Friday, May 16, 2008

Many Worlds, One God: Judaism on Manifold Creation

A pious rabbi was arrested by the Communist authorities in Russia for refusing to comply with the government's anti-religious edicts. In an effort to terrorize him, the rabbi's guard came into his cell, pushed the rabbi to his knees, held a revolver to his head, spun the chambers, and pulled the trigger. The chamber that the hammer struck was empty, but the guard showed the rabbi that there were three rounds in six chambers of the wheel. He returned a second time, repeated the procedure, but was surprised that the rabbi never flinched or even seemed concerned that the next time the pistol would discharge and kill him. "Why are you not afraid?!" He demanded. The rabbi rose to his feet and replied, "What you do fills you with dread, for the simple reason that you have many gods - your ideology, your party bosses, even your pistol - but you only have one world. I, on the other hand, have only one God, but many worlds. What have I to fear?" In that moment, the guard became a god-fearing man, and later helped the rabbi escape. (Story told me some twenty years ago, for which I have never found a written attribution)

I have just come to the shocking realization that my book, the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism, which otherwise provides a comprehensive summary of Jewish esoteric, aboriginal, mystical, and folkloric subjects, lacks an entry on one interesting topic - the tradition that ours is not God's first or only world! Oh, I mention it briefly in the context of other entries, but I did not dedicate an entry to that one matter, and that is an oversight. So here's what I know -

The teaching that God created multiple worlds before forming this world first appears in Bereshit Rabbah ("The expansion on Genesis"):

...And there was evening [the Hebrew can be read to suggest 'evening' was a reality before now]: hence we know a time order existed before this. R. Abbahu said: This proves the Blessed Holy One went on creating worlds and destroying them until He created this one....This is Abbahu's reason: And God saw everything that He made and behold, it was very good [comparatively] This pleases me, but those [worlds] did not please me. (3:7. Also see 9:2, where the same verse is used as a slightly different way - other sources also use Gen. 2:4: Now these are the generations of the heaven and earth when they [rather than "it"] were created, and Isa. 65:17).

How many worlds? Its unclear, but they added up to a thousand generations of souls, according to one reading, based on Ps. 105:8; 974 according to another. How that latter number? Noah was the 26th Generation of [this] creation, and since the Sages teach that Solomon was referring to Noah when he wrote, Only one man in a thousand have I found... (Eccl. 7:28), they deduct 26 from 1000 and get....974 (Gen. R. 28:4). 974 becomes the working number for prior creations in many subsequent retellings of this legend (Talmud Hag. 13b, Midrash Tehillim 90:13; Shabbat 88b):

R. Joshua b. Levi also said: "When Moses ascended on high, the ministering angels spoke before the Holy One, blessed be He: 'Sovereign of the Universe! What business has one born of woman amongst us?' 'He has come to receive the Torah,' answered He to them. Said they to Him, 'That secret treasure, which has been hidden by Thee for nine hundred and seventy-four generations before the world was created.'" (Shabbat 88b)

Hagigah 13b also gives us the piquant tradition that God did not jettison those earlier generations of souls, but continues to recycle them into the the unfolding generations of this world.

This idea that ours was not the first or only universe continues to be reiterated in various ways throughout the tradition (PdRE 3; Zohar I:24a-b; Or ha-Hayyim 1:12). In Hasidic tradition, the existence of prior worlds is revealed by the fact that the account of this creation begins with bet, the second letter of the Hebrew alef-bet (Gen. 1:1).[1]

This tradition of diachronic universes exists separate from the notion of synchronic multiple worlds, which also exists in Jewish tradition in the (well-known) "Four Worlds" and "Seven Heavens" models, as well as the (not so well-known) "Seven Dimensions of Earth" model (Lev. R. 29:11; Seder Gan Eden; LOTJ p. 15).

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

[1] God is utterly committed to following proper outline format. Schwartz, Tree of Souls, p. 71.


Blogger Izgad said...

Some sources for the idea of multiple worlds.
According to Sefer ha-Temunah there are seven cycles of worlds. Each world represents one of the seven lower Sefirot. Each of these worlds will last seven thousand years, a Shemitta. At the end of the seven Shemittot the seven lower Sefirot are reabsorbed back into the Sefira of Binah. We are livin in the second world. This world is dominated by sefirah of Gevurah. As such the Torah that we have is a Torah of Gevurah. The first world was dominated by Hesed. As such they had a Torah built around Hesed. According to Joseph Angelino, in Sefer Livnat ha-Sappir we are the last world.
Isaac Abarbanel and his son Leone Ebreo were also strong supporters of this belief in the Great Jubilee. See Mifalot Elohim and Dialogues on Love.

9:04 AM  

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