Ear­li­er this week, author Gavriel Sav­it intro­duced the spir­i­tu­al mys­ti­cism con­tained in uncer­tain­ty and pon­dered the cor­po­re­al exis­tence of God. With the pub­li­ca­tion of his debut nov­el, Anna and the Swal­low Man, Gavriel is blog­ging here all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series on The ProsenPeo­ple.

Quite a while ago, my fiancée and I decid­ed to under­take the sys­tem­at­ic read­ing and study of what West­ern tra­di­tion refers to, absurd­ly (if in Greek), as THE BOOK. I had nev­er before come to the Bible in a sys­tem­at­ic and sus­tained way, read­ing from cov­er to cov­er, and as some­one with the hum­ble ambi­tion of con­tribut­ing to the wild, out-of-hand fra­cas of West­ern nar­ra­tive art, I felt it would be in my best inter­est to have a bit of a cul­ti­vat­ed famil­iar­i­ty with the great patri­arch of that art. My fiancée, a crit­ic and schol­ar of Vic­to­ri­an era British lit­er­a­ture, thought it would be in her best inter­est to have a sim­i­lar famil­iar­i­ty with the cor­ner­stone of its great patriarchy.

And so we were well matched. The only prob­lem was method­olog­i­cal. I, com­ing from a Juda­ic back­ground, want­ed to work on the khevru­ta mod­el, read­ing togeth­er out loud and enter­ing into dis­cus­sion when­ev­er some­thing inter­est­ed or trou­bled one of us; she, well used to the silent if dis­or­der­ly deco­rum of the library car­rel, would have pre­ferred to read silent­ly in par­al­lel and then to come togeth­er for dis­cus­sion after the fact. In gen­er­al, I can see the appeal of this approach — it must be nice to thor­ough­ly for­mu­late one’s opin­ions before begin­ning the process of dis­cus­sion — but the fact of the mat­ter is that the Hebrew Bible seems explic­it­ly designed to frus­trate cer­tain­ty. For a book that has so com­mon­ly been appealed to for defin­i­tive answers, it hard­ly seems to con­tain any, from a nar­ra­tive per­spec­tive. No, no — no cer­tain­ties to be found here, only com­pet­ing, incom­men­su­rate, equiv­alid alter­na­tives. It has to be dis­cussed as it’s read.

The Book begins with two suc­ces­sive, irrec­on­cil­able accounts of the cre­ation of the uni­verse: in the first, God cre­ates life in gen­er­al, both flo­ra and fau­na, and then, only after this does God cre­ate the human being, pre­sent­ing to it in all its boun­ty the comestible world of fruit and veg­etable. Less than ten vers­es lat­er, in the sec­ond account, the cre­ation of man is relat­ed again, this time express­ly pre­dat­ing the emer­gence of veg­e­tal life. Short­ly there­after, the cre­ation of ani­mals will also be found, in this sec­ond account, to come after the cre­ation of human life. 

There’s noth­ing for it. There’s no way to rec­on­cile the two express­ly and exclu­sive­ly dif­fer­ent stories.

If you are a con­tem­po­rary ratio­nal­ist, this might well prove your dis­dain for the archa­ic, super­sti­tious tome of false­hoods known as the Bible. How can it equal­ly assert the verac­i­ty of two con­tra­dic­to­ry accounts?

If you are a philol­o­gist, you will like­ly inter­pret this con­flict between texts as indica­tive of the pres­ence of more than one pre-exist­ing source. Nei­ther, of course, could be altered in the com­bi­na­tion because of the sacred sta­tus of each, and nei­ther, by the same token could be exclud­ed. As a philol­o­gist, one might eas­i­ly say For­get the cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance, for­get the con­flict, for­get the jux­ta­po­si­tion. Read each on its own merits.”

