The Afikomen: The Divided Self

The Afikomen, the Divided and the Hidden Self – an Introduction to the Jewish Soul

by

Howard Adelman

 

Last night I watched a panel on autism on Steve Paikin’s show, “Agenda”. The show was very instructive, as his shows generally are. One woman in particular who had a brother, who suffered from autism (Autism Spectrum Disorder – ASD) was particularly instructive since she went on to pioneer in creating a therapeutic app for finding a structured order within which autistic children can orient themselves. They cannot function in environments with chaos and sensory overload. If there ever was an environment with chaos and sensory overload, it is surely the average Jewish seder. Seder means order but a seder is often an exemplar of everything but.

A Passover seder is a festival in which people break bread together, identify with one another and with a common past to forge a better future. Autism is a condition in which interpersonal communion and empathy with another may be very difficult. Its symptoms include failure to make eye contact, resistance to being held or touched, a lack of a sense of proper distance when speaking to another, a failure to share experiences with one another, an inability to grasp symbols and figures of speech, an inability to read body language, an aversion to answering personal questions, a propensity to engage in conversation disconnected from what went before and often to burst into observations unrelated to the social context or what someone else had been saying, and, most of all, an inability or difficulty in connecting with what another person is feeling and, therefore, a propensity to naively trust another and, therefore, easily prone to be victimized by bullies. One way to think of a seder is as an antidote to the propensity to ASD that may be present in all of us, though not to the degree to be noticeable as in individuals diagnosed with ASD.

The Passover seder is modelled on a Greek symposium but the message and the substance of these two different symposia are very different, for, as I have described before, the Passover seder is about communion in the present by communing with and reliving the past. It has a very different purpose than its original intention in ancient Greek culture.

When Plato depicts the self, he offers a number of images, the most well known being the story of the cave followed immediately by its abstract version in terms of the geometrical figure of the divided line that is said to be analogous to the different parts of our cognitive selves, but it is a mistake to think, as we shall see, that the cognitive self constitutes the whole of the psyche.

Let me start with the Divided Line (DL) as depicted in The Republic (509d-510a). A line is divided into two uneven portions, the larger portion representing the comprehension of the intelligible world in terms of its contribution to truth and the smaller portion representing the comprehension of the visible world having a smaller contribution to truth. So if a line is 18” long and is divided, for example, in two uneven parts in a ratio of say 2:1, then the larger section of 12” would represent the comprehension of the intelligible (non-visible world) and 6” would represent the comprehension of the visible world.

Plato then divides both of the sections once again in terms of the same ratio, 2:1.  The intelligible world is then divided into two sections, one 8” and the other 4”. The longer section represents what pure reason can grasp, the pure forms or abstractions free entirely of any residue from the visible world, pure forms which can only be grasped by reason. Einstein’s equation linking energy (E) and matter (M) and where C is the speed of light in the formula E=MC² would be a close example. The shorter section of the upper intelligible realm is represented by understanding rather than reason, that part of intelligence which abstracts and generalizes from the visible world. It is the realm of creating categories or classes and propositions based on hypothetical thought. It lacks the degree of certainty and clarity of reason and the purely intelligible realm of mathematics.

The lower section is divided as well into two sections in the same 2:1 ratio, or 4” and 2” respectively. The larger section belonging to the visible world is about our everyday knowledge of objects in the visible world, the realm of sensibility. The smaller section is about our fantasies, our projections of the visible world on the movie screens of our imagination and deal with likenesses of the visible world that are phantasmagoria, images that come into being and dissolve like the mist. They are shadows which can be taken to be real by the naïve who have no detached perspective about what they are grasping. This is the level of knowledge inculcated by imagery or advertising as we now call it. It is NOT worthless as a degree of knowledge, but, for Plato, it occupies the lowest and least part of the cognitive self. It is the realm of knowledge gained from reading fiction or from watching movies that I write about so often.

A final note re the analogy of the Divided Line (DL). A caption over the door upon entry to Plato’s academy read that knowledge of mathematics geometry was a prerequisite for studying at the academy. Without going into the geometrical theorem, whenever a DL is divided into two unequal portions and the two parts are once again divided by the same ratio, then the two middle sections will always be of the same length. Therefore, in the above example, the section that is analogous to understanding and hypothetical reasoning and the section of the visible world dealing with the direct knowledge of objects, both have the same length, or, in other words, the same degree of clarity and approximation to truth. The benefit of understanding and hypothetical knowledge is its proximity to reason and knowledge of the pure Forms rather than the degree of truth it might possess. So one should not think that Plato was dismissive of empiricism.   

