Mista’peo: Inherent Conscience and The Inner Man

“In his lifelong solitude, the Naskapi hunter has to rely on his own inner voices and unconscious revelations; he has no religious teachers to tell him what he should believe, no rituals, festivals or customs to help him along. In his basic view of life, the soul of man is simply an “inner companion” who he calls “my friend”, or Mista'peo, meaning “Great Man”. Mista'peo dwells in the heart and is immortal……(CG Jung, MHS, p.161)

 

Mista'peo, the inner “great man”, seemingly corresponds to the neshama, the highest level of individual soul in Jewish thought. Rebbe Nachman zt”l says : “Neshama is an aspect of sechel (intelligence), which is an aspect of hochmah (wisdom), which gives life to all things, as it is said, 'You made all things with wisdom (Tehillim/Psalms 104).'Alll these are an aspect of Torah.”

 

The inner neshama, which is sechel, is spiritually inseperable from the wisdom which underlies and is the basis for all- the wisdom with which God created the world. Rebbe Nachman says elsewhere, “All things recieve their life from Torah. Avraham Avinu was able to recieve from this Torah before Israel recieved the Torah at Sinai, because of the high level of his soul (LM 2,78).” The Torah that all things recieve their life from is of course no other than Hashem's wisdom, with which he sported before creation (Mishlei/Proverbs 8).

 

All of this indicates that there is a inner wisdom accesible to all of us, and that this inner wisdom, as in the case of the Mistapeo, exists aside from revelation.

 

Some argue that this is not so, that without Biblical revelation we are lost- without wisdom or morality. But this cannot be the case. Yoram Hazony points out that the Tanakh in fact presents God as expecting righteous behaviour and wisdom from humans before the Torah was given. If human beings do not have an innate sense of these things than how could God's expectations be just? other examples abound. When the Torah itself is given to Israel God says that it will be “your wisdom before the nations”. If the Nations, being bereft of Torah, have no moral wisdom then how could they be expected to recognize the wisdom of the Torah's laws? (Hazony, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture).

 

Does this mean then that all we have to do is heed our inner voice? Far from it. First off, the ability to listen well to the voice fo the neshama depends on personal purity and the wisdom of experience. Both take time to aquire and are not always available. In the age of cultural confusion and barbarism it has become even harder to hear the “small, still voice.” We need to study the Torah and the words of our sages and connect with purer waters than those often available in our own cisterns and those of the public.

 

To indulge in a little iconoclasm and quote the Catechism of the Catholic Church: ” …'God, the first principle and last end of all things, can be known with certainty from the created world by the natural light of human reason.' Without this capacity, man would not be able to welcome God's revelation. Man has this capacity because 'He is created in the image of God.'….'yet there are many obstacles….the human mind is hampered in the attaining of such truths, not only by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also bydisordered appetites…'..This is why man stands in need of being enlightened by God's revelation.” (CCC 36-38).

 

That does not mean, however, that we cannot rely at all on our own intelligence and sense of morality. That would represent the opposite extreme. Wisdom and conscience (yirat Hashem) are inherent, God-given potentials which need to be attended to and nurtured, not abandoned or repressed.

 

We stand in need of the middle way. To follow our intuition and intelligence alone is folly and waste- what a sea of human and revealed wisdom is available to us! Likewise to surrender our own wisdom and conscience is mistaken, as we will not grow through this misguided self-abnegation but rather become blunter and blunter instruments until we may very well find ourselves more vulnerable to delusion and “disordered appetites” then we were before. After all, as they say, even the Devil quotes scripture.

 

Some Fine Books

In the last six months or so I have read several books on Jewish topics which have been excellent- some of the best I've ever read. I want to briefly describe them here to encourage others who haven't read them to take a look.

1) The Philosophy of The Hebrew Scriptures by Yoram Hazony

Amazing. This book transformed my ideas of the essential vision of the Chumash. Among Hazony's fascinating excursions are a look at the “shepherd ethics” of Ancient Israel; a study of the phenomenology of the word “davar” (thing, word, idea); and an exploration of what God really wants from Israel- and its not unthinking obedience. Also interesting is Hazony's contribution to the theology of “vulnerability”- the growing number of Jewish and Christian theologians arguing for a vulnerable, personal, and evolving God (Schroeder, Levenson, Heschel, Brueggeman all develop this idea to come extent).

