Scholastic Magic: Ritual and Revelation in Early Jewish Mysticism

Scholastic Magic: Ritual and Revelation in Early Jewish Mysticism

by Michael D. Swartz

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In exploring the social background of early Jewish mysticism, Scholastic Magic tells the story of how imagination and magic were made to serve memory and scholasticism. In the visionary literature that circulated between the fifth and ninth centuries, there are strange tales of ancient rabbis conjuring the angel known as Sar-Torah, the "Prince of the Torah." This


In exploring the social background of early Jewish mysticism, Scholastic Magic tells the story of how imagination and magic were made to serve memory and scholasticism. In the visionary literature that circulated between the fifth and ninth centuries, there are strange tales of ancient rabbis conjuring the angel known as Sar-Torah, the "Prince of the Torah." This angel endowed the rabbis themselves with spectacular memory and skill in learning, and then taught them the formulas for giving others these gifts. This literature, according to Michael Swartz, gives us rare glimpses of how ancient and medieval Jews who stood outside the mainstream of rabbinic leadership viewed Torah and ritual. Through close readings of the texts, he uncovers unfamiliar dimensions of the classical Judaic idea of Torah and the rabbinic civilization that forged them.Swartz sets the stage for his analysis with a discussion of the place of memory and orality in ancient and medieval Judaism and how early educational and physiological theories were marshaled for the cultivation of memory. He then examines the unusual magical rituals for conjuring angels and ascending to heaven as well as the authors' attitudes to authority and tradition, showing them to have subverted essential rabbinic values even as they remained beholden to them. The result is a ground-breaking analysis of the social and conceptual background of rabbinic Judaism and ancient Mediterranean religions. Offering complete translations of the principal Sar-Torah texts, Scholastic Magic will become essential reading for those interested in religions in the ancient and medieval world, ritual studies, and popular religion.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"[Swartz's] translation. . . and commentary on the main texts of the 'Prince of the Torah' tradition. . . are especially valuable and provide nonexperts with access to the important mystical-magical material under analysis. Especially significant is his emphasis on the ritual and ritual procedures outlined in these texts."--Choice

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Princeton University Press
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Princeton Legacy Library Series
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Scholastic Magic

Ritual and Revelation in Early Jewish Mysticism

By Michael D. Swartz


Copyright © 1996 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-01098-4



Modern scholars are often disappointed by the apparently lowly, working-day status accorded to imagination in medieval psychology—a sort of draught-horse of the sensitive soul, not even given intellectual status. Ancient and medieval people reserved their awe for memory. Their greatest geniuses they describe as people of superior memories, they boast unashamedly of their prowess in that faculty, and they regard it as a mark of superior moral character as well as intellect. —Mary J. Carruthers, The Book of Memory

This book is a story of imagination in the service of memory, of magic in The service of scholasticism. In the visionary literature of the talmudic period, there are several texts that concern the conjuration of an angel known as the Sar-Torah, the "Prince of the Torah." This angel is said to bestow upon a person an extraordinary memory, prodigious skill in absorbing what he has learned, and esoteric knowledge of the cosmos and heaven. Most of the texts are stories of how ancient sages conjured that angel, who transformed them into great rabbis. Those secrets, say the texts, are available to the reader, who can become as learned as they merely by following the rabbis' magical instructions.

Like the intellectuals in Mary Carruthers's study of memory in the Middle Ages,1 rabbinic Jews in ancient Palestine and Babylonia revered sages whose authority and holiness lay in their ability to memorize and retain sacred law and lore. The Sar-Torah literature can tell us about how these values influenced the popular religion, magic, and pneumatic spirituality of the time. These texts also play an important role in the history of Judaism in late antiquity, and can help us understand who the ancient Jewish mystics were.

