‘Here is a plea based on my whole experience: do not be a magician, be magic’ (Leonard Cohen, Beautiful Losers, 1966)
From Fromm’s ‘To Have or To Be?’ (1976):
‘The Shabbat is the most important of the biblical concepts, and of later Judaism. It is the only strictly religious command in the Ten Commandments: its fulfilment is insisted upon by the otherwise antiritualistic prophets; it was a most strictly observed commandment throughout 2,000 years of Diaspora life, wherein its observation often was hard and difficult. It can hardly be doubted that the Shabbat was the fountain of life for the Jews, who, scattered, powerless, and often despised and persecuted, renewed their pride and dignity when like kings they celebrated the Shabbat. Is the Shabbat nothing but a day of rest in the mundane sense of freeing people, at least on one day, from the burden of work? To be sure it is that, and this function gives it the dignity of one of the great innovations in human evolution.
Yet if this were all that it was, the Shabbat would hardly have played the central role I have just described. In order to understand this role we must penetrate to the core of the Shabbat institution. It is not rest per se, in the sense of not making an effort, physically or mentally. It is rest in the sense of the re-establishment of complete harmony between human beings and between them and nature. Nothing must be destroyed and nothing be built: the Shabbat is a day of truce in the human battle with the world. Even tearing up a blade of grass is looked upon as a breach of this harmony, as is lighting a match… On the Shabbat one lives as if one has nothing, pursuing no aim except being, that is, expressing one’s essential powers: praying, studying, eating, drinking, singing, making love. The Shabbat is a day of joy because on that day one is fully oneself.
This is the reason the Talmud calls a Shabbat the anticipation of the Messianic Time, and the Messianic Time the unending Shabbat : the day on which property and money as well as mourning and sadness are tabu; a day on which time is defeated and pure being rules. The historical predecessor, the Babylonian Shapatu, was a day of sadness and fear. The modern Sunday is a day of fun, consumption, and running away from oneself. One might ask if it is not time to re-establish the Shabbat as a universal day of harmony and peace, as the human day that anticipates the human future.
The vision of the Messianic Time is the other specifically Jewish contribution to world culture, and one essentially identical with that of the Shabbat. This vision, like the Shabbat, was the life-sustaining hope of the Jews, never given up in spite of the severe disappointments that came with the false messiahs, from Bar Kochba in the second century to our days. Like the Shabbat it was a vision of a historical period in which possession will have become meaningless, fear and war will have ended, and the expression of our essential powers will have become the aim of living’.
Winkler attributes an Element to each of the Sephirot, deriving this schema from relevant passages in the Sefer Yetzirah, which he summarises as follows: ‘In the beginning there was Breath of God. From Breath of God came Wind. From Wind came Water. From Water came Fire. From Fire came Sky. From Sky came Earth. From Earth came North Wind. From North Wind came South Wind. From South Wind came East Wind. From East Wind came West Wind’.
It all started therefore with the ‘Breath of God and Keh’ter… symbolic of the No-Thing place from where everything originates’. Next ‘Breath of Light became Wind and hollowed out a space in No-Thing in which there now arose the possibility of Some-Thing’. From the wind’s vapor came Water (Chokmah), and then ‘As the moisture of the primeval Breath created water, so did the warmth of the primeval breath create Fire’ (Chesed). Fire and Water in balance gave rise to Sky at G’vurah – ‘Sky in Hebrew reads as ‘sh’mayyim’, literally ‘Fire Water’, for it is where two dwell together in balance a la sun and rain’. Next at Tif’eret Earth is ‘brought to her fruition by virtue of sky, by the hamonization of fire and water and balanced directing of their flows’. The final four Sephirot are associated with the Four Winds (I will return to the significance of the winds in another post).
I have placed these attributions on a ‘tree of life’ diagram as follows.
Anselm Kiefer‘s recent exhibition at the White Cube gallery in Bermondsey included plenty of Kabbalist content, such as his piece ‘Merkaba’.
