Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Joseph Smith and the Beginning

I shall comment on the very first Hebrew word in the Bible; I will make a comment on the very first sentence of the history of the creation in the Bible—Berosheit. I want to analyze the word. Baith—in, by, through, and everything else. Rosh—the head. Sheit—grammatical termination. When the inspired man wrote it, he did not put the baith there. An old Jew without any authority added the word; he thought it too bad to begin to talk about the head! It read first, "The head one of the Gods brought forth the Gods." That is the true meaning of the words. Baurau signifies to bring forth. If you do not believe it, you do not believe the learned man of God. Learned men can teach you no more than what I have told you. Thus the head God brought forth the Gods in the grand council.

I will transpose and simplify it in the English language. Oh, ye lawyers, ye doctors, and ye priests, who have persecuted me, I want to let you know that the Holy Ghost knows something as well as you do. The head God called together the Gods and sat in grand council to bring forth the world. The grand councilors sat at the head in yonder heavens and contemplated the creation of the worlds which were created at the time.*

Jospeh Smith, in what has become known as the King Follett Discourse, was not the first to wrestle with the first three Hebrew words of Genesis- Bereishit bara Elohim. בראשית ברא אלהים

The usual translation is in the begining God created, but if rendered in a strict linear sequence the phrase reads in the begining created God (or gods). It is no longer clear that God is the subject rather than the object.
The rest of the verse should have cleared it up.
את השמים ואת הארץ
Et hashamayim ve'et haaretz (the heavens and the earth).
When a definite noun (here indicated by the prefix 'hey') is put into accusative, the particle 'et' is used to denote that. The rest of the sentence would be nonsensical if Elohim was the direct object and not the subject.
The fact that not much attention was paid to the rest of the verse surprises me, considering that Rabbi Akiva stressed the importance of each and every word and letter in the Torah, especially 'et', but more on that later.

The Babylonian Talmud (t. Megilah 9a) preserves a tradition about the 72 elders commisioned by Ptolemy of Egypt to translate the Torah (or Pentateuch) into Greek.
Each was placed in a separate house (or compartment, or room) and instructed separately to produce a translation. By a miracle from the Lord every translator translated certain difficult and controversial passages exactly as the others did.
The first passage was Genesis 1:1 which was rendered as God created in the begining.
That the Septuagint actually preserves the same order as the Hebrew is neither here nor there. This talmudic statement was a means of reinforcing a certain reading of the scriptures. In the case of Genesis 1:1 the reading was that God was the creator, not the created.

Purely speculative on my part, but I suspect that the story in the Babylonian Talmud was directed in part towards those who might be influenced by the creation accounts of the Mandaeans, a major 'gnostic' religion (though that term is not entirely accurate) in the western part of the Sassanian Empire. The Mandaeans were apparently often at odds with the large Jewish communities in the empire. The sages probably feared that improper readings of Genesis 1:1 would lead to dualism, or to a belief in something other than god being the source of creation.

Back to Genesis. The Masoretes, early medieval scholars who compiled grammatical rules for reading the text of the Hebrew Bible seem to have dealt with the problem presented by the opening sentence of Genesis through their system of cantillation marks. In an age where few people were more than semi-literate and even fewer had access to books, one would listen to the scriptures as they were read aloud in the synagogue. The scriptures weren't merely read from, but rather, were chanted, primarily as an aide to memorising the text. The Masoretes sought to systemise this chant, by creating set systems of what are known as cantillation marks. They are those little marks and signs which appear to clutter up the pages of the Hebrew Bible. They show the proper intonation, when to pause, when to lengthen the word, what to emphasise, and so on. They are an elaborate system of audible punctuation, which allows for ideas to be highlighted musically.
By a proper marking of the verses, problems like that of Genesis 1:1, ideally, would have no occasion to arise.

I said earlier that I was bewildered by the lack of serious attention given to 'et' in the context of Genesis 1:1, particularly because it formed an important part of r. Akiva's system for interpreting the scriptures. I should say though that it was used, bot not in connection with who created whom. Akiva's teacher, r. Nahum of Gamzo was apparently the chief proponent of this system, and even when Akivah innovated it, he always gave credit to his teacher.
The way the verse was used makes its absence in the aforementioned debate all the more intriguing.
In the Babylonian Talmud (m. Hagigah 12a) we find r. Akiva and r. Ishmael on a journey together. R. Ishmael was Akiva's contemporary, and in a certain sense, rival. He favoured the system whereby the Torah was given in the language of men, and thus one should focus on the plain meaning rather than spend too much time on what may be merely grammatical usage or literary forms.

[Said r. Ishmael to r. Akivah] you that attended Nahum of Gamzo for twenty and two years, the one who would expound every 'et' in the Torah, how would he interpret [et] the heavens and [et] the earth?
Replied he to him: were it the heavens and the earth I would have said the heavens- a title of the Holy One, blessed be he.
Since it says [et] the heavens and [et] the earth I would say that the heavens means indeed the heavens and the earth means indeed the earth.

But I digress. In Judaism, the predominant system became that of r. Akiva. Combined with his mystic inclinations (it is his interpretation of the Song of Songs which influenced Origen) it gave a legitimacy and impetus to later Jewish mystics, in their attempts to arrive at the hidden meaning of the scriptures.

In leaps and bounds from Akiva's generation (the middle of the 2nd century) we turn to the kabbalists of medieval Spain.

In brief, kabbalah was a Jewish mystical system originating in 12th century Provence, and heavily influenced by eastern gnosticism, but claiming far earlier origins.
It spread to Spain where it was further developed and spurred on by the mysterious appearance in the middle of 13th century Castile of a text called Sefer haZohar- the Book of the Radiance. It purports to be the mystical teachings of Rashbi (rabbi Shimeon bar-Yochai), a celebrated disciple of r. Akiva. It takes the form of an Aramaic commentary on the hidden meaning of the Torah, indeed, it is a mystical exploration of it and much more.
The Zohar became the central text of the kabbalah and a springboard for further speculation on the deeper mysteries of God.

For the kabbalists too, like for the earlier disciples of r. Akiva, each word, each letter, each sequence of the scriptures had a meaning. They appear to have taken that principle to lengths more radical than Nahum or Akiva appear to have attempted. Words not only became allusions to a mystical reality, but in some sense were that reality. In a way, the layout of the verse was a blueprint to the universe. As the late, great Gershom Scholem, the first scholar to tackle Jewish mysticism on its own terms, put it, "Kabbalists who differ in almost everything else are at one regarding language as something more precious than an inadequate instrument for contact between human beings...
Language in its purest form, that is, Hebrew, according to the Kabbalists, reflects the fundamental spiritual nature of the world; in other words, it has a mystical value. Speech reaches God because it comes from God.**"
Of particular significane to my topic is their belief that "man's common language... reflects the creative language of God. All creation- and this is an important principle of most Kabbalists- is, from the point of view of God, nothing but an expression of His hidden self that begins and ends by giving itself a name, the holy name of God, the perpetual act of creation. All that lives is an expression of God's language...
What I would like to emphasize is this peculiar interpretation, this enthusiastic appreciation of the faculty of speech which sees in it, and in its mystical analysis, a key to thee deepest secrets of the Creator and his creation.***"
Mysticism takes reality and seeks to transcend it to something deeper, to see beyond the mundane into the hidden and epic.
Elsewhere, Scholem has the following to say about the kabbalists and their relationship with the scriptures. "Mystics are men who by their own inner experience and their speculation concerning this experience discover new layers of meaning in their traditional religion... How cold their view of the world be brought into harmony with the view accepted by their own tradition? It is generally known that allegorical interpretations arise spontaneously whenever a conflict between new ideas and those expressed in a sacred book necessitates some form of compromise. What is true of allegorical interpretation is still more applicable to the specifically mystical interpretation of such texts...
Many productive minds among the Kabbalists found this [commentaries on the Bible] a congenial way of expressing their own ideas, while making them seem to flow from the words of the Bible. It is not always easy, in a given case, to determine whether the Biblical text inspired the exegesis or whether the exegesis was a deliberate device, calculated to bridge the gap between the old and the new vision by reading completely new ideas into the text. But this perhaps is to take too rationalistic a view of what goes on in the mind of a mystic. Actually the thought processes of mystics are largely unconscious, and they may be quite unaware of the clash between old and new which is of such passionate interest to the historian. They are thoroughly steeped in the religious tradition in which they have grown up, and many notions which strike a modern reader as fantastic distortions of a text spring from a conception of Scripture which to the mystic seems perfectly natural. For one thing that can be said with certainty about Kabbalists is this: they are, and do their best, to remain traditionalist.****"

What this has all been leading up to is the Zohar's interpretation of Genesis 1:1.
I'll follow Daniel Matt's excellent english translation of the strange and mysterious text.

Deep within the spark gushed a flow, splaying colors below, concealed within the concealed of the mystery of Ein Sof. It split and did not split its aura, was not known at all, until under the impact of splitting, a single, concealed, supernal point shone. Beyond that point, nothing is known, so it is called (Reshit), Beginning, first command of all.

The enlightened will shine like the (zohar), radiance, of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. (Daniel 12:3).

(Zohar), Radiance! Concealed of concealed struck its aura, which touched and did not touch this point. Then this beginning expanded, building itself a palace worthy of glorious praise. There it sowed seed to give birth, availing worlds. The secret is: Her stock is seed of holiness (Isaiah 6:13).

(Zohar), Radiance! Sowing seed for its glory, like the seed of fine purple silk wrapping itself within, weaving itself a palace, constituting its praise, availing all.

With this beginning, the unknown concealed one created the palace. This palace is called (Elohim), God. The secret is: (Bereshit bara Elohim), With beginning, ________ created God. (Genesis 1:1)

(Zohar), Radiance! From here all commands were created through the mysterious expansion of this point of concealed radiance. If created is written here, no wonder it is written: God created the human being in His image (Genesis 1:27).

