Monday, November 22, 2010

The power of the alphabet

A recent blog post on balancing out Geburah and Chesed led me to poke around the Tree myself.  I was trying to refresh my memory on the Tzaddi correspondences, and internet search led me to Mathers' edition of the Key of Solomon.  In particular, it highlighted this passage, which I take out of context from some magical formulae for cursing tardy demons (Ch. 7): these names, and in virtue of these names, the which being named and invoked all creatures obey and tremble with fear and terror, these names which can turn aside lightning and thunder; and which will utterly make you to perish, destroy, and banish you. These names then are Aleph, Beth, Gimel, Daleth, He, Vau, Zayin, Cheth, Teth, Yod, Kaph, Lamed, Mem, Nun, Samekh, Ayin, Pe, Tzaddi, Qoph, Resh, Shin, Tau.
I'm not a dabbler in this sort of magic, by any means, but what struck me about this passage was not the curse, but the "names of power" -- which are nothing more or less than the letters of the (Hebrew) alphabet.  Isn't it true that wielding the pen skillfully gives one more power than any weapon or army?  The text goes on to say, "By these secret names, therefore, and by these signs which are full of mysteries..."  It's odd to think of the letters of the alphabet as "secret names."  I'm reminded of the runes ("Buchstaben") my ancestors carved into little wooden staves; runes developed from Italic or Roman letters that may have meant little to those who wrote them, and in their mystery had power to reveal fate.  Perhaps Hebrew meant a little more to the author of the Key, but it was still the Divine language of Holy Writ and the language by which the universe was created.  To literate folk, the alphabet itself holds no mystery, but in combination, it means all of creation and everything everywhere someone might want to express sometime.  This echo of Borges' "The Library of Babel" shouldn't lead one to despair, as that work may; here, we manipulate the "names of power" to express meaning, rather than receiving all permutations of all symbols.  We know we construct meaning, for good or for evil.  Let it always be for good!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Liturgy of destruction and double desecration

Yes, I know, the above title probably names two existing death metal hits ;-)  Actually, the phrase "liturgy of destruction" came to me in a discussion of the title of the Book of Revelation a.k.a. the Apocalypse.  A lot of this book describes a heavenly liturgy: the Redeemer in priestly vestments surrounded by lampstands, thurifer angels offering up incense, readings (from a scroll nobody but the priestly Redeemer can read) and crowds of various sentient beings worshiping and singing hymns.  Even the large chunks of the work dealing with the destruction of everybody-we-don't-like have a liturgical flavor: seven seals, trumpets, and bowls mark out different torments. 

A search for "liturgy of destruction" surprisingly turned up not death metal album covers, but the distinctly more serious topic of the Holocaust (itself a strikingly liturgical metaphor) and other pogroms.  Google found me a page from a book: "Against the apocalypse: responses to catastrophe in modern Jewish culture," by David G. Roskies.  I was struck by the following description (p. 16) of the desecration of a synagogue by a Russian army in 1917:
When my eye caught sight of the eastern wall, I was totally shaken by what I saw.  The elaborate ornamentation on the ark, including the ten commandments up above, was left intact.  But in the middle of the empty ark itself a huge [Eastern Orthodox] icon [of Jesus] had been placed.

Tselem baheykhal, "an idol in the sanctuary," flashed through my mind.  And this shocked me more than all the pogroms I had witnessed.  An ancient response began to awaken within me, an echo of the destruction of the Temple... I felt that a terrible sacrilege had been perpetrated here, a desecration of both religions.  The brutal hand of a soldier run wild had exacted the same reprisal from God as from man.

The "double desecration" here stood out: the unknown vandals, violently subverting the Face of the Christ as a racial and political statement, desecrated it as much as the Jewish sanctuary.   It was after reading this, that I saw the following news story about some hateful locals in Phoenix, AZ who were protesting what they thought was a mosque under construction.  We laugh, because the supposed mosque was really just a dome for some Christian church, but the same double desecration stands out:  Jesus' Cross, Face, and Name subverted for racial and political ends, insulting Christianity itself along with Islam.  Wikipedia's article on the 1819 "Hep-Hep" riots has a fitting quote by Rahel Varnhagen: "Their hate does not stem from religious zeal: how can they hate other faiths when they don't even love their own?"