The Universal House / Housing the Universe
A house is not a home. Already, this expression indicates a certain split that breaks up our ‘structures’ into inner and outer dimensions. A survey of philosophic thoughts on the nature of building immediately reveals this same distinction. The erecting of a house (or any enclosure for that matter) falls within the purview of architecture and is accorded the status of a relatively masculine discipline. As of yet devoid of any content of its own, the walls conquer the ‘outside’ and possess it for the inside. We might think of architecture as a kind of conquest of undefined space which becomes impressed with a new form. On the flip side, all that pertains to the interior, to dwelling, to creature comforts, to hospitality, must come as a result of refining the inside. Interior design marks the feminine counterpart to architecture. It transforms house into home.
This type of analysis would seem to perpetuate a rigid sense of essentialistic gender roles. Kabbalah, while it acknowledges these distinctions, nonetheless deconstructs them and illuminates a path towards non-essentialistic gender assignments (it might be most fitting to say that Kabbalah sees gender suspended between the essentialistic and non-essentialistic, mediating this positive tension).
In less theoretical language, architecture is not just for men, nor is interior design solely for women. Biological sex is not the focus here. Jewish mysticism often aims at a spiritual abstraction or a metaphoric notion of gender which springs forth from biology but which is not limited to nor does it constitute a form of bio-determinism. The masculine is the exterior because the features of male re-production and creativity are external. Likewise, the feminine relates to the interior due to the interior positioning of female re-productive organs and by extension ‘female’ creativity. This is the essential distinction.
However, there is always interinclusion of concepts (here comes the non-essentialistic turn). Both men and women have a masculine and feminine side. So a person who is working with externals would be expressing himself or herself in a masculine modality. At the same time, a person who is invested in or drawn towards negotiating interiors operates within the feminine mode.
Housing problems operate on a number of levels. As humans we seek shelter from the elements, refuge from the world, and sanctuary within society. On an abstract plane, a house acts as a container. Without stretching too far, we can easily see how we are enveloped in a multitude of ‘containments vessels.’ The body is one.
In Jewish tradition, as well as in many other cultures throughout the ancient world, the body has come to represent the housing of the soul. The inner me is deposited within the container of the body. Tracing this downloading of soul into body in terms of our personal history, we can also assert that the womb of one’s mother functioned as an even more primal enclosure. Pregnancy solves the temporary housing shortage while one’s new home (body) is being constructed.
Upon delivery, the newborn child finds himself or herself not only housed within an infant body but also the world. All ‘buildings’ deep down desire to be houses. Fundamental to the human condition, being-in-the-world layers house upon house. The inner subject manifests within the body which in turn manifests within the world like Russian dolls.
The Talmud (Bekhorot 35b) reflects (or perhaps more precisely, inflects) this with statements such as “ishto k’gufo” meaning that one’s wife is considered to be the same as one’s own person. This statement becomes hyperliteralized in Kabbalah to read “his wife is likened to his body.”
The body is a feminine container for the soul. Each person, male or female, enjoys both aspects. Our souls are incorporated. We are an embodied self. Moreover, we are married to that embodiment. I am my body. Although separated as two terms (sometimes three as in ‘me’, ‘myself’ and ‘I’), the turning back on oneself in a reflexive fashion, the reflection upon the self as an object or the self ‘othering’ posture, allows a person to gain self-knowledge and become self-aware.
Domestic tranquility in this respect signifies a being-at-home with myself. Between me and myself (a self-other, husband-wife, soul-body relationship) aspires to become well-adjusted. Thus the counterpart statement in the Talmud (Yoma 2a) “beito zu ishto” means that “his house is his wife.” Our formula now reads: woman = body = house. If we throw in the translation of body/house as container or vessel then we have woman = body = house = container = vessel. In the kabbalistic tradition all of these terms can become interchangeable. Each comments on all of the others.