HaZohar, parashat bereishit, 1:15a.
The Zohar, Pritzker edition, vol. 1, pp. 108-111.

The Zohar goes on to give many additional layers of meaning and interpretation to the verse, but interesting as they are, in order not to get bogged down, I won't provde them here, but refer all those interest to Daniel Matt's translation.

In brief, what is being described here is the process of creation through emanations, or as termed by the kabbalists- sefiroth.
The subject is one too vast to explain here in any detail or render it due justice, yet it is one of the most fundamental aspects of the kabbalah that at least something must be said of it.
A sefirah is one of the emanations of God. There are ten of them, all revealing a different aspect and all flowing into each other. They are usually structured as a tree or as Adam Hakadmon- the primeval man.

They are God's active power and attributes, they emanate from within him and seek to take on shape. They take on a different shape or attirbute at each level. Thow they flow out, they remain hidden deep inside and are the unity of God. They are how he reveals himself.
The kabbalist Abraham Herrera, in Shaar haShamayim (ca. 1620) gives a long description of the sefiroth. Here is an excerpt.

The sefiroth are emanations from the primal simple unity; making known His good which is without end; mirrors of His truth, which share in his nature and essence, which is above all, and that He is Himself the necesary being; structures of His wisdom and representations of His will and desire; receptacles of His strength and instruments of His activity; treasuries of His bliss and distributors of His grace and goodness; judges of His kingdom, bringig His judgement to light; and simultaneously the designations, attributes, and names of He who is highest of all and who encompasses all. These ten names are inextinguishable: ten attributes of His sublime glory and greatness;
And these are the ten utterances containg All.

Ein Sof (without end, infinite) is the concealed form of God. He sends out the emanations who create everything. Creation is not ex nihilo, it begins with a spark that sets out from Ein Sof that then reveals the rest of the sefiroth one after another.
The concealed of the concealed (or thhe hidden of hidden) is the first sefirah- Keter (crown).
From this is the first command IE the beginning.
The spark flashes to Hochma (wisdom) which flashes to Binah (understanding).
Hochma is the father, Binah is the mother, the rest of the sefiroth are their children.
By means of this beginning, Ein Sof creates Elohim, or the palace of Binah.
This is where Genesis 1:1 comes into play.
The prefix beith, which usually means 'in' can also mean 'with' or 'by means of'. So by means of beginning (reishit) Infinite created God.

This is a very different concept to that of Joseph's, though both use an eccentric interpretation of the text.

Joseph drops the 'beit' and the 'ith' leaving him with rosh- the head [of the gods]. The head creates the other gods and forms a divine council of gods, who are all separate beings.

The 'beit' and 'ith', on the other hand, are essential to the Zohar's concept of Ein Sof using an event termed the beginning in order to create a palace for one of his sefiroth and bring forth others, which are all manifestations of himself, not actual beings.

While it is entirely possible that Joseph somehow read or had been taught that portion of the Zohar which then led him to ponder the subject, due to the vast, fundamental difference, I find the notion highly unlikely. Far likelier in my opinion is that when reading the Hebrew it struck him as an evidence of a truth he already knew, so he used that verse to teach the concept of the council of the gods.

In the beginning, the head of the Gods called a council of the Gods; and they came together and concocted a plan to create the world and people it. When we begin to learn this way, we begin to learn the only true God, and what kind of a being we have got to worship. Having a knowledge of God, we begin to know how to approach him, and how to ask so as to receive an answer. When we understand the character of God, and know how to come to him, he begins to unfold the heavens to us, and to tell us all about it. When we are ready to come to him, he is ready to come to us.*****

Joseph had a difficult time trying to teach people truths they could not see with their understanding of the Bible.
In his own words:
The doctors (I mean doctors of law, not physic) say, "If you preach anything not according to the Bible, we will cry treason." How can we escape the damnation of hell, except God be with us and reveal to us? Men bind us with chains******

I find that the following quote supports my notion that this was something Joseph already had revealed him from above, yet in order to teach it he had to teach it from the Bible.

I thank God that I have got this old book; but I thank him more for the gift of the Holy Ghost. I have got the oldest book in the world; but I [also] have the oldest book in my heart, even the gift of the Holy Ghost. I have all the four Testaments. Come here, ye learned men, and read, if you can. I should not have introduced this testimony [James being Jacobus in the German Bible], were it not to back up the word rosh—the head, the Father of the Gods. I should not have brought it up, only to show that I am right.*******


*Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, ed. by Joseph Fielding Smith, pp. 348-349.
**Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, by Gershom Scholem, pp. 17.
***ibid, pp. 17-18.
****On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism, by Gershom Scholem, pp. 32-33.
***** Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, ed. by Joseph Fielding Smith, pp. 349-350.
******ibid, pp. 349.

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