If you are an adher­ent of rab­binic exe­ge­sis, per­haps you will choose to inter­pret these two pieces of nar­ra­tive as pre­dom­i­nant­ly alle­gor­i­cal or sym­bol­ic writ­ing. After all, when we adjourn to the hazy are­na of sym­bol­ism, we need no longer con­sid­er con­tra­dic­tion threat­en­ing — it’s, y’know, art.

I would like to offer an alter­na­tive read­ing, one that I hope can extend far beyond this first sec­tion of the Hebrew Bible to encom­pass it entirely:

There are two sto­ries. They are both cor­rect and valid — equal­ly artic­u­lat­ed in the author­i­ta­tive voice of the text. They both take place with­in a lit­er­al realm, and they con­tra­dict one another.

There. It’s uncom­fort­able. It’s dif­fi­cult. It’s provoca­tive. And I think that’s pre­cise­ly the point. 

It is in this state of uncer­tain­ty that one looks close­ly, and one sees. You begin to see the face of God in the flick­er­ing, dim­ly lit open space only when you stand between twin cer­tain­ties — that God has absolute­ly no vis­i­ble form, and that God absolute­ly does.

There’s a rea­son this gigan­tic com­pi­la­tion of sto­ries opens on con­tra­dic­tion and uncer­tain­ty, and as a writer, I would posit that it’s a les­son in read­ing the rest of the book: there are two, oppo­si­tion­al posi­tions. Do you smash them togeth­er, try­ing to make them into one? Do you look for ways to dis­count cer­tain por­tions of each? 

Or do you take one in each hand, and feel them coun­ter­bal­ance one anoth­er in the weight of your step?

This mode of read­ing might be most strong­ly resist­ed by those peo­ple who point to its essen­tial dual­i­ty — after all, we are a peo­ple of One God, and Sin­gu­lar­i­ty, Uni­ty, One­ness presents itself as tempt­ing­ly con­tradis­tinc­tive. Peo­ple can so eas­i­ly say, God is One, and God is mine. If you dis­agree with me, then God is not yours. My min­hag, my fam­i­ly or com­mu­nal cus­tom in the obser­vance of tra­di­tion, one might say, is exclu­sive­ly cor­rect, and all oth­ers are at best to be tol­er­at­ed, and at worst, hereti­cal. (Look­ing at you, here, Israeli Rabbinate…)

But this is clear­ly not reflec­tive of his­tor­i­cal Jew­ish tra­di­tion. The Tal­mud was, in some deeply crit­i­cal ways, formed in the cru­cible of the dis­agree­ment between the twin philo­soph­i­cal approach­es of Hil­lel and Sham­mai. Mov­ing back­wards, one could eas­i­ly read an inter­est in duel­ing per­spec­tives in the sim­ple notion of the Oral Law, giv­en along­side the Torah on Mount Sinai, for the pur­pos­es of elu­ci­da­tion and inter­pre­ta­tion — why a sep­a­rate cor­pus if not express­ly to cre­ate dis­tance and dis­crep­an­cy between the two?

And there are all sorts of incom­men­su­rate alter­na­tives in the Bible. David, paragon of majesty, prog­en­i­tor of Mes­sian­ic sal­va­tion, is, in some very real ways, a usurp­er of Saul’s king­ship. The theme of rival claims is thread­ed through­out the Bible, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the foun­da­tion­al sto­ries of our patriarchs. 

After all, who deserves pri­ma­cy? Ish­mael, the first­born, or Isaac, the legit­i­mate? The suprema­cy of the elder son, so axiomat­ic in the Ancient world, will con­tin­ue to inform and enlarge the suc­ces­sive sto­ries of each great patri­arch — main­ly in its vio­la­tion. Jacob, the wily (younger), or Esau, the mighty (elder)? Joseph, the bril­liant (far, far younger) or Reuben the duti­ful (eldest) and his cor­po­rate broth­er­hood? Aaron, the priest (elder) or Moses, the leader (younger)?

In none of these cas­es — look­ing care­ful­ly, hon­est­ly — is one par­ty clear­ly the prefer­able. It is, par­tic­u­lar­ly from an anti­quat­ed per­spec­tive, always unclear.

