Friday, April 25, 2008

The Jewish Hogwarts has Fallen: A Eulogy for the Klau Library

[The rare book room in the old Klau Library]

This entry I take a pause from my topical writing about Jewish esoteric and aboriginal traditions to indulge in a personal memory.

This past month I returned to my yeshiva, Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, the oldest Jewish seminary in the Americas. This campus was also home to the Klau Library, the largest Jewish library in the Americas. Alas, Klau (as I knew it) is no more. All I found on my visit was an I-beam skeleton. The building I loved was gone, part of a multi-million dollar renovation.

Now the old Klau was no gem, architecturally speaking. Though much of HUC was built in a 19th Century collegial style - all bricks, staircases, and crenellated roofs - the exterior of the Klau was a featureless modernist cube. But the interior, well, it was my Hogwarts. Claustrophobic, under lit stacks, creaky old-fashioned elevators. Tired, well-worn study carrels lining the walls. Little windowless research spaces with designations like the "Midrash room" and the "Cuneiform room." Klau not only had a mysterious rare book room, but it even had a second, secret library within a library - the Friedus catalog. The enlightened few students knew that even if a book was checked out from the main collection, if that book had been produced before 1969, there would likely be a forgotten copy available in the obsolete but still existent Friedus collection. Honestly, though I attended HUC well into the age of personal computers, it would have come as no surprise to find the Klau staff at high writing desks, diligently laboring over their quill pens and ink wells, or setting type on a press.

And the denizens of Klau! Not only my professors in their glorious array (Yes, I had my own Snape, Dumbleodore, Trelawny, and Lupin [a gentle instructor who occasionally morphed into flesh-eating werewolf - actually, I had a couple like that]). There were also the various librarians of elvish, gnomish, and goblin-esque temperaments, always helpful, but who also had the unsettling habit of sneaking up on you unawares; the bent, wizen old retired professors daily scribbling away on arcane tomes in neglected corners; there were even ghostly doctoral students who haunted the Klau, wrights who greeted us when we returned, year after year, for they refused to finish their degrees and leave, ever.

And now it's gone. In the next year, the new rabbinical students at HUC will have airy, well-lit spaces with WIFI and comfortable chairs. Of course, being the Internet age that it is, they will no doubt frequent the new friendly Klau far less than my generation did the confines of the forbidding old one. A unique place is gone. It makes me sad; a big place of my life exists now only in memory. Awful as it was, I will miss that creepy, ill-conceived, wonder-filled building.

At least HUC's own Hagrid is still alive and well. You know who you are.

Zal G'mor: To learn more about Jewish traditions of wizardry, consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism (Partially researched at the Klau): http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Ritual Mysticism and Magic of Passover

Passover: (Pesach, Chag ha-Aviv, Chag ha-Matzot). The holiday of Passover, which is celebrated every spring, is based on the miraculous events of the Exodus.

[the four sons, as envisioned by Arthur Syzk]

The word pesach, normally translated as “passover,” more properly simply means “protection,” in the sense of apotropaic/spiritual protection (the Assyrian cognate verb means to "placate [a spirit]"). The blood of the first paschal animal (a lamb or goat) offering served as talismanic ritual against death entering the home.

In both pietist and kabbalistic traditions of Judaism, all of the elements of the Passover are thought to have spiritual-theurgic power. The burning of all leaven on the eve of Passover, for example, is meant to symbolize the destruction of the Yetzer ha-Ra in one’s self, a task which, like removing all leaven, can never be perfectly achieved (J. Ber. 4:2, 7d).

Central to the holiday is unleavened Bread: (matzah). A large, cracker-like wafer that is eaten throughout the holiday of Passover in place of risen bread. It is eaten to commemorate both the slavery and liberation our ancestors experienced. It is therefore a symbol of paradox: it simultaneously symbolizes slavery and freedom. Matzah is made using only specially supervised (keeping it free from exposure to airborne yeast) wheat and water (the essential nutrients for life). It is then baked no more than eighteen minutes (the number symbolizing life).
It is a symbol of ritual and spiritual purity; Jews eat matzah free of leaven just as we must free ourselves of the “leaven” of ego, sin, and old habits. At the Seder, three pieces of matzah are prominently displayed, reminding Jews of both the three Biblical classes of Jews (Priest, Levite and Israelite) and of the three epochs (the Garden of Eden, historic time, and the time of the Messiah).

