Friday, May 30, 2008

Asmodeus, Ashmodei: King of Demons, Solomon's Alter Ego

[A fiend for Torah Study. Found at www.davidlouisedelman.com/book-promotion/jewish-werewolves/]

Asmodeus: (Heb: Ashmodei, Ashemdei) An evil spirit. The name Asmodeus may be derived from the Zoroastrian Aesmadiv, the “spirit of anger” who serves Ahriman, the Persian god of evil. Asmodeus is first mentioned in the apocryphal book Tobit, where he slays seven grooms of a young girl before being bested by the hero, who with the help of Raphael, drives him off using the gall of a river fish.

In Pesach 110a he is dubbed the “king of demons.” The locus classicus for Asmodeus is the wonderful Talmudic tale of how he usurps the throne of Solomon (Git. 68a-b) after the king initially binds him to service by means of a magical ring. Surprisingly, the demon is treated rather sympathetically. He both morally instructs Solomon and provides him with the shamir worm, a wondrous creature that helps the king build the Temple. His foreknowledge of human destiny is credited to his daily Torah studies in heaven. The tale reflects an effort by the Sages to reconcile their belief in the demonic with monotheism, portraying evil spirits as yet another tool of God’s inscrutable will (on demonic respect for God, see Megillah 3a). The passage also highlights the belief that magical practitioners can summon and “bind” demons and use their powers for their own purposes, a staple belief of medieval sorcery. The theme of Solomon as the archetypal magician, master of Demons is more fully explored in the apocryphal Testament of Solomon. Again here we see the dual themes of the demon teaching the king humility and so serving as a dark agent of the one God:

So do not ask me so many things, Solomon, for eventually your kingdom will be divided. This glory of yours is temporary. You have us to torture for a little while; then we shall disperse among human beings again with the result that we shall be worshiped as gods because men do not know the names of the angels who rule over us (5:5)

In Kabbalistic works such as Treatise of the Left Emanation, Asmodeus is portrayed as a deputy, or even the offspring off Samael (See Samael: Demon Prince, Consort of Lilith). He is also assigned a consort demoness, Lilith “the lesser.”Like Rabbinic literature, medieval Jewish tales report Asmodeus interacting with august Jewish figures, such as Simon bar Yochai, the Talmudic mystic. In one such story, Asmodeus is portrayed as doing what he does in order to serve both the Sage and God. The bar Yochai story and other references to Asmodeus in Kabbalistic texts, where his name is occasionally invoked to beneficent purposes, reflect the on-going effort among Jews to reconcile the existence of demons with God's undisputed spiritual power.

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

Friday, May 16, 2008

Many Worlds, One God: Judaism on Manifold Creation

A pious rabbi was arrested by the Communist authorities in Russia for refusing to comply with the government's anti-religious edicts. In an effort to terrorize him, the rabbi's guard came into his cell, pushed the rabbi to his knees, held a revolver to his head, spun the chambers, and pulled the trigger. The chamber that the hammer struck was empty, but the guard showed the rabbi that there were three rounds in six chambers of the wheel. He returned a second time, repeated the procedure, but was surprised that the rabbi never flinched or even seemed concerned that the next time the pistol would discharge and kill him. "Why are you not afraid?!" He demanded. The rabbi rose to his feet and replied, "What you do fills you with dread, for the simple reason that you have many gods - your ideology, your party bosses, even your pistol - but you only have one world. I, on the other hand, have only one God, but many worlds. What have I to fear?" In that moment, the guard became a god-fearing man, and later helped the rabbi escape. (Story told me some twenty years ago, for which I have never found a written attribution)

I have just come to the shocking realization that my book, the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism, which otherwise provides a comprehensive summary of Jewish esoteric, aboriginal, mystical, and folkloric subjects, lacks an entry on one interesting topic - the tradition that ours is not God's first or only world! Oh, I mention it briefly in the context of other entries, but I did not dedicate an entry to that one matter, and that is an oversight. So here's what I know -

