Friday, August 26, 2011

A Response to Rob Bowman: Early Jewish Mysticism Pt. 1

Rob Bowman wrote a blogpost critiquing an installment of Daniel Petersen's column in the Deseret News.[1]
My previous post details why one of Bowman's assumptions is untenable, mainly, the position that the word midrash generally means a specific Tannaitic body of literature. I've shown that there is no reason for that to be considered the default definition. He used that assumption in an attempt to show that Petersen misrepresented his source.
In this post I'll examine another statement of his on which much of Bowman's argument hangs.
Before doing so it is worth explaining my use of the word "mysticism." I use it here in a general sense, the imperfect equivalent of the Hebrew term "torat ha-sod," similar to how Gershom Scholem used it in his book "Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism." I will be using it interchangeably with "esotericism."
We need look no further than Patai’s book, from which all of the Mormons derive the quotation, to discover that the text dates from at least six centuries later than Aqiva. In Patai’s “Chronological List of Sources” at the back of the book, the “Midrash Alpha Beta di R. Akiba” is listed as originating from the “8th-9th” centuries. In another book, Patai explains the religious context of the work:
“The foundations of medieval Kabbalism were laid in Babylonia and Byzantium in the 7th and 8th centuries, when a number of Midrashim with marked Kabbalistic tendencies made their appearance. Several of these (e.g,, the Alpha Beta of Rabbi Akiba and the Midrash Konen) deal with the mysteries of Creation and the structure of the universe.”
That’s right, the quotation comes from a foundational work in the development of the medieval mystical Jewish tradition known as Kabbalah. This isn’t just Patai’s opinion. It is the scholarly, academic consensus.

Rob Bowman goes on to say that,
The fact that Peterson and several other Mormon apologists resort to utilizing such a quotation while failing to describe its source accurately is especially troubling. This is the only quotation in Peterson’s article that he does not identify specifically. Clearly, had he done so, it would have weakened his argument. Each of the Mormon apologists cited here had the wherewithal to track down the source of the quotation and to state accurately the period of history and religious perspective from which it originated. I make no judgment as to why they all failed to do so.

Unfortunately, beyond stating a range of dates for the composition of the Ottiyot de-Rabbi Akiva (ORA), Rob Bowman has not accurately stated the religious perspective from which it originated. A glaring example is that none of the other references provided by Bowman state that the ORA is markedly Kabbalistic.
Aside from inaccurately describing the religious perspective and not discussing what kind of text the ORA is, Bowman has failed to address important issues affecting the dating of the concepts presented in the work. He has not discussed a single primary source beyond providing the full quote as it appears in "The Messiah Texts", nor said which part he considers late.
Looking at the quote from Patai's "The Hebrew Goddess," I am at a loss to find exactly which tendencies in the ORA Patai saw as markedly Kabbalistic.
Try as I might, I just can't find any. There is no mention of such key Kabbalistic concepts as Ein-Sof or Ayin, no emanations (Sefirot) of the Godhead and their role in the universe, no feminine aspect of God which must be reunited with God, nothing which is specific to the Kabbalah.
If Bowman would assert that there is something explicit or implicit in the text which could be considered specifically Kabbalistic then he must make a case for it.
Kabbalah is often used to refer to all forms of Jewish mysticism, but this usage is sloppy. Though the Kabbalah shares strong affinities with earlier mystical trends, such as the Merkabah mystics or the German Pietists (Hasidei Ashkenaz), as a distinctive movement it mainly stems from 12th century Provence.
Rob's "Proto-Kabbalistic" is not a very useful term generally. I don't know of a single Jewish esoteric text or tradition which couldn't with some justification be called proto-Kabbalistic. It is possible to write many entries on this alone, but a few examples should suffice.[2]
My highschool was not far from Or Haganuz, a Jewish community formed on Kabbalistic ethics and ideals as formulated by a disciple of R. Yehudah Leib Ashlag. Ashlag was a pivotal 20th century Kabbalist who translated the Zohar into Modern Hebrew and attempted to popularise its teachings. His goal was to create an altruistic community based on living the Torah (or rather, the true meaning as revealed by Kabbalah) for Torah's sake. By accepting the life of "thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" they would be fulfilling the purpose of creation and would ascend as it were on a ladder to God and cleave to him completely.[3]
Or Haganuz takes its name from a Jewish tradition regarding the light of creation, and literally means the hidden, or concealed light.
Howard Schwartz provides a brief explanation.
Everyone is familiar with the words of Genesis 1:3, And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. But the ancient rabbis, who scrutinized the words of the Bible for every hidden mystery, wondered what light this was. After all, God did not create the sun, the moon, and the stars till the fourth day. So what was the light of the first day?...
The rabbis conclude that the two lights—that of the first day and that of the fourth—are different. The light of the first day is a primordial light, what is called the or ha-ganuz, or hidden light. This resolves the problem. But it also raises a whole series of new questions—What was the nature of that sacred light? Where did it come from, and where did it go? These questions have been debated among the rabbis for many centuries, and they arrive at a variety of explanations.[4]

The concept of this light is important to many, if not most, kabbalistic systems, and in its hasidic form exemplifies the philosophy of Or Haganuz's settlers.
This is seen in the teachings of the Rav Kook, who was a seminal figure in modern Judaism and Israeli history. He served as chief rabbi in British Mandate Palestine and did much to bring the gap between the secular Zionist movement and the reactionary orthodox community. For him they both had that part of the truth which the other lacked. The middle path, combining the zealous activism of the former with the deep religiosity of the latter, would help bring salvation to the world.
When I lived in London I used to visit the National Gallery, and my favourite pictures were those of Rembrandt. I really think that Rembrandt was a Tzadik. Do you know that when I first saw Rembrandt's works, they reminded me of the legend about the creation of light? We are told that when God created light, it was so strong and pellucid, that one could see from one and of the world to the other, but God was afraid that the wicked might abuse it. What did He do? He reserved that light for the righteous when the Messiah should come. But now and then there are great men who are blessed and privilaged to see it. I think that Rembrandt was one of them, and the light in his pictures is the very light that was originally created by God Almighty[5]

