Friday, July 20, 2007

Devekut: Cleaving to the Divine

["A Jewish May," postcard by E. M. Lilien]

Devekut or D'vekut (“Clinging/Cleaving”) is the experience of mystical union with God, usually as an outcome of meditative prayer or spiritual exercises. The term originally expressed a more mundane notion of binding one’s self to God through good deeds and meticulous ritual practice,

For if you shall diligently keep all these commandments which I command you, to do them, to love the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways and to cleave unto Him...(Deut. 11:22; BT Ketubot 111b; Tanhuma Matot 1; Numbers Rabbah 22:11)

but it could also refer to the desire to draw close to God (BT Sanh. 64a, 65b; Sifre Shoftim 173; Gen. Rabbah 80:7). It is most intimately associated with various kinds of mystical ecstatic practices. This esoteric development of the term may reflect the sometimes ‘erotic’ aspect of the mystical experience. The first use of the term, after all, appears in Genesis, in association with the union of man and woman: a man... shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall become one flesh (Gen. 2:24).

Isaac the Blind is one of the earliest mystics to make extensive use of the term, mostly in the context of achieving fullest possible communion with God by focusing on the sefirot during prayer.[1]

Moses Cordovero described a magical-theurgic dimension to devekut, in that the act of “clinging to God” can be used to influence the direction of divine forces in the higher worlds (Pardes Rimonim 75d). Chayyim Vital and Chasidism sometimes use it as term for beneficent spiritual possession,[2] as exemplified by this passage:

And how is this mystery of cleaving performed? Let a righteous person stretch out on the grave of one of the tanna’im, or one of the prophets, and cleave with his lower soul to that of the tsaddiq, and with his spirit to his spirit. Then the tanna begins to speak with him as a person talks to a friend – and answers all that he ask, revealing to him all the mysteries of the Torah[3]

In Chasidim, the term is often used to refer to a general attitude, often linked to cultivating the emotions of love and fear, of keeping one’s attention constantly focused toward God. In this way, devekut can be achieved while at prayer, studying, performing daily mitzvot.

Throughout most of it’s history, the term has not been used in a way akin to monastic mysticism or any other kind of denial of worldly life. Jewish mystics both affirm the need for everyone to pursue devekut and the need to be engaged with the world by teaching that the ordinary tasks of living are, with the right intention, the stepping stones to greater attachment with God (Or ha-Ganuz L’Tsaddikim, 73). However, this sense of a worldly devekut breaks down in some mystical systems, where it is explicitly described in terms of ‘separating’ oneself from the material world (Reshit Chochmah 4:23; Sha’ar ha-Kedushah 4:21).

[1] Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 300-301.
[2] Spirit Possession in Judaism, pp. 257-304.
[3] Translation appears in Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos, p. 283.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Images of Women in Jewish Mythology

Despite the clearly patriarchal nature of traditional Jewish culture, both the Bible and Jewish tradition provides a wide range of images of women: wives, mothers, daughters, harlots, warriors, prophets, leaders, entrepreneurs, witches, seductresses, and sages. In the Bible women personify both wisdom and witchcraft. While women are often portrayed as especially devious, indirect, and manipulative, that quality is often used for godly purposes:

[In an inversion of traditional Eve typology, womanhood slays the serpent with the Word. Book plate by Ephraim Moses (E.M.) Lilien]

Rebecca in Genesis, Yael in Judges 4, the Wise Woman of Tokea in I Samuel, and Bathsheva in II Samuel all being signal examples. They could also be transgressors of accepted sexual norms for women and still be portrayed as valorous or virtuous, as exemplified by Rahab (Joshua 3) and Tamar (Gen. 38).

The Bible only tangentially gives us a sense of the status and role of women in Israelite society, and at times these portrayals are “idealized” in that they reflect the preference of the male authors of the Bible as to how women “ought” to behave rather then the reality of how they did behave, but as a whole, the Bible provides a remarkable varied portrayal of women. It is clear, for example, that women moved in most spheres of life with relatively little disability or male disapproval: the public square as well as the private home, in battlefields, palaces, and even in sacred precincts. Limits on women’s interaction with male society seem defined primarily by issues of ritual purity, and, to a lesser extent, class.

However, the Biblical tendency for women to used as literary types rather than describe them in “realistic” terms is exemplified by the book of Zechariah. Women appear only three times in Zechariah, in chapter five as personifications of moral and spiritual attributes, in chapter 12 as mourners, and in chapter 13 as parents. In each case, they are used in a highly figurative manner (as “wickness,” angels, a symbols of national mourning, and as symbols of societal transformation) that is would be difficult to extract a great deal of sociological information about Zechariah’s attitude toward the actual women who lived in his time and his society. The evidence of chapter 12, that women mourn separately from men is suggestive, but the deployment of this image is so stylizes it is impossible to say if that represented actual practice in the post-exilic community.

Because of the monthly cycle of menstruation and the issues that creates in the priestly system of purity, women are at times considered a potential source for tamei, ritual uncleaness. At least one extreme sectarian Jewish group believed the ritual impurity of women was such that women should not be allowed permanent residence in Jerusalem, lest their presence undermine the holiness of the Temple (Temple Scroll).

