Throw Truth to the Ground
“Throw Truth to the ground” by Paulo Rosenbaum. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Record, 2010.
By Regina Igel / University of Maryland, College Park
Translated from the Portuguese by Alex Forman and Regina Igel
There are certain flavors that must be savored slowly to give the tongue a chance to absorb them and time enough to inform the brain about them. Keeping the necessary distance from this parallel reference, this is the case of A Verdade Lançada ao Soloby Paulo Rosenbaum. It is a book that calls for a slow reading, with regular pauses for contemplation, reflection, and meditation in order to enjoy, along with the teachings of rabbi Zult Talb, what the soul is, whether it transmigrates or not, where God can be found, how we can meet the Creator (while still living). To fully appreciate its philosophic, scientific, personal, and universal mystical meandering, this book has to be read unhurriedly. (It took me a month and a week to finish reading, because I paused at various passages to think about what I’d just assimilated.)
One could say that the book is dense, even encyclopedic, since it comprises three stories, an epilogue, and an iconographic section revolving around a single term – devekut. Each of the short stories explores what it is to be “devekut” through speculation, analysis; the characters’ own questioning, and their dynamic dialogs. The first narrative takes the reader to the town of Tisla in the mid-nineteenth century (more precisely in 1856, which corresponds to the year 5,616 in the Jewish calendar). The enlightening story of “devekut” begins in a humble home, adapted also to be a house of prayer for the Jews of that remote and scarcely populated village. Zult, the rabbi and leader of the community, is treated with respect and mistrust. He oversees a religious congregation little familiarized with the esoteric interpretations he dedicates himself to from time to time. The rabbi is not a rebel nor is he calling for a religious rebellion, but he does not accept the written word or the traditional interpretation of the Talmud (ethical codes of behavior compiled from the writings of a series of rabbis from the second century of the Common Era for Jews and Christians) as irrefutable proof. The heart of the narrative is found on page 24, where Zult is shown to be “an iconoclast” and is immersed in the “devekut.” The author adds a footnote (as he does with almost all Hebrew words transliterated in the text) explaining that “devekut” means “approximation, adherence, attachment. Mystical term defining closeness with God. Modified state of consciousness in which men can experience the energy of God in their own bodies.” In order to prove that such an experience exists, the rabbi might be seen as a submarine slicing through deep waters, intercepted by various currents (the questions, comments, and observations of his listeners). But he remains firm in his itinerary, articulated by his desire to manifest a mystical, ravishing phenomena in himself, in the delirium of joining with the Divine, from which he will enlighten his followers. Understanding the ways of Zult is a challenge not only for his audience, but for his readers too. The iconoclast – actually, a man interested in dialog, instructive discussion, and nearly platonic dialectic (perhaps) – tries to draw out his listeners’ latent ability to argue, discuss, and exchange ideas. His lectures challenged the conservative crust of his community and the rabbinical counsel who defended the idea that, for Jews, Diaspora or Exile was better than to congregate in Israel, as the visionaries of the time foresaw, and which later became reality through Zionist efforts. Zult had a degree in philosophy from a non-Jewish university, and he brought to his teachings the idea that science was beneficial to all and that religious Jews should not rely on faith alone or wait for miracles, since medicine (his frustrated vocation), for example, was of unparalleled importance in the prevention and cure of diseases. One of his many sons, Nay, was an attentive interlocutor and provocateur, often making up for the listeners’ silence, on whose deaf ears Zult’s speeches would fall; the fourteen-year-old asked questions, challenged, and made suggestions. And there were also occasions when Zult, the iconoclast, had neither public nor child to challenge his truths; but even so, he spoke or stood silently, preparing himself to receive the “devekut.” Then he would receive it, generating within himself an energy that was of such a high frequency, and of such an uncommon rhythm, that it led him to believe that he was impregnated by divine energy. Not that he wanted to be equal to God, but he wanted to enjoy something of divinity not usually allowed by the condition of being a human being.
As the “devekut” was defined at the beginning of the first story, and gradually explained over the first hundred pages, the title of the book only becomes clear beyond page 100, as if it were necessary to prepare the reader for the essence of a lay text in a context laden with religiosity. A fragment from the Book of Daniel (8:12), “You threw Truth to the ground,” became Zult’s mantra or fixed thinking in his search for an interpretation of biblical verse in all possible semantic, rational, mystical, and supernatural explanation. At last, is truth diluted into dust, or is it the dust that nurtures truth? The book grasps these (among other) interpretations to explain God, good and evil, illness and cure, ecstasy, miracle, indifference, the soul, the spirit, moving from the universal to the particular, when mentioning the necessity of studying the Bible in pairs (as Talmudic scholars do). A single reader is not acceptable since it is necessary to discuss, to present conflicting ideas, to establish a dialog with each other, in order to release the epilogue, the conclusion, from the mass of problems challenging us.
