Jewish Son

Daniel Guebel

Artwork by Shay Xie

At some point in the Jewish millenarian diaspora, a method arose to interpret the precepts of the Talmud. This method was called pilpul, which in Hebrew simultaneously means “pepper” and “sharp analysis,” that is, spicy thought, and which expresses the will to achieve, through logical operations and the opposition of reasonings, the infallible and unique sense of Jehovah’s message: it is at once a corroboration of the imperfection of human thought and an examination of the nooks and crannies of the divine mind, which reveals a secret distrust in its judgment and harbors a secret suspicion: that God is mad. It’s clear that this work of mental hygiene was not picked up by the younger Christian brothers, who by the second century were already convinced that the less comprehensible the dogmas of their new religion were, the greater the conviction that was needed to support them. In De carne Christi, Tertullian affirms this in a paradoxical and beautiful way:

The Son of God was crucified: there is no shame, because it is shameful.
And the Son of God died: it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd.
And, buried, He rose again: it is certain, because impossible.

In summary, the fundamental act of knowledge is an act of faith, and in its intellectual surrender, by putting its mind on its knees, our species is asking for divine help to achieve certainty about the ultimate end of all things. Saint Augustine gives some nuance to this statement that “I believe because it is absurd,” by affirming: “I believe to understand.” Which would mean that the work of God is beyond the reach of human reason, or that to achieve understanding the prior renunciation of the powers of thought is necessary.

Evidently, this was not the perspective that allowed for the development of the pilpul. Initially, the method was invented (or discovered) by the Rabbi Jacob Pollak, who first applied it to a case of family divorce over the division of goods and then extended its use to the collective body of Jewish religious precepts, derived from the written and oral Torah, the interpretation of which separated the waters between different rabbinical schools. Pollak’s method mainly consisted of a sort of mental gymnastics that allowed one to trace relationships between divergent and even contradictory ideas, propose questions and resolve them in unexpected ways. In fact, its primary function was to keep students at the Yeshiva awake. After his death in 1541, Pollak’s main disciple Shalom Schachna broadened the perspectives of the method and established the bases for its use as they are known (or disregarded) to this day. Of course, save by the art of anachronism, neither Pollak nor Schachna were aware of the phrase that defines theology as a discipline without an object, yet it was precisely the elusiveness of the presence of God, the contradictory nature of his operations, the necessity of finding a general meaning in his work (and his existence) that drove them to weave a thought that they believed could trap him. For the infinite and uncapturable presence, the infinite nets of the word were necessary.

The mind, like the sea, the mind, the mind that always begins again!
After a thought, what sweet recompense to look at length upon the divine unrest!

To pursue Jehovah, to trap him in his contradictions, to cast the blame on him for the imperfection and absurdity of his creation: that was the true mission of every good Jew. Devotion is a mask that conceals the irreverent suspicion that He is a joke. Instead of playing a game of chess against him to vanquish his messenger Death, the pilpulist suspends time in the eternity of the reflexive act.

Thus, the pilpul was used to thoroughly analyze each part of the subject under consideration. One could take any sentence from the Torah, for instance, clarifying the correct sense of each term, each letter and each space between letters, to then return that sentence to its original place, once its rationality was demonstrated. Once its analysis was complete, the sentence was then examined in relation to its historical, cultural, and semantic context, and if one discovered that the analysis of the particular did not coincide with the situation or general field, then one took up the task again.

Now then, though the preceding example is simple enough stated thus, it’s obvious that this system of verification is long, arduous, and complicated, and that nothing guarantees a general agreement of parts in the final result. Even so, it is nothing compared to the deployment of resources required when the topic under discussion becomes more complex. To penetrate into the essence of a subject and adopt clear distinctions and a strict differentiation of its included concepts also implies to anticipate or at least carefully investigate the possible consequences that derive from this differentiation. If, for example, from two sentences that agree or are even identical two pilpulists drew contradictory conclusions, the apparent coincidence would not in fact be an agreement, so that the pilpulistic method would have to determine if this apparent contradiction could not be eliminated through a series of more careful definitions and more exact limitations of the concepts connected with the respective sentences. Thus also, if two adjacent sentences seem to possess the same sense, the method will have to determine if the second sentence is a simple repetition of the first that could have been omitted, or if through a more subtle scrutiny of concepts one could have discovered a difference of degree in the sense of each one. And even if it is the case that one has arrived at a positive result with the object of investigation (phrase, maxim, fact, precept, narration, law, saying, custom, history, parable, or legend), the practitioner of the pilpul will have to ask himself if he could not have arrived at that same result in another way, counting on a different system of proof in the case that the first procedure was refuted.

