Monday, November 7, 2011

Hagbah: Uplifting the Torah in Deed and Thought

One of the most distinctive and memorable elements of a Jewish public service is the hagbah (or hagba - "lifting/hoisting") of the open Torah scroll and displaying it to the congregation.

The custom has its roots, figuratively, in the TaNaKH (the Hebrew Bible). In the book of Nehemiah, when Ezra the Scribe has the complete Torah publically read for the first time (Nehemiah presents this as the Jews having forgotten the teachings while in exile, but many modern scholars think this was the first time all the five books - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy - were assembled into a single document), Nehemiah reports, "Ezra opened the scroll in the sight of all the people" (8.5).

The simple meaning of this verse is that Ezra read it in front of everyone. But by the 8th Century CE it had take on a more ritualized meaning:

After the Sefer Torah is taken out from the ark it is opened up to three columns and shown to all the men and the women to the right to the left, forward and back. When they see the writing, they bow down and say the verse: Ve-zot Ha-Torah asher sam Moshe lifnei b'nei Yisrael (and this is the Torah that Moshe placed before the Children of Israel). And also the verse Torat Ha-shem Temimah Meshivat Nafesh(The Torah of God is perfect, it refreshes the soul). [Masekhet Sofrim].

Now notice how customs evolve beyond the written word (in this case, double evolve) - according to Sofrim, the hagbah is done before the reading. Now we do it afterward. Other arguments aside (there are a number of halakhic discussions over the centuries as to why - Jews will leave without hearing the Torah read, yada, yada) but I think it changed because it makes better ritual theater to conclude the reading with this showy act, more climactic, more emotionally satisfying.

So what is the meaning? What is the point? Once again, the mesorah does not take up the question until centuries after the ritual becomes enshrined in practice. A couple of explanations I have read include:

a) Showing everyone what has been read (it is considered important you be able to see the text clearly. One authority expects, ratherly optimistically, that you find the letters with which to spell your name) is a way of peformatively saying "This belongs to you -- no secrets here, no initiation required, look, read for yourself!"

b) It serves as a rally-point for the Jews. It is, as it were, our flag - see, this is what unites us into one people (ala Saadia Gaon). This sense of Torah as banner may be why it has been long standing custom to parade the scroll on Simchat Torah with flags for the children.

c) Lifting the scroll signifies its supremacy. It is something from up there! It is our heirophany (an object touched by, or emanating from, God).

Coming at this rather more indirectly, I also find a teaching in the mechanics. Lifting a sefer Torah is tricky. It has, as they would say, "a high center of gravity." Not too heavy, but awkward. Particularly if you want to lift it from below. Lifitng it is more about balance than about brute effort. But its mostly about leverage. The smart magbiah moves the scroll halfway off the table first, then bends at the knee, and gets the scroll vertical using the table as a fulcrum before he/she lifts.

Which brings me to this passage:

The human body is created from the lowest element, the inanimate. The reason for this is that humanity fulfills the ultimate purpose of creation. This is the elevation of divine sparks that have come down into our order to lift something properly, one needs to place their force below the object. We see this clearly with a lever, which is placed securely under the object one wishes to lift. So too, the material that God used to create man was of the lowest form, so that humanity could properly lift it back to its source (Shne'ur Zalman of Laidy, Torah Ohr 4b).

Lifting the Torah is dramatizing this spiritual task. We are the base (material) that must, through effort, balance, and artful application of our minds and bodies, elevate God's creation, the reading (and performance) of Torah is the fulcrum that makes this possible. The scroll symbolizes the holy potential found in everything, and we join oursleves to God by lifting it up, linking heaven and earth, bridging the mundane to the sublime.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

El Adon: Esoteric Jewish Prayer of Merkavah Mysticism

[Seven cursal labyrinth invoking the seven celestial palaces - Congregation Kol Ami]

