Virginia Gutiérrez Berner. CR: The New Centennial Review. Volume 9, Issue 3. Winter 2010.
The connection between Borges’s fiction and Kabbalah is not a hard one to make, in the sense that Borges’s style and themes seem powerfully indebted to Kabbalistic conceptions. The notion of an infinite book, of a book that contains the universe, a book that is equal to the world, a text that can magically operate in reality, and the possibility of endless interpretation (an endless interpretation that deals with the world as text, as much as with written texts) are all recurrent themes in Borges’s writings. These notions are also among the best known aspects of Kabbalah.
Criticism has not ignored this link; Saúl Sosnowski declares in Borges y Cábala that “This work attempts to show the connection between some Borges texts, and Kabbalah, with regard to understanding the Verb as an instrument for creation, and not merely as an arbitrary symbol to name the elements of reality” (1976, 16-17, my translation). Similarly, although performing a closer reading, Jaime Alazraki’s Borges and Kabbalah (1988) emphasizes the connections between Kabbalistic symbols and hermeneutical methods, and thematic and structural elements that abound in Borges’s fiction. Also, Alazraki considers the interpretative approach of Kabbalah as closely connected to literary criticism. Thus, he applies certain Kabbalistic interpretative conceptions to Borges’s own work. Edna Aizenberg has also studied Kabbalah and Borges; she devotes The Aleph Weaver (1984) first to studying Borges’s biographical and intellectual links to Jewish culture and then, like Alazraki and Sosnowski, to finding parallels between Borges’s work and Kabbalistic conceptions. Also like Alazraki, Aizenberg points out the connection between Kabbalah and contemporary criticism: “Borges’s view of literature as the revisionist glossing of traditional texts, a view which Bloom ultimately traces to a medieval model, the Kabbalah, has become the dernier cri in critical thinking about actors and their texts” (106). Aizenberg also quotes Claudia Hoffer Gosselin’s explanation of intertextuality theory to explain that Hoffer Gosselin considers intertextuality as a recent, “profane restatement of the Kabbalah’s literary theory” (107). Thus, contemporary interpretation and Kabbalistic hermeneutics seem to meet in Borges’s work, provoking interpretations that study the connection between Borges’s work and Kabbalah, while also allowing such connection to shape the notion of interpretation itself.
Borges wrote two nonfiction texts that explicitly deal with Kabbalah, “A Defense of the Kabbalah” and “The Kabbalah.” Both state the Kabbalistic dimensions in which Borges is interested, especially the notion of the Scriptures as a text that demands endless interpretation because of its supernatural origin, which makes it impervious to error and accident. This interest can be productively read in connection to his rewriting of Christian themes in “The Gospel According to Mark” and “Three versions of Judas.” Rather than dwelling on the similarities between Borges’s writing and Kabbalistic symbols and interpretative methods, it is interesting to understand how Borges’s view of Kabbalah (regardless of the accuracy of his understanding of its doctrine) shapes the interpretations of Christian history, law, and Messianism that these two short stories entail. The fact that, according to Kabbalistic hermeneutics and to Borges’s understanding of it, it is necessary to interpret the Torah endlessly-including interpretations that differ, conflict, and ultimately threaten to cancel one another-implies that all possible law has room within the law of the Torah: that there is nothing outside the law, since it becomes part of it from the moment it comes to exist. Conceiving Judas as someone who fulfills the law rather than transgressing it, as in “Three versions of Judas,” or rewriting the event of a contemporary crucifixion as an extreme interpretation of the Gospel (thus playing with the idea of prophecy and law in the event of Christ’s own crucifixion, as well as questioning the very notion of misreading), as in “The Gospel According to Mark,” shapes and undermines Christian history from the perspective of Kabbalistic interpretation. Everything that occurs determines the law, expands its limits, rewrites it; and at the same time, everything is already in the law, operating within it, and structured by it. Thus, the existence of transgression or outlaws is impossible: Kabbalistic interpretation, as understood by Borges, implies that everything that can be said was already part of the revelation, and thus even what appears as heresy is nothing but an unraveling-necessary, true, and lawful-of the law.
Borges begins “A Defense of the Kabbalah” by stating about this justification of the Jewish mystical trend that
Neither the first time it has been attempted, nor the last time it will fail, this defense is distinguished by two facts. One is my almost complete ignorance of the Hebrew language: the other, my desire to defend not the doctrine but rather the hermeneutical or cryptographic procedures that lead to it.
He then continues to describe them briefly:
These procedures, as is well known, include the vertical reading of sacred texts, the reading referred to as boustrophedon (one line from left to right, the following line from right to left), the methodical substitution of certain letters of the alphabet for others, the sum of the numerical value of the letters, etc. To ridicule such operations is simple; I prefer to attempt to understand them (2000, 83)
Thus, he considers as properly Kabbalistic precisely the operations that, according to Gershom Scholem in Major Trends of Jewish Mysticism, are not really characteristic of it, but rather are an influence of German Hassidism. Gematria, “the calculation of the numerical value of Hebrew words,” and Temurah, the “interexchange of letters according to certain systematic rules [cannot] be called Kabbalistic in the strict sense of the word. … What really deserves to be called Kabbalism has very little to do with these ‘Kabbalistic’ practices” (Scholem 1941, 99). Borges must have been aware of this, since he himself mentions Scholem’s work-especially On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism-as one of the main sources of his knowledge of Kabbalah. Thus, the goal of his essay is to understand Kabbalistic operations, which are not strictly Kabbalistic but, as Scholem himself acknowledges, are popularly considered as such. That such a form of textual analysis has the status of truly Kabbalistic operation, or that it is only marginally Kabbalistic, does not seem to be an issue for Borges; at least here, he seems interested only in developing the implications of a doctrine that relies on such hermeneutical procedures, precisely the more extreme, the easier to understand (and even ridiculous, as he points out).
