Yoshua looked carefully both ways as he left the Yeshiva. He didn’t want anyone to see where he was going. His rebbe would not approve of his destination: the house of an Islamic teacher of falasafa. Nor, indeed, would they have been much happier to know where he had spent the previous evening, with Ruben‘s kabalistic circle. Or his stop the previous night at the Dominican friary. And none of his teachers would have approved of his liaisons with peddlers of herbs and minerals of various sorts in the marketplace –especially those with women. But to Yoshua it was still all a game: the time plotting stratagems which kept each group of teachers in the dark about his other studies, the time spent in the market looking for interesting specimens for which he could barter a bolt of his father’s woolen cloth in order to win back the favor of those teachers whom he offended. When he had to be absent from class he would plead poverty or family obligations –his father needed him in the market or the workshop; when he needed to be in class he pleaded to his father that one or another august teacher had demanded his presence. The truth is that he was smart enough not only to learn what each of his teachers had to offer him, but also to hold his own in argument, even when he had been absent from one of the four schools he attended for as much as two weeks.
–Don’t you think we should divide the question, he said one day, bursting into a debate on whether or not the human mind can know God, two bolts of woolen cloth, a bag of herbs and a Torah scroll in his arms. Hakim, his teacher, a practitioner of Arabic falasafa and one of the few remaining followers of Ibn Rusd who could still be found in either Christendom or Dar-al-Islam, or anywhere else for that matter, had been trying to convince an especially pious student that human reason could rise unaided to knowledge of God, and that the sacred scriptures were merely poetic representations of the truth for those who were unable to master the dialectic. It seems to me that it is one thing to prove that God exists, said Yoshua, that He is One, True, Beautiful, and Good; it is quite another thing to claim that our small minds can exhaust the Infinite and the Ineffable. And every time I hear the Torah read or open the door for Elijah on Pesach –or for that matter every time I hear the call to prayer from one of your minarets or stand before the statue of Mariam, the mother of Isa in the churches of the Christians— I come into contact with an aspect of the divine which falasafa, for all its power, cannot comprehend.
He knew he was following Tomás de Aquino and that this would enrage both the followers of Ibn Rusd and those of al-Ghazali. That made him happy.
–But there is more to falasafa than demonstrating the existence of God, said his teacher. We are not just servants of the theologians. By investigating things we attain unity with the Agent Intellect, and gain the power to control the sublunar realm, as Moshe and Isa and the Prophet, peace be upon him, did before us. And then we can actually command right and forbid wrong as our ulema claims to and as your rabbis would do if they had the power.
Yoshua found this ideal powerfully compelling. Indeed, it was the nexus between knowledge and power which had drawn him to kabala and to alchemy and to falasafa in the first place. And with Christian troops dangerously close to Granada there was certainly plenty of right to command and wrong to forbid …
–Besides, Hakim added, how can your mind rise above the Agent Intellect if you have not yet attained unity with it? How can you become superhuman without first becoming a perfect human being?
Yoshua knew how the Christians would answer this objection. Humanity had indeed been put here to cultivate this earth like a garden and had been given reason in order to help it do so. But our destiny was not mere unity with the Agent Intellect, the least of the angels. It was much higher: to know and love God in essence. And this we achieved not by our own merits but by those of another: Isa, who they claimed was not only Mosiach but the very Son of God, as much divine as human, who had been crucified for our sins and then raised from the dead.
Yoshua accepted the first part of the answer, but not the second. This, at least, is what he had told Padre Gilberto last week.
–The salvation you offer is for slaves, he said in a rage.
Gilberto looked at him with confusion and concern.
–There is no joy except in Being itself.
–That is right, said Gilberto, unclear as to the boy’s difficulty.
–And we are not, and can never be Being. We are always dependent on others –and ultimately on God.
–That is true, said Gilberto, impressed with the boy’s metaphysical acuity but still unclear as to the nature of his quandary.
–We are, in other words, trapped in a contingency hell from which no one, not even God, can release us!
Gilberto was stunned. He had never even imagined that someone could look at things this way. It was, in a certain sense, obvious. Human beings –and everything else in creation– were contingent and would always remain so. Only God was necessary, having the power of Being in Himself. And this He could not share, for the very act of sharing his Being –the act of creation itself– implied a certain dependence on the part of the creature. But to think of the gift of being, even if only of a created, contingent share, as Hell, and of actual divinity as the only worthy redemption? It was madness –or worse.
–That is why, ultimately, Christendom, which understands itself as a civilization of love, can only always be a civilization of slaves.
Once again Gilberto was confused.
–But it is the Muslims, he said, who put submission and the very core of their religion.
That was true. And it was why he continued to believe that Judaism, in spite of its failure to actually build a just society, was superior to Islam. But he also knew that the face of injustice in the present period, at least, was Christian: it was the face of Fernando and Isabella marching on Granada.
–We teach that God invites us into friendship and sonship, not slavery and submission, Father Gilberto said.
–But for those who refuse sonship, who aspire to equality with God, even knowing that is impossible?
Gilberto felt sad for the boy. He hoped that it was just a symptom of his age: that deep, usually unfocused rage of adolescence given strange form by the boy’s outstanding brilliance. But he feared that it was not. These were dangerous ideas, ideas that could define an entire civilization –and not a civilization of which Gilberto wanted to be a part. Thank God, he thought, for Fernando and Isabella. Uncouth ruffians, to be sure. But they would save Christendom from ideas like this. He would pray for the boy.
Yoshua, for his part, devoted himself to the Kabala and to alchemy as to technologies of Being: tools which, by allowing him to tap into and control the energies of Being, would give him the next best thing to actual divinity.
This, at least, had been what he told Ruben.
—Falasafa prepares the mind for knowledge of God, taking it, as it were, to the edge of the infinite waters which divide contingent from necessary being, and making it secure in its knowledge that there is something beyond the contingent for it to attain. Kabala, to be sure, through the work we do on the sephirot, allows us to mend the fabric of creation and heal the injustices of the world. But its main purpose is to allow us to achieve union not just with Agent Intellect, but with God Herself.
Ruben dismissed him as a follower of Abulafia. And there was some truth in the claim. Like Abulafia he wanted to join falasafa and kabala, much as Tomas de Aquino had joined falasafa and the caritative wisdom of the Christians. But he did not believe that Abulafia had been the Mosiach, or even a prophet. He had, after all, failed to gain the mastery over the world that authentic union with the divine would have given him.
But he found something else in kabala, something which had confessed a few days earlier to one of his fellow students at the Yeshiva.
–The kabala captures the feminine face of God … the face that I see when I look into Mariam’s eyes in the marketplace, hoping against hope that someday we will be together.
Mariam was one of the young Muslim women from whom he bought herbs and spices. One day when her father was away from the stall she had asked him what he used the herbs for. He explained, and they fell fast into a discussion of alchemical sympathies and the healing properties of herbs –and even faster into what they, at least, imagined to be true love. He lent her manuscripts which she read secretly; she met him under the olive trees outside the city gates, on the road to Trapani after dark. They would argue about the planetary affinities of various herbs, then embrace and their skin would sing and they knew the joy of participation in Being itself.
It was the only thing which made Yoshua doubt that this world was actually a contingency hell.
That was Yoshua’s seventeenth year and it was the last of the Old World.