Thursday, February 24, 2011

Mystical Jewish Prayer: The Angelic Astrologic Esotericism of Shabbat Morning

[Jewish mosaic with zodiac and angels]

The Reform movement to which I belong got its start out of a desire among Western Jews to reform the siddur (Jewish prayer book). Our efforts to streamline Jewish worship led to many a piyyut [1] getting the boot. One prayer recited on Shabbat mornings that was eliminated was El Adon, a praise of God’s celestial power that came from the circle of Jewish ecstatics known as the Merkavah mystics [Bar Ilan, Sitrei Tefillah v' Hekhalot, 1987, pp. 115-120]. Well, it's back. The new Reform siddur, Mishkan Tefillah, has returned El Adon to its place on Shabbat mornings (p. 314), though slightly edited. This provides us an occasion to examine its esoteric theology. Like Shir ha-Kavod, which I discuss in another entry, this is an alphabetic acrostic poem. This prayer, however, focuses not on the theology of the Glory (though it does mention it), but on the angelic hosts and their equivalences to the celestial bodies. The association of angels with stars and planets was common in late antiquity. It is, for example, a major feature of the Hebrew magical text known as Sefer ha-Razim. This idea provides a monotheistic rationale for the otherwise pagan astrological belief that the stars influence the mortal realms – the stars and constellations, these writers are saying, are actually angels and messengers of divine will. The Merkavah adepts were obsessed with angels, their titles, and their powers. Texts associated with them (often dubbed Hekhalot texts) focus on how the angels praise God and how the initiate can both imitate and manipulate God's angelic agents. It is also interesting that there are carefully crafted numerological [gematria] features to this prayer. Verses have 10, 8, or 12 words. The first two stiches of five words, making a verse of ten equals the number of utterances that God made to form creation (Avot 5.1). The nine lines in the middle consist of 8 words, adding up to 72, a number signifying the most powerful of God’s names. The final two stiches are six words each, the complete verse of 12 represents the total houses of the zodiac, summarizing the 'celestial' theme of the poem. God, Master of all creation

Blessed and praised is He by all that breaths

His greatness and goodness fill the universe

knowledge and wisdom surround him (Prov. 3:19)

He is exalted above the holy beasts [2],

And adorned in glory above the chariot [3]

Merit and Justice stand before His throne

Love and Mercy are before His glory (Ps. 89:15) [4] Goodly are the luminaries which our God created,

made with Knowledge, Wisdom and Insight

He gave them power and energy

To have dominion over the world

Full of splendor they radiate brightness;

beautiful is their brilliance throughout the world

They rejoice in their rising and exult in their setting (Ps. 19:6)

performing with reverence the will of their Creator (Ps. 103:21)[5]

Glory and honor do they give to His name,

And joyous song to his majestic fame

He called forth the sun, and it shone;

He saw fit to regulate the form of the moon

All the hosts of heaven give him praise (Ps. 148:2-3);

Splendor and Greatness, the Seraphim and Ofanim and Holy Beasts [6].
[1] Liturgical poems, many of them post-Biblical, post-Talmudic compositions. The Reform movement gave Biblical and Talmudic works priority in their editing of the liturgy. [2] Hayyot are beasts that attend upon God’s throne. Mentioned in Ezekiel chapter 1, they may or may not be synonymous with cherubs. [3] The Merkavah is God’s chariot-throne, also mentioned in Ez. 1. Standing [or sitting] in the divine presence before the throne was the major visionary goal of the Merkavah mystics. [4] The reified figures of these abstract values (wisdom, insight, merit, justice, love, and mercy) are sometimes described as arrayed around the throne, and some writers have treated them as if they are angelic beings. [5] It is not uncommon to find an element of animism/spiritism in Jewish religious thought. The Psalms speak of mountains, rivers, and other geographic features as sentient beings. Here the sun and the moon are conscious of their roles and as consciously offering praise to their creator. Personification is, of course, a common literary technique, but I think this goes beyond rhetoric. A more philosophically oriented reading would call such language poetic panentheism. [6] The last line of praises and angels is awkward, linguistically speaking. That’s because the key words - Shevach notnim...kol tz'va marom... were selected so each word starts with the initial of one of the five planets visible to the ancients: SHabbatai, Nogah, Kokhav, TZedek, and Mo’odam were the Hebrew names for Saturn, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter and Mars. The string of angelic titles at the end adds three non-astrological angelic entities to the mix. Lists of angels, seemingly thrown into a line for no clear purpose, is actually a mark of authorship by the merkavah mystics. 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

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Leviathan I: The Cosmic Sea Dragon of the Bible

Among the scattered numinous creatures mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures (Angels, lilot, satyrs), few have captured the imagination more than the great monster, Leviathan (Leviyatan). In Job, God reminds the long-suffering, angry Job of his humble place in the cosmos with an extended meditation on the mighty creature, itself a subordinate creation of God:

