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Keter: The Crown of God in Early Jewish Mysticism

Keter: The Crown of God in Early Jewish Mysticism

by Arthur Green

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Keter is a close reading of fifty relatively brief Jewish texts, tracing the motif of divine coronation from Jewish esoteric writings of late antiquity to the Zohar, written in thirteenth-century Spain. In the course of this investigation Arthur Green draws a wide arc including Talmudic, Midrashic, liturgical, Merkavah, German Hasidic, and Kabbalistic works, showing


Keter is a close reading of fifty relatively brief Jewish texts, tracing the motif of divine coronation from Jewish esoteric writings of late antiquity to the Zohar, written in thirteenth-century Spain. In the course of this investigation Arthur Green draws a wide arc including Talmudic, Midrashic, liturgical, Merkavah, German Hasidic, and Kabbalistic works, showing through this single theme the spectrum of devotional, mystical, and magical views held by various circles of Jews over the course of a millennium or more. The first portion of the work deals with late antiquity, emphasizing the close relationship between texts of what is often depicted as "normative" Judaism and their mystical/magical analogues. The mythic imagination of ancient Judaism, he suggests, is shared across this spectrum. The latter portion of the work turns to the medieval Jews who inherited this ancient tradition and its evolution into Kabbalah, where keter plays a key role as the first of the ten divine emanations or sefirot.The nature of these sefirot as symbols and the emergence of a structured and hierarchical symbolism out of the mythic imagery of the past are key themes in these later chapters. As a whole, Keter takes the reader on an exciting tour of the interior landscapes of the Jewish imagination, offering some remarkable insights into the nature of mystical and symbolic thinking in the Jewish tradition.

Editorial Reviews

Mordechai Beck
The medieval mystics developed the crown metaphor to include both sexual and religious innuendos. The metaphor in any case had already found its way into the prayer book. To this day, the Sephardi and Hassidic kedusha prayer still opens with the word keter, while even the Ashkenazi rite includes the coronation ceremony in the build up to the Shema. Green's study shows how this tradition recalls a time when angels and the Jewish people still interacted with each other.
The Jerusalem Post
From the Publisher
"[T]he general intelligent reader, will find here a mine of information that slowly builds into a central metaphor for Judaism's theological preoccupation with the relationship between god and man."The Jerusalem Post Magazine

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Princeton University Press
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Princeton Legacy Library Series
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7.96(w) x 8.32(h) x 0.84(d)

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The Crown of God in Early Jewish Mysticism

By Arthur Green


Copyright © 1997 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-04372-2


Ancient Israel: Crowns Above and Below


say the rabbis (b. Berakhot 58a); "Earthly kingdoms are like the kingdom of heaven." The modern scholar of religion would certainly prefer to say it the other way around: "The kingdom of heaven is depicted in the image of the earthly kingdom." Religious societies of the most varied sorts, existing at great temporal and geographical distance from one another, portray the realms of their deities or sacred beings awash with trappings familiar from the domain of this-worldly kingship. Various forms of correspondence between the cosmic or primal kingship of the gods and that of the temporal sovereign are usually noted by such societies, human kingship said to be in imitation of the divine. While such associations are both ancient and widespread, their origins are now being traced by historians of ancient religion. One such scholar, who sees Mesopotamian links between gods and kings arising some twenty-three centuries before the Common Era, writes of that Sargonic age, as it is called: "If, then, the monarch was to be deified, it was presumably essential that, at the least, the "real" gods be treated like monarchs.... The new ideology of the deified king, in other words, implied an assimilation of god and king that worked both ways—the king became more like a god, but at the same time the gods bcame more like kings and, inevitably, like human beings altogether."

Often a direct link between the two kingdoms is also provided by ancient myths and rituals, either in the descent of the gods into the person of the earthly ruler or in the ascent of the earthly king, or his mythic ancestor, to the heavens. This link becomes the source of legitimation for the earthly ruler's authority, joining the domain of the sacred with the powers of the earthly realm.

The religion of ancient Israel represents both a continuation and a break with regard to this widespread pattern. The kingship of God is a central theme of the Hebrew Bible, and kingship is probably the most widespread single metaphor used to describe the relationship of God, His creation, and His people. But by now the specific analogy of earthly to heavenly kingship has to a large extent been lost. God is indeed King, and that means that certain trappings of earthly royalty—a throne, for example—will be attributed to Him. Particularly emphasized in the Bible are God's kingly rule in connection with both the origins of the universe—God reigns as triumphant Creator—and its final state, when God is enthroned once again in redeeming glory. But the earthly king of Israel does not seem to exist as a human embodiment of divine rule or glory. On the contrary, we will recall that early biblical sources reflect great ambivalence about monarchy altogether and question whether it is the proper form of rule for Israel. It is with more than a little reluctance that God's prophet designates a king "to be ruler over My people Israel" (I Sam. 9:16).

Biblical scholarship has struggled long and hard to come to this realization, which even today is not universally accepted. The notion of sacral kingship in ancient Israel, one that tied biblical religion more closely to both real and imagined myths of its ancient Near Eastern context, has not wholly been abandoned. Some of the most extensive scholarly discussion of sacral kingship, enthronement of the deity, and correspondence between earthly kingship and that of heaven has been occasioned by the biblical text, and particularly by the Psalter.

It is still widely held that the major motifs of divine kingship in the Bible are somehow related to the Canaanite setting against whose backdrop the religion of Israel took its early shape. A particular object of dispute has been the New Year festival, which in Mesopotamia—and possibly in Canaan—represented an annual renewal of the chief god's victory over his enemies or the forces of chaos. This victory was celebrated in a rite of enthronement, where the king was seated amid various trappings of glory and authority, ensuring the stability of both earthly and heavenly kingdoms for yet another year. That enthronement ceremony was typically preceded by a hieros gamos or sacred marriage rite, in which the cosmic union of heaven and earth, male and female, god and goddess was reenacted by the king.

Israel's proclamations of divine kingship, combined with surviving textual echoes of suppressed tales of the great premundane battles, make it clear that similar motifs were well known among the Hebrews, whose most ancient myths certainly paralleled those of the surrounding cultures. But the royal/sacral New Year festival as such seems not to have existed in Israel, or at least there is no clear evidence that points to it. If there is anything that arouses suspicion in this regard, it is the total absence of a so-designated New Year feast in the Pentateuchal festival lists, indicating a possible attempt to suppress a pre-Israelite survival that was seen as unattractive by the editors of those texts. Neither was there a royal enthronement ceremony at the New Year in ancient Israel nor, of course, could there have been a hieros gamos in the proper sense, YHWH has no consort, and the cult of Israel had no place for such erotic rites.

But old mythic motifs do not disappear. Revolutions, as we have known so well in our century, do not succeed overnight in creating a "new man." The old myths may go underground for a while, protecting themselves from the excesses of revolutionary zeal, but they will reappear, perhaps in new form, for another generation. Though the body of myth was transposed somewhat awkwardly to the setting of a monotheistic faith, its power was not lost on the Israelites, who continued both to tell and to reshape the ancient tales. Sacral kingship did not die out in Israel, but it was limited to the heavens (at least for the duration of premessianic time), giving birth to the postbiblical esoteric literature that will concern us in much of this study. Whatever human needs and dreams are fulfilled in the rite, image, or metaphor of sacred marriage did not disappear from the subconscious minds of Israelites simply because they had become monotheists. The celebration of God's victory at creation—the original Sitz im Leben of divine kingship in the Bible—came increasingly to be linked liturgically and hermeneutically with celebration of His victory over Pharoah and the election of Israel as His earthly beloved. In a process that took many centuries, lasting well into the postbiblical period, this linkage took the place of hieros gamos in the myth structure of ancient Israelite and later Jewish faith. We trace some of the later history of this motif in the course of the following pages.

