Merkavah Mysticism: God’s Dimensions
What is God?
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There are a few important segments of Jewish literature that seem to have been systematically excised from the books. Among this dubious category are the works associated with the earliest known mystics of Judaism, the so-called Merkavah mystics, or Throne mystics. If you are wondering who on earth the Merkavah or Throne mystics were, you are not alone. Hardly anybody has ever heard of them, despite the fact that many of the names associated with them are the standard names of the early rabbinic era.
So who were these Merkavah mystics and what is Merkavah mysticism to begin with? The Merkavah was the ‘Divine Chariot’ of Ezekiel, through which he ascended to the highest levels of the heavens and gazed upon the image of the Throne and the image of the likeness of a man upon it. His vision did not die with him. It was either carried on in secret circles through the entire second temple period, until it surfaced again with the Merkavah mystics, or it died out early on and was revived several centuries later by these mystics. Whether or not whatever these mystics were up to actually had anything to do with the vision of Ezekiel, is anybody’s guess.
What exactly were they doing? The only sources we have for them are a few somewhat complete texts that may or may not be accurate transcriptions of the originals, several fragments of other texts, and a few scattered statements in the Talmud and Midrash. It isn’t much to go on. What we have tells us that they used to practice a form of meditation that was sometimes referred to as ‘descending in the Chariot’. It is hard to say what the practices consisted of, but it certainly included journeying inside the mind to the various chambers of heaven and communicating in some way with God, the angels, and assorted other occupants of the heavenly realms.
The primary texts that we have from this period are generally considered to have been written between the years 300 and 700, though there is great dispute on both these limits. The rabbinic names associated with the texts date from the early rabbinic period. Almost all scholars write off these associations as another example of pseudepigrapha. Among these, what is the most bizarre by the standards of mainstream Judaism, is the brief volume called Shiur Komah (sometimes translated as ‘Measure of the Divine Body’).
Nobody knows when this text was composed. It is dated between the 1st century and the 8th century, with most scholars favoring somewhere in the 6th century. It has gone through numerous renditions and has probably been severely corrupted along the way. It deals with, believe it or not, a detailed accounting of the measurements of the various parts of God’s body. If you find that description hard to accept, you are either in very good company or you should read the book yourself. These measurements are told to Rabbi Yishmael by none other than Metatron. It actually does go through the various limbs of God’s body one by one giving enormous measurements for each. Interspersed within all this are hymns and prayers praising God to all ends. The first few lines of the book are enough to give a picture of what is coming:
‘Rabbi Yishmael said, “Metatron the Great Prince said to me: I bear testimony for YHWH, the God of Israel, the living and eternal deity, Our Lord and Master, that His height, from His seat of glory and upward is 118 ten thousands parasangs (each parasang is assumed to be about 3 kilometers); from His seat of glory down is 118 ten thousands parasangs. His total height is 236 ten thousands parasangs…Therefore He is called the great, the mighty, and the awesome El”… It is said that he who knows this mystery is assured of his portion in the world to come, and will be saved from the punishment of Gehinnom (Hell), and from all kinds of punishments and evil decrees about to befall the world, and will be saved from all kinds of witchcraft, for He saves us, protects us, redeems us, and rescues me (the name of the mystic) from all evil things, from all harsh decrees, and from all kinds of punishments for the sake of His Great Name.’
There you have it. It only gets more graphic as the text continues. After a long break of extremely elaborate praise it goes into the ‘soles of His feet’, ankles, legs, thighs, neck, beard, roundness of His head, and cheeks. More praise follows, and then it’s on to eyes, shoulders, arms, hands, fingers, and toes. At one point we are told that the normal standard of measurement (one parasang equals three mils, each mil is 1,000 cubits, which is about 500 meters) does not apply. Rather, ‘The size of the parasangs, what they measure: each parasang consists of three mils, each mil contains ten thousand cubits, each cubit two spans, and His span fills the whole world’. When it is finally over we are told: ‘Hence, the total measure (of the Divine Stature) is ten thousand of ten thousands ten thousand thousand parasangs in height, and one thousand thousand ten thousands of parasangs in width’.
What are we to make of all this. This entire genre of Merkavah mysticism never made it into mainstream Jewish circles. It was likely passed secretly out of its place of origin (either Israel or Bavel) and somehow made its way into Europe. It may have come accompanied by a tradition or it may have been simply mysterious documents that nobody understood. In time, it resurfaced in the form of medieval mysticism in new lands – most notably in Spain, Italy, southern France, and Germany. By the time of these new incarnations it had changed completely into a different style and theology. These original texts were largely forgotten over the centuries, but within select circles they retained a certain ancient authenticity. Despite their borderline heretical content they couldn’t be dismissed outright, but neither could they be accepted at face value. There they remained, hovering in the gray area between heresy and holy, greatly respected but kept at arm’s length. It was a fitting fate for such strange texts.
