(This post is the fourth of a series. To begin the series, click here.)
Imagine: we’re Jewish mystics of the sort that Gershom Scholem called the “merkabah mystics”–fascinated, or maybe obsessed, with the divine Chariot (merkabah) that’s described in the first chapter of the Book of Ezekiel. We want to know the merkabah from personal experience, and not just from what Ezekiel says in the Bible. So we go to see it for ourselves.
And what is it we see? Here’s a sample:
We’ve been taken to the gate of the Seventh Palace, introduced to its angelic guards. Chief among them is the great “prince” Anafiel, who turns out to be one of the most exalted beings in heaven, comparable to the Creator …
“… and he stands by the gate of the Seventh Palace. The holy Living Creatures [seen by Ezekiel: 1:5-14] are by the gate of the Seventh Palace. The Cherubim and the Wheels [seen by Ezekiel: 1:15-21] are by the gate of the Seventh Palace. The 256 faces of all the holy Living Creatures are by the gate of the Seventh Palace. Greater than all of them are the 512 eyes of the four holy Living Creatures by the gate of the Seventh Palace …”
Ah. The eyes …
“The man goes in and stands on the threshold of the gate of the Seventh Palace. The holy Living Creatures then look at him with their 512 eyes. Each one of the eyes of the holy Living Creatures is split open, the size of a large winnowers’ sieve, and their eyes look as if they race like lightnings. Besides them, there are the eyes of the mighty Cherubim and the Wheels … which look like torches and flaming coals.
“The man shudders and trembles and recoils; he faints in terror and collapses. But prince Anafiel, and the 63 guards of the gates of the Seven Palaces, all support him and help him. … A trumpet then blows from above the firmament that is over their heads. The holy Living Creatures cover their faces; the Cherubim and the Wheels turn their faces away. The man goes in and stands before the Throne of Glory.”
When I first read this description from the book called Hekhalot Rabbati, more than 30 years ago, there was something about it that troubled me. I didn’t know just what it was. Then I thought I did know.
In a paper published in 1987, which I’ve just now posted to the Web, I wrote that there was something “odd and uncanny” about the passage, “which we cannot easily put our finger on but which seems in some way to account for the visionary’s terror.” It isn’t the “towering proportions” of the Living Creatures that generates the terror–the passage doesn’t even mention their size–“but something about their weird, enormous eyes.”
What does it mean for an eye to be “split open”? To be compared to a sieve?
Another passage in Hekhalot Rabbati gives the clue. It’s something having to do with sex.
Each afternoon, we’re told, the Living Creatures come out from beneath God’s throne. “Their mouths are full of song, their wings full of joy; their hands play music and their feet dance. They surround their King, one on His right and one on His left, one in front of Him and one behind Him. They hug Him and kiss Him, and uncover their faces. They uncover, while the King of Glory covers His face.” Whereupon the heaven itself “splits open like a sieve before the splendor, radiance, beauty, appearance, desire, compassion, passion, shining light, magnificent appearance of their faces.”
The erotic overtones are pretty strong. The hugging, the kissing, the dancing–the “desire” and the “passion” (both of these Hebrew words regularly used for sexual arousal). At the climax of the excitement, the heaven “splits open like a sieve.”
Is it possible: that the “splitting open” of the sieve is a metaphor for the opening of the woman’s genital during sex?
I won’t summarize the evidence I found in rabbinic and classical sources, that led me to think the answer was yes. You can see it by clicking on my 1987 article. From this I drew the conclusion to the “split-open,” sieve-like eyes of the Living Creatures. Namely, that they’re female sexual organs, projected (in distorted form) into the merkabah, shifted from the Creatures’ crotches to their faces.
It’s the sort of thing that happens in dreams. But isn’t the vision, the hallucination, the trance-experience a special kind of dream?
No wonder the visionary, who experiences 512 gigantic vulva-eyes staring at him, loses his nerve. For that moment he’s again a little boy, caught in a bewildering and physically overwhelming world of adult sexuality which seems on the verge of consuming him. He “shudders and trembles and recoils, faints in terror and collapses.” Only when the comforting male figure of Anafiel comes to his aid, and the Living Creatures cover their terrible “faces,” does he begin to recover.
Sigmund Freud, please call your office.
In his Interpretation of Dreams, in fact, Freud tells of a dream very much like this. The dreamer saw himself fleeing to a woman, whom he imagined to be his mother, for protection. “At last she turned round and gave him a terrible look so that he ran off in terror. The red flesh of the lower lids of her eyes could be seen standing out.”
Between Freud’s patient and the “descenders to the merkabah,” centuries intervene. Human nature, and the perennial dread of a small child faced with something powerful he can’t comprehend–and will haunt his dreams many years later–binds them together.
My paper on the “split-open” eyes was published in 1987. It was the following summer that I was walking past a bookstore. On the paperback rack outside the store, I saw the Avon Books paperback edition of …
Maybe I wouldn’t have stopped to look at it, if that paper weren’t so fresh in my mind.
But I did stop. I took the book from the rack. I turned it to the side, this way and then that, so that first the left and then the right eye of the UFO alien stood on end. In the left, especially, I thought I could see a cleft running from top to bottom.
Of course I bought the book. And thought much about it, over the coming months.
Could it be that alien beings with “split-open” eyes were seen, not only by the ancient “descenders to the merkabah” I’d been writing about, but by modern UFO abductees as well?
And if so–what did this mean?
by David Halperin
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(Bibliographic note: for a complete translation of the book called Hekhalot Rabbati, made by a remarkable scholar of the last century named Morton Smith, click on the link and click again on the black rectangle. For a somewhat different translation of the first passage I quoted, scroll down to page 32. For the second, scroll to page 24.)