Perhaps that is not as relevant as the fact that Borges’s essay does not actually dwell at all on the details involved in Gematria, Temurah, or Notarikon (the interpretation of the letters of a word as abbreviations or whole sentences). In flagrant contradiction with his stated purpose, he instead begins to explain what he considers to be the origin of such interpretative attempts. The next paragraph considers the “mechanical inspiration” of the Bible as the first antecedent of Kabbalistic operations; he speaks of a Catholic dogma, but also about the Islamic conception of the origin of the Koran as one of God’s attributes, and of Lutheran theologians who consider the Scriptures as “an incarnation of the Spirit” (2000, 83).
Borges does not return to Kabbalistic hermeneutical methods later, either. Rather, he briefly speaks of the Christian notion of the Holy Ghost as the author of the Bible, to begin immediately to understand it as part of the trinity, which he considers to be monstrous:
Imagined all at once, its concept of a father, a son, and a ghost, joined in a single organism, seems like a case of intellectual teratology, a monster which only the horror of a nightmare could spawn. This is what I believe, although I try to bear in mind that every object whose end is unknown to us is provisionally monstrous.
The next paragraph is a brief insight into the trinity’s role in Christian theology, which Borges acknowledges as necessary for an effective salvation via Christ’s sacrifice, even as he considers it as “an intellectual horror, a strangled, specious infinity like facing mirrors” (2000, 84).That is, even after figuring out the raison d’être of the “device” that is the trinity, and after understanding its theological function, the trinity remains monstrous.
Borges then considers the notion of the Holy Ghost, stating that “the Spirit … may be best defined as God’s intimacy with us, His immanence in our breast,” and that “the third blind person of the entangled Trinity is the recognized author of the Scriptures.” He also declares that of all the writings attributed to the Holy Ghost, he is interested in Genesis, “the subject matter of the Kabbakah.” He explains that “Kabbalists believed, as many Christian do now, in the divinity of that story, in its deliberate writing by an infinite intelligence.” He then proceeds to explain the element of chance in different types of writing; news, for instance, communicates a fact in a straightforward manner, and the sound and length of the text “are necessarily accidental” (2000, 85). Opposite is the case of poetry, where what is arbitrary is the meaning, which is subject to sound and rhythm.
Finally, there is a third type of writer, the intellectual one-here Borges stops talking about the text itself, and considers the writer instead: “In his handling of prose (Valéry, De Quincey) or of verse, he has certainly not eliminated chance, but he has denied it as much as possible, and restricted its incalculable compliance.” In his desire to distance himself from chance as much as he can, such a writer is remotely similar to God, “for Whom the vague concept of chance holds no meaning,” and is one who knows everything that happens, that could happen, and even what could never happen (2000, 85). This God dictated the Scriptures word by word; this fact “turns the Scriptures into an absolute text, where the collaboration of chance is calculated at zero” (86). Thus, the ending of the essay is precisely a justification of the doctrine that Borges had claimed he would not vindicate: “Kabbalists believed … in the divinity of that story, in its deliberate writing by an infinite intelligence” (85). That premise, Borges continues, is at the heart of the desire of infinite interpretation: “A book impervious to contingencies, a mechanism of infinite purposes, of infallible variations, of revelations lying in wait, of superimpositions of light … How could one not study it to absurdity, to numerical excess, as did the Kabbalah?” (86). Thus, “A Defense of the Kabbalah” is not about justifying the methods of Kabbalah and their general hermeneutical value. Quite the opposite: Borges claims that they only make sense-and they make a perfect, inevitable sense- because of the sacred status of the Torah, because the book that inspires such extreme forms of hermeneutics is a book dictated by God, an unerring, infinite, and fatal book.
The dimension of Kabbalah that is attractive for Borges is, then, precisely this connection between the text itself and the way of interpreting it. He does not defend the hermeneutical methods, but rather argues that the hermeneutical procedures cannot be isolated from the doctrine upon which they have their origin: that of a book that is impervious to contingence, to chance. Borges essay is, as a whole, a negation of its first paragraph: it is not possible to reject or ignore the Kabbalistic doctrine and at the same time to justify its methods. Every Kabbalistic operation of can be regarded as the logical, necessary consequence of the doctrine that regards the book as one of the attributes of God. Because it is written by God, and everything in it is intentional, interpreting it endlessly makes sense. Perhaps what Borges means by claiming to defend the hermeneutical methods rather than the doctrine is simply to acknowledge disingenuously that the Kabbalistic interpretative operations are equal to its doctrine.
What seems interesting here is something that Borges does not mention, but that weighs heavily on this topic and on the operations of Kabbalah. A sacred text could demand, rather than infinite interpretation and recombination, the infinite desire to keep it unchanged, identical to itself. That is what religious ritual entails-the fidelity to the identity of a repetition that remains unchanged in repetition. This way, the religious text, or the religious ritual, does not experience change or decay or improvement but remains fixed. Thus, what it represented (as ritual) or meant (as text) is erased, obliterated, hidden by the commemoration. Commemoration and repetition thus acquire the authoritative status of the true event. The Catholic Church of the Counter Reformation, to quote a famous example, favored such an approach toward Sacred Scripture. Mistrusting the interpretative choices and eventual changes that translation and interpretation entail, the Church in Spain controlled Scriptural commentaries and translations to the vernacular by forbidding them in the Valdes Index. That was as the negative dimension of the will to control; a positive one was to institute the Vulgata as the official version of the Bible, as the one to which quotes and sermons would refer.
The decision to invest in the Latin translation the authority of the original speaks to the concern with orthodoxy; the sacredness of the text undergoes one interpretation-that of the translation into Latin, blessed by the Western Church, and thus intertwined with its power-and then remains unchangeable, definite, as the ultimate authority. Of course, there is an element of arbitrariness, of chance, in such an institution of the sacred text. The concern seems to be, more than preserving the accuracy of an original, the desire to institute, no matter by what means, a text that only after the fact will be considered the original, divine expression, impervious to error or change-and that, as such, will also guarantee the authority of the Church that instituted it. But it also means that such text is self-sufficient, perfect, the ultimate word of God; no change or interpretation is necessary, because it is in itself all the interpretation that is required: it is the Sacred text and its commentary at the same time. It is an original better than the true original- it is, in fact, the interpretative fulfillment of the original, the fulfillment of the promise implicit in the original. If the Torah is a promise of revelation, then for the Catholic Church that promise is fulfilled and closed in one fixed interpretation, one book, and one body of beliefs.
