(This is the second post in a series. For the first post, click here.)
“Now, friend, return to the study of the descent to the merkabah. I have been instructing you in it: how one goes down and how one comes up; what the character of the First Palace is; how one gets angels into his service and how one adjures them. … Then you went down and saw; you tested it and no harm came to you. The reason is that I have made the paths of the merkabah like light for you, and the roads of heaven like the sun. You were not like those who came before you, who … were like a person who is lost in the desert, and who takes a road which leads him into a teeming forest. There he finds everywhere lions’ dens, leopards’ dwellings, wolves’ haunts. He stands among them and has no idea what to do. One animal mauls him; another one drags him off.
“This is what happened to your colleagues who made the descent before you. I swear to you, friend, by God’s exaltation, that they dragged Ben Zoma [the one who “looked and went mad” in the Paradise story] a hundred times through the First Palace–I was witness, I counted how many times they dragged him and his companions … 200 times through the Second, 400 times through the Third … 6400 times through the Seventh. But you will not get a scratch from the princes, from the guards of the Palaces, from the angels of destruction.”
The speaker is an angel named Ozhayah. His “friend” is Rabbi Ishmael, a prominent scholar in the Holy Land around the beginning of the second century CE. He’s certainly a real historical person. But I doubt if he ever heard such things from the angel Ozhayah. I doubt if the angel Ozhayah ever existed. But maybe that’s just me.
The passage is taken from an exceedingly weird body of ancient Hebrew texts called the Hekhalot, the “Palaces” literature. We don’t know when or where these texts were written, except that it’s got to be after the second century CE (when Rabbi Ishmael had been dead long enough for his conversations with angels to be fathered upon him), and probably sometime before the Middle Ages. They’re so baffling that it’s difficult to define their center. But, at least according to Gershom Scholem, that center was the heavenly journey–the “trip” to the Seven Celestial Palaces to see the Vision of Ezekiel’s merkabah. (The “chariot” described in Ezekiel Chapter 1.) People wanted to go there. Exactly why, is not entirely clear.
There’s an odd wrinkle. To get to the merkabah you don’t go up, as you surely ought to. You go down. After you’ve sat fasting for 40 days, and you’ve put your head between your knees “until the fast gets control” of you, you must whisper your incantations “toward earth and not toward heaven, so that earth may hear and not heaven.” (Quoted from a different Hekhalot text.)
I used the word “trip” advisedly. Sometimes the journey to the merkabah sounds a bit reminiscent of those chemically assisted “trips” that were popular in certain circles during my youth, back in the 1960s. Reading the Hekhalot, indeed, sometimes one wants to ask: “What were these guys on?”
The answer: probably nothing. I’m not aware of any reference in these documents to anything that might suggest a drug–and, if they were using drugs, they had no motive to suppress this information. Fasting, sensory deprivation, putting your body in bizarre positions, reciting monotonous incantations over and over–that would surely be enough to stimulate hallucinations. If hallucinations these were.
But of course they were. They had to be.
The seven Palaces don’t exist, right? Certainly not underground. (Remember: you go down down DOWN, as I put in in Journal of a UFO Investigator, to get to the merkabah.) Nor in the heavens, which we now know to be empty sky shading into even emptier space. Nikita Khrushchev had it right 52 years ago. “As to paradise, we have heard a lot about it from the priests. So we decide to find out for ourselves. First, we sent up our explorer, Yuri Gagarin. He circled the globe and found nothing in outer space. It’s pitch dark there, he said, no Garden of Eden, nothing like heaven.” (From the New York Times, 9/9/61.)
Remember the scene in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time where a minister tells the autistic narrator that Heaven isn’t a place in our universe? To which the boy responds: Where is it, then?
It’s a naive question, a naive argument. But these tend to be the most powerful, the most honest, the most difficult to answer.
In 1987 I gave a paper before the Society of Biblical Literature, in which I used that naive argument full force. The paper later appeared (with my middle initial wrong) in a collection of the SBL’s 1987 seminar papers; I attach it here as a PDF. I used the Khrushchev quotation as an epigraph. I criticized scholars like Gershom Scholem, who talk as if they believe or half-believe in the objective reality of the things seen by the “merkabah mystics” (as Scholem called the ancient “trippers”)–and then use that supposed “reality” as an explanation for the mystics’ visions.
In the paper I gave an example: If I go to Australia and come back with a report of seeing a hopping pouched animal, my “vision” requires no explanation. The kangaroo was really there; I really saw it. But if I dream of some terrifying monster in a distant land, we can’t explain that monster by saying: well, I really saw it in my dream.
Of course I “really” saw it–it scared me so much, didn’t it, that I woke up sweaty and trembling? But no, I didn’t really see it. It came from inside me; and if we want to know what that monster was, we have to ask what I meant by unconsciously creating it. (Notice I’ve slipped in the word “unconsciously.” It raises the question of who the “I” is who does the creating.)
It was kind of an in-your-face paper. Deliberately so. I don’t like vagueness; I like making clear statements of my views, even if their clarity makes them so extreme I have trouble defending them. When I’m attacked, when I try to answer–then truth emerges from the back-and-forth.
To my aggressive anti-supernaturalism, I left myself a small loophole:
“I would not dogmatically deny that such worlds exist, simply because none of the astronauts managed to see them. But I do need to know how they are to be fit into a scientific view of the universe. In the absence of such an explanation, I will stand on one premise: that the things described in an account of heavenly ascension (or of any other visionary experience), insofar as they are not ordinary objects in the material world, are the creations of the author of that account (or of his ultimate human source). It was he who shaped them, consciously or unconsciously. To ask what they mean is to ask what he meant by imagining them.”
A universe that includes the angel Ozhayah, and Seven Palaces guarded by savagely brutal “angels of destruction,” is not quite the universe of our 21st-century science. Can it possibly be real in some other sense–other than the purely subjective way in which my dreams are “real”? If so, how do the two dimensions of reality intersect? Take that as a challenge, if you don’t agree with what I said in my paper 25 years ago. My mind is open–not for nothing was I a teenage UFOlogist. But like the kid in Mark Haddon’s novel, I need a clear answer.
And what about the yordei merkabah, the “descenders to the Chariot” as they liked to call themselves? Did they exist? Did they really go on their out-of-body trips? (“Really” in the sense that it really felt that way to them, they really believed they were doing it and had done it, and the people around them believed it too.) Or are the Hekhalot texts a kind of ancient science-fiction, whose authors no more experienced ecstatic journeys than the author of “Jack the Giant-Killer” believed he’d climbed that beanstalk?
There was a time when I opted for the “science-fiction” hypothesis. I don’t anymore. There’s something eerily genuine at the heart of the Hekhalot documents, jumbled and incoherent as they mostly are. Something that ties them not only backward, to the out-of-body (or maybe in-the-body) ascensions of Enoch and St. Paul–leaving aside Elijah and his fiery chariot–but to the modern UFO abductions as well.
In the meantime, I hope you’ll take a look at my Society of Biblical Literature paper. It’s a bit technical, but give it a try. It’s my rationalist, psychological approach to religious traditions of heavenly ascension–and, by implication, to UFOs–taken to its logical extreme. Where its weaknesses, if any, should be apparent.
Find any weaknesses? Let me know.
by David Halperin
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