The Need to Own Many Houses
Nobody ever said owning your own home would be easy. At the same time there is nothing quite like owning your own home. ‘Owning’ can also mean many things. It’s not only about the mortgage payments. In the Torah, ‘owning’ something means assuming responsibility for it. Ownership requires commitment. We have to be ‘personally’ invested in our home. As a special place among places, ‘my place’ is where I can pour out my personality which will then quickly evaporate and become the ‘atmosphere’ of the house.
In his magnum opus, The Poetics of Space, the philosopher Gaston Bachelard, remarks that: “…the house image would appear to have become the topography of our intimate being.” [p.xxxvi] According to his wonderful brand of topo-analysis: “In the life of a man, the house thrusts aside contingencies, its councils of continuity are unceasing. Without it, man would be a dispersed being.” [pp.6-7]
Psychologically and spiritually grounding, the home allows us to ‘hold it all together,’ to organize our experience and forge a unified sense of self. Consequently, the broken home may be directly related to the fragmented sense of self in the modern age. Our lack of inner-integration renders us nomadic. The Jewish Diaspora applies to more than just geographic dispersal. Topo-analysis folds this sociological and geo-political phenomenon into the contours of our inner experience. My identity, my “Jewish” identity perhaps is dispersed. I cannot piece/peace it all together. Parts of myself become unrecognizable to me. Exile existentially involves self-alienation.
Continuing with Bachelard: “…all really inhabited space bears the essence of the notion of home.” [p.5] But what about the pathological condition of nomadism, of constantly feeling ‘out-of-place’ as though life itself were becoming ‘uninhabitable?’ Striving as we do to not only experience the neutrality of being-in-the-world, but also to positively make our nest in order to be-at-home-in-the-world, we are unsettled every time our progress is stymied. In Heideggerian terms, the exilic equates with the ‘unhomely.’
Kabbalistic theosophy even extends this line of thought to the questions of theophany. The apparent ‘absence’ of the Divine can be conceived in terms of dwelling. God too wants a home. Perhaps it is a ‘second home’ but a home nonetheless–a home in this world, a place to dwell within Creation. Just as a person can be at liberty to let loose and be him or herself in the comfort of one’s own home, so too as Chassidic teachings explain, the Creator would like to be able to manifest Himself within His Creation.
Shifting over to the language of real estate: the problem arises when you like the house and have purchased it but will not allow yourself to move in until you’ve redecorated. You hire an interior designer and sit for hours trying to pick out furnishings and plan the remodeling. But not every interior designer gets it. They can’t all tell what you really want even though you’ve gone over it with them countless of times pointing out the designs in books. They get to work and try to bring to life your vision. Then the moment of truth arrives and you do the walk through of the house only to discover that not all of your instructions for a dream home were realized. The interior designer will have to work on revisions. This process repeats itself again and again until one day: ‘that’s it!!’ ‘This is what I’ve always wanted.’ You are ready to move in. Finally a place to call your own. A place where you can be free to be yourself.
History is a history of ‘universal’ remodeling. The purpose is to act as interior designers and transform the world into a dwelling place for the Creator. In Exodus (25:8) we find evidence of this in that God commands: “And let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them.” God does not merely want to dwell in the sense of being-at-home that we described above–to be as it was prior to Creation (we can think of Creation itself as a kind of virtual self-othering of the Divine, an establishment of the self-other relationship, even though in ‘Reality’ there is no other, only God), nor does He want to bifurcate His dwelling such that He is above (transcendent) as if in another dimension while we are below (immanent) within Creation. Everything–all of existence in its entirety–should become home.
There are no shortage of kabbalistic descriptions that elucidate the concept of Shekhinah as the feminine indwelling or Divine presence of the Creator. The root of Shekhinah is shin-kaf-nun which literally means ‘to dwell.’ When we trace the concept of Divine indwelling (that in-spires) Creation we first encounter the portable sanctuary that we constructed and disassembled over and over again as Israel traveled through the desert, called the Mishkan, from the same root meaning ‘to dwell.’ Eventually, impermanent dwelling (which might be likened to evanescent Divine revelations) shifts into a permanent status of perpetual manifestation or residence within the fixture of the Beit HaMikdash (Temple).
Circling back upon the same verse in Exodus for a closer look, we find an overlooked subtlety that the Sages in Midrash Tanchumah catch sight of but is then hammered home in a later kabbalistic work known as Reshit Chochmah: “[the verse ‘make for Me a sanctuary’] does not say within it [meaning the physical structure of the Mishkan or Mikdash] but rather in them, [meaning to say] within each and every one of Israel.” The indwelling of the Divine presence resonates within ourselves as the interior of our being. We house the Divine presence. If our interior is suitable then we can channel this influence and be an inviting residence for Divine inspiration. In this fashion, the work of interior design transmutes into the cultivation of spiritual consciousness.
One of the favorite expressions that the Lubavitcher Rebbe would evoke countless times was the idea that the intention of Creation and our part in its completion was to make for God a dirah b’tachtonim, meaning a ‘dwelling place below.’ What constitutes ‘below?’ In Jewish mystical literature, ‘below’ may signify many things including our concrete physical reality. It also applies to Creation as a whole and the human realm of everyday experience in particular. At other times, we log this as a reference to the schema of four worlds: Emanation, Creation, Formation and Action.
Emanation, or Atzilut, constitutes the highest world which is only conscious of Divinity. It’s safe to say that God ‘lives’ there in terms of our elevated perception of that outlook on reality. We might think of it as a world of unmediated experience. The world of Emanation then is registered as an original Presence. By contrast, each of the other three worlds (Creation, Formation and Action) are dubbed ‘lower worlds’ or olamot tachtonim. Remember that ‘dwelling below’ is also employing this word tachton which corresponds to three levels of representational experience. When we process and filter our original and direct experience and exchange it for concepts, words and actions that would re-present what was once present, then we have descended in consciousness to these ‘supplemental’ worlds.
In fact, the word tachton issues from the word tachat which captures the dual meaning for being both below (as in a diminished level) and exchange (literally ‘in place of’) which makes it a candidate for the kabbalistic counterpart to the word ‘supplement’ (a well-known term in Derridian Deconstruction). The supplement or substitute does not reconstitute the fullness of the original but suffices to express it in a truncated manner. Supplemental experience that peers through representational layers that impoverish our original experience loses entire dimensions and often cannot contain the fullness of the original.
In the soul these lower worlds parallel the garments of thought, speech and action. Thus, the concern is that my conceptualization of an experience will be inadequate to the task. From there, an additional repackaging of my thoughts into words can potentially frustrate matters further. Now my thoughts feel crowded and ill-fit to my words just as my thoughts could not provide a good home for my direct ‘lived’ experience. And what can my actions hope to express? Will they accurately transfer my words into practice? Ambiguities abound.
In response, a ‘dwelling place in the below’ means that there exists the potential to have the higher world consciousness of Emanation descend down and take up residence within the lower worlds. My experience can find a home and feel the freedom of its expressiveness within the frameworks of my thoughts, words and actions. We just require better and better representation. Representation provides the means to internalize and process my experiences. Therefore, thought, speech and action are articulations of that experience that all demand self-styled interior design. Experience will only agree to move into my mind, mouth and hands if it feels at home there. By contrast, our exiled ‘experience’ wanders off in search of a home unable to be contained.
It is no accident then that the ultimate Temple is referred to as both the Beit HaMikdash (literally: the Holy House) and the Beit HaBechirah (literally: the Chosen House or House of Choosing). A house which is Holy is also (in this case) as structure that embodies Holiness. As a category, Holiness stands for a kind of unicity. Likewise, a Chosen House is also a housing of Choice–a highly determinant edifice or a configuration of intentionality. Both names solidify the non-arbitrary character of the building. Since, the Temple is intended as a home for the Divine presence, we might suggest that it be ascribed status as a universal signifier for our unique choices. As a symbol of peace and unity, the Temple acts as a concretization of the indwelling of Divine inspiration.
Instilling one’s interior design work with meaning, in light of what we have just discussed, dictates that we must proceed with resoluteness. Each detail counts. Nothing is trivial. For our home to reflect the Temple microcosmically (a well-known kabbalistic idea), it must obtain some level of intentional design. Choose well. Let your home have its own indelible stamp of spiritual uniqueness.
In Part Three we will continue the theme of the redemptive role of interior design.