Journal for the Study of Judaism 37/1 (2006) 90-93

[90] Vita Daphna ARBEL, Beholders of Divine Secrets: Mysticism and Myth in the Hekhalot and Merkavah Literature, State University of New York Press, Albany, NY, 2003, xii, 250 pp., hardcover, $ 71.50, ISBN 0-7914-5723-0; paperback, $ 23.95, ISBN 0-7914-5724-9. In the past few decades much progress has been made in the field of ancient Jewish mysticism. Alongside text editions, numerous studies have appeared dealing with various conceptual aspects of Merkavah mysticism. The volume under review is just such a work, in which A. advocates the influence of Ancient Near Eastern myth on Hekhalot literature. The first chapter, ‘The Hekhalot and Merkavah Literature and its Mystical Tradition’ (7-20), comprises a general overview of Hekhalot literature, its historical background, methodological problems and its date. A. also discusses [91] the question whether this type of literature can be considered to be “mystical”. Rather than providing a definition of the phenomenon, she enumerates a few pivotal aspects of what is generally considered to be “mysticism” and answers the question in the affirmative. Ch. 2, “Hekhalot and Merkavah Mysticism” (21-50), discusses the main concepts found in Merkavah mysticism and the way these are interrelated: mystical techniques, ritualistic practices, spiritual transformation, divine revelation and mystical exegesis. It is with ch. 3 that A. comes to her main thesis: Hekhalot and Merkavah literature has undergone profound influence from Biblical and Mesopotamian myth. By means of an introduction chapter 3, “Mythical Language of Hekhalot and Merkavah Mysticism” (51-66), deals with the basic methodological approach to the study of the mythical element in Hekhalot and Merkavah mysticism: the nature of mythical thought and expression in general, as well as the main features of biblical and Mesopotamian myth and their afterlife in late antiquity. In spite of numerous attempts at a more precise definition, the concept of “myth”—not unlike that of “mysticism”—has proven to be an elusive one. On the basis of an eclectic array of features, it is stated that all myths, “through the use of symbolic language, communicate transcendent meaning within a culture.” In other words, “myths reveal spiritual truths, ethical concepts, collective dreams, and the traditional beliefs of a specific group or community. They are often distinguished by particular modes of expression which include prose narrative style, dramatic action, pictorial imagery, and the use of figurative lan-


guage” (53). Since myth is not necessarily polytheistic, A. concludes, many aspects of the biblical account can in fact be termed “mythical.” In chs. 4 and 5 A. sets out to substantiate her thesis “by presenting a concise phenomenological and literary examination of the manner in which Hekhalot and Merkavah mysticism integrates diverse mythological patterns” (52-53). In order to illustrate the mythical element in Hekhalot literature, chapter 4, “Mystical Journeys in Mythological Language” (67-103) deals with three themes: the image of the visionary (i.e. the “mystical-mythical hero”), the inner otherwordly journey and the mystical-mythical transformation at its end. Each of these is examined as regards its mythical patterns and its use in Hekhalot and Merkavah mysticism. In ch. 5, “The Concept of God: Mystical and Mythological Dimensions” (105-38), A. notes that in Merkavah mysticism abstract images of the divinity are used alongside tangible and corporeal imagery, e.g. enormous physical size, exclusive kingship, majestic appearance and tangible supremacy. According to A., these derive in part from Near Eastern mythological patterns and imagery. From a “mystical-exegetical perspective”, however, these two ways of presentation of the divine are not contradictory, but complementary; both should be understood as the “mystical, human response to divine revelation” (138). Ch. 6, “Literary, Phenomenological, Cultural, and Social Implications” (13956), deals with the Sitz im Leben of Merkavah literature and the identity [92] of its mystics. As the sources reveal little or nothing about these matters, A. suggests looking “at possible cultural and social implications of the literary and phenomenological observations presented above” (139). She then proceeds to summarize her book as a whole, and tentatively suggests: “As a concluding hypothesis to our analysis, we have examined how several important attitudes and concerns, associated with the Hekhalot and Merkava mystics, are also present as key interests among Jewish intellectuals in late antiquity in circles of scribes, sages, and ‘the wise’ from ancient to Greco-Roman times. (…) Thus it seems plausible to consider that the enigmatic Hekhalot and Merkavah mysticism is a product of these Jewish intellectuals of late antiquity associated with classes of temple priests, who, in keeping with the traditions of the wise, reapply several of their principles and concepts to their mystical writings.” About one third of the book, pp. 157-250, consists of footnotes, a bibliography and several indexes. A few general points of criticism may be in order: A. consistently prefers to use “mythological” where “mythic(al)” would have been more appropriate; “mythology” should be reserved for “the study of myth” (Cf. G.S. Kirk, The Nature of


