Rabbi Amorai said: “Where is the garden of Eden: He answered himself: “In the earth.”
Sefer haBahir, 12th century Provence
For many liberal Jews, the phrase “tikkun olam” has been an important rallying cry. The phrase is often used as synonymous with “social justice,” but has more esoteric roots. Tikkun olam, repair of the world, refers to a kabbalistic view of creation. In this view, the Divine set out to create the world by vacating a space, an empty space within which creation could occur. The Divine then created vessels, planning to pour divine light into them, in order to form all created things. But when the divine light was poured into the vessels, the vessels could not hold the effulgence. They shattered, scattered sparks of light and shards of the vessels everywhere. Since then, the cosmic job of humanity is to find these sparks of light and free them to rejoin the One.
Isaac Luria, a Jewish mystic in the city of Sfat, told this tale of creation in the seventeenth century. It caught the Jewish imagination and has been wildly popular as a Jewish creation myth ever since. It captures our longing for wholeness and our experience of brokenness. It also offers a parallel with the Big Bang (a hot seed of light that expands into the universe as we know it) that many find quite compelling. I have loved this story for a long time. To me, it is reminiscent of the story of birth: an empty space that becomes full, then leaks out into the world as a new being. Yet as a feminist who is also committed to sustainability, as more news of our planet’s scorching rolls in, I find this myth is beginning to crack.
Why? For two reasons. First, the tale assumes an original wholeness and an ultimate wholeness. No matter how long it may take, oneness inevitably will be re-asserted. Second, the story of the broken vessels assumes that separation from the One is a wrongful state which we must work our whole lives to correct. In this creation myth, the purpose of life is to re-form the oneness. All is assimilated to this oneness. According to the kabbalah, even the divine poles of masculine and feminine, as modern kabbalah scholar Elliot Wolfson observes, will eventually collapse into a unity without distinctions.
Yet for human parents (biological and otherwise), the purpose of life is not to regain oneness. Indeed, that would make no sense. The deepest hope of the parent, at least in my experience as the co-mother of a seven-year-old, is that the child will stay connected while becoming more and more separate. What we want is not oneness but interconnection. So too, the cosmic possibility that most supports our lives as human beings is not oneness but interconnection. We desire an intersubjectivity: active relations between beings.
This is also true in our erotic relations. I remember years ago discovering Luce Irigaray, the feminist philosopher, linguist, and psychoanalyst, and being astonished by her initial suggestion that a woman (or, I might add, anyone with female sexual anatomy) cannot be reduced to a oneness. Luce Irigaray, in her book, This Sex Which Is Not One, suggesting that the whole notion of twoness is disturbing to a patriarchal consciousness which prefers to suggest: “We’ve never been dealing with more than one, after all.” (Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, p. 19) Yet Irigaray points out that the erotic experience of many of our bodies doesn’t have to be singular and in fact is multiple: “(Re-)discovering herself, for a woman, thus could only signify the possibility of sacrificing no one of her pleasures to another, of identifying herself with none of them in particular, of never being simply one.” For Irigaray, in contrast to the kabbalists, the point of erotic activity is not union. Oneness was never the goal. The patriarchy attempts to erase this truth and substitute a unity, but the unity is achieved at the cost of obliterating the reality of the Other.
Irigaray’s way of reading erotic connection is in direct contrast to the kabbalah’s myth of the union of the divine masculine and feminine, a union that essentially wipes out the difference between the two partners. What would it mean to re-imagine a divine/world union that is not about the dissolution of identity, not about the “nullification of self,” as an important kabbalistic phrase has it? What would it mean to look somewhere other than oneness for our meaning? How would this impact our relationship to gender? How would it impact our relationship to the earth?
As I think about a feminist and ecological retooling of Luria’s myth, it seems to me that Luria’s myth could be re-envisioned not as a tale of sparks reclaimed from darkness and rejoined into a perfect whole, but of an ever-increasing complexity of relationship between points of light and darkness. This new way of thinking might abandon a messianic hope for a perfect Eden, a re-pieced cosmos, a oneness assimilated into divine perfection. It might abandon also the hope for a reduction of gender and other differences to one undifferentiated state of being, along with the hope for light and darkness to be fused into eternal light. In shattering the myth of unity, this new way of thinking might help us cope with our current responsibility to care for one another, listen to many voices, and save the earth. What we want for the earth is not an ever-simplifying unity, but an ever-growing complex interconnection. That is also what we want for ourselves. It is that interconnection we must now preserve at all costs. We must come to understand it.
Yet we cannot deny the wish to dissolve into the ocean of the larger universe. The mystics who speak of oneness are not merely totalizing, they are also describing a profound experience. Perhaps, then, we must make room for oneness even as we make room for twoness. Therapist Andrew Guthrie, in discussing the “transitional object” to which an infant clings, writes:
“The transitional object is not the mother, nor is the object the infant, nor is the object a symbol of the mother or the infant. The transitional object is a symbol of the infant and the mother together and apart, united and autonomous. It… symbolizes simultaneous fusion and separateness of infant and mother. It is them together, it is them apart, it is them together and apart, which is to say, it is between them. This transitional, potential space is the place where playing, relating, interpreting, and creativity come to take place once the infant makes the shift from oneness to twoness. (Andrew Guthrie, “The Problem of Therapeutic Action in Child Psychoanalysis: What to Do, How to Be, Why it Works,” master’s thesis)
While some scientific theories have suggested the Big Bang will collapse upon itself, current science suggests the universe will go on expanding. Our twoness is not likely to collapse into oneness anytime soon. Perhaps Luria’s scattered sparks might evolve to become our theological version of a transitional object, reminding us that as we face the future, we are part of our Source and apart as well. We are one with the universe and we are two, and that is where all the play and creativity come in. As we struggle to engage in acts of tikkun olam, repairing the world, may we find meaning in “never simply being one.”
Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the co-founder of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute (www.kohenet.org) and the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion (www.ajrsem.org). She is the author of essays, poems, rituals and stories, and of seven books including Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons, The Omer Calendar of Biblical Women, The Hebrew Priestess (with Taya Shere, 2015), and the new volume of poetry The Book of Earth and Other Mysteries (2016).