So. It’s the end of the semester. Students are giving presentations of the projects they’ve been working on all semester long. Or were supposed to be. I know that some of them had struggled mightily with this. Figuring out what to focus on. Figuring out sources, but not necessarily vigorously. Changing their minds. Procrastinating. I’ve reminded them on a number of occasions that this is a term project, not something that can be done at the last minute. I’m really speaking to myself, of course. I’ve always pulled it all together at the very end. Been there. Done that.
So. The first talk is delightful and charming and heartfelt and filled with exuberance and insight. It’s taking the symbols inside the Tetragrammaton and looking at what happens to them when Catholicism inherits them. The paper revolves around the identity of the Shekhinah. And Mary Magdalene. He’s done his homework. And he’s having fun, too. My kind of presentation.
The name of the class is Jewish Mysticism, Magic, and Folklore. Did I mention that? You can check out the syllabus if you like, at my campus website. So the whole Tetragrammaton thing went to the heart of what we covered over the last three months.
So. The second talk deals with the symbols inside (literally) the clothing worn by Chabad Lubovitcher men. And he had problems getting sources, ’cause after all, San Jose State University is a little far from Crown Heights. Still, this too is a talk in which I get to learn something.
The third talk focuses on Tzfat, with slides of the mystical ancient city, and — well, you know the drill.
The fourth talk.
The student sits down at the front desk, and she bows her head. What she’d wanted to do all along was to make up a little aleph-bet book to use with the elementary school kids so she could introduce them to new languages and scripts. Fine. She’s been working on it all semester. But it’s time to present and she seems empty-handed. Hmm.
The aleph-bet, or Hebrew alphabet is at the core of Jewish mysticism, magic, and not so much the folklore. We started with kabbalistic cosmology: the birth of the Hebrew letters of the aleph-bet from the explosion of sparks Divine light at the beginning of time. We’ve worked on this. Every letter. The Mother Letters. The Fathers. The Double Letters. The Simple. Probably spent a month on this as well.
And at the core is also the PARDES / פרדס model, in which humans attempt to climb the Tree, starting at its base (פשט) which consists of concrete thinking, and working up to (סוד), the mystical domain beyond words and letters of the alphabet, and rational thinking.
She sits down and hangs her head before deciding how to proceed. She looks up and says, “my project went up in smoke. Literally. It’s all just ash.”
And she tells this amazing story, which involves a hairdryer and a kitty bowl of water, and hairspray. And the hairdryer fell in the water—
“And I got electrocuted,” she says.
“There were all these sparks. And my aleph-bet book went up and instantly turned to ash. Just like that. And I have no project to show. I’m thinking of doing it all over again. In the meantime—”
And she goes on.
And when she’s done, I just have to ask.
“Sparks?” Is all that needs saying. After all, how much time did we spend on those Divine sparks, the emergence of the aleph-bet, and the creation of the universe?
“I didn’t want to go there—” she responds. “I just wanted to stay pshat. Stay on the concrete level”
My student, let’s call her J, took a class in Jewish Mysticism, Magic, and Folklore and wanted to stay firmly rooted to the visible, physical world. And there she is, having to ponder her experience. And think about what it means. This unlikeliest of events. Sparks which ignite—and turn to ash—instantly the entire Hebrew aleph-bet. And there she was, witness to it, and hit by the sparks as well. And like Rabbi Akiva himself came back down from the PARDES and lived to tell the tale. She was unharmed.
“I’m going to have to deal with this, aren’t I?”
Yup. Or not at all.
Nobody needs to have a mystical experience. Or interpret a fluke or accident as such. And maybe I’m not telling it right—because what this tale really needs is the whole cosmology as background. The whole Big Bang of Hebrew letters, brought into the universe by that Divine spark. And then, like recombinant DNA, joining up and bringing us language.
Humans are meaning-junkies. We want to know why. Or, if something’s just a tad too weird, we shut down and say well just forget it. It’s too high on the Strangeness Curve. So, let’s close our eyes and pretend it didn’t happen.
I’m okay with Divine sparks. That’s not where my problem lies.
But what I really don’t understand is what on earth was her term project aleph-bet book—with its carefully hand-made paper, and painstakingly hand painted caligraphic letters—what was it doing in the bathroom adjacent to that plugged in hairdryer and a kitty bowl full of water?