Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Knock, Knock, Knocking on Heaven's Door: Jewish Psychopomps

One of the great religious stereotypes of the Christian tradition is the image of St. Peter waiting at the gates of heaven to direct the soul of the dead to the appropriate final destination. But how many of us know St. Peter is just the Christian version of an almost universal spiritual/mythic tradition, the psychopomp?

[Angel collects the soul of a martyr of the Kishinev Pogrom. Illustration by Ephraim M. Lilien]

Many spiritual traditions have an entity, a spirit, deity, angel, or righteous ancestor, whose responsibility is to escort newly-deceased souls to the afterlife. This creature is known as a psychopomp, from the Greek, meaning the "guide of souls". The role is not to judge the deceased, but simply provide safe passage. In Greek mythology, this is usually Hermes. In Egyptian myth, Anubis. In Christianity, it’s St. Peter.

Judaism has this concept also. But in keeping with the doctrinal chaos that reigns in other aspects of Judaism, there is no firm agreement on the identity of the psychopomp (maybe, in the World-to-Come, as in this world, Jewish authority is simply not centralized).* Here are some of the more popular candidates:

The angel of conception not only brings souls into this world, but then returns to them at the end of life. When the soul recognizes the angel, then Lailah take it on to the next stage of its journey:

When a man’s time to die comes, the same angel [who brought him into the world] appears to him and asks, “Do you recognize me?” The man answers “Yes,”… (Midrash Tanhuma Pekude 3)

Abraham: Just as he did in this world, in the World-To-Come, our beloved ancestor awaits wayfaring souls – just not in the place you would expect:

As he sat in the tent door in the heat…Rav Levi said, in the World-To-Come, Abraham will sit at the entrance of Gehenna [the Jewish purgatory] and permit no circumcised child of Israel to descend there….(Genesis Rabbah 48:8).

Elijah: Some traditions place Elijah at the scene of the resurrection of the dead. But he also greets the souls of those entering their everlasting reward:

The good way has two byways, one of righteousness, the other of love, and Elijah, may he be remembered for good, is placed exactly between these two ways. When a man comes to enter, Elijah, may he be remembered for good, cries aloud concerning him, saying, Open you gates, that the righteous nation which keeps truth may enter it (Isa. 24:2)…(Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer 15).

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

*So a priest and a rabbi are talking. The priest complains of the burdens of his parish: My friend, you have no idea what it’s like being the priest to 500 communicants. Perhaps not, responds the rabbi, but then you have no idea what it’s like being the rabbi to 500 rabbis.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Auteur Mysticism: Innovative Readings on Circumcision and Hymen

The word Kabbalah means "reception," or ideomatically, "Tradition," and it is generally assumed that the esoteric teachings of Kabbalah are both ancient and static. When something seemingly novel appears in the Kabbalah canon, people generally speak of it as "revealed" rather than invented, assuming it has always been present, in occult form, prior to its coming to light.

[Adam and Eve, by Tamara de Lempicka]

This is grounded in the larger Jewish notion that everything anyone will ever derive from Torah was already present at Mount Sinai. But as my earlier entry on the supposedly old but in fact quite new pulsa de-nura curse demonstrates, there is also a degree of innovation that is a constant in the history of esoteric Judaism.

For example, the Merkavah mystics never use the term "Sefirot" and leave us nothing to suggest they had any such doctrine. It also had little meaning to the Hasidei Ashkenaz (the Rhineland mystics of the 12-13th Cent.). Moreover, the meaning of the word, which goes back at least as far as the 6th Cent. CE, undergoes significant evolution, from a simple notion of the cosmic power embedded in numbers (Sefer Yetzirah) to a doctrine of divine attributes (Sefer Bahir) to the elaborate graphic mandala of ten points and twenty-two channels well known to students of mysticism today (actually post-Zoharic design). Confusing the issue what is ancient vs. innovative is the habit of later readers to anachronistically retroject their understanding of a term or concept onto early texts (Aryeh Kaplan's commentary on Sefer Yetzirah and his explanation of "sefirah" is a classic example of this retroactive reading).

