Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Salmon Creation: A Midrash

The following entry was written after spending time on Sitka Island observing the Salmon run on Indian River.  In Tlingit these waters are named Kaasda Heeni, perhaps best translated into English as “Human's River.”  A story is told that the Tlingit once saw a canoe moving upstream, powered by people they did not recognize.  When they investigated, they found a log with frogs perched on it, drifting in the current.

Salmon over a Redd
 I. Salmon Run Reverie

In August the chum, dog salmon, arrive, at first insubstantial, green shadows flickering over green stones, green shadows slipping noiselessly between fingers of light.  But soon the fish thicken in the river, settle in, their great bodies churning the waters, flashes of silver, backbones clothed in gray-green bands bending to the current, yellow dorsal fins, translucent and extended, cutting into the surface of waves.  From time to time a thick ribbon of flesh smothered in scales flashes up from the depths as a salmon turns on its flank and arches sideways toward the heavens.  Females pick out spots in the channels and burrow into the riverbed, beating on the gravel with tails and bellies to hollow out a redd, while two or three males cluster around them, jostling one another, one male sometimes swimming upstream then curving 
Males Fighting for Position
back and descending with the force of the current on the others, teeth sinking into meat, tails thrashing the waters, suitors' jockeying for position.  The fish, both male and female, no longer eat, oils stored in their muscles leaching out to feed the growing genitalia.  Spawning females pump out roe, a thousand or more reddish translucent spheres the size of peas, to be bathed in clouds of milt by the males before burial in the gravel.  Eagles descend on the river, bears too and ravens, all intent on tearing away their daily dole of salmon.  Brown bears biting off with expert precision a chunk of the skull, intent on the protein and fat in the brain, another chunk of the belly in the case of the female, where her ovaries are charged with unfertilized eggs, the eagles dancing around one another on the banks stripping meat off the bones of a landed fish, the ravens crowding in afterward for the scraps.  All of this over and over and over again, for days without end, and then the emaciated bodies of salmon, their flesh growing leprous in ivory splotches, muscles and organs shriveling until all that is left is skin and skeleton, the eyes caved in and glazed over in death, that is, unless they have been picked out already by the beak of a raven.  In the end, for days the entire river stinks of rotting meat.

By the next spring, buried in the gravel the roe hatches, the fry emerge and a new generation begins.

II. Tohu v'Bohu: Dare we Name it?

How is one to understand this moment as a moment in and also of creation?  How exactly has one been called as a creature to make sense of the salmon consumed with their final run and its inevitable culmination in morbidity? What is one to make of this way of life in which life is dispossessed of itself and how this in turn instructs those humans who come eagerly to be witnesses of it, crowding against one another on the bridges overlooking the waters? 
Final Offering
To learn from salmon is to encounter a questioning, a way of thinking that is relevant not only to theodicy, the justification of the ways of the Most High, but also to biodicy, the justification of the ways of life itself.  In carrying out this latter project, as in the former, the temptation is to emphasize the illumination offered by the salmon run, to focus intently upon the very light life sheds upon itself in its renewal from generation to generation.   Those fry emerging from the redd, no matter that most suffocate or are eaten within a few days of their hatching, no matter that their ultimate destination is to return to the very riverbed from which they emerged to culminate their life in exhaustion and death, these fry, indeed the very idea of them, indicate a beneficence, a well-doing, that calls forth life anew even as life dissipates.  And in doing so, doing well is said to transcend incapacity, the failure to do whatsoever.   Rather than on moments of darkness, of form dissipating into the formless, of meaning losing its own hold upon itself, one focuses one’s thinking on the magnificence of the sacrifice of one generation for the sake of the next, on the transcending of one's particular existence for the goodness of those lives who follow.  In doing so, the world comes to be articulated by principles ordering and affirming its persistence in being.  Creation itself in this wise is understood ex nihilo, as arising in an emergence whose very illumination as emergence sustains itself ever after by the power of the inauguration of its very illumination.   This might be one translation of the Hebrew tov, in which the Most High, in the opening accounts of Genesis, recommends creation as being good in its emergence of ordering and purpose, in its rendering of distinction within lawful constraints.  Once the seven days have passed, the reverberations of lawful emergence sustain creation into eternity.  Once the Word has been spoken, there is no taking it back.

