Thursday, June 30, 2011

Wiki-Spirit: Open Source Judaism

So there's a story coming out of Israel of a computer program that identifies authorial styles in a text with multiple authors:


The test case - jumbling Ezekiel and Jeremiah passages and seeing if the program could sort them out - was a rousing success. So now they use the program to distinguish "priestly" from "non-priestly" authors in a single book.

The idea of the Scriptures being a composite work is nothing new, of course. There truly is nothing new under the sun. The Talmudic rabbis theorized that parts of books popularly credited to one author were the work of another. The classic example is the conclusion that the last twelve verses of Deuteronomy were not written by Moses, but by Joshua after the leader's death. The awareness that the Psalms are the work of multiple hands even though they were widely called "the Psalms of David" was also an accepted idea among scholarly Jews before the modern era.

It has also been discussed in Western academia for almost two hundred years, most famously in the form of the "Documentary Hypothesis" of Graf and Wellhausen. Many of the Bible teachers at my seminary, Hebrew Union College, labored for decades to identify glosses and distinct hands in the books of the Bible, working with all the fervor that medieval kabbalists once devoted to detecting the sefirot they believed were being allegorized by different Biblical narratives. Now their work can be done in minutes.

What is new, therefore, is not what we know -- all Jewish texts until just a few centuries ago, including Talmud and crucial Kabbalah texts like Bahir and Zohar were subject to this multi-author process --- but how we think about this fact. Because before the internet age, we didn't have an ideology of "Open Source" writing.

Now we have people advocating a way of working, for some a philosophy, for creating new knowledge through collaborative writing. It's the idea of "hive" knowledge that has driven things like Wikipedia. This alternative to the valorization of the heroic single author is an interesting one, a different way of thinking about information and about arriving at a wise and useful text. And it seems Jews were doing it to shape and grow our spiritual understanding from the very beginning of our quest to know and understand the Blessed Holy One. God's voice finds expression through the creative tension resulting from multiple contributions and POVs.

Call it "Open Source Spirituality" or "Wiki-God," but Jews have been its first and perhaps greatest practitioners, proving once again that that we are the oldest-newest people in the world. Perhaps too, it reinforces, in a small way, our ancient claim that Torah is, and will continue to be the faith of the future.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Mystical Ascent: Heavenly Body, Soul, and Mind

Judaism has long taught the practice of the mystically projecting oneself into higher realms while still alive.

Moshe Idel identifies three types of ascents described in Jewish texts:somanoda(bodily ascent), psychanodia (soul ascent), and nousanodia (ascent of the intellect).1

Bodily ascent can itself take two diverse forms - the "taking up" of the physical body, as in the case of Elijah, or of the "spiritual body," called the guf ha-dak in Hebrew. On the other hand, the idea of projecting the intellect is a particularly medieval one, based on the Aristotilian notion that the Intellect is an attribute linking the person to the higher spheres.

Both apocalyptic literature and the New Testament (Paul, obliquely describing himself - II Cor. 12:3) make it clear that such ascensions were known of and accepted in Early Judaism. Different versions of these ascents can be found at virtual all periods of Jewish history.

Apocalyptic traditions tend to limit ascents to the mythic past; only Biblical worthies merited such experiences, figures such as Enoch, Abraham, and Moses. There is little or no indication in apocalyptic writings, however, that the experience is accessible to the contemporary reader. By contrast, the Dead Sea Scrolls (Perhaps inspired by the language of Zechariah 3:7) suggest for the first time that mingling with angelic realms is possible for the priestly elite.

Later Hekhalot literature radically “democratizes” (for lack of a better word) the possibility of mystical ascent – any intellectually and spiritually worthy person can now do it, though it is exceedingly dangerous - and offers descriptions of some of the rituals and preparations necessary for such ascents.

The German Pietists preserved and continued these practices. After the 13th Century, this journey was most often characterized as climbing the "rungs" or "degrees" of the sefirot.

Famous post-Biblical practitioners of ascent include Rabbis Akiba and Ishmael, Isaac Luria, the Baal Shem Tov, and Abraham Joshua Heschel of Apt.

As one might discern from above, terminology for the experience of entering divine realms changes over Jewish history, and has been known variously as Nichnas Pardes (Entering Paradise), Yered ha-Merkavah (Descent to Chariot), Yichud (Unificaiton) and Davekut (Cleaving).

Techniques for ascent in Jewish sources include ritual purification, immersion, fasting, study of sacred and mystical texts, sleep deprivation, reciting word mantras (especially divine names), self-isolation, and even self-mortification.

The purposes of heavenly ascension include various forms of unio mystica, sometimes in an ineffable experience, other times by a visionary enthronement before God or angelification, receiving answers to questions, the power over angels, or even gaining inspiration (for composing liturgical songs).

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] Idel, Moshe, Ascensions on High in Judaism. 27-28.

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