Parables and Princesses in the Bahir

The Sefer Bahir, the misnamed Book of Clarity, is the first major Kabbalistic text, composed in Provence in the second half of the twelfth century. Gershom Scholem's doctoral dissertation was a critical edition of this text, published in 1923, and he returned to it again and again throughout his long academic career. Indeed, it was germinal for his theory of Kabbalah, especially its Gnostic origins. In the Bahir, we see, almost without foreshadowing, the primary kabbalistic motifs: the organic concept of God as a dynamic process whose rhythms constitute the universe, alternating egress and regress; the dialectic of opposites within God, such as good and evil, male and female; language, in particular the language of the Torah, as the hidden structure of the universe; the intimate correspondence of the human and the divine, and with it the capacity of human beings, through the commandments, to influence the divine life. The basic symbolic structure of the Kabbalah, although not fully articulated, is already in place. The Bahir is fiendishly complicated; extraordinarily clumsy , yet weirdly beautiful and poetic. What interests me is a persistent habit of displacement. An intricate structure will develop, in which one element will not fit. The anomaly will, if probed sufficiently, turn out to be of immense significance. This especially applies to the relationship of God and his Shekhinah, the male and female parts of God. A second characteristic, related to this, is a pattern of inversion; every structure, in particular that of the sefirot, can be turned on its head. The result is an upside down world, in which we do not know which is the right way up.

A feature of the Bahir is the frequency and obscurity of its parables. Of these Scholem writes:

Many of these parables present a very bizarre and paradoxical aspect. One could almost say that they are intended to obscure the theme treated rather than to clarify it. Often the essential thought is developed only in the parabolic form, in which old images and concepts frequently seem to have taken refuge. Parables of this kind are unknown elsewhere in Jewish literature; later kabbalists, such as the author of the Zohar, always employ "meaningful" and not strikingly paradoxical parables.

Often, moreover, parables are nested: an idea is supposedly illustrated by a parable, which has to be explicated by another, which will confuse us further, and this may lead into a third. I will begin by discussing the most famous of these catenas, one in which Scholem found a trace of the Gnostic myth of "the daughter of light", and whose gnostic implications have also been discussed by Moshe Idel; it is published in the Paulist Press Classics of Western Spirituality volume "The Early Kabbalah". It occurs in a exegesis of perhaps the most solemn part of the Jewish liturgy - the Qedushah or Sanctification - which is inserted into a meditation on the threefold priestly blessing. The Qedushah, a human enactment of the angelic liturgy, juxtaposes the song of the seraphim in Isaiah: "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory" with that of the heavenly creatures in Ezekiel: "Blessed be the glory of the Lord from his place." The passage reads as follows:

§. 130. And what is "the whole earth is full of his glory"? It is all that land which was created on the first day, which is above, corresponding to the Land of Israel, full of the Glory of the Name. And what is it? Wisdom (Hokhmah), as it is written: "Glory the wise will inherit" (Proverbs 3.35), and it is said: "Blessed be the glory of the Lord from his/its place" (Ezekiel 3:12).

§ 131. And what is this Glory of the Lord? This can be explained by a parable: a king had a great lady (Scholem: queen) in his room. She was loved by all his knights, and she had sons. They all came every day to see the face of the king, and they blessed him. They asked him: "Our mother, where is she?" He said to them: "You cannot see her now." They said: "Blessed is she wherever she is!"

§ 132.What is the meaning of that which is written "from its place"? Because no one knows its place. This is like a king's daughter who came from afar, and nobody knew where she came from. When they saw that she was a fine lady, beautiful and just in all that she did, they said: "She undoubtedly was taken from the side of light, for her deeds give light to the world." They then asked her: "Where are you from?" She answered: "From my place." They said: "If so, the people of your place must be great! Blessed are you and blessed is your place!"

§ 133. But is not this Glory of the Lord one of his hosts? Did he not take it away from them (Scholem and Idel have diametrically opposite interpretations of this phrase. I have chosen Scholem)? Why do we bless it? This can be explained by a parable: A man had a beautiful garden, and outside the garden but very near to it there was a beautiful piece of land, a field. He planted a garden there. When he watered his garden, the water flowed over the whole garden but did not reach that piece of land, which is not adjacent, even though it is all one. Therefore he opened a place for it, and watered it separately.

§ 134. Rabbi Rehumai said: "Glory (Kabod [in gematria {numerology}) 32]) and Heart (Leb [in gematria 32]) are one, but Glory is called by a name corresponding to a celestial action, and Heart is called by a name corresponding to a lower one. And they are the Glory of the Name and they are the Heart of Heaven.