All of the above seem to indicate a complete and radical opposition between the Christian Bible and the Torah according to Kabbalah; it seems as if Kabbalah did not institute the Torah as an unchangeable text, but considered it as completely open to interpretation and susceptible to alteration, combination, and permutations. Actually, it is more problematic-and more paradoxical-than that. Gershom Scholem states in Major Trends of Jewish Mysticism that for all Jewish mystics, “the Torah … does not consist merely of chapters, phrases and words; rather it is to be regarded as the living incarnation of the Divine wisdom which eternally sends out new rays of light” (1941, 14). Scholem also points out that the mystics of all religions
continuously and bitterly complain of the utter inadequacy of words to express their true feeling, but, for all of that, they glory in them; they indulge in rhetoric and never weary of trying to express the inexpressible through words… . Jewish Mysticism is no exception, yet it is distinguished by two unusual characteristics that may in some way be interrelated. What I have in mind is, first of all, the striking restraint observed by the Kabbalists in referring to the supreme [mystical] experience; and secondly, their metaphysically positive attitude towards language as God’s own instrument … Language in its purest form, that is, Hebrew, according to the Kabbalists, reflects the fundamental spiritual nature of the world; in other words, it has mystical value. Speech reaches God because it comes from God. (1941, 15-17)
Thus, in the case of Kabbalah, unlike other religions-especially Christianity- language, and specifically the text of the Torah, is far from being an obstacle or even an enabler of the mystical experience. It is radically more relevant than that: it is, actually, the place where mysticism occurs. Ecstatic experience is achieved by reflecting on the letters of the Torah, by combining and permuting them, by visualizing them. Moshe Idel quotes in The Mystical Experience of Abraham Abulafia the vision of Rabbi Isaac of Acre, who writes:
I woke up from my sleep and there suddenly came for me three Tetragrammata, each one in its own vocalization and place in the secret of the ten sefirot in the void, in the middle line, in which depends the entire mystery [of the four worlds]… . And I rejoiced in them as one who has found a rare treasure. (Idel 1988, 103)
Similarly, Scholem quotes at length the testimony of a student of the Talmud who is instructed by a Kabbalist, and who after combining letters, sets out “to take up the Great Name of God, consisting in seventy-two names, permuting and combining it. But when I had done this for a little while, behold, the letters took on in my eyes the shape of great mountains … and it was as if I were not in this world” (1941, 148). Thus, in this case and many others, mystical revelation depends precisely upon experimenting with the order and value of letters.
However, at the same time, Kabbalists are also adamant about how the Torah is eternal and unchangeable. In On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, Scholem quotes a famous fragment by the scribe Rabbi Meir, who accounts how Rabbi Ishmael admonished him: “My son, be careful in your work, because it is the work of God; if you omit a single letter, or write a letter too many, you will destroy the whole world” (1965, 39). Scholem also explains that for Nahmanides, this implied that “the scrolls of the Torah must be observed with the utmost care. Every single letter counts” (38). Also, for Kabbalists, the Torah is considered to preexist the world, to precede creation (41). Yet, in spite of this, which seems to favor the conservation of a fixed, unchanging tradition, one of Kabbalah’s most famous main features is not only its openness to interpretation and recombination of letters, but also the conception that a new Torah will be given. Scholem quotes Nahmanides’s statement about the existence of “an authentic tradition showing that the entire Torah consists of the names of God and that the words we read can be divided in a very diff erent way” (38).
Scholem also mentions that for the Kabbalistic book Ra’ya Mehemma, “the Torah is an inexhaustible well, which no pitcher (kad) can ever empty. The Hebrew word kad has the numerical value 24; to the author this means that even the twenty-four books of the traditional Biblical canon cannot exhaust the mystical depth of the Torah” (1965, 60). In a very compelling image dating back to “the height of the Talmudic era,” Scholem explains that “the Holy Scriptures are like a large house with many, many rooms, and … outside each room lies a key-but it is not the right one. To find the right keys that will open those doors-that is the great and arduous task” (12). The most important Kabbalistic book, the Zohar, includes the Kabbalistic notion of the fourfold interpretation of the Scriptures. Similarly to Christian exegesis in the Middle Ages, the Zohar considers the Torah to have a literal, allegorical, Talmudic and Aggadic, and mystical meaning. However, the Zohar not only contributed the fourfold reading of the Torah, but pushed interpretation even further by bringing forward the notion that “every letter had seventy aspects, or literally, ‘faces.’ … The meaning of the text cannot be exhausted in any finite number of lights or interpretations, and the number seventy stands here of course for the inexhaustible totality of the divine word” (62-63). This, of course, opens the ground for reinterpretation in an extremely radical way.
Thus, there is ambivalence in the Kabbalistic attitude about the Torah: on the one hand, it is sacred and unchangeable-to the point of its preceding creation, and of its being somehow closer to an attribute of God than to one of His creatures. On the other hand, it allows-more than that: it demands- endless interpretation, to the point of problematizing its status of unchangeability, at least in theory. A conception that appears over and over again in Kabbalistic texts is the idea that not even one letter of the Torah should be altered; and at the same time, Kabbalists often quote, with a Messianic intent, that a new Torah will be given-a new Torah will go forth from God (Isaiah 51:4). How does this openness to radical interpretation manifest itself in Kabbalistic mysticism, even while maintaining its fidelity to tradition?
