Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Hampton's Throne: Nothing to do with Judaism, but it's so damn cool!

I just returned from taking my family to Washington DC. While there, we visited the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM). A center piece of their folk art collection is the work entitled The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly, or, as it is more commonly known, Hampton's Throne.

This is a premier example of what is variously labelled "Visionary," "Outsider," or even "Crank" Art. An inspired person operating entirely outside the conventional "art world" creates naive work of idiosyncratic style and/or monumental scope. Often, the artist is a socially isolated or maladapt person. Many of these artists labor unseen in their lifetimes. The art creation often strikes an observer to be the product of a compulsive obsessive. I grew up in New Mexico near such a work, the multi-acre/multi-building life-long work of one man, locally known as "Tinker Town."

Hampton's Throne is something of equal breath and even greater beauty. Constructed over the course of two decades in a garage by a Washington DC custodian, James Hampton, it was only revealed to the public after his death. It is magnificent. Using recycled furniture, art paper, light bulbs, cardboard, cans, and various types of foil (much of it packaging foil), Mr. Hampton gave form to an amazing and deeply personal celestial vision. Some of it pays homage to Biblical objects and iconography, but much is wholly original. Go to the SAAM website and there is a zoomable image that will allow you to examine the composition in detail:


I am a great fan of outsider art, perhaps because I find the inspiration, intention, and passion embodied in such works to be more authentic then is apparent in most works of "high art" that appear in our galleries and museums. Outsider art also intersects with my fascination with the ecstatic, mystical, and occult that is the focus of this blog. Those are the only rationales I have for including this entry, but it's my blog and I wanted to talk about it.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Mochin: Divine Mind, Expanded Consciousness

In medieval Kabbalah, the term Mohin (or Mochin) refers to the stages of mental development that co-exists in both the Higher and mortal mind.

In the writings based on the teachings of Zohar and, later, Isaac Luria, mochin refers to the inner intelligence of the divine structures known as partzufim (“Countenances”). There are five of these divine countenances, and their interactions give shape to the cosmos. Sometimes presented as synonymous with the sefirot, the mochin emerge from the interactions (zivvugim, “couplings”) of the partzufim in a manner that is analogous to procreation and birth [1]. They grow and evolve through three stages: ibbur (pregnancy), mochin de-katnut (narrow- or constricted consciousness), and mochin de-gadlut (expanded- or broadened consciousness) [2]. The lower structures of the godhead are fed and nurtured by the mochin that flows to them from the higher one. This idea gives a very explicit and vivid form to the notion, implicit since the Bible, that God is a dynamic, evolutionary, learning being. God’s mind, as it were, expands with and through Her creation.

These states of divine consciousness are channeled from the higher realms into the mortal realms through religious praxis. Performing the commandments, even the seemingly inexplicable ritual commandments (perhaps especially these) in the most intentional and focused manner possible (with kavvanah) makes the transfer of this higher consciousness possible. In Lurianic though, prayer is the primary mechanism for the movement of mochin. Filling the world with this God-consciousness is central to the task of tikkun, of rectifying the world in the divine image. This is why Jewish prayer is cyclical and statutory – it is like a spiritual pump that must regularly facilitate the movement of this divine force between worlds.

This concept gets applied in other ways more specific to the human experience, especially in the Hasidic tradition. Pinchus ben Avraham Abba uses the concepts of katnut and gadlut to distinguish between the religious consciousness that results from Torah/Talmud study vs. that which results from the study of Zohar [3]. Schnur Zalman of Liadi also describes a human phenomenology of mochin. Rabbi Levi Yitzkhak of Berdichev teaches that the person who receives the divine emanation of mochin de-gadlut loses all fear of worldly events and is no longer subject to the influences of the Sitra Achra, the evil "other side" of creation (Kedushat Levi, parsha Yitro).

This application of the concepts of “restricted” and “expanded consciousness” to the human perspective in turn opens the way for the thoroughly modern use of these idioms by contemporary Jewish writers as a kind of Jewish “New Age” speak for personal spiritual development [4].

