Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Secrets of Bereshit: The Occult Bible III

In earlier entries (Nov. 2006) on the blog, I discussed how esoteric readings of the Hebrew Scriptures are commonplace. Here I want to share with you a few examples of how occult meaning has been uncovered in the first word, of the first verse, of the first book of the Torah. Let us see what Bereshit reveals for us:

בְּרֵאשִׁית In the beginning/When [God] began... (TaNaKH)

Since RaSHI, it has been widely understood that the conventional sequential translation, "In the beginning.." is inaccurate. Bereshit is a construct, not absolute form, so a temporal "When [God] began..." is better. So already on the merely syntactical level the word has its complexities.

But Jewish tradition has also held the six letters contain secrets that the wise will understand:

By making a notarikon (in this case, separating the word into two words:

בָּרַא שִׁית He created six [things]....
(Genesis Rabbah 1:4; Midrash ha-Gadol)

A secret is revealed - six critical entities preceded the actual creation of heaven and earth: The Throne of Glory [positive existence], Torah [the blueprint for existence], the Ancestors [the righteous pillars that support existence], the concept of the Temple [the link between worlds], and the name of Messiah [redemption and rectification].

Although the Torah itself suggests that certain hylic entities co-existed with God at the beginning (water, darkness), by separating out the diacritical dagesh from the word [it is the dot in the first letter]:

Beginning with a point...בְ • רֵאשִׁית
(Zohar I:15a)

the Zohar finds the philosophic principle creation ex nihilo [from nothing] in the first word. Zohar also finds hints of the Sefirotic structure in the first sentence:

"With Wisdom [reishit = chokhmah, a claim based on Proverbs 8:22; 3:18], the Infinite [= Keter, the subject being implicit in the verb form bara] created Elohim [binah]"

All Jewish mysticism takes very seriously the pathos (the caring) of God, that God is driven by a 'need' to create and relate to that creation, an idea scandalous to rationalist philosophy, which posits that God must be impassive. Re-arranging the six letters yields that creation is a:

שִׁיר תָאֵב A song of desire
(Attributed to Isaac Luria)

And confirms the mystical premise of a deity longing for us.

All of which is very cool and enlightening. And its just a sample. Tikkunei Zohar has many, many d'rashot on the word Bereshit (70, I'm told, but I've never counted them). But this kind of free-form interpretation creates other problems for the tradition. For example, Christians can play this game too:

the letters can yield:
father אב
son בּר
fire [ = holy spirit, though don't ask me how] אישׁ
a fortunate daughter [guess?]בּת אשׁרי
crucifixion on the sixth [day] ת
[This last one's another stretch - the Hebrew tav is the equivalent of the Greek tau....which is cross-shaped!]
(courtesy of Alexander Neckham, a 12th Century monk, in his De Naturis Rerum)[1]

Which may in part explain the gradual shift to more contextual, plain-sense [peshat]interpretations of the Bible by later generations of Jewish commentators - less chance of having your hermeneutics used against you!

Zal g'mor - to learn more, read the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050
[1] Thanks to my colleague at UNT, Leona Marsh, for calling my attention to Alexander. She has been translating Alexander's work from Latin and approached me because she needed help making sense of his Hebrew homilies.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Inviting Trouble: Drawing Down Angels

[Jacob has uninvited encounter with an angel. Be careful what you ask for. Postcard by E. M. Lilien]

A reader writes responding to an older blog entry on Uriel:

doing research on my own spontaneous experiences with the sar ha panim. your work is wonderful. Is it common for these things to just occur without prayer or meditation?

Thanks for the compliment. A general rule of thumb is that prophecy is usually characterized by the divine seeking out the person, while mysticism requires the person to seek out God. Though some may be graciously granted an angelic visitation unsolicited (Hagar, Joshua, Menoah's wife), and we ordinary folk may have moments of encounter we regard to be angelic visitation (I've had two such memorable experiences), Jewish indigenous tradition assumes that if you want to meet angels, you have to make it happen. This is the premise, for example, of the Sar ha-Torah texts in the Hechalot literature, in which the rituals of power needed to interact with an angel are [partially] specified. All the texts consider this practice to be fraught with danger.

