The Garden Under His Window

Yoni A. Dahlen
March 14, 2014
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(All Quotations come from Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse)

A Buddhist Koan says: “The master holds the disciple’s head underwater for a long, long time; gradually the bubbles become fewer; at the last moment, the master pulls the disciple out and revives him: when you have craved truth as you crave air, then you will know what truth is.”

The absence of the other holds my head underwater; gradually I drown, my air supply gives out: it is by this asphyxia that I reconstitute my “truth” and that I prepare what in love is Intractable.

-Roland Barthes, “A Lover’s Discourse”


The French philosopher, Roland Barthes’ beautiful analysis of the lover’s tragedy offers us, as Jews in an age of polymorphous religious identity, a paradox of modern Jewish religiosity.  We are confronted, in our age, with the conflict of two Judaisms that survive after Enlightenment and Holocaust, the philosophical and historical seeking of wissenschaft des Judentums and the transcendent mysticism of Hassidism and its various forms. It is the painful position of the religious Jew to find her religious devotion somewhere within the systems available to her, and yet both systems are insufficient for creating a lasting and reciprocal love.

Cleaving to a Judaism harmonious with history and science, the religious Jew rejects the magic, the superstition, and ultimately, the deep profundity of divine mystery. Alternatively, in embracing myth and cult, she turns away from philosophical and scientific responsibility and returns to the world of angels and demons, binding herself like Ulysses to the ship’s mast as the sirens beckon with their beautiful song. Her head is underwater. She is drowning. And when the air once again enters her lungs, she gasps desperately not for truth, not for transcendence, but for love.

The religious Jew is at her being, the lover whose love is unrequited. She may feel the presence of God, she may weep as she sings God’s praises, and she may surround herself with the comfort of God’s presence. Yet, her love is also responsible for agony and anxiety, for acts of desperation and chronic embarrassment. Her love is for the One whose love is eclipsed, whose acts of compassion and devotion are recorded in scripture but are, at present, black and white photographs of a seemingly eroded marriage.  Her love is her raison d’être, and her love is the source of her despair. She turns to reason. She turns to mystical unity. But she does not know His love, nor does she understand her own.

Hence, discourse on love though I may for years at a time, I cannot hope to seize the concept of it except “by the tail”: by flashes, formulas, surprises of expression, scattered through the great stream of the Image-repertoire; I am in love’s wrong place, which is its dazzling place: “The darkest place, according to a Chinese proverb, is always underneath the lamp.”

How does the religious Jew survive her love with the faulty systems of reason and mysticism? Confronted with the great mystery of God, she has no choice but to cling to pieces of Him whom she loves. His Torah, His Shabbat, His law and His creation; these jewels are not reminders of the love that once was. While they are tools in the hands of wissenschaft and Hassidut, they are, to the religious Jew, extensions of God’s self, and therefore an invitation of intimacy. Barthes calls this element of the Lover’s discourse, “The Ribbon,” and uses Goethe’s character of Young Werther as the paradigm.

…he kisses the knot of ribbon Charlotte has given him for this birthday, the letter she sends him (even putting the sand to his lips), the pistols she has touched. From the loved being emanates a power nothing can stop and which will impregnate everything it comes in contact with, even if only by a glance: if Werther, unable to go see Charlotte, sends her his servant, it is this servant himself upon whom her eyes have rested who becomes for Werther a part of Charlotte (“I would have taken his head between my hands and kissed him then and there, had not human respect prevented me”). Each object thus consecrated (placed within the influence of the god) becomes like the stone of Bologna, which by night gives off the rays it has accumulated during the day.

The ivory tower of reason and mysticism’s tower of wind and clouds stand together, and the religious Jew walks back and forth on the bridge that connects them. The truth of her love is not found in either building but exists somewhere between the two. She cannot dwell in either for too long, lest her heart or her mind become sick, lest her quest for God lose its direction. Rather, she clings to her ribbons, for it is the presence of God she desires, to love Him fully and to be loved in return.

Barthes’ analysis of tragedy and love is all too familiar for the Jew who seeks and suffers in her religious commitment. While the edifices of modern Jewish experience diverge and pursue different roads to know Him whose love is hidden, both paths are ultimately superfluous by themselves. Perhaps the merging of the paths is equally problematic, but in merging, love is recognized in the small act of coming together, of harmonizing the philosophers and the angels. The harmony may not be the ladder to the heavens, but it may just be the garden under His window.

A mandarin fell in love with a courtesan. “I shall be yours,” she told him, “when you have spent a hundred nights waiting for me, sitting on a stool, in my garden, beneath my window.” But on the ninety-ninth night, the mandarin stood up, put his stool under his arm, and went away.

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Yoni A. Dahlen is a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City. He attended Brandeis University where he received a Masters of Arts in Jewish Philosophy. Pursuing a career in academia, his topics of interest include Jewish mysticism, political theology, and the religiosity of Labor Zionism. He currently lives in Jerusalem.

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