Sunday, January 30, 2011

Angel Adjurations:Drawing Down Divine Power

In an earlier entry, where I outlined the practice of summoning angels to earth, I subtitled it, "It's almost like Magic." And indeed, depending on how you define "magic" (a notoriously difficult phenomenon to summarize), what I described had a magical flavor to it. Of course if you consult any rabbi or good Jewish source material, you will learn that Torah/Judaism/Tradition forbids a Jew to practice magic. And it is so. Yet one religion's magic is another's fele ("wonder"). And there are practices happening within, or at the boundaries of, Judaism that also make us wonder.

Now what I described last time really isn't "magical" in the narrower sense of the word. Its actually more "shamanistic" - fasting, self-isolation, repetitive chanting, purification, stress positions - rituals meant to trigger visions, spirit encounter, or what anthropologists call "shamanic flight." Both James Davila and Gershon Winkler have noted that there is an archly shamanic quality to the Hekhalot writings, and I agree.

The challenge of drawing a line between ecstatic religion and "magic" in this kind of literature, however, is particularly acute. For we discover that there are other Hebrew documents, very much akin works like Hechalot Rabbati, which seem to take us toward...well, I'm not sure what. Take for example, this text - Charba de Moshe, The Sword of Moses.

This early medieval text was translated by Moses Gaster at the turn of the last century. Part of Chapter One reads like this (I've updated a little of Gaster's wording, but I've left his censoring of the divine/angelic names as he wanted it):

...And when you conjure him he will attach himself to you, and cause the other five Chiefs and their Chariots, and the lords that stand under them, to attach themselves to you just as they were ordered to attach themselves to Moses, son of Amram, and to attach to him all the lords that stand under them; and they will not tarry in their obeisance, and will not withhold from giving authority to the man who utters the conjuration over this "Sword," its mysteries and hidden powers, its glory and might, and they will not refuse to do it, as it is the command of God X [ABDUHU] saying: "You shall not refuse to obey a mortal who conjures you, nor should you be different to him from what you were to Moses, son of Amram, when you were commanded to do so, for he is conjuring you with My Ineffable names, and you render honour to My name and not to him. If you should refuse I will burn you, for you have not honoured Me."
Each of these angels had communicated to him (Moses) a propitious thing for the proper time. These things (words) are all words of the living God and King of the Universe, and they said to him: --
"If you wish to use this 'Sword' and to transmit it to the following generations, (then know) that the man who decides to use it must first free himself three days previously from accidental pollution and from everything unclean, eat and drink once every evening, and must eat the bread from a pure man or wash his hands first in salt (?), and drink only water; and no one is to know that he intends using this 'Sword,' as therein are the mysteries of the Universe, and they are practised only in secret, and are not communicated but to the chaste and pure. On the first day when you retire from (the world) bathe once and no more, and pray three times daily, and after each prayer recite the following Blessing: -- "Blessed art thou [QUSIM], O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who opens the gates of the East and separates the windows of the firmament of the Orient, and gives light to the whole world and its inhabitants, with the multitude of His mercies, with His mysteries and secrets, and teaches Your people Israel Your secrets and mysteries, and has revealed unto them the "Sword" used by the world; and You say unto them: "If anyone is desirous of using this 'Sword,' by which every wish is fulfilled and every secret revealed, and every miracle, marvel, and prodigy are performed, then speak to Me in the following manner, read before Me this and that, and conjure in such and such a wise, and I will instantly be prevailed upon and be well disposed towards you, and I will give you authority over this Sword, by which to fulfill all that you desire...

You can see here a number of elements that have appeared in Midrash and Hechalot texts - Moses having power over angels (the Midrash finds Biblical proof for this in Ps. 68:18, which is understood to refer to Moses, "You ascended on high, having taken captives"), preparatory rituals of purification, and an adjuration of summoning. But there are some subtle and intriguing differences. First is the explicit claim that Moses' authority over the angels is usable by all Israel. Then we have two more "magical" aspects: he must purify with salt or some substance other than water (that's one step beyond Rabbinic ideas of purification) and that authority over angels can be used to "fulfill all that you desire" (that's a lot of authority, and it seems to offer the adept the power to do things that extend beyond the purely "religious")!

Yet, for all that, this is still not grossly magical, at least as magic was conceived in the ancient/medieval world. There is no real materia magica ("Fillet of a fenny snake, In the cauldron boil and bake; Eye of newt and toe of frog, Wool of bat and tongue of dog, adder's fork and blind-worm's sting, Lizard's leg and owlet's wing, For a charm of powerful trouble..."), success still depends on prior authority being given by God, and on being a "pure and chaste" child of Israel. In fact, in a later chapter the Sword of Moses pointedly remarks that:

...in truth, this is the ["Sword of Moses"] with which he [Moses] accomplished his miracles and mighty deeds, and destroyed all kind of witchcraft; it had been revealed to Moses in the bush, when the great and glorious Name was delivered to him. Take care of it and it will take care of thee.

In other words, this may look a lot like magic or witchcraft, but it is in fact the opposite, it is the very mechanism by which Moses performed the feats and wonders ascribed to him in the Torah - this is really a prophetic power (and therefore the prophets were magicians of a sort) and used for good and not for evil, so there! This disclaimer becomes a feature of other Hebrew works of ritual power - a reassurance that the reader may think it looks like magic, trust me, it's Torah.

