Akram Kahn and Toro
At then end of yesterday morning’s Torah study session, the rabbi passed around a copy of chapter 9 of Rabbi Joshua Heschel’s 1951 book, Man Is Not Alone. I can remember how much I was affected by reading that book almost sixty years ago in early 1958. I could not recall the contents, but I certainly recall the powerful impression that the then fifty- year-old rabbi made on a twenty-year-old in second year medical school and living in Mount Sinai Hospital in the interns’ quarters. I was not an intern, just getting free accommodation in return for working in radiology a few hours every evening. I certainly felt alone as I wrestled with my desire to leave medical school and just read and write.
The chapter distributed yesterday is called, “In the Presence of God.” As I wrote above, there was not a chance in hell that I could tell you what was in that chapter. I have only picked up Heschel sporadically since that time, and then only to read bits and pieces. But I remember reading that book and I definitely remember reading that chapter. I thought at the time that he should have written a chapter called, “In the Absence of God.”
The chapter begins, “The sense of the ineffable introduces the soul to the divine aspect of the universe, to a reality higher than the universe.” Why should the inability of language to depict God introduce a soul to the sense of the divine in the universe. Adam in the Garden of Eden had the power of speech. It was his duty and responsibility to be a scientist, to walk around that garden and do the closest thing to imitating the creation of the universe by naming things – cats and dogs, tulips and daffodils. He was a nascent biologist.
But when it came to God, the same God who told Adam, the archetypal nerd who was totally oblivious to the fact, that he was alone in the universe and that he needed a helpmeet, when it came to God, Adam could not pigeon-hole Him, could not properly categorize Him or Her. I do not remember much of what I learned in Talmud Torah, even though I spent four afternoons a week after school as well as Sunday mornings there. But I do remember, though probably not from my years of non-study of the Torah, my years of feeling like I had been sentenced to a few hours of prison every day. I do remember that Moses had asked God what his name was. No, that is not what he asked. He asked, “Who are you?” Not to solicit God’s name, but his character. Moses was saying, I have learned from Adam to categorize different kinds of dogs and different kinds of tomatoes. How do I categorize you?
How does God answer Moses? With words that Adam cannot possibly experience. I am eternal. Since you left the Garden of Eden, you only know your mortality, especially as you grow older. But I, God, am immortal. I lack the experience of being mortal. I lack the experience of living within a limited time. I am unable to experience how time is sacred because I permeate all of space. But as such, God has experienced human affliction, in particular, the affliction of Moses and his ancestors, the affliction of my people and my ancestors. God is a witness to suffering while not being able to suffer Himself – a very different sense of the divine that is taught in Christianity. God does not suffer. God observes, not what category we belong to, not whether we are doctors or lawyers or labourers. But God witnesses our pain and our affliction, all inherent to what it is to be human.
But God is not just a witness. He is a redeemer. Actually, He promises redemption. There is no evidence of delivery. He offers a promise, a future prospect of redemption, of relief from that affliction, a relief from being mortal. But unlike God who is not mortal, that redemption could not come by our being made immortal as many believed. I knew better. It meant that God was Death, for the promise was just a tautology. We were mortal. Ergo we would die. Ergo we would be redeemed from our affliction. And the older you get the more aware and sensitive you become to a world full of pain and suffering.
If God is death, why “Kiddush Hashem?” Why sanctify His name? Why is profaning God’s name prohibited? Why must we avoid bringing shame onto God, avoid “chillul Hashem?” Not by uttering blasphemies, but by our behaviour, bringing God into disrespect because of what we do. If God’s name is YHWH, Yud., Heh, Vav, Heh, the four letter acronym for God that expresses His or Her ineffability, that says that, unlike a flower or an ant, God cannot be characterized by His or Her name, but only by a name that says we cannot capture God by a taxonomy of language.
Hence Abraham Joshua Heschel, Joshua, the card God held up his sleeve when both Moses and Aaron fell so far short of who they could have become! For Yeshuah means, the Lord is my salvation. For God is Elijah. God is the Lord. God is Elohim, the ruler of the universe. Humans live in bondage. God, and really only God, can be a Lord on High. God has enormous power. God has unbounded authority, not that we really can understand either. But the depictions teach us that humans can only have bounded or limited power and authority. And the great sickness of man is to aspire to have unbounded authority, to become a dictator, to become an authoritarian ruler and revel in one’s power and one’s might.
