Ascensions on High in Jewish Mysticism

Ascensions on High in Jewish Mysticism: Pillars, Lines, Ladders

Moshe Idel
Copyright Date: 2005
Edition: NED - New edition, 1
Pages: 261
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  • Book Info
    Ascensions on High in Jewish Mysticism
    Book Description:

    Ascensions on high took many forms in Jewish mysticism and they permeated most of its history from its inception until Hasidism. The book surveys the various categories, with an emphasis on the architectural images of the ascent, like the resort to images of pillars, lines, and ladders. After surveying the variety of scholarly approaches to religion, the author also offers what he proposes as an eclectic approach, and a perspectivist one. The latter recommends to examine religious phenomena from a variety of perspectives. The author investigates the specific issue of the pillar in Jewish mysticism by comparing it to the archaic resort to pillars recurring in rural societies. Given the fact that the ascent of the soul and pillars constituted the concerns of two main Romanian scholars of religion, Ioan P. Culianu and Mircea Eliade, Idel resorts to their views, and in the Concluding Remarks analyzes the emergence of Eliade's vision of Judaism on the basis of neglected sources.

    eISBN: 978-615-5053-78-8
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-22)

    There is no single method with which one can comprehensively approach “religion.”¹ All methods generate approximations based on insights, on implied psychologies, sometimes even on explicit theologies and ideologies. They assist us in understanding one or more aspects of a complex phenomenon that, in itself, cannot be explained by any single method. “Religion” is a conglomerate of ideas, cosmologies, beliefs, institutions, hierarchies, elites and rites that vary with time and place, even when one “single” religion is concerned. The methodologies available take one or two of these numerous aspects into consideration, reducing religion’s complexity to a rather simplistic unity.


  5. CHAPTER 1: On Diverse Forms of Living Ascent on High in Jewish Sources
    (pp. 23-72)

    The practice of any religion oscillates between the poles of routine ritual and inertial faith on the one hand and ecstatic practices on the other. Differences in the practices of various religions lie not only in the content of beliefs, ritual structures and the details of techniques used to reach extreme experiences, but also in the variety of combinations of and particular emphases on elements found within the wide spectrum of practices. Moving from the pole of inertia to that of ecstasy constitutes an effort to intensify religious life so that contact with the supernal being or beings will be...

  6. CHAPTER 2: On Cosmic Pillars in Jewish Sources
    (pp. 73-100)

    In the following chapters, I will address a topic that has been neglected in the study of Judaism in general and of Kabbalah in particular. Pillars are mentioned in a variety of contexts in the Bible. Most conspicuous are the two pillars of fire and smoke that led the people of Israel out of Egypt, the two pillars of the temple in Jerusalem named Yakhin and Bo`az, and others found in rabbinic and Kabbalistic literature to be analyzed below. The vast interpretive literature on the Bible and rabbinic discussions supply numerous treatments on this theme, but there is no comprehensive...

  7. CHAPTER 3: The Eschatological Pillar of the Souls in Zoharic Literature
    (pp. 101-142)

    Unlike the works of other Kabbalistic schools before the 1280s, it is only in the book of the Zohar that an important additional function of a pillar is evident. In some of parts of the Zohar the pillar recurrently serves as a conduit for the ascent of the souls of the deceased righteous from a lower paradise to a higher one. This eschatological function will be the subject of this chapter.

    Some time before 1270, the theory of two paradises became part and parcel of the eschatology of Rabbi Moses ben Nahman—known by the pseudonym Nahmanides—particularly evident in...

  8. CHAPTER 4: Psychanodia and Metamorphoses of Pillars in Eighteenth-Century Hasidism
    (pp. 143-166)

    Eighteenth-century Hasidism, a major form of Jewish mysticism, preserves a peculiarly interesting version of the ascent on high. Its founding master was Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1699–1760), better known as the Besht, the acronym of the Hebrew words Ba`al Shem Tov, the “Possessor of the Good Name.” According to some texts, he performed several ascents of the soul on high.¹ As seen in the preceding chapters, this practice is by no means unknown to the period between the emergence of Heikhalot literature and the middle of the eighteenth century. In the span of a millennium and then some that...

  9. CHAPTER 5: The Neoplatonic Path for Dead Souls: Medieval Philosophy, Kabbalah and Renaissance
    (pp. 167-204)

    In this chapter, another image for the manner in which pure souls ascend on high posthumously will be explored as elucidated in some Arabic sources and then in Kabbalah. An important study by Alexander Altmann serves as the basis for this analysis. Most importantly, discussions in additional sources described here will be compared to the concept of the median pillar.

    The Kabbalistic schools that I refer to as theosophical–theurgical, the main representation of which is the book of the Zohar, in many cases adopted architectural strategies to describe the divine system. Geometrical images also recur in these writings, particularly...

  10. Concluding Remarks
    (pp. 205-238)

    The emergence of an ontic continuum between the righteous in this world, described as related to a pillar that takes him from the lower to the higher paradise, or palace, and the description of God, or one of the divine powers designated as a pillar or a median pillar, may reflect more than an attempt to create a comprehensive axis mundi. This cosmic continuum can be broken down into three distinct parts: the human, the path or the technique and finally the divine realm. When the righteous uses the pillar, he arrives at the divine realm, which also is conceived...

  11. Name Index
    (pp. 239-242)
  12. Subject Index
    (pp. 243-249)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 250-250)