This light is what sustains and rejuvenates the world, and is expressly manifest through ethical behaviour.
The enlightenment of holy men is the basis for the spiritual illumination that arises in the world, in all human hearts. The holy men, those of pure thought and contemplation, join themselves, in their inner sensibilities, with the spiritual that pervades all. Everything that is revealed to them is an emergence of light, a disclosure of the divine, which adds life and firmness, abiding life and spiritual firmness, which gives stability to the whole world with the diffusion of its beneficience.
A life-giving illumination flows always from the source of the Torah, which brings to the world light from the highest realm of the divine. It embraces the values of the spiritual and the material, the temporal and the eternal, the moral and the practical, the individual and the social. These spell life to all who come in contact with them, and guard them in their purity.
Meditation on the inner life and moral conformity must always go together with those qualified for this. They absorb the light pervading the world, which abides in all souls, and they present it as one whole. Through the influences radiating from their life and their fellowship with others, through the impact of their will and the greatness of their spirirtual being, through their humility and love for all creatures, they then disseminate the treasure of life and of good to all.
These men of upright heart are channels through which light and life reach to all creatures. They are vessels for radiating the light of eternal life. They are the servants of God, who heed His word, the messengers who do His will to revive those near death, to strengthen the weak, to awaken those who slumber.[6]

The Rav Kook's view here is drawn from a core Hasidic concept- the Tzadik.
This is not the place to discuss Tzadikism in depth, but a few words by way of explanation are necessary.
Tzadik is Hebrew for righteous. In Hasidism though it came to represent a special class of leader, a holy man who is the intermediary between the world of God and the world of man. He is the pipeline which draws the holy downwards and the profane upwards. Since he cleaves whole-heartedly to God, his disciples cleave to him. He can intercede for them and raise them up, transforming everything into holiness.[7]
There is a famous Hasidic tradition from the circle of R. Elimelech of Lizhensk, adapted by Martin Buber for the opening portion of "Or Haganuz," his collection of Hasidic stories.
R. Eleazar said: "The light that the Holy One, blessed be He, created on the first day- Adam could see with it from one end of the world to the next. Since the Holy One, blessed be He, looked at the generation of the Deluge and the generation of the Division and saw that their deeds were wicked, He concealed the light from them. And for whom did he conceal it? For the righteous in the future to come."[8]
Hasidim asked: "Where did he conceal it?"
They were answered: "In the Torah."
They asked: "If so, will the Tsadikim not find some of the light as they study Torah?"
They answered: "They certainly will find some."
They asked: "If so, what will the Tsadikim do when they find some of the concealed light in the Torah?"
They answered: "They will reveal it in the way they live."[9]

Apart from the ethical interpretation, there is another aspect of the hidden light which played an even greater role in Kabbalah.
In that classic of Hasidic hagiography, "In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov," a story is told of how R. Baruch was having his oxen sold in a distant town, but worried that they might have been stolen. He sent R. Yosef Kaminker to the Baal Shem Tob (Besht) who then opened the Zohar and read from it.
"I see that R. Baruch's oxen have not been stolen."
R. Yosef asked the Besht, "Is that really written in the Zohar?"
The Besht replied. "This is what our sages said about the verse 'And God saw that the light was good.' They said that it is good to hide it, since with the light of the six days of Creation, one could see from one end of the world to the other. Where did the Holy One, Blessed be He, hide it? He hid it in the Torah. And when they said 'for the righteous in the future to come,' this means for the righteous who will come into the world. Whoever attains the light hidden in the Torah can see with it from one end of the world to the other. Do you suppose that I only saw the oxen? I also saw something which happened in the Jewish community of Amsterdam."[10]
We aren't told what the Besht saw in Amsterdam, but this use of the hidden light is also characteristic of R. Isaac Luria (the Ari) in the hagiography which grew around him.
The hidden light was in him, reaching from one end of this world to the next. He was able to illumine and explain the words of R. Shimon bar Yohai. As it is written in Shivhei Ha-Ari, everything the Ari achieved came from the Zohar.[11]

R. Azriel of Gerona, a leading Kabbalist of the generation before the Zohar had the following to say about the hidden light.
This first light is like the light of thought in which a man sees all that he wishes to look at... and this is the light of wisdom which would rest upon the prophets and crown them with its light, and they would see visions by power, visions of whatever could be, from one end of the world to the next. As long as the soul is pure it shows in her its power and increases, shining brighter and brighter. This light is set apart for the righteous, as they posess a clean and pure spirit, and this light is called the light of life.[12]

