Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Necessary Evil: The Yetzer ha-Ra

Last week I explained that in Judaism ha-Satan, the Adversary, was one of the “severe” agents of God. Another such harsh but necessary force in God’s creation is the Yetzer ha-Ra, which is variously translated as the “Evil Impulse,” the “Evil Desire,” the “Selfish Desire” or just “Desire.” It is that aspect of nature, but especially human nature, which drives us to compete, to fight, to possess, but most of all to desire sexual gratification.
[Postcard by Jungenstil artist Moses Ephraim Lilien]

Though it is counter-balanced by the Yetzer ha-Tov, the “altruistic desire,” it is nonetheless the source of much of the grief in human life – lust, violence, selfishness, vengeance, and ambition. One would think that humanity would be truly better off if we could destroy this impulse. I always think in this context of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” It has struck me that Lennon is thinking of something akin to the Yetzer when he wrote that song. Imagine if human being were finally free of all the selfish drives? No thoughts of property, security, self-aggrandizement or the future? Wouldn’t things be perfect, or at least a whole lot better? Is Lennon right? Well, in fact, the Sages of Talmudic times anticipated Lennon by about 1600 years and imagined just such a scenario. This is their mythic account of the “Day the Muse [almost] died”:

And [they]cried with a great voice to the Eternal their God (Neh. 9:4). What did they cry?...Woe, woe, it is he [the Yetzer ha-Ra] who has destroyed the Sanctuary, burnt the Temple, killed the righteous, driven all Israel into exile and is still dancing in our midst… You have surely given him to us that we may receive merit through him. We want neither him nor merit through him. In that moment a tablet fell from the firmament, the word ‘truth’ inscribed upon it [Heaven accedes to the request]….They [the Sages of the Great Assembly] ordered a complete fast of three day….whereupon he [the Yetzer] was surrendered to them. He came forth from the Holy of Holies like a fiery lion…. At that moment the prophet declared, “This is the Yetzer”…the prophet said, “cast him in a lead barrel” (See Zech. 5:8)….He [the Yetzer] said to them, “Realize that if you kill me, the world is finished.” They held him for three days, then they looked in the whole land of Israel and not an egg could be found. So they asked, “What shall we do now?”…So they put out his eyes and let him go; this helped in that men became less inclined to incest (Yoma 69b).

What a remarkable story. It teaches a most profound truth. We see evil in ourselves, it offends us, and we think the right thing to do is to totally purge ourselves of it. Yet we don’t truly understand it, for things we so easily characterize as “evil” actually spring out of the very nexus of holiness. Surreal as it is, this maaseh makes an incredible point – it is the strife of the spirit, the very struggle between our impulses that makes the world work. Without the Yetzer ha-Ra, the world as we know would cease – people [and animals] would no longer be driven to build, to create, to have children. In short, life as we know, including not only evil aspects but most of what we regard as beautiful also, would cease. Without Desire, Life itself would slowly wither away, and that would be a sad thing. So the goal of the spiritual person is not to destroy the selfish-sexual-evil impulse, but rather to sublimate it to God’s purpose. To be truly what God wants us to be, to achieve our fullest human potential, we need to learn to bend both our impulses to godly ends. We should not cease to lust, but should direct that urge toward love. We should turn our impulse toward vengeance into the desire for justice, our ambition for acquiring possessions into the creation of wealth that will “float every boat,” as GOP rhetoricians like to say.

As Genesis Rabbah teaches:

And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good…vehinei tov zeh yetzer hatov, vehinei tov me’od zeh yetzer hara – "good" refers to the Good Inclination but "very good" refers to the Evil Inclination.
Why? Because were it not for the Yetzer ha-Ra no one would build a house, take a wife, give birth, or engage in commerce.

In other words, God is the source of the Yetzer ha-Ra and, despite what we may think, has blessed us though it with a purpose in mind – to fill us with desire; the desire to make the world better than it is.

