May 2015 - G-dcast
It began with a reunion of old friends. Happy to see each other and eager to share thoughts and stories. The text twisted and changed. Riddles, fear, esoteric expositions about the nature of souls. But all within the shared conversation between friends. Themes and patterns emerged. Eyes that see and cry. Clothing that conceals and protects, but also hints to what lies beneath. And fear that what is being revealed is not going to be heard.
The mystical journey is one of coming closer, unveiling, following subtle hints and yearning for connection. And the threat of being lost and alone, abandoned before reaching the safety of the other. This is a journey of the individual soul, who craves knowledge and intimacy. Each soul has its own way of seeing, but knowledge (and Torah) is revealed in relationship, and the individual longing to be understood by an other.
I followed the textʼs basic narrative. The friends meet, engage with the old manʼs riddles, that reveal deeper truths about the nature of different types of soul and the relationship with Torah and God. In the drawings, the eyeball is the depiction of the soul, becoming jewellery that adorns the maiden, the female embodiment of Torah. And ascending and descending towards and away from God. The drawings end with a fleeting image of the two friends in closeness. But it is only fleeting.
These drawings (below) are glimpsed at through fabric, echoing the multi-layered nature of Torah and the dance in the text between revealing and concealing. I chose simple rendering, just black pen and ink with wash. The water and fabrics give texture that hint to the textʼs darkness. The images evolved from sketches made during our shared learning and private reflection. Some drawings were too subtle and some were too overt. Itʼs a delicate balance of the erotic. How much to reveal and what to pull back. Trusting the other to understand what cannot be said.
And some things are difficult to talk about. Learning this text was disturbing and I struggled with much of the process. The Torah is characterised as a maiden in a tower, sending hints out and waiting for her lover to follow the trail, find her and seduce her. The text makes special mention that she has no eyes. She does not see, but she is seen. She does not search but seems passive. Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav turns this on its head. The maiden has no eyes because she does not see in a normal way of seeing. She sees beyond this world and reality.
Itʼs a sweet solution. Rebbe Nachman apparently taught the story of Saba Mishpatim when his daughter had an eye infection. The girl with no eyes prompted a retelling of the old manʼs riddles. For all the textʼs difficulties, I kept coming back to the compelling conversations and intriguing riddles. What does this all really mean…? And so I picked up my pen and tried to look beyond my usual way of seeing.
Take a look at the film that these images inspired The Wise Have Eyes.
The Wise Have Eyes is a particular take on the Parable of the Maiden from the Zohar. This parable has elements that are sensual and disturbing, groovy and grotesque. I set it to music in conversation with historical commentary and new readings I found compelling. I started this process in khevruta with Sarah Lefton and Jacqueline Nicholls. I read Sava de-Mishpatim, translated by Daniel C. Matt, and thoughtful essays by Daniel Abrams, Moshe Idel and Elliot Wolfson. As I moved from Zoharic fragment to song, I drew on moods, modes and textures from Sephardic women’s tunes of the Balkans, and worked with musicians and engineers who produced it with psychedelic éclat. But what brought me deepest into the text, and informed how I felt the music, was the work of Melila Hellner-Eshed.
Most previous commentary on the Parable of the Maiden has focused on the levels of PaRDeS, especially the pshat/sod relationship, and on male mastery of a female Torah. Melila Hellner-Eshed instead argues that the parable is about mutual arousal and awakening. The relationship between learner and text here is an erotic one between two subjects. Reading strategies are erotic play that awakens desire above and below, revealing mystic and Torah to each other.
I like this analysis because it is super hot, and there’s room for me in it. I mean, male mastery is cool, but not all the time for a thousand years, know what I’m saying Does anyone even WANT to top that long? Anyway, Melila Hellner-Eshed’s reading lets us all change it up a little—maybe even change it up a lot. So in the end, my take on this parable emphasizes female subjectivity, female power, female voice, mystery, magic, mutuality…and a tactile, joyful sexuality.
We can’t ignore the misogyny in our tradition, sometimes in this very parable. It’s important to call out ugly content and nasty hermeneutics when we see them.
But we can’t just stop there, not if we are working for the big redemption! The Zohar has to be part of that redemption—we need mystics on our team. And when we have the mystics together with the radicals, we will smash all supremacies. There will be a mighty freeing! And only then can we love our G-d.