Dialog is at the heart of the second narrative, “A Balada de Yan e Sibelius.” The characters are two men lost in the Alps, in the middle of a blizzard. One is a doctor, the other a former patient of his. Dr. Talb is a descendent of Zult Talb, the preeminent protagonist of the previous story. In a dugout in the frozen mountain that barely shelters the two of them, waiting on who knows what – that the weather clears or that they reach some understanding between them – they discuss a doctor’s and a patient’s points of view which not only differ semantically from each other, but also violently clash. Faith and reason become elements of friction and deliberation for the two lost in the whiteness of the snowstorm and the blackness of night. Both keep the flame of knowledge lit and take turns blowing on its ashes, as if they wanted one to be extinguished so that the other could go on existing.
The narrator interjects “messages” or parenthetical statements of explanation about Jewish religion and customs throughout the centuries, and other subjects. These notes might be an imitation of the “commentaries,” or “Rashi’s notes,” observations written in the margins of the Talmud. In this narrative, the remarks explain some of the organic reactions to some medicines, the effects of “commercial production,” the manipulation of corporatism, Darwinism, the freezing of internal organs, famine, the risk of death by physical inertia in the frozen panorama – in brief, non-invasive comments that complement the evolution of events in the narrative. In this precarious situation, the Jew drives the “devekut” theme, which becomes a dialectical game between the two alpinists. Then, it is practiced: feelings arise again, frozen body parts move, the mind becomes empty of fear and doubt, the “Presence” shines through the eyes of the practitioners. “. . . impossible to compare to any drug. Not hallucinogens nor narcotics, nothing from the Pharmacopeia” (p. 479). Is it faith, or is it some hallucinatory effect emanating from the deteriorating bodies?
The third and last of the narratives, “Sonho Não Interpretado,” concerns the treatment of the chemically dependent in our times. A chess match is placed between the doctor and the patient and more: spiritualist doctrines, a papyrus with the doctor’s predecessors’ lives written on it (among them, the rabbi Zult Talb), trances, incursions to the cemeteries of Polish-Jews after the Holocaust, opinions about the world under American command, terrorism, Al-Qaeda, lost lives, the destruction of the twin towers in New York, exorcism, the Just of each Jewish generation… In a repertoire that crosses Israel, Greece, Egypt, and Brazil, bringing these characters and questions into a contemporary frame, including old Zult Talb, who makes an appearance as a ghost, this suffocating, disturbing, and liberating environment raises questions that demand answers, as if to indicate that in this chaotic world in which we live, only questioning can lead us to knowledge.
The Epilogue is an attempt to tie up the main events in the stories, but in truth it is up to the readers to link these seen and imagined circumstances in the author’s script. He also provides photographs of the “scrolls” left by Zult (inserted on shiny paper, with washed-out coloring like of a Daguerreotype, with artistic writing) so that future generations may be able to know that “devekut” is an activity that can and should be tried to find real closeness to God, even though it is paradoxically abstract, like some of the absurdity of human existence.
To whom would I recommend this book? To those who know absolutely nothing about Judaism, to those who, like myself, know a little bit, and to those who know a lot. Immersed in knowledge disseminated through the dialogues and meditations of its characters, this book may be unique in Brazilian literature, since it demonstrates implicit and explicit intentions to provoke our intellectual, spiritual, and emotional curiosity. Who reads it will benefit from the wisdom surrounding Jewish religion, myths, rituals, traditions, transgressions, and assertions about the soul, God, human and divine judgment. But above all, the reader will learn something about him or herself. The writing style meanders and is sinuous, bringing to the narrative the option of mental perambulations for a slow and gradual reading. Give your brain and feelings the time they need when “You throw Truth to the ground…”
Regina Igel was born and raised in São Paulo, Brazil. After completing her B.A. in Romance Languages at the University of São Paulo she continued her studies in the United States, where she earned a Master of Arts degree in Latin American Literatures and a Ph.D. in Literatures in the Portuguese Language. Igel is the author of Imigrantes Judeus/Escritores Brasileiros (O Componente Judaico na Literatura Brasileira) (Jewish Immigrants/Brazilian Authors [The Jewish Component in Brazilian Literature]) and of many articles on Judaism, feminism and immigrants in contemporary Brazilian literature. She is also a contributing editor to the Handbook of Latin American Studies, a biannual publication of the Library of Congress, in which she is in charge of the section “Brazilian Novels.” Igel is professor of Brazilian and Portuguese Literatures and Cultures and advisor of the Portuguese Program at the University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland.
*Um trecho desta resenha será publicada no Handbook of Latin American Studies, uma publicação da Biblioteca do Congresso, Washington, D. C. que está programado para sair em 2015 (Vol. 60)