Jewish Mysticism and Magic: An Anthropological
Perspective by Maureen Bloom (Routledge)
Jewish Mysticism and Magic: An
Anthropological Perspective explores the origins
of mysticism in Judaism and the associated
development of the Jewish magical tradition.
Using the methodology of structural analysis and the theory of structural transformation, texts of early and late antiquity are analysed with reference to symbolic rites and rituals. Scriptural and Talmudic texts resonate with ideas of 'sacred and mundane' and ritual 'purity and impurity' and reflect a worldview where an omnipotent God governed a cosmos in which disorder vied with order. Particular features include:
This wide-ranging study provides a unique anthropological perspective on Jewish mysticism and magic and will be essential reading for students and scholars who are interested in Jewish studies, anthropology and mysticism.
Maureen Bloom gained her PhD at Brunel University. She has taught Medical Anthropology at Goldsmiths and is now Assistant Reviews Editor for the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute.
Excerpt: This book examines and analyses early Hebrew and Jewish literature, offering a synthesis that is methodologically based in the anthropological tradition. Its opening sections introduce the Jewish scriptures, known to Jews as Tanakh and to the world as 'the Old Testament'. The discussion moves to the later Rabbinical commentaries, the Talmud, and concludes with a selection of post-biblical Jewish texts. I do not seek to provide purely anthropological interpretations of these texts, nor do I super-impose a template from which to coax a set of diagrams or figures. I do, however, apply an anthropological technique — that of structural analysis — to show the development of certain themes and topics within the texts. In dealing with the emergence of particular themes, I shall argue that an analysis of those themes demonstrates evidence of progressive structural transformations relating to the beliefs and customs of Jewish tradition. Briefly, these themes relate to ancient Hebrew sacrificial rites, the nature of the relationship between the Hebrews and their God, and the development of rabbinic mysticism and magic; however, literature regarding miracles will not be treated. Magical texts were not written to procure or induce miracles, but were, in the main, emphatic and confident appeals to sacred symbols or beings, made in order to ward off the attacks of demonic forces.
It is not my intention to provide a micro-analysis of the minutiae of rites, laws or customs, but rather to observe the origins of a bigger picture emerging from the tradition. These origins, dating back two thousand years, are relevant still, and are in evidence in the contemporary private and public spheres. Today both in Israel and within orthodox diaspora communities, one sees affixed to doors, walls and windows of homes, business premises and even motor vehicles, various amulets that echo magical prayer formulae. Also commonly found are, for example, laminated cards inscribed with amuletic verses that incorporate the tradition of using patriarchal and matriarchal names (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob or Sarah, Rachel and Leah) as well as the names of three powerful angels dating back to the Talmudic period, as symbolic phylacteries for the bedrooms of infants or even older children. I am offering an explanation for these contemporary phenomena with a particular selection of ancient texts, analyzing them in terms of general themes, where their underlying cultural constructs and symbolic significance have persisted and endured through time.
Bourdieu has described this phenomenon:
It is because subjects do not, strictly speaking, know what they are doing that what they do has more meaning than they know. The habitus is the universalizing mediation which causes an individual agent's practices, without either explicit reason or signifying intent, to be nonetheless 'sensible' and 'reasonable'. That part of practices which remains obscure in the eyes of their own producers is the aspect by which they are objectively adjusted to other practices and to the structures of which the principle of their production is itself the product. (Bourdieu 1977: 79)
I would argue therefore that amongst the many who use contemporary amuletic modes of prophylaxis, few actually know the source, either in time or place, of the origins of their protective symbols and writings. In an offering of explication, I suggest that the subject of this book will give some indication as to the roots of Jewish use of symbols that date back to early sacrificial traditions and magical enterprises. Bourdieu wrote that habitus was 'history turned into nature'. That concept gives rise to the practical realities, 'the production of practice', whereby the relationship between a social structure and the conditions that allow for the operation of habitus, is finally evident.
It is difficult to launch into a description of rites and rituals without providing a background, and this is one of the complexities of presenting my argument. Familiarity with scriptural texts is a fundamental requirement for the under-standing of Rabbinic writings. These writings, the Talmud, consist of Mishnah and Gemara where Mishnah constitutes a 'repetition' of the scriptural texts, and Gemara provides the 'completion' of the Mishnah. In Rabbinic theory the dis-cussion of the Mishnaic laws is considered a commentary on and extension of the scriptures. My initial task is, therefore, to scrutinize scriptural texts in order to establish the frame of reference for the Talmudic and non-Talmudic texts examined later.
Despite the traditional ideology of continuity between Scripture and Talmud, it is evident from the texts that the conceptual world of the ancient Hebrews, (later called 'the Children of Israel'), differed from the conceptual world of the Rabbinic Sages. The relationship depicted between God and Adam and Eve was one of direct, open communication. The Rabbis are not so privileged. The early relationship between God and his creatures changes over time, and divine revelation was reserved for only a few righteous people. God's promises of blessing and well-being are combined with exhortations to obey all his laws. Failure to do so would result in a cursed existence. The expulsion from the Garden of Eden was a validation of God's threat. Knowledge of all things 'Good' and 'Evil' and the gift of eternal life are not meant for humankind, for only God is omniscient and immortal.
In the Tanakh, privileged access to God is mediated by sacrifice. After Cain and Abel offered of their produce to God in a sacrificial rite, God spoke directly to Cain. God also spoke to the righteous Noah, telling him to build an Ark in order to escape the coming Flood. When Noah was eventually saved, he made a sacrificial offering to God in thanksgiving. Abraham was told, as a sign of his devotion to God, to offer up his son Isaac in sacrifice, but the divinely arranged substitution of a ram saved Isaac from immolation. Later, the revelation of God to the people as oikoumen, or community, had its culmination at Sinai, where all present heard the blare of trumpets and the thunderous rumblings of the mountain, all saw the smoke and lightning, and subsequently heard the word of God. But only Moses and the elders enjoyed the vision of a sapphire pavement that is considered to be part of God's throne and majesty, and Moses alone ascended the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments. Sacrifices to God followed the revelation at Sinai, and the people acknowledged God's power and made communal pledges to obey his commandments. The sacrificial rite was accompanied by a sprinkling of the blood of sacrificed beasts over the mixed multitude, the erev rav, at the foot of Mount Sinai.
The significance of a sacrificial offering is given as evidence of a binding agreement between humanity and the divine. Regular ritual sacrificial offerings, qorbanot, are depicted throughout the Pentateuch texts, particularly in Leviticus, the so-called Priestly code. Sacrifices took place in the wilderness, but later, when the Temple was built in Jerusalem, God decreed that sacrifices could be offered only at the Temple.
Prayers accompanied sacred services, and when the Second Temple was destroyed, the already well-established traditional liturgy took the place of the sacrificial rites. Alongside prayer, a new tradition developed in which the priest-sacrificers were replaced by Rabbis chosen for their learning. Esoteric Rabbinic learning and mastery of mystical texts hint at the ascribed power and ability of certain Rabbis to control events by means of magical incantations and prayer formulae. Rabbinic holiness was a recognized attribute of some Sages, and their particular ability to gain access to God's celestial kingdom was enshrined in Talmudic legend and Ilekhalot and Merkava' texts. This same ability was utilized in the exercise of magical praxes, and the beneficent forces of God's kingship were then made available to those who sought them.