Greek Myths [Harmondsworth 1974], 21-22). Furthermore, the author is clearly fond of verbose language and abstract terms—“phenomenological” is an absolute favourite—which often make for tiresome reading and sometimes leaves the reader wondering what exactly is being stated. For instance: “Alternation of a common sensual and logical human perception, attainment of spiritual perception, and proper comprehension are some elements introduced in these traditions as leading to an inner transformation” (49). Similarly, as regards the spiritual transformation, dealt with in ch. 4 as one of the mythical elements in Merkavah mysticism, A. concludes: “these aspects of the spiritual-conceptual path are often stated using a mythological language involving pictorial images, concrete metaphors, and figurative expressions, as well as themes and patterns rooted in Mesopotamian and biblical mythology” (102-3; my italics). Especially the phrase as well as is puzzling here: are these biblical and Mesopotamian themes and pattern suddenly to be distinguished from the pictorial, metaphorical and figurative expressions? This is all the more problematic, since “myths” were earlier defined, rather offhandedly, as being distinguished by pictorial and figurative language ( 53). It would have been interesting if A. had given a number of concrete motifs and explained us how these found their way into Hekhalot literature. In doing so, however, it is of particular importance to show that we are not merely dealing with general, archetypal—A. would say “phenomenological”—motifs and patterns, since such parallels are to be found in any and all sorts of mysticism and myth. If no historical connection can be demonstrated to exist, one may just as well compare the Hekhalot texts with, say, American Indian mythical patterns. But here lies the problem of the book under review (cf. p 56: “It is important, however, not to confuse issues such as tracing [93] influence, studying borrowed motifs, examining literary-cultural linkage […] with the phenomenological assertion suggested in this study”). As A. explicitly says, she merely wants to point at phenomenological parallels, similar motifs shared by Mesopotamian myth and Hekhalot mysticism. As a consequence, A.’s assertions remain strikingly non-committal: the mythological patterns in Merkavah mysticism do not necessarily derive from ancient Mesopotamian traditions, but are certainly rooted in them (cf. p. 56: “This investigation does not announce the Mesopotamian mythological background as the origin of the Hekhalot and Merkavah literature. Nor does it suggest that this literature derives its mystical content from Mesopotamian mythology or its variations. Instead, the study proposes that mythological themes and patterns, rooted in ancient Mesopotamian traditions, and accessible in late antiquity among other sources, were reapplied in the new


evolving context of the Hekhalot and Merkavah literature and thus acquired new mystical meanings”) Although veiled in highly abstract formulations, some of A.’s conclusions do not go beyond stating the obvious. Since myths are not necessarily polytheistic, A. argues, some biblical motifs can also be considered mythical and hence Merkavah literature derives some of its mythical content from the Bible (54-56). Such statements will meet with very little objection. The same is true for the subject matter of ch. 6, the social background of the Merkavah mystics. A.’s suggestion that Hekhalot mystics must have had some connection with Jewish intellectual circles in late antiquity is hardly surprising. In sum, the main thrust of Arbel’s Beholders of Divine Secrets boils down to one core idea: Hekhalot literature displays some parallels with Mesopotamian (and Biblical) myth. She may indeed have an interesting point there. Formulated and argued in a lucid way, this idea would have made for interesting reading in a thirty-page article or so. But there was no need to expand the argument to an entire monograph. J.H. LAENEN


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