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] Fine, Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos, p. 236.
[2] Giller, Reading the Zohar, pp. 152-153.
[3] Heschel, The Circle of the Baal Shem Tov, p. 6.
[4] Pinson, Meditation and Judaism, p. 187.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Nusach ha-Ari: The Holy Lion Prayer Book

Jews of different geographic/ethnic communities each have their own prayerbook, often referred to as a nusach (pattern, formula). These prayerbooks are identical in many fundamental prayers, but feature local variations in piyyutim (post-Talmudic poetic prayers), order, and minhag (customary ways to worship). Thus, there is a Nusach Ashkenazi (Central European pattern) and a Nusach Sefardi (Spanish/Portuguese pattern). Jews who descend from these communities are expected to loyally hold to the nusach/minhag of their ancestors, though in practice Jews may switch because of marriage into a family of different roots, or because of relocating to a community where their minhag is not observed.

It was therefore a great scandal to many Jews of Eastern Europe when the newly forming Hasidic communities abandoned the Ashkenazi prayerbook in favor of the prayerbook Nusach ha-Ari (The Lurianic Siddur), a prayerbook that fused Sefardi elements with mystical kavvanot (meditations/intentions). This siddur is a attributed to Isaac Luria, also known as ha-Ari ha-Kodesh (the Holy Lion), a kabbalist of mixed background himself, coming from an Ashkenazi family that had settled in Egypt. In fact, the Nusach ha-Ari was mostly the creation of his followers in the Middle East.

But this prayerbook crossed ethnic boundaries and soon found its way into the Ukraine, Poland, and Russia. The Maggid of Meseritch, for example, noted that according to the Midrash, each of the twelve tribes had their own gate in heaven through which their prayers entered, yet there was a thirteenth gate by which the prayers of anybody could be heard On High, and he argued the Nusach ha-Ari was that 13th gate [1]. Many variations of the Nusach ha-Ari eventually appeared over time, including the prayerbooks Siddur Shar'abi, Kol Yaakov, Siddur Torah Ohr, and Siddur Tehillat Hashem. Not surprisingly, some of these were revisions to more closely follow the European minhag. Many were also streamlined. Early versions had elaborate meditations punctuating the prayers and even featured the texts configured in symbolic patterns or arranged so as to form recognizable objects, such as faces or humanoid figures [2]. Latter varieties, dense as they might be with commentaries and insertions, were more conventional and less imaginative in their layouts.

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] Jacobs, Hasidic Prayer, p. 38.
[2] Blumenthal, Understanding Jewish Mysticism, p. 173.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

First Edom, then Eden: The Primordial Kings of Strict Justice

[Eight Christian kings. Medieval Jews often referred to Christendom as "Edom," another figurative use of the ancient tribe. Photo appears on Flickr http://images.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://farm1.static.flickr.com/164/411867613_7edafe43b6.jpg%3Fv%3D0&imgrefurl=http://flickr.com/photos/41823576]
One of the more curious uses of a Biblical verse in Jewish tradition concerns the Kabbalistic interpretation of the eight kings listed in Genesis 36:

31. These are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom, before any king reigned over the Israelites.
32. Bela the son of Beor reigned in Edom, the name of his city being Dinhabah.
33. Bela died, and Jobab the son of Zerah of Bozrah reigned in his place.
34. Jobab died, and Husham of the land of the Temanites reigned in his place.
35. Husham died, and Hadad the son of Bedad, who defeated Midian in the country of Moab, reigned in his place, the name of his city being Avith.
36. Hadad died, and Samlah of Masrekah reigned in his place.
37. Samlah died, and Shaul of Rehoboth on the Euphrates reigned in his place.
38. Shaul died, and Baal-hanan the son of Achbor reigned in his place.
39. Baal-hanan the son of Achbor died, and Hadar reigned in his place, the name of his city being Pau; his wife’s name was Mehetabel, the daughter of Matred, daughter of Mezahab.

This elliptical passage, which summarizes the family line of Esau, is a narrative deadend that inexplicably interrupts the continuing epic of the blessed son, Jacob. But its very oddity and obscurity invites occult explanation.