Later Jewish beliefs sustained in Rabbinic teachings focus largely on matters of ritual purity and forbidden mixtures, (deriving from the scriptures), and upon the evolution of a complicated angelology and demonology. The nexus of scriptural teaching and Rabbinic exegesis is the concept of order, signified by obedience to God's laws. The disordered existence brought about by lapses into 'the ways of the Emorites', darkei ha-Emori, includes worship of gods other than the single God who made Covenants with his people, indulgence in the practices of wilful bloodshed and murder, incestuous or banned sexual relationships, or in Practices regarded as forbidden because they were part of the realm of witchcraft and sorcery, where demonic maleficence threatens well-being.
The battle against demons and misfortune was waged with magical incantations embodying particular notions of God's holiness and power that were cryptically incorporated into letters, words and formulae. Many of these letters, words and formulae have as their inspiration and frame of reference the earliest significant evidence of a reaching out to the numinous in the scriptures, namely the sacrificial offerings made by those associated with such rites. God was concerned with the welfare of his people, but was unwilling to tolerate infractions of his codes of law. The power of such a God in areas of prevention and cure was a positive element in guaranteeing the efficacy of a ritual performance according to those codes of law. Whether the ritual performances were sacrificial offerings, ritualized prayer formulae, or magical incantations and praxes, they might ensure access to the divine kingdom and its power as long as they were executed within the constraints of acceptable requisites.
Rabbinic mystics of late antiquity had generated ideas that gradually filtered into the domain of magic and spell-writing. Rabbis themselves wrote spells for the health and wealth of paying customers, and these incantations appear on amulets and magic bowls. Less sophisticated spells, curses, incantations and imprecations were written by those eager to take advantage of the market in a belief system where demons were thought to influence fate and fortune. These ancient ideas were used throughout the years following the diaspora after the destruction of the Second Temple.
This book treats only the earlier traditions, hence the very brief inclusion of material relating to the emergence of the Kabbalah and Hasidism. Throughout the centuries the desire of the Jews for a close and personal relationship with their God has fuelled the aspiration to refine knowledge and practice that would lead towards passage to the Divine. The esoteric traditions of the mystical Sages of Late Antiquity were transformed by influential scholars and Rabbis, who fol-lowed centuries after, into other ways of approaching the kingdom of the holy God. Through the writings of the Zohar, 'Book of Radiance/Splendour' , the Kabbalah that emanated from mediaeval Spain (in thirteenth-century Spain and later in Italy — Mantua and Cremona around 1560), the concepts were refined and elaborated in Kabbalistic treatises that influenced generations of Jews in Europe. Still later, the concept of d'vekut — cleaving to God — was made central to the adaptation of Kabbalistic ideas utilized by the Pietists, or Hasidim. In their development of Hasidism, a group of exceptional Rabbis of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Central and Eastern Europe believed that a mystical union with God would be possible via meditation and prayers of an ecstatic nature.
Literature formulated and written during the period c.450 BCE to CE 700 provides the material that furnishes the substance of this book. The elaboration of a set of rituals combined with a myth of origin inspired an enduring way of life that has survived in various guises. Specific people, by virtue of their exceptional righteousness, were granted visionary experiences of God's immanence in the world. These visions were generally followed by acts of sacrificial offerings. Ancient Israelite sacrifice to the single God was based on the notion of drawing near to God by way of ritually acceptable offerings of birds and animals, cereals and wine.
The rite of sacrifice or 'drawing near', qorban, was initially dedicated to a God who manifested himself as pillars of smoke and fire, who made his dwelling-place a sacred Temple in Jerusalem, and whose power lay in his immortality, omniscience and omnipotence. As the circumstances of God's wor-shippers changed, so too those qualities constituting the nature of the holy God were perceived to have altered. When his earthly domain was destroyed, the central idea of the ritual, the qorban, engendered a transformation in which the Creator-God moved to the celestial realms and became the King of Heaven who could be approached by means of liturgical formulae and mysterious and mystical adjurations. Ezekiel's extraordinary vision of the celestial realm inspired an esoteric group of Rabbis to seek access to this heavenly kingdom. The powers vested in the Rabbis stemmed from their intimate contact with the numinous. This enabled them to record their experiences of the supernatural by means of their manipulation of holy letters and words contained in the liturgy. A transformation of this manipulative power ensued, in which the letters and words were appropriated by those who knew of them, and were able to use them in ways other than originally intended. Thus the supernatural magical or miraculous acts of the Rabbis, initially private and esoteric, were revealed to a public who, already convinced of the efficacy of holy letters and words, were able to utilize their inherent powers in prophylaxis against and management of misfortune.
The book examines notions of ritual purity and impurity, dealing with the ritually acceptable physical attributes required for the offering of sacrifice, whether of the person wishing to make the offering, the priest mediating the rite, and the blemished or unblemished nature of the offering itself. What is evident, apart from the transformations that have evolved from the earliest sacrificial rites, is that the originators of the tradition and latter the Rabbis, felt able, in some circumstances, to endow people and objects with embodied and innate characteristics that appear, on analysis, to be ambivalent or ambiguous. The writings of Steiner and Douglas are pertinent and suggestive in this debate. Steiner's work on Taboo pointed out the inherent dangers that were vested in 'prohibited' people or objects, and Douglas expanded on this theme in her argument centred on ritual purity and the concomitant dangers of the anomalous in particular societies. Douglas has demonstrated how certain animals such as the camel, pig 0 hare, because they did not have both characteristics of chewing the cud and possessing a cloven hoof, were anomalous and prohibited as food. But these ' animals exist ke-vriatan, they are part of God's natural creation, and have bend.. assigned their labels of ritual impurity, tameh, by humankind.
In the ancient Israelite worldview, the prohibitions relating to things that ' were qadosh, that is, holy or separated, were subsumed within the classification of the 'sacred' and 'profane'. Extrapolated from these categories were other states of being, including the ritually pure and impure, tahor and tameh, the pro!. scribed, herem, and the mixture that was prohibited, kirayim sha'atnez. Creating mixtures was an area riven with prohibitory notions in Israelite beliefs. Humans are expected to refrain from acting as creators of forbidden mixtures, such as weaving garments of mixed wool and linen, or producing children from forbidden relationships.
I have shown how `separateness' was a crucial element in that worldview However, it is not possible to arrive at definite conclusions in every case where ambiguity or ambivalence regarding the culturally constructed identities of people or objects is concerned. Many of the cultural constructs of the Jewish worldview remain ambiguous and almost paradoxical. An example of the paradoxical in the scriptural text is the notion that although the blood of a slaughtered animal is rejected, sluiced away and may not be eaten because of its life-giving quality, this same substance is loaded with purificative significance. Every act of sacrifice that involved the slaughter of a beast or bird required blood to be shed. The blood was usually sprinkled, smeared or dashed upon an altar.
A different set of values was associated with the act of mixing various sub-stances or utilizing the services of two different domestic creatures in a single act of agricultural labour when the ox was not to be yoked at the plough with the ass. The sanctity of holy incense, with its ingredients mixed in the Tabern was very different from the separateness of the field in which a forbidden, mixture of seeds had been sown. Both the incense and the produce of the field were prohibited, or holy, qadosh, but the forbidden field bore the stigma of anomaly in being an area that could not produce a ritually acceptable WC': namely neither one thing, say vines, nor the other, say wheat. The incense, on the other hand, held a connotation of heightened separateness, because it could not be made by anyone other than specialized priests, and its mixture was tahor, of great ritual purity. Manufacturing, touching or smelling the incense brought death to the person who inappropriately did these things. And even in death the integrity of the human body was preserved, as one set of skeletal bones was not to be mixed with those of other corpses.