Kabbalists solve the issue by connecting the Torah both to the fallen history of humankind after Adam’s sin and to Messianism. They do this by dividing the Torah into two, by considering that there are two Torahs that are also, simultaneously, somehow one. The Torah that is available to the people is not the only one. This can be more easily understood if one examines what Scholem considers to be the principles underlying the Torah: the Torah as God’s name, the Torah as a living organism, and the Torah as the “infinite meaning of the divine word” (1965, 37). For Josef Gikatila, a thirteen-century Kabbalist, “the Torah is not itself the name of God but the explication of the name of God” (Scholem 1965, 42) in the sense that it is
a living texture, a “textus” in the literal sense of the word, into which the one true name, the tetragrammaton, is woven in a secret, indirect way, but also directly as a kind of leitmotiv. The nucleus in any case is the tetragrammaton. If Gikatila had been asked exactly how this weaving was done, he would doubtless have answered with his teacher Abraham Abulafia that the basic elements, the name YHWH, the other names of God, and the appellatives, or kinnuyim, or rather, their consonants, went through several sets of permutations and combinations in accordance with the formulas set forth by the Talmudists, until at length they took the form of the Hebrew sentences of the Torah. (43)
Gikatila also claims that “the letters [of God’s name] are the mystical body of God” (Scholem 1965, 44). The Torah “is a name, but this name is constructed like a living organism” (45). In other words, the Torah, as the name of God, is not simply a written representation, a means of communication. Rather, it is alive-it is the living name of God. Moshe Idel quotes an even more radical idea in Absorbing Perfections: Kabbalah and Interpretation; for fourteenthcentury Kabbalist Recanati, “the Holy One, blessed He be, is nothing outside the Torah, and the Torah is nothing that is outside Him” (Idel 2002, 122). Yet this living organism, this mystical body of God that for some mystics is God, is twofold: Scholem also quotes a Kabbalistic text that declares that there are two Torahs: the written one and the oral one, where the latter is constituted of the tradition and commentaries around the former. This Kabbalistic text considers that “the form of the written Torah is that of the colors of white fire, and the form of the oral Torah has colored forms as of black fire,” which stem, significantly, from a Torah that was “not yet unfolded.” The black fire of the oral Torah is like ink in a parchment, which renders the white fire of the written Torah visible; without the former, the latter cannot be read (1965, 49).
Later on, in the sixteenth century, the Safed school of Kabbalists considered that there are 600,000 aspects and meanings of the Torah-one for each
soul of Israel who went out of Egypt and receive the Torah at Mount Sinai … With the help of the Zohar, the Safed Kabbalists developed the further idea that the Torah, which in its visible form contains only some 3,400 letters, is, in some mysterious way, made up of 600,000. Each individual in Israel possesses a letter in this mystical Torah, to which his soul is attached. (Scholem 1965, 65)
Also, an Italian Kabbalist considers that the Torah as it was engraved on the original, broken tablets, had 600,000 letters, and that “only in the second tablets did it assume its shorter form, which, however, thanks to a secret way of combining letters, still indicates the original number of 600,000 letters which form the mystical body of the Torah” (1965, 65). Many Kabbalistic trends further developed these ideas in the direction that there is more than one Torah: one is an emanation of God and precedes creation, whereas the other one is created and wouldn’t have existed if humankind hadn’t sinned.
Many Kabbalists, including Moses Cordovero and Isaac Luria, reflected on the status that the Torah had before the Fall and on the status that it will have in the Messianic age. According to them, and in general lines, the Torah related to laws and to history came as a “garment” to the true, spiritual Torah after Adam sinned. With the Messiah’s arrival, that garment will no longer be necessary, and the spiritual Torah of before the Fall will be restored. Scholem considers the most “outspoken” version of this notion to be the one explained by Rabbi Elihayu Kohen in the eighteenth century. The letters of the Torah were rearranged to contain “earthly things” such as death and levirate marriage because of Adam’s sin (1965, 74). With the coming of the Messiah, Eliyahu Kohen claims that
God will annul the present combination of letters that form the words of our present Torah and will compose the letters into new words … Does this mean that the Torah is not eternally valid? No, it means that the scroll of the Torah will be as it is now, but that God will teach us to read in accordance to another arrangement of letters. (Scholem 1965, 75)
For the author of Sefer Ha-Temunah, the letters of the Torah are rearranged in different cosmic cycles, depending upon the dominant attribute of God at the time; “every shemittah [cosmic cycle] men will read something differently in the Torah, because in each one the divine wisdom of the primordial Torah appears under a different aspect” (Scholem 1965, 80). Also, Kabbalists of this school did “express the belief that in our shemittah … a letter of the Torah is missing.” A radical view of this belief states that “the complete Torah contained 23 letters, [and] it is only because this letter is missing that we now read positive and negative ordinances in the Torah” (80-81). Similarly, there is a Kabbalistic belief in invisible parts of the Torah, which will be revealed in the Messianic age, and where the blanks, the white of the Torah, will also be readable (82).
Thus, the linguistic optimism of Kabbalah mystics is paradoxical. It is condemned never to suffice, to be subject to this particular shemittah and to the current fallen condition of a creation that also aff ects the Torah, yet this very same fact is what allows for endless interpretation, for the incredibly powerful contemplation and combination of letters. It is rooted in the failure of original sin, yet it also opens the future toward the coming of the Messiah, and it opens combination and interpretation as preceding Messianic arrival. It also, significantly, incorporates history into the body of the sacred text: it connects its readability, its susceptibility to be interpreted, precisely to the failure that human history, as marked by Adam’s sin, entails. Precisely because of this, at their core, Kabbalistic interpretations are the exact opposite of the Christian reading of the Scriptures as explained above. Everything is in the sacred text, yet such an “everything” is not immediately evident. It does not depend upon the fixed quality of the text, on the impossibility to interpret it, to contest other interpretations, to challenge them. Quite on the contrary: the perfect text that is God and is the universe requires, in the version allowed to people, an exhaustive interpretation, recombination, and analysis. Only thus is the sacred text fulfilled, because for all of its perfection, for all of the necessity of maintaining it as it is, it is not finished in itself and by itself.
Thus, endless interpretation and the promise of revelation, rather than revelation itself, seem to be the experience of the Torah that Kabbalists can have. Scholem states that for Rabbi Mendel,
All that Israel heard was the aleph with which in the Hebrew text the first command begins, the aleph of the word anokhi, “I.” This strikes me as a highly remarkable statement, providing much food for thought. For in Hebrew the consonant aleph represents nothing more than the position taken by the larynx when a word begins with a vowel. Thus the aleph might be said to denote the source of all articulate sound, and indeed the Kabbalists always regarded it as the spiritual root of all letters. (1965, 30)
It is not, thus, the content as such that is the key to the Kabbalistic reading of the Torah, but rather the event of revelation that sets in motion the possibility of interpretation. Scholem also mentions Franz Rosenzweig’s observation about the delivering of the laws on Mount Sinai when he writes in a letter to Martin Buber that “the only immediate content of revelation is revelation itself” (Scholem 1965, 30). The absence of specific meaning implies that the Torah as we can read it is nothing but interpretation.