The mechanism of innovation at work in Kabbalah is that each elaboration builds upon earlier sources, even as it re-assigns meaning, often by combining them in previously unimagined ways and associations. I call this the "Auteur phenomenon" of Kabbalah. The term "auteur" aises from the world of film. Auteur theory holds that the director, while combining already existing elements (script, film techniques, actors) nevertheless creates something new and personal through his arrangement of these pre-existing elements into a new gestalt. I think something like this happens in Kabbalah (and Jewish tradition at large) all the time. Moses' staff is clearly a device of power (Ex. 15). But so is Aaron's staff (Num 17). So maybe their actually the same object. Then someone links these references to a staff carried by one of the patriarchs, and eventually we have a tradition of a single miraculous staff that passes through the generations and will in time reappear in the hands of the Messiah (PdRE 40; Sefer Zerubbalel). Then a later interpreter concludes the "staff" is actually a figure, or metaphor, for something else (like, say, the sefirot), and so the significance of the staff of Moses grows into a mystical doctrine.

Appropos of this, a regular reader, Aharon, provides us with another example of this auteur reading:

Note also the commentary on Breisheit 3:21, on the garments G!d created for Adam and Eve. Aryeh Kaplan writes in the Living Torah, "Some translate this 'shrouds of skin,' denoting the growth of the male foreskin and female hymen (Maaseh HaShem; from Sanhedrin 38b, Eruvin 100b)." (copied from World ORT.) This commentary is indicative of a tradition that the circumcision returns us to a state akin to that of Edenic man. I can only imagine how marriage may have at one time symbolized a return to Edenic fecundity for the daughters of Chava...

Assuming this appears as described in Ma'aseh ha-Shem, and assuming this is the Ma'aseh ha-Shem of the Kabbalist Elazar ha-Ashkenazi (17th Century?), then this is Rav Elazar as auteur reader. Here are the two passages from Talmud he cited:

...[regarding the true nature of Adam's sin] Rab Judah also said in Rab's name: Adam was a Min [a heretic], for it is written, And the Lord God called unto Adam and said unto him, Where art thou? i.e., whither has thine heart turned? R. Isaac said: He practised episplasm [he artificially constructed a foreskin]: For here it is written, But like man, [Adam] they have transgressed the covenant [here "brit" is taken to refer to "brit milah" - circumcision]; whilst elsewhere it is said, He hath broken my covenant...(Sanhedrin 38b).


Eve was cursed with ten curses, since it is written, Unto the woman, He said, I will greatly multiply... which refers to the two drops of blood, one being that of menstration, the other that of virginity... (Erubin 100b).

Now, in Sanhedrin, R. Isaac's interpretation is meant as a zinger directed at his contemporaries, Jews who surgically reconstruct their foreskin to conform with Greco-Roman prejudices against circumcision. In fact, there was no consensus among the Rabbis as to whether Adam was born circumcised (compare AdRN 2:5 vs. Exodus R. 46:3). Still, the assumption in this passage is that being circumcised is the "perfect" state of man (riffing also on Gen. 17) and having the orlah (foreskin) 'embodies' man's disobedience toward God.

Just as the Sanhedrin passage is trying to fix on the precise nature of Adam's sin, the Erubin passage is attempting to fix upon the precise meaning[s] of God's punishments of Eve. But the implication of this discussion that Maaseh ha-Shem latches onto is that before the Fall, Eve had no hymen (the breaking of which produces the blood of "virginity").

Elazar's auteur move is to combine and reform these two [seemingly] unrelated discussions with Gen. 3:21, "And Adonai Elohim made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them...", to come up with the [brilliant] mythic interpretation that the "skin" with which God "clothed" the primordial couple actually refers to the fleshy foreskin and membranous hymen. Therefore, Maaseh ha-Shem argues, the foreskin and the hymen are also embodied symbols of separation from Eden; manifest barriers between us and God. So it is through circumcision for a man (which one may note, also involves a 'drop of blood'*), and sexual initiation in marriage for a woman, which return us to our intended, Edenic condition (this also jives nicely with the Jewish wedding ritual, which makes reference to the united couple being like Adam and Eve in the garden - a novel teaching that reinforces a traditional ritual).

Its a compelling, clever, and even beautiful mythic rationale for circumcision and conjugal relations, but but its not an association found in the Talmud or Midrash, and I'm unaware of it being an interpretation made prior to Maaseh ha-Shem [If anyone knows of a source that pre-dates this one making this argument, please forward it to me]. Thus we see the novel unfolding within even the most conservative of Jewish traditions, and the constant reformation of Jewish teachings across the centuries.