 

2) Created Equal by Joshua Berman

Masterful exploration of the laws of the Chumash in their context. This book brought my admiration for Tanakh to a new level. Clearly and compellingly sets out the revolutionary nature of early Israeli law.

 

3) The Bible Now by Richard Elliot Friedman

Fabulous discussion of the “pshat” (literal) level of the Chumash and what it does or doesn't say about homosexuality, abortion, capital punishment, women and ecology. Truly excellent, and should be read by all lovers of Torah and, I would add, all the descendants of Abraham.

 

4) The Jewish Gospels by Daniel Boyarin

Think Judaism and Christianity are as far apart as the moon and the sun? Think again, they are as interconnected as the moon and the sun. Did you know some pre-Christian Jews were awaiting a semi-divine Messiah whose career would include suffering for their sins? Did you know Jesus kept kosher, wore Tzitzit, and told his Jewish followers to listen to the Rabbis? Or that Christians attended synagogue services for centuries after Jesus's death, and many Jews were followers of Jesus without leaving Judaism? This book tells the story of what it was like before the “great divorce” of the 4th-5th century CE when the Church Fathers and the Rabbis drew firm lines demanding you be either Christian or Jewish.

 

5) An Unsettling God by Walter Brueggeman

A good book on the character of God as revealed in the Tanakh, and the relationship between God, Israel, Nature and Humanity. Thought provoking work from a Christian theologian.

 

6) Not In Heaven by Eliezer Berkovitz.

 

This is a masterpiece. It explains the character of traditional Jewish law (not the modernist fundamentalist version). Beautiful, provocative, and inspiring.

 

7) God According To God by Gerald Schroeder

 

Thought provoking and engagingly written exploration of what the Tanakh says about the character of God. Along the way some other interesting cosmological and theological excursions, and some great science writing about Creation.

The Purpose of Humanity: Parshat Bereishit

The story of the creation of humanity, as presented in the opening verses of Genesis, is luminous and profound. Its profundity is sometimes overshadowed by cryptic elements, by the Torah's concise and understated manner of expression (by our standards), and by inherited cliches about its meaning. Studying the comments of the meforshim (traditional exegetes) goes along away to cure us of our assumptions, mistaken familiarity and inattention to subtle detail. For me another great curative has been the study of other near eastern creation narratives, as anthologized and/or discussed in such books as “Old Testament Parallels” (Matthews and Benjamin), “Created Equal” (Joshua Berman) and “Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament” (Walton). Below I'll take a look at one aspect of the narrative of the creation of The human being from this perspective.

 

Why Was Humanity Created?

 

We are fortunate to possess records of the creation of humanity as conceived in the Egyptian Hymn to Atum (2500-2100 BCE in origin though our version dates from 400 BCE); the Enuma Elish cycle (compiled in Mesopatamia 1100 BCE from Sumerian and Amorite sources in order to glorify the rulers of Babylon, the Mesopotamian capital); and the Atrahasis Cycle (18th century BCE; Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian). The Genesis stories date from as old as 2300 BCE-1400 BCE and were likely written down in their current form around 400 BCE (these dates are hotly contested, of course).

My contention is that the narrative of anthrogenesis in Bereishit is a remarkably humanistic one (it is also remarkably earth-positive, or nature affirming, but that's a subject for another time). According to Genesis 1:26: “And Elokim said, “Let us make the human in our image, as our likeness. They shall rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, over the animals, the whole earth, and every thing that creeps upon it. And Elokim created the human in his image; in the image of Elokim he created them; male and female he created them. Elokim blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and rule…And Elokim saw all that he had made, and behold! It was very good.”

Later on we read (Genesis 2:7; 15): “Hashem Elokim formed the human of soil from the earth, and blew into his nostrils a living soul, and the man became a living soul. Hashem Elokim planted a garden in Eden, to the east, and place there the human he had formed….Hashem Elokim took the human and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to serve it/work it (l'avodah) and to look after it (l'shomrah).”

The vision here is of the human as a being independent from God, created to “rule the earth” and to tend and take care of God's garden. The strong implication here is that the human is created for its own sake. God does not say, “I will make me a servant”, or “one to glorify me”, or even “one to know me” (later Jewish and non-Jewish theistic traditions often envision God's purpose as one of these). The later Jewish idea that God created “because he needed to have someone to give to” comes closest to the vision of Edenic life. The Human is created for no other purpose then to enjoy the nourishment and beauty of God's creation, to grow in numbers (be fruitful and multiply) and exercise a benevolent sovereignty (“serve and look after”). In a sense the human is created as an ideal benevolent King below, ruling by the decree, grace, and beneficience of the true Ruler above.

The vision of Genesis, and its radical implications, are highlighted by comparison with other Near Eastern creation myths. Whereas Genesis pictures the human being as formed of earth and divine breath, the Hymn to Atum takes a much more existentialist position. Says Atum (after masturbating into his own mouth and spitting and sneezing out gods):

“I wept, and human beings arose from my tears….”

Surely we can hear the hardships and arbitrariness of poor Agrarian life in this Egyptian hymn (especially in a totalitarian state where most of the populace were worker-slaves). The hymn to Atum doesn't state a purpose for human life. It appears as a result of Atum's fervent desire to create, a desire which is presented as sexual, almost riotous, and without particular purpose.

The Enuma Elish, by contrast, does state a purpose for the creation of humanity: After a protracted battle for rulership of the Divine Assembly, Marduk, god of Babylon, wins. He dismembers his rival, Tiamat, and uses her corpse to create heaven and earth. Having won the fealty of the Divine Assemby by defeating her, he then creates human beings as slaves to work for the gods and “set the divine assembly free.” Marduk forms humans from the blood of another Divine rival, Kingu, after killing him. In contrast to the riotous creativity of the Hymn of Atum, the Enuma Elish conceives of the world as created out of death and conquest- military prowess- expressions of the power of Marduk.

The Atrahasis cycle posits a purpose for the creation of human beings similar to that of the Enuma Elish. When the Divine servant class refuses to work for the Divine Elders, the gods create human beings to work for the Gods as irrigators and farmers of the earth instead. Eventually they multiply too greatly for the gods comfort, and their noise disturbs the sleep of the great god Enlil, who thus conspires to have the Divine Assembly control their numbers with plagues and famines. When this doesn't reduce the numbers of their human slaves effectively enough the gods unleash the flood and eliminate them save for a Noah-like survivor, who is saved by a god who is partial to him for unstated reasons (because of his good service?). As is perhaps needless to point out, this flood narrative is also in meaningful contrast to the Genesis narrative, which has Hashem bringing the flood because human culture is filled with aggressive thievery and violence (“chamas”).

In both the Enuma Elish and the Atrahasis Cycle, then, humans exist to serve their divine masters. As Joshua Berman has masterfully argued (“Created Equal”), this narrative seems to echo the political structure of Mesopatamia, Egypt, and Assyria, structures the narratives and laws of the Torah were in rebellion against (also see Yoram Hazony, “The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture”).

In Genesis the human being is not created to serve the Divine, and is not made of tears, semen, or a dismembered enemy. The human being is made of the good earth and the breath of God, and our proliferation is not a threat- it is an expression of divine blessing. Last but far from least, the human is made ” b'tselem Elokim”. The word “tselem”, when it occurs elsewhere in the Tanakh, is used most often to refer to idols used in the worship of false gods (Amos 5:26, 2 Kings 11:18; 2 Chronicles 23:17; Ezekiel 7:20, 16:17, Numbers 33:52 ). This common usage should not be overlooked: as shocking as it may seem, the Genesis narrative goes so far as to imagine human beings as representations of God, formed in God's likeness and serving as the only legitimate clay idol. The leap in sensibility required to go from imagining human beings as slaves of the gods or random expressions of divine fecundity to imagining them as sacred images of God created to enjoy the divine garden of earth and to rule over it benevolently is surely an awe inspiring moment in the literature of humanity.

 

The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture

I'm currently reading Yoram Hazony's recent book, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. I am not done yet, but at the half-way point I think this is one of a handful of the most important Jewish books of the modern era. Even if the second half is tripe I'd say so. Anyone interested in in the true structure and message of the foundational text of Judaism, the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) should read this book without delay. Whether you love the Tanakh or struggle with it, or even hate it, read this book.