Can you draw out Leviathan by a fishhook? Can you press down his tongue by a rope? Can you put a ring through his nose, or pierce his jaw with a barb?....His strong scales are his pride, shut up as with a tight seal. One is so near to another that no air can come between them. They are joined one to another; they clasp each other and cannot be separated. His sneezes flash forth light, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the morning. Out of his mouth go burning torches; sparks of fire leap forth. Out of his nostrils smoke goes forth as from a boiling pot and burning rushes.His breath kindles coals, and a flame goes forth from his mouth. In his neck lodges strength, and dismay leaps before him. The folds of his flesh are joined together, firm on him and immovable.His heart is as hard as a stone, even as hard as a lower millstone. When he raises himself up, the mighty fear; because of the crashing they are bewildered. The sword that reaches him cannot avail, nor the spear, the dart or the javelin. He regards iron as straw, bronze as rotten wood. The arrow cannot make him flee; slingstones are turned into stubble for him. Clubs are regarded as stubble; he laughs at the rattling of the javelin. His underparts are like sharp potsherds; he spreads out like a threshing sledge on the mire. He makes the depths boil like a pot; he makes the sea like a jar of ointment. Behind him he makes a wake to shine; one would think the deep to be gray-haired. Nothing on earth is like him, one made without fear. He looks on everything that is high; he is king over all the sons of pride. ( Job 40: 25-26; 41:15-32).

One actually gets a pretty clear imagine of Leviathan: some kind of fire-breathing, sea going creature, part dragon (Out of his mouth go burning torches; sparks of fire leap forth. Out of his nostrils smoke goes forth as from a boiling pot and burning rushes. His breath kindles coals, and a flame goes forth from his mouth) and part halibut (he spreads out like a threshing sledge on the mire). Most importantly, he seems truly majestic (His sneezes flash forth light, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the morning...He makes the depths boil like a pot).

Why would God make such a creature? In fact, the Hebrew Leviathan (or Rahav - there seems to be two names for this creature) may be a semi-tamed version of the terrible chaos monster mentioned in surrounding pagan mythologies - Lotan, Prince Sea, or Tiamat. This dragon personifies chaos, disorder, and entropy. In most accounts, the gods must slay this primordial monster in order for cosmos, orderly existence, to become possible.

The Bible reworks this myth in monotheistic terms. God contains chaos within this creature, subduing it. Chaos is not destroyed, but delimited. When God stops His part in the creative process, He declares the universe to be tov meod, "very good" - but not perfect. The world, according to this Biblical myth, is orderly on many levels, but residual bits of chaos linger, most visibly in the realm of the moral. As Jon Levenson notes in his book on Biblical myth, Creation and the Persistence of Evil, God's mishpat, literally "justice" but with the connotation of "divine plan," is not yet fully realized. We, God's junior partners, His co-creators, have our part to do in establishing mishpat at the societal level. If we fully embrace this partnership, then God responds reciprocally (as the Zohar puts it, "A quickening below triggers a quickening above") and in time the cumulative result is that God will finally wipe away this last remnant of chaos in creation,

In that day the Lord will punish, With His great, cruel, mighty sword Leviathan the Elusive Serpent-- Leviathan the Twisting Serpent; He will slay the Dragon of the sea.' (Isaiah 27:1)

and existence will be perfected. Rabbinic literature tells us a great deal more about Leviathan, but that will have to wait for a coming post, Leviathan II.

To learn more, consult Abyss, Chaos, Dragon, Leviathan, and Water in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism.

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: Border design by E.M. Lilien in Die Bucher der Bibel ]

Barack Obama, Rapture, End of Days, Israel, prophecy, revelation

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Trial by Ordeal: Divine Tests in Jewish Tradition

Anybody who has sat through a particularly contentious synagogue board meeting knows that Jews still practice the ancient custom of trial by ordeal. But this is about the only example still surviving. The Rabbis prefer judicial methods that involve evidence, witness testimony, and the examination of the word of law over the examination of divine responses in determining who and what is right (Baba Metziah 59b).

Yet before the Talmudic period, trial by ordeal popped up, both in the sacred past, but also in at least one legal ritual. An ordeal is a ritualized test that one or both litigants must undergo to be vindicated. We are most familiar with the concept through "ordeal by combat": let the two litigants hack it out, and the gods (or God) will ensure the righteous party will win. Yeah, I bet that concept was just as suspect to the participants as it is to you and me. Napoleon got it right when he said, "God sides with the big battalions." I also know you are thinking about David and Goliath. Indeed, David may have framed that fight as a test of truth and right, but Goliath and I would agree it was really a championship bout for a symbolic victory, just as such contests were in Homer. I wonder how many people assumed these one-on-one contests established the right or wrong of the fight (maybe the winners did).

