Interlude ח: War and Peace
Exodus 15:3 says “The LORD is a man of war; the LORD is His Name.” But this verse is ambiguous: “man of war” can mean either a type of Portuguese jellyfish or a type of British warship. Which one is the LORD?
I suggest that He is the latter. A jellyfish is a primitive and ignorant animal, unworthy to be compared to the glories of God. But a warship is mighty and inspires awe, and divine comparisons are entirely suitable; indeed, God may be the only thing worthy of being compared to it. For it is written, “The LORD alone is worthy of warship.”
— From “A Call To Arms”, by Aaron Smith-Teller
Submitted for the January 2017 issue of the Stevensite Standard
Rejected with extreme prejudice by editor Erica Lowry
It’s hard for me to imagine what it must have been like to be alive in ’69, to see the demons spill forth from the ground and the angels descend from the clouds.
But – okay, personal disclosure time. When I was little, six or seven, I thought Nazis were a kind of fictional monster.
You’d see movies where the heroes fought zombies. You’d see movies where the heroes fought vampires. And then you’d see other movies where the heroes fought Nazis. Zombies spoke with a silly slow droning voice and said BRAAAAAINS a lot. Vampires spoke with a silly Eastern European accent and said “I VANT TO SUCK YOUR BLOOD” a lot. Nazis spoke with a silly German accent and said “HEIL HITLER” a lot. Zombies dressed in ragged clothes that were falling apart. Vampires dressed in stylish black capes. Nazis dressed in brown uniforms with snazzy red armbands. In any case, the point was that they were this weird subspecies of humanity that didn’t follow normal rules, that was out to kill everybody for unspecified reasons, and you could shoot them without feeling guilty.
And then when I was eight I picked up a history book, and it was all in there, and I felt sick and vomited for the rest of the evening. And that night I was too scared to sleep. Not scared of Nazis – the history book explained that they had been beaten decisively a long time ago, and besides they never made it to America anyway – but scared of vampires coming to suck my blood. After all, if I could be wrong about one thing, who was to say I wasn’t wrong about everything else?
And that must have been how it felt to be alive in ’69, to learn that something you’d previously assumed was a legend used to scare children was terribly, terribly real. And then you wondered what else might be real. And then you started to panic.
The hardest hit were the atheists. They’d spent their whole lives smugly telling everyone else that God and the Devil were fairy tales and really wasn’t it time to put away fairy tales and act like mature adults, and then suddenly anyone with a good pair of binoculars can see angels in the sky. It was rough. Rough for the Marxists, who had embraced it more than anyone. Rough for the scientific community, who had never come out and said SCIENCE PROVES THERE IS NO GOD ALSO WE ARE SMARTER THAN YOU but you could kind of read it between the lines. Rough for all the New Age hippies who were revolting against the tired old Biblical morality of their parents.
Stephen Jay Gould, a biologist working at Harvard University, tried to stabilize the burgeoning philosophical disaster with his theory of “non-overlapping magisteria”. He said that while religion might have access to certain factual truths, like that angels existed or that the souls of the damned spent eternity writhing in a land of fire thousands of miles beneath the Earth, it was powerless to discuss human values and age-old questions like “what is the Good?” or “what is the purpose of my existence?” Atheistic science should be thought of not as a literal attempt to say things like “space is infinite and full of stars” or “humankind evolved from apes” that were now known to be untrue, but as an attempt to record, in the form of stories, our ancestors’ answers to those great questions. When a scientist says “space is infinite and full of stars”, she does not literally mean that the crystal sphere surrounding the Earth doesn’t exist. She is metaphorically referring to the infinitude of the human spirit, the limitless possibilities it offers, and the brightness and enlightenment waiting to be discovered. Or when a scientist says “humankind evolved from apes”, she is not literally doubting the word of the archangel Uriel that humankind was created ex nihilo on October 13, 3761 BC and evolution added only as part of a later retconning – she is saying that humankind has an animal nature that it has barely transcended and to which it is always at risk of returning. When religious people mocked atheists for supposedly getting their cosmology wrong, they were missing the true grandeur and beauty of atheism, a grandeur which had been passed on undiminished from Democritus to the present day and connected us to the great thinkers of times past.
