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Last update - 01:56 02/05/2003

Varieties of religious experiences

Rachel Elior's broad historical perspective on mysticism and the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls demands that the reader grapple anew with the essence of Jewish tradition

By Joseph Dan

Rachel Elior's new book, "Mikdash Umerkava, Kohanim Umalachim, Heikhal Veheikhalot Bamishkan Hayehudit Hakduma" ("The Temple and Chariot, Priests and Angels, Sanctuary and Heavenly Sanctuaries in Early Jewish Mysticism"), which was discussed extensively by Prof. Yehuda Liebes (Haaretz, January 31, 2003), is one of a very small number of research books that bring up, sharply and in depth, the question: "Who, in fact, are we?" It deals with many historical issues and ideas, some of which were discussed in Liebes' review. However, in this book, unlike the others, these issues come together as a whole that casts doubt on notions that have been accepted for many years and demand of the reader that he grapple anew with the essence of Jewish tradition as a whole. The three of us - Prof. Elior, Prof. Liebes and myself - share a broad common denominator, which is a deep interest in questions that are connected to the beginnings of Jewish mysticism, and each of us, in his or her own way, has devoted decades and scores of articles to clarifying the issue.

However, the book by Elior that is now before us goes beyond this framework. The beginning of the Jewish mystical tradition is one of the facets that becomes clear from within an overall picture of the history of the Jewish religion in the period between the construction of the Second Temple and its destruction, a period that laid the foundations for Jewish life in the subsequent periods. Elior's conclusions - and additional conclusions that derive from the acceptance of her theoretical approach - can on the one hand undermine and, on the other, lead to innovation in significant aspects of the experience of Judaism. I was very familiar with Elior's prior studies in this field that were published in journals in Israel and abroad, as well as studies that have not yet been published, yet nevertheless I was quite surprised by reading the book and by the radicalism of the conclusions it suggests. With respect to a number of issues I have not formulated an opinion, and with respect to others, I have doubts and difficulties. However, I hope that a ramified and thorough debate will develop and Prof. Liebes did well to open it. I shall set forth here a selection of key issues that in my opinion are at the center of this debate.

The Essenes: Fact or but a dream?

Ever since the beginning of the research into the Dead Sea Scrolls, and in fact even before then, when the "Damascus Document" was discovered in the Cairo Geniza at the end of the 19th century, researchers have been concerned with the question of why the writers of these texts relate to themselves as "the Children of Zadok" and their leader is "the Teacher of Justice [zedek, in Hebrew]." There is a detailed discussion of dozens of such descriptions in Elior's book - and hence of the relationship between them and the sect of the Sadducees (also derived from the same Hebrew word) that is widely mentioned in both the Hebrew sources and the Greek sources that deal with the end of the Second Temple period.

Solomon Schecter and Chaim Rabin published this document under the title "The Zadokite Documents." Many researchers went on to delineate the identification between the sect and the Sadducees. Recently this question was discussed extensively following the discovery of the document known as Miqsat Ma'ase haTorah (the Torah Precepts Scroll, called "MMT" in the scientific literature) among the Qumran scrolls, which includes several religious rulings that are identified in the Tannaic literature with the position of the Sadducees. However, those who accepted the opinion of Eliezer Sukenik, who identified the writers of the scrolls with the Essene sect that is mentioned in the writings of Josephus Flavius and other first-century C.E. Greek texts, prevailed, and this despite significant contradictions - along with interesting parallels - between what is related in the Qumran scrolls and the descriptions of the Sadducees by the Greek writers.

The decades and the thousands of studies that have been written about the scrolls have not succeeded in revealing the Hebrew origin of the term "Essenes." As compared to the plethora of references that include the terms "zedek" and "Zadok," none has been found in which it is possible to see a Hebrew equivalent of the term "Essenes." Elior argues forcefully that the later Greek sources present an anachronistic picture that does not reflect the reality at the time of the emergence of these streams 250 years earlier. She offers a series of detailed arguments as to why we must rid ourselves of the identification that is fed by the Greek descriptions and accept the statements of the authors of the texts themselves, who identify themselves with "the Children of Zadok." From here, Elior sets out a broad historical canvas that sees the roots of the schism in the deposing of the traditional priesthood from the presiding House of Zadok by the priests from the Hasmonean House, many of whom over time became close to the world of the "Sadducees."

There is no doubt that Elior's suggestions are of great interest, and this historical issue needs deep and complex study, yet one thing clearly emerges from this: The simple identification between the scroll sect and the Essene sect has not succeeded in solving the main problems that are involved in the understanding of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and it needs to undergo a thorough revision.

`The end of prophecy' - but why?

From the Talmudic literature we learn decisively that Hagai, Zechariah and Malachi mark the end of prophecy, and thereafter "the Torah was given to human beings and no attention was paid to voices." A large part of the book is devoted to describing and contrasting the religious outlook that relies on direct divine revelation, which is dominant in the Second Temple literature and the Megillot, and the religious outlook that relies on the study and discussion of the written and the Oral Law, as it is represented in the Mishnah and in the traditions of the Sages and which is the pillar of the Judaism that has been known since then to this day.