Other Kabbalists focused on the implications of the hidden light for creation. R. Shimon ibn Lavi was born in Spain but during his childhood his family was forced to move to Morocco due to the Spanish Expulsion. He was active during the early 16th c. and composed "Ketem Paz," a very important commentary on the Zohar. In it he expresses an idea very similar to the slightly later one found in Lurianic Kabbalah- Tzimtzum, or contraction. The "mystery of expansion" where light is emanated and fills the universe, thus bringing everything into existence, is considered exile, since the light leaves God. The light is then retracted and concealed, since it is too powerful for anything to continue existing in its glare.[13]
This concept of a primeval, hidden light appears both in the talmuds and in various midrashim. One of these quotes has already been mentioned in connection with Buber's anthology.
R. Eleazar said: "The light that the Holy One, blessed be He, created on the first day- Adam could see with it from one end of the world to the next.
Fourth Ezra, a work from around the late 1st c. CE, also knows of such a light.
Then You commanded that a ray of light be brought forth from your treasuries, so that your works might then appear.
This goes back as far as the Hellenistic Jewish writer Aristobolus.
The first [day], the one in which the light was born by which all things are seen together.[14]
Should we consider these as proto-Kabbalistic? That designation quickly becomes meaningless. These texts are not proto-Kabbalistic, even though many of the Kabbalists are often closer to those texts in their thoughts on the nature of this light than the Amoraic statements are.
I doubt that Rob Bowman would consider 1 Corinthians 15:29 proto-Mormon just because LDS use it as a prooftext for the doctrine of proxy baptism.[15]
It is also highly doubtful that he would consider Ezekiel 1 proto-Kabbalistic, even though terminology drawn from it forms an important part of Kabbalistic teachings and modes of expression. Shaul Magid explains how Ezekiel's vision played a role in the way certain Hasidic movements perceived God's interaction with the universe.
R. Gershon Henokh suggests that the telos of Ezekiel’s vision was to reveal the place where divine concealment (koah ha-hester) begins to reveal itself, resulting in the realization that divine absence is itself divine.
"At that time it was God’s will to show Ezekiel how God fills the entire creation. Therefore, he showed Ezekiel the first [highest] place where He could be apprehended until the place that was necessary, i.e., the place of His concealment.
That is, until the world of formation [‘olam ha-yezerah].
As it is explained . . . in the world of emanation, holiness and goodness are
This is also true in the world of creation. In the world of formation, however, good and evil are balanced. Therefore, it is only in the world of formation that the power of divine concealment begins. God wanted to show Ezekiel that the power of concealment is itself from God."
R. Gershon Henokh utilizes the Lurianic notion that the chariot is housed in the world of formation (yezerah)—the first world where good and evil appear as distinct—as a support for the Maimonidean claim that the chariot represents metaphysics.
That is, metaphysics is the highest realm of speculation of the divine because it is the first place where God is hidden. Divine absence becomes the first stage of our apprehension of God. The first human apprehension of God is His absence.
For R. Gershon Henokh, the purpose of the vision is for Ezekiel to see and communicate that God’s absence (evil) is the result of divine will.
The Lurianic interpretation of the chariot of Ezekiel lowers the status of the prophetic vision to a place that is accessible to the human intellect and experience, that is, the angelic world where good and evil are already distinct.[16]
There is a Zohar section discussing the elements of Ezekiel's vision.
From these two sparkling spirits the wheels (Ofannim) are created, and they are holy, their nature being like that of the creatures... "It flashed up and down among the creatures" (Ezekiel 1:13). What does "it" refer to? This is the holy spirit... When spirit was composed within spirit, there emerged from them the illumination of one creature, which lies above the four wheels.[17]

Another example that has a little more bearing on the ORA is gematria. Like everyone else in Israel of the days of a single TV station, I grew up watching the comedy program "Zehu Zeh." Every Friday during the Gulf War, it hardly seems an exaggeration to say that it kept the country sane. One of the best-loved characters was the Baba Bubah, a parody of a senile old Moroccan Kabbalist who interpreted contemporary events by exaggerated and implausible use of gematria.
There are and were several radio shows featuring experts in gematria who use it to resolve issues in the callers' lives, and even many internet sites with gematria calculators. In the popular imagination, Kabbalah and gematria are practically synonymous.
The Sabbateans used gematria heavily in their attempts to prove that Sabbetai Tzvi was the Messiah. A generation earlier in what was then part of the Polish Commonwealth, R. Shimshon of Ostropol devoted his life to nullifying the power of the demonic agents of evil- kelipot, that is, shells. For him these kelipot were manifested in Christianity. There are numerous instances of fierce anti-Christian mystical polemic in his writings. He used gematria to show that King David provided a key to nullifying the power of Christ. If the numerical values for two of the names of Christ in R. Shimshon's teachings are combined- beam (korah) and hunger (raav, consisting of the same letters as raven, which is the antithesis of the dove)- they result in sar pah (Prince Snare). Psalm 124:7 reads,
Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we are escaped.[18]

Gematria has very ancient roots, and was used in the talmuds as well.
Satan has no permission to act as accuser on the Day of Atonement. Whence [is that derived]? — Rama b. Hama said: "The numerical value of Ha-Satan in gematria is three hundred and sixty-four, that means: on three hundred and sixty-four days he has permission to act as accuser, but on the Day of Atonement he has no permission to act as accuser.[19]

The ORA was important to the developement of the Kabbalah because instead of statements scattered here and there, it presented an extensive treatise on the inner meaning of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and, by extension, the possibilities inherent in those letters. There are few concepts in the ORA which can't be found in earlier writings, and this is partiularly true of the quote in question.
Joseph Dan has this to say on what sort of text the ORA is.
This midrash, usually regarded as one collected in the seventh century, is actually an anthology that is distinguished from other similar ones by its keen interest in both cosmogony and mystical literature, but first and foremost by its structure as a commentary on the shape and meaning of the letters of the alphabet. It includes among other things, a brief description of the ascent of Enoch and his transformation to Metatron.[20]

