On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead – Basic concepts in the Kabbalah (1991)

ARE YOU INTERESTED in learning more about Jewish mysticism? In that case I got some academic books on the subject I wish to recommend. I wrote about Daniel C. Matt’s translation and commentary on The Zoharthe most famous book (12 volumes…) within Jewish mysticism; in a previous post. In this post I want to introduce you to Prof. Gerschom Scholem’s books. Mr. Scholem was the first pioneer within in the field work concerning literature related to mysticism in Judaism. He liked to describe himself as a historian of religious ideas. Scholem was also a professor of Jewish mysticism at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem until his death in the early 1980s.

On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead : Basic Concepts of the Kabbalah (1991) is one of the titles I recommend. THIS BOOK presents the core teachings within the kabbalistic tradition. I will touch briefly on reincarnation within the Kabbalah. The chapters are as follows:

  • Sch’ur Komah : The Mystical Shape of the Godhead
  • Sitra Achra : Good and Evil
  • Tsaddik : The righteous
  • Schekhinah : The feminine structures in the divine
  • Gilgul : The transmigration of souls
  • Tselem : The Concept of The Astral Body

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Modern Orthodox usually rejects the theory of gilgul (reincarnation), or transmigration (metempsychosis, is the term used by Scholem) of the soul. The concept varies a bit from the hindu theology about reincarnation, but there are similarities. There’s a strong connection between the idea of transmigration connected to punishment or reward. The soul, or various parts of the human soul transmigrates according to the Kabbalah in order to fulfill all the mitzvot (“commandments”) of the Torah.

While Ultra-orthodox, haredi Jews accept gilgul as “truth” Conservative Judaism and Reform Judaism usually let the individual decide on these matters for themselves; although I must say there are little focus on these matters in theological point of view. When Conservative and Reform Judaism developed into separate movements they usually looked down on teachings associated with Kabbalah because illiterate and uneducated Jews accepted them. So, how can we trace this unusual idea within Jewish mysticism? Scholem gives several explanations on why and how it got incorporated into kabbalistic teachings. Let’s mention some of it. The medieval text Sefer ha-Bahir is the oldest book in existence dealing with the concept of gilgul within the Kabbalah. It was redacted in South of France around 1180. This geographical area was inhabited by the Catharism movement which later was becoming wiped out by the Church. They also believed in reincarnation. Not surprisingly the majority of Jewish scholars immediately rejected the doctrine. As did the majority of scholars within Christianity and Islam around the same time. They had to deal with similar religious sects holding different beliefs. Let’s see how it may have influenced Jewish mysticism. In the sixth century the Church was very much afflicted by the teachings of Origen. Ōrigénēs Adamántios; 184/185 – 253/254 was a scholar and an ascetic who believed in reincarnation. He was one of the church fathers but never reached canonization because of several heretical beliefs. His thoughts on reincarnation likely came from Gnostic Christian sects. The Gnostics became heavily persecuted and finally crushed. Their beliefs likely sprung from several Oriental traditions such as the Orphic and Platonic thoughts on the transmigration of souls. A similar process arose within Shiite Islam were the Imams supposedly reincarnated and the belief spread into  Ishmaelite Gnostics and Sufis sects; while orthodox Sunnis rejected it completely. There are also evidence some Jews believed in reincarnation from non-jewish sources. In a work on Muslim sects and schism Ibn Mansour al-Bahgdadi (died 1037) mention some Jews held this belief based on the Book of Daniel, third Chapter. In the third chapter king Nebuchadnezzar’s vision indicates he was transformed in seven different kinds of beasts, birds as to punish his wickedness. God later restored Nebuchadnezzar and sent him again to the world as a true believer in Monotheism.

STAY TUNED for more posts on Scholem’s work .

