Sometime around the beginning of the 11th century, an Iraqi Jewish academician named Hai Gaon had to field a query from a puzzled reader of the Talmud:
“With respect to that which our rabbis taught, ‘Four entered Paradise, Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, the “Other One” and Rabbi Akiba’–what was that Paradise?”
Of course Hai Gaon’s correspondent was talking about the mysterious, evocative Talmudic story about which I posted last month in my series on “Quaternity Tales,” comparing the four visitors to “Paradise” to the four who entered Shangri-La in James Hilton’s Lost Horizon.
“Ben Zoma looked and went mad,” the story says; and Hai Gaon’s questioner wants to know: what did he look at in that “Paradise,” that drove him mad? What was the nature of his madness? “Rabbi Akiba entered safely and came out safely.” What exactly did Akiba “enter”? Why did he, alone of the four, manage to do it uninjured? “Let our master explain this passage to us,” the questioner asked Hai Gaon, “for many are the opinions regarding it.”
These words were written 1000 years ago. That’s how long–at a bare minimum–the “Paradise” story has baffled people.
To this barrage of questions, Hai Gaon gave an extraordinary answer:
“Many of the sages were of the opinion,” he wrote, “that an individual … who wishes to look at the merkabah and peer into the Palaces of the celestial angels, has ways to go about it.”
Merkabah (pronounced merka-VAH) is the Hebrew word for “chariot.” Since ancient times it’s been used as a shorthand for the vision Ezekiel describes in chapter 1 of his book, of the “living creatures,” the wheels and the rest. The one that people now sometimes say was a UFO. Studying the merkabah, said the ancient rabbis, is a no-no. Unless you’re very well prepared, it’s too dangerous. They never quite explain why it’s dangerous.
But let’s go back to Hai Gaon, and the “ways” you can go about seeing the merkabah.
“He must sit fasting for a specified number of days, place his head between his knees, and whisper to the earth many prescribed songs and hymns. Thus he peers into the inner rooms and chambers as if he were seeing the Seven Palaces with his own eyes, as if he were going from Palace to Palace and seeing what is in them.”
Hai Gaon goes on to say that the ancient rabbis have written two books on this subject, called Hekhalot Rabbati and Hekhalot Zutarti, the “Greater” and “Lesser” treatises on the Palaces. (Hekhalot, pronounced hey-kha-LOHT, is the Hebrew word for “Palaces”–or possibly “Temples.”) He also says that the “Paradise” of the Talmudic story is a metaphor for those heavenly Palaces. And that the four rabbis of the Talmudic story were among the mystics who set out on a journey to those Palaces.
Shall we believe him?
Gershom Scholem, the master scholar of Jewish mysticism about whom I posted last week, did believe him–enthusiastically. When Scholem wasn’t losing himself in the lush intricacies of the medieval Kabbalistic classics, or pondering the psychological riddle of the would-be Messiah Sabbatai Zevi, he was studying the manuscripts of those “treatises on the Palaces” that Hai Gaon spoke about. For him it was almost a no-brainer. There really was a school of “merkabah mystics” in the first few centuries of the Christian Era, who used mystical practices and chanted incantations in order to set themselves on psychic journeys to the celestial “Palaces.” Their goal: to see Ezekiel’s vision all over again.
Was Akiba, by all odds the greatest rabbi of the second century CE, one of these mystics? Is the “Paradise” story a genuine recollection of the experiences he and his fellow-mystics underwent? Scholem said: why not?
Scholem, like Hai Gaon hundreds of years earlier, called attention to a particularly cryptic passage in one version of the story. Rabbi Akiba says to his three friends: “When you draw near the stones of pure marble, do not say, ‘Water, water.’ For it is written, ‘He who speaketh lies shall not be established in My sight’ [Psalm 101:7].”
About which Scholem wrote: “Modern interpretations of this famous passage, which clearly enough refers to a real danger in the process of ascending to ‘Paradise,’ are extremely far-fetched and not a little irrational in their determination at all costs to preserve the characteristic essentials of rationalism.”
(And let us note: Scholem’s unstated enemies throughout his Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, from which this quotation is taken, were the rationalist German-Jewish scholars of the 19th century, who sneered at mysticism and denied it had any place in Judaism. Any time Scholem had a chance to take a jab at them, he went ahead and did that–with gusto.)
“The fact is that the later Merkabah mystics showed a perfectly correct understanding of the meaning of this passage, and their interpretation offers striking proof that the tradition of … mysticism and theosophy was really alive among them, although certain details may have originated in a later period. … The authenticity of the story’s core, the ecstatic’s vision of water, hardly requires proof … there is no reason whatsoever to doubt that the mystical experience of the dangers of the ascent is really the subject of the anecdote.”
To which I say: slow down, Professor Scholem! (Actually, I said that in my Ph.D. dissertation. Which was one reason he didn’t much like my dissertation.) Old-time UFOlogist though I am, I’m not quite ready to buy this package.
Listen to his language. “The fact is … perfectly correct … striking proof … really … authenticity … no reason whatsoever to doubt.” He seems to go a bit overboard with his certainties. And in the earlier paragraph: “clearly enough refers to a real danger in the process of ascending to ‘Paradise.'” The italics of the word real are Scholem’s. I ask: are there “real” dangers in a visionary ascent to Paradise? Is the ascent “real”? Is Paradise “real”? If so–in what way is it real?
Did Ezekiel “really” see that merkabah–creatures, wheels and all? Is it “really” there–in the stratosphere, in the Seventh Heaven, in some alien world or alternate dimension–for us to see it too? And if we do–do we “really” risk going insane like Ben Zoma?
(You begin to see the bearing of Scholem’s scholarship on the UFO problem …)
I’ll return to these questions next week. For the continuation of this post, click here.
by David Halperin
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