Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Little Less then Divine: Wisdom, Torah, Shekhinah, Knesset Israel

In an earlier comment on my entry on the angelus interpres, a reader asked, "What or who is the 'word of God?'" It is a perceptively phrased question. I think this person has detected that in Judaism, there is a tendency to hypostatize certain central concepts and metaphysics.

[Die Natur und die Mensch by E.M. Lilien - "Nature" personified as a man, and "Man" as a woman]

'Hypostasis' is a cool word, but what does it mean?

Hypostasis: a conceptual entity considered as a real existent; An intermediary being or quasi-personification of attributes associated with the Divine; midway between a personality and an abstract being; that which is of one substance with God.

There are those realities that are both a "what" and a "who." Examples of hypostatic entities we know from our modern modes of thought are "Mother Nature" and "Mother Earth."

The most notable hypostatic entities in Judaism include:

Hokhmah / "Wisdom" - the elevation of Wisdom as a semi-divine personality is already evident in the Bible:

Proverbs 1:20: Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the open squares she raises her voice; 21 Down the crowded ways she calls out, at the city gates she utters her words: 22 "How long, you simple ones, will you love inanity, 23 how long will you turn away at my reproof? Lo! I will pour out to you my spirit, I will acquaint you with my words. 24 "Because I called and you refused, I extended my hand and no one took notice; 25 Because you disdained all my counsel, and my reproof you ignored-- 26 I, in my turn, will laugh at your doom; I will mock when terror overtakes you; 27 When terror comes upon you like a storm, and your doom approaches like a whirlwind; when distress and anguish befall you. 28 Then they call me, but I answer not; they seek me, but find me not; 29 Because they hated knowledge, and chose not the fear of the LORD; 30 They ignored my counsel, they spurned all my reproof; And in their arrogance they preferred arrogance, and like fools they hated knowledge….33 But he who obeys me dwells in security, in peace, without fear of harm.

Torah / "[Divine] Instruction" - Early on in Jewish thought, Torah [the word of God] becomes equated with Hokhmah...

"God by wisdom founded this earth (Prob. 3:19). Wisdom is nothing else but Torah" (Isaac the Blind, as translated in Early Kabbalah)

....and treated as a supernal entity in its own right:

R. Oshaya began [his interpretation]: "Then I was by Him, as an 'amon'; and I was daily His delight" (Prov. 8:30). 'Amon' means tutor...Another interpretation: Amon is a workman (uman). The Torah (= Wisdom) declares: "I was the working tool of the Blessed Holy One" In the ways of humanity, when a mortal king builds a palace, he builds it not with his own skill but with the skill of an architect. The architect moreover does not build it out of his head, but employs plans and diagrams to know how to arrange the chambers and the wicket doors. Thus God consulted the Torah and created the world, while the Torah declares, "In/by/with the Beginning (be-reshit) God created" (Gen 1:1), "Beginning" (reshit) referring to the Torah, as in the verse, "The Lord made me as the beginning (reshit) of His way" (Prov. 8:22).

later Rabbinic and Kabbalistic thought describe Torah as a princess, or a lover, that Israel must court and win over, as in the Zoharic parable of the "Beautiful Maiden without Eyes."

Logos /Memra/"Word [of God]” – Already in the Hebrew Scriptures there are passages where God's word takes on a life of it's own: "The Eternal sent a word into Jacob, and it rested upon Israel" (Isa. 9:7); "He sent His word, and healed them" (Ps. 107:20); and "His word runs very swiftly" (Ps. 147:15).

The Egyptian-Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria described God’s “word” as a kind of intermediate being between God and creation. The Logos, not God, is the proximate agent of creation (Op. 22). It is God’s “idea of ideas” (Op. 25); it is the manifest part of an otherwise hidden God (Conf. 147). Philo also describes the Logos as “God’s image” and “man of God” (Conf. 41; 148). It only the Logos we relate to when we experience communion with God. Perhaps it is not surprising that Philo lived roughly a half century before the start of the Jesus movement. Many have commented on how Philo’s idea of Logos was adapted by early Christians to describe their founder. Perhaps because he wrote in Greek, Philo's influence on actual Jewish thinking was less direct and less dramatic.

Yet it is not completely absent. In Aramaic targumim (paraphrastic translations of the Hebrew Bible), the translators often take incidents in the Hebrew Bible that involve a direct encounter between God and people and insert the term memra (that's a rough Aramaic cognate for logos). Thus it becomes the "Word of God" that interfaces with creation. So, where Moses says, "I stood between the Eternal and you" inthe Hebrew text (Deut. 5:5), the Targum has, "...between the Memra of the Eternal and you".