It is so easy for people who are feeling insecure to long to worship at the feet of a golden calf, especially if it is a golden cow with a crown of gold for hair. But, for Heschel, it is precisely because God is ineffable that we are introduced to two things at one and the same time. First were are introduced to our own souls because our minds, our brains, are pre-programmed to reject an inability to categorize, to reject that anything is ineffable, for the intellect is totally convinced, has it built into its very DNA, that everything in experience can be classified and categorized, assigned attributes that allow one thing to be grouped with another. By definition, according to Heschel’s challenge to the Lithuanian and enlightenment tradition of Judaism, the mind inherently cannot grasp God. And only when humans recognize that, only then will they come to recognize that they have a soul which, though it may not be able to grasp God in order to categorize and characterize Him or Her, can experience God’s presence.
But can the soul feel God’s absence? That is the question I wanted to ask Heschel sixty years ago. If the soul can be attuned to God’s presence, the soul must be able to experience God’s absence. Even if that absence is only depicted as not experiencing that presence. If God, for Heschel, was a category within which the universe was to be placed rather than placing God as simply one additional item within the universe, God would then still be experienced as a category. And so Heschel began that chapter with a fundamental contradiction. If God was ineffable, then God could not even be categorized as something within Whom the entire universe and the entire universe of categories could rest. For that would still mean grasping God as a category for the mind and not simply experiencing his presence.
That is how I experienced that chapter – not as a chapter about the anteroom of experiencing God, but as an introduction to a paradox that even depicting God as ineffable did not work, even suggesting that by grasping the ineffability of God, the soul is introduced to the divine aspect of the universe. For if the universe could only be grasped intellectually as within God, then how could Heschel say that the soul experiences an aspect of the world as divine, for then the universe could not entirely be within God, but God, the divine, must simply be one part of the universe?
But Heschel does not get caught up in intellectual paradoxes. For in describing, in trying to experience God through first grasping that God is ineffable, an experience which the intellect by definition cannot grasp, we fall into the Black Hole of the intellect from which we cannot escape. For the issue is not really knowing God. By saying that God is ineffable, we are saying that God cannot be known. So what are we talking about? We are not really discussing God, but as Heschel writes, we are discussing that which can know God, our souls. We need to be introduced to our own souls. And if we are mortal and God is immortal and eternal, then the issue is not what we think of God, but what God thinks of our existence, of our mortality, of the fact that we exist at all. The issue is and always has been, not do we have faith in God, and not even whether God has faith in you, but who you are to be worthy of God’s faith in you.
In other words, we must look not at our experience of the universe, but at the universe as an object of divine thought, not us as simply independent agents, for, by definition, from God’s perspective, independence and individual agency are ruled out in advance,. Even if the Torah is all about teaching us to be responsible human beings and to take responsibility for the universe in which we live, from God’s perspective, we and the universe are objects of divine thought. Even if we do not yet – or ever – experience God’s presence, we are taken out of our minds, we are, in fact, driven out of our minds to open ourselves to the experience of God by first recognizing that God’s experience of the world is not ours. We cannot grasp the universe from the perspective of a being who is ineffable. That is just the nature of what it means to have a mind. And that is why such an experience must, and is the only way to grasp that we have a soul that can have such an experience.
That is an awful lot of verbiage to spend explicating the first couple of sentences of a chapter in Heschel’s book. For his book is just a reiteration of an Enlightenment precept articulated by Kant, that the mind, the brain, has its limits and can really only operate within those limits. If you try to grasp God from the perspective of a brain that works by giving finitude to the world of objects, then we cannot know we have a soul and, it follows, we cannot experience God’s presence, or, as I would add, even God’s absence. The only way to begin to know our own soul and begin the long road to experience God’s presence is not through the intellect but through intuition. This is Heschel’s central message.
Presence precedes essence. And intuition is the precondition for experiencing a divine presence. The intellect has to be bracketed.
I write this not to begin a theological discussion, but as an introduction to my experience of the dance and sound performance of Akram Khan and his musical partners that I experienced at the Bluma Appel Theatre last evening. The performance cannot possibly be grasped or depicted in words. It has to be experienced. I have never seen a performance like it before. And thus the paradox – using words to depict what is not about words at all and that cannot be grasped by words that, in effect, reduce language, not to words, but to a wide variety of sounds and movements, to body and auditory language without words. And it is not only the sound of drums or the various voices on stage, but the sounds of silence, the sounds of the body language, not only with its foot-stomping flamenco rhythms, but with the sounds of silence as hands whoosh through the air, as shoulders jerk, as heads move as in a Thai dance.
