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Lecture II:  The Primordial Light:  The Ecstatics' Quest

Thursday 18 April 1991

      [The   introduction  to  the  lecture mentioned that the lecture series would eventually be coming out as a  book  to be   published  by  the  University of  Washington Press.]

      [The  introducer mentioned  an  article  in  the Jerusalem Post about Scholem  and Idel.   Idel  has established  the  basis for  a  critical look at Scholem's  work.   Scholem's  approach  was  historical  and contextual:  he interpreted the  Kabbalah as  a system of thought.  Idel's approach  is  phenomenological:   he  endeavors  to  discern  what  the symbolism  and  ritual meant  to  those who practised  it.   For Idel,  the  Kabbalah is not a  system  of  ideas  but  a practical path to  mystical  experience.    For  Scholem,    Kabbalah entered  Judaism  from the  outside,  and  was  the result of the influence of Greek  gnosticism on Rabbinic Judaism.  It  was,  in  effect,  an  alien  heresy  with  an  underground   existence.     For  Idel,  Kabbalah   is  an  esoteric  tradition flowing   from  within  Judaism  itself,   though  with  links  and  correspondences with  other  mystical  traditions.   Idel  feels  that  the study of the  manuscript tradition  has  just  barely  begun,  and  that therefore most of the field has  yet  to be explored.

      He  also  feels that even the  most  theoretical  texts  are  experientially oriented.  This has led him to  try  to  reconstruct  the techniques  that  were actually used.  He has done so in  part through  observation  of  practices  of  ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel  -  and  they in turn have come to him  for  technical   advice  on   reading  and  understanding their texts.]

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 There is another paradigm through which the story of the entry to Pardes can be read - one which is not philosophical, but ecstatic.  This variety of paradigms by the way is very important.  It shows that Jews were less interested in establishing a unified theology than they were in finding secret interpretations that would attract many different kinds of people.  They were open to having a different way for each sort of person.  This is a sign of the openness of the elite culture to allowing different approaches for a variety of people - not so much to attract the masses, but to allow for diversity among the elite.  This second interpretation of the Pardes was the result of the merger of Jewish mysticism and Neoplatonic philosophy. 

For Maimonides, it was a Pardes ha Chokmah, a Pardes of Knowledge.  It had to do with the solution to cognitive problems.  For Maimonides, Adam was lost in contemplation of metaphysical truths.  Thus, for Maimonides, R. Aqiva was the central figure, the most perfect of the four sages.  But for some Kabbalists at the beginning of the Thirteenth Century the major figure was not R. Aqiva but Ben Azzai, the Talmudic master who died.  For them, the Pardes was not a matter of intellect, but of the experience of a supreme light.  This Light was not an intellectual or conceptual light, but an experiential light.

 Ancient Jewish textual material is rich in emphasis on the importance of light - as in Genesis, where Light is the first created entity.  Midrashic texts portray Adam as an entity of Light, and as having garments of Light, which were lost after his expulsion from Eden.  In this tradition, the basic activity of Adam was the contemplation of the Light, of the Shekinah.  The "Light of the Shekinah" is a key term in these texts.  Both Pardes and Paradise, in this tradition, are seen as full of Light.  Adam's experience in the Fall is the loss of the possibility of contemplating the Light.  The loss of garments of Light leads to their replacement by garments of skin (a pun in Hebrew).  This loss of the possibility of experience of the Light is crucial in ancient Hebrew texts.  For example, in the Book of Adam and Seth (as preserved in Armenia):  "But Adam .. in being stripped of the Divine Light .. became an equal of the dumb beasts.  Enoch for forty days and nights did not eat.  Then he planted a garden .. and was in it for 552 years.  Then he was taken up into heaven ...."  [The quotation was quite a bit longer; unfortunately, I couldnot keep up.] This portrays an attempt by Enoch to reconstruct and re-enter the situation of Adam.  This is a basic pattern in later discussions of the Pardes texts:  an attempt to return to the ability to contemplate the Light as Adam once did.  In the Hekhaloth texts, too, the idea of Light is paramount.  Pardes is described as full of the radiance of Light.  There is a manuscript text by an unknown author - one which I needed some 60 pages to analyze, so we can only deal witha small part of it here.  There are some ten lines in it about Ben Azzai (who did not return).  "Ben Azzai peeked and died.  He gazed at the radiance of the Divine Presence like a man with weak eyes who gazes at the full light of the sun and becomes blinded by the intensity of the light that overwhelms him...  He did not wish to be separated, he remained hidden in it, his soul was covered and adorned ... he remained where he had cleaved, in the Light to which no one may cling and yet live." [Quotation approximate]  This text portrays people gazing not at a Chariot or a marble throne, but at the radiance of God (Tzvi ha Shekinah), a light so strong that no one can bear it. The idea of "overwhelming" is textually crucial.  The idea of having a great desire to cleave, as described in the medieval text, is new.  In ancient literature, contemplation is of something far away, across an unbridgeable gap.  There is no idea there of love, only of awe.  Here, however, we see a trace of a radical change:  the intensity of the experience is linked with a great desire to cleave to the radiance of the Shekinah.  There is a strong experience of union with the Divine, the result of a desire to enter and become a part of the Divine realm.  There is an attempt to enjoy the Divine without interruption.  The language of desire implies erotic overtones to the experience, especially since "Shekinah" in Hebrew is feminine.  The text then is speaking about an attempt to cleave to a feminine aspect of the Divine - also a development unique to the medieval literature (and not found in the ancient literature).  And also the idea of "sweet radiance" has erotic overtones.

 So what happened?  He couldn't return from the experience.  The Hebrew terms are very strong. After his death he was "hidden away in the place of his cleaving."  This death was the death of the pious ones whose souls are separated from all concerns with the mundane world, and who cleave to the supernal world.  It was, in other words, not an accident but an achievement.  There is a threefold structure implied here, reminiscent of Christian and Neoplatonic mysticism.  The first phase is the via purgativa, "Those who are separated from all concerns of the lowly world."  The second phase is the via illuminativa.  The third phase is the via unitiva.  There is here a combination of ancient Jewish material with pagan or Christian Neoplatonist material to portray or interpret the experience of Ben Azzai.  This interpretive paradigm continued in active use from the Thirteenth through the Eighteenth centuries, where it was used among the Hasidim.  It was a tradition that lasted 600 to 700 years, and it is exactly the kind of tradition it is hard to study without looking at manuscripts.

 This text was also copied by a Thirteenth Century Kabbalist who gave it an even stronger nuance of mysticism.  Ben Azzai died because of the cleaving of his soul out of a great love; his soul didn't return because he reached a great attainment.  The assumption:  out of intense love, his cleaving was total.  Later, there were even stronger formulations, in which the soul and the Light become one entity.  This text is one example of texts dealing with the unio mystica.  It allows for bridging in a total manner the gap between man and God.  This is another example of the formative power of the Neoplatonic mystical tradition, as it also expressed itself in Christianity and Islam.  However, for the Kabbalists the major events took place in the past.  He is reporting not on a contemporary but on Ben Azzai.  Is this simply a matter of an intepretation?  Or is there something more to it - a practical interest? Can we extract from the sources a method, a practice?

