contempt for weakness (precisely by their demand that all the faithful renounce these precious things as much as possible, always). Dispensations will be found for all the forbidden fruits, made so precious by their prohibition.
To this day, preference emerges as the only value respectable in the post-modern mentality. Altruism is respectable only if you know better and still would rather. Sexuality, similarly: the capriciousness of affection and romance is so warmly invited to shatter every plan and structure not justified by constant appreciation. You have a responsibility to yourself. This mercenary re-adjustability of priority and identification is not very good logic for construction of long term structures, which is why radical revolutionary movements traditionally tried for a sort of militaristic Platonism: the more one can identify with conceptual abstract ideology over feeling, the Chabad/Masonic/Platonic rule of mind-over-heart, the more control and stability one can insist, rather than just waiting to observe and nurse from.
This is the New Age equation informing patristic, conservative, nationalist spiritualities of all stripes: the feminine Venus—the dream, the fantasy—is warned against by the epic of Gilgamesh (as Ishtar) and by the Midrash (as Lilith) because she is (the Hindu goddess) Kali-the-creator-destroyer, the destructive-destabilizing erotic. Understood in post-Platonic Roman Hellenism as Libera, Lilith invites the Roman Liber (the Greek Dionysus); she invites the breakdown, the intoxication into dissolution, and then the show is over.3 This sort of patriarchism, masculine mind and verbal ideological imperative as overarching priority-decider, depends on a strong hand putting aside all other experienced concerns either through service or self-perception.
But we find ourselves, at the end of all these traditions, models, and windows still wanting the best from the promises of traditional life as well as the privileges of enlightened super-modernity. No wonder fundamentalisms and cults become so popular once reason and listening to the self become simply exhausting, if not deeply discredited, by all the seemingly wrong choices the self makes.
This is my troubled, personal argument for clinging to the wisdom and dynamic of the religion I got into: it is, at the very least, a mechanism for testing impulses against some existing communal priority, heart against mind as well as mind against heart, and is a more stable mechanism than any experimental academic conceit or market-driven opportunity for exploitation—to the best of my reckoning. Religion gives my personal self-interests and goals some grounding, or at least a consensus standard operated by people who identify with at least as much greed and generosity as the highest and lowest in me. This does not make the religion and its conclusions less dangerous: it can be guided towards anything the will insists and justified by reasonings eloquent or unelucidated. How we manage this danger is the test of us as ally, lover or enemy; may our priorities and hungers always grow more sensitive and wizened, and the satisfactions feel ever better the more we actually try to make them more right and whole, amen selah.
Better than demands of more purity and ideological rightness is sensitivity to the needs involved in our most externally unjustifiable priorities and awareness of what kind of monsters we all are, one by one, starting with ourselves. The main commitment of wisdom, ultimately, is sensitivity with the Other, and the absurd secret of self-awareness is how much this includes the Other within as well as without.
The word for Neighbor in the biblical mandate “Love your neighbor as yourself” also implies your own darkness. Love your own darkness as yourself, I am G-d.4
1. B. Chullin 91a, explaining why Jacob is left alone to fight the angel-man. He went back for the precious things he had left behind. The Talmud asks why he would bother to go back for little trivialities and then answers: to the righteous, money is more precious than physical safety because every bit is earned so diligently and honestly. To wit, a righteous person is deeply invested, not detached. They care because it’s theirs to care for.
2. Shmot Rabbah 2:2, elaborating on the narrative in Exodus 3:1: “Moses was shepherding his father-in-law’s sheep one day, when one of them bolted. Moses followed the runaway animal until it reached a body of water, where it stopped for a drink. Moses compassionately said to the sheep, ‘If only I had known that you thirsted for water. You must be exhausted from running . . .’ Saying this, he scooped up the animal, placed it on his shoulders and headed back to his flock. Said G‑d: ‘If this is how he cares for the sheep of man, he is definitely fit to shepherd Mine . . .’”
(Translation by Mendel Kalmanson)
3. The traditional Judeo-Islamic concern with regards to Lilith establishes the conflation between Ishtar/Ashtoret/Aphrodite/Hathor/Venus/Kali-ma/Parashakti in Midrash by describing the alienation of Adam from his first wife, while still both masculine and feminine. He will not let her rule over him like the self must refuse to be ruled by fantasy, which is long acknowledged as the main theater of constructed divinity. The Zohar (1:19b) adds that this Lilith is an embodiment of the very first light, further identifying her with Aphrodite Urania, the heavenly body known in Hebrew Astronomy (Sepher Yetzirah) as “Nogah” or just glow. Later the Zohar identifies the light that makes all synagogues and temples special: “Eish Nogah” = Esnoga, the old Ladino word for shul.
4. Leviticus 19:18