Unlike simply a musical performance of a band or singing group, dance is movement without a text, without a vocabulary. Reading all the books on my shelves will tell me nothing about the experience of watching a dance company. This is even truer when the purpose of that dance company is to express the ineffability of both dance and voice. God is the witness to the experience of our ancestors. The construction of the mishkan, of the Tabernacle, can be described in exquisite detail. But what about the dancing of the Hebrews when they whirled with joy around the golden calf?
The faster the dance, the more exotic the rhythms, the more complex the movements, the less dance is able to be grasped and depicted through the language of the intellect. If flamenco is defined as the cry of the soul of the Spanish people, more particularly, the gypsies or Romani and the Jews, the Moors and the Andalusians, we have on offer one entry into how the ineffable God experiences the world, one entry point to our souls, one entry point from which to experience the ineffability of the divine presence.
There was evidently a back story to last night’s performance. I really did not know about it until I read the theatre notes. Evidently, the original show scheduled was a performance focused primarily on two dancers, the very famous flamenco dancer, Israel Galván and the equally famous British choreographer, Akram Khan of Bangladeshi descent and interpreter of Indian traditional music and dance, kathak, from which flamenco is believed to have been derived. What unites both forms of art is they are more direct aesthetic expressions of what is written in Torah, the experiences of pain and oppression, the lamentations and suffering of a people over time, and the moments of exquisite glory that like a flaming torch leads the people on its onward journey through history.
The back story is important. Israel Galván did not perform last night. The production, which was originally scheduled, was a duet–duel, like two rappers. It is a dialogue between these two traditions coming once again face-to-face, both having traveled via different routes through the Diaspora. But without Israel Galván, who had been ordered to rest for weeks, even months, to allow an injured knee to mend, the performance of TOROBAKA could not be presented.
Akram Kahn had written that Israel Galván is a sublime storyteller of rhythms, not rhythms of the past, but rhythms of the future,” “He [Galván] has opened my eyes into how and what is possible with flamenco, how one can deconstruct it, transform it and recreate it, in order to form new stories. After all, stories are what help us make sense of the world.” I would suggest one modification to what Khan wrote of Galván. “Not rhythms of the past,” I suggest he really meant, “not just rhythms of the past.” For, if the performance originally scheduled was even loosely akin to the performance of toro that we witnessed last evening, then the profundity of the music and dance comes not merely from its novelty, but from how the new and innovative can be enriched while raising up and preserving the past, the past even before there was a recorded past, the past prior to the mind going to work categorizing the world and writing down those stories.
I mention this back story because, after the performance I heard two different people say that, although they really liked the performance, it was too bad that they had missed seeing TOROBAKA. I wondered. Was my experience of God’s absence preventing me from fully, or even partially, experiencing God’s presence? For what we saw last night was so extraordinary, so outstanding, I could grasp how focusing to even a small degree on what is missing can interfere with experiencing what is present before us.
At the end of the movie, Revenant (which I promise to write about), when the picture fades, we still here Hugh Glass (Leonardo Di Caprio) breathing. A very old friend from my activist days in the New Left in the sixties, whom I have not seen for decades, but whom I frequently read since he became a rabbi, Arthur Waskow, wrote an essay called, “The Breath of Life and Prayer.” It begins as follows:
For millennia, the Jewish convention has been to non-pronounce “YHWH” by saying instead, Adonai, “Lord.” This fits with naming God as Melekh ha’olam, King or Ruler of the universe. Sometimes people (usually from other religious communities or influenced by academic teaching) try to pronounce the four-letter Name by adding vowels, so it becomes “Yahweh” or “Jehovah.” But what if we broke the rule and “pronounced” that Name with no vowels? I have invited hundreds of people to experiment this way, and for almost everyone, what happens is a breath, or the sound of wind. Spiritus in Latin is “breath” and “wind.” In Hebrew, Ruach=breath=wind=spirit. “Spirituality” is what celebrates the interbreathing that connects all life. (What we breathe in is what the trees breathe out; what the trees breathe in is what we breathe out.) So we might begin our blessings, “Baruch attah [or Brucha aht] Yahhhhh elohenu ruach ha’olam”—“Blessed are You, our God, the Breathing Spirit of the world.”