What is the function of these parables? One is to complicate the interpretative process: instead of text + interpretation, we have text + interpretation interpreted by parable + interpretation; the parable is a metaphor of the text that sets it adrift among distorting mirrors; the less the parable fits, the more the text is mystified. Between the text and the parable, as with any metaphor, there is a complex and implicit process of transference, whose result is not so much an explication of the text as a movement towards a significance that transcends the text's interpretation, that combines both text and parable, towards the parabolic nature of reality. For example, if the initial problem in §130 is the contradiction between "the whole earth is full of his glory" and "Blessed be the glory of the Lord from his place" as well as its surprising solution, that earth here means a transcendent archetype ("that earth which was created on the first day,"), the parables add new elements (e.g. the feminine), reinstate the original problem, the compatibility of transcendence and immanence, and render the solution infinitely problematic. What is the archetypal earth? Is it the matronita's room, the side of light, or the garden planted outside the garden? Do these terms mean the same thing, or are they different? No solution is to be found to these problems; instead they will tease us beyond thought. Finally, what is the function of the concluding statement, that "Glory" and "Heart" are one, that the distinction between immanence and transcendence is illusory, that they are merely two modes of action (pe‘ulah)? Does it contradict the parables, or is it their point? Do the parables open in a space, a difference, that they themselves close, or is the opening of the space for the play of parables equivalent to the plenitude of hidden glory, the effect of the Glory on and within the Heart? Is the opening of parables, the illusion of difference between Glory and Heart, the very nature of divine and textual reality, and does it then encompass its closure?

Secondly, the parable acts as a figure of substitution; the real story (the one that explains all and is the source of the reader's pleasure) is the parable, for which the text is a trigger or excuse, as Daniel Boyarin argues in his brilliant Intertextuality and the Study of Midrash. The story of the matronita whom the king keeps hidden in his chambers, or the princess who comes from afar and irradiates the world with her light, evokes medieval romance - the imprisoned lady, the idealized princess whose visitation removes her from patriachal protection - and with it a complex interplay of male desire and oedipal frustration, as a subtext both of the medieval world and the Jewish liturgy.

Thirdly, the parables interact with each other; their contradictions - or even their multiplicity - are subsumed under their supposed likeness. The first parable, in which the matronita/glory is hidden, contradicts the second, in which it is revealed; the third parable conforms to either of the first two, but not to both. The garden planted outside the main garden may be understood as the matronita, as the object of the king's special care, or as the princess; her place would then be the main garden, and its inhabitants the divine hosts. If a parable reflects the original text, and all three parables relate to the same textual complex, they can be assumed to correspond metaphorically to each other. This results in surprising and paradoxical equivalences, such as reconditeness = revelation.

Intertextuality - both cross-references within the text and interaction with one or more master texts - is a persistent feature of Jewish discourse, and creates further complication. Reading the Bahir is not a linear process. Chains of association and interpretation develop, of dizzying complexity and frequent contradiction. One or two examples will have to suffice. The heart in §134, whose gematria or numerology is 32, corresponds to the 32 paths of wisdom with which God created the world, according to the Sefer Yetsirah or "Book of Creation", the foundational text of Jewish esoteric cosmology. The 32 paths of wisdom, according to a parable in §63, were infused by the king into his daughter, who is the heart; in a reversal of our parable in §131, it is the king here who is secluded, and the daughter who is accessible. The 32 paths of wisdom comprise the 22 letters of the alphabet and 10 sefirot (numbers, potencies, divine emanations); thus the whole of language, the entire divine organism and the creative process are included in the heart. The "heart of heaven", at the end of §134, alludes to the great fire that burned up to "the heart of heaven" at the giving of the Ten Commandments, according to Deut. 4.11. The great fire, in §46, is a terrestrial voice of God, from the midst of which speech emerges; other cross-references identify it with the destructive aspect of God, with his jealousy, and with chaos and evil. God speaks the Ten Commandments - conceived metaphorically as the epitome of the entire Torah (§124) and the process of creation - within the voice that destroys creation and significance. If the heart represents consciousness and is infused with all the dimensions of existence - as §95 and a passage parallel to ours in §106 suggest - then it is touched by the chaotic fire from which God speaks. There can hardly be a clearer metaphor for the transformation of destructive into creative energy. Similarly, this fire of God's jealousy that emanates from chaos and evil (§135) is that through which Elijah - as the paradigmatic kabbalist - secured immortality (§111).

The Glory of the Name in §134 is also a loaded term. The Name (shem) of God is identified with the heavens (shamayim) in §100. Thus, even though Glory and Heart are one and the same thing, but correspond to two modes of action - above and below - these two modes converge on the heavens: the Glory of the Name is the heavens, and the heart is the heart of heaven (cf.§106).

