ADIN STEINSALTZ: Of course. In that sense, Christianity is just an offspring, and it uses the same material. One of the bigger questions has been, “Who is the Messiah?” It’s a kind of personality question. Among the Jews we have a long list, many dozens of people who claimed that they were the Messiah, before Jesus, and after Jesus. Now some of them are completely forgotten, some of them may have left marks, some of them were basically good people, and some of them were vicious.It is not in the Qur’an, but the idea is now part of the Muslim religion, both for the Sunnis and the Shiites. For the Shiites the idea of the Redeemer is very important. The idea of the Hidden Imam. That he is supposed to come at any time.
And in some form, the secular redemption movements like Communism had the same idea, the same hope, and for some strange reason they had to grow their own messiah. Even those who were trained in Marxism, who didn’t believe in any heroes because everything is a process. They created gods, or demigods: Mao, Stalin. They created messianic ﬁgures. So it seems that this is a common belief.
P: It’s as if there’s a human need to be saved, and someone has to do the saving.
AS: It’s a belief. We don’t have any proof, at night, that there will be another sunrise. But we have a strong hope for it. It would be very hard if we thought that possibly the sun wouldn’t shine. So I believe that the sun will shine. But I have no guarantee.
P: Some people get so involved with hope that they are not living in the present anymore.
AS: Economically, people do the same thing. The whole of Wall Street is made of such people—people who believed that everything is possible, that a watermelon could grow to the size of a mountain. And other people lost because of that. I have met boys and girls who were lost in hopeless love—really lost. It is exactly the same thing as someone getting lost in an epiphany. Sometimes you anticipate. That is not healthy.
P: Anticipate or fear.
AS: Change is frightening. Two hundred years ago, when a bride was married, there was a person who would say, “Wretched bride, cry.” You leave your home. There is always a point, even for a bride, which is a point of pain.
Any change includes an element of loss. People sometimes get attached to old friends, to old loves, to old clothes. What number of people are attached to an old chair? You know that the chair is no longer really functional, and you can buy a new chair easily, but….
P: Yet people do want to see change, while at the same time they’re frightened of change.
AS: There is a future. On the one hand, I wait for tomorrow, and I possibly hope that it is only sweetness and light and roses. On the other hand, there is something in between, and I don’t know what that will be. Somebody wrote in a book many years ago, that when you go up a ladder, you cannot continue to stand on the lower step. When you go up, you have to lose the support of the leg that stood there. Once I was climbing a ladder, a very high ladder, with a friend. And he got scared, phobic, in the middle. We were a few stories above the ground. And he couldn’t move, up or down. He was frozen. Why? Because on a ladder you have to give up your purchase on one step in order to get to the next step. So change always means losing one thing, and getting another thing. I’m sorry for not speaking in all kinds of mystical terms.
P: It’s the same way in spiritual work.
AS: Of course it is. I’m just saying that possibly I should speak in a nicer, higher language. [Laughter.]
P: PARABOLA is now calling itself the place “where spiritual traditions meet.” What common ground can there be among the traditions?
AS: The people who have a problem are the people born and raised in a void. They have nothing. Sometimes they have to have a very deep and painful experience within themselves to ﬁnd something. You go into yourself, nothing is there, and then you go deeper, and you ﬁnd something.
With all the differences, and there are lots of differences, among the various traditions, what is astonishing are the similarities. Someone once asked, “What’s the difference between a poet and a mathematician?” A poet calls one thing by a thousand names, a mathematician calls a thousand things by one name.
I was trained toward mathematics. I used to be a teacher of mathematics: Two men are working, digging a ditch. Possibly you had the same problem in your high school, teachers of mathematics are not very full of imagination.
So they are digging a ditch. Now, if the writer is more creative, he’ll say one man was called Jack and the other was called John. One was taller and dressed in blue, and so on. If you’re a mathematician, you ignore their names, they’re not important. You ignore their dress, that’s not important. You come to the essentials, to the numbers. And it’s a simplequestion. It can be asked about three animals running in the jungle. A very different story, but the same formula.
What I’m saying is that, in many ways, when you see the myriad pictures—have you been in India? You will be shocked. Or Tibetan art, that can sometimes be shocking. There are pictures that are surely not ﬁt for small children. In a temple. Now, you may say that in a church you don’t see the same pictures. But if you go to a Catholic church, you possibly might ﬁnd it the same. Now, is there a big difference between the veneration of Mary and images in the Tibetan caves? Religious expression can have a strong erotic element.
Now, if you write poetry, you cannot write poetry just with numbers. And in a way, if you want to have a religious expression—I have been in a very, very strict Protestant church that didn’t have in it a single image. Nothing. Just a whitewashed wall. No cross, no symbol. But they were singing, and the songs were of a different kind. You cannot sing about whitewashed walls constantly, so you have to sing about something inside.
Reprinted with permission from Parabola