apocalyptic mystic

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  • 8/2/2019 Apocalyptic Mystic


    From Apocalypticism to Early Jewish Mysticism?

    Michael Mach

    The topic of this paper is highly speculative in nature. The following

    survey seeks to single out some elements that may be seen as pointing to an

    inner-religious development from ancient apocalyptic texts towards later

    mystical ones. The attempt as such has to struggle with considerable

    difficulties of methods and evidence. It seems advisable, therefore, to address

    some of these problems at the outset and to discuss the relevant apocalyptic

    texts only thereafter.


    Ancient Jewish apocalypticism has produced a considerable amount of

    literature. Within the Jewish community, however, the writing of apocalypses

    seems to have ceased some few decades after the destruction of the second

    Jewish temple in 70 CE. The first still known document released by the rabbis

    thereafter, the Mishnah, mentions the days of the messiah no more than

    once (Mishnah Berakhot I,5; in an eschatological meaning the term messiah is

    mentioned once again in a later gloss in Mishnah Sota IX, 15). The works of

    Jewish apocalypticism have been copied and transmitted by different

    Christian churches.

    One gets the impression that for a short period of time the apocalyptic

    heritage and all that goes with it have been suspended from rabbinicaldefinitions of Jewish religion. To make it immediately clear: Only a short

    while after theMishnah, official rabbinic documents will mention themessiah

    again, will come back to some notions of apocalyptic literature etc. The

    change is not as radical and one-sided as might be expected. Yet, most

    characteristic features of the apocalyptic literature and its eschatology are

    either not really represented or appear only as possible background candi-

    dates, e.g., for rabbinic polemics or other theological discourses. Could it

    indeed be that such an enormous theological (not necessarily: social!)

    movement was erased from the intellectual landscape? In the later Talmudic

    period and shortly thereafter apocalyptic ideas will re-enter the rabbinic

    discussion, and outside the Talmudim some minor apocalypses will be

    written (Even Shmuel, 1968). The ongoing stream of that literature, marginal

    as it might have been, testifies at least that apocalypticism was not totally

    abandoned. It was kept in the background of the more official works such as

    the Mishnah that were given to serve the community as a new basis for

    religious self-definition. However suppressed, it will continue to influence

    some thinkers.Nevertheless, one cannot fail to see a major change that occurred in

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    Michael Mach 2 From Apocalypticism to Mysticism

    Jewish piety, once the works of apocalypticism were abandoned (being, in-

    deed, no longer transmitted by the synagogue but by the Christian church

    alone), but also eschatology and every other form of hope for the future had

    to undergo substantial re-interpretations. One might go so far as to define the

    rabbinic re-formulation of Judaism as sanctification of the nation within thisworld with no real importance to any other-worldly salvation (cp. Neusner,

    1984). The question to be asked is, therefore, quite naturally whether other

    strands of Jewish piety - be it at the fringes of rabbinical teaching, as

    suppressed part of it or totally outside - reflect the former apocalyptic

    traditions and to what degree. Formulated in a different direction: What other

    forms of religious thought might have been created out of former apocalyptic

    ideas and in what religio-social context are these to be expected? An

    outstanding candidate for a re-modeled piety, based upon the earlier

    apocalypses was found in the literature of what is commonly called early

    Jewish mysticism, i.e., the so-called Hekhalot-literature. The following lines

    will, therefore, deal with the possible connections between apocalypticism

    and the early mystic traditions in Judaism treating especially the possible

    (proto-) mystical elements occurring in the former.


    The renewed interest in ancient Jewish apocalypticism has gone side

    by side with a relatively new academic field of Jewish studies, namely Jewish

    mysticism. If the former was inter alia due to the new finds of, e.g., the Dead

    Sea Scrolls the later owes its existence mainly to the life-work of Gerhard

    Gershom Scholem. He elevated mystic texts to a level of academic discussion

    and investigation that could and indeed still does take its place at the side of

    more traditional fields of academic Jewish learning (see mainly Scholem,

    1946; 1960).

