Of all the works of literary fiction I have enjoyed over the years, the later novels of Henry James hold a special place in my library. His labyrinth-like style and confounding syntax is often off-putting to causal readers, but if you are willing to scale these mountains they come with their own hard-earned reward.
The feature in James’ writing that I find most compelling is that of reification–he makes impressions, sensations, perceptions, thoughts and feeling into real objects. The normal, phantasmagoric qualities of these subjective apparitions get fleshed out into objectified states whose concreteness acquires an independence and will of their own. They become substantial personalities which come off as more privileged drivers of the stories than the characters of the book themselves. In essence, he bestows upon them avatar bodies.
To illustrate this, we might turn around an expression such as ‘David had an idea’ into the classic Jamesian ‘the idea seized David’ wherein the idea is somehow attacking the subject from the outside as something distinct from him which can act upon him. This gives rise to popular notions such as ‘ideas have a life of their own.’ If we were to search for a similar inversion in the Torah we would not have to look very far. As it happens, rabbinic literature is filled with similar language games that substitute the conventional places of subject and object thus granting a reality to the intangible.
For instance, in the Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot 4:11) Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov states that “one who does a good deed (mitzvah) acquires for himself a single defending angel” while the reverse is also true as “one of commits a transgression acquires one accusing angel.” To this end, our actions (and we might add our words and even our thoughts) take on an objective status which goes beyond the self. They are released out into the world. Our interiors once poured forth surround us like an exoskeleton as the ‘bone’ (etzem which also denotes the core essence in Hebrew) frames us from without just as it does from within.
Correspondingly we are continually constructing what is know as a ‘rabbinical garment’ (chaluka d’rabbanan). Here, the term ‘rabbinical’ carries the sense of a knowledge base which can be used for a management system. Somewhat in the spirit of the philosopher kings that Plato advocates for in his Republic, the Torah’s concept of leadership and governance must be inspired by vast amounts of learning. ‘Rabbinical’ can be thought of as a placeholder for the wisdom to rule, or practical and applied intelligence. Speaking of it as a ‘garment’ objectifies this knowledge into its own body. It does not merely function as an envelope that is interposed between its wearer and the world, it also overlays that knowledge base over the world and gives the wearer the ability to be extended through it to affect the external environment.
Everything we learn and do can potentially contribute to the weaving of this rabbinical garment as though we are programing an augmented reality application with which we will enhance our understanding of everything we experience, and begin to give shape to our world in a proactive and participatory manner. We are enjoined to work constantly to build new bodies of knowledge in this fashion. Generally, this can be facilitated in one of two ways. Either we accumulate knowledge threads piecemeal, making incremental progress over long periods of time, or we jump somewhat inexplicably to a repository where all of the knowledge is already lying in wait. In the later case, it downloads in a sudden blast of insight what we are ordinarily schooled to think can only happen after the prerequisite rites of passage have been checked off through many seasons of toil.
These two types relate to the front and backsides of wisdom or intuition (chochmah) in Kabbalah. To approach the face (panim) of wisdom entails being present to the source. This kind of direct access uncovers a reservoir of all wisdom which exists as a sort of collective conscious or global brain. All thoughts of all individuals are collected there in this wellspring. At its depths we are tapping into what is technically referred to as the primacy of thought of primordial man (machshava keduma d’Adam kadmon).
Primordial man should not be confused with the primitive man of anthropology. It is more like the metaphysical reality of the human condition–the primacy of our humanity. Often connected with Adam, the first man in the Genesis narrative, primordial man is what we arrive at when we scrap away all of the layers of our external self which marks the unfolding of consciousness. It is a common spiritual ancestry. Shared amongst the entirety of civilization, the thoughts of this level compress all of time into a single moment. Everything is seen in a single glance as though in one gigantic panoramic vision. Subsequently there is no waiting for history to run its course. This treasure house has it all from the beginning to the end of time.
Thus, when we experience a revelation that is above our pay grade or learn secrets of the universe that exceed our clearance level, we are shaken by a disruptive jump. We vault over the stairway of progress and find ourselves suddenly positioned at the previously remote top. As a result we may not know how we got here nor be able to retrace our steps. Such is the trade off for abnormally high perception and insight. Understandably, this level cannot be maintained for long and our consciousness rapidly ‘decays’ back down to an orbit commiserate with our everyday abilities. In the Torah this type of event is described as the splitting of the sea during the exodus. Unable to absorb the fullness and intensity of that experience, the newly freed Jews had to wait to use the ‘stairs’ of more conventional learning to build back up to a similarly powerful manifestation of Divinity with the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.
The disparity between this direct approach and the ‘back’ (achor) of wisdom is evident from a cryptic verse in the Book of Job (32:6-8) where Elihu son of Brachel comes to address the suffering that Job has undergone. Upon witnessing that three friends of Job have already come to counsel him with words that he deems insufficient given the circumstances, he says:
“I am young in years and you are elderly; therefore I trembled and feared to express my opinion to you. I had thought, ‘Let days speak out; let abundant years teach wisdom.’ But [in truth,] it is a spirit in man, and it is the soul from the Almighty that gives them understanding.”
To size up the situation: the three friends clearly have seniority on their side. And the sense of days and years—generating experience which serves as the raw materials in the production of wisdom—is protocol if one is contemplating the ‘back’ side of wisdom only. To see something from behind really suggests seeing it indirectly. Moreover, this is true in temporal terms and not merely spatial terms.
In Hebrew, ‘panim’ (face) and ‘achor’ (back) can also signify ‘before’ (le’fnai) and ‘after’ (achorai) in time. If one connects with it before (in the most extreme sense of coming before) then it precedes life itself. It is already planted before the world in a vast body of knowledge which be may drawn down and accessed without having to wait. Things which come after, that which is delayed, which is staggered in its revelation, is the roundabout and indirect, elongated lesson of our personal and collective history. We will always know more later. We can never know in time or in advance.
While exceptional souls such as Elihu (or maybe even the rest of us in exceptional moments) can gain access to the primordial database that is ‘hosted’ by the Divine, most often we are attempting to accrue knowledge day by day, year by year. Our collected thoughts will one day be palpable as an avatar body which all of us may choose to ‘wear.’ Even though the first time around this virtual body of information or ‘garment’ took a long time to collect and piece together, eventually it takes on a life of its own. Connection to this body of knowledge will eventually become direct for everyone. It will be instant and on demand. Anything learned at any given time will be able to be instantaneously transmitted to another as it will be creative commons licensed and open source (perhaps both literally and figuratively).
Today we have already taken a small taste of what is to come. We do so every time we go online and search the vast global brain that is the collaborative creation of humanity known as the internet. Already, when something new is discovered or learned in the world, this reevaluation is posted in minutes or seconds after it happens and the lag time is shrinking continuously.
Just as one animal has been demonstrated to be able to take over the body of another, we have also seen that the skill set, memories and knowledge base may also be transferred with brain-to-brain interfaces at rates approaching the speed of light. The ‘reward’ of the rabbinical garment, which is promised in the world to come, is really actualizing itself in the coming world. With it, we too will experience similar feats. As Neo (the central hero in the Matrix movies) exclaims once he is hooked up to a brain computer interface and has a fighting program downloaded in a flash directly into his mind: ‘I know Kung Fu.” And all of a sudden he does…
* Note: This series of articles were liberally adapted from an email exchange with Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh in 2013