Paradoxically, the Torah is both perfect and imperfect, incomplete. And yet, it is perfect precisely because it is not finished, because it is not readable in its entirety, and such unreadability speaks of Messianic hope. Its diminished current perfection is directly related to its actual transcendent perfection and to the possibility of glimpsing it mystically via combination and interpretation. An extremely compelling point is made by Rabbi Eleazar, according to Scholem: “The various sections of the Torah were not given in their correct order. For if they had been given in their correct order, anyone who read them would be able to wake the dead and perform miracles. For this reason the correct order and arrangement of the Torah were hidden and are known only to the Holy One” (1965, 37). Thus, the most perfect text (in the sense of being given by God, and allowing both mystical experience and magical operations) is coded, must be deciphered, and is lacking its correct, proper structure. Moreover, and more significantly, its perfection depends precisely on such a lack, such disarrangement, such coded status. This occurs partly because, as Rabbi Eleazar hints, this is what links it to the “Holy One,” who is the only one to know it as it should be, but also because it opens the ground for the interpretations of the people of Israel to be necessary; in Lurianic Kabbalah,
every word of the Torah has six thousand faces, that is, layers of meaning or entrances, one for each of the children of Israel who stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, each face is turned toward only one of them; he alone can see it and deciphered it. Each man has his unique access to Revelation. Authority no longer resides in a single unmistakable meaning of the divine communication, but in its infinite capacity of taking new forms. (13)
Thus, the disaster of history also has a positive side: the people of Israel become necessary for the rereading and interpretation of the Torah. This settles the relevance of the community of Israel; the plurality of interpretation is not exclusively within the realm of the Torah, but includes the people of Israel; or rather, the Torah, in its condition as a living organism, is rooted in the people whose history has determined its letter, its visible form. Community, sacred text, and Messianism are thus united.
It is extremely relevant to underline the connection between the endless interpretation that the Torah demands, and Borges’s fascination for it, because, of course-as he underlines in “A Defense of the Kabbalah” and in very similar words in “The Kabbalah”-“the Holy Ghost condescended to literature, and wrote a book. Nothing in that book can be casual” (1989-1996, 3:269, my translation). But there is also another key element of Kabbalah that is extremely interesting for Borges: the aforementioned connection between plurality of meaning and the fallen condition of history that changed the letters of the current Torah. If every interpretation is allowed, if the Torah changed to include even that which was not supposed to happen, the disaster of history that followed Adam’s sin, then arguably everything can be included in this endless interpretation. The law by definition-the Torah-thus exists, paradoxically, to include and regulate precisely that which is outside the law; or, more precisely, there is nothing outside the law, since the law exists as lawlessness appears.
Thus, and significantly, Borges speaks of the preoccupation of Kabbalah with evil; he states that for both Gnostics and Kabbalists, the solution to the problem of evil is not, as for most philosophers, to consider it as purely negative (a solution that Borges qualifies as obviously false). According to Borges, for both Kabbalists and Gnostics, the world is the creation of an imperfect godhead, one “whose fraction of divinity tends to zero” (3:273, my translation). This seems to speak of Gnosticism more than of Kabbalah. However, there is truth to the idea that Kabbalah considers the root of evil to be in God himself. Scholem explains that, according to the doctrine of the Zohar,
the wrath of God is symbolized by His left hand… . The quality of stern judgment represents the great fire of wrath which burns in God but is always tempered by His mercy. When it ceases to be tempered, when in its measureless hypertrophical outbreak it tears itself loose from the quality of mercy, then it breaks away from God altogether and is transformed into the radically evil, into Gehenna and the dark world of Satan. (1941, 232)
The Lurianic Kabbalah has a similar point of view. The root of evil, present in God as the realm of strict judgment unfettered by compassion, was split from God and acquired its own separate existence when creation occurred- which resulted from the breaking of the vessels that contained the Sefira.
Borges seems to be fascinated with a similar notion: the paradox of a law that contains its own negation, its own annulment, as law. Evidently, Borges is fascinated by outlaws throughout his writing: the outlaws of the pampa-the malevo, gaucho, or compadre-who live out of the norms of society and whose violence is physical, excessive, and pointless. Yet there are other outlaws in Borges’s writing, who seem to be equally compelling for him: those whose outlaw condition is ambivalent, who linger right on the border between lawfulness and marginality, or more precisely, who are secretly and mysteriously lawful. For instance, he mentions in a short story/ poem the Jewish legend of the thirty-six righteous men, who ignore both their own righteousness and that it is because of their righteousness that the universe doesn’t come to an end. There is also the strange behavior of Irish hero Kilpatrick in “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” who is a traitor to the cause of independence. When discovered, he plots for his betrayal to remain hidden so that the very same cause that he has betrayed will not be damaged by his conduct-thus paradoxically inscribing one act into its opposite. Another example, perhaps more significant, is Judas as conceived by theologian Runeberg in “Three versions of Judas.” According to Runeberg, Judas, and not Jesus, is the Messiah. However, his Messianic condition remains a secret, because structurally, his Messianic fate is precisely to not be acknowledged as such.
Such characters create a secret, esoteric, and surprising version of orthodoxy where transgression opens the door to the Messianic; where the law, in order to be complete, includes everything-even, and paradoxically, that which is outside the law. The outlaws and heresiarchs are thus revealed to be secretly the best of men and the most orthodox, without giving up the fascination that they exert as outlaws, because their righteousness is still secret, esoteric, and mysterious. They do not contribute to build the nation, to institute an identity that is public or recognizable, that can structure society or religion-or if they do, it is precisely as if they appear to undermine it.
Therefore, there is no breaking the law, because the law-mysterious, invisible, impossible to understand or know-is already a transgression of itself, already presupposes its own defeat. Like the Torah, which must be endlessly interpreted and recombined, law is not complete as law if it does not include its own cancellation, its own violation.
