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.
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.