Monday, January 25, 2010

An Ainsoferable Hodache

I've studied Kabbalah before, but I always end up getting bogged down in the alien nomenclature. Oy, would Nathan Birnbaum have been as popular if he hadn't changed his name to George Burns? Or Benjamin Kubelsky if he hadn't become Jack Benny? Someone needs to anglicize some of these terms.

So I only get so far before I can't tell my Keter from my Binah, my head from my Hod. But this book is different. Zohar, zo good, anyway. It's very crisp and concise, and leaves enough space for me to insert my own misunderstanding.

After all, the author, Daniel Matt, is in the process of translating the entire Zohar, which is an esoteric commentary on the Torah. At this point he's up to five volumes and some 3,000 pages, with more to come. I mean, the first two volumes only take you halfway through Genesis, so it's a herculean task.

Why is the Zohar important? We'll get to that later. In Matt's introduction, he points out that the Sefer ha-Zohar (its full name) -- which is the masterpiece of Jewish mysticism -- "emerged mysteriously in Spain toward the end of the thirteenth century." There is a deep connection between Kabbalah and Hermeticism, and in fact, some people (mistakenly) thought that they were the actual source of the Jewish and Christian scriptures. The idea is that Moses, who was raised an Egyptian, would have been deeply familiar with the Egyptian esotericsm of Hermes, which he incorporated into the Torah. In turn, the Zohar is a kind of mystical decoding of original hermetic message.

But in reality, the hermetica can only be traced back to the first few centuries AD, and the Zohar again appears in the 13th -- which is not to say that there couldn't have been an oral tradition prior to that. But in any event, I am not so much interested in the provenance or timing, only the truth it contains and discloses. I mean, our Constitution could have been given to us by aliens for all I care. All I know is that it's the finest political document ever produced by the divine-human partnership.

And don't forget, in the pre-scientific world, people had a very different conception of time. For one thing, it was much more qualitative, not quantitative. When someone wanted to convey the depth and seriousness of an idea, they did so by affirming its antiquity.

Thus, for example, although it turned out that Denys the Areopagite was not a contemporary of the apostle John, that hardly detracts from the brilliance of his writings. Back then, things like novelty and progress were not considered selling points. Indeed, they were pejorative. If you had said to Denys, "that's so old-fashioned," he'd say "why, thank you." And if you said, "well, that's a new way of looking at things," he'd probably have slapped your camel.

Anyway, this book I'm working on is quite concise and unsaturated. One interesting way that it forms a bridge between Judaism and Christianity is that, instead of the radical monotheism of the former, it maps out the interior of God, so to speak, which has some commonalty with the Christian Trinity, which in turn serves as a sort of bridge between us and the otherwise radical unknowability of God.

In other words, just as the Trinity tells us something about the intimate interior life of the godhead, Kabbalah purportedly reveals some other hidden dimensions that serve as the timelessly-temporal blueprint of creation. Just as there is a platonic mathematical physics that serves as the deep structure of the physical world, you might say that the Zohar reveals the deep structure -- the metaphysics -- of the immaterial world.

A key point is that this blueprint is only intended to be a clueprint for the higher imagination. Indeed, if you think of the abstract symbols I used in my book to map the spiritual adventure, it's somewhat like that. It is very much a case of "the secret protecting itself," so that it won't mean much to the uninitiated. Even if you memorized every word of it, it wouldn't mean that you had understood any of it.

Now, none of this is intended to subvert the plain meaning of the Bible. It's just that Scripture is a holographic text with multiple layers of meaning, from the literal, to the allegorical, to the symbolic, to the moral, metaphysical and mystical. None of these cancel out or deny the others. Indeed, you must forget about your aristotelian logic, in which A is always A. Rather, you must adopt the dream-logic of the symmetrical unconscious, in which A can simultaneously be A and not-A. Think of how everything in your dreams appears multiple, and yet, it is all you -- not just starring you, but produced, written, and directed by you.

So if Scripture is ultimately a holographic vertical memo from the Self to the self, so to speak, it must have at least as many dimensions as we do. We are not linear machines, so there is simply no way that Scripture can be a sort of linear instruction manual and do us any kind of justice. If you take that approach, you end up being as simple-minded as the ideological Darwinians, whose theory purchases radical consistency at the cost of a preposterous incompleteness.

Thus, as Matt reminds us, "On a deeper level, the text of the Bible is simply the starting point, a springboard for the imagination." To cite one very basic example, when God advises Abraham to "go to the land that I will show you," this also refers to the interior landscape inside us all: "Go to yourself, search deep within and thereby discover the divine."

