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Great Nature and the Gematria of Elohim

Image: the field by Per Ola Wiberg (License: CC-BY 2.0)

The Waking
By Theodore Roethke

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.


Copyright 1953 by Theodore Roethke.[1]

How does “Great Nature” translate within esoteric conceptions of the divine in Rabbinic Judaism? Rav Moshe Cordovero (1522-1570) applies the hermeneutic of Gematria in order to reveal an important teaching. He explains that אלֹהים | Elohim, the divine name[2] appearing in the first verse of Bereishit, has the numerical value of 86 and thus the definite noun, הטבע | ha-teva (lit. the Nature) is signified thereby,[3] “for Nature exhibits the Divine will” (Pardes Rimmonim, Shaar 12, ch. 2, f. 66a).[4]

From where does this understanding of the meaning of the divine name Elohim arise? Moshe Idel walks the idea backward from Spinoza (17th century Holland) to Maimonides (12th century Egypt) by way of Spanish Kabbalists, Avraham Abulafia and Yosef Gikatilla. Petru Moldovan summarizes Idel in “Moshe Idel, Maimonides and the Jewish Mystic” (JSRI No. 2/Summer 2002 p.217):

Idel traces the itinerary which Spinoza [1632-1677] could have read, and which may have been the cause of his statement “Elohim = Nature,” from Maimonides back to the kabbalistic sources. Maimonides [1135-1204] referred to the Aristotelean physics as “ḥoḳmat ha-teva” (the science of nature), and he used the equation “elohi” (the divine) = “tivi’i” (the natural) when referring to different topics in the “Guide”. He conceived the divine activity as being of natural origin: the human intellect, body, the inherent objects, both the spiritual levels and the corporeal levels of nature are susceptible to be divine.

Idel notices that in “Ghet ha-Îemot,” Abulafia [1240-after 1291] had used for the first time the gematria combination: Elohim = ha-Teva. To Abulafia, Elohim is the act of Creation, and not its agent, as this name is the same with nature, and the gematria combination should not be understood as a simple linguistic pun, but as a way of considering the identity of nature with the divine, just as Maimonides had suggested it in the “Guide.” The theosophic kabbalist Iosif Gikatila [1248-after 1305] had mentioned for several times Elohim and ha-Teva in “Ghinat Egoz,” and came to the conclusion that Elohim stood for the idea of power which manifests in the perpetual characteristic of the natures inculcated upon the matter during the creation process.

It’s something fantastic to me that an element of esoteric Rabbinic Judaism entered into Western intellectual history through German philosophical discussions on Spinoza’s radical scientific theology, a kind of pantheism or according to Martial Guéroult, panentheism. This is despite Spinoza himself exclaiming in a letter to Henry Oldenburg, “as to the view of certain people that I identify god with nature (taken as a kind of mass or corporeal matter), they are quite mistaken.”)[5] So much of the discussion about Spinoza’s philosophy would frustrate me less if it was understood within the context of the Maimonidean and Kabbalistic conceptions of Nature/Elohim informing it.[6]

For example, from an article in wikipedia on Panentheism in Europe:

[After the Neoplatonists,] Baruch Spinoza later claimed that “Whatsoever is, is in God, and without God nothing can be, or be conceived.” [7] “Individual things are nothing but modifications of the attributes of God, or modes by which the attributes of God are expressed in a fixed and definite manner.” [8] [....] For Spinoza, our universe (cosmos) is a mode under two attributes of Thought and Extension. God has infinitely many other attributes which are not present in our world. According to German philosopher Karl Jaspers, when Spinoza wrote “Deus sive Natura” (God or Nature) Spinoza did not mean to say that God and Nature are interchangeable terms, but rather that God’s transcendence was attested by his infinitely many attributes, and that two attributes known by humans, namely Thought and Extension, signified God’s immanence.[9] Furthermore, Martial Guéroult suggested the term “Panentheism”, rather than “Pantheism” to describe Spinoza’s view of the relation between God and the world. The world is not God, but it is, in a strong sense, “in” God. Yet, American philosopher and self-described Panentheist Charles Hartshorne referred to Spinoza’s philosophy as “Classical Pantheism” and distinguished Spinoza’s philosophy with panentheism.[10]

To what extent any of this discussion had any influence on Roethke, I can hardly speculate. I find something profoundly redemptive in Roethke’s articulation of Nature, and by extension, the truth of things that resolves with approaching mortality. According to his short biography on wikipedia, “Roethke was born in Saginaw, Michigan and grew up on the west side of the Saginaw River. His father, Otto, was a German immigrant, a market-gardener who owned a large local 25 acre greenhouse, along with his brother (Theodore’s uncle). Much of Theodore’s childhood was spent in this greenhouse, as reflected by the use of natural images in his poetry.” His book of poetry, The Waking, which included the poem above, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1954.

Notes:

  1. Theodore Roethke, “The Waking” from Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke (Doubleday, 1961).
  2. An aside. It’s important to leave divine names used in Judaism, and probably elsewhere, untranslated. Better to explain their meaning and context in the larger discourse of god-concepts, both within and beyond the cultural and philosophical frame giving birth to them. How well does Elohim map to the shibboleth term “God”? How well does the Tetragrammaton map to “LORD” via the traditional circumlocution of Adonai, and is YHVH really preferable to stand-in signifiers like HaShem, or attempts at interpretation like the Eternal?
  3. For an open-source Hebrew Gematria calculator, please visit here.
  4. The use of Gematriah to describe a language of associated meanings is given short shrift by those who misunderstand it as a certain kind of narishkeit (childish or naïve nonsense). Gematria should be better understood as a hermeneutic for establishing (recovering, discovering, and transmitting) associated and synonymous concepts. Gematria is “esoteric” only by virtue of it being judged (falsely, I believe) as radically, subversively interpretive: a highly creative (and thereby suspect) bibliomancy given credence only by those who in their willful ignorance might assume a profound dimension of transmitted meaning on the part of the Author. What isn’t given due regard is the significance given to interpretation itself of interpretation/translation as a praxis in its own right, validated by a tradition whose reverence for sacred texts, perceives them as Alive — indeed as Logos — vivified through the praxis of interpretation/translation.
  5. Unfortunately, the identification of Spinoza with “materialism” fit into a familiar anti-Semitic trope in Christendom (fervently promoted by proud anti-Semites) casting Jews as materialists (in Essence!). How else to understand the philosophy of Spinoza, the Jew?
  6. For my part, I struggle to understand how Jewish conceptions of divine transcendence/immanence correspond to Western philosophical discussions of the same. If you someone who can explicate the divergences and agreements between the two, please comment below.
  7. Ethics, Pt. I, prop. 15
  8. Ethics Pt. I, prop. 25S
  9. Karl Jaspers, Spinoza (Great Philosophers), Harvest Books (October 23, 1974), ISBN 978-0-15-684730-8, Pages: 14 and 95
  10. Charles Hartshorne and William Reese, “Philosophers Speak of God,” Humanity Books, 1953 ch 4.
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“Great Nature and the Gematria of Elohim” is shared by Aharon Varady with a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

About Aharon Varady


Aharon's Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner (M.C.P.) and Jewish educator (M.A. J.Ed.) working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of Torah study. His work and writing have been featured in the Atlantic Magazine, Tablet, and Haaretz, as an outspoken representative of the free-culture and open-source movement in the Jewish community. He currently studies the intersection of theurgy, experiential education, and ecology at the JTS/Davidson School of Education. He welcomes your comments and personal messages.

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