Resources

 

“Israfel” – A poem by Edgar A. Poe

THE POEM ISRAFEL [transl. Isrāfīl] was written while Edgar A. Poe (1809-1849) was at West Point and first published in April 1831. At West Point Poe didn’t accomplish much except getting expelled from the Military Academy. He was however more determined to become a writer. This one of a few poems which relate to Muslim literature. Apparently he read from an English translation of the Qur’an and maybe several other sources on Islam. Not much research has been done on why Edgar A. Poe took an interest in reading various scriptures from Arabic literature. He was, for sure, familiar with the stories from The Arabian Nights. In this poem he touches briefly on two islamic motifs – the Archangel Israfel and the Koranic Houris. The story which emerges about Israfel in this poem places Poe as a poet within the Romantic tradition. There are much focus on feelings, music and the heart. All of them various expressions typical of Romanticism. The poem consists of uneven stanzas, each stanza ranging from five to eight lines in length. Israfel plays his lute with passion and he sing both wildly and with fire. Israfel’s singing gets noticed as the Heavens listen to him.

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Israfel, (1375-1425) Mamluk Dynasty.

The word Israfel is not mentioned in the Quran, but in the Hadiths. However, there’s one Koranic verse which relates to his mission: “And the trumpet shall be blown, so all those that are in the heavens and all those that are in the earth shall swoon, except Allah; then it shall be blown again, then they shall stand up awaiting.” —Qur’an (39.68).

He’s one of the four archangels and often depicted with a horn. On the Day of Resurrection Israfel will appear on a holy rock in Jerusalem, blow the horn and announce the day has arrived. In the Judeo Christian tradition Israfel’s counterpart is Raphael. As already mentioned, Poe also include the Houris in this poem. They are a sort of companions dwelling in Paradise and mentioned several times in the Qur’an. The 72 virgins in the islamic tradition are Huoris.Various interpretations on them among Muslim scholars reveal they are made for lusty adventures for men in Paradise. A Western counterpart would be the Greek nymphs.

In Heaven a spirit doth dwell
“Whose heart-strings are a lute”;
None sing so wildly well
As the angel Israfel,
And the giddy stars (so legends tell),
Ceasing their hymns, attend the spell
Of his voice, all mute.

Tottering above
In her highest noon,
The enamoured moon
Blushes with love,
While, to listen, the red levin
(With the rapid Pleiads, even,
Which were seven,)
Pauses in Heaven.

And they say (the starry choir
And the other listening things)
That Israfeli’s fire
Is owing to that lyre
By which he sits and sings—
The trembling living wire
Of those unusual strings.

But the skies that angel trod,
Where deep thoughts are a duty,
Where Love’s a grown-up God,
Where the Houri glances are
Imbued with all the beauty
Which we worship in a star.

Therefore, thou art not wrong,
Israfeli, who despisest
An unimpassioned song;
To thee the laurels belong,
Best bard, because the wisest!
Merrily live, and long!

The ecstasies above
With thy burning measures suit—
Thy grief, thy joy, thy hate, thy love,
With the fervour of thy lute—
Well may the stars be mute!

Yes, Heaven is thine; but this
Is a world of sweets and sours;
Our flowers are merely-flowers,
And the shadow of thy perfect bliss
Is the sunshine of ours.

If I could dwell
Where Israfel
Hath dwelt, and he where I,
He might not sing so wildly well
A mortal melody,
While a bolder note than this might swell
From my lyre within the sky.

 

Resources

Houri Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Islamic Elements in Poe’s “Al Aaraaf” and “Israfel” – by: ADNAN M. WAZZAN Islamic Studies. Vol. 27, No. 3 (Autumn 1988), pp. 221-229

Israfil Encyclopaedia Britannica.

 

“Al Aaraaf” – A poem by Edgar Allan Poe

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Edgar A. Poe in 1845 when he wrote his most famous poem “The Raven”.

Al Aaraaf is a poem written by the american gothic author Edgar A. Poe (1809-1849). In this post I write a little about what the poem is about and some of its origins. It’s considered to be one of the earliest poems written by Poe and it was first published in 1829. Two years earlier Poe published his first collection, Tamerlane and Other Poems under an assumed name. His writing career had just begun and behind him was a series of personal failures. First, he dropped out of the University of Virginia and second his career within the US Military would not fall out in good terms. As Poe was unable to support himself, he enlisted in the United States Army as a private on May 27, 1827 using the name “Edgar A. Perry”. He claimed that he was 22 years old even though he was 18. 1829 marked the death of his foster-mother Frances Allan and after much pressure the foster-father finally let Poe enroll as cadet at West Point. On February 8, 1831, he was tried for gross neglect of duty and disobedience of orders for refusing to attend formations, classes, or church. Poe tactically pleaded not guilty to induce dismissal, knowing that he would be found guilty.

