SBL Notes 2009: Daphna Arbel — Religious Experience in Early Judaism and Early Christianity

daphna arbelDaphna Arbel (read by Robin Griffith-Jones)

Moshe Idel and Religious Experience in the Hekhalot Literature

Moshe Idel’s research features an open methodology – a pluralistic/interdisciplinary approach

His work is  representative of a new scholarly view of Judaism – based on experiential orientation

The focus of his research principally covers Judaism of the 4th to 9th century – the Hekhalot period (a.k.a. merkabah mysticism)

Idel doesn’t subscribe to evolutionary development of religion. His focus is on the interplay of experiential orientations in different schools of Judaism.

Merkabah Mysticism presents a continuous circulation between divine and human – an open circuit between heaven and earth – the possibility, or reality, of  interaction through open channels between the worlds

Unio mystica

The participation of humans in the divine being is the subject of many of Idel’s studies. Gershom Scholem argues that humans are not able to experience union with God in merkabah mysticism. Idel challenges these conclusions – he warns that we should not marginalize unio mystica. There is a certain theological perspective that ignores possibility of union. However, 3 Enoch (a hekhalot text) describes the transformation of Enoch into Metatron – this should be understood as an example of unio mystica – union with Enoch and angel Metatron.

Idel has been criticized for using later texts and Neo-platonic views as evidence for unio mystica. He believes that study of unio mystica should focus on types of experience – forms of experiencing the divine. Enoch’s transformation is a form of unio mystica even if it is not specifically a union with God. Enoch becomes similar to God – his bodily transformation allows for access to the presence of God and some kind of connectivity to Him. Various forms function differently in different situations, but should be seen as types of the same motif.

Ascent to Heaven is usually referred to as an ascent of the soul,  but Idel argues that it should be seen as ascent of the body (albeit perhaps the spiritual body). The corporeal body remains in a special stance on earth, while the “spiritual body” ascends.  Both spiritual and corporeal are involved (this involves certain practices).

Idel also emphasizes the experiential aspect of magic. Rabbi Akivah obtains secret names in heaven that have magical uses. The magical and experiential are linked together. Practice allows adept to travel to heaven and magical aspect involves bringing down knowledge with magical power.

Rabbi Ishmael felt that he had entered a new dimension while pondering “secrets” of Torah.

Moshe Idel’s research helps establish the significance of experience in the Hekhalot literature.

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