This issue Current issue

April 2009

      ANCIENT MYTHS AND JEWISH MISHAGAS

                              By Sy Schechtman

         

        Mishagas is a Jewish colloquillism probably derived from the Yiddish word mishugganeh,  meaning somewhat confused or crazy, but in a fond or loving way.  Myths are the usual conflation of fact and fancy which can amuse,  astonish or even aggravate.……..But mishagas has the possibility of divine insights,  moments of transcendant enlightenment.  Indeed, God intoxicated with exaltation or profound disappointment.    Lamentations and celebrations.  But even in the emotional rubble of much of history the Jewish experience exemplifies what  St. Paul, who was once the Jew Saul,  said famously …. “And now abideth faith,  hope, and love, these three;  but the greatest of these is love…”.   I will never  gainsay the immensity of love in human relations,  but hope is the psychic  emollient  that fuels one’s aspirations.  And vivifies one’s myths and legendary achievements ----positively or negatively, but usually very  dramatically.

        Karl Marx very famously also declaimed that “religion was the opiate of the people”.   This was  his cynical view that religion was a pacifier,  a dulling link in the chain of servitude of the oppressed worker struggling against the unfair capitalist bosses.  The main stumbling block impeding the inevitable establishment of the of dictatorship of the proletariat, the worker’s paradise on  earth. There is some truth in this, as in all beguiling but essentially glib assumptions.   The “opiate”  of all of us are myths and legends,  and those that promise hope are the most  compelling.   Unfortunately,  however,  there is much truth to the truism of sometimes  “living in hope and dying in despair”.   The Jews, however,  have been able to turn this truism around  and build on the apparent despair manifest in its bleak ending and make it one of the pillars of  Judaism and its long lived existence.    And thus making sure that “hope  springs eternal in the human brest”.   For  over  two thousand years of total  diaspora  life,  completely homeless and wandering world  wide, the Jews would still stubbornly celebrate the Jewish New Year,  Rosh Hashona,  clinking glasses in the anticipatory hopeful toast to “next year in Jerusalem!”    

        Therefore probably  the most famous myth in all of humankind’s memory   bank.    Adam and Eve,  the snake, Adam’s disobedience and Eve’s collusion to tempt Adam to break God’s strict injunction  against eating from the  Tree of Knowledge in the center of the Garden of Eden.  This willful collusion against the Deity’s plan for a benign and non stressful life (and insipid!) in the edenic paradise designed by God  provoked much unusual wrath.   Adam and Eve and all human progeny lost their chance at immortality  and an easeful, almost angelic life.  For  Adam’s disobedience an angry God said  to Adam “cursed be the ground  because of you;/…..by the sweat of your brow  shall you get bread to eat/  until you return to the ground from where you were taken…..For dust you are from the ground  from where  you were taken,  and to dust you shall    return.”    And to Eve  He said… I will make most severe your pangs in childbearing;  in pain shall you   bear children….your urge   shall be for your husband,  and he shall rule over you”……. “And the Lord God said  “Now that the man  has become like one of us, knowing good and bad, what if he should stretch out his hand and take from the tree of life and eat, and \live forever!  So the Lord God    banished him from the garden of Eden, to till the soil from which he was  taken”.    

        This essentially grim and negative  depiction  of the relation of humanity and God has come down to us in two  clearly disparate traditions. The  very positive Rabbinic understanding  is that man and woman were not to be mere shepherds tending an idyllic no challenge venue  and that acquiring knowledge was the prime thrust of life to attain his true potential—a truly human being capable of holy and --- compassionate ---deeds.   For so he and she were created---in the image of God,  and he—and she-- would vindicate God’s judgement by perfoming such positive deeds (mitzvoth)  on planet Earth   to  justify God’s faith in His newly wrought solar system  in the galaxy Milky Way on planet Earth.   Joy and sorrow were to be humanity’s lot,  but following the holy path as highlighted   in the Torah, and subsequently in the Gospels,   would  continue humanities upward path to a holy  kingdom on earth with the ultimate coming of the Messiah, a descendant  of the House of David. As we know subsequent  significant modifications occurred in the reinterpretation  of man’s  disobedience in eating the forbidden fruit.  In the gentile version Adam and Eve’s  disobedience  proved humanities   fallible (sinful) nature  and the need of God’s only Son to redeem mortal man and woman with the His suffering on the cross  and thus invoke  God’s grace to forgive his fellow Jews.  “Forgive them Lord for they know not what they do”.