I have a pending article entitled "Water as a Medium for Altered States of Consciousness in Early Jewish Mysticism" that will appear in the Spring 2008 issue of the Journal of the Anthropology of Consciousness that catalogues some of these practices.
Zal g'mor - to learn more, read the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Tehirin: Pure Evil, Demons of Dreams

Loosely derived from the “…scourge that ravages at noon” (tsohoriyim) mentioned in the anti-demonic Psalm 91 (verse 6), the Tehirin are a class of demons [1].

Based on their name and the context, the unique attribute of these creatures would seem to be their propensity to move about in daytime, a quality not generally associated with the demonic (Megillah 3a; Ber. 3b; Sanhedrin 65b).

[Attractive sleeping angel, New Orleans grave monument]

Never brought up in Talmud or early Midrash, they first get explicit mention Targum Shir ha-Shirim 4:6. [1]

Yet they receive the most prominent treatment in Zohar, where they are referenced multiple times (ironically, given their name derivation) as a creature that interferes with the night flight of the soul to heaven (Zohar I:83a). Perhaps there is another layer of irony, because the name closely resembles the Hebrew word for “pure” and “glittering,” yet these may be the very demons that trigger entrancing yet impure dreams in men (I:200a). Wittily, in his new Zohar translation Daniel Matt translates tehirin by the seductively charming alliterative “dazzling demons.”[2]

(SEE: Did Satan Fall?: The Devil is in the Details
Lilith - semen demon or feminist icon?
Does the curse of Cain live on?
Spawns of Satan, Children of Cain )

[1] "Demon" is a catchall term for the many Hebrew terms for spirits such as sheidim, mazzikim, and lilin (djinns, imps, and night spirits). Yet the word is problematic, because these Hebrew terms do not carry same the infernal, satanic, essence of evil connotation of the English word "demon." While these spirits usually spell trouble for humans, they are as much like fairies and/or ghosts as they are like devils. Nevertheless, "fairy" has too mild a connotation in itself. Therefore I choose the word "demon" as a global term for all spirits in Jewish tradition that are not angelic.
[2] In the critical text, The Song of Songs in the Targumic Tradition, they appear as teiharei and is translated as "noontime ghosts."
[3] Pritzker Zohar, vol. 3, p. 162.

Zal g'mor - to learn more, read the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

Received this nice comment:

Dear Rabbi, I just discovered your blog, which for me is LivingWater. I look forward to your book; I'm wondering if it will supplant Joshua Trachtenberg's Jewish Magicand Superstition, which is my all-time favorite.I'll be joining the discussion!Be well.

Todah rabbah/Many thanks

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Erelim: Tearful Angels, Jewish Valkyries

There are many classes of angels in Jewish angelology. We have already discussed cherubim and serafim in earlier entries. A less familiar category is that of the erelim. Their existence is derived from Isaiah 33:7, which reads

[Israels klage und hoffnung Ps. 22, Die Bucher der Bibel, by E.M. Lilien]

Behold the valiant [erelam] shall cry out, the angels of peace shall weep bitterly.

While there may be a progressive parallelism intended here, i.e., "both mortals and divine beings weep," esoteric readers of this verse draw a straight parallel between the erelam and the "angels of peace" -- the verse refers to two types of angels.

Maimonides lists erelim among the ten classes of angels (Hilchot Yesodei ha-Torah 2:7). They are ascribed a number of overlapping functions in different sources.

They seem to be closely tied to moments of death and destruction. Thus Hagigah 5b reiterates the Isaiah passage regarding the destruction of the Temple, while Jewish mystics make them witnesses to the humiliation of the Shekhinah (Zohar I:182a; also see Lamentations Rabbah Proem 24 and 1:23)

Erelim apparently have the responsibility to retrieve the souls of the righteous dead. Thus in the account of the death of Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi, during which the Sages attempted to keep him alive via continuous prayer, a disciple finally admits defeat by saying, "Both the erelim and the mortals held on to the Holy Ark [Rabbi Judah]; but the angels overpowered the mortals, and the Holy Ark has been captured" (Ketubot 104a) [notice the militaristic turn of phrase, an allusion to the capture of the Ark of the Covenant by the Philistines in I Samuel. Since erelim are linked to war and destruction elsewhere, perhaps there is a Valkyrie-like element to them]

They also have a strong predisposition to cry; in Genesis Rabbah 56:6, it is the Erelim that weep over the thought that Abraham will go through with the divine instruction to kill his son. They personify divine pathos.

Paradoxically, given what appears above, they are also associated with life. In Midrash Konen, they are the angels described as the genius of foliage, impelling plant growth (2:25).

Zal g'mor - to learn more, read the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

Monday, October 01, 2007

Clouds of Glory: God's Sukkot, God's Shekhinah

[Clouds, rainbows, and a pillar of smoke - Die Bucher der Bibel, by Ephraim Moses Lilien]
Rows and floes of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons ev'rywhere
I've looked at clouds that way....
I've looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It's cloud illusions I recall
I really don't know clouds at all

As we are celebrating the hag/holiday of Sukkot, I thought I might devote an entry to the popular and recurrent motif of the ananei ha-kavod, the “Clouds of Glory.” What does this have to do with Sukkot? Well, in the Tosefta we read concerning the Israelite’s time in the desert:

God gave to [Abraham's] children seven clouds of glory in the desert, one to their right, and one to their left, one before them, and one after them, and one above their heads, and one as the Shekhinah that was in their midst. And the pillar of cloud would precede them, killing snakes and scorpions, burning brush, thorns and bramble, leveling hillocks and raising low places, and making a straight path for them, a straight continuing highway, as it is said, “The ark of the covenant of the Lord traveled in front of them...and the Eternal's cloud kept above them by day... Num 10:33-34.” ( Sotah 4:2).

But this doesn't make sense; didn’t we dwell in huts (sukkot) for the journey in the wilderness? Seems there is a controversy:

R. Eliezer says: They were real sukkot. R. Akiba says: The sukkot were the clouds of glory (Sifra to Leviticus, Emor 17:11)

This reads sort of like a conversation between Carl Sagan and Timothy Leary. Eliezer, the rationalist, restates the obvious. Akiba, on the other hand, seems to pull this idea out of a hallucinogenic cloud of his own. But it turns out the ever-mystical Akiba actually has some exegetical ground to stand on:

He made darkness His screen; dark thunderheads, dense clouds of the sky were His sukkah round about him (Ps 18:11-12)

Can one, indeed, contemplate the expanse of clouds, the thunderings from His sukkah? (Job 36:29)

OK, these read poetically; clouds as metaphor for God’s shelter, but the link is clear: clouds = God’s ‘sukkah’. Akiba just takes it a step further, making the equation that if clouds are God’s sukkah, then the sukkot that God caused us to dwell in:

You shall live in sukkot seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in sukkot, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the Eternal your God (Lev 23:42-43, all translations based on NJPS)

…were also clouds! And supernatural clouds to boot, cloud of the Kavod, of the divine glory. These clouds had supernal letters written on them, serving as banners for each tribe (MdRI, Bo 14; Pesik. R. 20; Targum Shir ha-Shirim).

But these clouds were not just reserved for Israel’s use as sukkot. When God becomes manifest on earth, clouds obscured what was happening (Ex. 19-21; Job 22:13; Ex. 19; Lev. 16:2). Angels too manifested themselves as cloud; most famously the pillar of cloud that guided the Children of Israel during the day on the Exodus alluded to above (Ex. 13:21, 14:19-24).

Rabbinic tradition goes to designate a cloud as a sign of the Shekhinah, the feminine Divine Presence (Gen. R. 1:6; 1:10). Such clouds hovered over the tents of the matriarchs (Gen. R. 60:16). Moses ascended into heaven to receive the Torah enwrapped in clouds (Men. 29b; Shab. 88b-89a).

Even after the entry into the land, a pillar of cloud became manifest over the altar of the Temple on Yom Kippur, and its appearance was an augury of the future (Yoma 21b). The presence of these clouds diminished and eventually disappeared due to the accreted sins of Israel. Bar Nifli, “son of a cloud,” is a title for the Messiah, who will appear riding one, according to the Book of Daniel (7:13). Virtuosos of Kabbalah, such as Moses Cordovero, sometimes had pillars of cloud appear over or around them (Sefer ha-Hezyonot).

Thus it becomes clear from all these images that the clouds of Glory are multivalent in their mythic significance – having viewed sukkot from both sides now (with apologies to Ms. Mitchell) they (and clouds) symbolize divine presence (specifically the feminine divine presence), but also divine protection and favor, along with God's love and salvation.

Zal g'mor - to learn more about Jewish mythic traditions, read the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism:http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050