Nobody was very impressed by these logical contortions, but for some reason a bunch of people kept repeating them anyway.
Also unimpressed were the Soviets. They had been taking the problems kind of in stride right until June 1969 when the legions of Hell started swarming out of Lake Baikal. The Russians had been carefully guarding the borders with NATO, with China, and especially the Bering Strait where they almost touched America. They’d forgotten the oldest border of all. Lake Baikal is the deepest lake in the world, but it sits on a rift even deeper than that. A dozen generations of shamans had warned first the czar, then the communists that the rock on the island in the center of the lake wasn’t a rock at all so much as a plug blocking a hole that really needed to stay blocked, but no one had listened. Without any troops in their way, the demons had taken over pretty much all of Siberia east of the Yenisei within a year. Yakutsk was their capital, the rumors said, and had been the site of terrible massacres.
But the demons, too, had forgotten something: this was Russia. What a normal country would call getting suddenly invaded by a vastly more powerful adversary who committed unspeakable atrocities in their wake, the Russians just called Tuesday. Even the nature of the foe didn’t much faze them; this was the fiftieth year of the Soviet state, and they’d spent so long hearing that their enemies were demons that it was almost an anticlimax when it all proved true.
So the Soviets mobilized their military machine, the largest in the world, and trudged to the Yenesei, which they dutifully started defending. Another country would have called it a terrible battle that made the rivers run red with blood and the piled corpses reach almost to the sky. The Russians just called it Wednesday. Hell’s legions stalled temporarily, caught flat-footed by Moscow’s ability to throw its citizens’ lives away defending every square meter of land.
(In Soviet Russia, demons shocked by atrocities of you!)
But there were only so many Russians with so much blood to shed, and very slowly the front started advancing west again.
Atheist materialist communism doesn’t cut it when you’re fighting literal demons, and Gould’s non-overlapping magisteria was hardly a warrior faith. The Soviets convened a conference of Marxist theorists and Russian Orthodox clergy to try to hammer together an official metaphysics, but the two sides had trouble finding common ground. Meanwhile, people were starting to talk about sephirot and klipot and the Names of God. This wasn’t just a supernatural incursion, this was a specifically Jewish supernatural incursion. Brezhnev told the Politburo that a meeting of Marxists and Orthodox priests wasn’t enough. They needed Jews.
Unfortunately, they’d spent the last forty years or so denouncing religion as regressive, and thanks to Stalin’s anti-Semitism Jews had suffered disproportionately in the transition to Glorious Scientific Modernity. There were probably still a few learned rabbis in the Soviet Union, but none who would go up to Leonid Brezhnev and admit they were learned rabbis. The conference stalled. Moscow took the extraordinary step of asking for help from international Jewry. Europeans, Israelis, even Americans would be welcome, as long as they could quote Torah and tell him how to update Marxism for a post-scientific age.
International Jewry promptly told him that many of them had just finished risking their lives to get out of Russia, and also they hated Russia, and they didn’t care how desperately Russia need their help, he was crazy if he thought they were going back there.
A singer is someone who tries to be good.
Isaac Bashevis Singer had always tried to be good. After escaping Russian-occupied Poland for the United States, he spent the fifties and sixties as one of the country’s top intellectuals, using his fame to support and protect Jews around the world. But he was an advocate not only to his own people but for oppressed peoples around the world – not to mention animals, for whose sake he became a fierce and early advocate of the vegetarian movement. Although he’d been fervently anti-Communist for years, he couldn’t deny the extremity of the Soviets’ need. He was no kabbalist – but his father had been a Hasidic rabbi, and he had several thousand pages of notes for a book he was writing about the Baal Shem Tov, and as the Comet King would later say, “somebody has to and no one else will”. Singer got on the next plane for Moscow.
The Soviets were not impressed. Not a rabbi, barely even a believer, how did he think he was going to reconcile Marx and the kabbalah?
“Reconcile?” asked Singer. “Marx is already the kabbalah. Isn’t it obvious?”
