Heikhalot Literature

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

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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.

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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).