To learn more, consult Body; Nature; Sex; and Yetzer ha-Ra in The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism. Purchase it at:

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Boaz and Yachin: Pillars of Creation, Trees of Eden

And he [Solomon] erected the pillars for the portico of the sanctuary, and he erected the right-hand pillar and called it ‘Yachin’, and he erected the left-hand pillar and called it ‘Boaz’. Melachim I 7:21

If the Molten Sea is a puzzle, the significance of the two named pillars on the portico of the Temple (Hechal) is the sod ha-sodot, the mystery of mysteries connected to the great structure.

These two bronze pillars, topped with curved capitals and festooned with a decorative motif of rimmonim (pomegranates) and shushan (lily?), are a genuine puzzle. The complex instructions concerning the capitals, in particular, using terms that appear nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible, introduce considerable uncertainty as to the final look of the pillars, as can be seen by doing a quick image search on the Internet.

Moreover, it seems that the pillars served no structural function, making them, as we would say today, "architectural features," purely decorative objects. The obvious conclusion is that these were symbolic in nature. But the exact meaning of the symbolism has eluded most commentators.

Eluded serious Biblical scholars, that is. More grandiose speculations abound. If you want to know about the role of the pillars in revealing the nefarious Masonic plot, or in warning us about 9/11, there are ample explanations, all offered with relentless certainty. But we do not offer those. So let's review.

One solution is that they are a vestigial element from pagan temple design. There is evidence that Canaanite and Phoenician temples had exterior pillars. The lily motif is one seen on other pillars in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.

Overlapping this is the idea, a pretty intuitive one, is that they are representation of the divine phallus, symbols of power, vitality, and fertility. Not to be dismissed, but why two? Sheer symmetry?

A slightly better explanation, in my opinion, grows out of the observation of Jon Levenson, who argues the Temple is meant to be a microcosm of the world at its Edenic, pristine phase:

The world which the Temple incarnates in a tangible way is not the world of history but the world of creation...[The Temple and the World, 297].

One can see this idea more explicitly acknowledged in Ezekiel 47, where the messianic temple resembles Eden, complete with four rivers flowing from its precincts. The Temple exemplifies the world at its primordial origin, the ideal cosmos. Therefore, just as the the Yam Mutzak symbolizes the constrained waters, the pillars would be something paired within the paired process of forming the universe (notice in the Gen. 1 account, the world is formed out of paired merisms - light and dark, water above and below, land and sea, etc). That would make them either the [implied] pillars that hold up the heavens, the cherubs who guarded Eden (Gen. 3) or the two trees that sat at the center of the garden, the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of All Things (a merism usually over-literally translated as the "Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil")

Of course the correspondence between the Genesis narrative and the Temple pillars is not absolute. If they symbolizes cherubs, why pillars at all, especially when cherubs decorate the interior of the building? and if they invoke the trees, why not more centrally located in the structure? And Genesis does not explicitly mention pillars as a feature of creation. But keep in mind, the Genesis account of the creation is not the only one found in the Hebrew Bible (Pss. 74, 104, Job 38-40), which offers several similar, but hardly identical descriptions. Ancient myths tend to have multiple, variant iterations. Cosmic pillars pop up in other Biblical passages.

Out of all these imperfect solutions, I favor the 'tree' symbolism. The pomegranate has long been a popular candidate for the 'fruit' Adam and Eve consumed (sorry, no apples in the Levant). I suspect the pillars were meant to evoke the twin pillars of divine knowledge and fertility that sustain the universe.

But what about the names? The traditional commentaries are good, sturdy, explanations:

He named the pillars to create a positive omen. They were at the entrance to the Temple, and he called them by names to create a positive omen. He called one ‘Yachin’, an expression of establishment, that the Temple should be established forever, like the phrase, ‘Like the moon, it should be established forever.’ ‘Boaz’ is an expression of strength, a contraction of ‘Bo Oz [strength within]’, meaning that God should place in it strength and endurance, as it is written, ‘HaShem will give His nation strength.’ 21 RaDaK, Melachim I 7:21

Another suggestion that makes me laugh, because its so utterly Jewish, is that these are the names of big donors to the Temple project. Sounds anachronistic, but there is a parallel tradition in rabbinic literature that there were two bronze doors in the Heikhal called "The doors of Nicanor" in honor of their funder.

