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Suite Raleigh, NC Phone He seeks fig leaves with which to gird himself and hide his nakedness; and he thus replaces his natural condition as a created being with his first cultural artefact. This loss of innocence, of contentedness with being what he is, is the cost of the freedom to become more than he is, to make himself other than his given self, to imagine alternative possibilities of existence. In his presumptuous bid to equal God his father, the human son loses Eden and gains history: The curse conceals a blessing. From the seat, which had been made ready for him, man is sent out upon a path, his own, the human path.
Any deviation from the given Creation of God was looked upon as a denial of the good. He no longer lives in the immediacy of the actual moment. And so no longer present to himself, he is cast out into the chaos of a free-floating existence.
Indeed existence as the existentialist thinkers of our own The Hebraic Imagination 43 century understand it—ex-sistere, standing out beyond oneself in a process of endless self-surpassing—may be said to have begun with the birth of imagination. In short, the human imagination becomes subject to evil in that it falls victim to its own idolatrous creations. Freed from the necessity of a divinely ordered reality, the First Man faces the arbitrariness of his own imaginings: In the swirling space of images through which he strays, each and every thing entices him to be made incarnate by him; he grasps at them like a wanton burglar, not with decision but only in order to overcome the tension of omnipossibility; it all becomes reality, though no longer divine but his own, his capriciously constructed, indestinate reality, his violence, which overcomes him, his handiwork and fate….
Phantasy, the imagery of possibilities imposes its indefiniteness upon the definiteness of the moment. It was just such a negative reading which marked a dominant tradition of Talmudic interpretation—one which deemed the yetser to be incorrigibly wicked and counselled suppression as the only remedy. Imagination is here equated exclusively with sin. In rabbinical literature this influence is termed the yetser hara. In other words, sin was intimately associated with the carnal impulses of the yetser hara Gen.
And, predictably, we witness numerous repressive remedies entering the repertory of rabbinical teaching. Contemplation of death, self-denial and other ascetic practices are recommended as curbs to the erotic impulses of imagination. We read of the Nazarite who had his hair cut off with the purpose of destroying his yetser which had prompted him to make an idol out of his own reflected image Num. It is with similar sentiments in mind that Jochanan b. Nuri offered the following rabbinical account: This is the craft of the yetser hara; today it says to him to do this, tomorrow to do that, till it says to him, Go practise idolatry; and he goes and does it….
What is the strange god which is within man? It is the evil yetser.
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Nedarim, 41b. And this tendency to condemn the idolatrous drives of imagination is probably what Freud had in mind when he wrote in Moses and Monotheism: Among the precepts of Mosaic religion is one that has more significance than is at first obvious. It is the prohibition against making an image of God, which means the compulsion to worship an invisible God…it signified subordinating sense perception to an abstract idea; it was a triumph of spirituality over the senses; more precisely a renunciation of the satisfaction of an impulse derived from an instinct Triebverzicht.
Frank Porter offers an illuminating insight into the ambivalent origins of the rabbinical attitude to imagination in his detailed and comprehensive study of the Jewish doctrine of sin, The Yetser Hara: It is never doubted that God made the evil yezer, yet man is responsible 46 Premodern Narratives for controlling and subduing it.
The word itself suggested these two apparently contrary conceptions. The verb yzr means to form, or fashion, and also, to form inwardly, to plan. The yzr of man could therefore suggest either his form, as God made him, his nature so Ps. The word had gained therefore, already in the Old Testament, a certain independence as meaning the nature or disposition of man, and this could be regarded as something which God made Ps.
Such an assessment found its place in an alternative rabbinical tradition of interpretation—the tradition of integration. Idols are to be looked upon as The Hebraic Imagination 47 premature Messiahs, the distorted fantasies of an impatient imagination. Once re-directed towards the fulfilment of the Divine purpose yetser , the human yetser might indeed become an accomplice in the task of historical re-creation: a task which man now undertakes in dialogue with God.
In short, if the evil imagination epitomizes the error of history as a monologue of man with himself, the good imagination yetser hatov opens up history to an I-Thou dialogue between man and his Creator. Good is direction and what is done in it…with the whole soul, so that in fact all the vigour and passion with which evil might have been done is included in it.
The Wake of Imagination
For creation has a goal and the humanly right is service directed in the One direction. The dual nature of the yetser as both good and evil is attested in a variety of Talmudic and Hasidic formulations. We are told for example that the yetser resembles a wheat grain 48 Premodern Narratives and is situated between the two valves of the heart—one sending life energy out from its source and the other returning it to its source Berachoth. The wheat grain by all accounts refers to the legend that the Tree of Knowledge grew wheat and confirms the view that the yetser was closely associated with the ethical awareness of good and evil.
Moreover, the locating of the grain of imagination between the two cardiac vessels alludes to the Talmudic belief that there was a good and an evil direction of the heart Zohar.
