“… and Its Top Reaching to the Heavens”
This week I originally thought of writing “A Tale of Two Sisters” to complement last week’s essay about the two brothers, Esau and Yaakov, and noting the similarities, parallels, contrasts, etc., between them—and there are such. But then I realized that, as a man, and as one who grew up in a family with three sons and no daughters (even though in my adult life I’ve been connected to mostly female families), I feel that I don’t really understand women’s interaction with one another. Add to that the fact that the subject in this week’s parashah is the competition between two sisters to bear children within a bigamous or polygamous household—a reality alien to just about everyone except for certain schismatic Mormons, Black Israelites, pre-State Yemenites, and followers of Goel Ratzon and such-like cults—I decided instead to focus upon the opening scene in the parashah.
Jacob’s vision or dream of the Ladder (Gen 28:10-22) is one of the paradigmatic visionary scenes in the entire Bible, certainly in Genesis (albeit Rambam has suggested that the reason Yaakov saw this dream–vision was because at this point in his life he was on a lower stage than the other patriarchs, who engaged in direct, ordinary-seeming conversations with God). The account of the vision is divided into three parts:
1. The Vision: vv. 10-15. Yaakov arrives at a certain place, lies down to sleep after gathering some stones together as a rudimentary pillow, and sees in a dream-vision a ladder or staircase ascending to the heavens with angels ascending and descending. God, who is standing at the top, offers him words of personal blessing, comfort and assurance in his difficult situation (fleeing his murderous brother and leaving behind family and everything he has ever known). There is something very immediate and striking about this picture. Jungians might say that the imagery of the ladder connecting heaven and earth is a kind of eternal symbol, intuitively understood by the human unconscious: the reality of the ascent to God, and the availability of the Divine, alongside the seemingly mundane journeys in the physical world.
2. Jacob wakes up: vv. 16-17. The Hebrew word used here, va-yikatz, is an unusual one, used specifically to refer to someone who awakens suddenly in the middle of the night, often from a dream (compare the description of Pharaoh’s two dreams in 41:4, 7, and 21), differing from the words usually used to describe waking early in the morning to begin one’s day, vayashkem (appearing two verses later, as well as in Gen 19:27, 21:14, 22:3, 28:18 and in many other places) or vayakom. Va-yikatz has a connotation of something sudden, even shocking, and is perhaps related to such verbs as קצה, קצץ, and קצר, which relate to cutting, harvesting, or coming to an end.
Ya’akov’s reaction is one of awe, wonder, astonishment: “Indeed, there is God in this place and I did not know! How awesome is this place; this is none other than the house of God and this is the Gate of Heaven!” He was struck by the numinous quality of his experience, which carried over to the nature of the place itself. Surely, he seems to have felt, any place where God reveals Himself must be special, must be holy.
Was this place uniquely or innately holy? Did Jacob become aware of a preexistent holiness and Presence inherent in this place, or are his words a reaction to the vision per se? A simple reading of the chapter suggests that he came to an ordinary place, and was surprised by the vision. The implication (or am I imposing my own modernist theology on this chapter? Radak seems to propound a similar reading) is that God is potentially present in all places. The Omnipresent, the Creator and Master of the entire world, makes Himself known to those who need to know Him, wherever they are, and Jacob’s statement that “this is the House of God” means that it shall henceforth be honored as Beit-El, the “House of God,” reflecting the sense of presence he felt there—but it could be anywhere.
On the other hand, there are those midrashim which suggest that this place Beit-el, which we know as a location some 20 km. north of Jerusalem, was really Jerusalem, or that it was a place where one of his ancestors had previously worshipped. I even once heard a Samaritan say, consistent with his theology, that Beit-El is really Mount Gerizim. (!!) (For a discussion of the tension in Judaism between holiness of place and God as being beyond place, in the midrashic context, see HY III: Vayetze [=Midrash].
3. Jacob awakens in the morning: vv. 18-22. He now makes an orderly, well-articulated vow, almost a quid pro quo with God: if God will sustain me and protect me, give me food and clothing, and return me safely to my birthplace and homeland and family, then I will erect a shrine here.
In these two scenes we see a kind of tension between two aspects of or kinds of religion. The one is direct religious emotion and experience; the powerful sense of being in the presence of the Holy, of knowing—not through received teaching or dogma, not through holy books, not through family or parental tradition, but through direct, immediate experience—the reality of God. Such an experience is very rare, it is fleeting, and is overwhelming personally. Jacob’s words are brief, and express direct feeling, the sense of the numinous—of that which is alien, totally outside the realm of the familiar or the expected. “There is God here, and I did not know!”
The second kind of religion is the more usual kind, and somehow seems more fitting to the clear light of day, as opposed to the terrors, but also the insights and deeper perceptions, of the nighttime: he vows to build an altar, perhaps even a shrine, on this site. In our language: fixed forms: religious institutions; halakhah, ritual, liturgy, perhaps a priesthood of some sort. If you will: Devotion vs. Commandment.
Two Kinds of Mysticism
The subject of mysticism is a very popular one these days; books, lectures, courses in Kabbalah flourish like mushrooms after the rain. But people are often unclear as to just what they mean when they speak of mysticism. In writing the above, it occurred to me that there are in fact two very different phenomena that go under this name, corresponding to the two types of religion mentioned.