Being able to act as a 'creator' becomes possible only by proceeding according to God's instructions and with divine aid. God himself assures the regularity of the rainfall and the fecundity of the land. He administers the giving and taking of life, and holds the key to childbirth. But the rabbinic construction of existential reality also describes a sphere of anomalous beings, the angels and demons, who interfere in human affairs. The Sages attain access to God's supernal power by means of the adjuration, hashva'ah, the swearing of oaths or harnessing of angelic authority, using the symbolic power of the number seven, sheva. Demonic forces can be dispelled and routed by this means, and the realm of the anomalous or the infernal becomes accessible to qualified agents and operators.
The ability of actors to transmute ritual activities like sacrifice into ritually significant verbal descriptions of those actions and then transcribe those verbal transmutations into prayers, is one of the main themes examined in this work. The authority that rests in the liturgical transcription then facilitates a further transformation of the power of sacred words into the power of a magical inscription. The actors discern and retain a consciousness of the divine authority vested in sacred letters and words through the lived experience of changes that take place over time. Because of the repetitive nature of daily prayers and the active participation of actors in liturgical ritual, the belief in the efficacy of incantations is reinforced.
From the original requirements for the sacrificial rite, which included immersion in special waters, laundering of clothes and offerings of particular cereals and unblemished flesh, the ritual purity of the actors and operators remained and retained its central, pivotal importance in any act that aspired, consciously or unconsciously, to attempt the manipulation of fate. Whether the actor was per-forming a rite of sacrifice, enunciating a prayer or practicing magic, purity of body and mind was essential. It was believed that God would accept praise and prayers, or the manipulation of objects, if the actors and their agents maintained a state of physical and spiritual ritual purity.
It is possible to trace the further symbolic development of the sacrificial ceremonies, liturgical performances and magical rituals that I have described in this book, over several centuries of Jewish life and thought. Although the rites of sacrifice had vanished with the destruction of the Temple, they retained their importance as a central, seminal theme of the liturgy.
The notion of 'drawing near' to God, korban, by means of sacrifice, was transformed into an idea of 'cleaving', d 'vekut, and maintained the illusion of being close to God with the aid of religious and mystical formulae held in the sacred letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Union with God then seemed possible, and the power of the words gained in importance within Kabbalistic thought. Yet another transformation allowed for the development of a system of thought and philosophy known as Hasidism. Although Scholem draws a distinction between the nature of Merkava mysticism and later Hasidic philosophy, where the Hasid, `for whom humility, restraint and self-abnegation rank higher than the pride of heart which fills the Merkabah visionary in the mystical presence of God', there are clearly powerful ideological and intellectual connections between the two.
Kabbalistic ideas are still utilized by powerful rabbis in contemporary Israel, The Jerusalem Report, 16 November 1995, published an article entitled: 'Saddam survived. Now Rabin faces supernatural opposition'. The article opens with the sentence: 'Yitzhak Rabin does not have long to live. The angels have their orders'. Prime Minister Rabin, advocating a 'land for peace' deal, was pilloried by right-wing extremists and branded a traitor. The article continues: Suffering and death await the prime minister, or so say the kabbalists who have cursed him with the pulsa denura — Aramaic for 'lashes of fire' — for his 'heretical' policies. ... For Jewish mystics of both North African and East European descent, curses taken from the tradition of 'practical Kabbalah' are heavy weaponry — not to be used every day, but certainly available in wars, religious struggles and even political battles. ... Invoking the pulsa denura is a perilous undertaking, for if the ceremony is not performed in a strictly prescribed fashion, it can strike the conjurors themselves.
The article cites the names of various people who fell under the curse of the Orthodox Rabbis and later died, and this has recently been reported again: For years, the excavation of ancient sites has been the bane of the strictly Orthodox world. No major dig is now allowed to proceed — theory at least — until it receives a certification from the rabbinate that it will not intrude on Jewish bones resting, perhaps for centuries, under-ground. Rabbis and archaeologists have frequently been at loggerheads and once the rows even occasioned a kabbalistic ceremony called pulsa denura that, so it is claimed, cut short the life of an archaeologist whose dig had disturbed the bones of the deceased. (The Jewish Chronicle 4 April 2005)
Rabin himself was assassinated not long after the former article was published.
In September 2004, the same threat was issued against another Prime Ariel Sharon, for his policy of future Israeli withdrawal from certain territory. Coincidence, of course, may be claimed in these affairs, but the fact that Kabbal istic ceremonies are held at all, is the striking factor.
In contrast to the death curses described above, an article appearing to be in lighter vein but in fact displaying an earnest seriousness, from The Jewish Chronicle reads:
Fifty Rabbis and kabbalists took to the skies last week in a bid to bring rain to Israel. Blowing shofars [rams' horns] and reading from the Book of Psalms, the Rabbis flew for three hours over Israel in a plane belonging to the airline Arkia. (3 December 1999)
Such activities indicate how, over the centuries, faith in ceremonies and rituals, letters and words, has retained magical potency in the use of amuletic verses, symbolically significant numbers or objects, and messages directed to God. The concept of the qadosh, as discussed earlier, had two potential explanations: we could call one 'sacred', the other 'profane', but both enjoy the status of being 'separate'. In the same way, the sanctity of Temple sacrifice and synagogue prayer rituals is opposed by the profane (in its original sense of being 'outside the temple') customs utilizing religious magical symbols and associated rites. The religious symbolism of the Temple cult pervades the magic of the profane, yet innately related, customs that are practised in order to attain freedom from misfortune or the granting of a request. Today, whether as an amulet written as a personal talisman, or a cyber-message sent via the Internet to a designated intermediary site at the holiest place in Jerusalem,' the tradition survives. The act of producing a cryptic note, or petek, simply written on a scrap of paper, and pushing it into a cavity between the remaining giant stones of the Western wall, which was built to surround the Temple during Herodian times, is the apogee of these rituals. At this outer Wall, part of a protective barrier that encircled the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the rituals are once more centred on the holy site of the Temple, and the myths have been reformulated to accommodate and reflect the changes in circumstance over a period of two and a half thousand years.
The Mystical Texts: Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice and Related Manuscripts by Philip S. Alexander (Library of Second Temple Studies: T&T Clark) This essay provides an overview of a position I have worked out at greater length in The Mystical Texts: Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice and Related Manuscripts (Companion to the Qumran Scrolls 7; London: T&T Clark International, 2005), to which the reader is referred for detailed documentation. The present article, however, is not just a summary of the book. The necessity of compressing and simplifying the case has led me, to some extent, to rethink and clarify my argument. A number of points (e.g., the anthropology behind Qumran mysticism, and the doctrine of predestination, which seems to be all over the relevant texts) now strike me as more important than I realised when I wrote the book. My purpose is to open a debate on what happens if we take certain Scrolls seriously as mysticism, and read them into the western mystical tradition. More
Shabbatai Donnolo's Sefer Hakhmoni: Introduction, Critical Text, and Annotated English Translation by Piergabriele Mancuso(Studies in Jewish History and Culture: Brill Academic)
Shabbatai Donnolo's. Sefer Hakhmoni
Sefer Hakhmoni by the tenth-century, Jewish polymath Shabbatai Donnolo is one of the first texts written in Hebrew in medieval Europe and one of the most important documents of the "Hebrew Renaissance" of Byzantine Jewry in southern Italy between the ninth and the eleventh centuries. Written as a commentary on Sefer Yesira (Book of Formation, an anonymous text probably written in Palestine between the third and the sixth centuries), Sefer Hakhmoni is in fact a much more complex work, consisting of biblical exegesis, astrology, medicine, a detailed analysis of the Neoplatonic idea of melothesia, and the correspondence between the elements of the microcosm and macrocosm. This volume offers the critical text, an annotated English translation, and a comprehensive introduction to Donnolo and his works.
