The Origins of Jewish Mysticism Peter Schafer – post #2

This post continues from post #1 on Peter Schaffer’s new here. Now that I got the negative out of the way, to turn to the positive. In short, the book is positive for the first serious survey from the Biblical book Ezekiel to the Heikhalot in short incremental stages. Some of the material on the heikhalot is from his earlier book The Hidden and Manifest God. Some Major Themes in Early Jewish Mysticism, SUNY Press, 1992, but the majority is new.

Schaffer follows the new trends of not using the word mysticism anymore and instead follows the Chicago school’s term presence of God- in this case including becoming angels, becoming divine, ascents to heaven, visions, and various forms of magic.

Scholem considered the first stage of Jewish mysticism to be merkavah stretching from the 1st century BCE to the 10th century CE. For Scholem who defined mysticism as a romantic reaction against law, then Merkavah has to clearly occur after the classic period of law. Scholem does acknowledge three period without delineation – Apocalyptic – merkavah of mishnah, and heikalot. Back in 1980, Itamar Gruenwald showed all three periods are connected. He is still a good read for dealing with the Rabbinic literature and the responding to the anti-mystical Yekkes and Litvaks of Abeck, Epstein, Lieberman, Urbach. Martha Himmelfarb disconnected the Apocalyptic material in 1988.

As student of Schaffer wrote the following summery of the field from a Schaffer perspective-The Study of Heikhalot Literature: Between Mystical Experience and Textual Artifact. Ra’Anan S. Boustan 2007. Everyone considers Elior incorrect (to put it mildly), so don’t bother commenting about it. Schaffer has an inside dispute with Wolfson about which texts one is singing like angels and which have a process of angelization of the human through heavenly ascent. He also disputes the connection of becoming an angel and deification.

Schaffer creates seven periods and here are his basic conclusions.

The scope of my inquiry in the chapters to follow is delimited on the one hand by the book of Ezekiel in the Hebrew Bible as the starting point, and on the other by the Hekhalot literature as the first unchallenged manifestation of Jewish mysticism. Therefore, I am not interested in illuminating the relationship between Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah, a problem that has been so inadequately addressed and even conspicuously glossed over by Scholem and his heirs. Kabbalah as a distinctly medieval phenomenon that presumably begins in the twelfth century ce in Provence and extends well into our present day remains outside the parameters of my survey.

I begin with the famous first chapter of the book of Ezekiel – Ezekiel’s vision of the open heavens with the four creatures carrying God’s throne and the “figure with the appearance of a human being” seated upon this throne (chapter 1). Ezekiel’s vision sets the tone for the subsequent traditions: a fourfold relation-ship between and among a somehow accessible heaven, a human seer or visionary who has a vision, God as the object of this vision, and a revelation as the purpose of the vision. As to God, the object of the vision, the description goes remarkably far in Ezekiel’s case. He sees a human-like figure that still bears little resemblance to an ordinary man.

The second chapter turns to those ascent apocalypses that revolve around the enigmatic antediluvian patriarch Enoch, who, according to the tradition, did not die a natural death but was taken up by God into heaven. The first and oldest Enoch narrative, derived from the biblical Vorlage, is that of the Book of the Watchers (1 Enoch 1–36: late third century bce?), in which Enoch experiences a vision of God in heaven (ch. 14). Unlike his precursor Ezekiel, Enoch ascends to heaven, more precisely to the heavenly Temple, to see God on his throne; from now on the ascent becomes the predominant mode of human approach to the God who is enthroned in heaven.

The third chapter also deals with ascent apocalypses, but now Enoch is replaced by a variety of heroes. The chapter begins with the Apocalypse of Abraham (after 70 ce), which still follows the older Temple-critical motif and lacks the explicit physical transformation of the seer. Instead, it grants the angel Iaoel, who accompanies Abraham on his journey, a God-like state, a kind of compensation for the fact that Abraham is not allowed to see God. However, the climax of Abraham’s vision is his participation in the angelic liturgy, which may well imply his transformation into an angel. But again, this angelification of the seer is no mere end in itself: God reveals to Abraham the future history of Israel, with the desecration of the Temple and the necessity of its destruction at that history’s center.

In chapter 4, I continue with the literature preserved in the Qumran community.

I use the word “communion” here deliberately, since it must remain an open question as to whether or not the members of the community envision themselves, during their joint worship with the angels, as being transformed into angels.

Contrary to the prevailing trend in research on Jewish mysticism (or even in Qumran scholarship) I contend that the vision of God plays a strikingly marginal role in the Qumran texts and much less of one than in the ascent apocalypses,

With the fifth chapter treating Philo, we enter a completely new realm, the realm of a Jewish philosopher who was deeply imbued with the ideas of Plato and their Middle Platonic offspring.

The first of these, chapter 6, begins with the public exposition of Ezekiel 1 in the synagogue and with the famous restriction in m Hagigah 2:1
But there can be no doubt, in my view, that these rabbis understood the respective biblical texts as material for exegetical exercises and not for ecstatic experiences that aim at an ascent to the Merkavah in heaven.

With chapter 8, we finally tackle the Hekhalot literature, that is, the literature that for almost every scholar embodies the first climax of the fledgling mystical movement within Judaism: Merkavah mysticism.
I demonstrate that in Hekhalot Rabbati we encounter a clear tendency to disappoint or even frustrate our expectation of the depiction of God on his throne (to be sure, an expectation cunningly fueled by the editor), wishing instead to impress us with endless and exhausting descriptions of the heavenly liturgy, of which the adept becomes part. But as I will argue, this strategy seems to be quite deliberate, since it is not a unio mystica that our editor wishes to convey but rather a unio liturgica, a liturgical union of the Merkavah mystic with God through his participation in the heavenly liturgy that surrounds God’s throne. Moreover, and more important, I posit that this liturgical union is again, as in some of the ascent apocalypses, no end in itself; rather, within the narrative composed by the editor of Hekhalot Rabbati, it serves to convey the message that God continues to love his people of Israel on earth, even though the Temple is destroyed and the Merkavah mystic must undertake his dangerous heavenly journey to visit God on his throne in the heavenly Temple. It is this message that God wants the Merkavah mystic – the new Messiah – to bring down to his fellow Jews as the ultimate sign of salvation.

Quite in contrast to Hekhalot Rabbati, the text labeled Hekhalot Zutarti in some later manuscripts puts great emphasis on the magical use of the divine names.

Next follows a survey of the Shi‘ur Qomah fragments preserved in the Hekhalot literature; that is, the traditions that assign God gigantic body dimensions to which hundreds of unintelligible names are attached. My analysis of the respective texts in the Hekhalot literature goes against the grain of the thesis augurated by Scholem and accepted by many scholars, namely, that the mystic’s vision of the gigantic body of God serves as the climax of his ascent. Quite in contrast to this still prevalent trend in research, I hold that what is at stake here is not the dimensions of God’s body but the knowledge of the appropriate names attached to the limbs of God’s body and, consequently, the magical use of these names. Furthermore, I argue against the suggestion made by Scholem and others that the Shi‘ur Qomah traditions are essential for the Merkavah mystical speculations, that they are a particularly old layer of the Hekhalot literature, and that they emerged out of the exegesis of the biblical Song of Songs. Finally, I compare the Shi‘ur Qomah traditions in the Hekhalot literature with some related evidence that has been adduced from Jewish, Gnostic, and Christian sources, and I propose that it was originally angels in the Jewish tradition to whom gigantic dimensions were attributed. Only when the idea of vast angelic dimensions was usurped by the Christians did the (later) Jewish traditions – as they are preserved in the Shi‘ur Qomah – transfer these gigantic dimensions to God and claim that they were suitable for God alone, and not for angels or other figures that might dispute God’s position as the one and only God.

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