Saturday, November 22, 2008

Mysticism in the Siddur I: Shir ha-Kavod/The Song of Glory

The Siddur (prayerbook) is like the Burgess Shale of Jewish thought. It captures a cross section of Jewish belief in evolution. Take mysticism, for example. Most people imagine that Kabbalah encompasses all of Jewish esotericism, but Kabbalah is but one type. Over the centuries there have been multiple mystical theologies that have arisen within Judaism.

[image from the Song of Songs, by E.M. Lilien]

In many aspects they overlap, largely because one system builds upon another. But here are many variations. Before there was Kabbalah, for example, there was the mystical theology of the Hasidei Ashkenaz (The [Rhineland] German Pietists). And within the prayer book we have a beautiful example of their beliefs preserved in the alphabetic acrostic poem, Shir ha-Kavod (“The Song of Glory”), also known by it's opening words, Anim Zemirot:

I make pleasant songs, and weave verses/
Because for You my soul longs.
My soul desires to be in Your hand’s shade/
To know all of Your deepest mystery.[1]

In the very first stanzas, common themes of mystical theology are in place – the lust for secret knowledge, and the desire for intimacy steeped in emotional, almost erotic terms. And the key to the mystical theology of the Pietists is the word KaVoD (Glory):

When I speak of Your Glory/
My heart yearns for your love.
Therefore I will speak of Your Glories/
And Your Name I will glorify in songs of love.

“Glory” here is not a shorthand for God’s generic awesomeness, as it is today. To the author of Shir ha-Kavod, it is the visible manifestation of God. It's the part of God that is graspable by human experience, which is yet not God:

I will recount Your Glory, though I have not seen You/
I describe You though I have not known You.

There’s another common mystical motif, that of paradox: recounting what has not been seen, describing what cannot be known. It is the Glory that makes the agnostos theos, the unknowable God, yet accessible and relatable, hidden and manifest simultaneously. The Glory is, according to the author, what the prophets saw, what yields angels and anthropomorphic images of deity.

Note also that in stanza four it reads “Glories,” not “Glory.” That’s there because for the Hasidei Ashkenaz, there are two Glories, a masculine “upper” Glory and a feminine “lower” Glory. The upper Kavod is obscure, but the lower Kavod can be perceived. From where did this two-fold emanation get derived? From a Biblical encounter between Moses and God….you will see My back, but My face cannot be seen (Ex. 33:23). Thus too the Talmud teaches one should pray with “eyes directed below and heart directed above” (Yeb. 105b). Look at the lower Kavod while you imagine the unimaginable upper Kavod.

The masculine and feminine element comes from the Song of Songs, and Shir ha-Kavod uses the image of the male lover taken from there – “His locks are curled and black”; “dazzling and ruddy is He”; “His head is like pure gold” – as a description of Kavod. That also leaves open the possibility - unstated in the poem and therefore underdeveloped, but present nonetheless – that Israel itself is the female counterpart, the lower Kavod:

He beautifies Himself through me, because He desires me/
And He shall be for me a crown of beauty.

The poem goes on using a letter of the Alef-Bet to start each stanza (some twice), subtly linking the Kavod to the word mysticism found in earlier mystical works like Sefer Yetzirah.
The poem concludes with an envelope stanza that reuses the verb "to yearn":
May my contemplation be sweet to You/
for my soul yearns for You.
The use of the Hebrew word root Ayin-Resh-Bet here also has mystical connoations. It means "sweet," invoking the sensuous aspect of the mystical experience. But the same root means "to mingle," (sh'ti v'airev means "warp and woof"). This both parallels the opening line ("...and songs I weave...") with the image of interwoven thoughts and reflects the mystic's desire to merge with the divine.
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] The word pair of raz and sod, synonyms for “mystery,” is hard to translate.