Luria-Latour

The book I have been reading for the last thirty or so mornings has been Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. I am currently reading the chapter on Isaac Luria, and it is sparking insights and connections with other things I’ve read, in particular with Bruno Latour’s philosophy of irreductionism.

Before I start quoting passages, I confess that I am doing what I always do: connecting mystical intuition of beyondness with mundane experiences of alterity (otherness) –including the experience of scientific inquiry on its outer edges — that region Thomas Kuhn famously labeled “crisis”, the phase of inquiry where the material, the symbolic, the logical/mathematical, the sociological, the psychological, the factual and the intuitive domains we ordinarily keep carefully compartmentalized blend together and interact unnervingly and chaotically. Boundaries redraw themselves and the terrain itself shifts with the lines. Smooth, solid ground of certainty becomes turbulent water which threatens to swallow and drown. New kinds of reality leap out of nowhere, revealing the fact that nothingness was concealing very real realities which had been staring directly into our eyes as we stared through them at objects we preferred seeing because we knew how to know them.

But I’ll let you judge for yourself whether I am abusing mysticism by shoehorning mystical answers into philosophical (philosophy of science) questions. Rather than pick through Scholem’s scholarly exposition in an attempt to summarize it all, I will instead quote from the overview of Luria’s life from Daniel Matt’s Essential Kabbalah:

…Luria wrote hardly anything. When asked by one of his disciples why he did not compose a book, Luria is reported to have said: “It is impossible, because all things are interrelated. I can hardly open my mouth to speak without feeling as though the sea burst its dams and overflowed. How then shall I express what my soul has received? How can I set it down in a book?” We know of Luria’s teachings from his disciples’ writings, especially those of Hayyim Vital.

Luria pondered the question of beginnings. How did the process of emanation start? If Ein Sof [Divine Infinite] pervaded all space, how was there room for anything other than God to come into being? Elaborating on earlier formulations, Luria taught that the first divine act was not emanation, but withdrawal. Ein Sof withdrew its presence “from itself to itself,” withdrawing in all directions away from one point at the center of its infinity, as it were, thereby creating a vacuum. This vacuum served as the site of creation. According to some versions of Luria’s teaching, the purpose of the withdrawal was cathartic: to make room for the elimination of harsh judgment from Ein Sof.

Into the vacuum Ein Sof emanated a ray of light, channeled through vessels. At first, everything went smoothly; but as the emanation proceeded, some of the vessels could not withstand the power of the light, and they shattered. Most of the light returned to its infinite source, but the rest fell as sparks, along with the shards of the vessels. Eventually, these sparks became trapped in material existence. The human task is to liberate, or raise, these sparks, to restore them to divinity. This process of tikkun (repair or mending) is accomplished through living a life of holiness. All human actions either promote or impede tikkun, thus hastening or delaying the arrival of the Messiah. In a sense, the Messiah is fashioned by our ethical and spiritual activity. Luria’s teaching resonates with one of Franz Kafka’s paradoxical sayings: “The Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary; he will come only on the day after his arrival.”

In particular I see a profound connecting between idea of divine sparks distributed throughout the world and the notion of forces and forms of resistance described in this gorgeous passage from Bruno Latour’s one purely philosophical work, Irreductions, included as an appendix to his sociological classic The Pasteurization of France.

…We should not decide apriori what the state of forces will be beforehand or what will count as a force. If the word “force” appears too mechanical or too bellicose, then we can talk of weakness. It is because we ignore what will resist and what will not resist that we have to touch and crumble, grope, caress, and bend, without knowing when what we touch will yield, strengthen, weaken, or uncoil like a spring. But since we all play with different fields of force and weakness, we do not know the state of force, and this ignorance may be the only thing we have in common.