Not all rabbinic authorities were so kind to these texts. The philosophers rejected them completely, considering them to be bold-faced heresy that had no place in Judaism. No less an authority than Maimonides was asked about the Shiur Komah and declared that it was akin to idolatry and should be ‘erased and forgotten’ (Responsum #117). To a great degree this is exactly what happened. Hardly anybody remembers Shiur Komah, and of those who do, almost none have ever so much as glanced at it, let alone read it through. The whole genre of Merkavah mysticism has no relevancy, even in the ethereal worlds of Kabbalah. It was a phase that ran its course and no longer exists.
The main way of dealing with the bizarre imagery of the book is to write it all off as metaphor. This approach, of course, has its shortcomings. It can only be taken so far before it loses credibility. Shiur Komah seems to be a classic case of ‘beyond metaphor’. Did Jews actually believe this stuff? The only credible explanation is a combination of two factors: first that the physical/palpable image had not yet been expunged from Judaism and in fact it was reaching a peak around this time. Second, the concept of infinity as a number, and as a measurement of dimension, hadn’t worked its way into the Jewish mind.
We have already seen considerable evidence of the first assumption. That it was peaking at this point should be no surprise. What spelled the doom of the palpable image was philosophy, which would not make major inroads into Judaism until the 10th century. Up to that point, the only dogma in Judaism was that it be monotheistic. Christianity must have placed limits on what was acceptable but we really don’t know how rigorously those limits were applied. Son of God and physical-sounding images of God were common throughout the Talmudic and Midrashic periods. This kind of theology was still acceptable in certain circles before the 10th century. The heresy of one era may be the theology of another.
The second factor – the inability to fathom infinity – puzzles modern people. We assume that whatever we can grasp must have been equally graspable by people before us. This is simply not the case. It is possible that notions of infinity would have left pre-16th century people scratching their heads or even suspecting some devilry was at work. That these ancient mystics equated God’s divine magnitude with enormous but not infinite scope, may have been nothing more than a reflection of their own limited vision of the idea of dimension.
All in all, this book is every bit as mysterious as it was meant to be. It created, or continued, an image of God that was disturbingly palpable and physical even as it was so large that it was impossible to grasp. Most Jews are only too relieved that such images did not survive the Middle Ages. It was the last vestiges of an ancient Biblical image that survived longer than it should have, almost like a dinosaur that somehow made it past the extinctions of 60 million years ago and lived into historical times.
Perceiving the Image
Is there any point in perceiving an image that Jews across the spectrum agree is either heretical or outdated? Our vote is no. However, it is important to recognize that this was not the case in the past. If we go back far enough, we would encounter people whose mindset needed such an image of God and were able to work with it. Images of God are just images. They are not God. They are rooted in the human imagination, a rather hazy part of the mind. This does not mean that the images do not reveal a vital element of true reality, just that the revelation happened through the lens of the human imagination. The imagination colors the true reality with an indelible shade of personal perception that may not hide the truth, but at the same time, may not reveal it all the way. That there have been many images of God bears this observation out. Each image has its own coloring – highlighting certain things and obscuring others. This image highlights the unfathomable magnitude of God - a crucial element of the journey into the divine.
By and large, people today, even mystical-oriented Jews, are not interested in this journey. Even those who are willing to cross that forbidden line are rarely interested in anything more than an intellectual overview. It is only those who wish to delve seriously into meditation on the divine that an image such as this really matters. Those few, whoever they are, have a genuine need for images to guide them along their unmarked paths. Those paths are filled with dead ends and false leads. They work once and they don’t work the next time. Most seekers who have braved these roads inside the mind have experienced the pitfalls and the frustration that invariably accompanies their thankless trek. They need something to grasp hold of, something they can recognize the next time they make the journey. It won’t do to tell them that the words they say in davening are enough to steer their prayers in the right direction. They want more than words and promises. They want the ultimate experience, which is nothing less than the experience of God. That is what images such as this strange one from Shiur Komah do. It may no longer work for most of us, but it opened doors for seekers in the past.
When can an image of God be declared wrong or heretical? When is that invisible line crossed that puts an image beyond the pale?
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