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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Dovid Campbell

Leviathan, the Divine Game, and Redemption




“There the ships go, and Leviathan that You formed to play with.” (Psalms 104:26)


The Talmud describes the Leviathan as an apocalyptic sea serpent whose progeny would have destroyed the world if the original pair had been allowed to reproduce. God therefore castrated the male and killed the female, but He did not let them go to waste. God spends one quarter of every day playing with the male, while the female was salted and preserved as a feast for the righteous in the World to Come (Bava Basra 74b; Avoda Zara 3b). What began as an existential threat to the world now serves as God's plaything and a messianic delicacy.


The story is mysterious and baffling. Why was it necessary both to castrate the male and kill the female? Why does the male need to be played with, and why is the female uniquely suited for this divine feast? It's difficult to find a clear takeaway here, until we consider the Leviathan's symbolic meaning. According to certain rabbinic commentaries, we are the Leviathan.


Mankind is a force with apocalyptic potential, particularly if left without divine guidance. God therefore intervenes and imposes profound limitations on both the masculine and feminine aspects of the soul. The masculine – with its proclivity towards rationality, classification, and order – is dangerously susceptible to the pursuit of power, in which it seeks to impose its own order upon the world. Its castration symbolizes the curbing of this power drive, which leaves it free to exercise its better nature, delighting in the divine order of reality. This is what is conveyed by God's daily play with the Leviathan, and it is particularly manifest in the acts of Torah study and mitzvah performance. Indeed, the Talmud relates that the first three quarters of God's day are spent studying Torah, judging the world mercifully, and providing sustenance to its various species. The final quarter spent playing with the Leviathan can be understood as God's incorporating mankind into the proper study and administration of His world.


The feminine aspect of the soul entails its own challenges. Oriented towards connection, intuition, and love, it is also susceptible to unhealthy attachment and pleasure-seeking. It can only be trusted if brought under the influence of the rational mind that has properly oriented itself towards truth and goodness – the male Leviathan that has learned to play with God. Until this proper orientation has occurred, the feminine aspect of the soul must be suspended and yet preserved, symbolized by the female's salting. Once the masculine aspect has completed its course of training, it is the feminine qualities of love and intuition that will truly sustain it in a divine feast that symbolizes the soul's perfection.


These themes seem to be echoed throughout the Torah's narrative, particularly in the book of Genesis. Adam and Eve represent the human soul in its initial, vulnerable state. Eve is susceptible to the allures of pleasure, symbolized by the snake, and Adam is not capable of evaluating or steering her intuitions. This situation leads to a destruction of the ideal paradise in Eden. 


In the following chapters, the Patriarchs, symbolizing the refined masculine soul, begin the process of reintegrating their feminine aspect. We see this in numerous episodes in which they challenge yet ultimately embrace their wives’ intuitive vision. Abraham is uncomfortable sending away Hagar and Ishmael, but he eventually recognizes the divine wisdom of Sarah's instruction. Isaac believes it is appropriate to bless Esav, but he ultimately affirms Rebecca's recognition of Jacob as the virtuous son.


Jacob represents the most complete integration of the feminine aspect, building a family with four wives who produce purely righteous children. Two of these children, Judah and Joseph, encounter parallel temptations in the final chapters of Genesis and ultimately symbolize the culminated integration of the feminine. Judah is tempted by Tamar, who symbolizes a healthy intuitive vision, the feminine ideal, and ultimately recognizes the superiority of her intuition over his moral assumptions. Joseph is tempted by the wife of Potiphar, the perverse feminine who seeks unhealthy attachment, and distances himself from her. Together, they represent the proper response to the central challenge of humanity – the necessary balance between our rational and intuitive judgments.


Lot might be seen as an intermediate case. He leaves behind his wife, who is eternally looking back at her pleasure-centric life in Sodom, and flees with his daughters. These daughters truly desire the good of humanity in their scheme to repopulate the world, but Lot is insufficiently enlightened to restrain their improper ideas about how to achieve that good. Most of us find ourselves in a situation similar to Lot's. We recognize the destructiveness of the hedonistic element within the feminine soul. We abandon it in favor of the feminine qualities of love and beneficence. But, due to a lack of wisdom, we often find ourselves morally drunk and suddenly susceptible to the pleasure-seeking impulses we thought we had left behind. 


Moab is born from this confused and tragic union, and his offspring will eventually include Ruth, the righteous convert. While Lot's daughters were able to impose their intuitions upon a rational mind that was still ill-equipped to guide them, Ruth cannot force herself upon Boaz. Rather, she simply uncovers his feet, revealing her presence but awaiting his reasoned instruction. Ruth becomes the female Leviathan, the feminine ideal which awaits the truly righteous, and it is therefore only fitting that her union with Boaz ultimately yields David and the entire Messianic lineage, the redemption of the human soul.  


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