One aspect of unleavened bread that has particular occult symbolism is the afikoman. The afikoman is one-half of a matzah wafer that is publicly broken, only to be hidden away during the Seder. Children must then find it or steal it from the holder in order for the Seder to continue. Originally intended as a pedagogical tool to keep the attention of children during the ceremony, by the Middle Ages the afikoman became a object of life-giving power and started to be used as an amulet against the evil eye. Customs include preserving a piece at home for good luck, while some may actually carry crumbs of the afikoman in their coat pockets. Pregnant women can keep a piece of afikoman nearby to ensure an easy labor. According to one tradition, an afikoman kept seven years can avert a flood or other natural disaster.[1].

Much of the Seder ritual is constructed around groupings of fours: four questions, four types of sons [Jews], and four cups of wine. While the choice of the number four seems at first to simply be a means of distinguishing the holiday, perhaps a mnemonic device for remembering the steps of the Seder at a time before printed material was widely available, over time there are a number of theurgic and magical customs that have become associated with the holiday and the apparatus of its observance. The most famous of these is the medieval incantation of protection invoked at the holiday known as the "Sixteen-Edged Sword of the Almighty," which is also a multiple of four. It involved removing sixteen (a different ritual from the ten we know to today) drops from a wine glass during the seder recitation of the plagues to prevent dever, pestilence (which is mentioned 16 times in the book of Jeremiah) from having it sway over the family and community in the year ahead. [2]

Zal G'mor: To learn more, consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

1. Trachtenberg, 1939, pp. 134, 295.
2, Kanarfogel, 2000, pp. 137-38.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Jewish Labyrinths II: In the Palace of the King

Faith is like a beautiful palace with many beautiful chambers. One enters and goes from room to room, from hallway to hallway... how fortunate is he who walks in faith! Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, Moharan #420

[My old apartment on Chabad St., overlooking the labyrinthine Jewish Quarter of the Old City, Jerusalem]

We continue our exploration of Jewish labyrinths with the recurrent image of a maze-like palace as a metaphor of the spiritual journey toward God. This is the dominant motif of the mystical Hekhalot ("Palaces") Literature of Late Antiquity, which offers to guide an adept on an ecstatic soul ascent (Anthropologists would call it "shamanic flight") through the complex of celestial precincts in order to catch a glimpse of the "King in His Beauty" at the heart of the heavenly mansions.
In the effort to decode the meaning of Shir ha-Shirim, the Biblical Song of Songs, [a medieval commentator called it "a lock to which the key is lost,"] the Midrash offers this mashal (parable) of how through parables, Solomon taught us not to lose ourselves while seeking the mysteries of God's love in Scripture:
It is like a great palace with many entrances and all enter it would lose the way to the entrance. A wise man [Solomon] came and took a rope and it to the entrance, and all would enter and exit by following the rope. [Shir ha-Shir Rabbah 1:8]

12th Century philosopher Moses Maimonides re-uses the same image in his labybrithine magnum opus, the Moreh Nevukhim ("Guide for the Perplexed"). Later he parses the parable as signifying different kinds of people and their relative understanding of God:

I shall begin the discourse in this chapter with a parable that I shall compose for you. I say then: The ruler is in his palace, and all his subjects are partly within the city and partly outside the city. Of those who are within the city, some have turned their backs upon the ruler's habitation, their faces being turned another way. Others seek to reach the ruler's habitation, turn toward it, and desire to enter it and to stand before him, but up to now they have not yet seen the wall of the habitation. Some of those who seek to reach it have come up to the habitation and walked around it searching for its gate. Some of them have entered the gate and walked about in the antechambers. Some of them have entered the inner court of the habitation and have come to be with the king, in one and the same place with him, namely, in the ruler's habitation. But their having come into the inner part of the habitation does not mean that they see the ruler or speak to him. For after their coming into the inner part of the habitation, it is indispensable that they should make another effort; then they will be in the presence of the ruler, see him from afar or from nearby, or hear the ruler's speech or speak to him.

