THE HEBREW WORD FOR PASSION= ‘Cleave’

1,

Because the word ‘passion’ is so degraded today — confused with ego ambition, impersonal sex, violent bullying, etc — it is necessary to use a lot of other terms which are cognate with its real meaning. There are a number of key metaphors and alternate expressions, such as the leap into the unknown, being staked to the ground, and others…

Passion is the key to the Jewish approach to faith in the Old Testament.

There is another word in Hebrew for [the Greek] passion’= this word is ‘cleave.’ Cleave is a strange, and powerful, word which turns up in various places and in various ways throughout the Jewish Bible. A man cleaves to his woman in marriage; the tongue cleaves to the roof of the mouth; tired bones cleave to the skin. But what really is striking is that in Deuteronomy, early on in the Old Testament, the text repeatedly says, again and again, ‘cleave to God.’

Passion is our cleaving to God.

I love the very word, ‘cleave.’

In English, as in Hebrew, this word carries a paradox, a contradiction, a mystery, a secret. For, it means both to join with, and to separate. In fact, more concretely it means both a warm embrace and yet when we wield a sword we can cut an opponent’s head in two= we cleave them in half. To cleave is at one and same time to hold on to and unite with, yet also to rend, to tear into pieces, to divide. Poetically this captures the peculiarity of passion. To cleave is to love, yet this very love contains a sacred violence, a fight, a separating.. Cleave is not cognate with the Greek ‘agape’; agape is the crown of Eros, its compassion, its philanthropy, its benevolent charity. Cleave, by contrast, is the dragon of the Daemonic= it is the koan of fire, divine and human.

Without cleaving, we cannot face and come through all the ‘existential exactions’ that befall us as a fate. The Greek for passion, ‘pathos’, carries this connotation of being put in ‘a room of no exit’, where the alternatives disappear, and it all comes down to only a very few, but immensely powerful, moves you can make ‘on the rim.’ In Greek, passion is what you suffer, inescapably. But the Hebrew ‘cleave’ is more strong in both its passive acceptance of what cannot be changed, and in its active way of meeting that, of staying with that, of wrestling that, and coming through. This is where the sense of ‘violence’ comes in to cleaving [Mathew, 11, 12]. It punches through.

By accepting the unacceptable, it knocks down and punches through existential walls, it strides into and crosses existential gaps, that simply cannot be knocked down or crossed except by the power of this kind of passion. It is this passion that God encouraged in Israel– unlike the Greeks who, though they recognised the Daemonic wound of fate and the suffering passion it sparked, never the less gradually turned against all passion per se, for the sake of light, transcendence, joy, freedom, unassailable knowledge of spirit. The Daemonic was rejected in favour of Eros; the divine dark that indwells the dark of existence, the realm of Spirit, was rejected in favour of the light that brings all potentiality to fruition, the light that loves and heals what comes to light in its gracious and golden embrace, the realm of Logos. The Jewish cleaving does not make this flight from the Daemonic, but violently embraces its violence, not only being cut to shreds by it, but cutting through it to reach a far shore otherwise not reachable.

This is passionateness of heart, and for the Jews the whole span of its holy mystery, from primitive beginnings to increasing existential sophistication, is summed up in this word ‘cleave to God’, and ‘cleave to this world in its redeemability.’ Without the increasingly radical cleaving that is deepened passion, the human being does not arrive at holiness, and stands outside the most wonderful and momentous mystery in existence. The hidden God, and the hidden wisdom, are only flushed out of their place of hiding, are only dug out, through the cleaving that is passion’s free and loving embrace of existence’s wound.

Kierkegaard’s understanding of passion as necessary to existing brings his account close to the Biblical cleaving. He says that we need passion to exist — and if you don’t realise this, you just do not understand what it means to ‘exist’—in which case, you are not really ‘here’ but in a head trip to somewhere else: you’ve left existence in this world. Some people avoid by virtue of fantasies of sex, or wealth, or status; some avoid by resort to control, power over things, domination; some seek comfort and luxuriatingness; some pursue philosophy, theology, ontological structures. We all choose our preferred escape.. Without cleaving, we don’t have the energy, the muscle, the motive and intentionality, to stay, to get stuck in, to see it through to the end. Without cleaving, we cannot stand in this world and really take on the terror and beauty of existence in all its existential bite. It is precisely this most irrational and testing reality of existence which hides within the depths of its existential predicament an entire wisdom of God; this is what can become the wisdom of God united with the wisdom of humanity in the travails, the battling and raptures, of the heart. Failing this, cleaving has no point.