 In my opinion, since the end of the Thirteen Century there is evidence that there were experiences of Light connected with the story of Ben Azzai and the Kabbalists who discussed it - but this is not always simple to demonstrate.  Another anonymous text, written in 1290 or so in Galilee, describes a technique, and afterward describes a personal experience characterized by amazement, confusion, and a need for clarification and interpretation.  Its author describes the Divine Light as attracting the Light of the soul, "which is weak in relation to the Divine Light."  (There is a magnetic metaphor here, and we can see in this adoption of non-traditional metaphors an attempt to come to terms with personal experience.)  This experience was the result of letter-combination techniques.  Later the anonymous Kabbalist attempts to describe how he approached a master to learn a technique to stop the experience. Thus, discussing this experience in terms of the story of Ben Azzai is an attempt to relate personal experience to a model.  It is not simply an attempt to provide an interpretation for the story of Ben Azzai.  Another ecstatic Kabbalist also relates his experience to the story of Ben Azzai:  "If a man does that which his soul wishes in the proper ways of hitbodeduth, his soul is immersed in this light and he will die like Ben Azzai."  The Kabbalists tried to reach the pre-fall state of the Primordial Man, to enter again the radiance of the Shekinah, and even to enter a certain erotic relationship with the Divine Presence, as later we find in the Zohar in other forms.  They also provided, by the end of the Thirteenth Century, certain detailed techniques. "By letter combinations, unifications, and reversals of letters, he shall call up the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil... [list of encounter with various polarized qualities and entities, e.g., Mercy and Severity] ... he will be in danger of the same death as Ben Azzai."

 Beginning with the end of the Fourteenth Century, there are descriptions of Kabbalists studying together, and of each observing the others to see if they become luminous. "Likewise today, if someone will look at the faces of students who are worshipping out of love .. you will see on them the radiance of the Divine Presence so that those who see them will be afraid, and each of them will have the radiance of the Divine Presence according to his rank."  There is, in other words, the expectation of a corporeally observable radiance.

 For Maimonides the experience of the Pardes was mental, with no outward sign; for the Kabbalists it was corporeal and visible.  For Maimonides, God was an intellect; for the Kabbalists, God was a radiance.  For Maimonides, Adam was a perfect intellect; for the Kabbalists, Adam was a creature of Light.  For Maimonides, Paradise and Pardes were intellectual (cerebral) states; for the Kabbalists, they were corporeal, sensuous, erotic, sexual and an object for practical striving.  The Kabbalists developed techniques - Maimonides had no clear method.  The Kabbalists attempted to describe techniques, and signs of attainment.  Thus the Kabbalistic tradition is not one of speculations about mysticism; it is full-fledged mysticism.  In the Kabbalistic tradition, an extreme type of experience is sought out and considered positive.  The mystical death is the real goal of ecstatic Kabbalah.  For Maimonides, the ideal is to remain in a state of intellection.  For the ecstatic Kabbalists, extreme experience is final experience.

 The Pardes was thus idealized by Jewish mystics, and given new meanings.  This idealization opened another avenue, one exploited especially by Eighteenth Century Hasidic mysticism.  We can see a continuous line from the beginning of the Kabbalah up to the founder of the modern Hasidic movement who himself quoted parts of the same text.  This can be understood as an inner Jewish development, and not a historical accident.  


 Q:  Did all Kabbalists wish actual death?  For   those who did not, what was the rationale for   not wanting it? A:  That is a matter of the mystic's role in   society.  Moses, it is said, wanted to die,   to leave the world, to remain in a state of   union.  But God said he had a role as a   mystic - to reach the extreme and yet return.   But that is not the case for all Kabbalists:   not all of them were oriented toward society.   There as also a controversy about the   desirability of it, but the idea that it   could be achieved was admitted on all sides   of the controversy.  It was not theologically   denied.  Even those who opposed it admitted   that a total union was possible. Q:  In that case, how was Aqiva understood? A:  He was understood as someone who could   balance, who could enter and leave.  Aqiva   (like Moses) could enter, but he knew when to   retreat.  He knew how to combine the two.