(Guide for the Perplexed, Book III, Chapter 51)

The image of the labyrinth palace continues to reappear in both Kabbalah and Hasidic literature. I'll show you some more next entry.
Zal G'mor: To learn more, consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Labyrinths in Judaism I: The Jewish Sacred Path

Labyrinth (mavokh; sevakh; labirint). Conceptualizing the path to enlightenment as a maze which the spiritual pilgrim must travel is a theme that appears in several religious traditions, including Judaism.

Some today say that a labyrinth is distinguished from a maze because a maze features multiple paths and dead ends, while a labyrinth follows a single, set path. This is certainly not accurate, as the most famous labyrinth all, the labyrinth of King Minos of Crete, was not a simple single route. This modern idea of the labyrinth, that there is (or should be) only one path through life or toward enlightenment, may reflect the Christian appropriation of much of the western labyrinth tradition. Moreover, it is a markedly fatalistic metaphor, one that is belied by human life itself, which entails constant choice, many possible paths - even occasional dead-ends - as we make our way to the heart of human experience. Labyrinths, like life, can require us to walk in ways of uncertainty. In Jewish tradition, unicursal (single-path) labyrinths do appear, but so do multi-cursal labyrinths.

The Jewish use of labyrinths is rather more often literary then it is graphic or physical. Jewish spiritual masters will often use the image of a complex palace or a daunting forest in their teachings, midrashim, and parables, to illustrate our journey toward home/God/the self. Here is a beloved example from the tradition of Hasidic parables:

A man went walking in a forest, only to find himself lost. Each time he thought he was getting somewhere, he found himself even more lost. This went on for days and days, wandering in the thick woods. Eventually, this man ran into another just like him; someone else had been wandering lost in the forest. "Hello!," said the first man, "Thank God! Now that I have found you, you can show me the way out," he said. "I don't know the way out either," said the second. "But I do know not to go the way I have come from, for that way is not the way. Now let us walk on together and find the light."

In the next few entries, I will share more examples of Jewish labyrinths - literary and graphic - with the readers.

Zal G'mor: To learn more, consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

Thursday, April 03, 2008

A [Divine] Mother in Israel: Shekhina, Metrona, Imma

A Jewish mystical-mythic musing for Mother's Day.

A divine mother in Judaism? Given how devoted so many Jews are to their moms, this doesn't seem so far fetched. In recent years, archeology in the Land of Israel has clearly established that, at least for some Israelites, YHVH was the male aspect of a divine syzergy that included a female consort.

[Illustration by Ephraim Moses Lilien]

We have several Iron Age inscriptions (graffiti, really), such as the ones found at Khirbet el Qom and Kuntillet Arjud, which bear words like "Yahweh of Teman...his asherah" and "Yahweh of Samaria and his asherah." Now the structure of these phrases clearly makes the “asherah” the possession of YHVH. The most obvious thing we learn here is that “asherah” in this context is not a proper name. Some therefore posit this means that it is a cultic object, like a sacred [totem] pole. But I have no problem believing that “l'ashrt” actually means "His consort," a subordinate female divine force, complimentary to, but not on par with, the God of Israel.[1] Crude graffiti that accompanies one of these inscriptions showing two similar figures, a larger and a smaller, is suggestive in this regard. Neither the idea of the God of Israel having a goddess nor the fact of God being illustrated should come as a shock, even to a Biblical believer (For Asherah worship in the highest royal circles, see I Kings 15:13 and 2 Chron. 15:16 - and for a long time it seems to be the norm, rather than the exception: 2 Kings 18:4; 2 Kings 21:7; 2 Kings 23:4-6). After all, the prophets spend a good part of their oratory reproaching their fellow Israelites for both their worship of other gods and their chronic failure to serve YHVH correctly. These finds are proof positive of what the prophets were carrying on about.