The narrative story of the cave is perhaps a better or richer or more memorable way to portray the different levels of knowledge. At the lowest level, people are tied to a log and watch reflections on the cave wall cast by a light behind those people that they do not see and they take those projections as reality. These are the shadows that captivate us, the ghosts of our imagination, the movies we watch and the novels that come into being in our imaginations. When the people on the log are freed up from their mesmerisation with illusory shadows, they are able to turn their heads and see the objects, the images of which are projected on the cave wall and they can then recognize they were watching phantasms. But the cave is the realm of the visible world. When they escape the cave and go out into the sunlight, they can see reflections of the pure forms of reason initially as a means of abstracting from the visible world in the bowels of the cave. The ideal is, of course, to see pure Forms without any connection with the visible world, to look directly at the Sun in all its glory for that is ultimately the source of all enlightenment.

Before we compare Plato to the sense of the psyche depicted by the three layers of matzah, another narrative by Plato needs to be introduced taken from his dialogue Phaedrus (246a-254e). Plato’s portrayal of the three parts of the soul in terms of an analogy to a chariot where the charioteer is the intelligible part of the soul and the two horses guided by intelligence are the spirited horse (rational desire or prudence?) which can detect the guidelines of the reins that is yoked to another horse, the appetitive part of the soul which has only the instinctive energy to drive ahead but no ability to follow the directions of intelligence. The two horses represent the the spirited part of the soul and the appetitive part of the soul respectively.

Appetite is instinctual and constitutes NO part of the realm of knowledge whether visible or intelligible or the capacity to acquire knowledge. It is about doing not thinking. On the other hand, the spirited part of the soul which is also about doing rather than thinking also does not represent any realm of knowledge but represent emotions or passions that can be linked to rational self-interest, whether those passions be greed or ambition, rage or shame. To link this metaphor up with the theory of the DL and the myth of the cave, the charioteer or intelligence represents all four aspects of the world of knowledge and the faculties associated with it. Neither emotions nor appetites belong to the intelligible part of the soul at all, which, according to the image of the DL and the narrative of the cave is itself divided into four parts.

Notice the following differences with the parts of the psyche as represented by the three layers of matzah. First, matzah, the bottom layer, is not equated with irrational and instinctual behaviour unable to listen. Rather, it is l’chaim, life, the instinct for survival worthy of celebration and joy. To eat, drink and celebrate the sensibilities is the foundation of all ethics rather than simply a realm needing strict controls and yoking to another part of the soul which can control its wild character. Further, unlike in Plato, the appetites when based in sex are a realm of knowledge in their own right, embodied and bodily knowledge as when Adam was said to know Eve after both had eaten from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Second, in the three layers of matzah, the top layer is identified with passion and compassion, with empathy with an Other and not with abstract reason. In Plato, these passions can listen to and be guided by reason. They are not guided by identification and understanding the world as perceived by another human being. In Plato, humans experience the world in the same way and are governed by the same instinctual appetites but differ because of different admixtures of the passions and, most of all, by their inherited ability to use intelligence to govern the passions and thence govern the appetites. The passions are best when the listen to intelligence and ignore the temptations of the appetites. In contrast, in the Hebraic cosmos of the psyche, the passions are the source of creativity, or our imagination that reaching beyond the world we experience and can envision a new world, a world of hope, a world that belongs over the rainbow.

Thus, though the seder may be modelled on the outward form of a Greek symposium, its psychic premises are radically different. Further, so is its structure. For a seder follows a particular order to allow us to stage how we can re-enter and relive the past as the present and teach us the stages of redemption to prepare ourselves for the future. It requires entering a world of shadows, of ghosts from the past, of what Plato thinks are just images on the walls of a cave representing reflections of objects in the real world whereas in the Hebrew ceremony they are the true ghosts of the past which it is our job to bring back to life so that we too can be redeemed in the present. Further, whereas the object of the seder is to tell a story of an escape from slavery and towards freedom, Plato offers an apologia for slavery, for repression rather than expression, as it is necessary for reason and the Sun God to rule over the rest of the psyche and to bring harmony to  our internal (and external) conflicts. In contrast, conflict, the asking of questions, is at the heart of the seder, NOT with pre-formed answers as in Plato’s dialogues, and often imitated in many seders, but as a true exploration of questions and queries from a variety of different minds with their own preferences and ways of looking at the world. The aim is not to harmonize thought but to appreciate different perspectives and approaches as we re-enact the Past in the Present.