I'm sticking with RaDaK for the time being, but I welcome reader solutions, so long as they revolve around Osama bin Ladin, the Illuminati, or President Obama.

Zal g'mor - To learn more consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Molten Sea, Chaos Tamed

The Yam Mutzak, the "molten sea," the large water reservoir that stood outside the Temple in Jerusalem (I Kings 7:23), is one of the most poorly understood features of several iconic structures surrounding the Temple. The description of its exact form is subject to scholarly debate, though it is clearly a curved basin resting on twelve oxen, three facing to each cardinal compass point (rather like a bovine Zia symbol, if viewed from above).

It was seemingly inspired by the laver used by the priests ministering in the desert Mishkan to purify their hands and feet (II Chronicles 4:6). I say "seemingly," because the dimensions of the Yam Mutzak were such that, unless there was a mechanism not mentioned in the Biblical accounts, it was too big to be used as a basin for ritual washing. It is reasonable to argue that it was more symbolic than functional - but symbolic of what? The medieval Midrash states it symbolized "the world," but this seems like a somewhat lazy interpretation, and a rather awkward one at that. Kabbalah extracted elaborate meaning from its many features, almost all of them understood to allude to the sefirot. In both cases, the explanations seem like retrojections, the imposition of later ideas and concerns on an earlier phenomenon. What did it mean to the Israelites who built it and maintained it?

The basin has a Ancient Near Eastern parallel, the Apsu pool, a square tank of holy water that was found in the courtyard of Mesopotamian temples. Apsu is the tellurian "sweetwater sea" (the aquifer) that preceded and supports the earth. Mythologically, the Apsu is the home of Enki/Ea and the wellspring of creation. In one version of Mesopotamian mythology, Apsu is personified as the companion of Tiamat, the salt water sea dragon, and is destroyed by Ea. Besides being a purification device, the apsu tank probably conveyed to the entering worshipper that this sanctuary was the residence of divinity. It may be there were rituals specifically associated with the tank.

So perhaps the Sea was meant to symbolize the mythic cosmos in a similar way. So what's the specific Israelite meaning? Let's start with the name. Usually translated as "molten sea" or "cast sea," based on the adjective tzuk, "melted," this translation is reinforced elsewhere in Scriptures when it is referred to as the "bronze sea". Straight forward, but detached from any clear intellectual context. Is it a "sea" to say the world is like the sea? That's a lot of bronze for an odd analogy. Yet the word mutzak could also be derived from the Hebrew noun tzok, meaning "contraint" or "distress." From this we could plausibly call it the "constrained sea," or "bound sea."

This latter translation makes a great deal of sense to me, because one of the great mythic acts of the God of Israel is the taming of chaos, as embodied by water. God sets the boundaries of the water, allowing the land to appear (Gen. 1:9; Ps. 74:13; 104:7-8; Job 38:8-11). The bound waters are emblematic of cosmos triumphing over chaos. Thus the Yam Mutzak visually encapsulates for the Israelite worshipper the drama of divine creation just as he approaches the Temple, the edenic structure with its cherubs, trees, flowers, and the seat of Divine Presence. The Sea, then, was likely part of a mythic narrative told in architecture.

Why the oxen? Bulls, we know, were popular and widely used symbols of divine power. The Israelite northerners thought the bull to be a suitable symbol for the God of Israel despite, or perhaps because of, the whole Golden Calf incident (I Kings 12:28-31). It is a story told, with much contempt, I might add, from a Southern perspective. Yet for the modern reader it's a subtle distinction - are two calves in the sanctuary more abhorrent than twelve oxen just outside? Why are cherubs cool, but bulls out of bounds, as it were? It seems at some point, both groups used cows as a totem for the God of Israel. And at some point, this icon became problematic. And twelve? Twelve tribes of Israel, of course, in which case the oxen symbolize Israel's role in sustaining the cosmos through sacrifices and fidelity to God. Alternately, the twelve oxen could present the twelves houses of the zodiac, the celestial order that surrounds the world.

Zal g'mor - To learn more consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050