Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The Shattering of Everything

"The Shattering of the Vessels" was an obscure reference to a Kabbalistic version of Creation, and to a sculpture in the St. Louis Art Museum. Unfortnately I can't find a picture of it on-line, and my memory of it is a few years old.

It's a modern work (I can't even remember the artist), made of metal and glass. It consists of massive metal bookshelves (10-15 feet high, IIRC), holding huge metal books (4 feet by 3 feet, roughly), twisted wires, and huge (human-sized, in other words) pieces of broken glass. The area in front of the bookshelves, roped off to keep the museum visitors from hurting themselves, was covered with broken glass in pieces ranging from huge to tiny. The references to Kristallnacht, the notes on the sculpture asserted, were intentional. The overall impression was one of oppressive weight (the sculpture was on an upper floor; I often looked at the huge square metal posts of the bookshelves, and the grey metal books, and wondered how the floor held; the pieces of glass were inches thick, huge and jagged and menacingly poised as if they had just fallen and rested in the structure, and soon would go to the floor, if not through it) and complete destruction. There were large, thick twisted wires trailing off the shelves, and the books had contrasting, copper-colored Hebrew letters on them. It was mesmerizing, disturbing, fascinating, appalling, scary, and beautiful, all at once. I used to stand before it for what seemed like hours, whenever I visited the museum.

The idea behind it is a complex one. In a simplified form, God's essence was poured into vessels which could not contain it, and these vessels shattered, allowing God's essence to descend into lower worlds, until it reached what we know as Creation. As this essence descended, it became less and less holy, thus giving rise to good and evil. .To quote from Rabbi Moshe Miller:

Although the fragments of the vessels initially fell into the world of Beriya pthe world in which we live], when their rectification (tikun) began, the most refined aspects of the vessels were able to ascend and became absorbed in the world of Atzilut [Kabbalah posits a hierarchy of 'worlds.' Atzilut is a higher, i.e., more holy, world than Beriya]. What could not be elevated into Atzilut remained in Beriya and became an integral part of it. What could not be absorbed into Beriya then descended into Yetzira and Asiya. The aspects of the vessels that could not be absorbed in even the lowest realm of holiness became the vitality of the realms of impurity, known as the kelipot.

The shattering of the sefirot of Tohu is not a coincidence, nor does it signify a flaw in the creative process. On the contrary, it serves a very specific and important purpose, which is to bring about a state of separation or partition of the light into distinct qualities and attributes, and thereby introduce diversity and multiplicity into creation, as explained above. In addition, the shattering of the vessels of Tohu [a world in which the vessels originated] allows for the possibility of evil, and gives man the opportunity to choose between good (for which he gains reward) and evil (for which he is punished). Thus G-d's attributes of chesed and gevura - the attributes from which reward and punishment derive - are revealed in the world, which is one of the primary purposes of creation.
I wasn't meaning to bring Kabbalah into the discussion, nor have I read any more on Kabbalah than I've found through Google. It was the sculpture that caught my imagination. And it is the idea here that evil has a purpose, which interests me. Not because I agree that evil has meaning (it is, in fact, meaninlessness personified, at least in the Hellenistic conception), and the clear influence of Hellenistic thinking on Hebraic thought evidenced by Kaballah. Maybe we need the metaphors of Kaballah to explain issues of religion and spirituality, of theodicy and theophany, today.

I'm not yet sure I have a proposal on that, but as my posts tend to pack too much into a small sausage skin, and to provoke discussions that aren't always related to the issues I was trying to get at (the fault is mine, if there is a fault at all), I'm going to try again to space this concept out over a few posts, and see if we can reach some measure of clarity.

That is, if I don't interrupt myself with another project I have in mind, which is to lay out some bits and pieces from my notebooks, simply to help shape them into something other than the formless thoughts they are now.

Maybe I should start categorizing these things, a la Daily Kos. That seems to be the latest rage in blogging (even though I'm not that organized, and have no idea how I'd carry it out....)

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