Heikhalot Literature

Scholars disagree over whether Heikhalot texts are chronicles of mystical adventures or literary creations.

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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.

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Dr. James R Davila

James R. Davila, Ph.D., Harvard University, is Lecturer in Early Jewish Studies at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. He is the author of Liturgical Works (Eerdmans, 2000) and he is the co-editor of The Jewish Roots of Christological Monotheism. Papers from the St. Andrews Conference on the Historical Origins of the Worship of Jesus (Brill, 1999).