And per­haps this is obvi­ous. After all, we as Jews are known in the col­lec­tive as the Chil­dren of Israel, Israel (“Strug­gles-with-God”) being the alter­na­tive name giv­en to Jacob after he strove and fought all night against an agent of God — cru­cial­ly, to an inde­ci­sive conclusion. 

Nei­ther God nor Israel pre­vailed. This was not the point. The strug­gle was the point.

The renam­ing of Jacob in the wake of this con­flict is well-known and oft-quot­ed. What is less fre­quent­ly repeat­ed is that some­thing else was renamed in the wake of the con­flict: the open space in which Jacob and the Agent of God struggled.

The place was named Peniel, or My-face-is-God.”

It is, of course, indis­pens­able to have two well-matched and equal­ly viable can­di­dates in order to enter into the sort of furi­ous, infi­nite, ongo­ing, and inde­ci­sive con­flict that our nar­ra­tive tra­di­tion so favors. Just as indis­pens­able as the con­flict­ing par­ties, though, is the are­na in which the con­test is to take place. 

And this, final­ly, is the util­i­ty, the virtue of uncer­tain­ty.

A cer­tain­ty is an insu­per­a­ble obsta­cle. It’s sol­id and heavy and doesn’t move much of its own accord. Cer­tain­ties, of course, have great util­i­ty of their own — they can block off dan­gers, you can climb up atop them, reach­ing for new intel­lec­tu­al alti­tudes — but if you’re look­ing to stage a fight, it’s hard to do so inside a block of marble.

I, like many young Jews, once vis­it­ed Israel on a Birthright trip, and the entire thrust of Jew­ish thought and his­to­ry was nev­er so leg­i­ble to me as the time we were encour­aged to go off into the mid­night desert for a lit­tle, qui­et, solo reflec­tion — not so far that we couldn’t still see the lights of the tent, but far enough that we could imag­ine we couldn’t.

The sky is so big, out there, and so full of stars. Uni­fied and simul­ta­ne­ous­ly mul­ti­far­i­ous — monothe­ism doesn’t seem like an inno­va­tion in the desert, it feels like an observation.

Because these are the uncer­tain spaces, the open (emp­ty?) are­nas in which we Jews are used to seek­ing for (and find­ing, hope­ful­ly) our God: the desert, mono­lith of sand­grains; the syn­a­gogue, light flick­er­ing, prayer shawls flap­ping, eyes cov­ered to ward off blind­ness; the geneal­o­gy of our Fathers, so knot­ted and ambigu­ous that even a fam­i­ly tree is noth­ing so much as an argument.

These are our plains of Peniel, mot­tled and dap­pled by striv­ing foot­prints, by wingtips drag­ging through the sand. This is the Face of God: the con­stant con­test of uncer­tain­ties in an are­na uncrowd­ed by deci­sion, unmarred by con­clu­sion. The end­less­ly repeat­ed ges­ture of young men peek­ing out from behind their father’s prayer shawls, of elders squint­ing through their glass­es across the dim­ly lit space, gen­er­a­tion after gen­er­a­tion, of look­ing so close­ly that you start to see some­thing in the strug­gle and bump, in the flick­er and flash, in the dim and shade — a Sin­gle, emer­gent Entity.

Just don’t you dare become cer­tain what it looks like.

Gavriel Sav­it is an actor and author from Ann Arbor, MI, and a grad­u­ate of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michigan’s pres­ti­gious Musi­cal The­atre pro­gram. He is the author of Anna and the Swal­low Man (Knopf, 2016) and an emerg­ing voice in Jew­ish literature.

Relat­ed Content:

Gavriel Sav­it holds a BFA in musi­cal the­ater from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan in Ann Arbor, where he grew up. As an actor and singer, Gavriel has per­formed in three con­ti­nents, from New York to Brus­sels to Tokyo. He is also the author of Anna and the Swal­low Man, which The New York Times called a splen­did debut.”