Another example, this one more esoteric: as we all know, the first words of the Bible are In the beginning God created... But if one trancelights the words in their precise order, the Zohar suggests that they have a very different connotation: With beginning It created God.

Now, what is "It"? It is simply the top or center of it all, the Ain Sof, which you might think of as the hidden godhead or the unpronouncable name. (Ain Sof comes from Ayin, or Nothingness.)

Some Christian mystics call it "nothing," but this is not to be confused with the shunyata of Buddhism, for it is not literally nothing (or emptiness), just beyond our ability to contain it. It is the apophatic God we can't think about, in contrast to the cataphatic God we can. You might think of it as the ultimate O, from which everything intelligible flows -- even the intelligible God to whom we can "relate."

For those who get the jokes, there is quite a bit of Kabbalah in the Cosmogenesis section of my book. As a matter of fact, the Zohar itself is full of puns, wordplay, and neologisms. As always, the best cosmedians are Jewish -- for example, Albert Einstein.


Blogger Gandalin said...


The utility of a specialized nomenclature is that it permits things to be stated correctly, succinctly, and consistently. Like the diagrammatic nomenclature you've adapted from Bion. Although the nomenclature of the Zohar, or of a philosopher like Kant, is daunting at first, once you master it, the meaning of the text is transparent, whereas with a plain-language writer like Hegel, you are continually wrestling with the vagueness and slipperyness of words you think you understand, but you can never be completely sure you are getting what he means. And that's something many plain-language enthusiasts play on -- they count on the reader to infuse their words with all of the numimous and portentous meaning their readers want to imagine is there. Whereas the more scientific-style nomenclature of the Zohar, or of alchemical texts, appears to the uninitiated to be devoid of any meaning at all. Which is a way of protecting the meaning of the text from profanation.

1/25/2010 08:56:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

I know, but if King James english was good enough for Moses, it should be good enough for us.

1/25/2010 08:59:00 AM  
Blogger Ricky Raccoon said...

I understand what you are saying.
As Bob gags, Jesus did not use any big words.
I’m not opposed to specialized nomenclature. If at any time I am, it is when I think I’ve “solved” something by selecting a name for it; or written a story about a real event, which tends to kill it in a way. When it feels solved, it tends to not bug me anymore. A name can limit the thing you are pointing to. Or rather, limits it’s potential to continue to affect you in new ways. Not limit the thing’s dimensions, but your receptivity to them. You may put things in categories that may not be the best fit for them.
Anyway, I’m not a opposed to specialized nomenclature, more to my point is what plain language can do that perhaps specialized nomenclature cannot.

1/25/2010 09:49:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Yep - I feel the same way about a lot of the Indian mystical terms. My brain can only juggle so many syllables at once. Technical terms are great, but it doesn't matter how well you can read them or say them if you don't grasp the concepts to which they point.

Then on the other hand, it's possible to get too strong a grip on what a word means in one sense (for instance "intellect" means very different things depending on whether the speaker is a darwinist or a metaphysician) while being completely ignorant of any others. And it's tough to rewordgitate when the words you have to work with are set in concrete.

Going back to the value of aged things, I ran across this this morning. If you have eleven minutes, just go and watch.

Now how did we go from a culture that could express so much jubilation, beauty, skill and play in hard work to a culture dominated by Kanye? (Rhetorical, for the humorless)

New most assuredly is not always better. Even though in the grand scheme of things, that musical adventure was and is awfully new, and so very ephemeral.

1/25/2010 09:50:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Also, what Ricky said :)

1/25/2010 09:51:00 AM  
Blogger Ricky Raccoon said...

RE your post, are you sure you didn’t see “Book of Eli” this weekend?

Thanks, Julie.

1/25/2010 09:58:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

An important point is indeed that both Hebrew and Sanskrit are "sacred languages," so that the words themselves are -- according to members of those faiths -- invested with spiritual energy.

But that may be at the human margins. I don't know. For example, if it were absolutely central, then the "Jesus prayer" would be ineffective if we said "Jesus" instead of his actual aramaic name. I personally think God cuts us some linguistic slack, even though I fully appreciate Gandalin's point, as well as the larger point about sacred language in general. Perhaps it is the collective use of certain words that invests them with their conscious power.