Thus, paradoxically, Borges’s outlaws are cancelled as outlaws as they join a narrative of necessity, which in turn grows to the point of including everything-even their own transgression. I will focus here on two stories that present such an outlaw-both of them versions of New Testamentary, Christian narratives. “Three versions of Judas” tells the story of Swedish theologian Nils Runeberg, who progressively reaches more and more radical interpretations of Judas’s betrayal of Christ as part of the divine plot for salvation. The first one considers Judas as an accomplice of Christ, who takes upon himself the obligation to mirror and match God’s sacrifice, who “had stooped to become mortal” (Borges 1998, 164). By becoming a traitor, Judas sacrifices himself in the place of humankind. Later, Nils Runeberg further refines his argument, proposing that asceticism and a humility so great that it led Judas to think of himself as unworthy of both happiness and goodness, were the keys of Judas’s life. Judas “labored with titanic humility; he believed himself unworthy of being good” (165).
Finally, Runeberg arrives at a more radical interpretation of Judas’s alleged betrayal, one that considers him the true Messiah-a Messiah that is willing to sacrifice even his own eternal salvation to redeem humanity: “God was made totally man, but man to the point of iniquity, man to the point of reprobation and the Abyss” (166). Runeberg himself shares this paradoxical condition of humility and exaltation, as he reflects that the rejection toward his doctrine results from God’s will to have his secret doctrine spread upon the earth, and that he himself is outside of God’s will. “He felt that ancient, divine curses were met in him … Drunk with sleeplessness and his dizzying dialectic, Nils Runeberg wandered the streets of Malmö, crying out for a blessing-that he be allowed to share the Inferno with the Redeemer” (167). Thus, paradoxically, because of unveiling God’s plot, Runeberg feels condemned. Moreover, he begs to be admitted in Hell as a gift, as grace, as a reward. If understanding God’s purpose equals condemnation, if Hell can constitute a reward, then there is nothing outside religious laws; mysteriously, evil and good concur and intertwine.
In a similar manner, another story, “The Gospel According to Mark,” is in itself a retelling of the biblical plot (understood here both as a narrative structure and as an intrigue with unlawful ends) of that Gospel, which implies both an interpretation of it and a declaration of its necessity as much as a trivialization of it. Less than five pages long, “The Gospel According to Mark” seems to require a summary similar to Borges’s map of the Empire, a map that was the same size as the Empire itself, and coincided with it in everything. The protagonist, thirty-three-year-old Baltasar Espinosa, visits his cousin in the countryside. After his cousin leaves for business, Espinoza ends up isolated in the house because of a flood. His only company are the Gutres (two men and one woman), who work there. Espinoza finds an English Bible and translates the Gospel according to Mark aloud for their entertainment. As the reading advances, and Espinoza’s attitude changes to fit the reading, the peasants begin to behave with increasing respect toward him. At some point, Espinoza sleeps with the only woman of the group, a virgin girl “of uncertain paternity” (1998, 398). By the end of the story, Espinoza is about to be crucified by his listeners, who seem to believe this is the way to achieve redemption.
When reading the Gospel from the English Bible aloud in Spanish, Espinoza not only delivers a linguistic translation of the text, but he also provides the basis for a translation from the imaginary of Christianity into a highly theatrical milieu of the real. He actually is Christ-like in his rejection of the “dead letter,” in favoring the actual enactment of it by his performance, which includes a long beard, the healing of a lamb (which seems magical to the peasants), and the use of oratory strategies when explaining the parables. All of this serves to turn him into the Messiah that he impersonates when narrating. And by acquiring the status of a Messiah, he becomes the giver of the original text for the Gutres: he cancels the original text through repetition. The transparency that Walter Benjamin deemed necessary for translation (that is, that which does not block the light of the original) is not maintained, since the reading/translation by Espinoza is understood by the Gutres precisely as an authoritative original. No error, nor any creative choice of words in the translation, will be either an error or an improvement, nor will it complete and fulfill other translations and versions. Rather, any mistake or improvement in translation will enter their theology, be repeated, and thus become fatal, necessary, and orthodox.
It is interesting to think here how the fidelity to such a text works. Ritual orthodoxy-the fidelity involved in enacting a sacred text or event (a law given by God or an event that shows God’s action)-consists of keeping the ritual as similar to itself as possible to maintain the effectiveness of its supernatural aspect. What is sacred in the ritual must be repeated and invoked. But since there is no way to know what is sacred and essential, and what is, to the contrary, unimportant, those who perform the ritual must assume that everything is equally relevant. In this sense, the words of the priest are as important as the color of his clothes or the tone of his voice. The ritual stops being the repetition of the holy event or divine instruction and becomes a repetition of itself: everything that has been done before should remain identical, in order not to risk losing whatever is sacred in it. The Christian Eucharist, for instance, does not merely perform a repetition of the Last Supper but rather repeats previous rituals; it repeats the transubstantiation, the transforming of the substance of bread and wine into the substance of Christ’s body and blood, and not his encounter with the apostles, not the supper itself. And at the heart of the ritual, there is the impossibility of distinguishing between representation and that which is being represented, between what is accidental and what is substantial, between the intelligible reality and its sensible appearance. The sensible, visible term is so closely identified with the meaning it refers to that it actually comes to be it. Thus, the possibility of interpretation, of a plurality of meanings, of ambiguity is cancelled. The Communion must repeat previous Communions; the actual Last Supper is not really a matter of concern, or-more precisely-it is shaped by the structure of Communion, which gives it its “real” sense and form, its plenitude.