Gershom Scholem, father of the modern study of Jewish mysticism and Joseph Dan's teacher, briefly discussed the ORA as it relates to the textual history of the "Shiur Komah."
Two manuscripts of Shiur Komah versions partially survived on parchment pages in the Cairo Genizah... Further fragments are extant in Hekhaloth Rabbati and Hekhaloth Zutarti... Another fragment is preserved in the so-called Alphabet of Rabbi Akiba, which, to be sure, was edited later than the above-mentioned pieces but nevertheless preserved a great deal of the old Merkavah material.[21]
In other words, according to Scholem and Dan both, the ORA was an anthology of older material. Bowman's emphasis on the late date of the ORA implies that anything in it must be regarded as having a 7th-9th c. provenance. This does not take into account the nature of the ORA. Bowman would need to show that the quote in question is late, since there is sufficient evidence for the continuity from earlier times of the concepts in said quote. Bowman's argument can be illustrated by an admittedly imperfect analogy. If I had written a newspaper editorial on Elizabethan and Jacobean dramaturgy and quoted the following from Charles and Mary Lamb's "Tales from Shakespear" without mentioning the source, would it mean that this scene was from 1806?
Iago knitted his brow, as if he had got fresh light on some terrible matter, and cried: 'Indeed!' This brought into Othello's mind the words which Iago had let fall upon entering the room, and seeing Cassio with Desdemona; and he began to think there was some meaning in all this: for he deemed Iago to be a just man, and full of love and honesty, and 'what in a false knave would be tricks, in him seemed to be the natural workings of an honest mind, big with something too great for utterance: and Othello prayed Iago to speak what he knew, and to give his worst thoughts words. 'And what,' said Iago, 'if some thoughts very vile should have intruded into my breast, as where is the palace into which foul things do not enter?' Then Iago went on to say, what a pity it were, if any trouble should arise to Othello out of his imperfect observations; that it would not be for Othello's peace to know his thoughts; that people's good names were not to be taken away for slight suspicions; and when Othello's curiosity was raised almost to distraction with these hints and scattered words, Iago, as if in earnest care for Othello's peace of mind, besought him to beware of jealousy: with such art did this villain raise suspicions in the unguarded Othello, by the very caution which he pretended to give him against suspicion. 'I know,' said Othello, 'that my wife is fair, loves company and feasting, is free of speech, sings, plays, and dances well: but where virtue is, these qualities are virtuous. I must have proof before I think her dishonest.'
In Hardin Craig's edition of Shakespeare's plays this takes up 91 lines!
Joseph Dan brings up another issue which has bearing on this discussion.
It is sometimes difficult to decide when a text serves as an influential source for further creativity, and when its message is simply reproduced, so that the individuality of both the source and the medieval follower is completely negated.[22]
Rob Bowman hasn't even attempted to show that the ORA quote falls into the former category, he merely asserts that it is.
Lawrence Schiffman discusses Enochian and Hekhalot material in particular, but his observations hold true for Jewish mystical works in general.
The notion of a developing literature of “booklets” that he has explored so carefully regarding 1 Enoch (VanderKam 1984, 17-101) is clearly the correct method with which to understand the eventual emergence of 2 and 3 Enoch as well. These works are composites of documents that were themselves put together from other minor protodocuments, a phenomenon clearly emerging from the results of VanderKam’s detailed research… The close relationship of our official Enoch literature- or better, the various booklets- with other texts (not just traditions) highlights the value of this literary-historical model. Had I sought to work on 2 Enoch and its relation to 1 Enoch, this approach would have been enough to provide a model to understand the development of 2 Enoch… It turns out that “booklets,” or better, short treatises, are the building blocks of all the hekhalot-type texts, as shown by Peter Schafer (1983).
In fact, texts as we know them, independent compositions, are a misnomer for these “texts,” since different manuscripts have different mixes of common, but not always present, building blocks. With this model in mind we can grasp that, like 1 Enoch and 2 Enoch, 3 Enoch is such a composite.
However, 3 Enoch is not just a composite of text traditions such as those found in 1 and 2 Enoch. The circle that produced, exported, composed, redacted, copied, and studied traditions like those in 1 Enoch and 3 Enoch produced various booklets which still circulated in different forms and in different languages after the so-called 1 and 2 Enoch came into being as redacted texts. Some of the original documents circulated in translation. These traditions somehow mixed with those of the hekhalot trend and were redomesticated as part of the emerging textual tradition of late rabbinic/early medieval Jewish esotericism.[23]

Aside from these matters of text, Joseph Dan explains another aspect of Jewish mysticism which Bowman has ignored.
These three subjects- homiletical interpretations of Ezekiel 1, of the first chapters of Genesis, and magic- constitute by far the majority of the parallels found between talmudic and midrashic literature and the esoteric literature. It is true that it is nearly impossible to describe the beginnings of these phenomena, which are so closely integrated with all other aspects of Jewish religious expression from biblical times to the period of the Talmud and Midrash, including the Apocrypha, the Dead Sea scrolls, and early Christian works. One may try to show the beginning of a specific idea or concept in this vast panorama, but the subjects as a whole seem to have been of continuous interest to all trends and tendencies within Jewish culture.[24]
Bowman has asked, or, rather, presented his readers the wrong question.
The kind of questions that should be asked relate to how was the text composed; is it a single composition or is it an anthology; how were traditions transmitted; what in the text is genuinely new or otherwise marks a departure from older texts and traditions; does the designation "medieval" imply a new historical era at this point in Jewish history or is there a continuum in ideas. Bowman declares that the quotation has a medieval theology yet he doesn't show that it is so. His analysis of the quote is just as inadequate.

Continued in the next post...

[1]Rob Bowman's post can be found at and Daniel Petersen's article at

[2]Other examples include the heavenly Jerusalem, Enoch-Metatron, Shiur Komah, the golem, heavenly ascents, and the Sepher Yetsirah. On the origins of the Kabbalah as a distinct movement see Gershom Scholem, "The Origins of the Kabbalah", Isaiah Tishby "Wisdom of the Zohar" vol. 1, Joseph Dan "Early Kabbalah", and Moshe Idel "Kabbalah: New Perspectives". For an example of a genuinely proto-Kabbalistic text, see Ronit Meroz "The Middle Eastern Origins of Kabbalah."

[3]Boaz Huss, "Altruistic Communism," pp. 125-126.

[4]Howard Schwartz "Tree of Souls," p. Lxxii.

[5]From the "London Jewish Chronicle," September 13, 1935, p. 21.

[6]Abraham Isaac Kook, Ben Zion Bokser (ed.) "Abraham Isaac Kook: The Lights of Penitence, The Moral Principles, Lights of Holiness, Essays, Letters, and Poems," p. 208-209. Bokser's introduction provides an excellent sketch of the Rav Kook and his outlook.

[7]Chapter 3 of Gershom Scholem's "On The Mystical Shape of the Godhead: Basic Concepts in the Kabbalah" discusses the developement of Tsadikism, as does Arthur Green's "Typologies of Leadership and the Hasidic Zaddiq" in "Jewish Spirituality: From the Sixteenth-Century Revival to the Present."

[8]Babylonian Talmud, t. Haggigah 12a.

[9] see also Oded Israeli's 2010 lecture

[10]"Shivhei Ha-Besht" 5:13.

[11]Shaul Magid "Hasidism on the Margin: Reconciliation, Antinomianism, and Messianism" p. 69.

[12]Isaiah Tishby, "Commentarius in Aggadot, auctores R. Azriel Geronensi" p. 111.

[13]Haviva Pedaya "Or Ke-Tavech Ve-Or Ke-Maatefet" . The existence in North Africa of Kabbalah independent of and predating the Safed center should suffice to illustrate the inaccuracies in the "Hebrew Goddess"'s overview of the Kabbalah. "An important new development took place following the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, which brought about a powerful upsurge of Messianic longings for redemption, and resulted in the migration of several leading Spanish Kabbalists to the town of Safed in the Galilee. Within a few years thereafter, Safed became the new center of the Kabbala, and held this position for a short but remarkable period in the 16th century. From Safed, the Kabbala spread rapidly to all the Asian, African and European centers of the Jewish diaspora."