One person, for instance, likes to play with wounds. He excels in following lacerations to the point where they resist and uses catgut under the microscope with all the skill at his command to sew the edges together. Another person likes the ordeal of battle. He never knows beforehand if the front will weaken or give way. He likes to reinforce it at a stroke by dispatching fresh troops. He likes to see his troops melt away before the guns and then see how they regroup in the shelter of a ditch to change their weakness into strength and turn the enemy column into a scattering rabble. This woman likes to study the feelings that she sees on the faces of the children whom she treats. She likes to use a word to soothe worries, a cuddle to settle fears that have gripped a mind. Sometimes the fear is so great that it overwhelms her and sets her pulse racing. She does not know whether she will get angry or hit the child. Then she says a few words that dispel the anguish and turn it into fits of laughter. This is how she gives sense to the words “resist” or “give way.” This is the material from which she learns the meaning of the word “reality.” Someone else might like to manipulate sentences: mounting words, assembling them, holding them together, watching them acquire meaning from their order or lose meaning because of a misplaced word. This is the material to which she attaches herself, and she likes nothing more than when the words start to knit themselves together so that it is no longer possible to add a word without resistance from all the others. Are words forces? Are they capable of fighting, revolting, betraying, playing, or killing? Yes indeed, like all materials, they may resist or give way. It is materials that divide us, not what we do with them. If you tell me what you feel when you wrestle with them, I will recognize you as an alter ego even if your interests are totally foreign to me.

One person, for example, likes white sauce in the way that the other loves sentences. He likes to watch the mixture of flour and butter changing as milk is carefully added to it. A satisfyingly smooth paste results, which flows in strips and can be poured onto grated cheese to make a sauce. He loves the excitement of judging whether the quantities are just right, whether the time of cooking is correct, whether the gas is properly adjusted. These forces are just as slippery, risky, and important as any others. The next person does not like cooking, which he finds uninteresting. More than anything else he loves to watch the resistance and the fate of cells in Agar gels. He likes the rapid movement when he sows invisible traces with a pipette in the Petri dishes. All his emotions are invested in the future of his colonies of cells. Will they grow? Will they perish? Everything depends on dishes 35 and 12, and his whole career is attached to the few mutants able to resist the dreadful ordeal to which they have been subjected. For him this is “matter,” this is where Jacob wrestles with the Angel. Everything else is unreal, since he sees others manipulate matter that he does not feel himself. Another researcher feels happy only when he can transform a perfect machine that seems immutable to everyone else into a disorderly association of forces with which he can play around. The wing of the aircraft is always in front of the aileron, but he renegotiates the obvious and moves the wing to the back. He spends years testing the solidity of the alliances that make his dreams impossible, dissociating allies from each other, one by one, in patience or anger. Another person enjoys only the gentle fear of trying to seduce a woman, the passionate instant between losing face, being slapped, finding himself trapped, or succeeding. He may waste weeks mapping the contours of a way to attain each woman. He prefers not to know what will happen, whether he will come unstuck, climb gently, fall back in good order, or reach the temple of his wishes.

So we do not value the same materials, but we like to do the same things with them — that is, to learn the meaning of strong and weak, real and unreal, associated or dissociated. We argue constantly with one another about the relative importance of these materials, their significance and their order of precedence, but we forget that they are the same size and that nothing is more complex, multiple, real, palpable, or interesting than anything else. This materialism will cause the pretty materialisms of the past to fade. With their layers of homogeneous matter and force, those past materialisms were so pure that they became almost immaterial.

No, we do not know what forces there are, nor their balance. We do not want to reduce anything to anything else. …

This text follows one path, however bizarre the consequences and contrary to custom. What happens when nothing is reduced to anything else? What happens when we suspend our knowledge of what a force is? What happens when we do not know how their way of relating to one another is changing? What happens when we give up this burden, this passion, this indignation, this obsession, this flame, this fury, this dazzling aim, this excess, this insane desire to reduce everything?

When I view religion in this light, I start feeling incredibly pious and my theological doubts evaporate into panentheistic certainty, or at least a blessed doubt-failure.

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