The pilpul expanded quickly through several countries (Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine), to the point that a good part of the Jewish community developed a passion for following the rabbis capable of working critically and obsessively on any topic. Bands of fanatics were set up in favor of this or that rabbi, the plazas of the ghettos became forums of discussion and the good Jews entertained themselves with argument for hours, to the point of leaving aside games like chess and dominoes. To promote the activity, it was even exaggeratedly claimed that Yahweh himself sometimes came down incarnated as a common Jew and participated in the discussions, losing the majority of times. It was even said in a low voice (these were times that anti-Semitism flourished) that Jesus (Yeshu, Jehoshua) had practiced the rudiments of pilpul but hadn’t shown great talent in the exercise.

All the same, after the flourishing came the fatal decadence. In his painful old age, Shalom Schachna saw how the ax of internal critique fell upon pilpul: the traditionalists accused those sparks of maniacal logic of belonging to the field of sophistry, and serving more for exhibitions of vain intelligence than the investigation of truth. Pilpul entered into a cone of shadow that would last for several centuries, and the darkness spread beginning with those who had promoted it. In fact, only one of Schachna’s treatises was published, the indispensable Pesachim be-Inyan Kiddushin. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the wise man was a paragon of modesty and that on his deathbed he ordered his son Israel to print any one of his manuscripts, or better yet, not print any of them. In all of this, more than the echo, one finds the source itself of the literary activity of Franz Kafka and his final decision, plea or order given to Max Brod to burn his work. Kafka is the final exponent of the pilpul and the one who has permitted its most far-reaching diffusion. Even more: those rhetorical operations at the end of the Middle Ages, rescued and processed in literary language by the little Jew from Prague, are the form that the twentieth century chose to understand itself. The casuistic language; the hierarchies as a form of the infinite; the deferral; the patient and resigned approach to the impossible; the inextricable machine of the real that resolves itself in the senselessness of every paradox, turning the sense of existence unreal. All of this just as much prefigures the horror of the concentration camps (according to what is often said), as it recuperates the opacity of a construction that pretends to get lost, enchanted by the possibility of a revelation only to grow tangled in the evidence that there is no genuine resolution. Of course, Kafka is a pilpulist so extreme that he seems a heretic to the tradition that he takes up and rewrites. While the wise Jewish pilpulists are inconsistent with their own method because they believe their task is limited to the examination of the Revelation that Moses received from God—an examination that would conclude by arriving at an indisputable all-encompassing truth from the combative nature of the interpretations—for Kafka, in contrast, the Law is no longer God but the Father, and the struggle is no longer to understand him (for the Father, like God, is given over to his own whim, to the violence of his formulations) but of being understood, of confronting Him to survive.



When he was happy, my father sang tangos, and I, in secret, at nights lit the lamp on a little stand by the side of my bed and turned on the Wincofón record player and listened at low volume to two albums with the greatest hits of Julio Sosa and Carlos Gardel. Stories of abandonment, of turf, of problematic loves, of nostalgias from exile, of competition between men, of deceitful women and infidelities, of regrets and betrayals. By then I was already aware of the local myth that affirmed that there has never been nor will ever be a singer superior to Gardel, the “bronze that sings.” But for all that I liked his songs, there was something in his nasal drawl, in the sound of his erre, a certain chirping and high-pitched element that didn’t sound to me completely virile. My favorite was thus Sosa, the real man of tango. While my father was sleeping I identified secretly with his tastes, and put in my extra hours as a small Argentine listener playing his tangos, to feel I was a man like him. During that period Sosa died in a car accident and it surprised me to hear the story that when they went to undress his corpse to put on the final items of clothing which would accompany him to his coffin, the employees at the funeral home found that instead of boxers, he was wearing the pink panties of a woman. Surely this anecdote is false, an invention by the bands of fanatical Gardelians to diminish the image of their rival.