Piergabriele Mancuso, Ph.D. (2009) in Jewish Studies, University College London, taught at Boston University's Center for Italian and European Studies, and he is now post-doctoral research fellow at Insubria University, Como. He has published several articles on early medieval Italian Jewry and on Shabbatai Donnolo's writings.
Excerpt: Donnolo composed Sefer Hakhmoni in 946, sixteen years after the composition of Sa'adiah's Tafsir Kitab al-Mabadi and less then a decade before Dunash's commentary on Sefer Yesira. The criticism which Dunash levels at Sa'adiah's interpretation of Sefer Yesira throughout his own commentary testifies to the existence of an intense debate on Sefer Yesira, which directly involved Sa'adiah, Dunash and probably also Isaac Israeli. While Sermoneta's definition of Sefer Yesira's standing in the loth century as "the official philosophical text of Judaism" is probably an overstatement, his suggestion that Donnolo may have received the text of Sefer Yesira from North Africa cannot be ruled out. The Neoplatonic ideas which, to varying degrees, inform the commentaries of Sa'adiah, Dunash, and particularly Donnolo, may well represent the lowest common denominator of an emergent exegetical tradition.'
This notwithstanding, the philosophical and exegetical scheme underlying Donnolo's commentary on Sefer Yesira is primarily an elaboration of the Neoplatonic outlook which rabbinical tradition, without moulding it into a specific philosophical framework, had incorporated in its midrashic and aggadic traditions.
In all likelihood, Donnolo did not know Arabic and could not have had direct knowledge of Sa'adiah's commentary or the writings of Israeli, which in the Arabic speaking Jewish world, had contributed to the debate on Sefer Yesira and its interpretations.' Both Sa'adiah and Dunash attribute to Sefer Yesira's letters, sefirot, and the creative processes in which they are involved a symbolic meaning aimed, particularly in the case of Sa'adiah, at obliterating the apparently emanationist character of the process of creation described in the text in favour of what they took to be the biblical-
rabbinic notion of creatio ex-nihilo. In contrast, Donnolo inserts the events of creation as described in Sefer Yesira into a coherent Neoplatonic scheme in which the sefirot and the combinations of letters are involved in a sequence of actions in the metaphysical world which are the necessary premise for the creation of empirical reality and material existence.
The Commentary on Genesis 1:26
As pointed out by Sermoneta, there is a close relation between the commentary on Sefer Yesira and this section of the work, where Donnolo, by analysing Genesis 1:26, and above all by resolving the apparent paradox of man created in the image of an imageless God, defines the principles of a philosophical system where he can find "satisfactory answers to the problem of the outcome of reality from the First Cause" (my translation, P.M.).4 At the same time he outlines an interpretative scheme—that of the correspondence between micro and macrocosm—which he consistently applies to the entire analysis of Sefer Yesira.
In the opening part of this section Donnolo gathers a series of verses selected from the book of Proverbs, all of which hint at the existence of Torah prior to the Creation of the world. Drawing from the midrash but, as observed by Sermoneta, also perfectly in line with the Neoplatonism of Philo who identifies the world of eternal ideas with Wisdom, Donnolo affirms that two thousand years before the Creation, God, by gazing at and combining the letters of the Torah, arranged all the elements of the future Creation in front of Him, so that everything that was to take place in the empirical world would thus be a manifestation of what God had outlined.
Probably conscious that such a predeterministic explanation would deny man's free will and the value of religious choice, Donnolo states, again elaborating on the midrash, that together with all other elements of the preordained scheme of Creation, "God ... set out and established repentance [teshuvah] since before the Creation of the world." Donnolo, however, goes beyond the notion of repentance preserved in the midrash—a moral act where human beings exert their free will—considering it also an action which can have direct repercussions on the natural universe, for example, by making the constellations retrocede. Since the divine plan finds perfect expression in the eternal and immutable movement of the stars and constellations, Donnolo assigns repentance to the Moon, the planet which has a twofold nature:
Since in the first hour of the eve of Friday, the earth brought forth every kind of living being ... and since in the same hour it occurred to God to create man, who knows [how to distinguish between] good and evil, the moon was appointed over good and evil as well as over beauty and ugliness, and its importance to all creatures is that it sets them up for better or for worse. For this reason, the moon was appointed to govern the first hour of the eve of Friday. From this you learn that the creatures were granted permission to act either malignly or benignly.
What lies behind the development of the idea of teshuvah seems to be, as observed by Sermoneta, the notion of reditus (literally, "return"), which Christian Neoplatonism, especially John Scotus Eriugena (ca. 810-after 877) in his Divisione Naturae, had conceived of as a universal event, "the means whereby the whole of Creation ... will be transformed into God." Donnolo elaborates and "expands" the traditional Jewish meaning of teshuvah but, it is important to note, does extend its definition to embrace the whole of the idea of Eriugena's reditus. This, an eschatological event which takes all reality back to its source, is not an expression of human choice and man's free will but an expression of the ineluctable laws governing the universe. Therefore, while there indeed seem to be some points of contact between the teshuvah and reditus—especially in relation to the idea of the return of creation to a previous state—Donnolo's teshuvah is, either in relation to the traditional idea of teshuvah or to the Christian reditus, an original formulation of the idea of return, which harmonises the law of necessity and man's free will.
Once the ideal world had been established and man granted the ability to practice free will, God "immediately embarked on the creation of the [material] world with His great might." As observed by Sermoneta,29 throughout the text Donnolo consistently uses the expression "great might" (koho ha-gadol)—probably a calque from the original Greek in connection with the creation of the empirical world and the creation of man. It is, as Sermoneta suggests, "a hypostasis, an intermediate entity which allows the realisation of the creation; it acts as intermediary between the ideal and this world" [my translation. P.M.]. Wolfson, following Sermoneta (whom, however, he does not mention) observes that the same expression occurs with the same meaning in many other Hebrew and Greek sources such as the Jewish apocryphal Vita Adae et Evae § 21, Wisdom of Solomon, and Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shim'on bar Yohai.
The Commentary on Sefer Yesirah
In the first part of the commentary Donnolo discusses at length the problem of the sefirot, which he defines simply as something that lies beyond human understanding and of which there can be no positive knowledge. The sefirot represent "the depth of the beginning which preceded the Creation of the world, or the depth of the end, which will follow the final end of the world". They are things about which "no man can speak [about them], or satiate his eyes with seeing and fill his ears with hearing them" since "their beginning is God and their end is God." The sefirot are "fixed in His great might," koho ha-gadol, by means of which, as Donnolo indicated in the conclusion of the previous section, God had concretised the forms of the ideal world. Knowledge of the sefirot, which are said to be part of God, would therefore amount to knowledge of God's mind: "The fact that it is written that they have no end teaches you that there is no sage in the world who can know, understand and delve into the mind of God ..."