His bicycle might not be quite the vision of the throne-chariot of G_d described by Ezekiel – but it has the wheels, and the pewter bowls suspended from the bike frame more than hint at alchemy (they contain salt, sulphur and mercury).
4: And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire.
5: Also out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man.
6: And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings.
7: And their feet were straight feet; and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf’s foot: and they sparkled like the colour of burnished brass.
8: And they had the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides; and they four had their faces and their wings.
9: Their wings were joined one to another; they turned not when they went; they went every one straight forward.
10: As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.
11: Thus were their faces: and their wings were stretched upward; two wings of every one were joined one to another, and two covered their bodies.
12: And they went every one straight forward: whither the spirit was to go, they went; and they turned not when they went.
13: As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, and like the appearance of lamps: it went up and down among the living creatures; and the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning.
14: And the living creatures ran and returned as the appearance of a flash of lightning.
15: Now as I beheld the living creatures, behold one wheel upon the earth by the living creatures, with his four faces.
16: The appearance of the wheels and their work was like unto the colour of a beryl: and they four had one likeness: and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel.
17: When they went, they went upon their four sides: and they turned not when they went.
18: As for their rings, they were so high that they were dreadful; and their rings were full of eyes round about them four.
19: And when the living creatures went, the wheels went by them: and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up.
20: Whithersoever the spirit was to go, they went, thither was their spirit to go; and the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels.
21: When those went, these went; and when those stood, these stood; and when those were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels.
(Ezekiel, Chapter I, King James Bible)
I heard Darcus Howe speak at the Anarchist Bookfair in London last month. The veteran black writer and broadcaster was talking about the recent riots in London, which he linked both to the police shooting dead of Mark Duggan in Tottenham and the ongoing stop and search of young black people. The most surprising thing was that he recalled that just before the riots he had warned of the consequences of this kind of policing and had written that “I hope Amy Winehouse is floating in the stars, speaking in the ear of authority, saying, ‘No, no, no.’”
Winehouse died just before the riots, so obviously Howe was being topical. But how did this Jewish singer from north London come to be conceived, even if only whimsically, as some kind of saint? On the day after Amy’s death I happened to be in Camden, where she died. Her music was everywhere in the market and people were talking about her constantly; fans started a shrine by her home in Camden Square and religious imagery featured in this too, including a remarkable drawing of her bearing the sacred heart:
So what kind of Saint could Amy Winehouse be compared to? One candidate might be St Mary Magdelene. The actual stories about her in The Bible are scant, but a whole corpus of legends have grown up around her. Recently I read ‘St Mary Magdelene: The Gnostic Tradition of The Holy Bride’ (Llewellyn, 2006) by Tau Malachi. Malachi is the founder of the Sophia Fellowship, and has elaborated on a ‘Sophian Tradition’ of ‘Gnostic Christianity’, encompassing mysticism and Christian Kabbalah. In this current, Magdalene is not a bit player in the story of Jesus but his co-equal – both Yeshua (Jesus) and Magdalene embody the Christos (the ‘Light presence’): ‘Yeshua is the first Christed man, Mary Magdelene is the first Christed woman, and the two together reveal the divine potential in humanity… St Mary Magdalene is said to be the soul mate of Lord Yeshua and becomes his closest disciple. Yet more than a disciple, she is said to be his wife and consort, co-equal and co-enlightened with him, and she is the co-preaher of the Gospel. In him Christ the Logos (Word) is embodied and, in her, Christ the Sophia (Wisdom) is embodied’. She is the Spiritual Moon to Yeshua’s ‘Spiritual Sun’.
In a kind of feminist take on the tale of Adam, Eve and his earlier consort Lilith, Magdalene overcomes the division between the Virgin and the Whore, the meek and the powerful, the light and the dark sides of womanhood: ‘In the beginning, Eve and Lilith were joined together , the image of the Supernal Woman, a pure emanation. Some say that Adam was overwhelmed by the glory and grace of this perfect woman. Thus, her power and luminosity was reduced, Lilith being divided from Eve, and Adam received the submissive woman…. Now, Eve and Lilith were reunited in Lady Mary, and she was a whole woman’ (Malachi).