The Sar-Torah traditions are set into a remarkable corpus of Hebrew and Aramaic texts known as the Hekhalot literature. This literature, which has received a great deal of attention in recent years, took shape in Palestine and Babylonia in the period of the classical Talmuds and midrashim and afterward, from the third to eighth centuries, C.E. It is preserved mostly in medieval manuscript traditions stemming from Germany, Italy, and the Middle East. The best-known texts in this corpus are pseudepigraphic accounts of the ascent of a second-century rabbi, usually Rabbi Ishmael or Rabbi Akiba, through the chambers of Heaven, the Hekhalot, to the chariot-throne of God, the Merkavah. Many of these texts are based on the visions of the heavenly throne depicted in the books of Ezekiel and Isaiah. Also prominent in the corpus, however, are texts, such as the Sar-Torah literature, about the cultivation of angels who bring practical benefits to people on earth.

We are only beginning to understand the significance of Hekhalot literature for the history of religions. It is of value to students of religious phenomena and behavior because of its place in the history and study of rabbinic Judaism and Jewish thought, and because of the distinctive conceptual and literary problems it presents. Little is known about the social environment of the rabbinic estate in late antiquity. Hekhalot literature is evidence for trends and groups within Jewish society who were related to that of the founders and leaders of rabbinic Judaism in complex ways. Moreover, its peculiar variations on rabbinic theology, ritual, and scholastic values can shed light on the worldview of those rabbis.

This study is an exploration of central themes in Hekhalot literature—Torah and wisdom, tradition and authority, and the ritual process—through an analysis of the Sar-Torah and related texts. Its aim is to find out what these texts can tell us about the social and historical context of their authors, and to demonstrate how culture, tradition, and society operate in mystical and magical systems. In the course of this enterprise, we shall uncover aspects of ancient Judaic thinking that this literature reveals.

Approaches to History

Alasdair MacIntyre, in the opening pages of After Virtue, asks us to imagine a cataclysm in which all the works of scientific progress had been destroyed, leaving only a few scattered, fragmentary documents. The society living in its aftermath would try to reconstruct the sciences from the remaining fragments, and eventually convince themselves that what they had developed were, in fact, those sciences. MacIntyre likens that scenario to the relationship of contemporary moral philosophers to their moral tradition: "What we possess, if this view is true, are the fragments of a conceptual scheme, parts which now lack those contexts from which their significance derived."

MacIntyre bases his moral argument on a historical one. The moral argument is that to understand the sources of moral life that our society values it is necessary to reconstruct their cultural context. The historical argument is that the complex cultures that modern Western civilization considers to be its heritage are known to us only fragmentarily since the Enlightenment. This study is concerned with the historical issue implied in MacIntyre's scenario rather than the moral one. If we wish to understand the religious ideas of premodern civilizations such as that of ancient Judaism, we must be prepared to reconstruct the cultural universe that those cultures inhabited, in all their apparent familiarity and alienness. This exercise is important, for while the historical study of rabbinic Judaism and its environment has preoccupied scholars for more than two centuries, we do not always question certain basic assumptions we have about the way ancient Jews thought.

Historians have recognized this larger problem for several decades, and its implications have penetrated most fields of historical research. Many historians look to the social sciences to ask whether the cultures we study differed from ours in fundamental ways of thinking. In the study of religion, this has meant increased attention to cultural anthropology for methodological models. In the study of classical and medieval history, this has given rise to what is called the histoire des mentalités, in which historical sources, including literary texts and archival documents, are studied not only for political and intellectual history but for information about basic facts of everyday life, including rituals, popular physiology and psychology, and the subtleties of social distinctions. This method stresses that the study of history requires the discovery of the assumptions governing those societies that we do not share.

Two ways in which this program can be carried out are of interest to us here. In one type of study, a single figure, incident, or cultural norm is investigated in order to decode its conceptual background. Interesting examples can be found in Robert Darnton's collection of essays, The Great Cat Massacre. Here portraits of individual events or texts—a bizarre riot in a print shop, a set of fairy tales—are deciphered for what they say about the ways of thinking that undergird them. These studies are influenced by, among others, Clifford Geertz's interpretive approach to the study of culture. They often focus on a single detail that seems strange to the modern reader. As Darnton explains, "When we cannot get a proverb, or a joke, or a ritual, or a poem, we know we are on to something. By picking at the document where it is most opaque, we may be able to unravel an alien system of meaning."