1/25/2010 10:06:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Future Leader breathlessly ran from the bathroom and said, "come quick, you have to see this!" "What, what is it?" "My biggest poop EVER!"

I said, "son, now you know what it means to be tenured."

1/25/2010 10:12:00 AM  
Blogger Ricky Raccoon said...

I just finished my lunch and was just saying to myself. Hmm. I could use something else.

1/25/2010 10:16:00 AM  
Blogger Ricky Raccoon said...

By the way, I agree with the sacred language. There’s more to it than meets the eye.

1/25/2010 10:17:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Yes, some of those Orthodox monks say it's sufficient to simply repeat the word "Jesus" while meditating on it...

1/25/2010 10:19:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

That was also central to Schuon's approach, BTW -- repetition of the Divine Name.

1/25/2010 10:20:00 AM  
Anonymous Cousin Dupree said...

Toots... Toots... Toots...

1/25/2010 10:21:00 AM  
Blogger Ricky Raccoon said...


1/25/2010 10:22:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Re. FL, that's just hilarious. In four years or so, I expect to be hearing much the same exclamation.

Re. sacred language, I do agree. Though speaking of "Jesus," the word itself was actually a stumbling block for me, for a while. Not because of who it points to, but rather again because of the Jesus Willies. It rang dense. I got around that by thinking of the Latin "Jesu" or even "Jeshua" (is that the Aramaic? I don't know, but I've read it somewhere), which draws me in a different direction than the modern Jesus, with more of a connection to the time, place, Biblical context, and the vertical. Or more simply, it's unsaturated.

1/25/2010 10:37:00 AM  
Blogger Van said...

"Another example, this one more esoteric: as we all know, the first words of the Bible are In the beginning God created... But if one trancelights the words in their precise order, the Zohar suggests that they have a very different connotation: With beginning It created God."

Now that's interesting...

"Some Christian mystics call it "nothing," but this is not to be confused with the shunyata of Buddhism, for it is not literally nothing (or emptiness), just beyond our ability to contain it. It is the apophatic God we can't think about, in contrast to the cataphatic God we can. You might think of it as the ultimate O, from which everything intelligible flows -- even the intelligible God to whom we can "relate.""

very interrestrialIzing...

But as wv suggests, proceed with:

1/25/2010 11:13:00 AM  
Blogger William Dunigan said...

Greetings to one and all: In that most precious name. That name which is above every name, the name: "Jesus" ____There's tremendous power in that name. I'd suppose we'll never fully realize all that can truly be accomplished, by us simply calling out that name in true faith.____There's an old, old, gospel song that goes like this: Faith in the Father, faith in the Son, faith in the Holy Spirit, great victories are won. Demons will tremble and sinners will awake, faith in Jehovah will anything shake.____For you who have never come into this realization, if you're reading this, just give him a welcome into your heart and life. You will both feel and see an awesome difference. You will have also purchased the ticket to heaven (by accepting, therefore making him welcome to come into your life. You will also sup from His cup that contains living water. (As did the woman at the well of Bethesda.) John 4:10____Much love, ____Your brother in Christ Jesus, who is both our Lord, and "" ...

1/25/2010 11:20:00 AM  
Blogger Van said...

Gandalin said "... or of a philosopher like Kant, is daunting at first, once you master it, the meaning of the text is transparent, whereas with a plain-language writer like Hegel, you are continually wrestling with the vagueness and slipperyness of words you think you understand, but you can never be completely sure you are getting what he means."

Seriously? Well first, although I get your general point, there are some words which should never appear in the same sentence together, a prime example being,
"plain-language writer" and "Hegel "
... that's just beyond the pale.

But Kant... transparent? Is 'transparency' really achieved by using new words correctly, whose convoluted definitions are chock full of arbitrary assertions and equivocations? Or is their actual unintelligibility just effectively hidden by the illallusions they serve to create?

Sorry, but distortion isn't resolved through parameterization, only shortened.

1/25/2010 11:24:00 AM  
Blogger Northern Bandit said...


What's your take on the symbols we use in computer programming and their relationship to the etymological themes in this thread?

1/25/2010 11:39:00 AM  
Blogger Ricky Raccoon said...

They use symbols in computer programming?

1/25/2010 11:46:00 AM  
Blogger Ricky Raccoon said...

I used to use some 3D software a few years ago called TrueSpace. Anyway, the interface was almost entirely icon-based. Previous to this, using other software (3D software is notorious for long sets of steps and nested menu “trees”) I used to catch myself “saying” the words or steps in my head as I was performing them. Example: “edit, point, move, point”. With the icon-based software, I simply “went” almost automatically, to where the “function” lived on the screen (but really where it lived in my brain), without having to think-out the words.