Rabbinic literature sharpens many of the themes and issues concerning women that are raised in the Bible. On the one hand, the Talmud identifies seven Biblical women upon whom “the Holy Spirit rested” – i.e., they were prophets: Sara, Miriam, Deborah, Channah, Abigail, Huldah, and Esther. According to the Zohar there are four women who have been translated living into heaven and that each of them governs one of the seven heavenly palaces (other sources speak of six palaces for women). There the souls of righteous women are rewarded. The women are Yocheved, the mother of Moses, Miriam, his sister, and the prophetesses Serach bat Asher and Deborah. Other versions of this list of ascendant women include Batya, the daughter of Pharaoh, Moses’ adoptive mother (Seder Gan Eden; Zohar III: 167a-b; Midrash Yashar).

On the other hand, women are also a source of social instability and discord among men because of male lust – the first murder, Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer claims, was actually a fight over Abel’s twin sister (21). It is also the case that some Sages show a marked misogyny (Gen. R. 18:2). As a result, Jewish law spends a great deal of time and thought trying to “regulate” women and especially their interactions with men.

Still, there is ample documentation outside the “normative” religious literature that shows just how varied and important the lives of Jewish women were in their societies. Writings such as those by Eleazer of Worms eulogizing the murdered women of his family and documents found in the Cairo Geniza show women as savvy business people, litigants in the legal system, as informal communal functionaries, and even in roles of religious leadership. For example, there is ample evidence that Jewish women have functioned as folk healers throughout history. Generally excluded from the scholarly circles that produced rabbis, physicians, and mystics in the learned tradition, women nevertheless could be religious virtuosos in their own right; avid practitioners of folk healings, midwifery, divination, clairvoyance, visionary prophecy, and amulet making (Sefer Chasidim; Sefer ha-Hezyonot).

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

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Mishkan, Tabernacle - Bridal Chamber of God and Israel

In an earlier entry we discussed the significance of sacred tents in early Israelite thought. The Mishkan (“Dwelling [of YHWH]”), was the exemplar and physical realization of this idea. It was the portable sanctuary built by the Israelites while they sojourned in the desert for forty years, in order that God would be continuously present in the midst of the people.

[The Ark with two cherubs, as envisioned by E.M. Lilien bookplate]

In the erotic theology of the rabbis, it also the bridal chamber where God consummates His “union” with Israel:

[At Sinai] Moses went forth and came to the Israelite camp and aroused the Israelites from their sleep, saying to them: Arise from your sleep, for your God desires to give you the Torah. Already the bridegroom wishes to lead the bride and to enter the bridal chamber….And the Holy Blessed One went forth to meet them like a bridegroom who goes forth to meet the bride, so the Holy One went forth to meet them and give them the Torah (Midrash Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer 41)

....by the words “In the day of His espousals” is meant the day He entered the Tent of Meeting; and by the words “In the day of the gladness of His heart” is meant His gladness at Israel’s building of the Eternal habitation (PdRK 1:3).

The Mishkan was built at the explicit instructions of God (Ex. 25). The building project was overseen by Bezalel, a craftsman imbued with the spirit of wisdom and the capacity to manipulate the Hebrew Alef-Bet to wondrous purposes. The Cloud of the Glory of God would descend into the tent and address the whole people through Moses (Ex. 40:38). The relationship of the Mishkan to the “Tent of Meeting” (Ohel Moed) is ambiguous. In some passages they appear to be separate structures, in others they are one and the same.

The structure was built out of a vast array of materials - wood, gold, silver, copper, clothes of blue, purple and red, animal skins – given as free-will offerings by the Israelites. Its design was a microcosm of creation (Ex. R. 35:6; Num. R. 12:13, Legends of the Bible 409). It was the mirror image of a supernal tabernacle in the celestial dimensions:

When the Holy One, blessed be He, told Israel to set up the Tabernacle He intimated to the ministering angels that they also should make a Tabernacle, and when the one below was erected the other was erected on high. The latter was the tabernacle of the youth whose name was Metatron, and therein he offers up the souls of the righteous to atone for Israel in the days of their exile. The reason then why it is written ETH THE TABERNACLE is because [the 'et' signifies] another tabernacle was erected simultaneously with it. In the same strain it says, The place, O Lord, which Thou hast made for Thee to dwell in, the Sanctuary, O Lord, which Thy hands have established (Ex. XV, I7) ['place' refers to one mishkan, 'sanctuary' refers to the other]. - Numbers Rabbah XII:12 , as translated in Soncino Midrash Rabbah.

Its dimensions were based on symbolic numbers: sevens and tens. Divided into three zones (the enclosure, sanctuary and devir), it housed the Ark of Covenant, the tablets of the Ten Commandments, the altars, the menorah, as well as the sacred vessels and instruments of the sacrificial cult. Besides the furnishings demanded by God, the Tabernacle displayed two miraculous items: the rod of Aaron and a bowl filled with manna.

Once the people settled Israel, the tent resided in various locations until David brought it to Jerusalem. Eventually Solomon replaced it as the central sanctuary of the Jews by building the permanent Temple.

To learn more, read: Cherubs; Gold; Ohel; Tent of Meeting in the EJMMM.

The Encyclopedia can be purchased online at http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050/sr=1-1/qid=1159997117/ref=sr_1_1/002-7116669-7231211?ie=UTF8&s=books