Tuesday, March 27, 2012

God and the Senses (2): Hekhalot Rabbati §§163-164

I wanted to continue my discussion of God and the senses with Hekhalot Rabbati for a couple reasons.  Firstly, I have been sitting on this passage for a while and wanted a forum to discuss it.  Secondly, it contributes to two series of posts at once:  resuming (at least briefly) my "Daily Hekhalot" discussions from last summer and the series of posts on "God and the Senses," for which my primary concern has been and will be after this for the most part with early Christian texts.  Hekhalot Rabbati has many series of hymns set within various narrative frameworks throughout (though usually they are set within a series of other hymns).  If Michael Swartz's conclusions in his analysis of Ma'aseh Merkavah (another Hekhalot work) are at all transferable, then we might consider that the hymnic portions of the work are older than the other portions.  The passage I want to discuss is quite notable for several reasons:  (1) it engages at least 4 out of 5 senses; (2) it is really about communal instruction of worship; thus, (3) it is a hymn sung about communal practice of engaging (and as we shall see, embracing, with even erotic overtones) God. 

I will give the text in Hebrew; my translation; and then discuss the passage.

‎   ברוכים לשמים ולאר‫ץ יורדי‬ מרכבה
‎אם תאמרו ותגידו לבניי מה אני עושה
‎בת‫פילת שחרית ובתפילת המנחה וערבית ‬
‎בכל יום ובכל שעה ושעה שישר‫' אומ' לפני קדוש ‬
‎ולמדו אתם ואמרו להם
‎שאו עיניכם לרקיע כנגד בית תפילתכם בשעה שאתם אומ' לפני קד'
‎כי אין לי הנאה בכל בית עולמי שבראתי
‎באותו שעה שעיניכם נשואות בעיניי ועיניי נשואות בעיניכם
‎בשעה שאתם אומ' לפני קד'
‎כי הקול היוצא מפיכם באותה שעה
‎טורד ועולה לפני כריח ניחוח

‎והעידו לי‫/‬לו‫/‬להם מה עדות אתם רואים אותי
‎מה אני עושה לקל‫סתר פניו של יעקב אביכם שהיא חקוקה לי על כסא כבודי ‬
‎‫כי בשעה שאתם אומרים לפני קדוש ‬
‎‫כורע אמי עליה ומחבקה ומנשקה ומגפפה וידיי על זרועתיו שלשה פעמים‬
‎‫ שאתם אומרים לפניי קדוש  כדבר שנ' ק'ק'ק'‬

Textual Notes:
I generally used O1531 as a guide, but overall this is a conflation of mss.

Blessed are you who descend to the chariot to the heavens and the earth.
If you will say and will proclaim to my children what I do:
During the morning prayer and the afternoon prayer and the evening one,
Every day and every hour when Israel says before me "Holy,"
You teach them and say to them:
"Lift your eyes to the expanse over against your house of prayer;
At the time you say before me "Holy,"
For I have no enjoyment in all the world that I have created
As at that time that your eyes are lifted up to my eyes
And my eyes are lifted up to your eyes
At the time when you say before me "Holy"
For the voice goes out from your mouths at that time
Stirs and ascends before me as a pleasing savor.

They testify to me (to/for me/it/them) what testimony you have seen.
What I do to the brightness of the face of Jacob you father that is engraved for me upon my throne of glory
For at the time you say before me "Holy"
I bow down upon it and embrace it and kiss it and clasp it
And my hands (rest) upon its arms three times
At the time you say "Holy."
As it is said, "Holy Holy Holy"

This hymn from Hekhalot Rabbati is a good example of a communal experience of the divine in which multiple sense are, throughout, engaged.  This experienced is reported back to the human community by the descender to the chariot, who acts somewhat like a messenger, or, better yet, a diplomat between God and Israel.  Here he reports what happens in heaven during the Qedushah, the recitation of the angelic formula from Isaiah 6:3:  "Holy, Holy, Holy is the LORD of hosts."  In the meantime, knowing what God does, Israel has actions to perform in response.  So, let's see how the sensual engagement plays out.