Gebron and Eleazar define kabbalah as hidden unity made manifest through the invocation of symbols and angels. But unity is communion, and symbols are marks on a piece of paper. So “unity made manifest by symbols and angels” equals “Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels”. The supposed atheism of Communists was a sham; after all, did they not regard Marx with a devotion almost equivalent to worship? But the name Karl Marx comes from Germanic “Carl”, meaning “man”, and “Marx”, coming from Latin “Marcus”, itself from the older Latin “Martius”, meaning “of Mars” or “of war”. So the name “Karl Marx” means “man of war”. But Exodus 15:3 says “The LORD is a man of war; the LORD is His Name.” The LORD is His Name, indeed. Every tribute the Soviets had given Marx, they were praising God without knowing it.
(and for that matter, the kabbalistic Avgad cipher decodes “Lenin” into “Moses”. This is not a coincidence because nothing is ever a coincidence.)
But aside from etymology, Marx’s whole system was only a veneer of materialism placed over the Lurianic kabbalah. God made Man in his own image; therefore Man went through the same Lurianic process as God did, only in reverse. Just as God’s descent was channeled into a series of sephirot, so the ascent of Man was channeled into a series of class structures ordered in dialectic steps. But these class structures were unable to contain the human will and shattered in violent system-ending revolutions, leading to the next class-structure in the series. Our own world is the chaotic combination of sparks of sacred humanity and debris from the accumulated advantages of all the previous shattered class structures. Marx refers to this second group by the German word “kapital”, a perfect Hebrew anagram of “klipot”. The sparks of humanity must self-organize to redirect the human will and capital into a proper configuration, realization of which will constitute tikkun olam and usher in the arrival of the Moshiach and the terrestrial paradise. But just as the spiritual klipot can self-organize into demons, so the earthly capital can self-organize into the reactionary forces trying to prevent revolution and keep the world shattered and confused. The Soviet Union was under attack by both at once, besieged by capitalists and demons – but only because the great work was almost complete, only because this was their last chance to prevent the final triumph of the light over the darkness forever.
Now that was a warrior faith.
Leninist pamphlets in one hand, Torah scroll in the others, the new acolytes of Marxist-Lurianism set out across Russia exhorting people to defend the Motherland, telling them that the hour of Moshiach was near at hand.
In 1960, the Chinese had split with the Soviets over different interpretations of Communism, and the two countries had been on bad terms ever since. When the demons took over Yakutsk, Mao had watched warily to see if they would make any foray toward the Chinese border. When they didn’t, he’d issued a strongly worded statement saying that killing tens of millions of Russians was probably a bad thing, then turned his attention back to internal affairs.
This was the era of the Cultural Revolution, so people were starving to death left and right – mostly left, since the right tended to die in ways much more dramatic and violent. Those who rebelled were mowed down mercilessly; those who disagreed were sent to prison camps. Mao was old, but clung to life tenaciously, as if he wasn’t going to go out before taking a big chunk of the Chinese population with him.
It was in this atmosphere that an underfed peasant on a collective farm had a strange dream. A gloriously shining figure showed him letters in a tongue he didn’t understand. When he woke up he figured it was just a dream, but he remembered the letters anyway. That afternoon when he was digging a well, he struck something too hard for his makeshift spade to pry through. After a little exploration he found his way into an underground chamber holding an amazing treasure. Eight thousand terracotta soldiers, horseman, and chariots, all perfectly lifelike, frozen in warlike postures.
Moved by an impulse he didn’t quite understand, he wrote the mysterious letters from his dream on the forehead of one of the warriors, and it sprung to life, ready to serve him.
Six months later Mao was dead, the peasant was the first Harmonious Jade Dragon Emperor, the terracotta golems were back in their underground chamber until their country needed them a second time, and China was on the up-and-up again.
Winston Churchill had once said “If Hitler were fighting Hell, I would at least make a favorable reference to the Devil.” Richard Nixon was familiar with this quote. Richard Nixon had no sense of humor.
“I’ve been working my [expletive deleted] off to protect this country from Communism for twenty years,” he told the Cabinet, “and [expletive deleted] if I’m going to stop now just because there’s a moral grey area. I just want you to think big, for Chrissakes. A chance to end this [expletive deleted] once and for all. By God, people, this is our chance!”
The overt meaning of “kiss” is “to press the lips against another person as a sign of affection.”