But for the Rabbis the significance of Creation is not exhausted by its goodness, its capacity to illuminate and be illuminated.  Surprisingly the attribution of purpose as the overriding significance of Creation is resisted by at least some of the rabbis as they focus on the opening lines of B'reshit, the Hebraic name for the biblical text called Genesis by Christians.  These dissenters intimate that something darker is afoot, something devastating, afflicting.  By focusing on principles, upon the emergence from the beginning of a lawful edifice by which creation is to be governed, one fully evades these troubling thoughts.  This is not to say the discussion of the issue proceeds without ambivalence. In MIdrash B’reshit, the opening line of the creation story, "In the beginning the Most High created," is interpreted by Rav Oshaya and Rav Hanina  in a doubled movement.  On the one hand, Rav Oshaya argues the Most High is to be understood even before the beginning to have created Torah, learning or wisdom personified, by which the very manner in which Creation is then to proceed is already laid out.  In this wise, the Most High is even pictured as consulting Torah, as a king might consult an architect in building a palace, in order to proceed in an orderly manner with the doing of creation, with the construction of its many chambers.  But on the other hand, right after this discussion Rav Hanina raises the possibility of understanding Creation as the work of a monarch who "builds a palace on a site of sewers, dunghills, and garbage," a translation into parable of what is to be understood by "tohu v'bohu," the "formless and the void," over which the Most High hovers, in the picturing of the act of creation in B’reshit.  R. Huna adds, "If the matter were not written [that creation begins in an acknowledgement of tohu v'bohu] it would be impossible to say."

In fact Rav Huna argues one should not say it at all, this scandalous blasphemy inflected from within the very work of the Most High, the ambivalent not-so-well-doing of Creation, even if it has been written into the Torah itself, that one is better off if one's lips were "bound, made dumb, and silenced."  Involved here are matters "withheld from His [Elohim's] creatures."   Yet the story that is not to pass one's lips is recounted just a few sections later when "a certain philosopher" approaches and interrogates Rav Gamliel about "the good materials" the Most High called upon in order to create the earth.  "Tohu, Bohu, Choshech, Mayim, Ruach, v'Tehom" - "the void, the formless, darkness, the waters, wind and the deep" - is Rav Gamliel's reply. In justifying his remarks concerning Tohu, Bohu, and Choshech, the Rav calls upon Isaiah, where it is written "I make peace and create evil.  I form the light and create darkness."  To this the philosopher replies: "Woe to that man," meaning, to Gamliel who has just affirmed chaos in the midst of principle, who has built a house of law upon a primordial sewer, or in the case of salmon, a river stinking of rotting meat. 

Bog Waters
III.  Darkness has its Day,

Taking seriously the train of thought developed above concerning tohu v'bohu, Catherine Challier in her Talmudic study, Le nuit, le jour au diapason de la creation (“Night, Day in accord with Creation"), speaks on behalf of Creation characterized as de novo rather than ex nihilo.  Further, she understand the former differently than in Maimonides, for whom Creation de novo was a manner of scrupulously acknowledging the priority of the Most High in regard to what is created, Creation de novo indicating that there is particularity in the creature's beginning, that the mundane cannot be dependent upon the most high as emerging ex nihilo but nevertheless eternally so. Rather for Maimonides Creation de novo emerges as a specific event with a specific beginning.  For Chalier, on the other hand, Creation de novo indicates a Creation ever in crisis, a Creation that perhaps has not yet actually begun, at least in its fullness, a Creation whose instantiation is not in "an act situated in a past of long ago" but one which "occurs here and now." This view fits, she notes, in a tradition of prayer inaugurated by the Rabbis, who each morning address a Creator "renewing without ceasing the work of creation."

In this work she includes the Creator's breaking into speech, affirming logos, in the proximity of tohu v'bohu, the latter of which is not simply to be characterized as "nothing" but rather as "a shadowy power of dislocation and confusion, that is to say, of decreation." This power of decreation does not predate Creation but is itself inflected from within the very drama of Creation de novo.  She notes: "If speech is an illumination for us, this is precisely because speech gives being to differentiated creatures and that it does so from out of unformed magma." In Creation discourse comes to itself not from out of a pure nothing, crystalline and transparent in its emptiness, but in the face of the deep, a "shadowy disorder and incessant troubling."