[14]4 Ezra 6:40 and Aristobulus, fragment 3. Translation is from James L. Kugel "The Bible as it Was" p. 57.

[15]See J. Trumbower, "Rescue for the Dead: The Posthumous Salvation of Non-Christians in Early Christianity," pp. 55-57.
"I agree with Rissi and Hans Conzelmann (and, for that matter, with Mormon prophet Joseph Smith), that the grammar and logic of the passage point to a practice of vicarious baptism of a living person for the benefit of a dead person." Trumbower's endorsement, however, is far from unqualified. For him, the main difference is one of scale, the ancient texts painting a more limited picture of those eligible for such baptism.

[16]Magid, "Hasidism on the Margin" p. 57.

[17]Isaiah Tishby, "Wisdom of the Zohar" vol. 2, p. 598.

[18]Yehuda Liebes, ""Jonah as the Messiah ben Joseph." For a general overview of gematria, as well as examples of Sabbatean gematria, see Gershom Scholem "Kabbalah" pp. 337-343.

[19]Babylonian Talmud, t. Yoma 20a. The same Parchment and Pen blog has a post discussing Christian gematria.

[20]Joseph Dan, "Jewish Mysticism," 1, p. 156. In a different book, Dan points out the difficulty of deciding what came first in what work. "The schools of the gaonim, the leaders of the great academies in Babylonia, preserved the tradition of Hekhalot mysticism. Rav Hai Gaon, in the beginning of the eleventh century, mentioned in his writings many of the Hekhalot texts. It is difficult to know, whether this intrrest was only literary, or whether there was creative, mystical activity in these schools. The work of editing and preserving many of the Hekhalot texts was undertaken in Babylonia in this period, but how much of the material which has reached us was traditional, and how much was the result of the creativity of these editors we cannot ascertain. Thus, for example, the great anthology of esoteric speculation concerning the alphabet, cosmology, the heavenly realm,the angels and the divine name, known as the Alphabet of Rabbi Akiba or The Letters of Rabbi Akiba, was most probably edited in Gaonic Babylonia. But what parts of this vast collection were ancient, and what were added by the editors, cannot be stated with any certainty. For, the work contains a brief description of the story of Enoch and his rhetamorphosis intoo the Prince of the Countenance, Metatron, along with a list of the secret names of Metaron. The problem is: Did the brief version, included in the Alphabet of Rabbi Akiba, precede the long, detailed version in 3rd Enoch, or vice versa? That is, did some late editor compare the abridged version and add it to an alrteady extant anthology attributed to the ancient sage? There are several philological elements which support each of these possibilites, and a decision either way is impossible at this time."
"Gershom Scholem and the mystical dimension of Jewish history," ch. 3.

[21]Scholem, "Mystical Shape of the Godhead" p. 276-277.

[22]Dan, "Jewish Mysticism," 1, p. 248.

[23]Lawrence H. Schiffman, "3 Enoch and the Enoch Tradition," in Boccaccini (ed.) "Enoch and Qumran Origins: New Light on a Forgotten Connection" p. 160.

[24]Dan, "Jewish Mysticism," 1, pp. 85-86.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Response to Rob Bowman: Midrash

Evangelical writer Rob Bowman recently wrote a post on the Parchment and Pen blog which I feel is worth responding to.
The piece is entitled "Did Joseph Smith Restore Theosis? Part Four: Esoteric Jewish Theology and Joseph Smith’s Doctrine of Exaltation."[1] It is itself a response to a short article by Daniel Peterson in the Desert News[2].
I do find the accusations in the article of misrepresentation unfortunate, but I am not going to deal directly with them here. Rob is intelligent and usually very reasonable, not to mention civil. I want to deal with the substance of his arguments rather than fling mud back and forth.
Before commencing my response I would state that, whatever my personal convictions, I am not making a case for theosis in the modern LDS understanding of it. Such really is beyond the scope of this post. In other words, it isn't necessary to believe in the LDS concept of deification in order to appreciate the criticisms I raise.
A bit of background on who I am. My name is Allen Hansen, and despite the American-sounding name (my Hebrew one is different), I was born and raised in Israel, and have Jewish heritage. I am also a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I don't have a formal degree, but I do spend quite a bit of time with Jewish history, both primary and secondary sources, but enough about me.
One of the Rob Bowman's main arguments is outlined as follows.
So, just what text is this? The title is worded somewhat differently from one reference to another, but the Hebrew title is ’Otiyot De’Rabbi ‘Akiva’. In English it would be something like The Alphabet of Rabbi Akiba. (The Hebrew Aleph Bet and the Greek Alpha Beta are equivalent references to the first two letters of the alphabet, and similar in meaning to our idiom “the ABCs.”) This sounds like an impressive text; after all, Akiba, or more properly ‘Aqiva’, was one of the “founding fathers” of rabbinical Judaism, a noted and highly respected rabbi who lived through both of the Jewish-Roman wars of AD 66-73 and 132-35. If the quotation came from Aqiva, as Bickmore implies (without directly making that claim), that would be impressive indeed! Peterson’s description of this source as “an early Jewish midrash” implies that it originates from the same era of history as Aqiva. But does it?
We'll start this off by looking at how Rob Bowman identifies midrash (pl. midrashim).
The term midrash generally refers to a body of Jewish exposition of the Torah that began to be compiled in the second century AD, much of which eventually led to the publication of the Talmud (in two major compilations, ca. 400 and ca. 500). The term also refers to a sizable body of post-Talmudic literature. However, when Peterson refers to the source of his quotation as “an early Jewish midrash,” the use of the term “early,” especially in the context of his argument for the doctrine in question as “ancient,” clearly implies that the text is pre-Talmudic.[3]

For Rob Bowman the main definition of midrash is a specific body of Jewish expository literature spanning the second to fifth centuries CE, with a secondary meaning of a body of post-talmudic literature.
Not only is his definition idiosyncratic it is also misleading.
Reuven Hammer explains a little better what a midrash is.
What exactly is "midrash?" Midrash is both a process and a product.
It is a method of study and interpretation of the Bible and it is the name given to the literary works that emerge from that study. A midrash is both the individual interpretive comment to a work or a verse and also the book into which these individual pericopes have been incorporated.[4]
Midrash primarily refers to a method of scriptural exposition and interpretation rather than collections of it. The latter is clearly a secondary, albeit important usage.
Would midrash generally reffer to a collection of midrash rather than the process of midrash itself? The container rather than the content?
That hardly seems a reasonable position, especially when a good number of midrashim are found in non-midrashic works, such as the Palestinian (or Yerushalmi) and Babylonian Talmuds.
This is somewhat akin to stating that fable generally reffers to literary collections such as Aesop's, La Fontaine's and Krylov's rather than to a literary genre.
It can refer to such, to be sure, but again, it is a secondary meaning not a primary one.
Bowman's definition would be more relevant if we were speaking of the body of works known as halakhic midrashim. What Hammer terms classic midrash. The extant halakhic midrashim consist of the Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimeon bar-Yohai (or a good deal of it), Sifra, Sifrei Numbers, and Sifrei Deuteronomy. In addition, there are fragments and portions of lost halakhic midrashim. These are Mekhilta Deuteronomy, Sifrei Zuta Numbers and Sifrei Zuta Deuteronomy.
Eight works in all.[5]
It is a different matter when we come to the body of works known as aggadic midrashim.
The terms halakhah and aggadah require some explanation before proceeding further.
Halakhah is how Jews are meant to live the 613 positive and negative commandments which make up the Law of Moses, or Torah. Halakhah is the practical application of the Torah. For example, the Torah states that every seventh year is to be a sabbatical for the land, and no agricultural work should be done. Halakhah details just how this is to be done- what constitues agricultural work, how are you affected if you work but don't have a field, and so on. Another example would be the biblical prohibition on boiling a kid in its mother's milk. This was expanded to prohibit consumption of all dairy and meat products together, and how long of a wait there should be between eating them.
Halakhah is considered binding, even though many groups differ in the details of a specific halakhah.
Aggadah, on the other hand, is everything not covered by halakhah.
In Midrash Numbers Rabbah 13:15 it is stated that the Torah has seventy faces, or as we might put it, seventy aspects. The number seventy in rabbinic though expressed a totality rather than merely a specific ammount. Thus, Torah covered all aspects of life, past, present and future. Midrash keeps the Torah a living law, relevant for each age. Judah Goldin, one of the great midrashic scholars of our age, had the following to say.
Authority [of the sages] protected exegesis from many possibilities of arbitrariness; but by the same token, so long as it remained sensitive to the requirements of the age, authority had the sanctions to extract from the Written and Oral Law such conclusions as would re-enforce the permanent relevance of Scripture and the legitimacy of the moment's needs for adequate and immediate attention...To paraphrase a remark of the Gaon Saadia: No generation was left without the necessary resources for deriving from the Torah the guidance and the practices which were appropriate to the age.[6]

Some midrashim deal with halakhah, some with aggadah, some discuss specific verses, others biblical narratives and themes. Still others are grouped around the Jewish liturgical calendar.
Halakhic midrash is a group of midrashim focusing mainly on halakhah, but aggadah is also discussed. In agaddic midrash this ratio is reversed. Neither deal solely with one or the other.[7]
The aggadic midrashim we posses (which are numerous) date to no earlier than the fifth century CE, the majority being later than that. For example, in the group of midrashim known by the attachment of "rabbah" to their title[8], the earliest, Genesis Rabbah, dates to sometime after 400 CE. Numbers Rabbah, the latest, reached its final form in 11th c. Narbonne.[9]
When it comes to midrash, "early" and "late" are very relative and subjective, complicated further by the process of textual transmission and repeated redaction.
This problem plagues a good deal of Jewish texts written before the early modern era.[10]
Bowman hasn't discussed this important aspect of Jewish literature in his blogpost. It significantly weakens his case, as will be shown later on.
Apart form older ideas, late midrashim are known to contain entire pericopes much older than the work itself.
A work entitled "Midrash haGadol" illustrates the phenomenon, as well as the dangers of making assumptions based on the date of a work's appearance.
Composed by the Yemenite rabbi David b. Amram Adani in the 14th century, according to Bowman's thinking the "Midrash haGadol" would simply be a late medieval work. This it certainly was, but we would fall into the trap of oversimplifying the issue.
It was written by a medieval rabbi, quoting from indisputably medieval sources such as Maimonides, but it also includes a great deal of extremely old material. The Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimeon bar-Yohai was reconstructed from quotations found in the "Midrash haGadol" and corroborated by findings in the Cairo Genizah which predate Adani's work.
Saul Lieberman provides a specific example of ancient material found in it, from Midrash haGadol Wa-Yegash, p. 688.
And Joseph made ready his chariot (Gen. 46:29). This was not because he lacked slave or servant who could make it ready for him, but to inform you that Joseph rejoiced much and did not take greatness unto himself in that hour for the heart is carried away by joy, etc., and he did not appear to him [Jacob] that selfsame day, but sent five other horses by his first son. Jacob said "Is this him." [Joseph] sent five other horses by his second son. Jacob said "Is this him," and only after that did he appear, so his [Jacob's] soul would not fly away causing him to die.
The Genizah yielded the following, which, if anything, is fuller than Adani's midrash.[11]
It is written And Joseph made ready his chariot and also for the heart is carried away by joy and by hatred a convention is broken, for you find it in Pharaoh as it is written and he made ready his chariot (Ex 14:6), for by hatred convention is broken.
The king does not go out to meet a man, but Joseph honours him, for he went up to meet his father, as it is written and presented himself unto him. Joseph appeared on the third day, he did not appear that selfsame day but sent on the first day five horses. Jacob said "This is Joseph," and on the second day [Joseph] sent ten horses and Jacob said "this is Joseph," but after that he appeared unto him, so his soul should not fly away causing him to die, and thus the Holy One, blessed be He, will do in the future to come, first sending the messenger, as it is written (Isa. 52:7) How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings and afterwards that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth!

Adani's work is medieval, but many of his sources and quotes are far older. He compiled and redacted them, resulting in a new work, but it would be folly to judge all the parts based on the date of the work's composition.[12]
Deuteronomy Rabbah is another case in point.
It was thought to have been a medieval work from the 10th century. On the basis of many Greek loanwords and the lack of any references to the Babylonian Talmud this has been shown to be an early work, but as Strack and Stemberger have noted, "due to its turbulent textual history... a more precise dating between c. 450 and 800 is extremely difficult."[13] There is also material in it which is demonstrably old.
One of the midrashim in that work relates to a cunning plan by Hiel, an Israelite collaborating with the prophets of Baal.
And the prophets of Baal knew that Baal as unable to cause fire to come forth of its own accord. What did Hiel do? He stood before the Prophets of Baal and said to them, "Take courage and oppose Elijah and I will make it seem to them that Baal sent fire for you." What did he do? He took two stones in his hands and hatcheled flax and entered inside of Baal, because he was hollow. And he struck the stones one against the other so that the flax was ignited.[14]

This fresco is from the synagogue wall at Dura Europos, a town on the right bank of the Euphrates, and dates from the middle of the 3rd century CE.
It depicts the prophets of Baal around a hollow altar with a man inside it. A snake is about to bite the man in the altar. This detail is found in the continuation of the same midrash.
Elijah, enlightened by the Divine Spirit, said to God, "Lord of the Universe, I asked a great thing of you and you did it—to restore the spirit of the woman of Zarfat`s son. But now I ask that you `raise up` this villain within the Baal." God immediately ordered a snake to bite Hiel in his heel, and he died. Thus it is written: If they should hide at the summit of Mt. Carmel (Hosea 9:3).

As I said above, "late" and "early" are relative terms when it comes to midrash. When compared to halakhic midrash, the "Alphabet of Rabbi Akiva" would be a late midrash. If compared to an aggadic midrash it is neither particularly late nore particularly early, but it is early for a mystical midrash. A late date for a midrash does not necessarily mean that the individual concepts and components contained in it are as late.
There is an important aspect of the Oral Torah which we haven't discussed yet- the strong aversion to writing it down.
The Oral Torah was the counterpart of the Wriiten Torah, or the Pentateuch. It consisted of the teachings of the sages, passed down by the authority of tradition.
One of the aversions to writing it down had to do with the function of memory and oral recitation in ancient society, which might seem counterintuitive to us.
There is a famous story in Plato's "Phaedrus" illustrating the difference between true memory and mere reminders.[15]
The story goes that Thamus said many things to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts, which it would take too long to repeat; but when they came to the letters, “This invention, O king,” said Theuth, “will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered.” But Thamus replied, “Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the ability to beget arts, but the ability to judge of their usefulness or harmfulness to their users belongs to another; and now you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess.
For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them.
You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.

Written reminders are useful but there is the distinct risk that they will become crutches to students who rely on them too much. Oral teaching required a teacher and this would ensure the proper transmission of tradition and wisdom.
This attitude was shared by at least some Jews, as seen in a group of texts known as the Sar Torah texts. They relate how a student is unable to retain anything in his memory may summon an angel known as the Sar Torah, or prince of the Torah.
Here is one example.
He adjured me by the great seal, by the great oath, in the name of Yad Naqof Yad Nakuy Yad Heras Yad Suqas; by his great seal, by Zebudiel Yah, by Akhtariel Yah, by heaven and by earth. As soon as I heard this great secret, my eyes became enlightened. Whatever I heard- Scripture, Mishnah, anything else- I forgot no more. The world was made new for me in purity, and it was as if I had come from a new world. Now: any student (talmid) who knows what he learns does not stay with him should stand and say a blessing, rise and speak an adjuration, in the name of Margobiel Giwat’el Ziwat’el Tanariel Hozhayah Sin Sagan Sobir’hu, all of whom are Metatron.[16]
According to Michael Swartz, "these texts are an indication of the centrality of memorized knowledge in the scholastic society formed by rabbinic Judaism."[17]
This being said, there was another reason why it was better that the Oral Torah an oral, rather than a written teaching.
In the Pesiqta Rabbati 14b we encounter the following.
The Holy One, blessed be He, knew that the Nations would translate the Written Torah and read it in Greek. And they would say: 'The Jews are not Israel!' Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to Moses: "O, Moses! The Nations will say, 'We are Israel! We are the children of the Omnipresent!' And Israel, too, will say, 'We are the children of the Omnipresent!' And the scales are in balance!"
Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to the Nations: "You claim to be my children, but I recognize only the one who holds my mystery in his hands! He alone is my son!" They said to Him: "What is this mystery?" He said to them: "It is the Mishnah!"[18]
You weren't Israel if you did not participate in God's mystery- the Oral Torah.
Jaffee looks a little closer at written vs. oral authority.
The rabbinic insistence upon oral, memorized mastery of learned tradition is part of a larger cultural discourse about the nature of books and learning that occupied both pagan and Christian intellectuals of the late Roman and early Byzantine East. All granted that books contained important knowledge. At issue was whether the book was the essential vessel of knowledge or, to the contrary, the
book's knowledge was most authoritatively represented in the person of the teacher of the book... In some settings, the book was clearly the key and the teacher merely the occasion for opening the mind of the student to the venerable words of the author.
In others, the book was but a stepping stone to the living teacher, who authoritatively embodied the teaching of the book. In the former setting, the student was the disciple of the book's (often long-dead) author, and only through convenience associated with the living teacher who taught the book.
In the latter, the student was the disciple of the living teacher; the author of the book effectively effaced by the authoritative embodiment of the book in the Master.
Rabbinic discipleship in Roman and Byzantine Palestine, as it is reflected repeatedly in texts generated from Galilean discipleship circles, is clearly at home in the latter camp. Torah was certainly found in the Book authored by Moses. And all rabbinic Sages and their disciples were, in this sense, disciples of Moses who knew him through his book. But mastery of Moses' written Torah was preliminary to the mastery of an unwritten Torah, knowledge of which was possible only by immersing oneself in a web of human relationships constituted by the discipleship circle of a particular living Torah Master.
The traditional embodiment of Torah was not found in a written collection of wise teachings offered by Sages, although there is growing reason to suspect that such written collections existed at an early stage.
Rather, real Torah was found in the mouth of the Teacher, the Sage whose own discipleship to a previous master now entitled him to represent himself as an authoritative teacher.[19]
If an oral tradition took precedence over a written one, then not just anyone could lay claim to it like they could with a written text. Of course the traditions were written down in private notes, but these had no authoritative status.
Lest Rob Bowman accuse me of using a late source, here is a quote from the Babylonian Talmud, t. Sanhedrin 59a, which indicates that the Torah was a mystery in the techinal sense.
How do we know that even an idolator who studies Torah is like the high priest? The verse says, "Which if a man do them, he shall live by them." It is not said priests, levites, Israelites—but man. Hence you learn that even a gentile who studies Torah is like a high priest.

If the reluctance to commit the Oral Torah to writing was strong, all the more so its avowedly esoteric teachings. Even their oral teaching followed certain restrictions among sages.
This is stated in the Mishnah, t. Hagigah 2:1.
The laws of incest may not be expounded before three persons,
nor the Account of the Creation before two, nor the Chariot before one unless he is wise and able to understand on his own.

There is one more point that Rob made regarding midrash which needs correction. The talmuds didn't grow out of midrash per se. They revolve around the Mishnah, the ancient codification of halakhah, and discuss it and its applications and implications in more detail.
My next post will examine the Ottiyot de-Rabbi Akiva and its central concepts, as well as deification in ancient Judaism.
To sum up this post, Rob Bowman is incorrect in stating that midrash generally reffers to a body of Jewish literature rather than the process of relating the biblical text to the needs and mood of the age (and vice-versa). Midrash has never really died out.[20]



[3]Rob Bowman corrected his statement after some criticism from Bill Hamblin and myself. The original read as follows.
"The term midrash is usually (though not always) used in religious scholarship to denote a body of Jewish exposition of the Torah that dated before and around the time of the Mishnah (compiled ca. AD 200) and thus well before the Talmud (compiled in two editions centuries later). When Peterson refers to the source of his quotation as “an early Jewish midrash,” this context of pre-Talmudic Jewish teaching is clearly indicated."
That statement was then corrected to this. "The term midrash generally refers to a body of Jewish exposition of the Torah that began to be compiled in the second century AD, much of which eventually led to the publication of the Talmud (in two major compilations, ca. 400 and ca. 500). When Peterson refers to the source of his quotation as “an early Jewish midrash,” this context of pre-Talmudic Jewish teaching is clearly indicated."

[4]Reuven Hammer, "The Classic Midrash: Tannaitic commentaries on the Bible,
Classics of Western spirituality (vol. 83)," (Paulist Press, 1995), p. 14.

[5]Hammer, "Classic Midrash", pp. 20-21.

[6]Judah Goldin, "Studies in Midrash and Related Literature," eds., Barry L. Eichler and Jeffrey H. Tigay; (Philadelphia: JPS, 1988), p. 237.

[7]Hananel Mack "The Aggadic Midrash Literature," (Heb.) (M.O.D Publishing House: Tel-Aviv, 1989), pp. 10-15. There is also an English translation available, but I haven't read it.

[8]An Aramaic word meaning "great" or "large" or "major."

[9]See H. L. Strack and G. Stemberger, "Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash," trans. Markus Bockmuehl, 2d ed. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1992), p. 279.

[10]There are many examples. To name but one, the Sefer Yetsirah had five major recensions, the last as late as the 18th century,, and a bewildering array of variant readings.

[11]Saul Lieberman, "The Yemenite Midrashim: Their Character and Value," (Heb.) (Jerusalem, 1940), p. 4.

[12]For more examples, see Lieberman's monograph "Yemenite Midrashim," pp. 5-7 in particular.

[13]Strack & Stemberger, "Introduction," p. 308.

[14]Midrash Numbers Rabbah, 11:20, Lieberman's edition. .
See also H. Kraeling, "The Synagogue: The Excavations at Dura Europos, Final Report VIII, Part 1" (Ktav, 1979), p. 140.

[15]Plato, "Phaedrus," 274e-275a. The translation is from "Plato in Twelve Volumes," Vol. 9, trans. H. N. Fowler. (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1925).

[16]David J. Halperin, "The Faces of the Chariot," (Mohr Siebeck, 1988), pp. 378-379. Swartz says of the Sar Torah traditions that “the earliest explicit indications of the Sar-Torah phenomenon, then, date from the tenth century. However, there are other elements of the phenomenon that have earlier origins. The archangel figure of Metatron appears in the Talmud and in the seventh–century Babylonian incantation bowls, although not as the Sar-Torah.” Swartz, "Scholastic Magic: ritual and revelation in early Jewish mysticism," (Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 213.

[17]"The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature,"
Ed. Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert, p. 212.

[18]Martin S. Jaffee "Oral Transmission of Knowledge as Rabbinic Sacrament: An Overlooked Aspect of Discipleship in Oral Torah" in "Study and Knowledge in Jewish Thought," Vol. 1, ed. Howard Kreisel (Ben Gurion University of the Negev, 2006), p. 71. Jaffee goes on to say this.
"While in its other rabbinic contexts it seems to bear the meaning of a hidden or secret message, its usage in the present polemical context suggests another dimension of its meaning. Here Mishnah, rabbinic oral tradition, is raised to the
theological level of a ritual mysterion, a sacramental medium the incorporation of which secures a participation of the believer in the life of the Church, the Mishnah has the power to convey transformative blessing to the individual."

[19]Jaffee, "Oral Transmission," pp. 72-73.

[20]See "Modern midrash: the retelling of traditional Jewish narratives by twentieth-century Hebrew writers" by David C. Jacobson, 1987. Israeli writer Meir Shalev had a column in which he examined contemporary events through biblical narrative and vice-versa. In 1985 they were published in book form as "Tanakh Achshav!" (Bible Now!). As an example, Shalev relates Isaiah's naming of his son Mahershalalhashbaz to a Bedouin in 1979 who named his newborn twin sons Begin and Sadat. Midrash also has a strong presence in the pop culture of my generation of Israelies. To name but a few, the songs of Meir Ariel, Ehud Banai and Idan Riachel are often very midrashic. I intend on posting in the future about severalof them, a glimpseinto traditional modes of expression in modern garb.