The teaching that God created multiple worlds before forming this world first appears in Bereshit Rabbah ("The expansion on Genesis"):

...And there was evening [the Hebrew can be read to suggest 'evening' was a reality before now]: hence we know a time order existed before this. R. Abbahu said: This proves the Blessed Holy One went on creating worlds and destroying them until He created this one....This is Abbahu's reason: And God saw everything that He made and behold, it was very good [comparatively] This pleases me, but those [worlds] did not please me. (3:7. Also see 9:2, where the same verse is used as a slightly different way - other sources also use Gen. 2:4: Now these are the generations of the heaven and earth when they [rather than "it"] were created, and Isa. 65:17).

How many worlds? Its unclear, but they added up to a thousand generations of souls, according to one reading, based on Ps. 105:8; 974 according to another. How that latter number? Noah was the 26th Generation of [this] creation, and since the Sages teach that Solomon was referring to Noah when he wrote, Only one man in a thousand have I found... (Eccl. 7:28), they deduct 26 from 1000 and get....974 (Gen. R. 28:4). 974 becomes the working number for prior creations in many subsequent retellings of this legend (Talmud Hag. 13b, Midrash Tehillim 90:13; Shabbat 88b):

R. Joshua b. Levi also said: "When Moses ascended on high, the ministering angels spoke before the Holy One, blessed be He: 'Sovereign of the Universe! What business has one born of woman amongst us?' 'He has come to receive the Torah,' answered He to them. Said they to Him, 'That secret treasure, which has been hidden by Thee for nine hundred and seventy-four generations before the world was created.'" (Shabbat 88b)

Hagigah 13b also gives us the piquant tradition that God did not jettison those earlier generations of souls, but continues to recycle them into the the unfolding generations of this world.

This idea that ours was not the first or only universe continues to be reiterated in various ways throughout the tradition (PdRE 3; Zohar I:24a-b; Or ha-Hayyim 1:12). In Hasidic tradition, the existence of prior worlds is revealed by the fact that the account of this creation begins with bet, the second letter of the Hebrew alef-bet (Gen. 1:1).[1]

This tradition of diachronic universes exists separate from the notion of synchronic multiple worlds, which also exists in Jewish tradition in the (well-known) "Four Worlds" and "Seven Heavens" models, as well as the (not so well-known) "Seven Dimensions of Earth" model (Lev. R. 29:11; Seder Gan Eden; LOTJ p. 15).

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] God is utterly committed to following proper outline format. Schwartz, Tree of Souls, p. 71.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Parable of the Vineyard: Reincarnation in Judaism II

I've already given an overview of the concept of reincarnation (gilgul) in Jewish mysticism on this site last year (SEE Jewish Reincarnation? Gilgul of the Soul(s) ), but I was teaching the topic in my UNT Kabbalah course this Spring and I mentioned that the number of reincarnations for a soul could be as little as three and as many as 1000. Asked how the Tradition came up with those numbers, I said, "From the Bible," and cited Job 33:29-30. Alas, someone checked me and found it accounted for the 3x but not the 1000 - "Truly God does all these [things] two, three times to a man, to bring him back from the pit, that he may bask in the light of life." I couldn't recall the other prooftext at the time. I searched briefly, but then moved on.

Now, two days after I completed the class, I find the citation that eluded me in David's Stern's excellent Parables in Midrash. The source in Sefer ha-Bahir. It is embedded in a mashal, a parable, a favorite Jewish illustrative tool (this one's about a vineyard, but for the easily confused - warning! warning! warning! - its not the one Jesus taught):

Why does the wicked man prosper and the righteous suffer?
[R. Rahmai replied] Because this righteous man was once a wicked man in the past, and is now being punished.
[They asked him:] But is a man punished for the sins of his youth? Did not Rabbi Simon say that the heavenly court only punishes a man for [the sins he commits from the time he is] twenty years old?
[R. Rahmai] replied: I do not speak of the [same] life; I speak of the fact that he was already there in the past.
His colleagues said to him: How long will you speak enigmatically?

