Notes from Limmud 2005
Fight Club and Redemption
Contains SPOILERS for Fight Club. You have been warned! If you have not seen Fight Club, go and get it from the library before you read on; this post will still be here afterwards. :o)
Many cultures have the idea of an apocalypse (of which Armageddon is only one idea). Cultures that have the idea of an apocalypse tend to have three commonalities.
First, negative anthropology. People who believe in an apocalypse tend not to think too high about humanity. In Catholicism, for example, Paul and Augustine describe humans as locked inside their lusts, their negative impulses; this is something we can't do anything about. So, if they way they conceive humanity - and history - comes across as really negative, how does redemption come across? The only way in this worldview to redeem this world is to destroy it. Only once this world is destroyed can the messianic world be created on its ruins. This world can't be redeemed; it has no hope.
The second commonality: People describing people as slaves to their lust are not describing themselves; they are describing, instead, the other. They tend to congregate into sects; the members of their sect are the enlightened ones, and the rest of the world is depraved; when the new society is created after the apocalypse, it will be the sect's members who construct it. Until then, it's us against them. The Qumran sect, for example, called themselves בני האור (Sons of the Light) [and considered their struggle to be against the Sons of the Dark].
Two things develop from this, and are seen in sects from Indian to Christian to ancient Greek. First, that there is a great piece of knowledge they share that the rest of the world doesn't know about: the correct way to interpret the Bible, or whatever. This secret has to be guarded closely; no one else can learn about it. The second thing which they share is the charismatic leader at the centre of the sect. People who interpret history as a great drama, us against the rest of the world, have no concept of תיקון עולם [repairing the world].
Example of sects which adhere to this: the Gnostics, the Essenes, various Hindu sects, Ismaili Muslims, evangelical Christians. So what is the difference between a sect and a religion? Catholicism has many of the elements of a sect, just a very big one. (tnh offers an intriguing alternate definition of the difference.)
These manifestations of the apocalypse are found in the Bible in the Book of Daniel, but this did not have a big impact on Western civilisation. What did have a big impact is, of course, the Book of Revelation.
A modern manifestation may be found in the film Fight Club. We have the closed nature of the group (the rules of Fight Club), the charismatic leader, and the feeling of them against the world. As humanity giving in to its base impulses, Fight Club criticises the "Ikea nesting instinct": the world of consumerism. Fight Club ends, of course, with a great apocalypse: the destruction of the economic civilisation in the form of the banks and credit companies.
During the course of the film, we discover that not only the world is divided between the good guys and the bad guys, but the same dichotomy exists in the protagonist too. The enlightened Tyler fighting the materialistic "Jack", in a psychological drama.
Yet how does it end? Who wins? In the materialistic world, the sect, in the form of Tyler wins; but in the psychological world, the materialistic protagonist wins!
Here's another apocalypse, in the Book of Job (40:22). The Leviathan is being described here; this creature represents chaos, as opposed to cosmos. The Bible was written in dialogue with ancient myths.
The lotuses embower him with shade; The willows of the brook surround him. He can restrain the river from its rushing; He is confident the Jordan will gush at his command. הן יעשק נהר לא יחפוז יבטח כי־יגיח ירדן אל־פיהו
יעשק [restrain] literally means steal. Lit. the Jordan river will enter into his mouth: he will swallow it. This tells us the Devil is perceived as being located in the Dead Sea, swallowing the Jordan.
This is an interesting echo of an ancient myth that identifies the Dead Sea with the Angel of Death. The Dead Sea, which is dead because the Jordan does not fill it fast enough with water to freshen it, was thought, in ancient myth, to be dead because the Devil was swallowing the water from it.
So if that's where the Devil is, where, then, is G-d? In the Temple, in Jerusalem, up in the hill country: G-d lives on high, whereas down in the lowest place on earth lives the lowest creature on earth. If this is the mythical geography, how is the apocalypse to be played out? Here's a passage from Ezekiel 47:
He led me back to the entrance of the Temple; and, behold, waters issued out from under the threshold of the temple eastward: for the forefront of the house stood toward the east, and the waters came down from under from the right side of the house, at the south side of the altar.
Then he brought me out of the way of the gate northward, and led me about the way without unto the utter gate by the way that looketh eastward; and, behold, there ran out waters on the right side.
As the man went on eastward with a measuring line in his hand, he measured off a thousand cubits, and led me across the water; the water was ankle deep.
Then he measured off another thousand and led me across the water; the water was knee deep. Then he measured a thousand and led me across; the water was waist deep.
When he measured off yet another thousand; it was a river I could not cross; for the water had swollen into a stream that could not be crossed except by swimming.
"Do you see, o mortal?" he said to me; and he led me back to the bank of the stream.
Waters are coming out from the Temple, and the further he goes to the east, the deeper the water gets.
Now when I had returned, behold, at the bank of the river were very many trees on the one side and on the other.
Then said he unto me, These waters issue out toward the east country, and go down into the desert, and go into the sea: which being brought forth into the sea, the waters shall be healed.
And it shall come to pass, that every thing that liveth, which moveth, whithersoever the rivers shall come, shall live: and there shall be a very great multitude of fish, because these waters shall come thither: for they shall be healed; and every thing shall live whither the river cometh.
And it shall come to pass, that the fishers shall stand upon it from En-Gedi even unto En-Eglaim; they shall be a place to spread forth nets; their fish shall be according to their kinds, as the fish of the great sea, exceeding many.
But its swamps and marshes shall not be healed; they shall serve to [supply] salt.
All kinds of trees for food will grow up on both banks of the stream. Their leaves shall not fade, neither shall the fruit thereof be consumed: it shall bring forth new fruit according to his months, because their waters they issued out of the sanctuary: and the fruit thereof shall be for meat, and the leaf thereof for medicine.
When the waters that come out from the Temple reach the Dead Sea, they heal it.
Here there are echoes of two different things. Firstly, the Flood, and secondly the Apocalypse. But this is the opposite of an apocalypse. Rather than G-d destroying the Devil and redeeming the world that way, here the good cures, or fixes, the bad.
This is the great difference between this and apocalypses. Judaism has an optimistic psychology. We believe all men were created in the image of G-d, and therefore this world is redeemable. It does not have to be destroyed in order to create a better world.
Fight Club is, in this respect, a very Catholic film; it does not recognise the concept of תיקון עולם [repairing the world] or תשובה [repentance].
So how do we deal with the יצר הרע [evil inclination] within us? Fight Club would have us constantly in battle with our negative forces. Catholic theology holds every animalistic thought to be a sin: we have to redeem ourselves from the evil parts of ourselves. Who, for example, is considered to be a holy priest? A celibate, someone who has defeated his animalistic side.
The rabbis, by contrast, say you need the יצר הרע to do good. The יצר טוב [good inclination] is good, but the יצר הרע [evil inclination] is very good. We don't need to defeat these evil forces, we need to cure them. This is exemplified by the story of Reish Lakish and R. Yochanan. The bandit Reish Lakish, seeing R. Yochanan bathing in the Jordan, called out to him, "Your beauty should be for women!" R. Yochanan replied, "Your power should be for Torah!" To cut an interesting story short, R. Yochanan persuaded Reish Lakish to give up his evil ways and become a Torah scholar, and Reish Lakish went on to become one of the greatest rabbis of his generation.
R. Yochanan did not choose the apocalypse route to destroy the bandit in Reish Lakish. He said the very same power he currently used for stealing and murdering should be used for study of the Torah. There is no such thing as bad or evil or negative forces; there are merely sources of energy within the body. What these forces are used for is determined not by them but by their user.
What Judaism is trying to offer the world is the opposite of apocalypse.