Al-Aaraaf : Its origins and context

al_aaraaf_robinsonThe name al-Aaraaf [سورة الأعراف‎‎] is the name of chapter 7 in the Quran and refers to a place in heaven. Its title is “Al Aaraaf” from the Al Aaraaf of the Arabians, a medium between Heaven and Hell where men suffer no punishment, but yet do not attain that tranquil & even happiness which they suppose to be the characteristics of heavenly enjoyment.

The poem contains many references to the classical mytholgy of the Greeks and the Romans. It’s also filled with numerous allusions. It’s the longest poem Poe would ever write and later stated that he wasn’t in favour of long poems. Because of its heavy mix of historical context and different mythologies it was not considered to be either accurate or intelligible. It shows Poe’s possibilites to become a great poet, especially since Poe claimed he wrote some of it at the age of 15. It does have some rythm even if the text’s message and context seem to fail.

The poem Al-Aaraaf

The myth of the horse in various legends and cultures

The divine horse in Greek mythology

I named this blog after Pegasus [Πήγασος Pēgasos, lat. Pegasos] in Greek mythology. He was a divine stallion and his parents were none other than seagod Poseidon and the gorgon Medusa. There are several religions and cultures around today which has created their own myths about the horse and its functions within the divine realm. The divine function of the Pegasus was to bring forth thunder and lightning from Mount Olympus were the gods resided. After his birth in Okeanos he rode straight up into the heavens to serve under Zeus. Finally a hero named Bellerophon managed to tame Pegasus with the help of wise Athena. Bellerophon rode the Pegasus when he defeated the creature Chimaera and the Amazons. The muses also used the Pegasus on various occasions. Luckily Pegasus also got married to a mare named Euippe and had two pegasus-children by her. In greek mythology any human who managed to tame a Pegasus got a lifelong friend and servant. The horse would stay as long it didn’t die or got badly injured. Pegasus-horses was said to live on high mountains or in the green wide meadows. They are described as very shy creatures with the ability to fly. Through the ages of mankind the myth of Pegasus come to symbolize various virtues such as wisdom in the Western tradition. During the middleage Pegasus became a symbol of poetry and a source of inspiration to poets. There’s a strong connection between him and the arts. Especially literature.

The divine horse in norse mythology 

Just as in Greek mythology the norse legends of the divine horse Sleipnir (meaning the slipper, or slippery) puts him in a special connection to the gods [asirs] as a servant. Sleipner is a grey horse with eight legs who’s able to fly in the heavens and over the seas. He’s faster than any other horse on earth and stronger than any wind. Sleipnir is the horse of Allfather Odin (germ., Woden, Wotan) and is very beloved by him. According to one icelandic source Odin carved magic runes into the teeth of Sleipnir (Sigdrivómal). The horse has a divine origin and is the son of the evil Loke and a horse named Svaðilfari. Sleipnir has two fathers since Svaðilfari [icelandic., ‘Unlucky traveller’] is a stallion. Loke transformed himself into a meer and gave birth to Sleipnir.

Sleipnir has two famous brothers and a sister – Fenrir, Jormungandr and Hel. Fenrir is the monstrus wolf while Jormungandr is the great Midgard serpent. Hel is the guardian of the place Hel in Niefelhem. Going to Hel in norse mythology means ‘to die’. She resides in the underworld with many servants and has a key role in the supposed resurrection of the god Baldr. While Hel is reserved for ordinary people, warriors go to Valhalla. According to one tradition Sleipnir will carry a defeated warrior into the halls of Valhalla.