But does this not present a problem for our opening assertion that maintained a distinction between house and home? The answer necessitates another appeal to the concept of interinclusion. In this instance, we may reinscribe both the masculine ‘house’ and the feminine ‘home’ within the feminine. The feminine on its own is endowed with both masculine and feminine aspects. So the relative appearance of the masculine within the feminine is the ‘house’ while the feminine within the feminine belongs to the ‘home.’
Clearly “woman” here is distilled to a creative function that is womb-centric. The womb is a home. All homely environments should be womblike. We need warmth. A home should have a comfortable interior. If a house feels uncomfortable or unwelcoming, then it’s not a home. The womb is barren.
The power of the womb (of feminine creativity) works within each and every one of us as our essential capacity to be compassionate. In Hebrew, ‘womb’ is rechem which stems from the same root as rachmim which usually translates as ‘mercy’ but would be more appropriately rendered as ‘existential empathy’ or profound compassion derived from a inner feeling of interchange between self and other.
What is a womb? It is a place at the center of myself (it even enjoys physical centrality in the stature of the body) where I empty myself of self in order to make room for an other.
This self-decentering implies more than a vacancy within my embodied self. It signals the bracketing or temporal suspension of my own desires, concerns and objectives in order to refocus on the needs of the other who now takes center stage. Furthermore, I must nourish the other within me as though this person is me. I give of myself. Everything that happens to me happens to this person and everything that happens to this person happens to me. Far beyond the limited example of placing oneself in someone else’s shoes, the womb as the image of compassion reflects a complete intertwining of lives or existential substitution.
As a guide to teaching interior design, Kabbalah promotes a conception of home as womb, as a place of hospitality welcoming the other, a nourishing and warm environment the fosters growth, and not mere ‘accommodations.’ This mandate cannot be limited to our immediate domicile but extends to the entirely of Creation.
When we look at the opening of the Torah, the first line in Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” can be thought of as depicting God the Master Builder or Divine architect (with the considerable difference that God creates something from nothing and not something from something on account of a total lack of suppliers of building materials). What is obscured in translation is that the very first word of the Torah is Bereshit meaning “In the Beginning” which Kabbalah (notably in a work called Tikunei Zohar) drills into in order to release a plethora of interpretations.
All agree that the entirety of the meaning of the Torah and the whole of the intent of Creation is encapsulated in this word composed of just six Hebrew letters [בראשית]. One of the more lucrative readings as far as our current discussion is concerned would be to see these letters (and indeed the whole of the Torah) as a cypher system. For those familiar with the game of Scrabble, kabbalistic exegesis often resembles code-breaking as words are unscrambled within words. The text of Tikunei Zohar highlights that fact that one can decode “In the beginning” or Bereshit, as “bayit osher” meaning a ‘happy home’ or ‘house of happiness’ [בית אשר]. Consequently, the kabbalists understand that the overall project of Creation is for a house to become a home–a happy home.
On an even more abbreviated level, the Sages explain that the very first letter of the Torah is the letter beit [ב] which is written just this one time in large form in the entirely of the Hebraic Bible. Since every Hebrew letter also has a name and stands as a semi-autonomous unit of meaning, we are free to interpret it. What does beit signify? The name of this letter means a ‘house.’ What kind of house? On account of it being a large beit, we can deduce that it is a large house–the largest one possible: the entire universe.
Creation in the broadest context, houses us. It accommodates life. Yet, that is not enough. If we are to transform the conditions of the universe, to improve upon our lot, to enhance the natural world, to uplift it, then we must be deputized as co-creators of our world. Our ultimate role is to be interior designers so that we may be at ‘home in the universe.’
In the Midrash, the sages insist that this letter beit is closed on only three sides because it represents incompletion. The plug and play world is a temporary structure (often likened to a succah which is an impermanent dwelling that also requires three sides just like the letter). God puts down the foundation and assembles all of the architectonics. But who will decorate? Who will add the finishing touches? Who will add the furnishing? Who will customize this house? We will. We will fill the feminine role (are we not called the Divine Bride in Song of Songs?) and act as the ultimate interior designers.
In Part Two we will explore the redemptive role of interior design.