Thus, for example, the contrarian child should not be envisioned as one who arbitrarily questions authority but one who critically examines the pretensions of reason to have discovered and explicated absolute truth.  The contrary child is the dissident and the critic. At the Hebrew seder, one lives in a radically different world than that of the Greeks, whether we are talking of Plato or Aristotle. First, the appetites are appreciated, particularly the driving force of sex. Second, recapitulation as history is denigrated by Aristotle because it belongs to the realm of the particular rather than the realm of the universal, but in re-enacting the Past as the Present, the universality in the particular is recognized and re-experienced. History becomes the most important part of our repertoire of knowledge and is not banished from the cognitive realm along with poetry and the arts.    

Where does the middle matzah come in, the realm of reason and intelligence that mediates between the passions above rooted most basically in compassion and identification with an Other, and the appetites below which are an independent source of knowledge, knowledge rooted in one body coming to know another body through intercourse? Why is it divided and what is the larger half, the Afikomen, that is hidden and children are sent to find and redeem it? The smaller half is the easier to grasp for it is our practical intelligence that enters into everyday life and mediates between our imagination and creativity rooted in our passions and our instinct for survival and reproduction, for the continuity of ourselves and our DNA and our community. That intelligible self does combine abstract reasoning or pure theory and the sciences based on induction and hypothetical knowledge of the empirical world. That practical reason also involves everyday knowledge acquired through interaction ith the physical world of objects and people as well as the faculty of the imagination that can take those experiences and imagine another world, including the past world when we too were slaves in Egypt and bring that past into the present.

All this practical and scientific knowledge is the smaller half of our intelligence. The Afikomenen is the larger half. It is the part that absents itself from the seder and plays little part in telling the story or enabling the re-enactment but it has at least four characteristics. It is hidden. It is found by innocent children. Third, the children who search for it and the one who fins it are especially rewarded with a prize – usually a coin. Fourth,everyone at the seder table eats a piece of it at the end of the meal. The Afikomen is not just a heuristic device to entertain children while the interminable tale of Moses leading the Israelites to freedom is told in however an abbreviated form. It does symbolize innocence, the Passover lamb, that which is sacrificed so that we can consummate togetherness.

Sephardim have an especially close appreciation of the Afikomen because they regard it as having magic qualities. The ruined and empty synagogue in Košice, Slovakia in which Simon Schama began his documentary segment “Over the Rainbow” in telling the story of the Jewish people, the Jewish temple that was destroyed in Jerusalem by the Romans and the reason why we no longer sacrifice and eat the Passover lamb, these are all parts of our ghostly past with which the Afikomen is in touch, with that which is hidden and supposedly lost but which we must reclaim. We cannot tell the story of the escape from slavery into freedom without bringing those ghosts back into the present. Unlike progressive views of history, the present is only brought fully to life by reclaiming the past as part of the present.

And that takes magic. That takes, historians. That takes innocence to leave behind the present realism and imagine a past. Our passions may be geared to our hopes for the future. But our hopes for the future must be rooted in a resurrected past. Then why is the larger piece of the broken middle matzah have a Greek name, for “Afikomen” is a Greek word?  And the word has the same meaning as God who pronounces I shall be who I shall be. The Afikomen is associated with the ultimate coming, the coming of the messiah, the hope that drives all hope, the hope for the coming of a world of justice and mercy. And only innocent children can truly believe is this as a world to come. Any ordinary adult has become too jaded to accept this possibility in the light of all they experience. But it is precisely this possibility, this a priori proposition that lies embedded in all our hopes to pursue our dreams over the rainbow. This is why children are and must be at the centre at a Passover seder. For although the seder is a device to teach them, in the end it is they who must teach us the importance of the restoration of innocence.

Why again call this most central part of the seder service by a Greek name? My answer is simple. Because we Jews owe so much to the rest of humanity, but, in this context, especially the Greeks who gave us the form of the symposia. We may have transformed its meaning. We may have transformed the very nature of the conception of order from a pre-fixed organized world in terms of a perfect ideal into a hope for the future linked to a lost and destroyed past, but we owe the Greeks the form that makes this possibility come alive. In Christianity, the Afikomen became the wafer eaten to partake in the body of Christ whom they believe to have been the messiah and the sacrificial lamb. It has been transformed into the sacramental bread, the “host”, the unleavened bread which is the Eucharist. In Judaism, it remains a broken off piece of matzah hidden and left for children to find so that we can, at the end of the seder, all partake in that broken off past so that we can hope for “next year in Jerusalem”.

What do we owe the Egyptians who play a much more obvious part of the story? Were they just tyrants and oppressors, the evil ones always present in the world? Remember that it was an Egyptian princess who saved Moses. Tomorrow I will explore Moses as a divided self to try to bring back what the Hebrews inherited from their Egyptian overseers and that is an integral part of the Passover narrative.

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