To cleave is an action, and it implies a sticking to it and sticking with it that is key to passion.

In the Orthodox church recently I heard another phrase, from St Paul, also relevant here. He refers to= ‘fervour of spirit.’ Passion is the fervour of our spirit; but what could ‘impassion’ such fervour if it were not ‘the’ Spirit? The passionate are not Logos people; they are Pneuma/Spirit people. The Spirit becomes the main help for those who risk the way of passion.

Putting the two phrases together, ‘cleaving’ and ‘fervour of spirit’, you get this= those who cleave to God will receive the Spirit.

Those who cleave to God will know the Spirit directly in the fervour of their spirit, which is the fervour impassioned in their passion of deep heart.

2,

I ran into a plethora of slightly differently nuanced accounts of the Hebrew root meaning of ‘cleave.’ There were different spellings in English [such as QBDW and BAQA]. Yet the range of meanings seem a family of close relatives, rather than strangers..

The basic meaning is ‘adhere.’ When you adhere to something, you embrace it in a very strong way. The marriage context in Genesis speaks of leaving mother and father in order to cleave to the spouse, and by that cleaving, become one flesh– or as it was explained by certain Jewish commentators, to become a combined entity, a dual unity, not exactly a single person, but a closeness and intimacy so potent between them, the two persons become ‘as one.’ This is not Oriental fusion, nor is it Western duality. Whatever we cleave to, be it in marriage, in fighting spirit, or in redeeming the world, passion and its Other remain distinct yet become ‘as one.’ This is beyond oneness or twoness. It is a state of communing. Buber would call it I–Thou, or maybe that ‘We’ which emerges from I–Thou as a further stage, its crown.

Cleave is always in Hebrew in the masculine, singular, imperfect tense= passion is spiritually masculine, as in St Peter’s hidden man of the heart; it is singular because the impetus for it comes from within the unique person, the distinct personhood, the unrepeatable personalness= I cannot give myself to life for you, nor can you do this for me, it is something we must each do ourselves; and it is in the imperfect tense because it is an action and this action is still incomplete, it is on its way, always travelling, battling, changing, shedding the old for the sake of the new= it has not arrived yet, but it is going, fundamentally on the move.

Adhere means to stick to something, and it also means to stick with it, to remain committed, through thick and thin. But there is another, and much more active and aggressive, implication to cleaving. Thus it means to ‘break open’, or ‘break through.’ Indeed, to cleave also means to ‘rend open’, or even implies ‘a violent cutting into pieces.’ Passion is terrible in the Old English sense because it does not relent; it is the hunter who cannot be deflected or distracted, seduced or intimidated, off the hunt. It is the warrior whose fight will not submit. Passion carries on, despite, not because of, conditions, circumstances, exigencies. It takes the hit– and gets up, and walks ahead. Thus passion separates those who cleave and continue from those who bail out prematurely, because they cannot take any more. The cutting edge of cleaving also cuts through delusion, deception, lies. Thus in every respect it does not stop where most people stop.

I dreamt of a friend recently who, in the dream, announces from the extremity of their depression= “I am going to flush out God from the place where he is hiding.” The aggressivity in cleaving is, at its most profound, a refusal to be put off by God’s hiddenness, and becomes a fierce determination to break through to where God is hidden in existence. Depression slays all other hopes, dreams, yearnings, of life, so we can seek the one thing needful. God likes to be hidden, but likes even more those not intimidated by the unknown God, the absent God, the defunct bad daddy God who is either off somewhere else enjoying his bliss or even if with us cannot do anything effective anyway.. On this hunt to dig out God from where he is hidden in the abysses of existence, we pass through water and we pass through fire; we enter the dark; we plunge down; we go in over our head; we are stretched to breaking point and beyond. We go into hell, losing all hope. We curse God and die: but we don’t. We continue, even though we have lost anything and everything that could comfort us, secularly or religiously. We even let go guilt, blame, condemnation of self or world or God. ‘Cleave to God’ encompasses all this. God loves our violence of quest, and makes it more so, makes it necessary if we are to continue, without cashing in the chips. To stay in the game is impossible, as the stakes go up and our losses spiral out of control, but to cleave means being in the game to the end.

Many people give in and give up well before the end-game is reached; to cleave is to hang in, and hang tough, and refuse easier and more safe and reassuring substitutes. In the end, we are naked, and want nothing except the unvarnished reality and its truth.