He said to them: Go and see! A parable: What is the matter like? It is like a man who planted a vineyard in his garden, and he hoped it would grow grapes, but it grew wild grapes. He saw that his planting did not succeed, so he cut down the vineyard, tore it out, and cleaned the good grapes from the wild ones, and planted it a second time. When he saw that that did not succeed, he tore it down and planted after he had cleaned it. When he saw that [the third planting] was not successful, he tore it out and [re]planted it.
And how many times? Until the thousandth generation, as it is written, "The davar [lit. "the thing," i.e., the soul] He gave to a thousandth generation" (Ps. 105:8). And that is to say: 974 generation were missing, so the Holy Blessed One arose and planted them in every generation (Hagigah 13b-14a) (Sefer ha-Bahir 195).

There are a complex web of associations embedded at the end of this seemingly straight-forward parable. To tie his claim for reincarnation to all authoritative Jewish sources, the author of Bahir is citing not only Bible, but Talmud as a second primary proof text, a passage that itself seeks to understand a parallelism of Daniel, a thousand thousands of angels serve Him, and a myriad of myriads rise before Him (Daniel 7:10). The Talmud expounds this verse: These [the myriads] are the 974 generations that were uprooted from being created before the creation of the [our] world. God spread them out in each ensuing generation. They are the most brazen people in each generation. In other words, there were myriads of souls that preexisted Adam and Eve (Surprise - Judaism doesn't teach that Adam and Eve were the first people!). This, in turn, [I know, it's hard to keep score] refers to another rabbinic teaching - seemingly unrelated to gilgul - that God created several unsatisfactory worlds before He made this one (based on Gen. 2:4 and Isa. 65:17. Perhaps I'll explain that legend in the next entry).

The point the Talmud is making is that God did not give up on the souls that were part of those creations, but recycles them into His current creation. This in turn offers an explanation of the 'bad seeds,' people that occasionally appear to be trouble from the get-go, like Donnie Bonaducci. Having gone bad in previous lives, they still have a lot of 'bad karma' (not, admittedly a Hebrew word) they bring from the previous cycle of creation.

In any case, what I appreciate is how the author of the Bahir marshals a surprising number of sources and associations to buttress his doctrine of transmigration and compacts them into the end of this little passage (3 tight lines at the end of the mashal in the published edition), astutely giving a simple illustration for the simple reader, but also giving tantalizing allusions for the more sophisticated reader to unpack the full significance of his proof. An impressive demonstration of intertextual argumentation.

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

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Mysterious Ways: The Kabbalah of U2

[Ver Sacrum - magazine cover by Kolomon Moser]
So, I teach a spring course in Kabbalah at the University of North Texas. This year, as an extra-credit ('lifnim meshurat hadin')on the final, I asked the students to synthesize what they had learned by offering a kabbalistic commentary to a text of my choice.

I selected U2's song, Mysterious Ways. I thought this offered obvious hooks for the Jewish mystic - mystery, moon, feminine-masculine, moving up and down. Still, I was surprised and delighted with the results. Many students did almost line by line commentaries, others kept themselves to a few sentences (but with some real zingers). Some developed a sustained POV (the song is about reincarnation, or the esoteric interpretation of the Torah, or dibbuk possession, or raising the sparks, or the influence of Lilith) while others offered more encapsulated comments directed to specific lines - one student took a stab at notarikons. Anyway, it was great. I wish I could replicate all their work, but I've got a greatest hits line-by-line series here. Kol ha-Kavod to my talmidim in 4962-002 - I really enjoyed learning with you.
(Addendum: In the last 24 hrs. it has come to my attention that the belly dancer featured in the video of Mysterious Ways is, in fact Jewish. More than that, it turns out Edge and she fell in love and were married in a Jewish-style ceremony in France! Synchronicity or sod ha-emunah, I cannot say, but it leaves me to wonder what really moved me to pick this particular song from the U2 catalog.)

