Rabbi Joseph Gikatilla’s Sha’are Orah
Creative Foundations: Sexual and Linguistic
To set oneself on a firm foundation—is this not the object of all science? We live in an era where the need for foundations is nothing new. This problem has been recycled innumerable times in the course of our intellectual history. What defines our age stems not from awareness of the problem but rather from the lack of hope in finding a solution. Having excavated the diverse disciplines of human inquiry, the construction crews have thrown their hands up in surrender. It seems as though the cement won’t dry and even if it does, will it not crack and sink into the belly of the earth?
Engineering a foundation would appear to already require the prior existence of another naturally occurring one—where the mix of mortar could find solace with indigenous bedrock. Consequently, our attention is turned to an even more primal task—one that we would just as soon forget in blissful abandonment to our human-made castles in the air (at least as long as they float steadily) that is the unspeakable foundation of all foundations. Criteria, given the circumstances, run in short supply. All this, despite the continual baking of new systems of thought in the ovens of scientific pursuit. Solicitations are made daily. Trumpets blare. But all of the fanfare only distracts those who should obsess about the consequents of a world, a something, built on and from out of nothing.
Given that this second gate, which is the second chapter of Gates of Light, sings a song of longing for foundations, we can call our attention to one of its most remarkable features: the world rests not on knowledge but on morality. Offering a comparison with Levinas, for whom ethics proceeds ontology (and therefore, presumably all epistemology,) Gikatilla goes after the character of the knower rather than the knowing or the known.
Aptitude in scientific pursuits stems from the measure of uprightness of an individual before assessments of quantitative and verbal skills come into play. Consider the following passage where the notion of “authority” that governs the world (depicted by the matrix of interpretative resources brought to bear on the name ADoNaY (27) that were worked out in chapter one of Gates of Light) is connected to our quest for foundations:
This attribute is called YeSOD, for just as a house rests on its foundations (YeSODot) so does ADoNaY rest on the attribute YeSOD. Note that ADoNaY [can receive] no [o]verflow nor can it be sustained without the attribute of YeSOD which is called EL CHaY. (28) The Talmudic tractate Chagiga states:
What does the world rely on? One pillar is called TZaDIK (the righteous one), as it is written, “The Foundation of the world is the righteous one.” (Proverbs 10:12) (Chagiga 12b)” (29)
Just as the world is founded upon the righteous individual so too knowledge is founded upon ethics. (30) Moreover, the authority that governs the world (the full scope of power and politics) derives its standing from the ethical.
In a different sense, which is also related, the kabbalistic notion of truth may be introduced here. Truth, it may be said, grows out of knowledge embedded on a firm ethical foundation. We can swing from truth as foundation to foundation as truth. Both fertilize the figures of authority and power. Breaking the bond between “ADoNaY” as governing authority and “EL CHaY” as the viability of well-founded truth introduces the phenomenon of unauthorized authority with its expressions of power without justification. In like fashion, Gikatilla maintains that:
The name TZaDIK [the righteous one] actually includes three names: TZaDIK, TZeDeK, TZeDaKah. The attribute of EL CHaY is synonymous with TZaDIK; The attribute ADoNaY is TZeDek and because it infuses its blessing with TZeDek (righteousness), this emanation is called TZeDaKaH (charity). One therefore finds these three united as one: TZaDIK for giving, TZeDeK for receiving, and TZeDaKaH as the essence of the giving, and the fusion [of the three]. (31)
The union evoked here, conjures up an image of the righteous one as the foundation fertilizing “righteousness” (proper conduct in the sphere of government). Here laid before us is the generative bond of might and right. With many of the classical kabbalistic sources relating YeSoD or the sphere of “foundation” to that of the procreative organs in the body referenced in this work as the BRIT (literally covenant) or limb of circumcision, we may assert that constructing foundations is a purely creative activity. Interactive with the material for which the foundation is erected, the sexual nature of this bond warrants examination. The uses of BRIT are virtually endless in kabbalistic literature and in fact have a threefold attribution in Gikatilla’s text.
At times, the attribute of EL CHaY is called BRIT (covenant). Know and understand that any time BRIT appears in the Torah it refers to three concepts which are singular in its meaning; all become one, however, when they are connected. These three concepts are divided into three Names which are ADoNaY, EL CHaY and BINAH [understanding–the central cognitive power of the soul]. The BRIT (covenant) of BINaH is the covenant of the month, the covenant of language, the covenant of lips. As it is written,
“By the mouth of these [spoken] words I have cut a BRIT (covenant) with you.” (Exodus 34:2)
…The BRIT of EL CHaY is called the covenant of peace…
The BRIT of ADoNaY corresponds to the BRIT of the Torah which connects between BRIT EL CHaY and BRIT ADoNaY. Since ADoNaY is connected with EL CHaY and with BINaH it will be known as the Name for both; and the essence [of the BRIT] is “the BRIT of the tongue and the BRIT of the skin”. (32)
Of the diverse meanings of BRIT cited above, the most important parallel for the purposes of this study, rests on the thematic comparison of the circumcision of the tongue with the circumcision of the skin [of the procreative organ]. Playing on the duel signification of “tongue” as “language” (LaSHoN in the Hebrew), we discover the entanglement of sexuality and communication.
