So the Progressive Rabbinical training college runs a bunch of short courses for lay people, which they call Lehrhaus modelled after the Jewish educational institutions in Germany before WWII. This year they've decided to experiment with putting a couple of their courses online, and since I'm in a perpetual state of being starved of Jewish learning because I can't get to London regularly, I wanted to encourage this initiative. I signed up for four sessions on The origins of Jewish mysticism with Dr Damsma.
They asked that we don't share course materials on the internet, so I'm going to talk about it in fairly general terms. I wasn't really keen on the topic, but the other alternative was post-Holocaust history, and this sounded like it might have some texts in it. Actually a few people when I mentioned a course on Jewish mysticism assumed I was teaching it, which is a flattering but very wrong assumption. I find most mysticism really alienating, and my knowledge of the topic is extremely basic. I thought I'd probably enjoy a reasonably academic take on the history of mysticism, anyway.
We used some conferencing software called Adobe Connect, which more or less worked but was also somewhat annoying. There's no way to resize the windows, so it had the Powerpoint huge, and the video feed of the lecturer talking tiny, as well as the text chat window. And several participants lost sound apparently randomly. Plus some of the mics picked up background noise, including mine at times, and the group asked participants to mute mics when not actually speaking, but that didn't work because the mics randomly unmuted themselves with no user input. So we ended up turning off all the participant mics altogether, meaning that the only way we could interact with the teacher was via text chat, in a tiny little box in the corner that only showed half a line of text at a time. This meant we didn't get a lot of the advantages of using conferencing software, it was more or less equivalent to watching a broadcast of the class with a very primitive instant messenger backchannel. And I think Dr Damsma found it a bit weird teaching to a video camera without being able to see or hear her class.
Anyway, the class itself was four consecutive Wednesday evenings, during which Dr Damsma took us through the types of mystical texts from the Biblical period, immediately post-Biblical apocalyptic literature, the Rabbinic era, and stuff from unknown date but probably late-ish relative to most of the Talmud. We explicitly stopped before getting to Kabbalah, the most well-known Jewish mystical tradition. I was a bit frustrated because most of the 90 minute session consisted of simply telling us that these texts exist, with some examples, with little discussion of the actual texts or their historical context. And I think that's partly because a lot of this stuff is outside mainstream Judaism and indeed quite frowned upon by the Rabbinic tradition, so we just have fragments of texts and often, I gather, historians also don't really know who wrote them or what sort of community they come from. So it might not have been possible to teach this sort of thing.
So in Tanakh we have Ezekiel 1, the vision of the Chariot. Some bits of Isaiah and Daniel talking about angels, and arguably some of Genesis 1, which at least was later on considered to be somewhat mystical as it deals with cosmology. Apocalyptic literature in its most literal sense is about journeys into heaven to receive revelations. The main examples we looked at were Enoch and some of the Dead Sea Scrolls texts; they had a lot of copies of standard Biblical books, sometimes variant ones, but also some more mystical / magical stuff, mainly midrash on the angel visions from Prophets.
The Talmud itself has a bunch of prohibitions on people who aren't sufficiently wise and qualified and virtuous getting involved in mystical speculation. Which of course is evidence that some people were in fact involved in mysticism, or it wouldn't have been prohibited. This all relates to the material from Chagigah that cjwatson stumbled on by accident, and that Boyarin is into at the moment but didn't get very far into actually expounding when I went to his session at the Cambridge day Limmud. So I'm really really intrigued by it, have absolutely no tools for approaching the Gemara, and didn't really learn very much more from this class. I did however learn that the Talmudic prohibitions are corroborated by an external source, the Christian Church Father Origen also mentioned that the Jews prohibited the study of certain texts in public or in front of young, untrained people. I hadn't realized that Origen spent much of his career in Caesarea so probably was in contact with the rabbis of the Mishnah, though he was just a bit too late to actually have met Yehudah haNasi. We also looked at an example of Hekhalot ('Palaces') mysticism from round about this sort of time, which more than the immediatly post-Biblical Apocalypse stuff is directly about the mystic (as opposed to Biblical figures like Enoch) ascending through the various levels of heaven to see visions of God and angels.
Finally yesterday we looked at texts from other mystical schools, which Dr Damsma wasn't willing to commit to dating as definitely later than the Gemara, but might be. There's a fascinating concept called Sar Torah, the Prince of Torah, in which people whose lives are too miserable to have time to study Torah properly are granted the ability to adjure angels who then teach them. And something called Shiur Qomah, the measurement of the body, which talks about the dimensions of God imagined as a gargantuan figure who can use the earth as a footstool as in Isaiah's metaphor, and ascribes mystical names to all the parts of, so as to speak, God's "body". And that's just weird because I'm extremely committed to the Maimonides and later view of Jewish theology that says that God really definitionally doesn't have a body. And we didn't really get very far into explaining whether this measurement mysticism is meant to be taken literally or what sort of sense it's supposed to make in the context of mysticism.
So, definitely learned something, definitely enjoyed getting my teeth into some study beyond just a one-off shiur. I feel I've mainly mapped out a few more areas of my ignorance, though.
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