Just as Donnolo discusses at length God's unknowabilty and the invisibility of His image in the commentary on Genesis 1:26," so he stresses in this section the unknowabilty of the sefirot and their ungraspable images. This represents a major departure from Sa'adiah's and Dunash's numerical understanding of the sefirot, and constitutes the first manifestation of their theosophical understanding, which will later become an exegetical cornerstone of the Kabbalah.
What is probably more important to underline, however, is not only the distance between Donnolo's exegetical position and those of Sa'adiah and Dunash, but also the discrepancy between the general rationalistic character of Donnolo's interpretative scheme and his theosophical position with regard to the sefirot. It seems that Donnolo is not able to apply to the sefirot the same rationalistic principles that inform his interpretation of Sefer Yesira as a whole. This, as suggested by Wolfson, may well have been due to the influence of Jewish mystical and esoteric traditions—especially the study of the Hekhalot and the Merkavah literature—well attested in 10th-century southern Italy. The problem with this suggestion, however, is that there is no evidence of any mystical interpretation of the sefirot that might have been available to Donnolo in his southern Italian milieu, where the esoteric tradition appears to have been confined to the study and transmission of the esoteric traditions concerning the Hekhalot and the Merkavah literature alone, a body of writings which is represented only feebly in Sefer Hakhmoni , and where the sefirot, a neologism of the author of Sefer Yesira, are not mentioned at all.
The process by which, two thousand years before the creation of the world, God had envisaged the forms of the ideal world, was the combination of the twenty-two letters of the alphabet which make up the Torah. According to Sefer Yesira, the origin of the physical elements was the three "mothers" (aleph, mem and shin) which generated the three "fathers," the primary elements of air, water and fire, out of which everything came into existence. The totality of creation on earth was derived from the interaction of the three primary elements, but what led to the differentiation of individual items of Creation was a process of permutation by which every single letter of the alphabet was combined with another and endowed with a "crown," which put it in charge of specific functions in the empirical world:
He made the aleph king over the air [ruah], bound to it a crown, engraved it at the beginning of the word, which is speech, combined the letters with one another, and turned them into two words. He named the first aleph, mem, shin and the second aleph, shin, mem. He then formed breath [matt] out of His spirit [mho], and with it He formed the atmosphere in the universe, moisture in the year, and the torso in mankind, each one of them male and female, the male with aleph, mem, shin, the female with aleph, shin, mem ...
In the commentary on Genesis 1:26 he had already defined a series of such relationships, for example, between the parts of the human body (microcosm) and the universe (macrocosm), which perfectly matched the principles of traditional Ptolemaic astrology and Hippocratic medicine but not the series of micro-macrocosm correspondences of Sefer Yesira. These involved, for instance, the order and relation of the planets to the hours of the day, the relationships between the months of the year and the signs of the Zodiac."
Donnolo does not intervene in the text of Sefer Yesira, which he reproduces with only a few minor additions. Instead he offers right next to it a completely reformulated version of the subject. In g44 of Sefer Yesira, for example, the correspondences between the planets and the days of the week do not follow the scheme of traditional astrology, where the sun corresponds to Sunday, the Moon to Monday, and so on. Donnolo reproduces it in full, but proceeds immediately to correct it:
With bet were formed Saturn, the Sabbath, the mouth, as well as life and death. With gimel were created Jupiter, Sunday, the right eye, as well as peace and war ... Even though Saturn, the Sabbath, the mouth, as well as life and death were formed with the letter bet, Saturn does not govern life or the mouth but only the Sabbath ... Even though Jupiter, Sunday, the right eye, well-being and calamity were created with the letter gimel, Jupiter governs only Thursday ...
Donnolo encounters similar problems in another long passage of Sefer Yesira (4: 54), which defines the relationship between the zodiacal signs and the months as follows: "With he were formed Aries, Nisan, the liver, sight and blindness ..." thus linking the month of Nisan (corresponding to March-April of the Julian and Gregorian calendars) to the constellation
of Aries, and similarly for all the other months and zodiacal signs. What Sefer Yesira describes is not completely erroneous in terms of Greco-Roman and Ptolemaic astrology but certainly not sufficiently accurate, lacking the necessary information with which to define precisely the beginning and the end of the period governed by each sign. Nisan, for instance, is correctly linked to the sign of Aries but without specifying that the relationship begins only from the time of the vernal equinox (roughly corresponding to the second third of March) and lasts for thirty days. Donnolo reformulates the entire section to bring it in line with the principles of Ptolemaic astrology: "Even though with he [the constellation of] Aries and [the month of] Nisan were formed, [the constellation of] Aries does not govern all the days of the month of Nisan but only from the vernal equinox for thirty days and ten-and-a half hours."
By the same token, Donnolo redefines all the relationships between the organs and their function in the human body which, as outlined in the Sefer Yesira, did not correspond to the Hippocratic-Galenic medical tradition. The liver, for example, which Hippocrates identified as the source of blood, appointed to enable man to see and hear, appears in Sefer Yesira in connection only to sight and blindness, while hearing is attributed to the bile, without any further specification." Donnolo reformulates the entire set of relationships, allotting to each part of the body the function that is normally ascribed to it in Hippocratic-Galenic physiology: "Even though the liver, sight and blindness were formed with he, the liver governs sight, hearing, and mercy, since blood is generated by the liver."
With this section Donnolo concludes his analysis of the processes which in Sefer Yesira were said to have originated in the triad aleph, mem and shin, the three "mothers" from which the three primordial elements—air, water and fire, sources of everything in empirical world—were derived. Sefer Yesira refers at this point to another triad, parallel to that of the three mothers, made up of the Dragon (tli), the sphere and the heart, and representing three dimensions—the world, the year and the human body—in which, by the combination of the three letters, empirical reality had found expression.
While in order to understand the last two elements of this triad—the sphere and the heart—and above all the dominant role they are given in Sefer Yesira, ("The sphere in the year is like a king in his kingdom. The heart in the body is like a king at war") Donnolo does not need to depart from the principles of Hippocratic-Galenic medicine and Ptolemaic astrology, in order to explain the nature of the Dragon and the role it is given by Sefer Yesira ("The Dragon in the world is like a King upon his throne"), he embarks on a long and complex analysis. This amounts to what is undoubtedly one of the most original and interesting elements of his astrological scheme—not completely compatible with the Ptolemaic system, and probably derived, as we will shortly see, from a Byzantine cosmological tradition, transmitting a certain trace of Gnostic influence.
In the introductory section of Sefer Hakhmoni as well as in Sefer ha-mazzalot Donnolo ascribes to the term tli two distinct meanings. Firstly, it is the imaginary line connecting the two points known as "lunar nodes," along which the orbit of the Moon intersects the terrestrial ecliptic. This is the meaning of tli in the calendrical table which Donnolo inserted in the introductory section of Sefer Hakhmoni . Secondly, in Sefer ha-mazzalot Donnolo employs the term tli as a synonym of axis mundi, the central bar around which, according to the Ptolemaic tradition, the earth and all other celestial bodies rotate. As observed by Sharf, in both definitions the tli appears as an "inert" astrological and astronomical concept which certainly cannot properly express the power with which Sefer Yesira endows it when it states that all the letters are "adhering to the Dragon."