To learn more, look up the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism available at Amazon. 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
[Illustration: "The Sabbath" by E.M. Lilien, appearing in Die Bucher der Bibel]

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

It is a Tree of Life: Tu B'Shevat

The minor holiday of Tu B'Shevat (the 15th of Shavat) is not mentioned in the Bible. It is first brought up in the Talmud, as the "New Year of trees." This refers to tithes collected from fruit bearing trees. Tu B'Shevat is to tithing what Dec. 31st is to our fiscal year - the time to close out the books.

That sounds bluntly administrative, but there's more. In terms of the natural order, in Israel this date roughly marks the winding down of the harshest pounding winter rains (the name for the month, Shevat, means "club"). The rains are a pain, but they are also vital to the vitality of the coming growing season (Israel depends almost entirely on rainfall) so this signals the first hints of renewed life. And trees are emblematic of this hope.

Tu B'Shevat also has a metaphysical importance because of the rain and the trees. Trees, in particular, are one of the most potent symbols of and for Judaism. Rooted in the ground and reaching for the heavens, it is a symbol of Torah, the human being, and the Sefirot (the divine order).

In various traditions, we learn that trees are sentient and offer praise to God continuously (Gen., Rabbah 13:2; Perek Shirah). The cosmic trees in the center of Eden, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (all things, which stands for the universal order we we know, the unredeemed world) and the Tree of Life (understood by Judaism to be the Torah and the source of immortality and the ideal divine order God wants us to restore to creation) are not the only trees of power. All trees in Eden have the power to heal and give off a scent that comforts a soothes the soul - symbolic of the centrality of trees to human well-being even to this day. At the conclusion of most services, quoting the Proverbs, we praise the Torah for it tree-like capacity to nurture, sustain, and protect us ("...It is a Tree of Life for all who cling to it...").

Not surprisingly, then, we find that the mystics of Safed developed a mystical seder in honor of the holiday. This lovely service, involving wine and the eating of various fruits, urges us at a time of torpor and dreariness toward re-sensitizing us to the essential rhythms of the earth and the pulse of divine stirrings.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Summoning Angels: It's almost Magic

As we have seen, Moses is the archetypal adept who, through the combined power of his righteousness and knowledge, ascends to heaven. In Apocalyptic literature, this ascent is a phenomenon that a number of Biblical worthies experienced: Enoch, Abraham, Isaac, Baruch, and others. In rabbinic literature, this same sort of experience was available to the great Sages: Joshua ben Levi (whom we quoted in a prior entry) and Akiba ben Joseph are classic examples.

The Bible also gives us accounts of earthly encounters with angelic beings. Aside from the more familiar stories (Abraham, Jacob, and Joshua), there is the extraordinary experiences of the prophet Zechariah ben Berekhiah, who describes extended conversations he had with an angelic medium who interprets his visions (Zech. 1-8). The much neglected book of Zechariah contains perhaps the most angel-rich material in the TaNaKH.

In the Talmud, Ishmael ben Elisha ha-Kohen gives us a most vivid and startling account of his encounter with the numinous entity Akatriel-YAH while in the Temple (Ber. 7a).

Another type of Jewish literature, however, does not limit the possibility of angelic encounter to Jewish religious geniuses of other times and places. Much of the Hechalot ("Palaces") literature provides us with the how-to of summoning angels to our plane of existence. So what is entailed in bringing an angel to you? Here's an example taken from the text Hekhalot Rabbati:

"The one who binds himself by the Sar ha-Torah ("the Prince [Angel] of the Torah") should wash his clothes and his garments, and make a strict immersion. He should enter and sit for twelve days in a room or attic. He should not go out or come in. He should not eat or drink except in the evening. When he eats his bread, it should be bread from [his] clean hands. He should drink water, but not taste any kind of vegetable. He should fix this Midrash of the Sar ha-Torah in prayer three times a day, after the prayer [the Amidah prayers] that he should pray from its beginning to its end. And after that he should sit and repeat it repetitively all twelve days, days of his fasting, from morning to night, and he should not be silent. He should stand on his feet and adjure the servants by their king, and he should call twelve times to each prince. And that he should adjure them by the seal, each one of them (Translation from Lesses, Ritual Practices to Gain Power, p. 193-195).

This is a tantalizing glimpse of a practice, but, as you can see it is far from complete. Certain key bits of data, such as how makes the requisite angelic seal, are left unspecified. This text implies that such techniques may be employed by any worthy adept, but does not fully explain them. Presumably, when an occult master is teaching this text, he will orally fill in the details for his disciple. Thus the written works are a fingerpost pointing the experience while keeping it just out of reach for the average reader - a true esoteric text.

Now, we modern readers can recover many of these elements in more detail by consulting and comparing other works in the Hechalot corpus: adjuration spells, the exact number of ritual immersions, postures one must maintain, suitable locations for drawing down the angel, etc., but I can't give you an exact and complete formula, from beginning to end, for adjuring the Sar ha-Torah. So, the modern adept must approach it with a spirit of experimentation by studying the various texts and weaving together a ritual from disparate sources. Of course, being a "worthy" adept is the key for all of this to work. Adjuring a numinous servant of God is a fraught affair, and one must possess the merit necessary to stand before such a pure and potent entity. So you've been warned: be careful out there.

To learn more, look up the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism available at Amazon. 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

Correction: Last week in my entry on zombies I credited George Romero with establishing the "zombie rule" that the undead fall only to headshots. In fact, while reviewing the Chthulu mythos with my teenage son, I have learned it was H.P. Lovecraft who revealed this technique to the world in his charming and idyllic short story, "Screams of the Dead."

(Illustration: Joseph encounters an angel, a detail from the medieval "Golden Haggadah," folio 5. A complete online display of the Golden Haggadah appears at - www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/ttp/hagadah/accessible/introduction.html )