Give a kabbalistic interpretation of the U2 lyrics, “She Moves in Mysterious Ways”:

Johnny take a walk with your sister the moon
V.I - [bring the] union of opposite forces - male and female, yesh [existence] and ain [negation]
K.F. - Come study the meaning of Torah
R.S. - "sister" = Shekhinah.
P.M. - "Johnny" is Kavod.
J.M. - "Johnny" represents humanity, "sister the divine structure" [sefirot]
V.P. - Moon, "yareakh," has the same root as "ruakh," spirit.

Let her pale light in to fill up your room
J.P.H. - Pale = hidden, Light= Wisdom
J. Or - "Room" signifies your body
G.A. - "Room" is the void [tzimtzum]
R.S. - This is the light of the Sefirot
C.A. - This is the relationship between Shekhinah and Man
K. Gr. - The Male and Female balanced in harmony.

You've been living underground
K.F. - You have only seen the garment...you have not understood the true meaning.
P.M. - Kavod's immersion into the material world.
A.D. - One must find the light of God...one has been inhabited by a dibbuk [trapped] in gilgul

Eating from a can
J.Or - This is living with sin.
W. Got - Only eating Torah [plain meaning] rather than the whole meal of Zohar [esoteric meaning].
J.P.H. - Taking Bible only as literal.

You've been running away
W. Got. - [From the esoteric meaning] because it's different.
Sum C. - We run from God/Love.

From what you don't understand...Love
C. Mit - As Rumi and the Old Man [in Zohar] say, "My religion is love."
W. Got - The ultimate purpose.

She's slippy
J.Eh - The creation of Lilith, who was there when Adam came into being.
C.W. - Watch out, you may find yourself with Lilith.
Sum. C. - The Holy Spirit/Love.

You're sliding down
G.A. - Israel's movement through the ages.
Sum. C. - Down the Tree of Life.
K. Gr. - Too much love [compassion] is dangerous. Must also have justice. Don't slip too far [to one side].
T.H. - "down" conceals the true meaning of the song being about God.

She'll be there when you hit the ground
K.F. - No matter how far you fall, the meaning can still be found.
G.A. - This refers to Shekhina's being at the "bottom" of the sefirot.
P.M. - This is Kavod's willingness to demean himself to glimpse the divine [One must descend to ascend].

It's alright, it's alright, it's alright
W. Got - [code] for the three times of "Holy, Holy, Holy" [Isa. 6.6].
C.W. - Its OK to be confused, God is mysterious.
W.D. - Sarcasm. You think the people in Safed are just as pious? They're hanganot-ing.
Sum.C. - Everything is as it should be.

She moves in mysterious ways....
C.D. - It describes the mysterious nature in which the Ein Sof governs the universe.
R.S. - [It is] Shekhinah.
W. Got - She is Zohar.

Johnny take a dive with your sister in the rain
K.Gr. - Water = Divine experience.
A.D. - Go to the waterside and pray. The Shekhinah will reveal the hidden to you and your soul will awaken.
W. Got - [Into] the feminine side of the Sefirot power.
K.F. - Let [God's] glory fall on you; dive as deep as you can.

Let her talk about the things you can't explain
J.P.H. - The esoteric.
V.I. - Donkey drivers and women can reveal things that are profound, even thought they don't seem important.
C.D. - A tzadik or rebbe is required to talk about the things you [the hasid] can't explain yourself.
K.F. - Find the meaning, keep asking questions.

To touch is to heal
J.P. H. - The soul.
C.D. - A nod to the folk healer tradition of the Baal Shem.
J.Or. - The master's kiss [of initiation] on [the disciple's] forehead or eyes.
C.W. - Find an exorcist; she will take this unwanted dibbuk out of you.

To hurt is to steal
J.M. - The divine structure suffers as we sin.
Sum. C. - The human experience hurts, but she /God/Spirit of Love is still present.

If you want to kiss the sky
J.Or - "Sky" signifies God
G.A. - The "kiss of God" i.e., the ideal death. Fulfill the mitzvot if one wants to achieve this.