The kabbalistic meaning is “to betray divinity.”
This we derive from the story of Judas Iscariot, who for thirty pieces of silver agreed to identify Jesus to the Roman authorities. He kissed him in the Garden of Gethsemane as a signal for the legionaries to swoop in and arrest him. When Jesus was later worshipped as the Son of God, Judas’ name became so synonmous with betrayal that Dante gave him an exclusive position as one of the three greatest sinners of all time.
Most people don’t know a would-be Messiah to backstab, but there are other ways to betray divinity. The yetzer ha-tov, the inclination to do good in every one of us, is divine in origin. When we stifle it, we betray divinity.
But a singer is someone who tries to be good. So somebody who betrays the divine urge toward goodness inside himself again and again, playing Judas so many times that his own yetzer ha-tov withers and dies – such a person might have a name like –
Kissinger nodded as the President spoke. “We should act quickly,” he said. “Our leverage will be higher the sooner we make our move, and the Soviets cannot be allowed to learn anything. It will be a hard sell to the American people, but the bolder and swifter the action, the more daring it will seem. The American people like a government that does what needs to be done.”
In 1972, the President, Mr. Kissinger, and several other high officials took an unexpected trip to Yakutsk, where they opened full diplomatic relations with Hell. Nixon and Thamiel agreed to respect the boundary at the Bering Strait and cooperate economically and militarily against their mutual enemy.
True to Kissinger’s words, opinion-makers hailed the treaty as a masterstroke. One of the nation’s most dangerous opponents had been converted to a working partner in a single week of whirlwind diplomacy. Kissinger was lauded, but the real praise fell on Nixon, whose stern anti-communist stance had given him the moral credentials he needed to forcefully defend his action. Thus the saying that sprang up in the wake of the trip: “Only Nixon can go to Hell.”
(later, after the Outer Gate scandal, the word “only” was removed from the saying.)
But outside the Beltway, the reaction was less positive. Preachers in small town churches railed against the President. Human rights advocates expressed concern. Noam Chomsky wrote a scathing article in The Nation. Student leaders organized protests at universities. Polls in the South and Midwest, once solid Nixon country, showed increasing concern.
The backlash was stronger still in America’s foreign allies. The Archbishop of Canterbury led a candlelight vigil against the treaty. Italian syndicalists set off bombs. The Christian Democrats brought down the French government, and were denounced as Communist sympathizers. In Iran, Shia Muslim protesters took to the streets, shouting Marg bar Shaytan-e bozorg! – “Death to the Great Satan”. The Shah’s riot police attacked the protesters, the protesters fought back, and the disturbance was calmed only when a loyal Ayatollah stated that it was not the duty of Muslims to fight against Hell bodily, but only spiritually, for Hell itself was created by God for a reason. Thus the quote from Khayyam’s rubaiyat eight hundred years earlier:
O thou, who burns with tears for those who burn
In Hell, whose fires will find thee in thy turn
Hope not the Lord thy God to mercy teach
For who art thou to teach, or He to learn?
That was the end of Iranian resistance to the alliance. And the quote made it to America, Europe, and all the other countries of the world, became a sort of motto, an excuse, a “well, who are we to say that allying with the forces of Hell isn’t the sort of thing that might be part of the divine plan after all?”
(But the soul is still oracular; amid the market’s din
List the ominous stern whisper, from the Delphic cave within
They enslave their children’s children who make compromise with sin.)
(“It’s not a ‘compromise with sin’, per se, just a strategic alliance with the Devil.”)
(“Okay, fine, whatever, maybe it’s kind of a compromise with sin.”)
But as the demons very slowly pushed their way toward Moscow, buoyed by their new partnerships, people grew wary again. If Russia did fall, what then? Western Europe, India, and the entire Middle East sat there ripe for the taking. And the Americans couldn’t help but reflect that the Bering Strait was seeming a lot smaller than they would like.
“Kissinger, are you sure this was a good idea?”
“There is never any surety in politics, only probability.”
“But you think it’s probable this was a good idea?”
“What about our [expletive deleted] souls, Kissinger?”
“I fail to see how they are relevant to geopolitics.”
So passed the first quarter of the 1970s.
There is a new author’s note up here