Reprinted with permission from Descenders to the Chariot: The People Behind the Hekhalot Literature, published by Brill.
What are the Heikhalot texts? Who wrote them, and to what end? For the last generation, the question of the purpose of the material has been debated. Broadly speaking, two positions have been defended. The first is that the Heikhalot literature describes otherworldly experiences (especially ascents to heaven but also the summoning of angels to earth) as well as the means to achieve them. The second is that the alleged experiences described in the texts (again, especially the heavenly ascents) are primarily literary constructions based on creative exegesis (interpretation) of scripture and rabbinic myth, and it is doubtful that any genuine experience lies behind them.
More than any other scholar in the twentieth century, Gershom G. Scholem is responsible for setting the study of Jewish mystical literature on a sound scientific basis. He built on and transcended the nineteenth-century study of the Heikhalot literature, substantially revising the understanding of the material. In a number of discussions, he argued that the Heikhalot literature described the religious experience of a school of practitioners which originated in Palestine in Talmudic (220-500 CE) or even Tannaitic (70-200 CE) times, but which is now known primarily from literature transmitted to Western Europe from Babylonia. These practitioners made use of ascetic practices to experience the “ascent” or “descent” to the chariot. Recitation of prayers and hymns, along with the invocation of divine names and other magical practices, served to generate a state of ecstasy which allowed them to make the perilous journey through the gates of the seven celestial palaces in order to stand before the throne of God, where they faced the danger of a fiery and potentially fatal transformation into an angel.
Although magic and theurgy (magic-like attempts to affect the world or divine realm) were integral to its practices from the beginning, this school of ecstatic mysticism gradually “degenerated” in different directions to produce, first, a more or less purely magical literature exemplified by tractates such as Sar Torah and the Harba di Moshe; second, a moralizing reinterpretation that developed into later devotional literature such as the Midrash of the Ten Martyrs and the Alphabet of Rabbi Akiva; and third, a group of Heikhalot texts (Heikhalot Rabbati, 3 Enoch, Massekhet Heikhalot) purged of magical elements. Aspects of Merkavah mysticism also informed cosmogonic and cosmological speculation (speculation into the origin of the universe) that united with Hellenistic and Neo-platonic streams of thought to produce medieval Kabbalah. Scholem took it to be the case that Merkavah mysticism developed out of apocalyptic movements in the Second Temple period and that these traditions were alluded to, albeit in cautionary contexts, in the classical rabbinic literature.
David J. Halperin mounted the first thoroughgoing challenge to the framework established by Scholem, arguing that the traditions about the Merkavah in Palestinian sources are based on scriptural exegesis and that ecstatic journeys to the otherworld appear first in Babylonian sources. He reconstructs a tradition of synagogue exegesis associated with Shavuot sermons which he believes generated the traditions found in the Heikhalot literature. These creative reinterpretations of scripture combined Ezekiel’s vision of the Merkavah with the account of the revelation at Sinai in the book of Exodus and in Psalm 68.
While allowing for the possibility that the writers sometimes had visionary experiences or “hallucinations,” Halperin sees the major developments as literary. In addition, he questions an important assumption of previous work on the Heikhalot literature, that at its core or center is the theme of the ascent (or descent) to the celestial chariot. He sees the ancient motif as at most one major aspect of the material, and he points to another tradition that has as much or greater claim to centrality: the Sar Torah tradition. I have referred above to a particular Sar Torah text, but the theme of wrestling knowledge of Torah from the angels through the use of powerful adjurations appears in a number of places in Heikhalot literature.
Halperin believes that both heavenly ascent and Sar Torah adjuration are inspired by an exegetical myth transmitted in the Shavuot sermons in which Moses ascended to heaven to seize the Torah over the objections of the angels, bringing it back to earth for Israel to follow. Certain individuals, Halperin argues, drew on this myth to imagine (or even hallucinate or fantasize) recapitulating Moses’ journey. But more to the point, they sought through magical means to gain access to the Torah and the social benefits that expertise in it conferred and which were denied them in their own life situation.