Even with regard to the New Year, it is not at all the case that ancient mythic associations were permanently suppressed, particularly if we take postbiblical Judaism into account. In the neo-Babylonian literature, a portion of the New Year rite involved the "tablets of destiny" that were in the possession of the gods. These tablets, on which the fate of all mortals was inscribed, were rewritten or adjusted on this day, when lots were cast in heaven to determine humans' fate. The earthly celebrant of the festival was said to have been privileged to see and read these tablets. Thus he gained supernal knowledge concerning his subjects, becoming empowered over them and blessed in his earthly realm. Attention has been called by various scholars to the remarkable parallel between this tradition and a central motif of the rabbinic New Year celebration. "Three books are opened on the New Year," says the Talmud, "one of the completely wicked, one of the completely righteous, and one of those in between. The righteous are inscribed immediately for life, the wicked for death. Those in between are left hanging until the Day of Atonement. If they merit, they are inscribed for life; if not, for death." The various supplications to "inscribe us in the book of life," well known in connection with this season, are of great antiquity and are adjacent to this mythic theme.

The collections of piyyutim, or Hebrew liturgical poetry, beginning as early as the fourth or fifth century and continuing into the early Middle Ages, include some thousands of hymns composed for this day. They are meant to adorn and embellish (sometimes in dazzling wonder, and often in alphabetical acrostics triple or quadruple, backward or forward!) the glorious kingship of God. These poems typically include references to the angels, the heavenly throne, the eternity of divine rule, God's awesome judgment, and (though somewhat less frequently) the offering of a crown to God. A classic example of this last motif is found in the conclusion of We-Ye etayu, an exceptionally lovely composition in blank verse written by an anonymous poet in seventh-century Eres Israel:

Mountains will break forth in singing,
Islands in joyous exultation.
They will accept the rule of Your kingdom
And exalt You in mighty chorus.
Those far off will come and hear,
Bringing you a kingly crown.

Our main concern here will be the role played by this motif of divine coronation, not in the New Year celebration, but in the daily liturgy of the synagogue and in the Jewish esoteric literature of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. Before this discussion, however, a brief backward glance at the role played by coronation in the biblical (earthly) kingship traditions is required. Although the religion of biblical Israel had undergone a tremendous series of transformations by the earliest period we discuss here, the canonical status of the biblical text dictated that terms, images, and particular verses—sometimes taken entirely out of their original context—remained formative for later Judaism, in this area as indeed in nearly all others.

The chief method of inaugurating kings in ancient Israel was anointing with oil, rather than coronation. This tradition goes back to the earliest memories of kingship in Israel (Jud. 9:15; I Sam. 9:16) and is related to the consecration of priests by anointing. Nevertheless, crowns were associated with kings and served even as symbols of royalty. Saul was said to wear a nezer that was snatched from his head and brought, along with the band from off his arm, to David at Ziklag (II Sam. 1:10). When young Joash is proclaimed king, his supporters place on him "the nezer and the testimony ('edut)" (II Kings 11:12). When David conquers the Ammonites, he removes the golden 'atarah of the king in Rabbat Ammon and places it on his own head. (2 Sam. 12:30; I Chron. 20:2). 'Atarah is also used with some frequency in biblical poetry, though not always in a royal context. The removing of a crown indicates loss of kingship (Ps. 89:40; Jer. 13:18; Lam. 5:16). Especially well known among these references is that to the 'atarah, marital crown or wreath of Solomon, "with which his mother crowned him on the day of his marriage, the day of his heart's delight" (Cant. 3:11). The Book of Esther contains several references to keter malkhut, the royal crown, providing the only biblical usage of the term that becomes the most common one for "crown" in later Hebrew. Clearly, in the Persian context of that book, the crown has become a crucial symbol of royalty, alongside throne and scepter.

The interweaving of royal and priestly motifs in the Bible is further demonstrated by the fact that while both are inaugurated by anointing, priests as well as kings are also depicted as crowned. The nezer, or sis, that Aaron and his sons wore when serving, on which "holy unto YHWH" was inscribed, seems to be a priestly adaptation of the royal crown. The two motifs of anointing and coronation are further enmeshed in a Levitical description of the high priest (Lev. 21:12), of whom it is said that "the crown of sacred anointing oil" is on him.

It is clear, especially from the uniqueness of the Esther references, that the bestowing of a crown was not the key symbol of royalty in ancient Israel that it was to become in later history. Verbal proclamations of kingship, anointing, and enthronement were the elements central to the royal rites, whether in their heavenly or earthly manifestations.

The Greek and Roman sources have a very different relation to the crown, designated usually as diadema or corona. Both in the classical age and in the late Hellenistic world that forms much of the direct backdrop for rabbinic literature, wreaths and crowns were commonplace, serving a wide range of roles as signs of honor, obeisance, celebration, and simple adornment. They were used in the private or familial as well as the public domain, and for both secular and religious purposes. Statues of the gods were regularly crowned with leafy diadems. In this case there were appropriate leaves to be chosen: laurel for Apollo, myrtle for Venus, olive branches for Minerva, and of course vines for Bacchus. Lists are available in some detail about the proper composition of a diadem for ritual occasions. Sacrificial victims were crowned as a sign of consecration, and the use of a crown had magical associations in some sources. For those who could afford them, silver and gold crowns were also in use, and these do not seem to have a symbolic value clearly distinguishable from crowns of leaves and branches, other than as an indicator of economic status. For this level of adornment, there were professional crownmakers, and one could order crowns for particular occasions through them. In fact some very lovely Hellenistic crowns have been preserved that consist of leaves wrought in gold, uniting the two traditions. In early Graeco-Roman tradition there was no particular association of crowns with royalty, but this changed with the advent of the Roman empire. Julian is the first emperor whose coronation is recorded, but in the late Roman and Byzantine worlds crowning was very much a symbol of royalty. The emperors habitually wore a laurel wreath as a sign of office. This later prevalence of crowns comes to be reflected in Christian iconography, and, as illustrated in the pages that follow, is reflected in the Jewish verbal arts as well as in the synagogue tradition of crowning the Torah, embodiment of legitimate authority in the eyes of Judaism.

For the Jews, the loss of political sovereignty, joined on two occasions to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, meant that both royal and priestly traditions were to lose the very base of their onetime existence. The priesthood, with its vast body of learning and tradition, survived the relatively brief Babylonian exile and actually exhibited remarkable vigor during the Second Temple period. History did not give the royal tradition the same chance at reestablishing itself. Already in the Persian period, Jews seem to have begun transferring their love of royalty from earth to heaven, perhaps preserving some bit of faith in this-worldly kingship only for King Messiah, belief in whom was just beginning to develop in this period of Jewish history.

The ancient motifs of royalty are carried over into the rabbinic and later Jewish liturgy on a grand scale, especially on the New Year. The repeated calling out of "The Lord is King!" or the solemn proclamation of the sovereignty verses in the Mussaf service recall the cries of tribal chieftains and elders who come together to proclaim the king. The heavenly throne is mentioned with some frequency in the service, on this day when God is said to be seated on the throne of judgment. The royal robes of God are also described in the poetry of the day. Only anointing seems to be missing from this panoply of kingly motifs. God in the Bible was never anointed as King, but neither was He ever crowned. Both of these would have seemed theologically offensive, surely to the prophetic mind. They would have indicated both that God's kingdom has a beginning and that someone stands over Him to pour the anointing oil, or behind Him to offer the crown. Either of these formulations would have caused difficulty for biblical theology. But in the rabbinic world, one of these will remain out of bounds, while the other becomes quite popular and seemingly unoffensive. We may say that among the rabbis the place of anointing is taken by the offering of the holy crown. Anointing is reserved in postbiblical Judaism for Messiah, whose very title of course means "anointed one." It might be that the appropriate symbol for the offering of kingship to God has in fact evolved with the times; it is the crown of empire, in the Persian and then later Roman/Byzantine mode, that is given to God who is King of Kings, the blessed Holy One. The much simpler and more ancient act of anointing no longer suffices for the Kingdom of Heaven, which now must follow the fashion of the courts of earth's emperors and kings and be yet more glorious than they. Anointing is thus reserved for the more humble human surrogate for Israel's ancient rulers, the one who is still to come.


Excerpted from Keter by Arthur Green. Copyright © 1997 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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