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

*The theme of circumcision as a kind of ritual androgenization of Jewish men is worth another entry, but not yet.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Kabbalah Curse or Divine Discipline: What is a Pulsa de-Nura?

[A page from Sefer ha-Razim, found at www.fathom.com/course/72810016/s2_6_z01_sm.jpg]

In 1994, in the weeks leading up to the assassination of PM Yitzkhak Rabin, a group of Haredi men gathered publicly and performed a ritual directed against the PM. The news reported that the ceremony was that of the pulsa de-nura, "lashes of fire," a curse.
The idea of this supposedly ancient curse captured the public imagination, and I still have people ask me about it. However, trying to pin down the exact nature or provenience of the pulse de-nura ritual has proven difficult. That itself should not be surprising given the hundreds of little magical segulot, seferim, and kamiyot (manuals, books, and amulets) in circulation. However, what is striking is how the term actually is used in central Jewish texts - not the way we expect, given what happened in 1994.

The Talmud relates how the angel Metatron was subjected to 60 pulsei de-nura for impertinence:

Of him [Elisha ben Abuya, a mystic turned heretic] Scripture says: Suffer not thy mouth to bring thy flesh into guilt. What does it refer to? – He [Elisha, while on an ecstatic journey through the heavenly palaces] saw that permission was granted to Metatron to sit and write down the merits of Israel. Said he: It is taught as a tradition that on high there is no sitting and no emulation, and no back, and no weariness. Perhaps, – God forfend! – there are two divinities! [Thereupon] they [the angels of discipline] led Metatron forth, and punished him with sixty fiery lashes, saying to him: Why didst thou not rise before him when thou didst see him? (Hagigah 15a)
Clearly these lashes were a supernal punishment on a spirit, not a curse directed at a human. The Sefer Zohar also links the phenomenon to Metatron, for it describes pulsei de-nura as a harsh yet generative and protective attribute of the Shekhinah,

A single Youth ["Youth" = Metatron - see my entry, "Metatron: Anomalous Angel of the Countenance"], extending from one end of the world to the other, emerges from between her legs with sixty strokes of fire, decked in colors [the rainbow, a visible sign of the Shekhinah?]. This one is empowered over those below in Her four directions. [I:223b]

It has been taught: Radiance of those sixty surrounding her is etched on the Youth, and we call these 'sixty lashes of fire,' in which he is clothed in the aspect of the Shekhinah, blazing judgment, as it is written, ...sixty warriors surrounding her (Song of Songs, 3:7) (Zohar II:66b-67a).

The one time we see the lashes appear on Asiyah, on the plane of human action, is in Zohar II:51b, also associated with the Shekhinah:

As for this: The Angel of Elohim [who was going before the camp of Israel]...on one side she [Shekhinah, the pillar of cloud] was arrayed in crowns of Hesed [love]...On the second side, she was arrayed in lances of Gevurah [power], in sixty lashes of fire...[1]

So evidently pulsa de-nura is a celestial-angelic force/process/attribute related to Metatron, one that births, protects, and maintains discipline among the supernal denizens. In some readings it seems to be akin to the concept of yesurim shel ahavah [divine chastisements of love] and may even flow down to the human domain in the form of strict justice - but it is not presented as a curse.

Having done more extensive search than I, The Israeli scholar, Zion Zohar, concludes that a "ritual of pulsa de-nur" actually has no foundation in the main body of Jewish mysticism. Rather, the curse(s)* performed against the PM has roots, not in Kabbalah, but in Hebrew magical texts of antiquity, such as Sefer ha-Razim [2]

It may be that because magical texts do not enjoy the same standing in the Jewish community as does Kabbalah, the men who participated in this curse welded their magical efforts to a medieval ritual of herem [communal ostracization - but also not a curse] and then put a fig-leaf to their bizarre innovation by telling reporters it was found in Sefer Zohar [the Haredi community does not much value the novel, and the secular authorities don't appreciate incitements to violence]. Because of Dr. Zohar's research and other works of de-bunking conducted within the Haredi community itself, it is now understood that the "Lashes of Fire" curse is a modern contrivance dressed up as 'ancient' mystical tradition.

