Thursday, November 14, 2013

For the Sake of Heaven

It is the end of the eighteenth century and revolution has come to France and Napoleon is rising. In Lublin in Poland, the Seer of Lublin, a Hasidic rabbi, is coming to believe that Napoleon is the prophesied one who will bring to bear the final war of 'Gog and Magog' and the coming of the Messiah. If this is so, is it permitted to use Cabalistic magic to bring Napoleon on? Can we not only pray for victory but seek to manipulate the heavens to bring it about? The answer of the Seer is yes. Power in the hands of just men can be used wisely, even if that wise use means much current suffering, for the end, the Lord's coming, will justify those means.

The Yehudi, a disciple of the Seer and a founder of his own congregation, thinks not. He stands on this side of magic, wishing not to hasten the end, whose time cannot be foretold, but prepare for the end. Indeed the end, it is implied, will not come until we are prepared, until we summon Him with one voice, that it is only when every blade of grass, every animal, every human face is hallowed and turned back towards God that the exile from God will be ended. In the beautiful image of Hasidim, the Shechinah, the presence of God in creation, seen as feminine, that went into exile with Israel can only return when we ourselves do.

It is the power of Buber's 'chronicle' (his preferred title over 'novel') that, though it is clear that he stands on the side of the Yehudi, each man, each position, is given its full due, wrought in a language and a telling of great power and beauty. The Seer of Lublin is a great and tragic figure. It was Herman Hesse, amongst others, who nominated Buber for the Nobel Prize for Literature on the strength of this book and his re-telling of Hasidic tales.

The book as a whole is a powerful meditation on the nature of evil and the redemption from evil. The dividing line between good and evil runs through each and every human heart and the tragedy of evil is that it often emerges out of a surfeit of seeking the good. The Messiah's coming is a longed for good, surely we might justly help it along? We are loyal to the Seer, he has been a boon and a blessing to ourselves and our community, surely the Yehudi in adopting an alternate position is being disloyal, dissembling, a stumbling block? Thus are the seeds of enmity sown in a community. The seeds of violence are sown whenever we devalue means in the blinding sight of visionary ends.

The book explores through incident and tableau, saying and story many of the facets of how we might live and fail to live with one another in the microcosm of this Hasidic community yet always aware of its implications for a wider world.

At one point the Yehudi declares, "Never will the work of the human being have a good issue if we do not think of the souls whom it is given us to help, and of the life between soul and soul, and of our life with them and of their lives with each other. We cannot help the coming of redemption if life does not redeem life," and does not redeem it here and now, in manifest loving kindness, that wrestles with each and every evil urge, to hallow it into light.


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