None of this directly relates to Winehouse, but what does resonate is the notion of the ‘bad girl’ who breaks the rules but has a ‘good heart’, who suffers but through her suffering finds some kind of redemption for herself and maybe others too. In Malachi’s account, Magdalene is kidnapped, raped and forced into prostitution in Babylon, and she descends into hell: ‘When she was in Babylon, her soul passed in descent through Hades and the seven abodes of Gehenna, even into the darkest pit. There, her soul was crucified by that dark power whose name is dreadful. In each abode of Gehenna, she left sparks of her soul behind, until only the faintest spark was left to glimmer. From each dark and hostile abode, a demon was attached to her, to bind her soul and cause her anguish. Thus, when the Lord exorcised the seven demons, he also gathered up the sparks of Mary’s soul from the abode of Gehenna, restoring her soul to her completely’ (the gathering together of the sparks to restore the broken world is a key kabbalist meme). Returning from this hell, the Bride performs good deeds for the poor and ends her Exile.
Amy Winehouse for some clearly represents a kind of secularised figure of this kind. It is not so much that she performed saintly acts of charity and benevolence, but that she suffered through her descent into the hell of addiction and heartbreak – and then transmuted this suffering into some kind of beauty through her singing.
Of course the cigarettes and alcohol at Amy Winehouse’s shrine also recall Vodou offerings.
Perhaps in particular those to Erzulie Dantor – a kind of Haitian goddess of love and passion, partial to rum and tobacco. She too bears the scars of suffering on her cheek, and comes to the aid of those who need her protection, women and children especially.
‘Spiritual matters are not disembodied, otherworldly affairs. It is the prosperous bourgeois who tends to see spiritual questions as a realm loftily remote from everyday life, since he needs a hiding place from his own crass materialism. It comes as no surprise that material girls like Madonna should be so fascinated by Kabbala. For Marx, by contrast, ‘‘spirit’’ is a question of art, friendship, fun, compassion, laughter, sexual love, rebellion, creativity, sensuous delight, righteous anger and abundance of life… Happiness for Marx, as for Aristotle, was a practical activity, not a state of mind. For the Judaic tradition of which he was an unbelieving offspring, the ‘‘spiritual’’ is a question of feeding the hungry, welcoming the immigrants and protecting the poor from the violence of the rich. It is not the opposite of mundane, everyday existence. It is a particular way of living it’.
‘He was, of course, an atheist; but one does not need to be religious to be spiritual, and some of the great themes of Judaism — justice, emancipation, the reign of peace and plenty, the day of reckoning, history as a narrative of liberation, the redemption not just of the individual but of a whole dispossessed people— inform his work in suitably secularised form. He also inherited the Jewish hostility to idols, fetishes and enslaving illusions.
As far as religion goes, it is worth pointing out that there have been Jewish Marxists, Islamic Marxists, and Christian Marxists who champion so-called liberation theology. All of them are materialists in Marx’s sense of the word. In fact, Eleanor Marx, Marx’s daughter, reports that Marx once told her mother that if she wanted ‘‘satisfaction of her metaphysical needs’’ she should find them in the Jewish prophets rather than in the Secular Society she sometimes attended. Marxist materialism is not a set of statements about the cosmos, such as ‘‘Everything is made out of atoms’’ or ‘‘There is no God.’’ It is a theory of how historical animals function’
‘The spiritual is indeed about the otherworldly. But it is not the otherworldly as the parsons conceive of it. It is the other world which socialists hope to build in the future, in place of one which is clearly past its sell-by date. Anyone who isn’t otherworldly in this sense has obviously not taken a good hard look around them.’
(Terry Eagleton, Why Marx Was Right, Yale University Press, 2011)