Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Black fire on White fire

There is a concept in Jewish mysticism that the primordial Torah is the blueprint of creation. The question of course arises, if the primordial Torah is the blueprint – then what was it written on before material reality came in to existence?

The midrash (allegorical commentaries on the Torah) states that the primordial Torah was written black fire on white fire. Professor Moshe Idel in his second chapter of his book “Absorbing Perfections” focuses on this topic. The name of the chapter is “The God-Absorbing Text: Black Fire on White Fire”.

The question posed above is mentioned on page 47 and Professor Moshe Idel then goes on to state:

“...More specifically, however, some midrashic sources became aware that if the Torah anetdates the world, a quandary arises as to the material involved in the visible manifestation of the written. This question was explicitly posed in at least two different midrashim, using similar structural formulations, though the details differ substantially. A late midrash, ‘Aseret ha-Dibberot, formulates the question as follows: ‘Before the creation of the world, skins of parchments were not in existence, that the Torah might be written on them, because the animals did not exist yet. So, on what was the Torah written? On the arm of the Holy One, blessed be He, by a black fire on [the surface of] a white fire’...”

If we take for a minute the metaphor of the Divine as infinite light, anything that is created would instantly be absorbed and nullified in the infinite reality of the Divine. Hence why later Kabbalists (16th century) wrote about the concept of Tzimtzum – a Divine contraction so to speak in which the Divine light was constrained layer by layer until a “blackness” existed in which the presence of the Divine was not immediately apparent to any emanated entity. Thus the blackness is a carving out of “space” in the Divine to create room for eventually material reality to be formed (from our perspective).

Coming back to the difference between the black fire and white fire in the primordial Torah, the 13th century mystic Rabbi Isaac Ha-Kohen, son of Rabbi Jacob Ha-Kohen write as follows (quote from pp51-52 of Absorbing Perfections):

“...The inner [form] stands for the Holy One, blessed be He, as He is hidden from the eye of any creature and His innerness cannot be reached. The external form stands for the [external] world, which depends on the arm of the Holy One, blessed be He, as an amulet on the arm of a powerful man. And just as the inner form is the locus of the external form, so [also] is God the locus of the world, and the world is not the locus of God. What I have mentioned to you [si] that the white form of the ‘aleph stand for the level of Holy One, blessed be He, but not the black one, [which is] external. I did tell you this by way of a [great] principle, and as a great secret because the whie form stands for the white garment, and as our sages, blessed be their memory, said: Whence was the light created? It teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, clothed himself in a white garment, and the splendor of it shone from one end of the world to another, as it is said: “Who covers himself with light as with a garment and “and the lights dwells with him”...”

So… the Divine fills all of reality as explained via the metaphor of light but the Divine also transcends all of creation. As the quote above states, the Divine wears a garment of light (reality) but that is not the essence of the Divine (the metaphor of the body in the garment).

Taking this a step further, what meaning or use can be made with the white fire that surrounds the black fire? Are there deep secrets which can grant us a deeper connection with the Divine?

Rabbi Levi Isaac of Berditchev, a Hasidic master of the eighteenth century wrote (yet another quote from chapter 2 of Absorbing Perfections):

“...We can see by the eye of our intellect why in the Torah handed down to us one letter should not touch the other. The matter is that also the whiteness constitutes letters, but we do not know how to read them as [we know] the blackness of the letters. But in the future God, blessed be He, will reveal to us even the whiteness of the Torah. Namely we will [then] understand the white letter in our Torah, and this is the meaning of “A new Torah will go forth from me,” that it stands for the whiteness of the Torah, that all the sons of Israel will understand also the letter that are white in our Torah which was delivered to Moses. But nowadays the letters of whiteness are obscured from us...”

It’s a bit disappointing to hear that we’ll have to wait for the Messiah to understand and interact in a meaningful way with the white letters. However, perhaps there is a way of living in Messianic times before the advent of the coming of the Messiah…. Rabbi Abraham Abulafia, according to my studies & understanding, put forward the idea that we could all be our own personal Messiahs in a way.

Rabbi Abulafia wrote about permutating letters first on the page, then moving on to permutate the letters with sound and head movements, followed by just permutating them internally. Maybe, just maybe, we can absorb the whiteness from the page that surrounds the black letters – carve out this whiteness with sound and internalise the white letters finally to make them part of our being. Anyway, it’s just a thought.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Passing over Allegories

On the shabbat (Saturday) during Passover we read the Song of Songs, an erotic love poem between God and the Israelites. It’s a poem pregnant with meaning and very explicit in its wording. However, rather than translate the literal meaning of the poem – one of the popular publishers of Jewihs prayer books has chosen another path:

“The Complete Artscroll Machzor: Pesach…

Without question, King Solomon’s Song of Songs, Shir HaShirim, is one of the most difficult books of scripture – not because it is so hard to understand but because it is so easy to misunderstand. Not only is it love song, it is a love song of uncommon passion. No other book seems to be so out of place among the twenty foud books of prophecy and sacred spirit. Nevertheless, one of the greatest and holiest of all the Sages of the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva, said ‘all of the songs [of Scripture] are holy, but Shir Hashirim [Song of Songs] is the holy of holies.’ How is a love song holy?