Firstly, I would say that the primary sense engaged in this is auditory.  It is a hymn, after all, about singing hymns.  One learns through the mediation of the mystic diplomat about the divine-human relationship through singing it and singing about the recitation of the Qedushah itself.  This auditory experience is not merely human either:  it is about divine senses and sensibilities as well:  it is hearing Israel say "Holy" that gives God pleasure. 

Next there are also visual cues throughout.  This is part of the instruction for communal practice:  the human community is instructed to lift their eyes to the expanse (or firmament) above and God will also look upon the people.  It is a moment of eye-contact, an interlocking gaze, between humans and the divine during worship. 

There is also smell, at least for God.  In this the human breath used to say "holy" goes forth and rises to God "as a pleasant savor."  This terminology is the same used in the Bible (particularly the P Source) for sacrifice--when sacrifices are offered, they are a pleasant savor before God.  It designates the divine acceptance of the offering.  Sacrificial language is being transferred here to the vocalization of the word "holy."  The human breath itself becomes the sacrifice. 

The last part is tactile.  This, again, falls mostly on the divine side of things; nonetheless, the embrace of God and Jacob or "Israel" on the throne has elicited a great deal of commentary (well, as much commentary as anything else in Hekhalot scholarship), noting its potential eroticism.  There are two words here that could be translated as embracing (and while the first is in Pi'el, in Hithpa'el it can be used to denote making love).  It is an ultimate "touching":  embracing and kissing.  The loving, erotic embrace between God and the crystalline image of Jacob, representing Israel (note: קל‫סתר‬ is likely from the Greek word κρὐσταλλος or "crystal" indicating here likely brightness or brilliance of Jacob's countenance) .  The lovers (God and Israel) show physical affection (almost like they're making out) during the moment of the Qedushah, embracing one another three times (one for each "holy"). 

The only sense missing is taste, unless it is implied in the kiss (or unnecessary due to the savor).  Nonetheless, this hymn stands out as a highly sensual account of the relationship between God and Israel as lovers who embrace during the recitation of the Qedushah:  firstly flashing flirting eyes to each other as they recite, then smelling, and finally touching and embracing.  The senses engaged, moreover, become ever-more intimate as one moves from sight (at a distance) to smell (in the presence of) to touch (the closest one can get to another without complete absorption).  All through the means of the delight of saying and hearing "Holy."

Saturday, March 24, 2012

God and the Senses (General Suggestions)

As noted in my previous post, I think it would be helpful to think about the many different ways in which the sense are activated or engaged, whether physically or metaphorically, for Jewish and Christian (and Islamic) mysticism.  In that post, I discussed one of the hymns in the Acts of Thomas.  In the forthcoming posts, I have collated a few different Jewish, but primarily Christian works that engage multiple senses at once:  some of the hymns of Hekhalot Rabbati, Origen's Commentary and Homilies on the Song of Songs, and the Gospel of Philip.  A little further afield, I have also noticed this recurrence among Sufi poets, particularly in Rumi's poetry.  I will be hitting upon the ancient Jewish and Christian works in the next few weeks when I have some time after doing my research and teaching work for the day (so rather occasionally).  I wondered, however, if anyone had any other ideas for texts to investigate that engage multiple senses (if not all five) at once.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

God and the Senses (1): Acts of Thomas

In an earlier post, I noted that while vision and audition are the predominant aspects of sacred or divine encounters (hierophany and theophany respectively) that there is a dearth of comment from a modern perspective on the engaging of other senses.  It is not just seeing God or hearing God, but also smelling, tasting, and touching.  Taste, indeed, will play an important role in Christian encounters, largely due to the Eucharist.  But Jewish, Christian, and Islamic works (and I limit myself to these since I am most familiar with them; not because I think it is lacking elsewhere) often engage multiple senses at once when speaking of the self and God.  Of these, perhaps smell is the most interesting:  it permeates and envelops but is not enveloped by you; it is evanescent but ever-present; it may surround you, but you cannot grasp it.  Touching often gives a sense of immediacy and intimacy, and tasting is perhaps most intimate, but also can be used to discuss transformation.  Indeed, seeing and hearing are important, but mystical works engage all the senses as a fuller expression of how all-encompassing the divine or sacred encounter can be for these authors. 