To learn about the history of curses in Judaism, consult the the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

*Dr. Zohar discovered there were several differing reports about the nature and content of the ritual.

[1] Pritzker Zohar, vols. III, IV

[2] Zohar, Z., "Pulsa De-Nura: The Innovation of Modern Magic and Ritual" retrieved online from the MUSE Project.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Controversy in Jewish Time: Mysteries of the Hebrew Calendar

I just encountered a curious concept on the web. Apparently some Christian eschatologists promote the idea that in Ancient Israel, time was calculated according to a "prophetic calendar" of 360 days.

[Hebrew Zodiac mosaic excavated in a 5th Cent. synagogue]

So I researched this concept using every tool available to me. And my conclusions? Not to put too fine a point on this but - Norishkeit. Nonsense. Hogwash of the most unkosher variety. I looked in vain across a half-dozen sites devoted to this "calendar" for a single prooftext or valid Biblical citation establishing that any Israelites, let alone the prophets, ascribed to such a calendar - and, of course, I found none.

What I did find was a lot of calculating based on, and references to, Daniel, Chapter 7. Seems that what drives this bit of astronomical sleight-of-hand is neither Biblical notions of time nor ancient Hebrew calendar controversies, but an anxiety over the fact that the numbers of years that actually transpired between the destruction-restoration of the Temple and any likely birthday dates of Jesus (4 BCE and 6CE being the most viable contenders, with 1CE enjoying little confidence from moderns) does not match up with the numbers appearing in Daniel concerning a period of "seventy weeks." These "weeks" are taken to refer to years, so the timetable* for the run up to Jesus "has" to be 490 years. But that doesn't really work, whether one uses the actual solar years or the actual lunar years (365.2 or 354.4 [rounded] days) that transpired, so it became necessary to construe a "prophetic year", allowing Christian exegetes to redivide the total number days into 490 artificially constructed 360-day years, causing actual history to be forced into a Procrustean bed of Christocentric time.

To the best of our knowledge, there were three revisions of the calendar over the Biblical period. We start with a Canaanite calendar (I Kings 6:1; 8:1; 6:38), had some kind of reformation of the calendar in the 6-5th Centuries BCE (Jeremiah, II Kings, Ezekiel), but then adopted other revisions from the Babylonians post-exile (Haggai, Zechariah, Ezra) [1]. But none of them involved a "prophetic" system as described by these sites.
Which is not to say ancient Jews did not have real sectarian disputes about the calendar. The chief of these being a competition in Greco-Roman antiquity between the Luni-Solar (12 lunar months adjusted to the solar year by the periodic addition of a leap month) vs. a Solar calendar of 364 days (4 seasons x 13 weeks of seven days) promoted by certain Priestly-centered ideologies. The Luni-Solar calendar is, of course, the calendar Jews use today. But the evidence of 1st Enoch, Jubilees, and the Dead Sea Scrolls indicates that the authors of these works believed this 364-day calendar was an angelically authorized calendar, while the calendar based on the cycles of the moon was an infernal contrivance. Thus we find in I Enoch (chapter 8) that the list of pernicious things that the fallen angels taught primordial humanity include:

....6) Akibeel taught signs; 7) Tamiel taught astronomy; 8) And Asaradel taught the motion of the moon....

The priestly writers who composed the sectarian writings among the Dead Sea scrolls also rail, far more explicitly, against the evils of the lunar-based calendar [2].

And it is interesting to note that how we apply the calendar still causes sectarian controversy among Jews. The traditional observance of holidays to this day include a extra day of Moed (Festival start), a residual practice of the time when the calendar was calculated by direct observation of the moon and was, therefore, subject to ambiguity.

But once a mathematical means of determining the months and holidays was developed and refined by the 5th Cent. CE, the functional "need" for second-day observances abated. Still, 1500 years after the resolution of the problem, when the 19th Century Reform movement included among its reforms the elimination of the yom sheini, (second day) of moed, Reform was declared anathema for it by many traditionalists. So the Jewish calendar still provides occasion for controversy, even to this day.

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

* This timetable does not concern modern Iraq, so I'm going to ask Senator McCain to please stop flaming me.
[1] Morgenstern, J., "The Three Calendars of Ancient Israel," HUCA, 1, 1924.

[2] Elior, R., The Three Temples, 2004