The Dragon, explains Donnolo, was created out of water and fire," in the image of a reptile set in the fourth firmament, the abode of the Sun, to which are attached all the celestial bodies and the constellations. It can obscure the light of all the stars and conduct their movements around the earth. Its power, however, and particularly the movement which it transmits to the celestial bodies, derives from the sphere upon which God stretched the Dragon:
The [celestial] sphere turns the planets, the constellations and the luminaries. This sphere is set within the depth of the firmament, and the constellations are permanently attached to it, never straying from their fixed position. This sphere surrounds the firmament to the south, the north, the east and the west, and the Dragon stretches within it from end to end, like a cross-beam ... stretched out in the middle of the sphere, from the central mid eastern point to the central mid western point.
As suggested by Sharf, this definition of the Dragon does not correspond to any traditional astrological or astronomical concept but seems to be the reformulation of an old Gnostic theme, surviving in 10th-century Byzantium.64 According to this, the Demiurge had created a powerful Dragon, which was set to rule over the material world and the celestial bodies, and could obscure the celestial sphere as it moved through it.
Donnolo's discussion of the Dragon presents another difficulty. While speaking of the Dragon and its position in the sphere, he claims that the Wain (that is, the constellation of Ursa Major or the Great Bear) is close to the Dragon, that its extremities are attached to the Dragon's ring, and that it turns both the Dragon and the sphere in which all the constellations are set.
To the Wain, then, are ascribed the powers which Donnolo had previously attributed to the Dragon, and there seem to be many similarities between the two. This, explains Sharf, was probably due to an old astrological tradition, first attested in the Phaenomena (Visible Signs) of Aratus of Soli (3rd century BCE), according to which Arcturus—the brightest star of the Wain—was termed "the head and the tail." This is the same as the name of the lunar Dragon with which it was commonly confused. The astrological concept ensuing from this misunderstanding would eventually result in a composite notion of the Dragon, which was thought to be in the northern hemisphere and able to obscure the luminaries.
What Sharf does not explain, however, is why Donnolo, if he really considers the Wain and the Dragon to be one and the same, nevertheless makes a distinction between them by using two different names. One possible explanation comes from a passage in Sefer ha-mazzalot, in which Donnolo discusses the nature of Orion, a constellation of the northern hemisphere, and the Pleiades, a group of stars included in the constellation of Taurus. Orion, says Donnolo as he reports the opinions of the "sages of Babylonia and India," is the same as the Wain and the Great Bear which moves behind the Pleiades.69 Donnolo explains why the Wain, the Great Bear and Orion, even though they bear different names, are in reality the same constellation: the Wain consists of seven stars, two of them called Orion and five called the cords of Orion, as in Job 38:31: Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades (kimah), or loose the cords of Orion (ksil). The Pleiades, explains Donnolo, has seven stars called the chains of the Pleiades.
In order to explain why the Wain follows the Pleiades, Donnolo refers to an astrological tradition preserved in the Talmud," according to which when God decided to flood the world, He removed two stars from the Pleiades (kimah) by which He opened the gates of the sky. By the same token, when He decided to stop the flood, He removed two stars from the constellation of the Great Bear (`ash) with which He replaced the two stars previously taken from the Pleiades. This passage, says Donnolo, explains why the Great Bear, looking for its lost sons, chases the Pleiades, but also, and most importantly, why the constellations move. Donnolo refers again to the verse in Job 38:31, explaining that the ma'adannot ["chains"] and moshekhot ["cords"] mentioned in the verse refer to the twelve constellations (in Hebrew mazzalot) which Job mentions using a slightly different spelling in the following verse: Can you bring forth the Mazzaroth in their season? (ibid. 38:32)." This, argues Donnolo, shows that the Great Bear (that is, the Wain) is responsible for the movement of the constellations. All this, he adds, conforms with the hierarchical principle according to which "the constellations are like captains, the Dragon (tli) is like a king and the Wain is like the driver, and all are within the Spirit [of God]."
This might explain, firstly, why in his commentary on Sefer Yesira, Donnolo refers to the Wain, even though the Wain is not mentioned in Sefer Yesira, and secondly, why its role is apparently identical to that of the Dragon. As king, the Dragon has dominion over all the constellations and the celestial bodies, but its real power is exercised by the Wain, which acts in the universe on its behalf."
As observed by Castelli, the analysis of § 5 5 of Sefer Yesira and the discussion of the Dragon is the last exegetically relevant part of Donnolo's commentary, while on the remaining chapters of Sefer Yesira (§§ 56-63), which offer no more than a plain restatement of some of its previous subject matter, he confines himself to glossing, with no particularly original commentary.
From what we have seen so far, Donnolo adopts a very critical attitude towards Sefer Yesira. He does not fail to identify and emend a series of statements which clash with some of the fundamental principles of his scientific background (e.g. the relations between the zodiacal signs and the months, between the planets and the days), although he does not dismiss the text and its authoritativeness. What, then, did Sefer Yesira represent for Donnolo? A philosophical, a scientific or an inspired text and a segment of the holy canon of Revelation? Donnolo, it is important to note, does not express himself explicitly on this point but, unlike Sa'adiah and Dunash, he never rejects the idea that Sefer Yesira was transmitted by God to Abraham. Where, how and in what circumstances did he imagine this transmission to have taken place? According to Sefer Yesira, it happened when God made a covenant with Abraham, that is to say, following the biblical verse quoted in Sefer Yesira (Gen. 15:6), at some indeterminate point after he left Egypt and came into the land of Canaan. Donnolo does not attempt to narrow this down any further, but what he says is significant, particularly as a means of understanding the way in which he viewed Sefer Yesira: "It is written in the Book of Genesis which the Holy One—blessed be He—transmitted to our father Abraham and to Moses our Master on Mount Sinai: God said: "Let there be the light" [Gen. 1:3] ..." Since according to both the biblical and the rabbinical tradition, it was Moses and not Abraham who received the Torah, of which Genesis is a part, on Sinai, the most plausible explanation of the entire passage is that by the "Book of Genesis" Donnolo refers not only to the biblical book of Genesis but to the account of the whole creative process, in both its metaphysical and its physical forms, including the account of Sefer Yesira which, as the text itself claims, was transmitted to Abraham. This, after all, fits Donnolo's general understanding of Sefer Yesira, which in his view describes, as we have seen, the metaphysical aspect of the Creative process, the formation of the ideal patterns out of which the empirical world came into existence, as described in the biblical book of Genesis.
Although he consistently, throughout the text, emends and reformulates Sefer Yesira according to the principles of Hippocratic-Galenic medicine and Ptolemaic astrology, Donnolo's criticism does not go so far as to deny the veracity of Sefer Yesira and, more specifically, the elements which, while not true in relation to the empirical world, are certainly valid in relation to the metaphysical world. To Donnolo, Sefer Yesira does not represent a treatise on physical science—of which his critique would probably have been more explicit and much sharper—but the faithful description of the processes which took place in the metaphysical world prior to the processes described in the biblical book of Genesis, which are confined to the empirical manifestation of reality.
Sefer Yesira by A. Peter Hayman (Hardcover, Mohr Siebeck) This the first comprehensive critical edition of a text which was a fundamental influence on Jewish thought in the medieval period and has continued to fascinate scholars and students of Judaism to the present day. It was initially understood to be a philosophical text which had descended by oral tradition from Abraham himself. It purports to tell us how God created the world using the ten sefiroth (the Spirit of the living God, air, water and fire, and the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew Alphabet). With its English translation of the three earliest recensions and its commentary on the variant early texts of the work, this book is essential reading for anyone interested in the growth and emergence of the Jewish mystical movement. There are four appendices setting out what parts of the text are attested in each of the manuscripts and in what order, a hypothetical reconstructed text and the text of the tenth century Vatican scroll of Sefer Yesira with the probable added material underlined.