In the second type of study, by no means unrelated to the first, a pervasive element of a premodern society that had previously been neglected is brought to the foreground. Influential, if controversial, examples of this approach are Phillip Ariés's studies of ideas of childhood and death in the Middle Ages. Another example, from a rather different perspective, is Mary Carruthers's work on memory quoted above. A prominent recent example of the influence of this approach on the study of late antiquity is Peter Brown's The Body and Society, in which he frames early Christian attitudes toward the body and virginity within Greco-Roman physiological conceptions of male and female. For this background Brown relies on ancient medical literature as well as conventional sources of intellectual history.

This study seeks to draw from both of these approaches. It is an account of one phenomenon and literary corpus that represents wider, more pervasive aspects of ancient Judaism. In it, we find the conjunction of memory and magic, two cultural modes that permeated ancient and medieval Mediterranean and Jewish civilizations, the importance of which has only recently been recognized.

How can the study of the social and cultural environment of rabbinic Judaism make use of this strategy? One way to do so is to examine a phenomenon in which seemingly disparate elements are juxtaposed. Such juxtaposition is at the heart of the comparison of religions, and serves the process of "defamiliarization" by which we see a culture in a new way. This is one reason why the alliance of rabbinic scholasticism with ritual magic that occurs in the Sar-Torah literature is of interest. This literature also bears on two aspects of classical Judaism that deserve reexamination: the role of ritual and what it implies about the efficacy of religious action, and the nature of the scholastic praxis that lies behind the intellectual process the rabbis call Torah. Each of these issues plays a central role in how rabbinic Judaism has been perceived. Ritual action, codified in halakhah, has long been recognized as essential to rabbinic Judaism. So, too, the study and transmission of Torah are understood to be at the heart of the rabbinic enterprise. Yet Jewish ritual can go beyond the requirements of halakhah, and the act of studying Torah is not as simple as it might sound.

The Sar-Torah literature sheds a distinctive light upon these elements of rabbinic Judaism. The Sar-Torah texts describe rituals that draw from central rabbinic norms regarding purity and liturgy, but also attest to religious goals and mythic dynamics that seem to be at odds with those norms. The texts also invoke tradition for their validation, in peculiar variations of the rabbinic concept of tradition. We can use those variations to illuminate the nature of rabbinic claims to authority. Moreover, these texts apply their magic to the central rabbinic activity—the study of Torah. By seeing what it is that Torah entails according to this tradition, we can discover unfamiliar dimensions of this essential idea.

Rabbinic Mysticism?

Although the historical program described above has increasingly informed the study of ancient Judaism, Gershom Scholem's monumental recovery of Jewish mysticism as a pervasive element in Jewish history has had a similar effect. Before Scholem and a few of his contemporaries brought legitimacy to the historical study of Jewish mysticism, the subject was often dismissed as bizarre, irrational, and foreign to true Judaism. Scholem and his colleagues showed that it was impossible to understand Jewish cultural history without recognizing the extent to which mystical theology and hermeneutics pervaded ancient and medieval Judaism.

The study of Merkavah mysticism has played a key role in this argument. Until Scholem rescued the Hekhalot texts from obscurity several decades ago, they languished in medieval manuscripts and anthologies of minor midrashim. Although nineteenth-century scholars had written about this literature, treating it mainly as an example of an esoteric trend outside the normative Judaism of the early Middle Ages, Scholem assigned it a key place in the history of Judaic thought. Here, he maintained, was the first significant stage in the history of Jewish mysticism. This phenomenon, which came to be known as Merkavah mysticism, represented according to Scholem the mystical discipline of cultivating a vision of the divine throne, reached by travel—known as "ascent" or "descent"—through the seven Hekhalot, the heavenly palaces or temples. Furthermore, this literature is intimately related to the classical rabbinic texts. In fact, Scholem argued, Merkavah mysticism derives from the central circles of the ancient rabbis, the tannaim and amoraim of the first centuries C.E.