In this case, the mystics read this not as a account of an ancestral branch off from the tree of Israel, but as a cosmic revelation, a allegoric telling of what preceded creation (Zohar III: 128a; 135a-b; Sefer ha-Gilgulim 15). The hermeneutic key is the phrase, "...who reigned....before any king reigned over the Israelites." The "king" here is taken to refer to the God of Israel. Prior to this creation, then, there were forces that disrupted God's effective rule of the earlier worlds. The references to the 'death' of each king refer to God's undoing of these worlds. What was the fundamental flaw in these primordial worlds? They were dominated by edom, "red [blood]." This means these worlds were too filled with strict judgment and lacked the balancing [matkela, in the language of the Zohar] quality of mercy in sufficient proportions for the cosmos to endure[1]. Some interpret this overweening judgment as the meaning of the "darkness" that existed before the light of creation (Galya Raza MS II, 102b).

To correct for past mistakes, God ensured this world would continue by introducing Abraham, who embodies loving mercy (hesed), only then followed by Isaac, who personifies justice (din), as does his first son Esau, who was born 'red' (Gen. 25:24), but finally harmonizes the two forces with Jacob, the ish tam ("perfect man" - Gen. 25: 27), which is why, the kabbalists reason, the earlier failed worlds get recounted in the midst of his saga.

And why in the last generation of Edom do we hear about Hadar's wife, Mehetabel, when no wives merited mention before? The last iteration of judgment, it seems, has a 'feminine' counterpart, which makes it balanced enough to not 'die' but to serve as the basis for judgment in this world:

You must know the that [this] world is founded upon the side of of the feminine and that heaven is revealed on the side of Darkness...and that its descendants [the earliest stages of divine creation]....they are ruled by that side which has no shame...and that is the prince of Esau, and therefore the Blessed Holy One established this world on the side of the feminine....(Galya Raza, MS II, 12b-13a, as translated by Rachel Elior)

So despite the damaging nature of pure judgment, mercy is not to be considered superior to justice, but its complement, as it says, "Do not hate the Edomite, for he is your brother" (Deut. 23:8). Jacob needs Esau, even if they are in conflict. Strictness and forgiveness, justice and mercy. The world requires a balance between these qualities for it to succeed.

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] Scholem, Kabbalah, pp. 116-117; On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism, p. p. 112. Also see Elior, "The Doctrine of Transmigration in Galya Raza," pp. 248-249.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Jewish Mystic Prayer V: Yedid Nefesh

OK, so entry IV was not my last on mystical Jewish liturgy. There is also Yedid Nefesh, the work of 16th Century kabbalist Rabbi Elazar Azikri. By now we can recognize the thematic poetics that mark this piyyut in common with other esoteric prayers:
  • Passionate, even erotic language to characterize the relationship with God.
  • Acrostic construction. In this case, the first Hebrew letter of each of the four stanza combine to form the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter name of God.
  • 'Light' imagery and synonyms for 'beauty' to describe the divine.
  • The occult motifs 'concealed' and 'revealed.'
Sung on the eve of Shabbat and the Seudah Shlishi (toward the end of Shabbat):

יSoul's beloved, source of compassion,
draw Your servant to your desire [1].
Your servant will run like a gazelle;
he will bow before your splendor.
Your love is sweeter [2] to him
than the dripping of honey, or all tastes.

הSplendid, Beautiful, Radiance of the Universe
My soul is sick for Your love [3].
Please, God, heal her [4]
by showing her the beauty of your radiance.
Then she will be strengthened and healed
And she will have eternal bliss.

וAncient One [5], arouse Your mercy,
and please have pity upon Your beloved child.
For how I have yearned
to swiftly see the splendor of Your strength.
These are the desires of my heart
so please have pity and do not hide Yourself.

הPlease, reveal Yourself.
beloved, spread over me the shelter of your peace [6].
Illumine the earth with Your glory,
that we may exalt and rejoice in You.
For now comes the time
grace us as in days of old [7].
[1] The Hebrew word ratzon is often translated as 'will,' but the emotional context merits a more impassioned translation of 'desire.'
[2] The root ayin-resh-bet, "sweet," also appears in the mystical poem, Shir ha-Kavod, though in a different context entirely. The sweetness [both sensuous and sensual] of divine encounter is a recurrent theme in medieval mystical writings cross-culturally, in all cases probably drawing on the language of Song of Songs.
[3] Love sickness is also an image derived from Song of Songs. Nafshi could be translated as "I am [sick for your love]," but the author is focused on the relationship between the soul of the individual and the world soul, so I translated it accordingly.
[4] The wording comes directly from Moses' prayer for Miriam's healing. Here it is applied to the 'soul sick'.
[5] A kabbalistic title for God, derived from the book of Daniel 7.9. In Zohar this refers to the Deus Agnostos, the unknowable God, either Keter or Ein Sof.
[6] Literally "...the 'sukkah' of your peace." Though the wording is borrowed from non-mystical liturgy (Hashkivenu), mystics assign extra meaning to this phrase, for they envision the sukkah as a kind of cosmic womb.
[7] The Hebrew syntax is a little awkward. There may be a meaning I am oblivious to.

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

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Mystical Siddur IV: Lekha Dodi, Sensual Shabbat

[THE SABBATH BRIDE by Janet and Emmanuel Snitkovsky]
In the past three postings we have examined three prayers found in the siddur that derive from three different Jewish mystical circles: the Hekhalot/Merkavah adepts (angelology), the Hasidei Ashkenaz (Glory visionaries) and medieval kabbalists (name mysticism). In our final example in this topic (we may later talk about Nusach ha-Ari, a prayerbook entirely permeated with mystical commentaries and kavvanot), we consider the most famous of all mystical compositions, Lekha Dodi (Come my Beloved...). This is a work of 16th Century Safed mysticism, for which there is no one overarching theosophy [1]. Several outstanding mystics lived and wrote in the hilltop Galilean town, including Moses Cordovero, Issac Luria, Elijah de Vida, and Abraham Galante. The community was deeply immersed in Zoharic Kabbalah, but it is also the birth place of Lurianic mysticism. The author of Lecha Dodi, Solomon Alkabez, was a contemporary of Moses Cordovero. An ecstatic mystic, he would pursue direct communion with dead sages and saints.

Lekha Dodi is concerned foremost with the task of reuniting (yichud) the fragmented aspects of the godhead, bringing the Shekhinah/Malchut (the feminine aspect of God) out if its exile and ensuring its union with the masculine aspect (variously known as Yesod, Tiferet, or ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu). Shabbat is the most propitious time to affect this union, so this composition is recited at the cusp of sunset Friday at the beginning of Shabbat. Throughout the poem, there are feminine figures - the Sabbath bride, the widowed Jerusalem, even the Jewish people - that are stand-ins for the Shekhinah. As is the case with every mystical prayer we have studied, Lekha Dodi is also an acrostic poem. In this case, the first letter of each stanza combine to spell the author's name - a first in a long Jewish tradition of anonymous liturgical compositions.

Come, my love, to meet the bride, let us welcome the Sabbath [2].
"Observe" and "Remember" in a single utterance, the Unique God made known to us [3].
God is one and His name is one, for renown, splendor, and praise[4].

Come, let us go to meet the Sabbath, for She is the source of blessing[B.T. Shabbat 119a].
From the beginning, of old, it was ordained - [She is the] last in creation, [but] first in [God's] thought [5].

Sanctuary of the king, the royal city - arise! Come forth from the ruins.
Long enough have you [feminine] dwelt in the valley of sorrow - but He will show you mercy.

Shake off your dust, arise! Put on your garments of splendor, my people [6].
Through the son of Jesse, the Bethlehemite [7], draw close to my soul and redeem her.

Awaken! Awaken! Your light has come! Arise and shine! [Isaiah 51:16; 60:1]
Awake, awake, utter a song - the glory of the Lord is revealed on you.

Do not be ashamed or confused. Why are you downcast? Why do you moan?
In you my poor people will be sheltered - and the city will be rebuilt on its ancient site.

Those who despoiled you will become a spoil, and all who would devour you will be far away.
Your God will rejoice over you like a groom rejoices over his bride.

Spread out to the right and the left, and revere the Lord,
through the coming of the son of Peretz we will be glad and exult [8].

Come in peace, crown of Her husband [9], with song, with joy, and with exultation.
Among the faithful ones of the chosen people, come, O bride, come, O bride.