Better learn how to kneel(on your knees boy)
C.A. - Reaching God...through [bittul] destruction of the ego
K.F. - Learn to look beyond the words.

She's the wave
W. Got - In all things, all encompassing.
C.W. - God is everything
K.F. - She is the Torah, the cause of the world

She turns the tide
C.W. - God is change
G.A. - Israel finds God through Torah.
K.F. - Torah holds the secrets.

She sees the man inside the child
V.I. - Something greater within that is not always evident on the surface - the esoteric.
C.A. - Man as created in God's image.
J.Or - "man" is God, the "child" is worldly man.
W.D. - Find one who can recognize the dibbuk.

One day you will look...back
K.F. - See that the ego slipped away...how warm is the embrace of the soul of Torah.
W. Got - Reflection once you study...you will be come more enlightened.

And you'll see...where
L.C. - Shekhina gives him visions of the glory of God.
J. Ber. - Meditating on the Sefirot, the Divine structure will reveal all.

You were held...how
W.D. - You kept nitzotzot trapped in kelippot because you didn't follow the commandments.

By this love...while
K. Gr. - God as Lover of Israel.

You could stand...there
E. Mas. - By this knowledge Johnny knows God inflicts [?] everyday with His Presence.
T.H. - Fufilling all 613 Mitzvot. You have the choice to "stand" and do nothing.

You could move on this moment
K.F. - Follow the feeling into the glory.
W. Got - Reincarnation, [your soul] moving forward.
J.M. - Return the sparks to their place, help to reunite God with His Shehkhinah.
T.H. - Move forward in your quest to complete them (the commandments).

Follow this feeling...
R.S. - This whole stanza really emphasizes Gevurah and Hesed...the idea of blind justice, while love is seen throughout.
V.I. - Take an emotional rather than rational approach of mysticism.

We move through miracle days
G.A. - Divine experience is not limited to prophetic times but ongoing.
J.M. - As we go further in this, we unlock mysteries we could not previous fathom.
J.Eh - The perfect working of justice is "miracle days"

Spirit moves in mysterious ways
J.Eh - The workings of the Sefirot.
J.Or - Pure spirit = Ein Sof
V.I. - She could also be Torah revealing herslef to the mystic.

She moves with it, She moves with it
C.W. - All change comes through God.
J. Ber. - We are all part of the mysterious God ("spirit") and the divine structure ("She").

Lift my days, light up my nights
R.S. - This line refers to the Nitzotzot, [the divine sparks]
G.A. - This refers to Tikkun.
C.W. - Invite bolder insights into your life.
W. Got - Lighting up the darkness of lack of understanding.
K. Gr. - "Days"/"Nights" - balance.
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, May 01, 2008

Jewish Duality vs. Dualism: The May Synchroblog

Last month the JMMM blog participated in a multi-blog exploration of mythic motherhood in honor of Mother's Day. In May, the coordinator of this effort wants to do it again, only with the theme of "Duality." As it happens, I have already written quite a bit on this topic. So my contribution this month is to link interested readers back to a series I wrote that revolved around Chassidut, Hasidic philosophy. The way my blog files, the bottom of the list is the earliest entry, so if you want to follow the thread, start with the link labelled "1" and work your way up.

4. God of TaNaKH, God of Kabbalah
3. Monism, Unity, and Duality in Judaism
2. Kedushat Levi: Bridging between Void and Fullness
1. Ain and Yesh: Being and Nothingness in Judaism

Other participants in the synablog include:

Between Old and New Moons
Goddess in a Teapot
The Aquila ka Hecate
Full Circle Earthwise News
Mythprint (all the myth that’s fit to print)
Stone Circle
Women and Spirituality
Frontiers of Wonder
Paleothea - Sing, Goddess
Quaker Pagan Reflections
Heart of Flame
Pitch 313
Executive Pagan
Druid’s Apprentice
The Druid Journal
Manzanita, Redwoods and Laurel
Dream Builders: A Figment of Imagination
When Isis Rises

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