Unwrapping the body of Torah
February 20, 2009
This morning I spent a few hours on the phone with my dear friend Yafa, with whom I lived in Israel last summer. Now we're hevruta partners, working together to decode Hasidic texts for Reb Elliot's class on the Hasidic sacred year. Right now that class is reading excerpts from Likkutei Moharan (the writings of Reb Nachman of Bratzlav) on Purim.
The passage we were assigned to translate uses a series of rich metaphors. Reb Nachman talks about how Torah has revealed facets (that which was inscribed on the tablets at Sinai, e.g.) and hidden facets (Torah's inner mystical depths), which he relates to the parts of the body which are readily visible in the world (hands) and also the parts of the body which are usually hidden (e.g. the thigh, which is kept garbed for all except the most intimate of relationships.)
The text continues from there, but we got sidetracked into talking about the idea of Torah as both hidden and revealed. These Hasidic texts are so dense with allusions that they can be difficult for a modern reader to unpack. Even reading them in translation doesn't always do the trick, because one needs to know when a given word is a reference or a quotation (and if so, what it's referring to, or what other text it's subtly pointing toward.) Reading this material can be frustrating, because it can seem that the point the writer is trying to make is deliberately obscured beneath layers and levels of allusion and allegory. Why not just be clear? But the more I think about it, the more I think that a kind of modern, to-the-point clarity would miss the point altogether.
First of all, the rabbis who wrote these texts spoke to an audience who would have recognized the quotations. They didn't have to puzzle over references as the modern reader might. (Imagine someone 500 years from now trying to read a 20th-century text which makes use of poetry references ranging from Chaucer to Mary Oliver, alongside quotations from widely-known tv shows, the kind of things that are so embedded in our pop culture consciousness that we hardly notice they're references anymore. This putative future reader might recognize that "shall I compare thee to a summer's day" and "beam me up, Scotty" were both quotations, but would she necessarily know that one came from Shakespeare and one from Star Trek? If she did, would she know who Shakespeare was, or the difference between classic Trek and Trek: Next Gen? and so on.) Some of what distances the modern reader from these texts is a profound shift in context and background knowledge; they didn't necessarily mean for all of this to be opaque.
But some of the metaphors are intended precisely to be opaque -- just opaque enough to obscure what's beneath, and to make one want to figure out how to lift that veil. As I translated a line which compares the Torah to a thigh, hidden from view, it hit me that the eros in Reb Nachman's metaphor is not coincidental. For these scholars and writers, the Torah is a beloved, adored and cherished. Her truths are veiled in metaphors, just as a woman's body is veiled in clothing. For a commentator, there's joy in cloaking a pearl of Torah wisdom with metaphor, precisely because there's also joy in opening up the metaphor to reveal what's concealed inside. The thicket of allusions isn't an accident. It's there because it gives the writer, and the reader, the opportunity to savor both the beauty and intricacy of the garment...and the uncovering of the beauty which lies beneath.
This stuff is so dense, so intertextual, so self-referential that it requires quite an investment of time and energy on the part of the modern reader. (I'd like to see a good hypertext edition of one of these texts -- quotations could be hyperlinked, and every time one moused-over a word, a window could pop up containing other usages of the word, references to other texts, explications of symbolic resonance, etc. It would be a gorgeous art piece, though probably hard to read, and the audience would be, alas, limited.) But I wish I could convey the sheer glee of reading through to the end of a passage, seeing how it's all tied together, and going "oh, wow, I didn't see that we were going there, but now I get it."
I know there are words I'm missing, layers or levels of interconnection which won't be fully clear to me until this class meets and we go over this material aloud. But I'm starting to get glimmerings of understanding, and they whet my desire for more. It amazes me sometimes that over the centuries we have made so many beautiful things out of Torah. The rich and varied weave of the fabrics the rabbis have created befits the beauty of what lies beneath.