Reviewed by Mark Verman (Wright State University)
Published on H-Judaic (May, 2012)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman
Early Jewish Mystical Literature
Peter Schäfer’s new monograph The Origins of Jewish Mysticism (hereafter OJM) is a magisterial tour de force. Owing to the breadth of the material that is covered and Schäfer’s consistently lucid, methodical, and incisive analysis, this book is an instant classic and will become the benchmark for all subsequent discussions of the topic. Schäfer’s lengthy and productive career has revolved around his incomparable contribution to the publication and scholarly analysis of that corpus of writings known as Hekhalot (Temples/Palaces) texts. An examination of these particular works constitutes the culmination of his current book. In fact, the basic agenda of OJM is an attempt to discover to what extent the pre-Hekhalot writings, biblical and post-biblical, can be seen as anticipating the mystical experience delineated in the Hekhalot corpus.
Although specific aspects of pre-medieval, Jewish mystical literature have hitherto benefited from scholarly treatment, nothing rivals the scope Schäfer’s presentation. The book is divided into nine chapters, plus a substantial introduction. The topics covered are arranged chronologically and begin with the prophetic book, Ezekiel, followed by discussions of 1 and 2 Enoch, various apocalypses, Dead Sea scroll writings, Philo, and rabbinic literature, and conclude with a discussion of four Hekhalot texts. Schäfer thus examines all of the major literary works that modern scholars associate with the early stages of Jewish mysticism. One of the many benefits of Schäfer’s presentation is that he not only assesses published scholarship, but frequently cites illuminating, private communications with experts in the subfields, such as Philip Alexander and Maren Niehoff.
After careful consideration of all of these works, Schäfer comes to conclusions that are especially noteworthy and thought-provoking. He deduces that few of the dozens of texts that he analyzed are “mystical” in the way that the term is ordinary used. Moreover, he challenges the commonly held view that these disparate writings constitute connected stages within a progressively developing enterprise. Accordingly, the book’s title is simultaneously ironic and subversive.
In his introduction Schäfer offers a thoughtful discussion of the term “mysticism” and its standard associations. He starts by positing that generally mysticism is connected with the concept of unio mystica, i.e., mystical union of man and God. Most scholars of Jewish mystical writings, such as Gershom Scholem, the pioneer of the academic study of the Kabbalah, have not found evidence of unio mystica in Jewish texts and have therefore advanced other characteristics. After assessing and critiquing the utility of the approaches of Scholem, Bernard McGinn, and many others, Schäfer considers the recent approach of Elliot Wolfson, who argued that the early Jewish mystical writings focused instead on the “angelification” of the human being. Schäfer notes that “[t]he advantage of this definition consists in the fact that it does not impose a terminology on the ancient texts that is alien to them (such as “mystical union”) but takes the experience described in these texts as its starting point” (pp. 19-20). In his conclusion, Schäfer returns to this issue and ultimately rejects this approach, as well, for being applicable to only a small number of the texts under consideration.
For Schäfer the fullest form of Jewish mystical experience is expressed in the last group of writings, namely, the Hekhalot compositions of the Merkavah (divine Chariot) mystics. His summary of one of these works is illustrative. It “focuses on the elevated status of the mystic, praising him as the chosen human being who undertakes his heavenly journey in order to see God on his throne in the celestial Temple. In achieving this goal he joins the rank of the angel and is placed at the right side of or, alternatively, opposite God’s throne and observes what is happening in heaven: the liturgy of the angels and, more important, what will happen to the people of Israel in the future” (p. 327).
Given that Schäfer contends that it is a throne vision that is the quintessential element of early Jewish mysticism, it is understandable that he devotes chapter 1 of his book to a detailed analysis of Ezekiel’s vision of the divine Chariot, which had a major impact on subsequent writings. By opening this chapter with the phrase “In 597 BCE ... ” (p. 34), one is misled into thinking that the “origins of Jewish mysticism” begin in the sixth century BCE. Although he does make passing references here and elsewhere to Isaiah 6, the reader would have been better served had Schäfer offered a systematic analysis of this core text. Isaiah’s vision, occurring some 150 years earlier than Ezekiel, focuses not only on the divine throne, but also includes the angelic doxology of the seraphs. Both of these constitute key elements of the Hekhalot texts. Moreover, Isaiah and Ezekiel were influenced by the much earlier vision of Moses and the seventy elders found in Exodus 24:9-11, as Schäfer does indeed acknowledge.
One of the enriching aspects of Schäfer’s presentation is his inclusion of Jewish-Christian writings, such as Revelation, the culmination of the New Testament, and a later work, The Ascension of Isaiah, of which the portion including chapters 6-11 “no doubt is of Christian origin and is believed to belong to the early second century CE” (p. 93). He goes on to note that the visionary experience described herein “is surprisingly similar” to that found in Hekhalot literature (p. 95) and proceeds to show parallels between it and the seminal text of the corpus, Hekhalot Rabbati.