The question is perplexing only if Shir Hashirim is taken literally, but neither the Sages nor the commentators take it so. The song is an allegory. It is the duet of love between God and Israel. Its verses are so saturated with meaning that that nearly every one of the major commentators finds new themes in its beautiful but cryptic words. All agree, however, that the true and simple meaning of Shir Hashirim is the allegorical meaning. The literal meaning of the the words is so far from their meaning that it is false.

That is why Artscroll’s translation of Shir Hashirim is completely different from any other Artscroll translation. We translate it according to Rashi’s allegorical translation..”

Personally speaking I found this very frustrating. The first thing I did was look for an older publisher and ready their translation. Sure enough it was much closer to the text. This attitude of trying to protect the uninformed reader from the text is something that unfortunately Artscroll also did in their translation of Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (Nachmanides / Ramban) in his commentary of the Torah.

“Artscroll Series: Bereishis / Genesis
The Torah: with Ramban’s commentary translated, annotated, and elucidated.


One of Ramban’s greatest impacts upon Jewish thought lies in the fact that he was the first “mainstream” Jewish sage to include Kabbalistic (mystical) ideas into material that was intended for the general public. In his introduction, however, he issues a stern warning that his Kabbalistic comments cannot possibly be understood by the uninitiated and that any attempt to do so would result in distortion of the lofty theological matters. For this reason, we have not translated Ramban’s Kabbalistic comments into English (although they can be found in full in the all-Hebrew Ram ban text on the page)..."

In response to this – I did what any frustrated person would do and taught myself sufficient mastery of Hebrew to read the untranslated parts. Not only those parts but also books such as Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Formation) along with at least 2 commentaries.

Then I added to my small library a Hebrew version of Sword of Moses, Key of Solomon, Rabbi Chaim Vital’s Sefer Pe-ulot, and a number of other texts that the editors & translators at Artscroll publishing would likely not approve of me owning – never mind actually translating and making use off. 

So I would like to conclude with a big THANK YOU to the staff at Artscroll for raising my frustration at my lack of Hebrew education to such a degree that I am now proficient enough to read the texts that they did not translate for me – as well as a host of other texts that they would likely not consider me qualified to read.

Necessity is the mother of invention. Frustration is the catalyst of aspiring golem builders the world over.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Mis-adventures in Magic: Part 6 Close Call

In small movementsin time, I tried to invent a method to try to dream about the future – specifically the next day. Here is the description:

“...My initial plan is to start with something that I consider to be relatively simple. I'll find a verse in the Torah related to time, then engrave, carve, etc. letters and see if I can "dream tomorrow" during the night to predict (experience in advance of my current perception of linear time) what the events of the next day will bring...”

Not so long ago whilst using this technique I had a rather disturbing dream. I say dream, but it was really something that came to mind as I was falling asleep and not yet dreaming. In any case – I saw a child’s arm as if via x-ray goggles. The image was not static like an x-ray picture but rather like watching through someone’s eyes who can only see what is normally visible with an x-ray machine. It was all in black (dark blue) and white and I suddenly saw that there was something wrong with the arm. The child’s arm was severed and I sensed a presence nearby that was frustrated at the careless sequence of events that led to the child being in this terrible state.

The next day whilst walking back from the house of prayer, I was crossing the road with family members including small children. Half-way across the pedestrian crossing I experienced the same sense of frustration and broke off my conversation to see that the car approaching the zebra crossing was not slowing down.

With a loud shout of “What are you doing!” - the driver suddenly slowed down the car to a stop. The startled driver and everyone crossing the road suddenly became aware of each other. I honestly don’t think the driver saw us despite the large crowd, perhaps he was using his smartphone. Most of the children were in shock at me raising my voice and I was in shock tat the fact that shouting at a speeding motorist actually caused them to stop.

Some time later as we sat down to lunch I mentioned the incident to the father of the toddler who had been nearest to the car. He looked rather surprised and said: “I had a dream about a car hitting my child last night, but thought I was just being a paranoid parent.” So whilst my technique may have given me a cryptic clue about x-rays and careless accidents, the father received the message in plain and simple terms...