Other rabbinical texts confirm this bi-lateral character of the yetser. It was reputed to be capable of both spirituality and corporeity, masculinity and femininity, friendship and hostility e. And while feared, as we saw above, for its erotic inclination towards false idols Berach. What all of these texts seem to suggest is that the yetser is neither good nor bad until man makes it so.
But, in contrast to the doctrine of suppression, this alternative Talmudic tradition refuses to identify the evil yetser with the body and goodness with the soul. The distinction between good and evil is seen as a moral choice rather than a physical property of being. And this emphasis on the ethical rather than ontological character of the imagination is regarded by several commentators as one of the main features which differentiate the Hebraic from the Hellenic understanding of this concept.
If the yetser in a measure displaces Satan in the rabbinical account of sin it must be regarded as a movement in the direction of a more ethical and rational conception. Satan cannot be appealed to for the purpose of explaining the origin of the yetser…God made the good yetser also and man is responsible for the evil, or at least for its persistence…or the evil yetser itself is good, or at least inevitable in this world, and men are to turn it to good purposes.
What is the precise logic behind the biblical equation of the birth of imagination with the origin of history? The benign Talmudic interpretation runs thus: the Divine Potter, never unmindful of the final goal for his clay, recognized only too well that while imagination had become explicitly evil by virtue of the fall, one of its future historical possibilities 50 Premodern Narratives remained a return to the good.
Of course, this return could never signify a return to the pre-lapsarian harmony of Eden. But it could manifest itself as a covenant between man and God with regard to the future direction of history.
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Though contaminated by the original sin of Adam, imagination might yet serve as the midwife to an ultimately good end—the opening of a new dialogue between man and God which would issue in the Messianic Kingdom. Put in the form of an hypothesis: is it not conceivable that imagination was created by God as an invitation to join Him in the completion of His creation?
Was this not the reason Yahweh decided to rest on the Seventh Day of Creation—so as to leave a free time and space for man to realize his creative potential by actively contributing to the venture of historical creation? This imitation is to be attempted by following the right way of living, which is called halakhah.
Greatest danger and greatest opportunity at once… To unite the two urges of the yetser implies to equip the absolute potency of passion with the one direction that renders it capable of great love and great service. Thus and not otherwise can man become whole. This Hebraic preference for the historical category of becoming over the ontological category of being which predominated in Hellenic culture , has radical implications. It declares that man is not good per se but may become so. But the act of becoming good means that goodness itself, as a condition of existence, is never acquired in any definitive fashion; it is never reducible to a single act in the present.
The biblical concept of goodness thus calls for the action of man with man, and ultimately with all men, so that the Messianic era may be achieved in its proper time: at the end of history.
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Hence the Judeo-Christian teaching that goodness must not show itself in the sense of reducing itself to the realm of being here and now—for such is the way of pride and idolatry. Goodness, in the full sense, must always remain a promise, as it 52 Premodern Narratives were beyond being, until the ultimate coming of the Messiah, that is, until man and God are fully reconciled at the end of time. In accordance with this view of history, as Hannah Arendt observes, it was the biblical tradition which first introduced the Western concept of free will: The Greeks had no notion of the faculty of the will, our mental organ for a future that in principle is indeterminable and therefore a possible harbinger of novelty….
Each of these features is largely specific to the biblical viewpoint, though it was later introduced into the Graeco-Roman culture, principally under the aegis of Christian thought which effected a synthesis of Greek and biblical modes of understanding. Paul Ricoeur emphasizes this basic trait of the Hebraic imagination in The Symbolism of Evil: The Hebraic Imagination 53 What underlies this ethical vision of the world is the idea of a liberty entirely responsible and always at its own disposal.
This notion…is implicit in various themes of a practical rather than speculative character, which are found in all the rabbinical literature. The evil inclination, then, is not a radical evil… from which man is radically powerless to free himself; it is rather a permanent temptation that gives opportunity for the exercise of freedom of choice, an obstacle to be transformed into a springboard. As mimetic a human imitation of the divine act of creation ; As ethical a choice between good and evil ; As historical a projection of future possibilities of existence ; As anthropological an activity proper to man which differentiates him from both a higher divine order and a lower animal order and which opens up a freedom of becoming beyond the necessity of cosmic being.
Again here, at the level of popular Jewish folklore, we find evidence of the Hebraic fascination with the notion of creation yetsirah as a paradoxical interplay of human and divine activities. Then a heavenly voice went forth: You cannot make such a creature alone. He went to his father, Jeremiah. Then the man they had made said to them: God alone created Adam and when he wished to let Adam die, he erased the Aleph from Emeth truth and he remained Meth dead.
That is what you should do with me and not create another man, lest the world succumb to idolatry as in the days of Enosh.