In any case, going to the question of the identification of the “true voice of a man”: I remember that once my father and I were driving in his car, a vehicle that always had a radio tuned to a frequency that was dedicated to our music of the outskirts. This time we were listening to a singer with a drawling voice, a professional porteño who scanned his syllables like a German barbarian trying to decipher the structure of Latin. His intonation rarefied the atmosphere, which passed by in silence as we crossed through some sector of the suburbs. My father had asked me to accompany him to visit a manufacturer of refrigerators, and on the return from the excursion, tedious and full of speculations about the economic growth of the country, he attempted to keep up a broader dialogue, moving from adult to preadolescent territory, which included the topic of my future sexual life. But once the necessary prolegomena had been discussed (preventive medicine, risks, desired and undesired pregnancies), perhaps driven by the memory of his years of youth, perhaps by the desire to get closer to me by communicating something of his experience, he mentioned a girlfriend of his from adolescence. For him, to name her was to live the experience again. He said that this woman had been his great love and that he had lost her due to a misunderstanding. The malice of their parents, a dark design . . . He remained in silence, both of us contemplated the successive ugliness of the neighborhoods we passed through, then suddenly, giving a sharp blow to the wheel, he said that one had to pick whom one marries very carefully. “Choose well and don’t make a mistake,” he emphasized, “because in the majority of cases the length of the matrimony exceeds the length of the sentimental link. That’s why, maybe, if I’d married her, Noelia . . . ” And at the moment that he put ellipses on that affirmation, the voice of the tango singer went silent, and as the announcer mentioned his name and the title of the song, my father, blindly pushing the faux pearl buttons of the radio, searched until he found the signal that transmitted classical music. In this case, opera. The grating voice of a tenor saturated the atmosphere while I tried to process my father’s revelation. If in the past Noelia had been his great love, one therefore deduced that my mother had not been to the same degree. And if this were so, I asked, what had led them to get married and what united them in the present? “Well,” he said, “your mother is a great woman, I don’t have anything to complain about. We’ve been married a long time and when passion ends, love transforms into friendship. Your mother is a good companion.” Then he got tangled up in a discourse on the subject. Transformations, cycles, advances, setbacks of matrimony . . . all of a sudden, I understood what he was saying to me: In his case, the end of love and the passage to conjugal friendship heralded a decision. My father had invited me to accompany him to sound out my reaction to certain decisions linked to his future. Stated in a clear way: he wanted to let me know through circuitous words that he was thinking of separating from my mother. This indirect communication floated in the heated air of the car while, suppressed by the poor transmission quality, the vibratos of the tenor passed from stridency to interference. Then I could no longer bear that deafening voice in my ears, and I said: “Turn this off or I’ll throw myself out of the car.” We were moving with enough speed that the completion of my promise included the risk of death. The astonishment of my father, his laughter at the apparent absurdity of my comment, lasted for hardly a second. Then he turned off the radio with a punch of the button, reduced his speed and with his elbow lowered the safety latch on his side, which worked on all the doors. Looking at me out of the corner of his eye (he wasn’t going to stop paying attention to the road either), he said to me: “But just what is the matter with you?”

The singer, now I remember, was Mario Lanza. Jesus! And if within each surname a destiny is marked, I must say that this singer’s, which pierced my eardrums, also crossed through one side of my soul, for when my father intimated that he did not love my mother and was going to leave us, at the moment this news destroyed a part of me to the point that instead of continuing to listen, I preferred to roll head over heels along the road and be run over by the car behind us, at that precise moment I understood that he wasn’t announcing anything I hadn’t always known already, but that now this knowledge reached its total clarity and relief: the knowledge that family doesn’t exist, except in the illusory effort to construct it and keep it united. And at the same time, the only thing that exists is family.