In this context, the Gutres’ actions make sense. They have listened to a narrative that they do not understand as a symbol, but rather, as Brett Levinson has pointed out, as a “manual of salvation”:
The Gutres are enthralled with the Gospel, in fact, precisely because they receive the text in this manner: as a manual of salvation, an instruction booklet on how to save themselves, and possibly mankind, from the death to which all are exposed during the flood. The desire to listen to one Gospel over and over again, indeed, is rooted less in a childish pleasure than in a yearning to get a handle on this ‘instructions.'” (2009, 111)
The necessity for iteration is thus understood by Levinson as a way of making sure they understand how to achieve the redemption. Once they feel certain of their knowledge, they reenact the story that they have heard repeated, incorporating into their Gospel all of the details of Espinoza’s character (his gestures when translating the parables, his beard, the healing of the lamb) as relevant signs, giving them the same status as the words themselves. Their understanding, then, is not orthodox: it does not acknowledge itself as a continuation of previous rituals, as the repetition of a repetition, a willful effort to make the repetition just like the previous one. Rather, it is magical: they actually intend to perform an operation in reality. By performing the Gospel, they attempt to achieve their own redemption. But one of the implications of such a strategy is that it problematizes the status of the original that they have heard, which is not sufficient in itself but needs to be fulfilled. And in this sense, their performance has something in common with the ritual: they do not accept their textual referent as an original, but as something to be perfected in its enactment. They understand the narrative of the Gospel as a law directed to them, or as a prophecy that is also a commandment. The Gutres seek to delete, continue, and sublate (Aufhebung) the original by making the repetition meaningful as the first time of fulfillment of a given word. They bring the text to life by translating it from the symbolic realm of language into the realm of the real. The sacred text, performed by Espinoza, becomes, then, not a telling but the living, present, performative word.
In “The Secret of Biblical Narrative Form,” Franz Rosenzweig claims that, whereas storytelling holds the desire to remove the reader or listener from “his actual present” and set him “within an illusory present,” the narratives of the Bible work in the opposite way: “The heard narrative must not transport the hearer from his own moment to a place beneath the shadow of the Sinai; what brings Sinai within the hearer’s immediate notice must be the hearer’s active obedience-the law, that is, and not the story” (1994, 132). By pointing out what the narratives of the Bible are not supposed to do, Rosenzweig is also denouncing what they are at risk of doing: the hearer risks thinking that the voice of God is not directed to the characters within the narrative but to himself. This is precisely what happens here. Espinoza does not set the Gutres in the illusory present of narrative, as regular narratives would do, nor does he give them “the law and not the story,” as biblical narratives should do. Rather, he gives the Gutres the story, in its literalness and theatricality, as law. The difference between the two is cancelled. The story becomes the law and in that way erases itself as story, and becomes a commandment directed to the listener. Just like Kabbalah embraces history by considering that the letters of the Torah were rearranged to mirror the history as it should not have occurred, in the manner that it developed after the fall, thus the Gutres incorporate the quirks of Espinoza’s narrative as law.
It is relevant to point out that it is not clear at exactly what point in the story the Gutres begin to think that what they are witnessing is not simply a reading by the cousin of their boss but the self-prophecy of the Messiah. Espinoza realizes (consciously) what is going on only when he is being taken outside to be crucified, but the Gutres’ perspective had shifted earlier in the story. It is impossible to say exactly when, because no insight to their thoughts is given. This impossibility is meaningful because it reveals the uncertainty about when they start working actively toward the fulfillment of the prophecy: we cannot point out an exact moment of revelation, but this revelation appears as an effect of their obedience to the law. Only when the crucifixion is about to occur does the reader understand that a plotting had been taking place all along. Thus, in the narrative, the obedience of the Gutres precedes the acknowledgement of the revelation and the law this revelation conveys. One could also say that no law or revelation of it appears in a narrative prior to the act of obedience to it-an obedience that exists as a fulfillment of the law, without which the narrative of the law is not complete (without which it would not provide a model), but that does not belong to the text of the law itself. In this sense, the obedience of the Gutres to what they have understood not only creates the text as law and revelation, but also as plot (narrative and murderous intrigue). And yet they cancel it as mere narrative by obeying it as law. Thus “Evangelio” seems to be the opposite case of what Rosenzweig proposes: law and narrative are intertwined. Law cannot be deduced from narrative and separated by it; rather they generate each other: both the verisimilitude of the law and its contingency depend upon their capability of being narrated.
The Gutres’ reasons for repeating the text by enacting it seem clear: they wish to be saved. But why does Espinoza participate as actively as he does? If we pay heed to his conversation with Gutre, the father, right before the crucifixion, we can see how Espinoza leaves aside his own set of beliefs and speaks as he acts, keeping himself faithful to the logic of the text he translated. “[T]he father spoke to Espinosa to ask whether Christ had allowed himself to be killed in order to save all mankind. Espinosa, who was a freethinker like his father but felt obligated to defend what he had read them, paused. ‘Yes,’ he finally replied. ‘To save all mankind from hell'” (1998, 401). It could be argued that by speaking in this way, he has allowed himself to participate in the text, or more precisely, he does this by his performance of it, by his status as translator of the text. He is not Espinoza anymore, but the one he became through his reading, and therefore he does not answer in his own words, but in those of the text he has read. He is the medium of the foreign text instead of the speaker of his own thoughts. The fact that he has translated it becomes relevant: Patricio Marchant claims in Sobre árboles y madres that, starting from the act of translating from a foreign and strange language, Espinoza renders strange and foreign his own language, and thus allows his unconscious to appear (1986, 20). In this way, he contributes to the plotting of his own death-the death that is his own precisely because he has changed, following the logic of the text, the reading, and the foreignness that translation causes to appear in him. Perhaps there is here a form of self-betrayal, which would account for the absence of Judas in this plot. No Judas is necessary in salvation itself; at the beginning of “Three versions of Judas,” Runeberg underlines that such a traitor is unnecessary because Christ, as a public preacher, was easy to recognize without the participation of one of his followers.
One could add that the structure of Judas’s action does not even correspond to that of betrayal, because betrayal cannot be announced: by definition, it is supposed to appear in an unexpected way. It is precisely what you cannot predict, count on, or calculate. Judas’s betrayal is suspicious precisely because it was announced with too much clarity. Betrayal does not change Christ’s plans, but is incorporated in them: it is needed not as treachery, but for the dramatic, theatrical mis-en-scène of his own death. Judas’s guilt maintains the innocence of Christ. It absolves Christ of any blame for his own death, it dispels any suspicion of a desire for self-destruction: “The son of man indeed goeth, as it is written of him, but woe to the man by whom the son of man is betrayed!” (Mark 14:13). Thus, the danger of the idea of a god who plots against himself-namely, a God that exists as a model for self-destruction instead of self-sacrifice-is prevented.
