Wednesday, March 14, 2007
HEKHALOTH LITERATURE AND GNOSTICISM
Commensurate with the information on Gnosticism which I've quoted from the Jewish Encyclopedia, Gershom Scholem also takes note of the relationship of Jewish mysticism to Gnosticism. In MAJOR TRENDS IN JEWISH MYSTICISM Scholem describes Hekhaloth mysticism this way:
Those who passed the test were considered worthy to make the "descent" to the Merkabah which led them, after many trials and dangers, through the seven heavenly palaces, and before that through the heavens, their preparation, their technique, and the description of what is perceived on the voyage, are the subject-matter of the writings with which we are concerned.(pp.49-50)
Originally, we have here a Jewish variation on one of the chief preoccupations of the second and third century gnostics and hermetics: the ascent of the soul from the earth, through the spheres of the hostile planet-angels and rulers of the cosmos, and its return to its divine home in the "fullness" of God's light, a return which, to the gnostic's mind, signified Redemption. Some scholars consider this to be the central idea of Gnosticism. Certainly the description of this journey, of which a particularly impressive account is found in the second part of the "Greater Hekhaloth," is in all its details of a character which must be called gnostic.
This mystical ascent is always preceded by ascetic practices whose duration in some cases is twelve days, in others forty. An account of these practices was given about 1000 A.D. by Hai ben Sherira, the head of a Babylonian academy. According to him, "many scholars were of the belief that one who is distinguished by many qualities described in the books and who is desirous of beholding the Merkabah and the palaces of the angels on high, must follow a certain procedure. He must fast a number of days and lay his head between his knees and whisper many hymns and songs whose text are known from tradition. Then he perceives the interior and the chambers, as if he saw the seven palaces with his own eyes, and it is as though he entered one palace after the other and saw what is there." The typical bodily posture of these ascetics is also that of Elijah in his prayer on Mount Carmel. It is an attitude of deep self-oblivion which, to judge from certain ethnological parallels, is favorable to the induction of pre-hypnotic autosuggestion. Dennys gives a very similar description of a Chinese somnambulist in the act of conjuring the spirits of the departed: "She sits down on a low chair and bends forward so that her head rests on her knees. Then, in a deep measured voice, she repeats three times an exorcism, whereupon a certain change appears to come over her." In the Talmud, too, we find this posture described as typical of the self-oblivion of a Hanina ben Dosa sunk in prayer, or of a penitent who gives himself over to God.
Finally, after such preparations, and in a state of ecstasy, the adept begins his journey. The "Greater Hekhaloth" do not describe the details of his ascent through the seven heavens, but they do describe his voyage through the seven palaces situated in the highest heaven. The place of the gnostical rulers (archons) of the seven planetary spheres, who are opposed to the liberation of the soul from its earthly bondage and whose resistance the soul must overcome, is taken in this Judaized and monotheistic Gnosticism by the hosts of "gate-keepers" posted to the right and left of the entrance to the heavenly hall through which the soul must pass in its ascent. In both cases, the soul requires a pass in order to be able to continue its journey without danger: a magic seal made of a secret name which puts the demons and hostile angels to flight. Every new stage of the ascension requires a new seal with which the traveler "seals himself" in order that, to quote a fragment, "he shall not be dragged into the fire and the flame, the vortex and the storm which are around Thee, oh Thou terrible and sublime." The "Greater Hekhaloth" have preserved a quite pedantic description of this passport procedure; all the seals and the secret names are derived from the Merkabah itself where they "stand like pillars of flame around the fiery throne" of the Creator.
It is the soul's need for protection on its journey which has produced these seals with their twin functions as a protective armour and as a magical weapon. At first the magical protection of a single seal may be sufficient, but as time goes on the difficulties experienced by the adept tend to become greater. A brief and simple formula is no longer enough. Sunk in his ecstatic trance, the mystic at the same time experiences a sense of frustration which he tries to overcome by using longer and more complicated magical formulae, symbols of a longer and harder struggle to pass the closed entrance gates which block his progress. As his psychical energy wanes the magical strain grows and the conjuring gesture becomes progressively more strained, until in the end whole pages are filled with an apparently meaningless recital of magical key-words with which he tries to unlock the closed door.
This is much closer to New Age than it is to Christianity, although it would be hard to ignore the similarity of this description of the soul's ascent to the Orthodox belief in toll booths which replaces the Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory.
There is a difference between Hellenistic mysticism and the gnosticism of the Hekhaloth according to Scholem:
...there is a radical difference in the conception of God. In the Hekhaloth, God is above all King, to be precise, Holy King. This conception reflects a change in the religious consciousness of the Jews--not only the mystics--for which documentary evidence exists in the liturgy of the period. The aspects of God which are really relevant to the religious feeling of the epoch are His majesty and the aura of sublimity and solemnity which surrounds him.(p. 55)
On the other hand, there is a complete absence of any sentiment of divine immanence.