Sunday, September 04, 2011

Torah, Tarot, and Taos: The Alchemy of Symbols

So I'm in Taos NM for the Labor Day Weekend. On Shabbat I had a striking progression of encounters. I went to services and Torah study to the Northern New Mexico Jewish Center. What a lovely experience. The people have their own minhag. And for parasha ha-shavua, it seems everyone is invited to bring a drash to share. In some cases, these are meticulously researched and written, in others, the davar is printed off the 'net. While some struggled with the names of the gedolim and their time and place, I would describe their intellectual offerings as pure incense to the Blessed Holy One. These folks take Torah seriously and work hard to make yiddishkeit in La Tierra. And how often does a visitor to a shul get a hug? It was a great Shabbat experience.

An interesting thing struck me while we read through the portion, Shoftim. The portion begins by instructing the Israelites to tear the asherot and m'tzavot, sacred trees* and stone pillars associated with pagan (or, more likely, corrupted Israelite) worship. But then Shoftim ends with God instructing the people not to cut down fruit trees during a siege. It made me think of how the idea assigned to the object makes all the difference. After all, trees and rocks remain potent Jewish symbols. Deuteronomy itself refers to God as Tzur, "Rock." and centuries later Proverbs speaks of wisdom** as "a tree of life." The objects don't go away, they just undergo a symbolic transmutation.

Then, as if to reinforce the point, a few hours later I was wandering through a Taos bookstore when I was engaged by a fellow intrigued by my Hebrew language t-shirt. Jesse Rose ("and a stem shall sprout from the stump of Jesse"?) is a local Taos tarot reader. Realizing this, I made a passing reference to some Jewishly derived symbols I knew appeared on the Waite deck, and pretty soon he wanted to do a reading for me in exchange for some discussion of Kabbalah, a kind of quid-pro-revelation deal.

Jesse gave me an insightful, archetype infused reading, and then afterward we discussed some of the images on his deck. Much of it revolved around the Chariot and Wheel of Fortune cards, both of which lean extensively on Ezekiel 1 and 10 for their imagery.

I was particularly struck by the pair of sphinx (sphinxes?) on the Chariot card. Ezekiel and others describe God's merkavah as being drawn by cherubs. We know (now) from archeaology that these celestical creatures were portrayed as sphinx-like by the Israelites. I'm not so sure that was known in Waite's time. He might have been drawing purely on Egyptian/Hermetic iconigraphy, and in doing so serendipitiously arrived as this surprisingly authentic image. Another observation. The two creatures are male and female, which mirrors a Talmudic tradtion in Yoma that the cherubs represented the erotic structure of the cosmos. The ring-and-rod symbol on the Chariot over the the "cherubim"(see above) likewise parallels the kabbalistic notion the the divine order as kav u'maggel (line and circle).***

So this pagan > Biblical > kabbalistic > hermetic mental mini-tour just drives home the fact that fundamental symbols and archetypes never go away, they just undergo a kind of alchemical transmutation in meaning, revealing their hidden power over and over again.

*Totem poles, really. There might have been living trees in a few shrines and high places, but given the fickle fate awaiting flora in the Levant, a aspirational tree makes a more enduring icon.

**Later equated by the Sages with Torah.

*** OK, so in the movie I saw the next day, The Tree of Life, the viewer is beaten over the head with "men are lines/women are curves" imagery. This movie reminds me that a little recurring symbolism goes a long way. Like drugs, symbols can easily be used to excess, losing their therapeutic value in the process.


Blogger Maggid said...

Thank you again & again -
I guess we are glad i'm not living close enough to be underfoot - I certainly enjoy learning with you.


11:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice post, Geoff.

9:45 AM  

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