I plan to make note of several passages and authors, but here is a passage from the Acts of Thomas 1.6-7, a hymn (ed. Schneemelcher and Wilson):

The maiden is the daughter of light,
Upon her stands and rests the majestic effulgence of kings,
Delightful is the sight of her,
Radiant with shining beauty.
Her garments are like spring flowers,
And a scent of sweet fragrance is diffused from them.
In the crown of her head the king is established,
Feeding with his own ambrosia those who are set him.
Truth rests upon her head,
By (the movement of) her feet she shows forth joy.
Her mouth is open, and that becomingly,

Thirty and two are they that sing her praises.
Her tongue is like the curtain of the door,
Which is flung back for those who enter in.
Which the first craftsman wrought.
Her two hands make signs and secret patterns, proclaiming the dance of the blessed aeons
Her fingers the gates of the city.
Her chamber is full of light,
Breathing a scent of balsam and all sweet herbs,
And giving out a sweet smell of myrrh and (aromatic) leaves.
Within a strewn myrtle branches and
And the are adorned with reeds.

[There is a bit here describing this as a cosmic wedding ceremony with bridesmaids and a bridegroom; and then the wedding feast]

And [they] shall linger over the feasting
of which the eternal ones are accounted worthy,
and they shall put on royal robes
and be arrayed in splendid raiment,
and both shall be in joy and exultation
and they shall glorify the Father of all,
whose proud light they received
and were enlightened by the vision of their Lord,
whose ambrosial food they received,
which has no deficiency at all,
And they drank too of his wine
which gives them neither thirst nor desire;
And they glorified and praised, with the living Spirit,
The Father of Truth and the Mother of Wisdom.

I was reading this passage in class today for my Sexuality class--partly for how wedding imagery (most of which I dropped here) has been reworked and partly for the image of the divine feminine.  For my current purposes, however, I want to note how sensual this scene is.  We do have a lot of visual imagery:  the maiden is the daughter of light; thus, there is a lot of light imagery:  effulgence, radiance, shining beauty.  She looks like spring flowers.  There is also the movement of her feet, suggesting dancing and joy.  Visual imagery also shows up in the second part:  those who have a vision of their Lord receive enlightenment--this language also shows up for the "bridegroom" (those who see him are enlightened), identifying the bridegroom with the Lord.  There is also the engagement of the ears and hearing.  Firstly, this is a hymn so would have been sung and heard.  Secondly, within this hymn is mention of the maiden's praises and songs.  So we get light, beauty, dancing, praise, and songs: a very joyous scene.  But to stop there would be to miss half of the experience:  it is also about smelling and tasting.  There is the sweet fragrance of flowers, balsam, aromatic leaves, and myrrh.  It is an experience that engages the olfactory senses as much as any other.  Moreover, food is mentioned--ambrosia and wine--and, therefore, taste.  The ambrosia (the food of the gods) and the wine are the Lord's, which, one of my students perceptively suggested today, looks like a Eucharist reference (or easily interpreted as such in an early Christian document).  So we have seeing, hearing, smelling, and tasting:  the only thing missing is touching.  The smelling and tasting communicate something that seeing and hearing cannot:  immediacy and intimacy--one can see and hear from afar, but tasting and smelling (and touching if it were there) need greater proximity. 

Elaine Pagels "Revelations" Review

As April DeConick has noted at Forbidden Gospels, Adam Gopnik has rather whimsically reviewed Elain Pagels's new book, Revelations on the book of Revelation and other ancient revelations in the New Yorker.  It is quite an entertaining read.