        Greek myths generally  are more benign in their implications, dealing with a family (pantheon) of gods who are palpably anthropomorphic and not too morally uplifting. And not very concerned with the lot of humanity.  A gross exception to this,  however, is the myth of Oedipus,  King of Thebes,  who at birth was cast  out of the royal household to attempt to forestall the dire oracular prediction  that he would murder his father and marry his mother.  He was raised by shepherds, after being put out to die, and in early manhood unwittingly killed his father,  Laius, and then having solved the riddle of the Sphinx  he became King of Thebes,  thus  becoming the husband of Jocasta, who unknown to both  of them were mother and son.   When this tragic entanglement  became known to both Oedipus  and his distraught mother she hanged  herself  and he blinded himself.   Sigmund Freud  used the Oedipus myth as the basis of his psychoanalytic   theories, that the faculty of reason,  which we prize so much,  masked the true suppressed urges that influence our conduct.  And some of these urges  relate to our attraction  to the parent of the opposite sex, father/ daughter ,  and mother/son. Conflicts that  Freud proposed that accepting authority in our society depends  on a successful resolution  of  parental conflicts to unify parental guidance. For a healthy, integrated individual, and for our collective social rule.  Both domestically,  with children and societally with dialogue and enlightened analysis,  with thorough individual familial debate and healthy democratic  political  debate. 

        In the great Greek tragedy as told by Sophocles in Oedipus Rex,  the parents of Oedipus, Jocasta and Laius, try to avoid the curse  prophesied by the oracle that  their new born son, Oedipus,  was destined to   unknowingly slay  his father and sleep with his mother.  They take many precautions to avoid this throughout Oedipus’ life, but the continual play of ironic fate throughout  his life make this utterly tragic double deed  a horrible accomplishment.   When Oedipus  and his mother  (and wife) become aware  of this incestuous relationship she hangs herself and Oedipus gouges out his eyes and becomes a beggar.

        Freud, in one of his seminal early works, Totem and Taboo,  discusses primitive  codes of group life,  and how in their close communal life the prohibition of sexual activity between blood relations  was strictly enforced.   The ancient myth of the fathers against the sons is discussed as a prime motivating  force.    Initally the strong leader,  the father figure ruled the group  of  relatively compliant sons, daughters and nurturing  mothers.   Then the maturing young males became a competitive force for the nubile young girls in the group and had to be sent  away.    Ultimately,  the younger generation took command,  but  underlying sexual tension vied with respect of elders as  both groups of males had to compromise their quest for the same  sexual objects.   As we see in a more mature society  the young male  Oedipus and Jocasta have a similar, but completely inadvertent coupling,  almost an echo from the past of the incestual primitive urges of an earlier  more primitive time.   A time, too,  when incest was strictly forbidden.  As it was in Sophocles time when this play was written,  and it still is in our still more permissive  climate today.    The latent rebellion of pubescent  young males----there was no  such phase then as adolescence--- for control of the nubile female population has echoes in our very era as we uneasily  recall our present adult children who as adolescent and pubescent  refused to talk sincerely and intimately with “any adults over the age of thirty”!   (Mainly parents!) In  our day it is   probably not solely a Freudian repressed sexual drive, but the complications of repressed adulthood in general, that makes adolescence such a tenuous time  for both parent and  child.   The time now of delayed adult responsibility though fully capable of all adult mental and physical tasks,  some of which, such as the sexual,  must be quite restrained and controlled  until a societally approved time of sufficient educational and financial  ability. 

        The myths that seem to have most resonance now are those that eerily reflect modern themes somewhat.   The  myth of Lillith, the sexual demoness, is prevalent in many variations  in Jewish and  Kabbalisitc literature,   and her refusal to  cohabit in the “missionary position”  underneath the superior male,  is said to have displeased Adam,  and so Eve was   created,   who was not so militantly feminist.   Lillith was banished from Eden and spent her time indulging in sex with  demons and witches along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates  rivers, supposedly the borders of the original Garden of Eden.   Today the myth that seems most  relevant  is the Tower of Babel story,  at the very beginning of our human history,  when men and women were just beginning to aspire to less primitive ways.  “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the  sky,  and we shall make a name for ourselves…….”  But the Lord came down and disapproved.    He confounded  their previous one language into a Babel of many tongues and scattered them “over the face of the earth”.

And today we  have a virtual torrent of communication  on the air,  on the screens of television and movies and the  printed pages of  newspapers, magazines, junk mail, and even the constant harassment of intrusive, unwanted phone  calls.  And we still seek vainly  for mutual trust and understanding,  still “eyeless in Gaza”,   drowning in the superfluity  of information and misinformation that we have created.  

        The true mishagas,  the God inebriatied  hope, still persists.    Moses,  thou he could not see His face,  spoke to God,   Elijah did not die but was swept up to heaven and heard His “still small voice”,   and Job, who  had a long verbal session with the Lord, insisted  that Though He slay me I shall still  believe…”   and  Einstein today, by no means an atheist,  vowing that “God does not play dice with the universe”  and that  there is in the cosmos around us the “music of the spheres”  that fills one with awe  and even reverence.   That we do not necessarily go from the oblivion before birth to the complete void  of oblivion  after mortal death.  Not an uttuerly random existence but  a higher reality that some day humanity will comprehend and attain to.

That’s my mishagas  and  opiate of ultimate hope.