No, ordeals in the Bible involve inviting God to reveal the truth of the matter through a non-violent test. Examples include determining who should have leadership, such as the face off of Moses vs. Korah (Num. 16), or the dueling staves between Aaronites vs. the other tribes (Num. 17:16-26). Ordeal is also used to select who was worthy to fight for God in a milchamah mitzvah - a divinely ordained war (Judges 7).

Still, none of these are actually formal judicial proceedings. These were one-time crisis tests. The only example of a true legal ordeal appears, not surprisingly, in the book of Numbers, where most of the ordeal stories are recorded. In Numbers 5 we read about the Sotah. In this trial, a wife suspected of infidelity (it may be she had to be pregnant, the text is unclear), she is required to drink a potion made up of earth from the Temple grounds combined with a written curse - possibly written in the earth itself - that has been dissolved in living water. If she is guilty, she (or the fetus) will die and so, as it were, "return to dust." If innocent, the power of the potion would make her pregnant, or, alternatively, the resulting child from the existing pregnancy will "be like Abraham" (Mishna Sotah 2:2; Sotah 17a). This link to Abraham may be because of his righteousness, because God made him endure ten 'tests,' and/or because he once trod on the Temple grounds, infusing the earth with his holiness.

The ordeal of the Sotah was abolished from Jewish judicial practice very early in the Talmudic period, but became the model for magical potions and formulae in Jewish and Christian magic, which often require the adept to write a divine name or incantation on an edible object or dissolves the words in water and drink them.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

The Angelus Interpres in Jewish Tradition

The term Angelus Interpres ("The interpreting angel") is not Hebrew, but the
concept certainly is. An angelus interpres is an entity who helps a prophet or other mortal experiencing a revelation to make sense of it. Seems that divine messages often come in garments that conceal their full import - surreal visual images, obscure oracles, or the like, and some explanation is necessary, rather like how when Americans sit through a Moliere play, they need a pamphlet to explain why it's funny.

[Zechariah confronts an angel, painting by James Tissot]

Probably through the influence of priestly spirituality (Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah were all priests), these angels become a prominent aspect of later prophecy (for a fully discussion of the affinity of Priests for angels, read Rachel Elior's The Three Temples). For example, Ezekiel (40:3-44:4, where an angel guides him through the messianic Temple), Daniel (7:16; 8:16-19; 9:22; 10:14), and Zechariah (chapters 1-6) - these books all feature angels who assist these respective prophets in understanding the visions bestowed upon them. Zechariah is my favorite, primarily because the explanations are at times as opaque as the visions themselves (check out Ch. 4).

We also see these angels in non-Biblical sources, especially apocalyptic writings (many of them also priestly compositions), such as the Book of Enoch. Scholars have offered various theories as to why the angel becomes important, most arguing that as the Biblical period draws to a close, there is a greater sense of God's exalted transcendence, that it is felt an intermediary entity must interface between a perfect God and imperfect humanity. This is the same attitude that made other kinds of divine intermediaries, like the logos, the memra, Wisdom, or Jesus, necessary in the minds of some Greco-Roman believers.

In Judaism, there emerges a kind of "parenthetical" concept of prophecy - that while prophecy brackets the time before and after our time (the Biblical period and the Messianic Age), we live in a period of history when prophecy no longer functions. Here's a diagram:
biblical age prophecy (........now........)messianic age prophecy
Still, lesser forms of revelation continue to be available to us.

Post Biblically, there are any number of entities who can interpret the world for humans - sarei chalom (dream angels), maggidim (spirit guides), ibburim (the spirits of the righteous dead), and bat kols (echoes from heaven). But by far the most common and well known is Elijah, the angel of the convenant. Elijah appears frequently in rabbinic tradition, either to tell what is happening in the celestial spheres, to help someone make sense of an experience, or even to comment on controversies of Jewish law, as in this passage:

[in arguing over the rights of a concubine….] R. Abiathar said [so-and-so], and R. Jonathan said [so-and-so] R. Abiathar soon afterwards came across Elijah and said to him: 'What is the Holy One, blessed be He, doing?' and he answered, 'He is discussing the question of the concubine in Gibea.' 'What does He say?' said Elijah: '[He says], My son Abiathar says So-and-so, and my son Jonathan says So-and-so,' Said R. Abiathar: 'Can there possibly be uncertainty in the mind of the Heavenly One?' He replied: Both [answers] are the word of the living God (Gitten 6a)

Occasionally Elijah can be more decisive than is the case here, but I share this particular passage because it emphasizes that in our age, God opts, more often then not, to defer to human decision-making. The Torah is in our midst, and so too the responsibility to make sense of it and make it work. We are empowered to the point where we are no longer depend on miracles, angels, or heavenly voices to make up our minds. More than that, if we take the process seriously, if all our arguments are made in a spirit of truth, love, and righteousness, argued truly for the sake of heaven, then whatever we may conclude can be considered "the word of the living God."

To learn more, read entries Angels, Bat Kol, Elijah, Ibbur, Maggid, in The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism.