Merkavah Mysticism: God’s Dimensions ‎

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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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’). ‎
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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: ‎
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‎‘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.’ ‎
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Analysis ‎
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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’. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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Perceiving the Image ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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Reflections ‎
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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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