In Creation de novo understood in this manner, the emergence of creatures as beings is not assured ever.  In a sense the beginning has never occurred sufficiently to be a beginning.  As a result, Creation de novo as understood by Chalier requires that one receives in humility and poverty the thought of how all one's theories about Creation, all one's stories of Creation, are themselves already conditioned in a manner beyond one's own capacity to reason out or to tell, to specify or to locate. Her approach cultivates discernment concerning the profound even abysmal inability of the creaturely to account for itself in its own terms, and cultivates sensitivity to how unendingly vigilant one must be in regard to respecting, attending to, this impoverishment in one's reasoning. The first thought of Creation then is cultivating patience in the proximity of shadows.  In this wise, the very theorem of causation, that Creation is the outcome of the Most High's capacity to be a cause, is to be attended to as yet another mode of idolatry, as yet another manner in which the creature would presumptuously fix the reality of Creator in creaturely terms.

IV. Naming Muddam Naming Salmon Naming The Most High

Immediately following upon the account of Creation beginning B'reshit, a second story is offered, both resonating with and differing from the first.  The most important difference lies perhaps in how the Most High cries out to the heavenly court "lo tov!," "not good!," upon witnessing the first human, standing singular and alone on the face of the earth.  A crisis is brewing in spite of all the "tovs," all the proclamations of the good that had ensued heretofore in Creation's first account.  In the second account, the collapsing of tov into its negation moves the Creator to unusual measures. 

To understand these one needs first to consider how in creating the human consumed in loneliness characteristic of the second account, the very dust of the ground must be gathered, formed, shaped into the facsimile of a living entity, before breath can be instilled in it by the inbreathing of the Most High who hovers above the inert form.  As if to underline this fact, in the human's very being named as "Adam," better translated as “Muddam” or “Dustam” or "Eartham,” if you will, the very matter of the human creature's being of matter, that is of "earth/adamah" is given expression. This matter in turn is worked upon, animated, by the breath of the Most High, in the case of Muddam, and by the breath of Muddam in the case of the remaining living creatures.  In the latter case, with the Most High standing behind Muddam, Muddam is brought before the newly-formed creatures to name each of them in its own kind through the power, the tov, the goodness of his human breath, namely, his speech.  Only in this gesture can the creation of the animals, which began with the Most High fashioning them from out of the dust of the earth, be accomplished in its fullness. The verb here is i'caro, “to call,” which suggests the naming is not pronouncement, objective, named from afar, but a bringing near, a cultivation of proximity.  The Most High started it, but Muddam finishes it.  In this way, among others, the Most High provides consolation, provides reassurance, for the perilous state of Muddam's having been created. In all of this are refractions of the first story of creation, the one in which the Most High hovers above tohu v'bohu/.

In the Current
Even now the dog salmon of Kaasde Heeni, witnessed last August in their run on rainy days of diminishing sun in the northern reaches of the planet, even now these salmon are decaying in these words, even now eagles are ripping these words apart, rendering them unruly, a descent into shadows and confusion.  This is to say, these words name salmon, even as the salmon insist on the impoverishment of all naming, on rendering these very words here and now creaturely in their attunement, words in search of company, of creaturely others to share the burden of creation, its inevitable lo tov, its affliction. 

Here is encountered a naming that perhaps for a moment attends to the grandiose theorem of evolution as teleological development, of the unfolding of the manifold niches of creation as if it were a palace plotted out by an architect, even if the project is continually and currently under renovation.  But troubling this teleology from within its very movement is mutation and inexactitude, morbidity and extinction, instability and loss.  And did I mention everything creaturely is eating everything else that is creaturely in the process?

The Rabbis speculate: Because Muddam has named the animals, he is now capable of naming himself as Muddam.  And because he now recognizes the humility of humus involved in his own naming, the Most HIgh feels free to ask him as well:  "What is MY name."  To which Muddam replies with the four-lettered-one, the four-spelled, the name not named, the name immediately translated in the mouth of the text's reader as "Adonai," as Lord.   Rashi adds, in the naming of this name the quality of mercy is engaged. And in the naming of this name, it might be added, the salmon too are making their run.

1 comment:

  1. I dint know it that great Hindu history is associated with the River of human. You have explained the whole historical story so nice that I enjoyed reading it up.