This edition of the text of Sefer Yesira has been a long time coming. I first conceived the idea of doing it in the early 1980s when I was reading the text with my students in a course on Jewish Mysticism at the University of Edinburgh. The fundamental research for the book was carried out in 1985 in a visit to the Microfilm Institute of the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem, funded by a grant from the British Academy. My initial intention was to produce an edition, translation and both a text-critical commentary and a commentary on the content. In the event it turned out that this was too ambitious a project to be accomplished within one book and, in any case, competing priorities, especially from the pressures of university administration, preventing me from producing more than a series of one-off papers and articles on Sefer Yesira. I now plan a series of three books: first, this edition, second, a collected edition of my papers on Sefer Yesira, and third, a commentary on the content of the text. This book, therefore, is concerned solely with the text — with the manuscripts, the recensions, the individual readings within the paragraphs. Issues of introduction, date, place of origin, and what the text might mean, will be reserved for the later books, though I have already dealt with many of these in my published papers. Of course, no rigid dividing line can be drawn between these different approaches to a text and, inevitably, I will stray into discussion of the content from time to time, but I wish to stress that this is not my primary purpose in this book.
Right from the beginning of the emergence of Sefer Yesira' into the light of day in the early tenth century it was recognized that its text had not been transmitted without errors. Saadya Gaon, the earliest commentator whose text has been preserved,2 states at the end of his introduction to Sefer Yesira: "we think (it best) to write down each paragraph from it (i.e. Sefer Yesira) completely, then we will explain it because it is not a book which is widely available and not many people have preserved it from suffering changes or alterations." Writing not much later than Saadya in 955/6 C.E., Dunash ben Tamim says: "mais nous avons déja dit qu'il pouvait y avoir dans ce livre des passages altérés que le patriarche Abraham [n'a jamais enonces], [provenant] des commentaires en hébreu, auxquels des gens ignorants ont ajouté postérieurement un autre commentaire et la vérité se perdait entretemps."4 The most comprehensive of the early commentaries, written by Judah ben Barzillai frequently quotes different versions of the text and discusses variant readings of which he was aware. Like Dunash he attributes the corruption of the text (almost
certainly correctly) to the incorporation into it of marginal notes and commentary material.' By implication Saadya locates this added material in the second half of the work (his chapters 5-8) when he remarks that there is little new in them and he does not intend to devote much effort to expounding them. Dunash explicitly attributes to the work of commentators the material, mostly in the latter part of Sefer Yesira, which details the precise connections between each letter of the alphabet, element, and part of the human body.
These observations by the early commentators are fully vindicated when we come to compare the large number of manuscripts of Sefer Yesira that have been preserved since the Middle Ages. If we just take a word count of the three manuscripts which serve as the base texts for this edition we can see the extent of the problem. Ms A (Vatican Library (Cat. Assemani) 299(8), fols. 66a-71b) has 2737 words, Ms K (Parma 2784.14, De Rossi 1390, fols. 36b-38b) has 1883 words, while Ms C (Cambridge University Library, Taylor-Schechter K21/56 + Glass 32/5 + Glass 12/813) has 2066 words. Some manuscripts have far fewer words than Ms K — as few as 1300, while others range anywhere between this low figure and the full range of material seen in Ms A.
From the tenth century on, then, it has been recognized that Sefer Yesira existed in a number of recensions — some form of standard text, a longer version which contained commentary material, and a version which completely rearranged the material and which was attributed to Saadya Gaon.' Since the nineteenth century it has become conventional to refer to these versions as the Short, the Long and the Saadyan Recensions. The complex textual state in which Sefer Yesira has been handed down is implicitly recognized in the first printed edition (Mantua 1562) in which the Short Recension is printed as the main text (with commentaries) and the Long Recension as an appendix. The fundamental work on delineating the recensions of Sefer Yesira and working out which of them lay before the early commentators was achieved by A. Epstein in his articles in MGWJ. However, his fundamental conclusions that the Saadyan Recension is no older than Saadya himself and that the Long Recension is really only a copy of the text which is embedded in Shabbetai Donnolo's commentary' have been invalidated by manuscript discoveries of which Epstein was unaware at the time. As we shall see, it is more likely that the recensions predate any of the known commentaries on Sefer Yesira.
The Seven Beggars & Other abbalistic Tales Of Rebbe Nachman Of Breslov translated by Aryeh Rabbi Kaplan (Jewish Lights Publishing) Rebbe Nachman was a Kabbalist and a mystic, yet at the same time practical and down-to-earth. He told tales of princes and princesses, beggars and kings, demons and saints, and encouraged those around him to live life with faith, honesty, and simplicity.
In this, the second of two monumental volumes, Rabbi Kaplans translation of Rebbe Nachmans stories is accompanied by masterful commentary drawn from the works of Rebbe Nachmans pupils and followers. The tales will awaken you to the mysteries of Torah and Kabbalah, and show you why Rebbe Nachmans teachings are a major source of inspiration and perception in our times.
Rejoice in the stories of Rebbe Nachman of Breslovfor their insight into the human condition and the realm of the mysterious.
When Rabbi Nachman first started telling his stories, he declared: "Now I am going to tell you stories." The reason he did so was because in generations so far from God the only remedy was to present the secrets of the Torahincluding even the greatest of themin the form of stories. from the Preface
For centuries, spiritual teachers have told stories to convey lessons about God and perceptions of the world around us. Hasidic master Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (17721810) perfected this teaching method through his engrossing and entertaining stories that are fast-moving, brilliantly structured, and filled with penetrating insights.
This collection presents the wisdom of Rebbe Nachman, translated by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan and accompanied by illuminating commentary drawn from the works of Rebbe Nachmans pupils. This important work brings you authentic interpretations of Rebbe Nachmans stories, allowing you to experience the rich heritage of Torah and Kabbalah that underlies each word of his inspirational teachings.
The Way into the Jewish Mystical Tradition by Lawrence Kushner (Jewish Lights) What Jewish mysticism means: Classic and less familiar texts - and guidance on how to approach them--allow us to learn the key ideas of Jewish mysticism firsthand. Why mystical tradition is a part of the modern Jewish experience: The Bible, midrash, the Jewish prayer book and rabbinic literature teach us that mysticism is not something we do but is an attitude toward how we approach our daily lives, an important way of understanding, organizing and enriching Jewish religious life today--and every day. How mysticism contributes to Jewish spirituality: Through becoming aware of the Jewish mystical tradition and its goals, we share in the work of restoring harmony to the world we live in.
For everyone who wants to understand the concepts of Jewish mysticism, this book shows the way into an essential aspect of Judaism, and allows you to interact directly with the sacred mystical texts of the Jewish tradition. Guided by Lawrence Kushner, a leading teacher of Jewish mysticism and Rabbi-in-Residence of Hebrew Union College--Jewish Institute of Religion, The Way into the Jewish Mystical Tradition helps explore the world of Jewish mysticism, its religious and spiritual significance, and how it relates to our lives. The Way into the Jewish Mystical Tradition allows us to experience and understand mysticisms inexpressible reverence before the awe and mystery of creation, and celebrate this rich traditions quest to transform our ordinary reality into holiness.