But who decided that Malachi was the last of the prophets - and, above all, why? The traditional texts do not provide reasons for this phenomenon. There are those who link it to the destruction of the First Temple, but this does not work well, as the last of the prophets according to this view prophesied at the time the Second Temple was being built, and there is no connection between them and its destruction. There were scholars who tried to link this with the conquests of Alexander the Great and the infiltration of Hellenistic influences, but this is a vague hypothesis for which there is no evidence.

Neither tradition nor research has advanced a meaningful explanation of the perception that there is a significant and profound discontinuity between the world of prophecy - in which the word of God is present and is the sole answer to the questions that time and history pose to the public of believers through his prophets - and the world that was constructed by the Sages, according to which the divine truth that relates to the past, the present and the future is contained in the biblical text and the traditions of the Oral Law, the study and interpretation of which is the only way to find the word of God and the answer to man's questions.

These are two very different types of religious experience at the level of principle (at the level of practice, there are always rebels who even in the human-traditional outlook discover and experience direct contact with the divinity). The declaration of "the end of prophecy" is a necessary element in the adoption of the textual view of the source of the divine truth.

There is a serious difficulty here in the understanding of the significance of the transition to pseudo-epigraphic writing during the period of the Second Temple and the attribution of new visions to earlier figures - Daniel and Hanoch, Adam and Abraham, Isaiah and Ezra and the sons of Jacob - and not to direct divine revelation. Despite this difficulty and others, the view proposed by Rachel Elior is the only view proposed thus far that does give a conceptualization rooted in history and ideas for the understanding of this crucial phenomenon. In Elior's opinion, the Jewish culture of the Second Temple period for the most part did not accept, and perhaps did not know, the notion of "the end of prophecy," and as far as it was concerned, divine revelation continued to occur from time to time just as it had during the period of the First Temple.

The Dead Sea Scrolls for the most part reflect a religious experience in which there is no scope for the end of prophecy (although the question arises here of the status of the "interpretations" that have been discovered at Qumran).

The decisive determination concerning the end of prophecy took root in the literature of the Sages following the victory of the textual-human view, which during the Temple period was represented by a schismatic, revolutionary group, i.e. the Pharisee sect. It was this group that determined the biblical canon and "sealed" the Bible, whereas the Children of Zadok continued to write in the biblical pattern. Elior therefore rejects the instinctive view that the Pharisees have always represented the normative Jewish religious tradition, and sees them as a revolutionary group that presented, during the Second Temple period, a new outlook opposed to the one that prevailed in the Temple and in the tradition. In other words, which Rachel Elior does not use, it could be said that the sect - is us. This is manifested primarily in the issue of the calendar.

Lunar year vs. solar year

The question of the relationship between the lunar year and the solar year has an important place in Elior's discussion, and Yehuda Liebes gave pride of place to this in his review. There is no doubt that this is one of the most significant manifestations of the difference between a religious outlook that gives crucial status to man and the court of justice, and the outlook that affords this to the word of God.

Today it is difficult for us to imagine a Jewish reality in which Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) was observed by different groups on different dates (although there are a few hints of this in the Scriptures). There is no need to expand upon how central and important the debates are on ways of blessing the month and ways of marking a leap year in the world of Jewish religious law since the days of the Tannaites, and precisely for this reason it is impossible to ignore the absence of these issues from the Jewish literature prior to the Mishnah. The arguments adduced by Rachel Elior on this subject carry a great deal of conviction and Liebes' comments, with all their importance, in no way undermine them.

With respect to the period prior to the Mishnah, it seems that Liebes offered more examples that confirm the place of the solar rather than the lunar calendar. The fact that the literature of the Sages is utterly and deeply devoted to the lunar calendar does not prove that this was how things had always been. Elior presents a detailed body of evidence concerning the prevalence of the solar calendar, including the use of the astrological cycle, following which mosaics have been found in quite a number of ancient synagogues in which often the sign of Capricorn, which is Nissan, is placed at the top - evidence of the solar year that begins in the month of Nissan, as in the Torah.

I am not trying to propose a decision on this issue. The subject has been discussed by scores of scholars of the past two generations and the issue is very difficult and complicated. The uniqueness of the view that Elior proposes in the book is that it does not see the change in the calendar as a marginal and isolated sectarian issue, but rather as part of a comprehensive historical-ideological complex with many implications, a complex entity that spreads over all areas of religious life and that was the concern of the major forces within the Jewish religious system during the Second Temple Period. She presents the innovative and revolutionary transition to the lunar calendar as part of the far-reaching change that also included the rejection of prophecy, the placing of the text and the human tradition at the center of Jewish life, the reliance on the court of justice and not on revelation, the subordination to what the eye can see and to the interpretation of the text rather than to the laws of heaven and the direct word of God.