The fact is, this paternal sentence about the end of love ruined, in a completely unexpected way and from the start, the possibility that I would develop full, complex, and adult sentimental relationships. As if my father’s decision were a sort of anticipatory sentence, I remained marked by the idea that in the short or long term I would reproduce this model of failure, so that an elemental ethical principle with respect to the treatment of the other sex withdrew me from the beginning from any serious commitment. Over the years, and perhaps this will last in greater or lesser measure for the rest of my life, I have stuck the frivolous mask on my face of a hyperkinetic Casanova, who uses and discards one woman after another as if trying to penetrate through bodies of ghosts. And in the end there were not so many either, for my fear of wounding made me cold in my behavior, and distance is not the greatest resource when one wants to play at romantic conquest, which implies the unfurling of the clichés of romance. This distance was thus, at bottom, a warning that I myself believed that it was inconvenient to get involved with me. In my behavior with women, I was the flag bearer of the lesson I had received: love is what is lacking. Now, to be the best student in an erroneous lesson is no advantage, and my sentimental withdrawal does not eliminate the obvious evidence that my father could explore the territory of possibilities that his warning destroyed in me, because his confession of escape included the story of a past love, lost but existent, as well as the end of another love, which existed at some point: the love that united him to my mother and was lost in the unbearable duration of everything present. And why could he, when I couldn’t? Maybe because his own father, my grandfather Ernesto, abstained prudently from advancing him that sort of sinister knowledge about the fleeting nature of all emotion and the end of all hope. It’s clear that when a father is strong, the son must be even more so, and if he cannot be, he will have to accept his own weakness and accustom himself to living amidst the waste, until he learns to construct a strength of a different nature and order than that which characterized his predecessor, for what is inherited is of no use to him. In this sense one can also read Kafka’s text. He himself says: “Therefore I studied jurisprudence.” The Letter is a long allegation in which the author analyzes his case, places blame, incriminates himself, accuses, and adopts the position of the prosecutor, lawyer, executioner and victim, in accordance with his rhetorical disposition to place the father in the chamber of appeal and supreme tribunal. When he is near the end of his discourse, he even pretends to cede his place and take up the possible paternal arguments to wield them against his son, lending his own voice (which could be a shout) to the opponent to arrive at an indubitable truth by means of the artifices of the dialectical game. Pure pilpul.



Now a doctor visits him. She asks him his age, his date of birth, the day and year in which we are currently living. My father smiles, he doesn’t know. The doctor points to me: “And what’s his name?” “Him,” says my father. I tell the doctor that he doesn’t know my name anymore but that he recognizes my name when he hears it. Then I say to him: “Dad, what am I called? Robert?” “No,” he says. “Marcos?” “No.” “Francisco?” “No.” “Mirta?” The doctor jokes: “Maybe by night.” My father says: “No.” “Daniel?” I ask. “That the one. That’s it.” “And who am I? What am I to you?” He looks at me, smiles, opens his hands. “My old man,” he says.



“Now, old fathers, I treat you better than you treated me when I was a boy.” That’s a minor triumph. At bottom, what is there to show? The satisfaction in pain is loathsome, the desire to provoke pity combines with the will to show myself impartial. But there’s a trap hidden: the hope that pathos is a sensible form of the examination of consciousness. Am I writing a literature of denunciation due to the abuse I received in my childhood, or a literature of self-denunciation to show how well I accepted the lessons received, to the point that now I can only have the worst opinion of myself? The world closed like an umbrella and there only remains to me the politics of resistance before the spectacle of a growing incapacity.

I remember the impression that reading an episode of The Aeneid made on me in adolescence. Virgil tells how Aeneas, son of Anchises and Aphrodite, flees from a defeated Troy that burns in tall Achaean flames. His destiny is not to die defending his native city but to raise one greater and more glorious. During the flight he must carry his father, who can no longer hold himself up. I don’t remember details, except that Aeneas and his men escape in a boat and Anchises never comes to know the Rome his son will found (just as Moses never stepped foot in the Promised Land). From that scene there comes to me the image of a vigorous character who bears on his shoulders his father, already ancient or crippled. The scrawny legs of Anchises are crossed over the chest and neck of his son. Those thighs of the old man are two dry branches that in his powerful youth seduced the goddess of love. Stealthy in the solitary night, Aeneas advances in the dark bearing that weight. As he approaches the water, where the rescue boat waits for him, the ground he treads goes about becoming more muddy or sandy, making movement difficult. The weight of the father makes the track deeper and slows the flight, and it’s not impossible that groups of Achaean victors are moving over the beaches looking for Trojan fugitives. Aeneas puts at risk the future of a city and the life of its people to carry the past. Anchises will die and be buried in Drepana. Now I am a worn out Aeneas who bears on his shoulders an Anchises who at every moment weighs more and sinks me into the mud. When my whole body disappears from the surface (except maybe my head), he’ll leap off and leave me behind.