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Odin, the All-Father or a slained warrior on Sleipnir. A valkyria [left] is greeting him with some mead. (Photo: Wikipedia)
Sleipnir is attested in the Poetic Edda, compiled in the 13th century from earlier traditional sources, and the Prose Edda, written in the 13th century by bishop Snorri Sturluson. Snorri was a Christian so his works on the norse myths are somewhat influenced by his own system of belief. Therefore norse myths in some cases highly resamble a likeness to christian beliefs on the apocalypse [in Norse mythology – ragnarök ‘The Fate of the Gods’] and the friendly light-god named Baldr somewhat assembles the Christ in his martyrdom. The vikings never left any written testimonies of their beliefs other than small runic messages or images on carved stones. Norse myths and sagas were solely interpreted and written down by christian priests. Unlike the christian clergymen who came to Mexico and South America to destroy the remains of Maya and Aztec cultures and religions the icelandic priests thought it was important to study, preserve and write down the myths of the pagan norsemen. A lot of studies has been done on most of the icelandig texts. Most of the myths and legends are preserved in Codex Regius written in the 1270s. It contains 45 vellum leaves. One of the most famous texts is the VölupsáThe propecy of the Völva.  (A nice translation into English can be found here.)

The divine horse in islamic mythology

As in the myths of the ancient greeks and the norse legends islam also houses a myth about a divine horse named al-Buraq [لبُراق , al-Burāq]. In islamic art he’s sometimes depicted as a bewinged horse with a human face; despite hadiths make no such descriptions of al-Buraq having a human face. Al-Buraq is a white steed and he’s smaller than any mule and bigger than any monkey. Al-Buraq transports the prophets who are the messengers of a divine revelation from Allah. Sometimes through the islamic history of art he’s depicted with a woman’s face with long ears and peacock feathers as a tail. His most famous rider was prophet Mohammad who recieved the horse from Djibril himself. On al-Buraq Mohammed was able to make his famous Night journey and he also travelled on him through the seven heavens and to Jerusalem.

On his nightly journey [isra wa miraj] from Mecca to Jerusalem Mohammed meets with several other prophets from the judeo-christian tradition in a religio-political attempt to prove his religion islam is valid and in connection with a long tradition of previous prophets. In the book Journeys in Holy Lands : The Evoloution of the Abraham-Ishmael Legends in Islamic Exegesis (1990) Rueven Firestone points to Ibn Ishaq (704-767) who wrote a lenghty biography om Mohammad. According to Ibn Ishaq the bewinged al-Buraq transported the prophet Abraham when he visited Hagar and Ishmael. That tradition states that Abraham lived with one wife, Sarah, in Syria, but al-Buraq would transport him in the morning to Mecca to see his family there and take him back in the evening to his wife in Syria (Firestone 1990, p. 117). In the entry on Al-Buraq in The Encyclopedia of Islam (2012) Christiane Gruber also make a reference to Ibn Ishaq Sirat Rasul Allah. I think Gruber’s text is the very best and the most comprehensive in a scholary perspective. Gruber also make a comment on the androgynous sex of the Buraq. This seem to be clear looking into the etymology of the word al-Baraq. However, in modern Turkey the name Buraq is a male name.

Because of the strong connection between al-Buraq and Jerusalem there are legends about the place were Buraq was tightened by Mohammad on the night of the miraj (you can watch a youtube-video from the Temple Mount here). UNESCO recently renamed the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall, into al-Buraq Plaza in a new resolution. The resolution has caused much political controversy and viewed by many as ignoring the judeo-christian roots to the place. The US, Germany and several other states voted against it. The Western Wall is also known as the most holiest place in Judaism.

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Mohammad riding on al-Buraq, persian art (Photo:Wikipedia).

Resources

Buraq : Islamic legend Encyclopedia Brittanica

Firestone, Reuven. 1990. Journeys in holy lands: the evolution of the Abraham-Ishmael legends in Islamic exegesis. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press.

Gruber, Christiane “Al-Buraq” in The Encyclopedia of Islam, third edition 2012

MuhammadEncyclopedia Britannica

Sleipnir – Encyclopedia Britannica

The Temple Mount – wikipedia.org

UNESCO : Executive Board – PDF-file, presenting the resolution on renaming the Western Wall (2016).

UNESCO resolution denying Jewish, Christian ties to Temple Mount – JNS.org