More provocative, to my mind, is that the prophets never actually discard the notion of God having a feminine consort. They simply displace it by declaring the collectivity of Israel, it’s “spirit” as it were, to be the true bride of God (Jer. 2:2; Hosea 12; Ezekiel 16).

Post Biblically, the Sages speak of similar notions in somewhat different terms. Elaborating on the Biblical notion of divine "glory" (Kavod) residing in the Temple and among the people (Zech. chapter 2, for example), they begin to speak of “God’s Presence,” a divine aspect that never departs from Israel, rests with it whenever it is gathered in kinship, watches over the sick, remains with Israel even in its failings, even going into exile along with the people (Sanhedrin 39a; Berachot 6a; Shabbat 12b; Yoma 56b; Megillah 29a). This presence is usually termed the Shekhinah (“Dwelling”), a feminine noun. This Presence is even described parabolically as a woman. One can also see a distinctly maternal imagery in some of the dynamics between her and Israel. While not usually understood as the "spirit" of the Jewish people per se (She is more akin to the Greek notion of Parousia* or the Christian concept of the “Holy Ghost”), in places she is in fact equated with the people by being called Knesset Yisrael (“Assemblage of Israel”). She is at times linked to another feminine hypostatic entity, the Torah. When Israel studies Torah, it draws the Shekhina closer.

A shift in thinking about the meaning of Shekhina and its relationship to the Godhead starts to emerge in the Middle Ages. Urbach (The Sages, p. 64) notes that in Bereshit Rabbah, an 11th Century Midrash, for the first time we see an expression that clearly distinguishes between God and Shekhina: "The Holy Blessed One...He withdrew Himself and His Shekhina..." (Holy Israelite graffiti, Bat Kol!). The Spanish Kabbalists go further, reviving the theme of the divine feminine in a way not seen since those early Biblical times. But rather than placing a female deity next to the God of Israel, the mystics expound on the male and female forces within God (a kind of di-theism or di-ity). Thus traditional terms for God with some 'masculine' connotation, such as ha-Kodesh Barukh Hu (the Holy One, Blessed be He) signifies the masculine side of God, while Shekhina comes to represent the feminine side of God. These two polarities are harmonized via a constant and dynamic process of heiros gamos, of intra-divine union.

In the Kabbalistic model of the sefirot, the ten divine emanations that connect the Godhead with creation, there are a cascading series of complimentary male and female structures: Chochma and Binah (Insight), Hesed and Gevurah (Strength), Netzach and Hod (Glory), and, closest to material existence, Yesod and Malchut, (Kingdom), which is Shekhina.

In the Zohar, Moses De Leon makes the Shekhina the centerpiece of his theosophy. No other divine aspect receives even half his attention. He has multiple titles for this divine presence that interacts with creation in general and Jews specifically. Often these titles are laden with feminine, fertility, and maternal tropes (Queen, Apple Orchard, Moon, Rainbow), but De Leon specifically loves the term Metrona or Metronit ("Lady," a Latin term derived from parables in Midrash, where the figure of a Roman matron or high lady often interacts with Jews). This figure of divine nurture has been said to have served medieval Jews as a feminine comforter akin to the role that Mary played for the Christian believer. Higher (and more abstract) in the divine order is Binah, the 'mother' of all. It is her, with her male counterpart Chochma, that "births" all the structures of positive existence.

Already present in some parts of the Zohar, the notion of Partzufim ("[Divine] Countenances") is further developed by Moses Cordovero and Isaac Luria. Chief of these "divine faces" is Imma, the supernal "Mother," which corresponds - a little ambiguously, even confusingly, I will add - with the Zoharic role of Binah.

So Judaism finds "motherhood" in both its abstract notion of generativity and its more intimate motif of caretaking to be a compelling vehicle for understanding and relating to God.

Zal g'mor - Go learn more by reading the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

[1] P.D. Miller alternatively suggests that "asherah" is actually the hypostatized female aspect of the God of Israel. "The Absence of the Goddess in Israelite Religion" HAR (1986). We see this theme will become a major one in later Jewish mysticism. I don't reject Miller's hypothesis, but given the dearth of data, all solutions are more speculation than firm conclusion.

*Also a feminine noun, I might note.