    Yet, it was only later that following Scholems more general remarks

    both groups of texts, apocalypses and Jewish mystic lore, were brought into

    closer relation. The first peek in this regard is Ithamar Gruenwalds Ph.D.thesis, conducted under Scholems supervision and consequently published

    in a totally reworked form (Gruenwald, 1980, and later followed by other

    scholars). The direction of scholarly interest mainly articulated in this later

    work is to a certain degree obligated to Scholems definition of the different

    stages of inner development detectable within Jewish mysticism. What stands

    for discussion here is especially the literature known as Hekhalot

    ([heavenly] palaces, that the mystic passes through) or Merkavah ([Gods]

    chariot, the aim of the mystics vision). The main purpose of this literature

    was defined by Scholem and his followers as the mystics passing through the(seven) heavenly palaces in order to gain a vision of God enthroned on his

    chariot. Thus the apocalyptic ascent stories, e.g., have been considered the

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    Michael Mach 3 From Apocalypticism to Mysticism

    direct soil that nurtured the later mystic ascents. Following that line of

    argumentation scholars working upon Jewish apocalyptic texts have taken

    some interest in Hekhalot-literature and its motives, using them partly as

    proof of the ongoing existence of apocalyptic traditions. Only recently the so-

    called 3Enoch, a part of the Hekhalot texts, has been included in J. H.Charlesworth assembly of apocalyptic texts (cp. also Himmelfarb, 1993;

    Fossum, 1995). To be sure, the name given to this specific text is a misnomer

    introduced by its modern editor (H. Odeberg; according to the manuscripts:

    Book of the Palaces). On the other side scholars have tried to deal with the

    mystic qualities of apocalyptic literature (e.g., Rowland, 1982).

    The outlined development alone would have sufficed to justify a

    discussion of early Jewish mystic texts and their dependence upon the older

    apocalypses within the frame of a broader study on apocalypticism.

    However, before entering into such a comparison it should be made clear,

    that this whole line of relating one group of texts to another is open for

    discussion because of different counter arguments. These will be addressed in

    the following. They concern the nature of the Hekhalot texts as regarding the

    manuscripts, the fluctuation of the textual tradition, the date and character of

    this whole literature. Only thereafter the broader issue of possible

    transformations from apocalypticism as a basically prophetic, politically

    critical type of religion into a quite different, more individual (not necessarily

    uncritical), yet, more quiet form of religion may be approached.It is, however, still another question whether or not mystic elements

    may already have been part of the underlying traditions behind the

    apocalypses. In such a case the transformation of these eschatological texts

    into mystic experiences would take on another dimension and would affect

    our understanding of these topics within the Hekhalot literature. We will

    have to come back to this issue, too.

    In short, despite the considerable amount of scholarly activity to clarify

    the precise relations between both bulks of texts there remains a lot to be

    done. Here some of the main questions should be pointed out without an

    attempt to solve them.


    However, before entering into the real subject some features of the

    Hekhalot-writings should be outlined which will considerably restrict any

    comparison between the two streams of literature: The first and most im-

    portant objection against the assumption of a direct historic link between

    ancient apocalypses and the Hekhalot-literature has come up relatively re-

    cently. The manuscripts of these mystic texts differ notably from those of

    other texts. Ancient texts are normally copied by scribes - sometimes together

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    Michael Mach 4 From Apocalypticism to Mysticism

    with others - as whole units. The Hekhalot-manuscripts, on the other hand,

    combine the material quite often in different orders, sometimes overlapping

    etc. (Schfer, 1981, vi-viii). It has, therefore, been asked whether one is

    permitted to see in the different writings indeed books, treatises, in other

    words: defined works of religious literature or else a stream of an ongoingtradition reworked more or less by every scribe (Schfer, 1988). This specific

    characteristic of the manuscript tradition has led the editor of the texts to a

    synoptic printing of the evidence instead of establishing a critical text as we

    are accust