1/25/2010 11:58:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Thank you, William. You've illustrated my point precisely.

1/25/2010 12:23:00 PM  
Blogger Northern Bandit said...


Interesting story. Computer languages are interesting because they combine aspects of mathematics and various branches of logic with aspects of natural language. A lot of effort is expended in getting structures to correspond with their counterparts in the real world, and a lot of this in turn involves names for these abstract representations.

Since I'm on hiatus for a bit before starting up my next company I've been toying with some problems. My old favorite was doing algorithms which figure out the most efficient way to assemble a series of freight trains when cars are scattered around a large, arbitrarily complex switching yard. It's a good problem because it is pretty hard to solve, but has a series of increasingly elegant solutions as you get deeper into it.

On another note Gary Kasparov recently noted that computers don't play chess the same way humans do -- they brute force their way through the problem. Problem is Gary failed to understand the lesson in this. He believes we aren't creating "true AI" because the chess monsters were "good enough" and consumers are market-driven and yadda yadda. He fails to see that AI of the type he envisions is impossible in principle, something that even a brand-new raccoon understands pretty quickly (reading OCUG will banish that silly fantasy).

1/25/2010 12:34:00 PM  
Blogger Northern Bandit said...


Also overlooked your other question re symbols: the only thing in a computer that is "real" are the electromagnetic charges representing the state of one of the billions of picoscopic transistors etched photographically onto a semiconductor substrate. Everything from there on up is a symbol pointing to a lower level of "reality".

That said, the meaning of this blog can never, ever be deduced in trillions of years if all you do is analyze those little transistors.

1/25/2010 12:40:00 PM  
Blogger Northern Bandit said...


Everything above (the physical substrate) is a symbol which is made up of the charges, but which has meaning transcending them. It "points" to... I suppose to concepts.

1/25/2010 12:42:00 PM  
Blogger Ricky Raccoon said...

Your freight train problem sounds like the containers on container ships problem: you want different containers on different parts of the ship – some refrigerated at the top, ones that will come off the ship at certain ports you don’t want on the bottom. 8,000 or more containers on one ship certainly complicates things.
Anyway, you’ve probably spent some brain power on this algorithm: how to get OCUG into every paw of the Scattered Brotherhood of the Vertical Diaspora.

1/25/2010 12:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Since God enfolds and or manifests both genders and neuter as well, "It" would in fact be technically the most precise way to refer to God. Probably It should be capitalized.

I refered to It this way and immediately my Catholic companion asked me to desist, claiming it was Satanic to refer to God as It.

She got the willies pretty bad.

As far as AI goes, NB, I don't see why It could not inhabit a sufficiently complex computer and call it home; it would be alive.

Not in the biological sense, but since when is biology priveledged? I don't see it.

Even a large inorganic monolith like El Capitan is conscious on its own level. You can sense it if you get quiet and go up to the base of it. "It" is in there. Sans the wetware of biology.

So don't get all enamored with the idea that It can't produce an AI Jeshua equivalent, because It most surely can if that is It's will.

The hubris of wet carbon based intelligence cannot be underestimated but it is only hubris; not destiny.

1/25/2010 04:11:00 PM  
Blogger Van said...

NB said "What's your take on the symbols we use in computer programming and their relationship to the etymological themes in this thread?"

As a more conventional programmer, I don't get into the slick exotic stuff you black hat security types do, but for me, the ideas of Normal Forms in relational database design, and of Classes in Object Oriented Programming - from the idea of it being definitions without substance, to how they are used and combined with inheritance and interface inheritance... that was all HUGE in helping me understand Philosophy... and programming! I suppose it shouldn't have taken all that much to extend 'One in the Many' to 'One to Many' relations... but it took awhile, until it all suddenly clicked together in all directions at the same time, where I had ... I forget our symbols... n-> k (?) before, I suddenly had O->k & O-WTF! WO!

But as you might guess from that last line... the symbols mess me up. I'm fine with a UML modeling diagram, but I much prefer words & names to lollipops and various lines & arrows... similarly, much to the annoyance of all you elitest C dudes out there, I still much prefer the nice words and names in VB.Net, to C#... I can read the symbols & braces just fine, but I much prefer words like 'End Sub' to '}' and 'Implements' to '::'... may have something to do with my still preferring Humans to Machines.