Q:  On Tuesday you discussed the role of   Halakhic ritual as a way of controlling   impulses, for Maimonides.  Tonight you did   not mention it at all.  Did it have a role? A:  Maimonides was a Halakhist.  But most of   the Kabbalists we have mentioned were not.   Most were anonymous - they were not Halakhic   masters, but mystics.  For them, keeping the   norms was not as important as reaching beyond   the norms.  Basically, they were a-nomian.   They did not regard the Commandments as a   major tool.  They might be preparatory, but   they were not final. Q:  Certainly not all aspects of Halakha would   have been neutral:  it afforded major   opportunities for ecstatic experiences on   certain feasts, for example... A:  These Kabbalists were not unobservant, they   were not antinomian.  But as mystics (rather   than as Jews) they used other types of   rituals or techniques.  Ritual anyway would   be suspended at the peaks of ecstatic   experience, when one cannot do anything.  The   issue is not simple - but there seems to have   been no friction.  It is highly significant   that there are no critiques of the use of   mystical techniques, e.g., of combining   Divine Names.  Their practice probably did   not interfere with regular Halakhic   observances.

Q:  How did such experiences tend to affect   their experience of the material world?  Did   it enhance their opinion of it?  Lower it? A:  Here we touch on the paradoxical connection   of the mystic and the prophetic mission.  As   ecstatics, they were escapist.  But they also   felt that the experience prompted or provoked   a mission.  In coming back, the return was   interpreted as a being sent forth, as having   a mission.  This offered a rationale for   coming back.  "You are permitted to return if   you are needed."  Thus there was a tension   between the drive for attainment and the   feeling of a mission.

Q:  What about free will?  Could one say that   Ben Azzai got what he wanted, and that Aqiva   got what he wanted? A:  Not exactly.  At a moment in an experience   one may be caught up or captured by another   dynamic.  You may lose control; free will may   be overwhelmed, overridden.

Q:  Is there an attempt to revive these things   in Israel? A:  Yes; some are studying and practising these   techniques. Q:  For example? A:  Breathing, letter combination - I have   contacted at least ten people I know. Q:  They base this on Kabbalistic descriptions? A:  They ARE Kabbalists.

Q:  In this Kabbalistic context God is   described as radiance, energy, but in basic   Judaism God is also anthropomorphic,   interested in the world.  Is there a   connection? A:  If one is speaking about erotic experience,   there must be some sense of a personalistic   object.  The Kabbalists tried to compromise   between anthropomorphic and spiritualistic   content.  The Sefiroth were seen as a   structure of Light, but also as corporeal.   They were able to shape the anthropomorphic   content to a more spiritual, energic model.

   [Afterward, as is usual at such  lectures,  people   approached   the speaker  with congratulations,  comments,  and  assorted  questions.  Two stand out.]

   [A  thin, intense young man kept asking  Idel about  energy  experiences, and the  sense  of   "energy  coming in," and asked if  anyone  had done  any  EEG  studies of  Kabbalists.   Idel said  that  Judaic studies were still in their infancy; mostly they were textual studies,  an attempt  to figure out what the texts actually  said  and what they were about - and even just  to  find them and get them edited and printed.   No  one  had  gotten to doing  anything  else,  though  he  knew of the work by  Ornstein  and  others,  and  thought it would be  interesting  to do in a Kabbalistic context.

   [The  young man, consumed by his questioning, didn't  quite  see  Idel's  point  about the emphasis   on   textual   scholarship;    Idel gradually   realized  the  young  man wanted advice about  his  own  meditational   experiences,  and  was a little  taken  aback,  and tried to  achieve polite closure.

   [Idel  turned  to  another  questioner, who asked something textual]

Q:   You  mentioned that these techniques became   discussed  and  elaborated in  the  Thirteenth   Century  or so.  Is there any textual evidence   for their source? A:   Yes;  in fact some of them can be found  in   texts  of  the Hellenistic period,  especially   those    involving   breathing   and    letter   combination and visualization.  They  seem  to   be   a   part  of  a  general  fund  of   such   techniques  at the time, parallel  to  similar   things   one  finds  in  Hellenistic   magical   papyri, for example.

  [Then,  as  though realizing  then  that  the young  man's  questions {about what  it  meant when  energy  came in, as opposed  to  finding oneself   elsewhere,  about  the  dangers of   possession,  and  so on} were  pressing,  Idel turned   back  {despite  attempts  by  various   professors  to ease him out of the  hall} and began  quietly  to  address  himself  to  his  queries.]  

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