Friday, December 7, 2012

The Origin of Fire: Between Prometheus and the Talmud

Hanukkah 2012 | Rabbi Mishael Zion Bronfman Fellowships | Text and the City 

If New York City has a holy of holies, a symbolic heart to the entire project, it is Rockefeller Center’s statue of Prometheus. In shimmering gold he rises, holding the fire stolen from the Gods, while tourists twirl around him on the ice-skating rink. Above the statue a quote from Aeschylus reads: 'Prometheus, teacher in every art, brought the fire that hath proved to mortals a means to mighty ends.'

Prometheus is on my mind this weekend, for on Saturday night many Jews will be performing two of our best fire rituals: Havdalah and Chanukah candle-lighting, raising questions about the meaning and origin of fire in human civilization. In the game of comparative civilizations, the myths about the origin of fire are a telling intersection for the Greek and the Talmudic. Each myth tells a different story not only of our past, but of our modern future as well.

Prometheus was commissioned for the Center’s 1931 opening since he symbolizes the epitome of classical (Protestant) Modernism: a sound belief in the extraordinary powers of Man (to develop science and technology, build skyscrapers, trains, airplanes and bombs), and a hatred of tyrannical Gods (or traditional authority, the Catholic church, the Monarchy). For young Modernists seeking to remove the yoke of a cold and cruel religion that seemed determined to keep them shackled to the past rather than move forward, Prometheus  was the hero, having redeemed humanity from their dependence on God by stealing fire from Zeus. To the Romantic mind, Prometheus was the creator of a new race of people, unafraid to rebel against the Gods, as Goethe describes in his poem, Prometheus, written the same year as the French Revolution:

Shroud your heaven, Zeus,
With cloudy vapours,
And do as you will, like the boy
That beheads thistles,
With oak-trees and mountain-tops;
You must my Earth
Now abandon to me,
And my hut, which you did not build,
And my hearth,
Whose glow
You begrudge me.

I know of nothing poorer
Under the sun, than you, Gods!
You are barely nourished
By sacrificial offerings
And prayerful exhalations
Your Majesty
Would starve, were
Not children and beggars
Hopeful fools.  […]

I should honour you? For what?
Have you softened the sufferings,
Ever, of the burdened?
Have you stilled the tears,
Ever, of the anguished?
Was I not forged as a Man
By almighty Time
And the eternal Fate,
My masters and yours? […]

Here I sit, forming people
In my image;
A race, to be like me,
To suffer, to weep,
To enjoy and delight themselves,
And to mock you –
As I do!
I wonder if Prometheus, watching the millions of Holiday shoppers mill about him at 49thand 5th Avenue, feels pride in the race he formed “to enjoy and delight themselves, and to mock you - as I do!”

The troupe of fire as humanity’s steal, technology being a rebellion against the Gods, is widespread in human civilizations. From the Rig Veda, through Hebrew Apocalyptic texts (in the Book of Enoch the rebellious angel Azazel teaches humans how to make fire) and through to
 Native American tales, the origin of fire is always rooted in theft and in rebellion against God. As a modern Jew and a Zionist, I am deeply indebted to the rebellious spirit of modernism which brought about science, urbanism, Zionism. Indeed, if God is like the God of Goethe and Prometheus, I too would be rebelling.

The Talmud, however, has its own myth about the creation of Fire, and it tells a very different story about God and man. It too begins with God preventing a fire from human beings - that initial light which God created on the first day. Seeing the evil generations that were to reign on his earth in the future, God “concealed it until the future to come,” labeling it the “Or haGanuz”, “Concealed Light”.  But when God took Divine light away, he also presented Humanity with the ability to create our own light:

“The Fire” – Rabbi Levi said: The light which was created on the first day of creation served for 36 hours after Adam ate from the tree: from Friday until Saturday night. […] Once Shabbat came out, [the first] darkness began to arrive. Adam became fearful and said: “This is what God said when he cursed me upon eating from the tree – the snake will come and bite me!”
Said Rabbi Levi: At that time God presented Adam with two flints. He struck them together and a fire burst forth. He blessed them saying: בורא מאורי האש – “the creator of fire”.
Shmuel said: Therefor we say the blessing for fire on Motzaei Shabbat – because that is the origin of its creation.

Talmud Yerushalmi, Brachot 8:5
האש - רבי לוי בשם רבי בזירה שלשים ושש שעות שימשה אותה האורה שנבראת ביום הראשון.  שתים עשרה בערב שבת ושתים עשרה בליל שבת ושתים עשרה בשבת.  [...]
כיון שיצאת שבת התחיל משמש החושך ובא ונתירא אדם ואמר אלו הוא שכתב בו (בראשית ג) הוא ישופך ראש ואתה תשופנו עקב שמא בא לנשכני ואמר (תהילים קל) אך חשך ישופני.  אמר רבי לוי באותו שעה זימן הקב"ה שני רעפין והקישן זה לזה ויצא מהן האור הדא הוא דכתיב (שם) ולילה אור בעדני ובירך עליה בורא מאורי האש.  שמואל אמר לפיכך מברכין על האש במוצאי שבתות שהיא תחילת ברייתה.

תלמוד ירושלמי ברכות דף ס,ב פרק ח הלכה ה


This is the tale of the first Motzaei Shabbat, and we re-eanct this drama every time we perform Havdallah. As the “divine light” of Shabbat is taken away from us, and the darkness of mundane time returns, we accept anew the gift of fire.  This gift is described as given by God exactly in order to “still the tears… of the anguished” and to “soften the sufferings of the burdened”. True, God does not shine the “Or haganuz” and redeem the world of all darkness. It might have something to do with His desire to await Humanity overcoming its evil inclinations. But instead of severing ties with the world, God gives us the tools to survive and flourish as we try to mend our ways.

As we come together to light Hanukah candles in the darkest moment of the year, we celebrate this partnership between God and Man, blessing the God who created fire and gave it to us in our hardest moment; God who commanded us to light candles.  As opposed to the Gods of Idolatry, Judaism purports a covenant, an on-going, mutual relationship between the creator and the creatures. We are not in competition, but in cooperation, and God is invested in our technological advancements – as long as they benefit the project of creation. Hanukkah – and the other seasonal festivals of light – come at the darkest time of the year, when we feel most acutely the cold shoulder of this world. It is precisely at this time that we embrace fire – not as a sign of human rebellion but as a sign of the partnership we have with creation (and for some of us, with the Creator). This partnership can be defined thus: When the world is dark, we must shine forth.

One final point: The laws of Hanukkah make it clear that this requirement is not simply an internal act – finding light within ourselves – but rather a responsibility to light the public square: We light Hannukah candles in the window and outside the door, to shine not our own home (in fact, this light cannot be used by us!), but to light the public thoroughfare. In this way, that illustrious tree above Prometheus has it right: in the darkest of months, make the public square shine!

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