Friday, March 09, 2007
" THE HEKHALOT LITERATURE AND SHAMANISM"
That is the title of a paper by James R. Davila, St. Mary's College, University of St. Andrews, Scotland. The paper was first published in the Society of Biblical Literature 1994 Seminar Papers. The "Introduction" describes the material being discussed:
The Hekhalot literature is a bizarre conglomeration of Jewish esoteric and revelatory texts produced sometime between late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. The documents have strong connections with earlier apocalyptic and gnostic literature and claim to describe the self-induced spiritual experiences of the "descenders to the chariot" that permitted these men to view Ezekiel's chariot vision (the Merkavah) for themselves, as well as to gain control of angels and a perfect mastery of Torah through theurgy. This material is of particular interest for the study of divine mediation and mystical/revelatory experiences, because the Hekhalot documents claim to detail actual practices used to reach trance states, gain revelations, and interact with divine mediators. ...
Philip Alexander has drawn on anthropological works on shamanism to illuminate some material in the Hekhalot literature. This paper follows up his observation in depth by analyzing the Hekhalot literature from the perspective of the anthropological study of shamanism. The study of the Hekhalot literature raises the obvious question of whether and to what degree the texts reflect actual mystical experiences. Two approaches have developed on this issue. Some scholars, such as Gershom Scholem, Philip Alexander, and Christopher R. A. Morray-Jones, understand the Hekhalot texts to describe actual theurgical practices and typical visionary experiences of the group that produced the documents. Others, such as David Halperin, see the Hekhalot traditions as primarily exegetical. Halperin reconstructs a tradition of synagogue exegesis associated with Shavuot sermons that he believes generated the traditions found in the Hekhalot literature. He allows for the possibility that the writers sometimes had visionary experiences or "hallucinations," but he sees the major developments as literary.
The paper talks about the "mystic union" said to be the goal of mysticism:
The goal of mysticism, then, is union of the soul with the Absolute. Although this union is an absorption of an individual into the divine, the unitive life of the highest mystics is generally intensely social: they seek to bring the benefits of their experience into their community.
It indicates "The acts typically comprise behavior such as manipulation of objects and recitation of verbal formulas or spells."
Davila claims that the material in the Hekhalot is closer to shamanism than it is to mysticism:
The experiences described in the Hekhalot literature do not seem much like mysticism. There is no thought of mystical union. God is nearly as remote in the heavenly throne room as he is on earth. Nor is Hekhalot esotericism merely magic: it includes visionary experiences atypical of magic and often seems to be functioning in the context of a community. I propose therefore that the most illuminating framework for these experiences is shamanism. Using Hultkrantz's definition as a basis, the rest of this paper will test this approach by organizing the Hekhalot literature according to the component elements of shamanism as generally accepted by anthropologists.This passage would seem to describe channeling:
There is no one way that a person becomes convinced of his or her call to shamanhood. We can, however, make some significant generalizations about the range of experiences that lead to this conviction. First, the call may be either imposed from an external source (usually the spirits) or a voluntary decision of the future shaman. If the call is imposed, it may come from compelling dreams or revelations from the spirits, who may bring an illness upon an initiate until the initiate agrees to accept the call. Or the call may be hereditary, or determined from childhood by the presence of a "shaman's mark," a special physical characteristic on the initiate's body. Hereditary or "marked" shamans usually do not resist the call. If the decision is voluntary, the prospective shaman seeks out contacts with the spirits.
For example, the Gol'd shaman of Siberia, who was smitten with an illness until he entered into a shamanic marriage with his assisting spirit (Joan Halifax, _Shamanic Voices: A Survey of Visionary Narratives_ [New York/London: Arkana/Penguin, 1979] 121)
The control of spirits (almost always angels) is also central to the practices attributed to the descenders to the chariot. Indeed, it is not too much to say that this power is the linchpin that holds together the disparate praxes and concepts in the Hekhalot literature. Nearly every passage cited in the previous section associates the methods described with the imposition of human will on angels. In para. 204, the chanting of the divine names summoned the angel Suriah as a guide for the descent to the chariot. In paras. 299-303 the Sar Torah initiate was instructed to call on the angels in order to obtain, immediately and without effort, the knowledge of Torah that is normally acquired only after years of arduous study. In paras. 560-65 R. Ishmael compelled the angelic prince of Torah, with a good deal of difficulty, to give him wisdom (apparently, again, knowledge of Torah without study). Many other passages deal with the control of angels, but these are representative.Davila makes the connection between Hekhalot and Jewish magic:
THE OTHERWORLDLY JOURNEY
Perhaps the best-known element of shamanic experience is the alleged ability, either as a free soul or in bodily form, to journey to other realms of existence not materially connected to our world. Eliade summarizes the cosmology of shamanism in terms that are nearly universally cross-culturally valid: "the universe in general is conceived as having three levels -- sky, earth, underworld -- connected by a central axis." The latter is usually pictured as a tree growing through the three layers (the "world-tree") or as a mountain (the "cosmic mountain"). The shaman, who originates in the middle realm, our earth, travels to either or both of the other levels. Often the upper and lower realms are subdivided into (frequently seven or nine) layers.
THE HEKHALOT LITERATURE AND JEWISH MAGICIt is not unreasonable to conclude, after reading this paper, that organizations such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn are really practicing a form of Jewish magic that channels angelic spirits. Given that some of these spirits are fallen, red flags should be going up about now. A Roman Catholic is forbidden to engage in any practice such as this for any reason at all, including accomplishing good works. It is contrary to the First Commandment.
The question of the relation between the Hekhalot literature and Jewish magic is an important one that has not yet received much attention. Space permits only a few preliminary observations. First, the medieval manuscripts mingle Hekhalot and magical texts indiscriminately. Sch<"a>fer's Synopse includes magical works such as the <.H>arba de Moshe (Sword of Moses), the Seder Rabba de Bereshit, and the unnamed Magic Book (see n. 1 above), simply because they appear in the manuscripts he used. Indeed, it is difficult to be certain whether to define the Sar Panim as a Hekhalot or a magical document. Second, the magical literature frequently makes use of themes and ideas typical of the Hekhalot literature. For example, the Cairo Geniza amulet T.-S. K1.168 mentions the 390 firmaments, contains speculations about the throne of God and the living creatures, and mentions an angelic high priest of heaven. T.-S. K 1.19, a book of miscellaneous magical recipes from the Geniza, includes a Sar Torah passage. Sepher Ha-Razim (the Book of the Mysteries), a magical book reconstructed by Mordecai Margalioth and dated by him to the Talmudic period, is structured around the seven firmaments and the angels in each who can be controlled theurgically. Both types of text make frequent use of _nomina barbara_, and both have some tendency to write the Tetragrammaton instead of a substitution or abbreviation. The rhetorical elements that are standard for Geniza incantations also appear in the Hekhalot literature. Overall there are strong indications that closely related and perhaps overlapping groups were using each kind of texts.