For me, YHWH as Breath of Life is not just a neat understanding of the four-letter Name, but a profound metaphor and theology of God. God as the Breath of Life, in-and-out- breath, that which unites all life, that which is beyond us and within us. Words are physical breathing shaped by our intellectual consciousness into emotional communication. Using words is one of the crucial aspects of being human (not absolutely unique to us, but by far best-developed among us). So for me, what we do when we pray or study Torah or share words of compassion is breathe our selves into the Breath of Life. We shape one major aspect of what makes us human, and part of the Breath of Life, into a conscious weaving of our breaths into the breath of life.
But there is breathing even before there are words. In the movie, Hugh Glass insists that, “As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe… keep breathing.” And his dead native wife appears to him as a floating ghostly figure and articulates at greater length the sense of the divine as ruah, as breath, as spirit. “As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe. Keep breathing. When there is a storm and you stand in front of a tree, if you look at its branches, you swear it will fall. But if you watch the trunk, you will see its stability.”
Experiencing the breath of life inherently makes us feel insecure, on edge. And that is exactly what toro did last evening. Once, my wife walked away from an accident in which she flipped an ATV onto herself. It has left its memory written into her bones. But she walked away breathing. Toro is not just a bull, but is precisely to walk away standing, breathing and alive after wiping out. And that is what toro was about last evening. You could not help, if you attended, continually catching your breath, infusing ruach into your very being. It allowed us to get in touch with sound before there was language, with motion and gesture before there was ballet or the fox trot. Toro took us back to a time before intellectualization took place, before we were placed in the Garden of Eden, before we were instructed to categorize and give meaning to what we experienced, to a time when experience was direct and immediate before we constructed a correspondence theory of truth and organized language mediated between what we experience and how we articulate what we experienced.
Thus, the movement of animals – the bear in Revenant, the representation of animal movements the dances of Akram Khan. As the program notes expressed it, “The hunter, lost in the countryside, imitates the gait of the animal he has come to hunt. Words are yet to be defined; they are guttural sounds which are understood almost as if they were orders, acts of command. Every part of the body is expressive, movements are read, they have a function. “TOROBAKA!” But what happens when we have the bull without the cow, toro without baka. (Baca, as in Hebrew, is also vaca, “cow”.) We have even a more refined version, I suspect, of Adam living in the Garden of Eden before Eve came along. We have the expression of loneliness and inter-subjectivity without the experience of human intercourse. For, as in jazz, the dancers and singers play off one another.
Thus we have futuristic dance, dance and sound as fusion and reflection and resonance, but always with a reaching back to before we learned to play intellectual games, the choreography of kathak and flamenco with flamenco remaining as a residue where we experience its absence through its presence. As background to Akram Khan’s stamping and jingling ankle bells, to Khan wearing and dancing with flamenco shoes on his hands, Khan silences each of his singers in turn – except for the exceptional percussionist, B.C. Manjunath, without whose rhythms there could be no performance.
We have dialogue and tension, but not a duel between two very different paths of history, Sometimes, the sounds are purely guttural. At other times they mimic a Latin boys choir in a mediaeval church in something that sounds like Latin but is not. Thus, we have the great soloist, the speed, precision and virtuosity of Azram Khan accompanied by, no, really matched against, the Don Quixote of the troupe, David Azura, a countertenor, whose singular voice carries the sound of a full boy’s choir.
As a vocal contrast of David’s, we hear the voice of Christine Leboutte with a maternal and sometimes unusually gutteral contralto sound. What comes out of the mouths of the musicians just does not match their body types. David Azura could pass for a tall, bald and gaunt monk in a mediaeval church. Leboutte is a matronly earth mother with a voice that both startles and comforts. When Manjunath offers his vocal contributions, we are listening to the deep roots of scat in the jazz tradition, but the vocalizations resonate with something even deeper than the blues in the rapid-fire vocalizations that compete with the stamping. Then there is the portly bald and bearded rabbi of the troupe, Bobote, who just startles you when he performs flamenco numbers. And when he sings…! But he also performs with his arms as if he were Krishna standing in the shadow of Khan. And then his clapping, the intricacy along with its independent voice, sometimes performed with just fingers against a palm and sometimes with the sound of one hand clapping.
Arms weave and gesture, express awe and wonderment, while at other times commanding silence, telling us clearly in the voices and the sounds that what we are experiencing, that we are in the presence of the ineffable. So why long for an absence? What does it teach me about getting beyond the experience of an absence to intuit a presence?
With the help of Alex Zisman