Scholem thus placed the Hekhalot literature on the agenda both for students of the phenomenology of religion and historians of ancient Judaism. If the Hekhalot texts were composed by the most important rabbis of the early talmudic period, the history of rabbinic thought needed to be rewritten. If they were evidence for mystical theology and practices, the student of religion had to account for their peculiar language, pseudepigraphic attributions, and other cultural properties.

In recent years the study of Hekhalot literature has grown considerably. Due to new editions of the corpus and new textual methods for dealing with rabbinic and cognate literatures, the nature of this literature has been the subject of debate. This discussion bears on both the historical and phenomenological issues Scholem raised.

Historical Issues

With increased interest in Hekhalot literature, Scholem's theories about its historical origins have undergone reexamination. The most important development has been the research of Peter Schafer, who through his Synopse zur Hekhalot-Literatur and other publications has prompted a renewed inquiry into the literary and historical character of Hekhalot literature. In addition, David Halperin's form-critical analysis of passages in rabbinic literature about the Merkavah has shown that the texts considered to be evidence for the practice of ecstatic mysticism by the early rabbis do not support such a conclusion. Studies by Martin S. Cohen, P. S. Alexander, and this writer have shown that individual Hekhalot texts cannot be dated in their entirety to the first centuries of the common era, but were the result of a process of evolution that spanned the centuries from early amoraic Palestine to post-talmudic Babylonia. These studies arise from close, systematic reading of the Hekhalot texts themselves. They emphasize using internal evidence for the historical theses advanced, and make use of recent developments in the methodology of reading rabbinic and related literature, such as form criticism. They also pay attention to the difficult textual problems this literature presents.

If it is no longer certain that the Hekhalot literature as we know it goes back to a mystical tradition at the center of the rabbinic movement, it remains to be determined how to place its authors. It is generally agreed that they were not members of any organized antirabbinic sect known to us; they attributed their texts to the ancient rabbis and are familiar with many details of rabbinic exegesis and law. There is little external evidence for their place in Jewish society. Therefore we must rely on the texts to help us address those questions. This effort, which in part animates this study, also must be seen in the context of a larger discussion of the social history of rabbinic Judaism.

Contemporary historians have tended to look at the rabbinic period in two basic ways. One, following a more traditional type of historiography, tends to see rabbinic Judaism, as expounded in the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds and classical midrashim, as a single culture and as the religion of nearly all Jews in ancient Palestine and Babylonia. Another view, one of the earliest proponents of which was Erwin R. Goodenough, was to see rabbinic Judaism as the product of an isolated elite with limited cultural influence on Jews outside of the academy.

Both views, however, presume a two-tiered model of Jewish society in late antiquity, counterposing a rabbinic elite with the inchoate masses, often identified with what the rabbis called the 'Am ha-'Ares (literally, "people of the land"). Recently, though, there has been increased recognition that ancient Palestinian and Babylonian Jewish societies were complex ones, encompassing tensions between circles within the rabbinic estate, and between the academy and other sectors of the population. This more nuanced view of ancient Jewish society mirrors recent research into social dynamics of Western religions in late antiquity and the Middle Ages, in which the earlier picture of inert "elite" and "popular" religions is revised.

Hekhalot literature plays an interesting part in this debate, although its implications have not always been made explicit. Because Scholem saw Merkavah mysticism as a phenomenon at the heart of rabbinic Judaism, it was seen as the esoteric spiritual expression of the academy. By this account, many of the great leaders of the early talmudic period practiced visionary mysticism as they were ruling on matters of civil and ritual law. But this notion has been disputed by many current scholars. Scholem's argument was based in part on evidence from the Tosefta and the Talmuds. As stated above, it has been questioned whether this evidence in fact supports his conclusions. A key argument from internal evidence was that passages in Hekhalot literature—especially a story in Hekhalot Rabbati about the deposition of Rabbi Nehuniah ben ha-Qannah from heaven —demonstrate detailed knowledge of rabbinic halakhah. Yet when this and related passages are examined, a more complex picture emerges, in which rituals in Hekhalot literature vary in subtle but important ways from their halakhic counterparts.


Excerpted from Scholastic Magic by Michael D. Swartz. Copyright © 1996 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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