This is where cleave acquires its double sense of a love that not only warmly takes hold of reality, but separates reality from illusions, in the ultimate; and not only warmly embraces truth, but separates truth from lies, in the ultimate. A person who cleaves to God is a lover of reality and a lover of truth= such a person is not fooled by, drawn to, or in any way a lover of, illusions and lies. When you cleave to ‘what is what’, you come to see and appreciate how ‘what is not what’ kills existence in all its facets.

Even in our fear of God — which in Hebrew means not something frightening but does suggest ‘holy terror’, awe, respect, reverence — we should begin to understand that the Daemonic is serious. It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God; but all existence is in these hands, and risking and suffering and venturing this in order to find God in existence, is much more terrible. It is not pap for infants. It is not the rules and regulations, the well-marked paths, of conservatives. It is not the sloppiness and timidity and indifference of liberals. To be a lover of God, to be a lover of this world in its redeemability, and to vow to find God in the place in the existential paradox where he is hiding, is terrible; but such is cleaving. To cleave is to fight for something, and to fight for something is to be separated from it, yet refuse to allow that separation to become final.

In marriage we are separated, yet fighting to become united. In the fight for the world, in the fight for redemption — not transcendence — of existence, we are separated from redemption’s 8th day of completion, but travelling toward it, battling to reach it, struggling to make it real, and sacrificing our all to make it truth.

Such is the warmth and burning of the flame kindled in our cleaving.

3,

But there is another amazing theme= when people speak so often in English of ‘believing in God’, they are mis-speaking, and misunderstanding what they are saying. To cleave to God actually means to trust God, as an unknown and hidden reality and truth, sought for but not yet found; to cleave to God means to have faith in, to rely on, to depend on, this Great Mystery.

Now, the vital point= where the English Biblical text speaks of ‘believe’, the equivalent Greek Biblical text uses ‘pisteuo’, and this verb is much closer to cleave. In effect, we should stop speaking of ourself, or others, as ‘believers’, because what this really means even in Greek, and much more so in Hebrew, is that we are all ‘cleavers.’ We are cleaving to a mystery, we are adhering to it and as it is cutting through us we are cutting through it, to break open and break through to a new land of heart. For where is God hidden in existence? God is hidden in the deeps of existence, and that means, God is hidden in the deeps of the heart.

When we cleave, we go through hells, pits, voids, of God’s absence. In these times and places, we are in strange terrain, and belief in any creedal sense does not help us in such a situation. It is in some ways a shame that the early Christians thought they needed a creed in words= ‘I believe in this, that, the other..’ This is Greek, not Jewish; cleaving is existential, not doctrinal. As Martin Buber puts it, you don’t cleave to your idea of God [a statement ‘about’ him], you cleave only to God; nor do you even cleave to your ‘relationship’ with God, because you don’t cleave to a relationship, you cleave only to God. The cleaving is the relationship; and however much you try to state, or think, its mystery, the mystery is itself existentially challenging, it causes us ‘black inexplicable pain’ in Lorca’s words, and the mystery eludes all words and all thoughts. It is found, understood, its wisdom dug up, only in a living way in the throes and in the thick of the existential problem itself. The Jewish cleave means, go through this, be in it, weep, curse, cry out, let deep call to deep: this is faith. Your dogmas and doctrines are existentially dangerous, because they encourage people to flee the existential cauldron and take refuge in the words and thoughts which try to express mystery, but still are not, and never can be, the living reality.

Equally, when in John 11, 25, we read Christ saying: “Whoever believes in me, although he may die, yet shall he live”, we should know that rendering the English as ‘whoever believes in me’ is fundamentally misleading. Belief in this case suggests assent to a creed with our head, or emotion; assent to dogmatic or doctrinal propositions. This is not what Christ is saying. Christ is saying: whoever cleaves to the Christ in the abyss where all is lost will come through to the other side. I know many anti-religious believers who are, despite that, or indeed because of that, cleaving to God, and even cleaving to Christ, in the dark and difficult place where real passion is afflicted, stricken, hurt, broken, yet at the same time, forged, destroyed and reborn, its mettle and steel purged and honed and raised to fiery life.

Belief in God means cleaving to God in the midst of the absurdity of existence, and in the midst of all that destroys us and God and world. Yet we go on. Yet we proceed. Yet we will not turn back.

