Wednesday, December 2, 2015

when I dream of joseph, does joseph dream of me—

So. I'm reading this passage for Zohar class.

That should be enough right there, really. Reading Zohar, the ' I ' disappears. And so does the passage. And Zohar. And class.  They're all just gone.

And all that's left are these levels. They're not the levels from pshat (simple and concrete) to sod (the hidden and ineffable). No—they're the levels that start with—well, Joseph. Joseph dreaming. So. Level 1, we're inside Genesis with him, hearing his (somewhat woeful) tale. And I'm wondering if Joseph invented the movie arc, because he sure thrives on drama. Then again, what is biblical text if not the bad choices of one generation after another?

I don't like Joseph very much, although—give me enough evidence to the contrary and I'd be willing to reconsider. I find him self-absorbed and self-serving. A preening pretty-boy. Not too much on the ball—but yah, with survival skills and damned good intuition. And he's great at how to rub people exactly the wrong way. He's got that attraction/repulsion thing going on full force. For me—I'm fairly repulsed. Go ahead. Sell him to the Egyptians. See if I care.

Arthur Green calls Zohar 'sacred fantasy' —and then he builds on that. That sounds like Torah to me for starters. Zohar, I think, is a tale of dreamers dreaming together—building on the dreams of the past, and handing those dreams off to us, if we want them.

Level 2. That would be the Chevraya of Rabbi Hiyya and his buddies.  Gathered around R' Shim'on ben Yohai. I picture all of them sitting around deep into the night, sipping the Turkish, smoking a little kif, and trying to figure it all out. Wandering around together having adventures—somewhere in-between Easy Rider and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. On the Road.  Zohar is the original boys' buddy flick.

Like my dad, the Tzaddik, running off with the impulsive Rabbi K...

I grew up on the tales of the Tzaddik's wanderings across half the globe with his buddy, Rabbi K. Frightening adventures of keeping him out of trouble.  Tales of eaten documents and stolen artifacts. Of charisma and misadventure. And then, before you knew it—I was old enough to go with them on their adventures. And then—suddenly, they were following me, on mine.

I have no business being jealous of R' Hiyya and his pals. He's got nothin' on me. But I am truly and deeply jealous. I mean, being an anthropologist is one great encounter after another, sure—in a universe where everything, everything is very good data.  There's no truth, no falsehood. There's only perspective. And that's what I collect.

Still. It would be nice not to have to go it alone so much of the time.

So I dream of R' Hiyya dreaming of Joseph, and Joseph who's dreaming up a storm. I dream of my father and his love affair with adventure. My protector, the collector, the museum director. I'm in India with them. Or Egypt. I'm in Tunisia—finding the Maltese mermaid chanukkiyah for him. (That's me playing Bogart playing the garment of my dad). Finding—finding the Maltese mermaid
—for my father.

I'd do anything, anything at all for my father.

And now, we're on the Island of Djerba. And now, the Middle Atlas. And it's Paris. Tracking down some ancient enameled fibula made by Jewish jewelers in Tiznit on the edge of the desert. I'm a child, in the Mother Lode—and we're searching for cemeteries. Trying to find every last one of them...

Open your eyes. What was the passage again? I think I was dreaming.

And so it goes.

Level 3. We're in Castile, land of my ancestors. It's the 13th century outside. But then again, here in Toledo, it's always the 13th or 14th century outside. The tourists love it. They say we're sitting under a shade of a tree in a garden or a grove of trees. But I don't buy it. There are no groves of trees inside the walls of Toledo. Medieval cities just weren't made that way, and it's a long climb down from the walled city to the farmlands below the mountain town. But look: there's a secret room in the back of the Santa Maria, that used to be a synagogue. And there's a shady spot in the courtyard of the Muséo Sepharad, as well. Right there, under what once must have been a trailing jasmine. So that when the wind would blow, the air would be as sweet and drunken as boys deep inside the text.

And we're sitting there, and the breeze lifts. And a bird rises—

What was the passage again—?

Level 4. There are too many people. Or maybe it's just that I don't know most of them. And of those I know, we have a study group of our own. Study group inside study group inside... And there, we sit in the Library of Beit Malkhut, well into the night, and we let our dreams wander and meet.

But we have no Reb Shim'on. And no Moses de Leon to lead us. We wander. Often very far afield. We stumble. But we can bring the dreams.

And each of the chevra in our Zohar class has something penetrating to add. And if only we could follow each and every thread to form this garment. Ah! But I don't know where we're going, and I'm not sure where we've been. I've not journeyed with these people very long—they're heading somewhere down a narrow tunnel—and I am way outside.

Anthropologist. Can't get past the problem of context.

Joseph went to Egypt. And there he encountered Nuit and Geb. Nuit held up the sky so the stars would have some room to breathe. Geb kept the earth together in one piece, below. And souls would journey between the two—upper world, underworld, in circles of transmigration, in cycles of time—solving the problem of death. And Egyptian artists painted this vision, and even the common man could be comforted by the cycle they were part of.

But the heroes of Zohar are forbidden image making, except with their minds. And so they wave their hands about, trying to conjure up the journeys of their soul. They stitch garments in the air for their astral body. But those garments, they have no form, no matter, and no substance. They are tapestries woven of the heavens themselves.

In Egypt, they could see everywhere these icons and depictions. And that's what Joseph saw. They could see the vivid, vibrant colors of the passage of their souls. Ideas and abstractions took artistic form for all to see. Geb and Nuit—as clear as day and night. Here is a picture of time. Here is the journey of our soul. It's all quite clear.

The rabbis struggle, I believe, because they cannot paint.  But no one has taken away their dreams.

And so, I dream. I dream of rabbis painting. And Joseph weaving a garment of his own. And the Levels—they collapse. Nuit holds up the heavens above. Geb supports the earth below. And in the middle Joseph, dreaming...

Is it blasphemy to want to paint a canvas instead of waving desperate fingers in the air?

Sorry, what page are we on?


  1. So I guess that makes me level 5, studying and dreaming about the studier of the studiers of the dreamy studiers of the dreamer?

    I think this dream needs some bacon. And maybe a few dreamy blondes.

  2. Someone had to offer a little balance, don't you think?

  3. I'm a firm believer in balance. But not for breakfast.

  4. Aren't we supposed to eat a balanced breakfast?

  5. Tim's going to tell us to get a room soon.