We could go much further with this. But I want to return to the question of the matronita and the princess. The matronita is the Glory, but if the Glory normally refers to the apprehensible aspect of God -his splendour, his works, the glory that fills the whole earth - here it is hidden, and it is God himself who speaks to the sons.The relationship of God and the Glory is thus reversed. Secondly, in a parable immediately preceding this discussion (§129 cf. Ex.2), the efflux of the divine is contingent on the grandsons' i.e. Israel's merits, while here their deprivation of their mother's presence depends on the king's whim, greed or dignity. Thirdly, what is the function of the king's knights, who love her or, literally, long for her? In the parable as we have it they seem to be redundant, what Mieke Bal calls a wandering rock. The knights (lit. warriors, hayyalot) presumably correspond to God's hosts in §133, from which the Glory is or is not removed. Furthermore, in §126, the ten sefirot are divided into three armies (hayyalot) and three realms, of which the second realm is the realm of the angelic hosts, and the third realm remains unspecified. (The Bahir does not make the clear distinction, fundamental to later Kabbalah, between the worlds of the angels and that of the sefirot). As Joseph Dan says, this also represents the realm of Merkabah or Throne mysticism, which the Kabbalah, beginning with the Bahir, supercedes. The three realms or armies parallel the three "holys" of "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts", of which the third, according to §128, combines the Hosts with the Glory, and is both part of and separate from the others. The ambiguous division between the Glory and the Hosts in §133 is here transposed into one between the Hosts, including the Glory, and the higher aspects of divinity. The interruption of the flow of divine energy from the king to the grandsons is then not merely one between God and Israel, but occurs within the realm of the divine sefirot. The knights or hayyalot thus correspond to the whole of the divine persona, or to a split off part of it; the Glory may be the absent third realm, given its separation from the Hosts in §134, or the most hidden aspect of divinity. Or rather, the absent third realm is the most hidden aspect of divinity. Finally, there is the element of desire. The longing of the knights for the matronita may represent that of Merkabah mysticism for the new Kabbalah, but also introduces the coupling of king and queen as the central drama of the latter. The motif of erotic frustration and idealization is a foreplay, a voyeuristic heightening of sexuality that separates the knights from king and queen. This raises the question of the identity of the matronita. Scholem unambiguously equates her with the Shekhinah. But she may also have an element of Binah - Understanding, the third Sefirah - which is the Divine Mother. She is mother to the children, which in §104-105, are identified with the seven lower sefirot and the seven days of creation. The Shekhinah often acquires a maternal connotation, reflects and is interchangeable with Binah, notably at the conclusion of the already cited parable of the heart in §63: "Sometimes he calls her, in his love for her, my sister ... sometimes he calls her my daughter ... sometimes he calls her my mother." As well as God's bride, then, the matronita has the quality of God's mother.

Turning to the second parable, the princess who comes from the side of light has been associated by Scholem with the "daughter of light" in Gnosticism; he discusses the parallels at length in The Mystical Shape of the Godhead (p.168). It seems to me, however, that the whole of the divine realm in this parable, the realm of "the men of that place," is conceived gnostically; it is set over and against our world, the dark created world, that is illumined by its emissary. This parable needs very little exegesis. True light, according to the Bahir, is hidden light, the light that was stored away on the first day of creation for the righteous in the world to come, and for those who have mystical foreshadowings of it. Of this light the Shekhinah brings us a pale glimmer. As representative of the side of light, however, she is related to the first realm of the sefirot in §126, "the light and living light of water." Beyond the angelic hosts and the unidentified third realm, she communicates the infinity of reflections and refractions of the light from which light, life and water differentiate. Parallel to this, in §128 the first two "holys", above the hosts, are identified with Keter Elyon (Supreme Crown), the first sefirah which is also the infinite divine thought, and "the root of the tree", which many cross-references identify with Binah. One may suggest a similar identification in §126, since Binah is the principle of eternal return (teshubah, §26) as well as the matrix of the unfolding sefirot, the cosmic tree. The princess then comes from a "place" that is enclosed, inaccessible, narcissistic, in which life, light and water metaphorically merge, promising both its otherness and its presence, its illumination, among us.

The third parable offers another permutation. The owner now has a special relationship with the garden, opening a source outside the realm of the sefirot . But God is the totality of sefirot, the main garden in the parable. The owner has to leave himself in order to be himself.

In each case we find the same pattern of displacement. That which is united and separated from everything - the glory, the heart, the princess - is the nucleus of everything. The ramifications are interminable. We find also patterns of inversion, for example in §171, in which the Shekhinah, the lowest of the sefirot, encompasses them all: "There is a Shekhinah below, just as there is a Shekhinah above". Towards the end of the Bahir, in a complex discussion of the date palm, it transpires that inwardly God is female,while outwardly God is male. The Glory in our text is identified with Hokhmah - Wisdom - the second of the sefirot which is male and the source of everything - but it is also the matronita and the princess. Upper and lower Hokhmahs constantly correspond. At the heart of the heavens - a male, harmonising principle in Kabbalah - is the heart, the Shekhinah itself.