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Sunday, 30 October 2016

Reflections on Order and Chaos in the Hebrew Bible - and the Shame of Calais

Watching, listening to and reading about the dismantling of the Calais refugee settlement this last week has been a disheartening, dementing experience. It seemed that chaos was the order of the day. Some brave souls on both sides of the Channel have been battling the callousness of the UK and French governments and insisting on the absolute priority of safeguarding the well-being of the children and youngsters gathered there – but that it is voluntary organizations and charities that are representing the necessary ethical commitment is a sad indictment of governments who can hide behind their assumption that many citizens have other priorities.  

In this they are aided and abetted by the raucous, demeaning aggression of the UK’s tabloid press towards these vulnerable youngsters, which allows the UK government to get away with shamefully small steps towards addressing the crisis. The hypocrisy of the right-wing press knows no bounds here – on the one hand children must always be kept away from harm, and danger and possible exploitation: the safety and well-being of children is regularly promoted as an almost sacred duty.  

On the other hand, this only applies to ‘our’ children. Other children – ‘foreign’ children – need to be left to fend for themselves and are not welcome here. There are times when the veneer of civilisation in which we paint our self-image is scraped mercilessly thin, and the ugly, raw blood and bones of our deeper, loathsome (actually, self-loathing) selves is exposed to full view.  

These thoughts this last week coincided with themes I’ve been reflecting on about order and chaos, and the relationship between these forces in our daily lives: our need for order, rhythms and the security of knowing how things might unfold – and the way in which these fundamental human wishes keep getting subverted by the forces of chaos and disorder that lie just below the surface of life; or indeed are present within the very flux of daily life.  

And I have been reflecting on these themes because this week Jews around the world began again the weekly cycle of readings from the Torah. And there, from the very beginning of this great mythic drama of Western consciousness, the Bible, we find a portrait of the dynamic tension between order and chaos.  

You know how the drama begins. ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth’. It’s so familiar that we might not pause to wonder at it, this portrait of a Creator: a mysterious force giving purposeful form and imaginative shape to creation. An artist-designer-choreographer shaping and ordering a world which comes into being moment by moment. In a piece of magisterial story-telling the Biblical narrators offer us a picture of creation unfolding stage by stage in seven ordered and systematic stages. And we are the culmination of this divine activity: in this mythic, poetic story humanity is the purpose of creation. In this ancient text, in an act of extraordinary creative thinking, the Jewish people gave birth to the idea of something giving birth to the idea of us. 

Although we are now living – remarkably! - in an age that knows that the universe is 13.82 billion years old, the Judaic cultural imagination was never as interested in the question ‘when did it begin?’ as the questions ‘what is it for?’ and ‘how does it hold together?’ And these questions are revealed when we look carefully at the text – for this portrait of creation  is fraught with ambiguity. For how are we to read the opening sentences of the Torah?  

We immediately have a problem. The translation I offered above does not seem quite right: the influential Biblical commentator, the medieval scholar Rashi, looked at the grammatical form of the first word of this poetic text -- B’reshit -- and saw that it was not free-standing, but introduces a dependent clause: ‘In the beginning of ...’ . Rashi is reading close to the grain of the original Hebrew text, where there are no verse divisions: he suggests that the opening of the Bible should be read at one stretch, as a continuous thought. Something like: ‘In the beginning of God’s creation of heaven and earth -- the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the deep and an energy from God sweeping over the water -- God said: “Let there be light” and there was light’.  

So how did creation begin? According to this translation (and remember that every translation is an interpretation), the original creative process begins with God ‘speaking’: “Let there be...”  Rashi’s reading is thus in agreement with the author of the Fourth Gospel: ‘In the beginning was the word’. Existence is formed out of language. Here the Hebrew Bible distances itself from other contemporary Near Eastern creation myths. There are no divine genealogies or battles between the gods, no rituals to be re-enacted to ensure the supremacy of the national god. All of that is abandoned in favour of the ‘word’, the logos of John’s Greek text, the logic of the beginning - a beginning through speech. In this view of creation, time and chronology are subservient to language. ‘Time...worships language’, as the poet W.H.Auden once wrote.   

This view of creation as an ongoing act of articulation by ‘God’ resonates with the Jewish mystical tradition, which pictures the universe as being created out of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet: their continuing combination and re-combination makes up the substance of our being and that of the world. All of matter, including ourselves (our human ‘being’), flow from the original speech-act that emerged from the divine ‘Being’. Existence is the sum of the ongoing echoes, responses, reverberations from that original “Let there be light...”  (Genesis1:3).  