The Reform movement to which I belong got its start out of a desire among Western Jews to reform the siddur (Jewish prayer book). Our efforts to streamline Jewish worship led to many a piyyut [1] getting the boot. One prayer recited on Shabbat mornings that was eliminated was El Adon, a praise of God’s celestial power that came from the circle of Jewish ecstatics known as the Merkavah mystics [Bar Ilan, Sitrei Tefillah v' Hekhalot, 1987, pp. 115-120]. Well, it's back. The new Reform siddur, Mishkan Tefillah, has returned El Adon to its place on Shabbat mornings (p. 314), though slightly edited. This provides us an occasion to examine its esoteric theology. Like Shir ha-Kavod, which I discuss in another entry, this is an alphabetic acrostic poem. This prayer, however, focuses not on the theology of the Glory (though it does mention it), but on the angelic hosts and their equivalences to the celestial bodies. The association of angels with stars and planets was common in late antiquity. It is, for example, a major feature of the Hebrew magical text known as Sefer ha-Razim. This idea provides a monotheistic rationale for the otherwise pagan astrological belief that the stars influence the mortal realms – the stars and constellations, these writers are saying, are actually angels and messengers of divine will. The Merkavah adepts were obsessed with angels, their titles, and their powers. Texts associated with them (often dubbed Hekhalot texts) focus on how the angels praise God and how the initiate can both imitate and manipulate God's angelic agents. It is also interesting that there are carefully crafted numerological [gematria] features to this prayer. Verses have 10, 8, or 12 words. The first two stiches of five words, making a verse of ten equals the number of utterances that God made to form creation (Avot 5.1). The nine lines in the middle consist of 8 words, adding up to 72, a number signifying the most powerful of God’s names. The final two stiches are six words each, the complete verse of 12 represents the total houses of the zodiac, summarizing the 'celestial' theme of the poem. God, Master of all creation

Blessed and praised is He by all that breaths

His greatness and goodness fill the universe

knowledge and wisdom surround him (Prov. 3:19)

He is exalted above the holy beasts [2],

And adorned in glory above the chariot [3]

Merit and Justice stand before His throne

Love and Mercy are before His glory (Ps. 89:15) [4]

Goodly are the luminaries which our God created,

made with Knowledge, Wisdom and Insight

He gave them power and energy

To have dominion over the world

Full of splendor they radiate brightness;

beautiful is their brilliance throughout the world

They rejoice in their rising and exult in their setting (Ps. 19:6)

performing with reverence the will of their Creator (Ps. 103:21)[5]

Glory and honor do they give to His name,

And joyous song to his majestic fame

He called forth the sun, and it shone;

He saw fit to regulate the form of the moon

All the hosts of heaven give him praise (Ps. 148:2-3);

Splendor and Greatness, the Seraphim and Ofanim and Holy Beasts [6].

[1] Liturgical poems, many of them post-Biblical, post-Talmudic compositions. The Reform movement gave Biblical and Talmudic works priority in their editing of the liturgy. [2] Hayyot are beasts that attend upon God’s throne. Mentioned in Ezekiel chapter 1, they may or may not be synonymous with cherubs. [3] The Merkavah is God’s chariot-throne, also mentioned in Ez. 1. Standing [or sitting] in the divine presence before the throne was the major visionary goal of the Merkavah mystics. [4] The reified figures of these abstract values (wisdom, insight, merit, justice, love, and mercy) are sometimes described as arrayed around the throne, and some writers have treated them as if they are angelic beings. [5] It is not uncommon to find an element of animism/spiritism in Jewish religious thought. The Psalms speak of mountains, rivers, and other geographic features as sentient beings. Here the sun and the moon are conscious of their roles and as consciously offering praise to their creator. Personification is, of course, a common literary technique, but I think this goes beyond rhetoric. A more philosophically oriented reading would call such language poetic panentheism. [6] The last line of praises and angels is awkward, linguistically speaking. That’s because the key words - Shevach notnim...kol tz'va marom... were selected so each word starts with the initial of one of the five planets visible to the ancients: SHabbatai, Nogah, Kokhav, TZedek, and Mo’odam were the Hebrew names for Saturn, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter and Mars. The string of angelic titles at the end adds three non-astrological angelic entities to the mix. Lists of angels, seemingly thrown into a line for no clear purpose, is actually a mark of authorship by the merkavah mystics.

Zal G'mor: To learn more, consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism -