Saturday, September 28, 2013

Dream Incubation: Revelations of the Night

Today, if you look up the word "incubation" in most modern dictionaries, the only definitions will involve the development of fetuses. But the acute reader will notice the word "incubus," or dream demon, immediately follows. In ancient times, people would seek divine or spirit guidance via dreams. The technical term for such divination: induced (deliberately sought) dream visitations by spirits, angels, demons, the dead, or gods, is "incubation."

The practice of incubation has a long, multi-cultural history (See, for example, the The Interpretation of Dreams in the Ancient Near East by Oppenheim). And methods vary greatly. In the Ancient Near East, dream incubation usually involves a preparatory ritual (often an offering or sacrifice) and sleeping in a place of known numinous power (a shrine, a temple, by a sacred water source).

Incubation was widely practiced in all the societies around ancient Israel, and it should not come as a surprise that Israelites also engaged in this practice, though modern adherents to the Bible might find such a though scandalous. Yet there are multiple such events in the Bible, either described, or alluded to.

The key word to look for is darash, "inquire," as in "David inquired of the Lord." It sounds superficially mundane, like David rang God up on the phone. In reality, darash is a technical word for "divined" or "performed an augury." There were several ways to do this - sacred lots (the urim and thummim), consult a living oracle (a prophet or "man of God"), or perform an incubation (See I Sam. 28:6 for the complete list).

Solomon's dream as envisioned by Mark Chagall

The most complete description of an incubation ritual appears in I Kings chapter 3, where Solomon goes to a shrine at Gibeon and, after making sacrifices, sleeps there and receives a divine promise concerning his monarchy. 

There are many variations on this found elsewhere in the Bible. Jacob has an unsolicited dream vision while sleeping on the future location of an Israelite shrine [Beth E] (Gen. 28). Samuel has a comedic incubation while an attendant sleeping in the Tabernacle at Shiloh (I Samuel 3). Other likely, if not explicitly, incubations occur with Abraham (Gen. 15); Zechariah (Zech. 4); David (II Samuel 12:15-23); Nathan (II Samuel 7); and Isaiah (Isa. 6). 

The practice of incubation continues into post-biblical Judaism (Flannery-Daily, Dreamers, Scribes, and Priests: Jewish Dreams in Hellenistic and Roman Eras). While the Talmudic sages did not document any methods for this (just rules of dream interpretation), the Merkavah mystics did: techniques called she'elot halom, "dream questions," for drawing down the Sar ha-Torah, "[Angelic] Prince of the Torah" and the Sar ha-Halom, "The Prince of Dream." Magical textbooks like Sefer haRazim and Harba de-Moshe describe similar practices. So too, the Chasidei Ashkenaz described rituals that may have been performed overnight in synagogues (Sefer ha-Chasidim 80, 271, 1556).

Isaac Luria was an avid practitioner, and it was a familiar practice mentioned in early modern European texts (Shivbei ha-BeSHT 1,7). And, of course, a prophetic dream (sort of), is key to the plot of Fiddler on the Roof. 

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

Monday, September 02, 2013

Machnasei Rachamim and Selichot: Jewish Angel Liturgy at the High Holy Days

Whenever a congregant reads something I have written, or I share a bit of Jewish esoteric tradition from the pulpit, I inevitably have some say to me, rather emphatically, “Jews do not do that!” To this I always respond, “In 3000 years, living on 6 continents, some Jew somewhere has done everything.”

One need go no further than the Selichot prayers for the days leading up to the High Holy Days. For here we encounter the prayer Machnisei Rachamim, “Conveyors of Compassion.”  This is a prayer petitioning the angels to intervene with God:

Conveyers of compassions, obtain our mercy before the Master of compassion,
Makers of prayer, make our prayer heard before the Hearer of prayer.
Makes of wailing, make our wail heard, before the Hearer of wailing.
Conveyers of tears, convey our tears before the King who yields to tears.
Strive to raise up supplication, raise up supplication and plea,
Before the King, high and exalted. The King, high and exalted.

Whoa, stop right there. “Jews do not do that!” Well, there is ample case that that opinion is correct. The rule that Jews should pray only to God, and not to intermediaries, extends back to Talmudic times: “If troubles come upon a person, do not entreat the angel Michael or the angel Gabriel. Rather, entreat Me alone and I will help you immediately.” (T.Y. Berachot 9.1). Maimonides makes this normative, “It is only fitting to pray to God and it is not fitting to pray to any other.”

The Maharal of Prague was sufficiently troubled that he amended the wording (Netivot Olam, Netiv Ha'Avodah no.12), an innovation that did not catch on.

In modern times, no less an ultra-Orthodox authority than the Hatam Sofer wrote that at Selichot he personally skips over this prayer (Orach Chaim no. 166), a shocking confession from the leader of a community that insists ALL of the tradition is sanctified and obligatory.  

The prayer has been entirely edited out of Selichot liturgy in the modernist Reform movement.

And yet…At least one midrash exists that endorses the idea of angels as intermediaries of our prayers (Shir Hashirim Rabba to 2:7). And many Jews worldwide recite the words “barchuni l’shalom…”, “bless me with peace”, when they sing the popular Shabbat hymn, Shalom Aleichem.
Here I quote a wise gentile:

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds" – Emerson

Some defenders have argued that this behavior reflects our lowliness at this time of the year; we feel unworthy to address God directly.

Being historically minded, and noting that this prayer is found only in the Ashkenazi (northern European) tradition, I suspect it was written when Jews were surrounded by a Christian culture that emphasized the use of divine intermediaries (saints) and even had services in honor of specific angels (Michaelmas).

Whatever the rationale, a traditional Jew has to grapple with this odd bit of our angelic tradition.

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