To speak with a circumcised tongue places an all encompassing weight of responsibility upon the speaker. To procreate with a circumcised organ implies a burden and an added sensitivity in the process of relating to the other. Furthermore, all speaking serves to fertilize the mind of the listener, to create some new state of consciousness. Re-reading the relationship in reverse, the sex act is profoundly expressive—the deepest of interpersonal communications. George Steiner perfectly captures the mutual affinity of these two states in proposing that:
Sex is a profoundly semantic act. Like language, it is subject to the shaping force of social evolution. It is likely that human sexuality and speech developed in close-knit reciprocity….The seminal and the semantic functions determine the genetic and social structure of human experience. Together they construe the grammar of being. (33)
Arguably what is engendered by language here is nothing short of the foundation from which all authority derives. Both sex and speech manifest themselves through a fundamental openness to the other, an openness that may be deemed re-presentational especially if we can read inter-textually another of Düttmann’s superb formulations that may be particularly appropriate at this juncture: “The ‘mimesis reflex’ is a type of self-conservation, self-constitution and self-affirmation, but it is also the sign of an opening.” (34) Is this what is happening? How is it a reflex, a reflective project? It would seem that one’s relations with the other are as likely to affect oneself as an other, as well as other others, producing a double-bind.
Upon further reflection, the tradition that Gikatilla relates, interposes micro-graphically the linguistic upon the sex organ in that it is dubbed the “sign” of the covenant. “The BRIT of circumcision is also called OHT [literally ‘letter’ of ‘sign’], as it is said:
‘And you shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, for it will be a sign between me and you.” (Genesis 17:11)’” (35)
Consequently, we may transition with what, in a Derridian idiom, further finances our concept of “the word which is to be circumcised: here it is, first of all, opened, offered, given, at any rate, promised to the other.” (36)
27 A proper exposition of this name, which implies Lord or Master as its primary connotation, cannot be explored due to the constraints of this piece. Subsequently, it should be noted, the insufficiency in dealing with any one of the chapters of Gikatilla’s work in isolation from the work as a whole. The best we can hope for is to uncover some fragments; clean them up a bit, and then display them in a gallery with the proper lighting. The reader may wish to refer to the text of the first chapter pp.11-54 in the Weinstein translation.
Note that we have left this translation unaltered but that traditional Jewish observance refrains from the pronunciation of these names as they are written outside of a liturgical context. Thus ADoNoY would be pronounced informally as AD’NewT or AD’NaY and the like. EL CHaY would be rendered as ka’EL CHaY etc….
28 Literally, “The Living God.” This implies a sense of viable influence. Is not “living” a dynamic quality? Could we not venture to say that “living” in this context probably means “living” for us, from our perspective, as opposed to a “dead god” where, in Nietzschean fashion, the concept has become purely nominal for the social-religious masses having long ago been hollowed out. Drained of meaning, “God” becomes another in a long list of empty expressions that fails to provide a basis of living. The death of absolutes uproot the world as a whole, plunging us back into the dilemma mentions earlier—the crisis of foundations. The term “Living God” also implies the gratuity of any foundation for the name for God evoked here is “E-L” which is often identified with CheSeD or Loving-kindness dealt with extensively in chapter seven pp.271-282. While deserving a study in its right, let is suffice to say, that the Divine attribute of Loving-kindness is customarily described as pure gift. The gift bestowed upon one who lacks any basis of merit or virtue. Called forth freely, this name embodies the gratuitous gesture, the creative act wherein the world is produced and sustained. Summoning the name of G-d that grants such a gift is to bear witness to the foundationless foundation that the entire framework of creation stands upon—foundationless that is, with respect to the totality of creation itself. The world and all the lies within it cannot appeal to itself for a place to stand on. We cannot endow our own foundation in sui generis fashion. We must appeal to some other—ultimately to The Other. The gratuitous nature of foundations implies not only that they are unwarranted but also that they are voluntary. As acts of volition, foundations are suspended in “good-will” between self and other. Creating and maintaining them both obligate and oath and carry the structure of the concept of promise as we will attempt to explain shortly.
29 Gates of Light p.59
30 See for instance Totality and Infinity pp.42-48 “Metaphysics Precedes Ontology” and pp.204-209 “Discourse Founds Signification” for an introduction to Levinas’ remarkable insight that has roots in Rosenzweig and others.
31 Gates of Light p.60.
32 Ibid. Pp.77-78.
33 After Babel p.40. I was introduced to this quote in Elliot R. Wolfson’s Language, Eros, Being p.118. It is worth noting that Steiner continues the discussion of Kabbalah in this manner on p.63 of After Babel where he addresses the function of language as a creative force. Wolfson remarks (p.118 again) that “Steiner’s account, as he himself is aware, is entirely apt depiction of kabbalistic understanding of language as expressive of the eros of being.”
34 The Gift of Language. p.87.
35 Gates of Light. P.82.
36 Derrida “Shibboleth” p.344 in Midrash and Literature.