Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Jewish Labyrinths II: In the Palace of the King

Faith is like a beautiful palace with many beautiful chambers. One enters and goes from room to room, from hallway to hallway... how fortunate is he who walks in faith! Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, Moharan #420

[My old apartment on Chabad St., overlooking the labyrinthine Jewish Quarter of the Old City, Jerusalem]

We continue our exploration of Jewish labyrinths with the recurrent image of a maze-like palace as a metaphor of the spiritual journey toward God. This is the dominant motif of the mystical Hekhalot ("Palaces") Literature of Late Antiquity, which offers to guide an adept on an ecstatic soul ascent (Anthropologists would call it "shamanic flight") through the complex of celestial precincts in order to catch a glimpse of the "King in His Beauty" at the heart of the heavenly mansions.
In the effort to decode the meaning of Shir ha-Shirim, the Biblical Song of Songs, [a medieval commentator called it "a lock to which the key is lost,"] the Midrash offers this mashal (parable) of how through parables, Solomon taught us not to lose ourselves while seeking the mysteries of God's love in Scripture:
It is like a great palace with many entrances and all enter it would lose the way to the entrance. A wise man [Solomon] came and took a rope and it to the entrance, and all would enter and exit by following the rope. [Shir ha-Shir Rabbah 1:8]

12th Century philosopher Moses Maimonides re-uses the same image in his labybrithine magnum opus, the Moreh Nevukhim ("Guide for the Perplexed"). Later he parses the parable as signifying different kinds of people and their relative understanding of God:

I shall begin the discourse in this chapter with a parable that I shall compose for you. I say then: The ruler is in his palace, and all his subjects are partly within the city and partly outside the city. Of those who are within the city, some have turned their backs upon the ruler's habitation, their faces being turned another way. Others seek to reach the ruler's habitation, turn toward it, and desire to enter it and to stand before him, but up to now they have not yet seen the wall of the habitation. Some of those who seek to reach it have come up to the habitation and walked around it searching for its gate. Some of them have entered the gate and walked about in the antechambers. Some of them have entered the inner court of the habitation and have come to be with the king, in one and the same place with him, namely, in the ruler's habitation. But their having come into the inner part of the habitation does not mean that they see the ruler or speak to him. For after their coming into the inner part of the habitation, it is indispensable that they should make another effort; then they will be in the presence of the ruler, see him from afar or from nearby, or hear the ruler's speech or speak to him.

(Guide for the Perplexed, Book III, Chapter 51)

The image of the labyrinth palace continues to reappear in both Kabbalah and Hasidic literature. I'll show you some more next entry.
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


Anonymous Sarah said...

Shanah Tovah! I am doing a teaching on the labyrinth for all the families in a synagogue religious school this weekend. I found your Labyrinth I and II entries. The end of the second entry references more to come in the next post. Did you indeed write about Labyrinths again? I didn't find it in the following weeks. (I realize this was six years ago; forgive me, it's the season). Thank you for all this wonderful material! I am enjoying many of your posts now that I found your blog.

12:37 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home