;- )

But in the end, I see why, and use, symbols at the whiteboard and diagrams... but I still ... obstinately... think and speak in words.

1/25/2010 04:27:00 PM  
Blogger Van said...

NB said "...algorithms which figure out the most efficient way to assemble a series of freight trains when cars are scattered around a large..."


Sorry. Visions of 'bottom operated clapper valves' suddenly burst into mind (Worked with a railroad mfg & leasing co for awhile... shivvver)

1/25/2010 04:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Scientists to do empirical studies on whether free will exists.

No vitriol today, not even the obligatory name check of Keith Olbermann. Guess the Zohar must be soothing.

1/25/2010 04:39:00 PM  
Blogger Van said...

aninnymouse said "The hubris of wet carbon based intelligence cannot be underestimated but it is only hubris; not destiny."

uh-huh. Tell you what, you figure out how to get your Artificial Intelligence to make an Actual Mistake... then we'll talk.

Until then, it is your computer is nothing, nothing but an electrified set of dominoes and abacuses. No matter how complex you manage to make those switches flip, or dominoes flip one row of an abacus to the next, it will never, never, be anything more lifelike about it than that.

I've no doubt software will eventually, probably in the near future of our lifetimes, be able to 'appear' to be intelligent, will pass every turing test out there, but it will do so in exactly the same way as Big Blue plays chess, massive calculations made in short periods of time, having no more consciousness of it's abilities than an old IBM hand cranked adding machine.

1/25/2010 04:44:00 PM  
Blogger Van said...

From aninnies link, "The John Templeton Foundation has just awarded $4.4 million to Florida State University philosopher Alfred Mele to research the question: Do we have free will? As the press release..."

Study done and complete, Free Will wins out again.

There's more to the article...?... and they're paying money for it to be researched?

"...But in recent years, some neuroscientists have been producing data they claim shows that the genesis of action in the brain begins well before conscious awareness of any decision to perform that action arises. If true, conscious control over action — a necessary condition of free will — is simply impossible. ..."

Heh. Not only does the Truth defend itself, it gets a real kick out of letting the lie make a fool of itself.

Where do I sign up for the $4.4 million grant to study why smart people are so persistently stupid?

1/25/2010 04:51:00 PM  
Blogger walt said...

Not that I pay much attention to Fred Barnes, but this article has the same theme as Bob's post two days ago:

Obama On Verge Of Crackup

"There’s a word for this kind of rhetoric: Unpresidential."

1/25/2010 06:47:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Yes, it's why liberals can't learn from history. If they win, they won. But if they lose, they really won, because people are just too stupid to understand their own interests. Their contempt for the average American is breathtaking.

1/25/2010 07:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Jack said...

Did you all see that the man-hating "radical feminist" Mary Daly died recently.

I remember many of my female (and some male) friends in college reading her "gyn-ecology". 20 years later many of my female friends still believe a degree. Hopefully she'll just fade away...

wv: emandish. Ha!

1/25/2010 08:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Jack said...

From an interview with Mary Daly in "What is Enlightenment?"

"I think it's not a bad idea at all. If life is to survive on this planet, there must be a decontamination of the Earth. I think this will be accompanied by an evolutionary process that will result in a drastic reduction of the population of males. People are afraid to say that kind of stuff anymore."

And to think a good portion of "educated" females of my generation read her books. Explains a lot, perhaps.

1/25/2010 09:21:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

A literal feminazi.

1/25/2010 09:24:00 PM  
Blogger River Cocytus said...

As I recall, the name and the power are the same; but that doesn't mean that the name is literally an invocation. It is not as though you can make God do anything against his will by using his Name. You can't just go up to someone and command them in the name of Jesus to do this or that; the power is not yours, it is God's.

There is also a verse that says that no one can call Jesus the son of God without the Holy Spirit; I take this to mean 'in reality' as opposed to simply speaking the words.

And so with the name the degree with which we actually speak it relates to the manner in which it is spoken.

I was reminded of this in the Liturgy, in which the bread and wine become the blood and body of the godman; it is not as though we are commanding God to do such and such, but that God is willing to do so, if we are willing to ask. The same with prayer - the reason why those who ask are given the Holy Spirit is to some extent so that they can know what it is they may ask and have it granted; what God is willing to do.

To do otherwise is to 'use the name of God in vain.' Which is one reason why the Name itself was left unspoken so often.

1/26/2010 06:42:00 AM  

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