This points to another meaning of cleave: when we humans cleave to God there is a sense of a more dependent being ‘leaning on’ a more firm being. The old hymn, Rock of Ages, invites the ‘cleaver’ to lean on God. Israel was invited to do this towards God. Christ speaks in this same vein when offering to carry our yoke with us: not that he will carry it for us, but he will con-jointly carry it with us. The weaker can lean on the stronger, and by this, gradually assimilate their strength, and its properties and attributes of stead-fastness, enduring and undergoing, and most powerful of all, ‘bearing up.’

This means that cleaving is not only a personal action of heart; cleaving is also a trust and faith in, a leaning and depending on, a personal God who gives his personal word. This is already evident in the Biblical cleaving of marriage: you pledge your ‘troth’, you give your word to be real, to be serious, to be committed, about the impossible task of the two becoming as one. Similarly, a warrior makes a vow, which promises him to the fight. Believing and cleaving are on different levels entirely: believing is abstract and theoretical, cleaving is existentially concrete and actual.

You remain within your comfort boundary, when you believe. You put yourself on the line when you cleave.

I know only a very few people who believe and cleave.

I know many people who believe and do not cleave.

I know even more people who do not, and will never, believe but who cleave.

You will only know which of these 3 you are if you examine your heart. Do you use religion to skate over the existential chasms where God is hidden, or have you let these chasms wound you, so that you can die in them– or find in this very dying the leverage, the spark, from which to launch your search for the one thing needful, your search for the unknown and hidden God, right in the midst of existence in this world?

The believer can be cool, calm, and collected. The person of cleaving has terrible ups and downs, weeps bitter tears, knows the heartbreak of God absent from the human heart, and the human heart absent from itself, in all the world.

Believing in the bright Christ of dogma and doctrine is not the same as cleaving to the dark Christ who is in the profound hells where all human beings are lost.

The person whose life is cleaving will find the heart of God and by this, find their own heart, and find the heart in all the world.

4,

To cleave is passion: it points to a strong love whose commitment is personally trothed, pledged, vowed, promised, and by putting up with all the cuts that come through this immersion and plunge into existence, cuts through.

There is a lot of guff, waffle, flim flam, as well as all the poison, to cut through. If you cleave, you are cut by God, and this enables you to cut through yourself and cut through the world.

Cleaving therefore also carries the connotation not only of making a vow, and promising yourself to ‘the whole damn thing, no matter what’, but also of this commitment being manifested in an increasingly hard fought and hard won loyalty, fidelity or faithfulness, all of which can be summed up as truthfulness. Be strong, it is said in the Cante Tenze; but it could as well be said, be true.

God has, to an extent we do not ‘understand’ because we have not broken through to its reality, truth, wisdom, in the heart, already cleaved to us. God has pledged his troth, vowed and promised himself, been loyal, faithful, true, to us, no matter what.

This is the significance of the deeds God performed in the Old Testament to encourage the Jews. God cleaved the Red Sea, to let them through, to escape Egypt [Psalms, 74, 15]; God cleaved the rock in the desert, to give them water, as they traversed the lost place looking for the new land [Psalms, 78, 15]. Many people misconstrue these events of divine providence. They do not mean we won’t, in leaving Egypt, be dumped in the vast desert, before we can reach the promised land: this promised land is a new land of heart we will share with God, when his heart is found, our heart is found, the world’s heart is found. It is not yet. But it is both what olden and new covenants are pledged to. This is what it was always about.

These events of divine providence, or divine wisdom weaving into the story of existence lived out on the ground, occur for one reason: not to promote naive, facile, escapist hope, but to tell us something more fundamental, something we sense, but which God occasionally comes out of hiding to reveal.

This is that we are not asked, and not inspired, to cleave to a God who is not cleaving to us.

We cleave to God because before we were forged in the furnace of passion, he cleaved to us.

5,

It is all about one thing only: a new land of heart; it is not yet, but it is coming.

Cleaving is passion because what it relies on, in its courage and vulnerability, is the not yet.

It means, in the heart, ‘your word is good enough.’ Here, in the end, Logos and Spirit converge.

Logos voices the promise, Spirit brings it to pass, in and through the very agony that most threatens its loss.

This is why, in the end and at the deepest, there is no goal, no point, no justification, for cleaving. It resists all explanation, theological, psychological, scientific.

Cleaving cleaves in order to cleave. This is sufficient.

To say more, now, would be cheating.

And cleaving is the only honest thing in existence.