Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Genesis Meditations (review)

A Shared Practice of Peace for Christians, Jews and Muslims
Neil Douglas-Klotz

Quest Books, 2003

Reviewed by Tom Bland

At first sight, this may seem a strange book to review for a newsletter dedicated to postmodern magic, but it is a book that is full of magic. It is magic in a devotional sense, meaning that it is an opening towards the divine. It is the divine in a specific sense embodied in the Aramaic word for God, Alaha, meaning Unity. This word comes from the Hebrew root word, Elohim, meaning ‘the one and the all.’ It is the word used for God in the first chapter of Genesis, and signifies the unfolding of unity into multiplicity.

This is the paradox at the heart of Neil Douglas-Klotz’s book, The Genesis Meditations, which seeks to open out the story of creation as a spiritual practice. He writes that the story of creation was not intended as the subject of theology, but as a mythic description of the origin of the world. He says that originally it was an oral story that would have been told in a group gathering, allowing each participant to engage with the story in an experiential sense. To open the first chapter of his book, Douglas-Klotz writes in a poetic fashion:

‘B’reshith Bare Elohim…
In the beginning of time…’
Gathered around a campfire,
the storyteller begins to move and chant.
Through her gestures and expressions,
her enthusiasm and feeling,
she catches the attention of young and old.
She amazes her audience with a story
they believe they are hearing for the first time,
even though they have heard it hundred times before. (p13)


Douglas-Klotz takes on the role of storyteller, leading us through a story we have indeed heard hundred times before - the story of creation. Instead of relying on previous translations, he turns back to the original Hebrew version, and finds in it a story we know only in an incomplete form. He discovers in the Hebrew a multiplicity of meaning that has not previously been opened out in prior translations, such as in the King James Bible. For example, he translates the first word of Genesis, B’reshith, in the following way:


To begin with…

Genesis 1:2
‘In the beginning…’ (KJV)
In the Beginningness,
In a time before time begins,
In the rest before movement begins,
In the space where nothing but
Elohim is, was, and will be.
It all unfolds and moves
like the wings of a bird taking flight,
like a spark turning to flame,
spreading to fire in all directions.
From this centre everything travels
toward its purpose,
somehow moving together and yet
each with its own kernel of destiny
known only to the Holy One. (p108)

This translation is interpretative, but also literal in the sense that Douglas-Klotz is translating what is inherent in the word. It is a mystical vision of the word, which he believes is inherent, integral and implicit in the word itself. This way of translating the word opens out the poetic, mythic and mystical dimension of the term. In his interpretation, Douglas-Klotz has clearly been influenced by the Kabbalah. His translation recalls the Kabbalistic concept of Tzimtzum.(1) In his work, he explicitly calls upon Kabbalistic, Sufi and mystical Christian concepts, in his opening out of the Genesis myth.

Douglas-Klotz seems to propose in the book that Genesis cannot be simply understood as a doctrine, but as a contemplative text that is practical in nature. In his translation of the term B’reshith, he has not only relied upon sound scholarship, but has also sought to understand the word as a living breathing reality. He outlines in the book a meditation on the word, using it as a chant, to open out each possible meaning through speech. It is a specific type of speech that is hard to describe. Martin Buber writes, ‘This speech has no alphabet, each of its sounds is a new creation and only to be grasped as such.’(2)

The Genesis Meditations provides the theory and practice of creation mysticism in the context of Jewish, Christian and Islamic doctrine. Douglas-Klotz seems not so much concerned with institutionalised religion, but more with the ecstatic and visionary aspects of these traditions. He writes:

In the last hundred years, much scholarly attention has been devoted to the area of myth and ritual. I propose here that there is a missing link in this study: the individual visionary. Without individuals whose spiritual experience originated, revived and relived the sacred story, there would be ritual. (p55)

The book is designed to allow the reader to cultivate their own vision of creation, origin and becoming. He does this through examining the creations stories inherent in the three religions, in the Torah, the Gospels and the Qu’ran, before looking at the concept of creation mysticism in the work of the mystics of these traditions. He then provides his own translations of the source material with a selection of meditations to enable the concepts to come alive in practice.

The purpose in these meditations can be seen in a passage Douglas-Klotz quotes from the work of the twentieth-century Kabbalist, Abraham Isaac Kook.

An Epiphany enables you to sense creation not as something completed, but as constantly becoming, evolving, ascending. This transports you from a place where there is nothing new to a place where there is nothing old, where everything renews itself, where heaven and earth rejoice as at the moment of creation.(3)

I can only say now that this is a book I highly recommend to anyone who is interested in creation, origin, meditation and mysticism. It is a remarkable book.

References:

1) See Aryeh Kaplan’s Innerspace: Introduction to the Kabbalah, Meditation and Prophecy, Moznaim, 1991, pp. 120-128 for an outline of the concept.

2) Martin Buber, Between Man and Man, Routledge, 2002, p. 19.

3) The quote is from Daniel C. Matt’s The Essential Kabbalah, Castle Books, 1997, p. 99.

Tom Bland is a student of the theoretical and practical Kabbalah. He leads a reading group on Daniel C. Matt’s The Essential Kabbalah in Chelsea, London. He can be contacted at inward@email.com.

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