Shekhinah / "[Divine] Presence" - The notion of "God's presence" as an entity in some sense distinguishable from God is another example of how a concept becomes personalized (B.B. 25a; Mekhilta de Rabi Ishmael on Ex. 24:10).

"...wherever Israel wandered in exile, the Shekhinah wandered with them" ( Megillah 29a).

In Kabbalistic thought, the Shekhinah becomes envisioned as more "estranged" from God and it becomes the human project to help restore and maintain divine unity in this world and the higher worlds:

'At the time when Israel is proclaiming the unity - the mystery contained in the Shema - with a perfect intention, a light comes forth from the hidden supernal world, which divides into seventy lights, and those seventy lights into the seventy luminous branches of the Tree of Life. Then the Tree and all the other trees of the Garden of Eden emit sweet odors and praise their Lord, for at that time the Matrona [Shekinah] prepares Herself to enter under the canopy, there to unite Herself with Her spouse[The Holy Blessed One]....to unite Himself with the Matrona' (Zohar II, 133b, Soncino trans., Vol. 3, pp. 380-381)

Again, the Shekhina seems to share certain attributes with the Christian notion of the "Holy Spirit." Since the 4th Century, the Holy Spirit has been considered by Christians as of "one essence" with God, but in the Gospels and the early church writings, this is not self-evident. Likely the early church regarded the Holy Spirit as a kind of "projection" of God, like the logos, rather than God-in-itself.

Bak to Judaism proper. The perceived cosmic role of Israel in mystical theology means that Shekhinah increasingly becomes linked to:

K'nesset Yisraeil / "The Assembly of Israel" - Like Shekhinah, the collectivity of the Jewish people, Knesset Israel, is elevated by the Sages to be a feminine counterpart to God:

"Whoever does not bless after the meal is described as looting his father and mother; The former is the Blessed Holy One, the latter is Knesset Israel" (Ber. 35b). [Also see Eruv. 21b and Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah 3:15-19]

This particular hypostasis can take on a decidedly erotic tone - "Israel is beloved! ...This can be compared to a king who said to his wife: adorn yourself in jewelry so that you may be desirable to me...So the Blessed Holy One said to Israel, 'my children, adorn yourself with mitzvot so that you will be desirable to Me'" (Sifre Deut. 36)

Shabbat / "The Sabbath" - The Sabbath is often conceived of as a supernal bride, usually wedded to personified Israel. The Zohar waxes poetic about the obligation of the Jewish people to prepare for, greet, host, and join with its "bride," the Sabbath. This sentiment was put to poetry by Solomon Alkebetz:

Come, my friend, let us go to greet the Bride; let us receive the presence of Shabbat.
Come in peace, Soul Mate, sweet gift of Adonai; greeted with joy, in song so adored.
Amidst God's people, in faith and accord; Come Shabbat Bride, Crown of Days (Siddur Sim Shalom)

You will no doubt notice, as many have, that that almost all these hypostatic entities are cast as somehow "feminine." Actually, there is a linguistic basis for this. In Hebrew all nouns have gender and Hokhmah, Torah, K'nesset, Shekhinah, and Torah are all feminine nouns. But even more so imaginatively, these "feminine" forces are coupled with corresponding "masculine" entities (usually God, but sometimes Israel) to highlight certain metaphysical polarities, symmetries, bonds or syzygies. Through hypostasis, metaphysical concepts and dynamics can be explained via a medium of a parabolic narrative (as in the example of the "King and his wife" or "God and his architect, the Torah").

To learn more, read the entries Sabbath; Sabbath Queen; Shekhinah; Torah; and Wisdom in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism.

The EJMMM is available at amazon.com. Click here - 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

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

News about the EJMMM

I received a nice online review for the EJMMM (in Wales, no less!):

This book is a veritable treasure trove of information. I had been looking forward to it since I saw it first advertised, and I was not disappointed. Within its pages you will find a comprehensive encyclopaedia of thousands of entries of everything from Aaron to Zombies! This book really is a delight and immensely useful, if you are interested in Jewish folklore, magical practices, beliefs, Kabbalah, and the fantastic and miraculous. The author draws from a huge range of source material, including Jewish Scriptures, the Talmud, the Midrash, Kabbalistic texts and others. The book also includes a detailed bibliography, so essential in encyclopaedic works, and useful appendices making the book easier to use for reference. All in all a real gem of a book, thoroughly recommended. Go and buy it!