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] Lawrence Fine's Safed Spirituality provides a great sampler of the various writings.
[2] The image of the Sabbath as a bride is characteristic of the erotic theology that undergirds much mystical thought. It has a biblical basis (Hos. 2:4; Isa. 54:5-8, Song of Songs). In this case, the people Israel are the groom (see Gen. Rabbah 11.8), but this nuptial metaphor is applied promiscuously (God and Israel, Israel and Shabbat, Shekhinah and Tiferet, etc.). There is also a gematria woven into this line. The total number of letters is 26, the numeric value of God's four-letter name, which encapsulates the masculine and feminine forces.
[3] the two versions of the Ten Commandments found in the Torah are interpreted to mean God spoke to Israel in such a way as we heard both versions simultaneous. It also plays upon the sexual associations of speech (think of the English word "intercourse") and knowledge (the Hebrew word da'at means both "know" and "copulate"). But then, if we are greeting the bride, who is the "love" [dodi is intimate to the level of eros] that is being addressed with direct speech? Fellow Jews? The divine masculine?
[4] God's unity is most realized within creation on Shabbat (Zech. 14:9; Gen. Rabbah 17.5).
[5] Like the bride at a wedding, who triggers the event, but is the last to enter.
[6] Jerusalem and the people Israel are conflated into one literary bridal image.
[7] The eschatological messiah, a biological descendant of David. But given the popular believe in transmigration of the soul among Safed mystics, this could imply Alkabez believed the messiah will be David reincarnated!
[8]Left and right refers to the sefirot, the diagram of the godhead. In the messianic times (the "son of Perez" refers to the messiah) both the "left and right sides" of God will be harmonized and the universe perfected.
[9] More sexual and kabbalistic double entendre. As a crown receives and encircles the head, so the feminine receives the masculine in exultation and pleasure. The 'crown' also designates the shekhinah and the husband [baalat] refers to Yesod, the sefirotic equivalent of the phallus.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Mystical Prayerbook III: The Kabbalah of Ana B'khoach

Having looked at prayers of Jewish liturgy composed by German Pietists and Hekhalot ecstatics, we now turn to a prayer composed by a medieval kabbalist, Ana B'khoach. Supposedly the composition of a 2nd Century sage, R. Nechunyiah, it is more likely a 13th-14th Century work. Again, there are signal elements that mark all mystical thought - the idea of esoteric knowledge (God is called Yodeia taalumot, "Knower of secrets"),

[An amulet with the 42 letter name of God around the border]

mathematical symmetry (seven lines of six Hebrew words each), but most of all here, an allusion to secret divine names: 6 x 7 +42 -- not referring to the answer to the universe without a question, ala Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, mind you, but to the 42 letter name of God that can be constructed from the opening verses of Genesis and is the key to creation. This poem is an acrostic, but not of the alef-bet as the earlier mystical poems were. This is an acrostic formed from those 42 letters of God's name. So this is a prime example of Kabbalistic name mysticism:

By the the great strength or Your right hand [1], release the bound [2].
Accept your people's song, elevate and purify us, oh awesome one.
Mighty one, those who foster your Unification [3], guard them as the pupil of an eye [4].
Bless them, purify them, pity them, may your righteousness always reward them.
Powerful and Holy One, in goodness lead your congregation.
Unique exalted one, turn to your people who remember your holiness.
Accept our pleas, and hear our cries, oh knower of secrets.
Blessed is the name of His noble kingdom forever and ever [5].

Ultimately, the semantic meaning of this prayer is secondary to the talimanic performance of the concealed/revealed name, invoking its power to heal the fractures in creation and restore life to its fullness at every level by simply reciting it.

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's "right hand" is an emblem of salvation. See another poem of God's power and revelation (Ex. 15:6)

[2] The term ts'rurah has multiple connotations, both negative [bound in exile, bound by material existence] but also positive [Jews pray that the newly deceased be "bound up in the bonds of eternal life"]. Given these connotations, this could be understood as a plead on a personal, national, and metaphysical level simultaneously.

[3] While God may be "One" at the level of Ein Sof (beyond positive existence), here in Asiyah, the world of action, God is in need of those whose deeds will bring together the masculine (The Blessed Holy One) and feminine (Shekhinah) aspects of the godhead and end its fragmentation here on earth (This notion actually has a Biblical basis - see Zech. 14:9).

[4] The "apple" (KJV) or "pupil" of the eye is both a metaphor of protectiveness and of mystical [in]sight (look to guard those who desire to truly gaze upon the mysteries of the King in His beauty)

[5] This line is normally a congregational response to God's name being invoked. Here it is offered in response to the concealed/revealed 42-letter name.