Abraham Joshua Heschel is easily the best-known mystical teacher of the last generation. Born in Warsaw in 1907, scion of a Hasidic dynasty, Heschel was uniquely qualified to combine Western scholarship with Eastern mysticism. Heschel's mysticismlike most Jewish mysticismwas one of political activism. An outspoken critic of American involvement in Vietnam, he was literally on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement as well. The Encyclopedia Judaica, in its entry on "Negro-Jewish Relations," includes a photograph of the march from`Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. These were frightening times; protesters had been (and would yet be) murdered. Leading the march were Roy Wilkins, Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Abraham Heschel. Heschel died in 1972; he was perhaps the last rebbe educated as a boy in the living community of Polish Hasidim.
The following passage is taken from Heschel's classic God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism. In his distinctive poetic and aphoristic style, Heschel expresses the primary tenet of the Jewish mystical imagination: The whole world is filled with the presence of God. Or, in the words of Isaiah 6:3, "God's presence is the fullness of the world." There is no place without the Divine. In Heschel's formulation, wonderment is the touchstone for all spiritual life. The beginning of religious awareness is standing astonished, reverent, and chastened before the mystery of being. Heschel cautions us that taking things for granted invariably seals us off, not only from novelty and surprise but also from life itself. For Heschel, our chronic dullness to wonderment is the beginning of sinfulness. There is simply more to reality than meets the eye. The closer we look, the more we discover hidden layers of being, and this invariably leads us to God.
Among the many things that religious tradition holds in store for us is a legacy of wonder. The surest way to suppress our ability to understand the meaning of God and the importance of worship is to take things for granted. Indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of sin. (43)
[Citing Nachmanides, Commentary on Exodus 13:16] The belief in "the hidden miracles is the basis for the entire Torah. A man has no share in the Torah, unless he believes that all things and all events in the life of the individual as well as in the life of society are miracles. There is no such thing as the natural course of events...."(51)
The beginning of awe is wonder, and the beginning of wisdom is awe.... Awe is a way of being in rapport with the mystery of all reality. The awe that we sense or ought to sense when standing in the presence of a human being is a moment of intuition for the likeness of God which is concealed in his essence. Not only man; even inanimate things stand in a relation to the Creator. The secret of every being is the divine care and concern that are invested in it. Something sacred is at stake in every event. (74)
2. The power of the Creator within each created thing
Power of the Creator
Menachem Nachum Twersky of Chernobyl, Me'or Eina'im
According to classical Hasidism, the power of the Creator resides within each created thing. Hasidism is the most recent flowering of the Jewish mystical impulse. Beginning in mid-eighteenth-century Poland as an ecstatic folk revival, Hasidism understood communion with God as the primary goal of religious life and made it available to the masses. The movement was founded by Israel ben Eliezer (1700-1760), who came to be known as the Baal Shem Tov, or, after the initials of his Hebrew name, the BeSHT. He preached a Judaism that even the unlearned could easily embrace. Each Hasid became the disciple of a particular rabbi, or rebbe, who served as spiritual mentor. The BeSHT had four primary students, each of whom in turn generated his own circle of disciples: Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezritch; Pinchas Shapiro of Koretz; Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye; and the author of the following passage, Menachem Nachum Twersky of Chernobyl (1730-1797). Nachum worked as a teacher and lived in poverty.
Like the majority of the literature of theoretical Hasidism (as opposed to its legends and stories), this passage is woven into a teaching on the weekly Torah portion. A canvas painted by Claude Monet has value and power even if the painting itself is of apparently inferior artistic quality. The mere fact that the great impressionist master painted it makes it instructive and therefore significant. The power of the creator, in other words, remains within the creation. In the same way, all of creation, "the fullness of the world," is likewise a manifestation ofand therefore a mechanism for returning tothe Creator. We can access the Creator everywhere.
God is the fullness of the world; there is no place empty of the divine. There is nothing besides God and everything that exists comes from God. And, for this reason, the power of the Creator resides within each created thing. (14)
3. There is no place without God's presence
The Sand beneath My Feet
Kalonymus Kalman Shapira of Piesetzna,
Benei Makhshava Tovah
Following World War II, while clearing land for new construction on the site of what had once been the Warsaw Ghetto, a worker unearthed a container filled with Hebrew manuscripts. They were the writings of Kalonymous Kalman Shapira of Piesetzna (Pee-ah-SETZ-nah, 1889-1943). Kalonymous Kalman was born in Grodzisk, Poland, and died in the Trawniki concentration camp. His biographer, Dr. Nehemia Polen of Boston's Hebrew College, notes that the Piesetzner's book Eish Kodesh, "Holy Fire," was the last work of Hasidism written on Polish soil. For Kalonymous Kalman, God can be found everywhere and within everythingnot merely in the first springtime flowers or the majesty of the mountains, but even in apparently ungodly and irrelevant things like grains of sand. Everything dissolves into and is nullified within God. Indeed, the only impediment to such cosmic vision is our refusal to see ourselves as indistinguishable manifestations of the divine unity underlying all creation, the mother lode of all meaning. In such moments of heightened awareness, the mystic realizes that God is not other than the world, but that being is itself made of God. In the words of one ancient maxim: Min ha-olam ye-ad ha-olam ata Ayl, "From one end of being unto the other, You are God."
The following passage is taken from one of the Piesetzner's earlier works, Benei Makhshava Tovah, a meditative journal for those seeking to create a spiritual community.
I may not be able to see it right now, but the Holy One
fills all creation, being is made of God, you and I, everything is made of
Godeven the grains of sand beneath my feet, the whole world is included and
therefore utterly nullified within Godwhile I, in my stubborn insistence on
my own autonomy and independence, only succeed in banishing myself from any
possibility of meaning whatsoever.
THE KISS OF GOD: Spiritual and Mystical Death in Judaism by Michael Fishbane (The Samuel and Althea Stroum Lectures in Jewish Studies: University of Washington Press)
$10.95, paper, 136 pages, notes, index
A winner of the National Jewish Book award, this rich, learned, and persuasive review of an elemental theme in Jewish spirituality, offers exploration of the quest for spiritual perfection in early rabbinic sources and in Jewish philosophy and mysticism. The "kiss of God," is a symbol for union with God. Fishbane shows ritual practices, meditations and performances that are connected the themes of love and death. Illuminating the range of interpretive approaches to love and death in Jewish literature and thought, including the biblical, rabbinic, kabbalistic, philosophic, and Hasidic traditions, he shows them reflected in spiritual growth and martyrological ideals, revealing in a remarkable manner the transcendent aspect of Jewish spirituality. The book is written with grace and elegance and is an original and thoughtful contribution to understanding spirituality within the Jewish context. It is a blend of scholarly insight into and deep personal engagement with a panoply of Jewish sources that evince a coherent debt of religious and psychological themes of love and death. The result is a splendid clarity of expression and an unencumbered command of a wide range of complex texts and topics. It has a thoughtful originality and vigor.
Michael Fishbane is Nathan Cummings Professor of Jewish Studies and chair of the Committee on Jewish Studies at the University of Chicago. He is the author of many books, including Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel, and Garments of Torah: Essays in Biblical Hermeneutics. He has also edited Death, Ecstasy, and Other Worldly Journeys by John J. Collins.
STUDIES IN JEWISH MYTH AND JEWISH MESSIANISM
Batya Stein, translator
SUNY, State University of New York
$19.95, paper; 226 pages
A major rethinking of the religious character of Sabbatean Messianism and the nature of myth in the kabbalah, Liebes represents the best tradition of the scholarly study of religion and has a general relevance beyond Jewish studies to all scientific study of religion. Brilliant! Trade, religion, libraries.
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