Tag Archives: bahir

The Bahir, The Shepherd of Hermas, and Kabbalah

Once upon a time when Prof Twersky of Harvard was holding conferences on the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, someone commented to me that we need conferences on the 7th, 8th, and 9th, centuries. There is a sense that much would be gained if you put those that work on Kabbalah and those that work on late midrash in a room together, new connections would be found.  Some have noted in my Zohar review the passing references to Philo of Alexandria and Shiite thought.  What I could not include in the Forward review is any discussion of the use of extended narrative of late antiquity in these Zohar volumes such as the role of Sefer Hayashar – Chronicle of Yerachmiel nor the history of the traditions of Moses as king and warrior in Ethiopia from the Chronicle of Moses. Nor did I mention the alchemy. Much of this was already noted by Moses Gaster, Louis Ginzburg, Adolphe Jellinek and others.

What the Pritzker edition lacks is any greater context than early Andalusian Kabbalah. When Midrash is added to the footnotes it is from CD-Rom and Margaliot’s comments on the Zohar not as an actual useful comparison.  Or when there is a footnote to the messianic battles of Nistarot of Rabbi Shimon – the footnote does not make one aware of the half a dozen different versions composed over 500 years  or which version does the Zohar seem to know. The version in Jellinek? the one edited by Bernard Lewis? Nor are the sources in Ashkenaz material sufficiently noted.

Yet,  there are the connections that allude almost anyone in Jewish studies. For example, At this year’s SBL there was a paper on The Shepard of Hermes and thanks to a write up on Mystical Politics, there was a tentative connection to the Kabbalah.

The third paper in the session was “The Tower as Divine Body: Visions and Theurgy in the Shepherd of Hermas,” presented by Franklin Trammell. The abstract of his paper reads:

Behind some of the visions and teachings in the Shepherd of Hermas lies the notion of a direct correspondence between the heart of the righteous and the androgynous divine body. This body is presented by Hermas as a sevenfold Tower that is in the process of being (re)built by (re)incorporating the feminine Ecclesia. Members of the Ecclesia, who are pure of heart, are clothed with twelve virgins and receive the seal of the Son of God, representing the female and male aspects of the body. They then affect the reintegration of this female aspect, being built into the eschatological Tower as a part of her. Hermas’ law of purity therefore plays an incredibly important theurgic role. In identifying the Tower with the Ecclesia, itself implicitly assimilated in the text to Sophia, the author portrays those who do not sin after baptism as participating in the (re)unification of pre-existent Wisdom. It is this process along with elements related to it that shares affinities with later Jewish mystical sources.

I found this talk fascinating, especially since I’ve never read the Shepherd of Hermas. I found particularly interesting the possible connections to Sefer ha-Bahir that he mentioned.

What is the Shepard of Hermes?From wiki

The Shepherd of Hermas (sometimes just called The Shepherd) is a Christian literary work of the second century, considered a valuable book by many Christians, and considered canonical scripture by some of the early Church fathers. The Shepherd had great authority in the second and third centuries.

Here is the text and an Intro.

Shlomo Pines and other have noted the early references to Kabbalistic esotericsm in Patristics. But few look to works to books left out of Patristics like the Shepard of Hermes. Theses books give  insight into the thought of centuries like the second century, where we know little of the rabbinic worldview outside of the Tannaic works.

Can Kabbalah be translated into a modern idiom?

I found an interesting article written for  the BBC from a transpersonal psychologist in England The essence of Jewish meditation By Professor Les Lancaster The very nice and sensitive essay shows the problems in trying to translate Kabbalah on meditation in modern terms.

It lets me ask about the process of presenting Jewish kavvanot to a modern audience.