Although Schäfer is clearly not averse to discussing unconventional texts, it is disappointing that he virtually ignores Paul’s account of his heavenly journey as found in 2 Corinthians 12:1-4 and relegates it to page 335, n. 5. Paul’s description is arguably the earliest, datable, autobiographical account of a Jew who claimed to have visited heaven/“paradise.” One detail of Paul’s presentation that is most compelling is his uncertainty as to whether he was taken up to heaven “in the body or out of the body” (2 Cor. 12:2). This ambiguity lends credence to Paul reporting an actual experience, whatever its nature, as opposed to it simply being a fabricated account. It is noteworthy that in general Schäfer explicitly dismisses any attempt to ascertain which of the texts that he analyzes are based on actual experience and not simply a literary creation.
To be sure, Schäfer has discussed this text in a prior essay, which entails a critique of an earlier analysis by Gershom Scholem. Scholem in Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition (1960) links Paul’s account to both Hekhalot literature, as well as the Talmudic narrative of the four rabbis, who entered pardes (i.e., a garden/orchard), which Scholem assumes is an allusion to paradise. Schäfer, however, endorses an interpretation proposed by Ephraim Urbach that the rabbinic usage of pardes is a metaphor and unrelated to heaven. For Schäfer pardes merely symbolizes proper rabbinic exegesis of Ezekiel. Moreover, his principal dismissal of Paul’s report as not being mystical is that his revelation was primarily auditory in nature and not visual. This assessment seems rather arbitrary and while it is true that Paul does focus on the ineffable expressions that he heard, he begins his account by asserting: “I come now to visions and revelations granted by the Lord” (2 Cor. 12:1).
What is at stake here for Schäfer is more than just whether Paul should be included in the discussion, but rather the dating of the Hekhalot corpus, which is one of the insoluble cruxes of scholarly debates. According to Scholem, the Hekhalot texts originated at a relatively period, in the second or third centuries CE. Therefore Scholem views Paul’s account from the middle of the first century CE as a prototype. Schäfer on the other hand argues that the Hekhalot texts crystallized much later. His most explicit statement on the dating of these writings is that they constituted “a late rabbinic or even postrabbinic phenomenon (sixth century and later)--notwithstanding the possibility, of course, that some of the material collected and edited in this literature may well be earlier (third to sixth centuries)” (p. 245). He also hypothesizes a Babylonian provenance for the redaction of these texts, as opposed to Scholem and others who argued that they were composed in Israel. Accordingly, Schäfer considers Paul’s account irrelevant. Whereas discussing Paul in OJM would not serve his purposes, Paul definitely does warrant inclusion in any survey of early Jewish mysticism and Alan Segal’s discussion, “Paul’s Ecstasy,” in his 1992 monograph Paul the Convert is a fine remedy for this omission.
Although Schäfer repeatedly argues for a relatively late dating of the Hekhalot corpus in OJM, he does not bother to offer a systematic defense of his position, but instead refers in his footnotes to his earlier writings. This is unfortunate, given that he does not hesitate to repeat his argumentation on other issues, and even in his earlier writings his assertions are quite succinct and are based on three specific points. The first is that there is a prevalence of magical practices in the Hekhalot writings, which is not the case with the earlier Jewish writings. The second is that these texts are clearly pseudepigraphic and therefore must be much later than the early second-century figures that they invoke. Finally, given that the earliest parallels to the Hekhalot texts are found in the redaction layer of the Babylonian Talmud, which Schäfer dates to 700 CE (p. 316), the Hekhalot writings must be relatively late.
None of these arguments is especially convincing. Schäfer acknowledges that recent discoveries of Jewish magical practices in earlier Jewish writings have caused him to retract the first point. Furthermore, although he continually refers to the Hekhalot texts as “pseudepigraphic,” this is technically inaccurate. The major works that he discusses, such as Hekhalot Rabbati and Zutarti, do not claim to have been written by Rabbis Ishmael and Akiva, respectively. Instead they are third-person accounts of the exploits of these individuals and as such are similar to classical rabbinic literature. Moreover, even if they represented pseudepigrapha, why assume that there must be a time lag of half a millennium or more? Once the reputed author has died and a generation or two has passed, there would not be any real obstacles confronting a spurious author, especially in ancient and medieval times when questions of provenance and authenticity were not usually raised. For example, among the writings of the mid-thirteenth-century Spanish Jewish mystics, known as the Iyyun Circle, there is a pseudepigraphic work attributed to R. Eleazar b. Judah of Worms, Germany, who died in 1238, only a few decades earlier.
Schäfer’s final assertion is more cogent. As he has demonstrated, the parallels to the Heikhalot writings occur in the Babylonian version of the Talmud and not in the earlier strata of rabbinic literature. Given the scope of the Hekhalot corpus and the fragmentary nature of the Talmudic parallels, (which also includes an Akatriel passage found in B. Berakhot f. 7a, but not mentioned in OJM), it seems more reasonable to assume that at least some of the Hekhalot works significantly predated the redaction of the Babylonian Talmud and afterwards found echoes therein. A relatively early dating of Hekhalot literature would also accommodate the similarities that Schäfer himself presented between Hekhalot Rabbati and the second-century work Ascension of Isaiah, mentioned above.
In conclusion, Peter Schäfer’s The Origins of Jewish Mysticism is a fascinating and thought-provoking work that will certainly be discussed for years to come. Lucidly written and edifying throughout, it makes for worthwhile reading for both experts in the field and the general public.
. Peter Schäfer, “New Testament and Hekhalot Literature: The Journey into Heaven in Paul and Merkavah Mysticism,” Journal of Jewish Studies 35 (1984): 19-35.
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