But in Borges’s Evangelio there is no Judas, and if there is a betrayal, it is that of Espinoza of himself-a self-betrayal that remains secret while it is plotting the end of the story. (Espinoza does not seem to be aware of his participation, of how his healing of the lamb and growing his beard are interpreted by the Gutres). Espinoza’s action-the self-betrayal that allows the plot to be consummated-mirrors that of the Kabbalist Messiah Sabbatai Zevi; this is, perhaps, the key to understand this story. During the seventeenth century, Sabbatai Zevi led a Kabbalistic Messianic movement that made a great number of people “believe in perfect simplicity that a new era of history had begun and that they themselves had already begun to inhabit a new and redeemed world” (Scholem 1972, 86). Prior to Zevi’s movement, Kabbalist Isaac de Luria and his school had speculated a new dimension of the Messiah: “the redemptive process was now no longer conceived of as simply a working out of Israel’s temporal emancipation from the yoke of the Gentiles, but rather as a fundamental transformation of the entire Creation, affecting material and spiritual worlds alike” (87). Scholem argues that this conception of redemption and its emphasis on inner renewal prepared the soil for the acceptation of Zevi’s Messianic claims. A strong feeling that the times were ready for the appearance of the Messiah, that “the earthly presence of God had risen from the dust” (88), was prevalent at the time. Sabbatai Zevi’s Messianic claims gained him many followers, but his unexpected conversion to Islam threatened to shatter the movement.
Although it seems almost impossible that Zevi’s claims would survive such an event, he actually maintained and radicalized his Messianic status. Followers were not willing to accept that the widespread belief of an imminent Messianic event was wrong; Scholem states that the feeling can be synthesized as “it is inconceivable that all of God’s people should inwardly err, and so, if their vital experience was contradicted by the facts, it is the facts that stand in need of explanation” (1972, 88). The explanation given by some of his followers was to interpret his conversion as the most radical manner of fulfilling the Jewish destiny of exile: to do it by adhering to another faith, thus giving up even the consolation of identity and tradition in a more radical way than ever could have been conceived before. Moderate Sabbatians considered that it was the fate and duty of the Messiah, and the Messiah alone, to transgress the Torah, to violate the Law, and thus mysteriously to fulfill it. Extreme Sabbatians argued that Zevi’s violation of the Torah set the model for his followers: a true believer “should not appear as he really is” (126)-which, historically, sets a way to orthodoxy for marranos.
Considering Sabbatai Zevi’s actions as lawful instead of unlawful is perfectly consistent with an extreme view of the aforementioned Kabbalistic interpretation of the Torah as subject to history, as that of having a fallen condition. Interpretations of Zevi’s conversion to Islam taken to their most extreme conclusion-and yet their most perfectly logical conclusion-form the doctrine of the shemittah. Zevi’s actions, unacceptable and sinful under this cosmic cycle, dictate what is good for the cycle to come. As Scholem states, Zevi’s actions might be regarded as transgressing the Torah under the current shemittah, but when this one ends, another will start when all of Zevi’s actions will be deemed righteous. Thus, Sabbatai Zevi’s betrayal of the Torah is neutralized as betrayal when incorporated as law into a narrative of salvation that depends upon the paradox of plotting against itself: Scholem states that extreme Sabbatianism considers that “the violation of the Torah is now its true fulfillment” (1972, 110).
Similarly, Espinoza’s Christ-like death may be a way of achieving meaning through a self-betrayal whose redemptive quality is given by the narrative frame. He participated in the events that led to his death, but doing so is not pointless; rather, it means to become part of a narrative of redemption. It is the coincidence with the biblical Gospel that saves his death from meaninglessness: by mirroring its narrative, it participates in its law and in the necessity of its fulfillment. This happens only after the events themselves, but thus it gives them a teleological condition that they did not have before.
Judas’s actions as explained by Runeberg can be understood similarly. Just like Zevi’s actions will supposedly be understood differently in a different time, under a diff erent shemittah, the only reason we cannot see the righteousness of Judas’s actions is because the world is not yet ready for such revelation: “Runeberg realized that the hour had not yet come” of spreading the truth of God’s plan (Borges 1998, 167). That it is not yet time for spreading the word means that eventually that time will come. Thus, however secretly, Judas is saved-not from meaningless death like Spinoza, but from transgression of the law.
At the heart of these two stories, and of the Kabbalistic beliefs that allows the understanding of them, there is a tension. Both stories pose the problem of misinterpretation as heresy, and in both of them such misinterpretation depends upon the fact that religion is visible as narrative and only as narrative: there is nothing but the Scriptures to render visible the laws of God and, more importantly, the kind of response that those laws demand. Both stories solve this tension by recurring to the idea that whatever becomes part of the narrative, no matter what it is, also becomes intertwined in the law, becomes part of it, and fulfills it. Paradoxically, and as in Kabbalah, it is not possible to exist outside of the law. Rewriting, contradicting, and cancelling the law become part if it nevertheless. What is now understood as unlawful is what actually dictated the righteousness of a different cosmic cycle. This reveals the law as its aporia. Everything that goes against the law is part of the law: violating it is fulfilling it, extending it outside of its realm is mysteriously obeying it. Its failure is perhaps its success, written in the white, unreadable Torah that will be possible to read in the Messianic age.
It is also relevant that these two stories, which can be productively read in the light of Borges’s interest in Kabbalah, are Christian ones. Borges famously stated once that Christianity was but a successful Jewish heresy. Strictly speaking, there cannot be such a thing as heresy; when Kabbalistic beliefs are pushed to their limit, as in Sabbatianism, when the negation of the Torah is the fulfillment of the Torah, even heresy is part of the law. Infinite interpretation, and the infinite flexibility of the sacred text to accommodate history, implies that there is no writing outside of the law. Everything that can be written has always been there since the moment it was written, just as Borges states that everything that can be interpreted from the Torah was already in it-just as Kabbalists affirm that all of the Talmud was already in the revelation given to Moses at Mount Sinai. The undermining of Judaism that Christianity entails might be already in the Torah, just like all books are already in the library of Babel.