The one is the sense of the holy, the sense of direct, immediate contact with God, of religious or spiritual experience unmediated and unmitigated by any formal institution. One definition that has been given is: “The pursuit of communion with or conscious awareness of an ultimate reality… through direct experience, intuition, or insight.” Jacob’s dream of a ladder reaching from earth to heaven, and his spontaneous reaction, “So there is God in this place, and I did not know,” seems the quintessence of such mystical experience.
On the other hand, there is a form of mysticism associated with magic, with the manipulation of unseen cosmic forces or, its correlate, the sense of certain places, person, or objects being innately holy. This popular usage is demonstrated, for example, by a TV program on Israel’s Channel 10 called “Time for Mysticism,” which features a numerologist, an astrologer, a tarot card reader, and a “channeler”—all of whose talents are marshaled to help people with various personal problems. About a year ago, due to difficulties in walking long distances, I began to regularly attend a synagogue just up the hill from my home, which seems to have a high proportion of very rational and sceptical, albeit religiously observant, Jews. In at least two recent conversations there I encountered people who object to mysticism and Kabbalah precisely because of its identification with such phenomena, and all my efforts to show that both Kabbalah and mysticism have more to them than this were to no avail. And indeed, it often seems that much of the popular interest in Kabbalah is focused on such things as gematria (numerical values of words and verses in the Bible), letter mysticism, holy places, and the intricacies of the Sefirotic system. And indeed, between the early Spanish Kabbalah of the 13th centuries (Sefer ha-Bahir and Sefer ha-Zohar) and the Lurianic Kabbalah of 16th century Safed, Kabbalah seems to have become progressively more complex and convoluted. Some say that Hasidism was a much needed simplification of this system. (I once knew a woman who studied Kabbalah at the university and said, half in jest, that she was prepared for this career by the fact that her mother is a psychiatrist and her father ran an automotive parts dealership—requiring detailed attention to a high number of permutations and combination of models, makes, and specific parts.)
Add to this the seeming ubiquity in current Israeli life of “Kabbalists”—people who claim a special channel to the hidden realms, offering the credulous amulets, bottles of holy water, candles, red strings from Rachel’s Tomb, and various other palliative devices—and being paid handsomely for their supposed intercession on their behalf in the supernal worlds. Such people give a bad name to both Kabbalah and Judaism generally.
Even some academic scholars seem to emphasize this aspect of Kabbalah. Moshe Idel’s book, Hasidism: Between Ecstasy and Magic (Albany: SUNY, 1995), as its title implies, stresses that, alongside the ecstatic prayer, joy, and communal solidarity found in Hasidism, there is also a strong element of magic, theurgy, manipulation of objects and symbols, and extravagant attribution of powers to the Tzaddikim. I cannot fault him for this, as historically he has much ground to stand on.
More disturbing is a quotation from Gershom Scholem, which serves as a kind of motto in a book about a certain aspect of Hasidism which I’ve recently been editing. He claims there a certain dullness, even lifelessness of non-mystical, mainstream Rabbinic Judaism. He speaks of:
… the special problem of ritual in Rabbinical Judaism, which can perhaps be formulated as follows: on the one hand, we have here a way of life based entirely on the performance of ritual, a tendency to absorb life itself into a continuous stream of ritual, and not merely to extract ritual acts from its flow at particular climaxes and turning points. But in this Judaism, on the other hand, the performance of sacred actions, of ritual is largely divorced from the substrate that has always been the mother of ritual…
After noting the transition, early on, from nature ritual to historical ritual, he continues:
… the primordial history that is here recollected was no longer regarded by the celebrants as a mythical history… but as the real history of the Jewish people. Thus this history-saturated ritual was accompanied by no magical action. The rites of remembrance produce no effect…. The ritual of Rabbinic Judaism makes nothing happen and transforms nothing. Though not devoid of feeling, remembrance lacks the passion of conjuration, and indeed, there is something strangely sober and dry about the rites of remembrance with which the Jew calls to mind his unique historical identity. Thus this ritualism par excellence of Rabbinical Judaism is lacking precisely in the ecstatic, orgiastic element that is always somewhere present in mythical rituals. The astonishing part of it is that a ritual which so consciously and emphatically rejected all cosmic implications should have asserted itself for many generations with undiminished force, and even continued to develop. -- “Tradition and New Creation in the Ritual of the Kabbalists,” in his On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism (New York: Schocken, 1969), pp. 120-121
What Scholem desires, so it seems here, is magic, is theurgy, is ritual “that changes things” (that moves things On High?), is myth in its most primitive, primal, orgiastic sense (and orgies, we know, are popular in contemporary culture—as an image in theory, even if practiced by only a daring few). Was Scholem, the sober, precise, Yekke scholar, at heart a neo-pagan, longing for a quasi-idolatrous Judaism, which he seems to have found, at least in a certain measure, in Kabbalah?
I feel I have touched upon some very serious and profound issues in contemporary Judaism, and the meaning of the revival of Kabbalah and “New Age” spirituality, in terms of both popular and “higher,” intellectual and academic culture, which requires far more elaboration than I can give it at this time.
I also hope, very soon, to present here a dialogue with one of my readers which touches precisely upon the issue of mystical experience from another perspective—that of mysticism and liminal experience, the meaning of death and life, of self and others, of personal growth, etc.