“Damned is he who feels he cannot speak badly of his parents, for he is not prepared to sacrifice them to make space for his sons” (San Fermin, II:8).



The truth must be told. He also thought of being a writer: poems, fragments of a travel diary he once gave me to read and I kept for years without really knowing what to do with it. When he was in a good mood he recited the four most remembered verses from the famous poem by Almafuerte (“Don’t embrace defeat, even when defeated / Don’t feel yourself a slave, even when enslaved / Trembling in terror, think yourself fearless / And charge with fury, even when you are badly wounded”). As long as he could, he asked me to show him the originals of my books and returned them to me with corrections. With a certain fearful respect he pointed out: “I think that here . . . ,” and marked an involuntary typing error, badly placed comma or missing period. Attentive to detail, the general sense of the narrative escaped him. But this, which at the time irritated me, did not cease to move me. In his secret dedication, his modest willingness to collaborate, his hidden devotion and his concealed pride, he was better and more honest than don Hermann Kafka, who every time his son handed him a manuscript looking for his approval, said to him: “Leave it for me on the bedside table” and never opened it, or at most answered it a few weeks later: “Ah, that . . . No, I still haven’t looked at it . . . ” Unlike Franz Kafka, closer to the little Florentine scribe, I write tonight so that my father does not read me, and if I copy his will to the letter it is by imaginary extension of his intention which never became concrete.



Another hospitalization, for bleeding in his urine. If they took away the anticoagulant medicines maybe the diverticula in his bladder wouldn’t open up but he would run the risk that the arteries get plugged, with the foreseeable result of an embolism and the amputation of a leg or two. He looks at the content of the liquid in his drip bag, and wants to control the quantity of serum, the time of its fall into the capsule that comes to the tube that brings it to his veins. He also watches over the correct placement of the tube. Seeing that the small plastic tube is a little twisted and folded, he wants to open the channel so that more liquid flows more effectively. A will to survive at all cost. He twists the tube. I tell him: “Don’t touch it, you’ll pull it out.” I say it so energetically so that he understands, because he’s doped. He emerges from the haze, looks at me fixedly and says: “You’re stupid, are you?!” I don’t lower my gaze: “So I’m stupid. You leave that little tube alone because it’ll be worse if you pull it out.” I leave the room faking anger. I bump into my aunt Alicia, his sister-in-law, who watched the scene. I tell her, laughing: “If he fights it’s because he’s not doing so badly.” In a while I go back into the room again, in a good mood, ready to make a scene. “So I’m stupid, huh? You ain’t gonna talk to me like that! Say sorry.” He looks at me, sees the farce: “Enough of this shit!” He laughs, I laugh. I check his tube: the serum is flowing well. When he says goodbye to me I give him a kiss on each cheek.

The next day, in the afternoon, I go to see him. The señora who takes care of him says: “Tell your son what you told me.” My father lifts his hand with the tube and rests it on his chest, or rather between the shoulder and clavicle, but with the intention of pointing at his heart. Then he points at me: “You. Very loved,” he says.

To my sister he said the same thing, in the morning. For the first and, I suppose, last time.

The bleeding stops and he goes back to his house. I visit him in the week, with several pretexts: PVC pipes that puncture, the cleaning of water tanks. He is seated, his gaze lost. I ask him what’s going on. “There’s nothing,” he says. And then: “I’m old.” And then: “When is this going to be sold?” and he points around him. Never before has he wanted to sell it. His house, his garden, the place where he’s always wanted to be. “If you want, we’ll sell it and you can come live closer to me,” I tell him. He shrugs. “I’ll be able to take you out more often, in the chair,” I say. He doesn’t answer. “Let’s play dominoes,” I propose. He shrugs, opens the box, spills out the pieces on the table.

A few days later, I pick up the result of the biopsy. Even in the medical jargon, it’s clear. When the moment comes, or perhaps before that, now, I’ll have to tell him he was a good father, the best father possible for my sister and for me.



Father. I wrote these pages, an unveiling and a shroud, so that you could survive in some way.

Mother. I wrote these pages, an unveiling and a shroud, so that you understand my anger and desire for reconciliation.

translated from the Spanish by Jessica Sequeira