Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Elijah the Prophet - Angel of the Covenant

Called Eliyahu ha-Navi, “Elijah the Prophet,” in Hebrew, this prophet of ancient Israel (9th Century BCE) is one of the most celebrated heroes in Jewish lore. In his earthly mission he performed numerous miracles in his war against Israelite idolatry (I Kings, Chapters 17-21). He alone among all the prophets was carried from earth in a fiery chariot (II Kings 2).

Rabbinic literature elaborates on many of his feats and his unique status. He never died (B.B. 121b; Gen. R 31;5), instead, having ascended to heaven on a divine chariot, he became one of only a few select mortals who have been elevated to the status of an angel, and is henceforth known as the “Angel of the Covenant” (Mal. 3:1; Ber. 4b; Zohar Chadash Ruth 2:1). Unlike Enoch, however, Elijah retains his material body.

Another tradition claims he has always been an angel, specifically the ofan Sandalfon, and he only briefly takes human form (Yalkut Reubeni; Pardes Rimmonim24:4; Emek ha-Melekh 175c). A cognate tradition holds that he has had multiple earthly incarnations, most famously as Phinehas, the zealous grandson of Aaron mentioned in the Book of Numbers, a figure who predates the historical Elijah by hundreds of years (PdRE 29).

In subsequent Jewish tradition, Elijah fulfills three roles:

1) Angelus Interpres - revealing heavenly secrets to mortals in this world (see earlier entry)
2) Psychopomp – the spirit who guides souls in the World to Come
3) Herald of the Messiah and Malchut Shaddai, the Kingdom of Heaven (see earlier entry)

In countless Jewish stories Elijah appears wandering the earth on missions from God (sort of like the Blues Brothers), performing wonders, intervening on behalf of the poor, teaching, and giving divine insight to those who recognize him (B.B. 121b; B.M. 59b). He is present at every circumcision, and a chair is set aside for him, to welcome him (PdRE 29; SCh 585; SA 265:11; Zohar 13a). In the absence of the spirit of prophecy, it is a visitation of Elijah, along with the Bat Kol and the Ruach Elohim, which provides humanity of this eon with knowledge of the divine will (PdRE 1). The phenomenon of xenoglossia is sometimes understood to be an Elijah visitation.[1] He also appears to people in visions and dreams. Kabbalistic texts, such as the Zohar, cite him as the source for various mystical teachings (Zohar 1:2a).

On High Elijah fulfills the essentially same function that Peter does in popular Christian imaginings, directing the souls of the dead to their proper destinations (Seder Olam 7; PdRE 15).
Based on the verse in Malachi mentioned above, Elijah is understood to be the herald of the Messiah, as well as the figure who will restore the power of prophecy to the people Israel. Therefore his presence is invoked at every Passover Seder and a cup of wine is set out for him in welcome him and in the hope that he will resolve all controversies in Jewish tradition[2] (Haggadah). It is he who will sound the great shofar of salvation marking the start of the messianic era. One tradition states he will perform seven wondrous feats at that time: Resurrect Moses and the Generation of the Wilderness; bring up Korach from the earth; resurrect the Messiah ben Joseph; restore the Ark of the Covenant and the other vessels of the Temple; display God’s scepter; flatten the mountains in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, and resolve the many unanswered questions and unresolved disputes concerning Jewish tradition. His permanent return to earth is a recurring theme in Jewish prayer and liturgy (Eruv. 45a; M.K. 26a; PdRK 9:76; Gen. R. 21:5).

To learn more, read the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism. 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

[1] Spirit Possession in Judaism, p. 355.

[2] Like whether we should drink four or five cups as part of the Pesach ritual – the medium in the message.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Five Angry Angels - Moses, the Golden Calf, and Zombie Angels

Many people are familiar with the episode in Ex. 32:11-13 where God wants to wipe out Israel in response to the egel zahav, the golden calf incident. Moses, according to the biblical version, talks God down and persuades the Holy One not to wipe out the people and make him, Moses, the new Abraham.

Less may be aware of the "zombie-fighting" Moses who appears in various midrashim. In these re-tellings, Moses again puts himself on the line for Israel, But in a much more dramatic way. According to this tale (variants appear in Exodus Rabbah (41.7; 44:8), Tanhuma (Ki Tissa 20), PdRE 45, and Deut. Rabbah (3.11), God unleashes five "destroying angels" (Af [or Haron-Af], Ketzaf, Mashchit [the three names are derived from Ps. 78], Chaimah [Deut. 9.19], and Hashmed [alt. M'lachah) against the people. Moses uses his lifeline to the amudei ha-olam, the meritorious ancestors (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the three names in invokes in verse 13) to neutralize three of the angels with their powers of love, but Moses is left to dispatch the other two himself. Being a prayer-warrior, the son of Amram slays them with his sincere bakasha (supplication).

One of the intriguing features of this story is how God's anger is understood to become personified (or angelified, to be more specific), reflecting the rising medieval belief that God interacts with the world less directly and more through intermediaries.

It's also interesting how differently each source treats the role of the ancestral helpers. In several versions, the mere mention of the names deflect God's irritable messengers, but in one version, Abe, Izzy, and Jake actually rise from the grave, like a righteous zombie army! Then, just to round out the story, Moses buried the two ?corpses? of the angels he personally defeats and seals them in their graves using God's name (PdRE). Still, these zombie angels are a continuing threat to Israel, trying to rise up from their dual graves whenever the people sin. So to ensure they stay put, Moses is in turn buried opposite them (at Peor, as described in the Torah, Deut. 34.6) as a kind of spirit sentinel, keeping watch over Israel even in death. This is why it is called Beit Peor ("House of Peor," but literally, "two mouths" - get it?)

Here again we see angels used to created a mythologized theology - that the zechut avot, the merit of our ancestors, protects us and graciously shields us from divine wrath, even if we deserve it.

To learn more, read my Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism.

Friday, March 16, 2012

a-maze-ing Judaism: Labyrinths as a Jewish Meditative Tool

With the article I published in Parabola in 2008, I may just qualify as the world's leading expert on labyrinths in Jewish tradition. Now my congregation, Kol Ami in North Texas, has achieved fame for its labyrinth. To my knowledge, there is only one other labyrinth installation at a synagogue. Maybe this will inspire others: