| up a level
from the shun-of-a-gun dept.
Exegesis may be defined as the critical analysis and interpretation of a holy book (or books). The word's Indo-European roots convey the sense of searching out, and the implication is that perhaps the actual meaning of a scripture is not what it first appears. The holy books of every major world religion have exegetical traditions, in some cases many centuries old. Can we as Thelemites benefit from their experience, or must we abandon their philosophical insights as tainted with the outlook of slavery?
Perhaps it is possible to ignore the dogma and self justifications, yet still learn something from the recognitions of a deeper level of meaning in revelation. As Thelemites, we ought not hesitate if we can utilize to our advantage any of the methods that humanity has ever employed. In any case, it is inevitable that Thelemites will produce an exegetical literature based upon studies of the various Holy Books. Crowley himself set the example by commenting, sometimes exhaustively, on most of them. As this body of work continues to develop we may as well profit by an examination of some earlier exegetical philosophies; in that way we may avoid some of the obvious mistakes of our predecessors and sharpen the focus of our own concepts while avoiding the outworn hypocrisies of the past.
Beside The Book of the Law itself the most widely accepted foundation of all Thelemite exegesis is a work entitled simply, "The Comment," and signed by Crowley as "The priest of the princes, Ankh-f-n-khonsu". It was first published in Tunis in 1926. It is quoted here in its entirety:
Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.
Crowley considered this the comment that is mentioned several times in The Book of the Law itself:
My scribe Ankh-af-na-khonsu, the priest of the princes, shall not in one letter change this book; but lest there be folly, he shall comment thereupon by the wisdom of Ra-Hoor-Khu-it. (I:36)
A possible implication is that the words of this brief -- even whimsical -- comment are inspired by the wisdom of Ra-Hoor-Khu-it and enabled by the inner flame of Hadit. Like any holy book, this Class A comment is open to interpretation, but the paradox in this case is that the subject of this holy book is in fact the interpretation of a holy book. Add to that the ambiguities of the text: is it joking or serious? or both in parts? The study of the book is forbidden, discussion of its contents to be shunned, yet there is ample evidence that Crowley supported and encouraged both. Nonetheless he seems earnest enough in his desire that "All questions of the Law are to be decided only by appeal to my writings, each for himself." In his essay on the reception of The Book of the Law, "Genesis Libri AL," he writes in much the same vein,
I lay claim to be the sole authority competent to decide disputed points with regard to The Book of the Law, seeing that its Author, Aiwaz, is none other than mine own Holy Guardian Angel, to Whose Knowledge and Conversation I have attained, so that I have exclusive access to Him. I have duly referred every difficulty to Him directly, and received His answer; my award is therefore absolute without appeal.
Now that Crowley is dead, however, he can no longer answer our questions directly. Inevitably, we must interpret the writings he has left behind, even when attempting to come to an understanding of issues which he himself explicitly addressed. When we are dealing with the questions which he never even tried to answer, we are even more dependent upon our own resources.
The lesson I take from all this is that one's own judgment must be the ultimate arbiter in all Thelemic exegesis. Our attitudes toward the study and comprehension of our Holy Books must be shaped by our own personal interactions with those scriptures. What "The Comment" itself suggests to me are these two fundamentals for a Thelemite approach to exegesis:
Using these ground rules Thelemite exegesis must by definition be intensely personal; however, it is not therefore necessary that it be entirely private. In fact, there are times when at least some interpretations must be made public in order to prevent the misconceptions of fools from endangering our very physical existences! Of particular importance in this regard is the interpretation of the third chapter of The Book of the Law. We all know what could result from taking the word of Heru-ra-ha as a literal blueprint for action on the physical plane. "Trample down the Heathen; be upon them, o warrior, I will give you of their flesh to eat!" (III:11) / "Mercy let be off: damn them who pity! Kill and torture; spare not; be upon them!" (III:18) / "I will be at your arms in battle & ye shall delight to slay." (III:46) are just three of many passages that taken as a literal license to kill would doubtless engender horrific consequences. Thus, Thelemite literalists are every bit as dangerous to the other members of our species as Christian literalists, Hindu and Moslem literalists, or any other slaves of "The Word". And -- in addition to the threat they pose to individuals -- the actions of Thelemite literalists are weapons in the hands of our enemies, who seek to slander, libel, and persecute us all. Being literalists themselves our enemies cannot conceive of a religious movement based on spiritual rather than semantic values. Here, I think, is where some of the medieval concepts of Qabalist exegesis may serve us especially well, in both our defense and our communal progress. One such concept in particular is a focus of this presentation. [For more on some of these concepts in general, see G.G. Scholem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism (1965).]
There is a story in the Talmud about four great rabbis who entered paradise. One saw and died, the second saw and lost his reason, the third became an apostate and misled the youth. Only Rabbi Akiba entered in peace and came out in peace. In the hands of Moses de Leon, rabbi and revealer of the illuminating Zohar, this story is used as the basis for an understanding of holy writ. The Hebrew word for paradise (literally, garden or orchard) is pardes, spelt peh-resh-daleth-samekh. These four letters were employed by de Leon to represent four levels of meaning. Peh stands for peshat, the plain or literal meaning; this is the predominant -- and often obsessive -- attitude of those (like some fundamentalist Christians and Muslims) who insist that every word of their scripture is factually accurate. Resh begins the word remez, the hinted or allegorical meaning, though one of de Leon's anonymous heirs here substitutes reiyoth, insights; this is the predominant attitude of those (like some Unitarians and Reform Jews) who use their scripture as a repository of symbols for human psychological processes like guilt, self-sacrifice, and spiritual renewal. Daleth represents derasha, homiletic or legalistic interpretation: this is the predominant attitude of those (like some Orthodox Jews and Sunni Muslims) who see their scripture as a guide to wise and judicious decision-making, in both public and private life; an instructive mixture of history, legend, and parable, suitable for teaching long-term values and practical ethics to each new generation. Finally Samekh, the last letter of pardes, is the initial letter of the word sod, the secret or mystical meaning; this is the predominant attitude of those (like the mystics of every scriptural tradition) who value their scripture not because it is divinely inspired, but because it inspires them with the Divine.
This system of four levels of meaning is a common method of interpreting the Torah, and is also conformable to the Qabalistic concept of the Four Worlds. But in that case how are we to attribute the correspondences of level of meaning to Qabalistic World? There is the story, told by the same anonymous heir of Rabbi Moses de Leon mentioned above, which connects the four levels of scriptural interpretation with the four rivers of Eden as well as with the four rabbis who entered paradise. De Leon's successor tells us that the first rabbi went into the river Pishon, which name is taken to mean "the mouth that learns exactly" and hence the literal level of meaning. The second rabbi went into the river Gihon, which is referred to allegory and symbolism. The third rabbi went into the river Hiddekel, from "sharp, deft," which refers to the drawing of a moral lesson or legal precedent from scripture. The fourth rabbi went into the Euphrates, which name is connected to the innermost kernel; this rabbi, who achieved mystical understanding of the Torah, was the only one to enter and return without harm. This story then allows us to use the 777 correspondences between the Four Worlds and the four rivers, and thus attribute the Four Worlds to the four levels of meaning. Using this method, our Peh-Resh-Daleth-Samekh can be respectively identified with the Four Worlds: Atziluth, Briah, Yetzirah, and Assiah.
What are some of the implications of this identification for Thelemitic exegesis? In the Tree of Life arrangement labeled 'The Constitution of Man' (reproduced in Regardie's edition of Magick Without Tears) both Atziluth (the archetypal World from which all the others emanate) and Briah (the creative World which interfaces between pure archetype and actual existence) are placed above the Abyss by Crowley; Yetzirah (the World of formation, peopled by the Angels and Divine Principles) he corresponds to the six central sephiroth which make up Ruach, and Assiah (the World of action, home for both matter and the Qlipoth) to the sephira Malkuth. If we substitute the four levels of interpretation for the Four Worlds in this arrangement we find that both the literal and the allegorical levels of meaning are above the Abyss. Does this mean that a literal understanding of scripture is possible only above the Abyss? I think yes: to comprehend the contradictions of a sepher ha-Torah ("book of the Law") requires, as the Buddhist sutra says, reaching "the far side of the river;" in Thelemite terms, achieving passage across the Abyss. This may at first seem contrary to common sense, which tells us that a literal interpretation should correspond with the material plane while the esoteric meaning is inherently of the archetypal plane. But this sort of common sense is misleading when it comes to exegesis, just as it is in the cases of post-Copernican astronomy and post-Einsteinian physics. In remarkably many of the most important areas of human thought, we find that both strict logical analysis and sweet poetic imagination conspire to overthrow our everyday assumptions and the mundane conclusions we draw from them.
Does this also mean that we may never take literally any of The Book of the Law's commands? Well, if by "never" you mean "sometimes," then my answer again is yes. Once more, the framework of the Four Worlds is instructive. Within each World there are another Four Worlds; therefore, in Atziluth's sphere of Assiah one might suppose a literal/mystic meaning must be apparent. Consider II:36-44,
There are rituals of the elements and feasts of the times. A feast for the first night of the Prophet and his Bride! A feast for the three days of the writing of the Book of the Law. A feast for Tahuti and the child of the Prophet -- secret, O Prophet! A feast for the Supreme Ritual, and a feast for the Equinox of the Gods. A feast for fire and a feast for water; a feast for life and a greater feast for death! A feast every day in your hearts in the joy of my rapture! A feast every night unto Nu, and the pleasure of uttermost delight! Aye! feast! rejoice! there is no dread hereafter. There is the dissolution, and eternal ecstasy in the kisses of Nu.
Now, the literal act of feasting according to this passage might perhaps in some way help to bring you to that quite mystical understanding of Aiwass' revelation which is proper to Assiah. But to miss the deeper meaning of these words and see instead a mere catalogue of holidays and an invitation to non-stop partying would be a terrible mistake; just as it is a mistake to think that a literal enaction of the Law is necessarily effective or even desirable on the physical plane. Overeating, even in the name of Thelema, can still cause indigestion. Ritually sacrificing a human child, no matter to what god, can still cause execution for murder. The seekers who live with any scripture in real peace, who survive their studies with their integrity and reason intact are those who are able to use primarily the most hidden scriptural meanings as a basis for actual behavior in Malkuth. Still, the mystic's apprehension of holy writ must also include moral and mental precepts, allegories which operate on imagination, and even, where called for, literal obedience (try this experiment: obtain a copy of the Book of the Law in an edition which includes "The Comment;" read this particular copy aloud in its entirety once, and then burn it up completely; how does it make you feel? foolish? frightened? fescennine? or free?).
As might be expected when the understanding of revelation is susceptible to such subtle manipulation, a common feature of saints' lives throughout history has been the inexplicability of some of their actions. A number, of course, have lost their reason, but others may have had reasons aplenty. After all, if the words of scripture are only to be truly understood mystically in this World of action, then, on an archetypal level, those very same words must be literally true! We ought to avoid mixing up our understandings of the planes, but there are still, inevitably, natural interactions between the planes. In such cases you might say that the only proof is success, but then we must ask, whose success? For Ra Hoor Khuit, "There is success." For us, well, we do the best we can, and -- ultimately -- are forced to let it go at that. Service to Ra Hoor Khuit is rather fully described in III:62, "To Me do ye reverence! to me come ye through tribulation of ordeal, which is bliss." The founders and true practitioners of most religions, even the most unwarlike, have had to face battle and prove their bravery, albeit in a multitude of ways. The saint of meekness draws strength from the sufferings of Jesus; the saint of obedience finds inspiration in Allah's conquests as performed through Muhammed. The measure of these respective saints' success is in how well they emulate their exemplars. Should we not rightly expect much greater trials for those who would be the saints of freedom, when they seek to serve the Crowned & Conquering Child, All Victorious, "Supreme and terrible God, Who makest the gods and death to tremble before Thee"? And if the tribulation of their ordeal is truly bliss then He may indeed grant triumph to their wills, but only so long as there is no difference between their wills and His. Nothing succeeds like success; everything fails in each failure.
What I have tried to show in this brief essay is the possible relevance for Thelemites of the concept of exegesis, and to detail a single example of Qabalist exegetical technique. I have tried to use this one technique as a tool for understanding The Book of the Law. Many other like tools exist; I hope that this one example inspires others (and myself once again) to pick them up and use them.
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