Rachel Elior has given us a proposal for a context in which the ideas are not discussed in an isolated fashion but rather as aspects of a complex historical change in which a profound and rooted Jewish religious outlook was replaced by a revolutionary new outlook. This revolution was depicted by the authors of the Apocrypha (The Book of Hanoch, The Book of Jubilees) as a result of the actions of the forces of evil and the temptation of Shamhazai and Azael - but this was the outlook that emerged victorious and this is the outlook that has prevailed in Judaism since the days of the Tannaim.

Christianity - whence?

In the opinion of many, the Dead Sea sect afforded legitimization to the appearance of Christianity in the bosom of Judaism during the first century, although to a limited extent: Christianity is parallel to the isolated Essene sect, and like it, Christianity deviated from the mainstream and segregated itself into a world of its own. This view was convenient both for Jews and for Christians, all of whom had an interest in not denying the connection of Christianity at its origins to Judaism, while at the same time not identifying it too much with the main body of Judaism during that period.

Elior does not discuss this issue in a detailed way, but if we accept the main outlines of the historical picture she has drawn in her book, it turns out that Christianity has a deeper connection to Jewish life during the Temple period than many of the scroll scholars had assumed. Thus, for example, it is clear that the believers in the gospel of Jesus of Nazareth did not accept the ruling of the Pharisee outlook in the matter of "the end of prophecy," but rather unhesitatingly adopted their prophet as the bearer of a divine message. If parts of mainstream Jewry during that period also did not accept the Pharisees' ruling on the end of prophecy, the first Christians reflected an accepted opinion on this matter and not a marginal sectarian idea.

Similarly, the Christian solar calendar is the continuation of the original priestly calendar, and not the Pharisee lunar calendar (although in this matter, the calendar used in the Roman Empire was very influential). The many parallels that have been suggested between "the Teacher of Justice" and Jesus (whom some even tried to suggest were identical) do not relate to the leaders of marginal groups, but both stand at the center of the Jewish religious experience.

As noted, Elior does not discuss this issue, yet it is clear that if her conclusions, or even only some of them, are accepted, there will be a need for a reevaluation of the status of Christianity at its inception within the world of Judaism toward the end of the Second Temple period. Elior strongly stresses the centrality of the Temple in the thinking of the Sadducees and the priests; in light of this, it is possible to reexamine the issue of Jesus' relations with the Temple in Jerusalem, in which there are many conundrums. There is no doubt that this is a delicate and controversial issue, but it would seem that it will be difficult to avoid re-examining it in light of the questioning of a number of traditionally accepted notions, and it is to be hoped that reopening the discussion will lead to a deeper understanding of this key matter in our history.

Mysticism and the mystical

Rachel Elior wrote this book inspired by one text that was discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls: "The Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice," which was published by Carol Newsome in 1985 and since then has been the subject of detailed and ramified discussion by many scholars. In this text, a direct link may be found between the religious experience of the writers of the scrolls and the literature of the Heavenly Sanctuaries and the Chariot, and a continuum of mystical traditions emerges that leads directly from Ezekiel's vision to the visions of the High Priest R. Ishmael in the book "Heikhalot Rabati" (Liebes rightly notes that this literature served as one of the important sources of Jewish mysticism, both kabbalist and non-kabbalist, during the Middle Ages).

This continuum is in fact the main subject of the book, and apparently the thing closest to the author's heart. I have refrained from discussing this in this review, and these matters deserve a separate discussion. Rather, I propose seeing in this book of Elior's a different significance with respect to the history of Jewish mysticism. Gershom Scholem's studies of Shabtai Zvi and his movement, and of its sources in the kabbala of the Ari, exemplified the entry of mysticism into the field of Jewish history. Thus, starting at the end of the 16th century, it has been impossible to separate between the history of the kabbala and the history of the Jews as a whole: Mysticism has become one of the dominant elements of historical activity and this is reflected, above all, in the histories of Hasidut and Mitnagdut to this day.

Until now, the study of ancient Jewish mysticism has been conducted separately from the historical reality of the Jewish people. In Scholem's book devoted to this subject, published in 1960, there is hardly any mention of historical reality outside the texts under discussion. In the many books and papers that I have published on this subject, there is also hardly any mention of historical reality, as is true of the studies of many others who have dealt with this. This era has now come to an end, thanks to the broad perspective that Rachel Elior has opened to us. Henceforth it will be impossible to discuss the visions of the Chariot without resorting to the histories of the sects in Israel, the relations between the priests and the Pharisees, the splits in the priestly House of Aaron, the Teacher of Justice and Jesus Christ.

The question is not whether it is possible to accept one or another suggestion or conclusion that is proposed in Elior's book. The fact determined by this book is that the basic questions concerning the tradition and experience of the Jewish people during and after the period of the Second Temple are tightly intertwined, and they must be discussed from within a historical perspective different from the one to which we have been accustomed until now. There are very few books about which it is possible to say such a thing.

Joseph Dan is the Gershom Scholem Professor of Kabbala at the department of Jewish thought at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.