The basic worldview for the kabbalist is the sefirotic chart, arranged as concentric circles, a Jacob’s ladder or chain of being, expressed with medieval philosophic language.  A kabbalist’s view of God and the world was arranged in nestled chains, God emanates into the world. This cosmology of chains is not just a points on a cord, but vast realms, lights, and colors, a realm to transverse, a way of marking off distance. This cosmology was accepted as based on the Jewish tradition, the experiential truth of the method, and as part of accepting the theology of the Kabbalah.  This worldview, for them, was as corrigible as a map. Meaning that unlike a dream where no incorrect dream, Kabbalah is a vision correctable based on the writings and visions of others. For the kabbalists the kabbalistic worldview is objective, subject to correct and incorrect turns, and offers a reproducible mental world. One chooses one path, one worldview, and follows it. The traditional meditator does not credit the human mind or imagination with these depths, rather he starts with a map obtained through the study of Kabbalah.

But I am trying to pin down how we get from my description of the past to the following:

What is Jewish meditation?

It involves shifting the centre of gravity of the mind away from the sense of ‘I’ which normally dominates our goals. Like all meditative practices, Jewish mystical techniques are directed towards enhancing this second form of thinking. At the same time, these practices cultivate an awareness of the divine presence in all things.
The objective of meditation is to engage with these deeper currents.

One of the major texts of Kabbalah, the 12th-century Bahir, writes that the biblical prophet Habakkuk ‘understood God’s thought.’ It tells us:
“Just as human thought has no end, for even a mere mortal can think and descend to the end of the world, so too the ear also has no end and is not satiated.”
Jewish mystical practices enable us to use thought to ‘descend to the end of the world’, that is, to plumb the depths where mind and physical reality are no longer separate.

The goals of Jewish meditation
-heighten one’s understanding of the Torah
-develop an understanding of ritual and other religious observances
-give direction to prayer
-increase one’s awareness of others’ needs

One of the oldest texts that describes Jewish meditation practices is the Sefer Yetsirah. Consider the following extract:
“Ten dimensions of nothingness. Their measure is ten to which there is no end.
A depth of beginning, a depth of end; a depth of good, a depth of evil; a depth of above, a depth of below; a depth of east, a depth of west; a depth of north, a depth of south.
The unified Master – God faithful King – rules over all of them, from His holy dwelling place, until eternity of eternities.”
The meditation based on this passage entails consciously building up a deep sense of your place in relation to the dimensions.

The meditation continues with the first of the six directions of space. What is immediately above you? Air… the ceiling… other rooms… the roof… birds… sky… vastness of space… the infinite that cannot be formed in the mind…
It is as if you generate a beam of light from within that is gradually extended further and further whilst, at the same time, maintaining your awareness of the centre, the heart as the source of light… And then continue into the remaining directions. You may glimpse your inner core suspended at the heart of a web of infinite interconnections.

We have the idea of limitless expanse, which was originally sefirot, treated as the depths of the mind. I understand the need for the psychology. Yet what happens to the Neoplatonic depth? Identifying mind and physical reality has a bit of a countercultural sound to it. Gone is the need to go through an ascent to reach God either by chambers, cosmos, worlds, souls. The author, similar to the popular pamphlets issued by the school of the Magid of Mezerich pushed away the meditation of the Kabblah. Early Hasidism thought that though emotional enthusiasm one could ascend through all the worlds, sefirot, and chambers. Here entering the depth of one’s mind has the same effect.

I get confused by the goals. Does it help by giving one esoteric knowledge? Does it mean viewing one’s mitzvot and prayer as taking place in the kabbalistic cosmology?  And why claim it will make one more sensitive to the needs of others. At least, Buddhists will distinguish between jhana (knowledge) and metta (love-kindness). Here it seems everything is blurred.

In his use of Sefer Yetzirah, we have the conversion of a scientific-cosmological text into a meditation on space. Deep of divinity becomes depth of the soul.In this modern version, one looks into the inner core of the self, the heart, and the limits of the ordinary mind. One is not told about the traditional phrases “fixed order of lights” “the infinity of God” or the need to identify with the Divine will.”

I find much of our presentations of Kabbalah on the popular level to be modern psychology. I do think we need to use modern psychology and not medieval psychology, but what are the boundaries for a successful translation? Many of the popular Orthodox presentations are straight pop-psych and new age. What is the limit in modernizing the medieval?

Hat tip: Solitude– it cites the full version. For the original BBC- here