David Rankine, author of Heka: Egyptian Magic and Ritual

Mr. Rankine has a fascinating website of his own devoted to contemporary Paganism entitled Avalonia. Follow this link to his site - http://www.avalonia.co.uk/books/review_books/february_2007.htm

There is also nice article on my speaking at a bookstore appeared in the UNT Daily:


Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Golem: Legend of the Jewish Homunculus

[Golem mosaic in the streets of Prague]

One of the constant themes of Jewish esoteric thought is the belief in human power, that being made in the image of God, were we wise enough, righteous enough, enlightened enough, we would have it in our power to truly be co-creators with God. How? Well it starts with the esoteric doctrine that the Hebrew letters are the building blocks by which God created the universe (Gen. R. 4:2, 12:10; Bahir 59). It’s an imperfect analogy, but Sefer Yetzirah (The Book of Formation) treats the Alef-Bet as if it were a kind of periodic table. Properly arranged and joined, we can use the letters as God did in constructive ways.

But the key to unlock the power of the Alef-Bet is the correct use of divine names. The proof text for this is a passage from Psalms:

By the word 'YHVH,' the heavens were made. Ps. 33:6

Now that’s not the conventional translation – your Bible probably translates it as “By the word of the Lord, the heavens were made.” But the construct “of” is assumed, and the occult translation is equally valid. So if we know how to use the Tetragrammaton and other divine names of power, we too could do as God does.

What can you do with the names and letters? Well, a variety of things, but one of the most fascinating is that you can make a golem. A golem is artificial life. This idea that the wise can make life is not limited to the occult side of Judaism, it is even mentioned in the Talmud:

Rava stated: If they wish, Tzadikkim could create a world. Rava created a man and he sent it to Rabi Zeira. Rabi Zeira spoke with it and it did not respond. Rabi Zeira then stated, "You are created by my colleague, return to your dust." Rav Chanina and Rav Oshiah would sit every Friday and study the Sefer Yetzirah and create a calf that has reached a third of its potential development and subsequently eat it (Sanh. 65b)

From the time of the Talmud, the golem has held a special place in the Jewish imagination. By most accounts, the golem has no free will or the power of language, though some stories have the golem utter words of warning from heaven. As a soulless entity, the golem is not required to fulfill the commandments (There are even theoretical discussions of the rights and obligations of golems under Jewish law [See Moshe Idel’s book, Golem: The Artifical Anthropoid]).

Since the animation came from using the secret name of God, the golem could be returned to inanimate earth by saying the divine name in reverse. Alternate traditions require not only the use of God’s name in the formation ritual, but also that the word emet (truth) be written on the forehead of the creature. Erasing the letter alef would leave only the word met (death), thereby slaying the golem (Sefer Gematriot). The most well-known golem story is the golem of Prague, created by the great Maharal (Jehudah Loew).

Intrigued enough to try your hand at making one? I don’t recommend it, but golem recipes do exist. Here’s a sample that appears in Idel’s book:

Whoever studies Sefer Yetzirah has to purify himself, don white robes. It is forbidden to study alone, but only in two’s and three’s, as it is written, …and the beings they made in Haran, (Gen. 12:5) and as it is written, two are better than one, (Eccl. 4:9) and as it is written, It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him (Gen. 2:18). For this reason Scripture begins with a “bet” [which has the numeric value of 2] –“Bereshit bara,” He created.

It is required that he take virgin soil from a place in the mountain where none has plowed. Then he shall knead the soil with living water and shall make a body and begin to permutate the alef-bet of 221 gates, each limb separately, each limb with the corresponding letter mentioned in Sefer Yetzirah . And the alef-bets shall be permutated first, then afterward he shall permutate with the vowel - alef, bet, gimel, dalet - and always the letter of the divine name with them, and all the alef-bet. Afterward, [all the letters with each of the vowels, as with the alef:] ah, ah, ai, ee, oh, and then e' . Afterward, the permutation of [alef with a letter from the divine name plus the vowels], alef-yud, and similarly in its entirety. Afterward he shall appoint bet and likewise gimel and each limb with the letter designated to it. He shall do this when he is pure. These are the 221 gates.
(Commentary to Sefer Yetzirah by Eleazar of Worms).
Of course, a central part of the golem tradition is that of the intrinsic danger of hubris that comes with such power. So tread carefully. As Ben Parker say, "With great power comes great responsibility"
Zal g'mor - to own the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism, go to: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050