Descenders to the Chariot: The People behind the Hekhalot Literature

Descenders to the Chariot: The People behind the Hekhalot Literature

Descenders to the Chariot: The People behind the Hekhalot Literature

Descenders to the Chariot: The People behind the Hekhalot Literature

Synopsis

The Hekhalot literature is a bizarre conglomeration of Jewish esoteric and revelatory texts in Hebrew and Aramaic, produced sometime between late antiquity and the early Middle Ages and surviving in medieval manuscripts. These texts claims to describe the self-induced spiritual experiences of the descenders to the chariot" and to reveal the techniques that permitted these magico-religious practitioners to view for themselves Ezekiels Merkavah as well as to gain control of angels and a supernatural mastery of Torah. Drawing on epigraphic and archaeological evidence from the Middle East, anthropological models, and a wide range of cross-cultural evidence, this book aims to show that the Hekhalot literature preserves the teachings and rituals of real religious functionaries who flourished in late antiquity and who were quite like the functionaries anthopologists call shamans."

Excerpt

And what mortal man is it who is able
to ascend on high,
to ride on wheels,
to descend below,
to search out the inhabited world,
to walk on the dry land,
to gaze at His splendor,
to dwell with His crown,
to be transformed by His glory,
to recite praise,
to combine letters,
to recite their names,
to have a vision of what is above,
to have a vision of what is below,
to know the explanation of the living,
and to see the vision of the dead,
to walk in rivers of fire,
and to know the lightning?
And who is able to explain it,
and who is able to see it?
(Hekhalot Zutarti §§349–50)

Who indeed? Who is this profoundly mighty human being who rides a divine chariot on high and knows the place of the dead below, who gazes directly at God and is thereby transformed into a creature who wades in the celestial rivers of fire, and who exercises his powers on earth to understand the lives of those around him? This figure is the subject of the corpus of texts known as the Hekhalot literature and also the focus of this book. As a foretaste of many of the themes I will be exploring, I quote a passage written by a Soviet ethnographer about the experiences and characteristics of the spiritual intermediary generally, although not uncontroversially, called the “shaman”:

For linguistic and textual comments, see the discussion of this passage in chap
ter 9.

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