This is akin to the popular view of artistic creativity as occurring in a flash of inspiration, a moment of revelation. Suddenly everything is just there: the whole poem, the complete melody, the entire story. Yet although there are artists’ accounts which reinforce this view, they are in the minority.  More frequent are accounts of the creative process which suggest something very different takes place in the struggle to produce something out of nothing. And this takes us to a second, and radically different, reading of our creation story.  

Those who have come to the Bible through translations into English will perhaps be most familiar with the 1611 King James ‘Authorized’ Version. It begins with that familiar and bold declaration: 1) In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. End of sentence. That punctuation mark – not there in the Hebrew – creates a statement that stands as a kind of prologue, a headline, for the subsequent events. As if it were staying: ‘The following is the story of how, in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.’  

And then verse 2 provides, quite literally, a pro-logue: what existed before the logic of God’s speaking-the-world-into-being. This is not a creation out of nothing (ex nihilo), but creation out of the midst of a dark, primeval void: 2) Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters. 3) And God said: “Let there be light”.  And there was light.’  

Suddenly we see the huge reservoir of potentially destructive forces that exist before God speaks. We have the ‘unformed and void’: tohu va’vohu  (‘chaos and confusion’ is perhaps a better translation). And ‘darkness’. And ‘the deep’ (or ‘the chasm’, ‘the abyss’). In our second reading we discover - with surprise? with anxiety? - that God does not create everything. For example, the ‘darkness’ exists independently, before the light. In this reading of creation there is drama, struggle, even a sense of improvisation. There is a deep insecurity about the whole enterprise.  

According to one fifth-century rabbinic homiletic commentary (midrash Genesis Rabbah 9:4), the world did not spring forth all at once from God’s omnipotent will, but 26 attempts preceded the creation. All of them were doomed to failure. The world as we now have it came out of the chaotic midst of this earlier wreckage. Does this sound like the stuff of primitive science-fiction? Perhaps. But this midrashic tradition of the fragility and impermanence of the creative process is spiritually and psychologically significant.  

For here humanity is an experiment. There is always the risk of failure and the return to chaos and nothingness. The uncertainty of every aspiring artist reverberates within this stream of mythic thinking. God’s anxious cry of hope at the end of the midrash - ‘If only this time it will last!’ - accompanies human history, and our own lives within in. 

Our first reading of the opening of Genesis invited us into a harmonious world of language, logic and ordered inevitability. Our second reading opens up the possibility that insecurity and impermanence is built into the makeup of the world and the fabric of our consciousness. Our first reading offers us a world  where things should make sense; where there is order and security. Our second reading offers us a world of ‘chaos and confusion’ – a world in which ‘darkness’ is the starting point and a sense of provisionality accompanies the unfolding of everyday life.  

The genius of the Biblical narrators lies in how they manage to suggest - in the few opening verses of their story, in the guise of an evocation of Creation - such diverse readings, interpretations, of life. They somehow intuited that we would spend our lives, individually and collectively, stretched out between our wish for order, rhythm, logic, security – and our awareness of how close is the ‘abyss’, how powerful are the forces of ‘chaos and confusion’, how ‘darkness’ is part of the fabric of life, how near we always are to a collapse back into tohu va’vohu. Calais this last week has revealed how close we are to this.  

That midrash is deeply subversive: the rabbis saw deeply into the ambiguity in the text and gave us a God that isn’t omnipotent or omniscient. Their God is a participant with us in the not-knowing how things will turn out. Is life on earth a doomed project? We don’t know, we can’t know, nobody knows. This is a picture filled with fear and trembling, with hope and wishfulness - but no certainty. It is suggesting that in regard to the world we live in, it could all end in failure. It could all – our so-called civilisation, and us, and this fragile planet – be sucked back into the depths of  tohu va’vohu 

When at the end of the midrash God is allowed a voice and looks around and cries out, in hope, in anxiety, ‘If only this time it will last!’, of course this is our hope, and our anxiety, that the rabbis are giving voice to - projected onto the Holy One of Israel. The hope that our lives, and the life of humanity, are part of a scheme of things that will last.  

So this is how the Torah begins – opening up for us existential insecurity inside a supposedly ordered creation. How we manage that innate insecurity is a test of our humanity – do we bring ‘light’ into the world? Or do we let ‘darkness’ reign? We contain both, the potential for both. Which force, which energy, will win the day? For us, for our world.  

[developed from some thoughts shared at Finchley Reform Synagogue, October 29th, 2016]




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