• Thu, Sep 27, 2012
“The term esoteric really means ‘inter-meaning.’ It is related to the occult, the hidden,” Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis explained. “Fundamentally, it’s traditions that are not shared, which are contained within a circle of people. So, national security information is technically esoteric in that only a limited number of people are allowed to have access to the information.
“Jewish esoteric literature is ironic in that you find works in literature and teachings that say, ‘This is a secret; now I’m going to share it with you.’ The Jewish tradition is full of esoteric literature that you can read. But, there’s a built-in element of gapping. You can read it, but unless you understand the rules of the assumptions and underlying principles or metaphysics, they are not completely spelled out.”
Rabbi Dennis is the spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Ami in Flower Mound, Texas. He teaches Kabbalah and Rabbinic Literature in the Jewish studies program at the University of North Texas. He is the author of “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism.” He blogs on all aspects of Jewish esoteric traditions and occult lore at ejmmm2007.blogspot.com.
Myths, said Rabbi Dennis, are archetypal tales told to help us fathom important truths. And, magic is part of a naturalistic worldview.
“Oftentimes, when people ask what my book is about, I say it is an encyclopedia of Jewish folklore, because folklore is an easy catch-all term for the pre-modern ways of looking at the world. My publishers wanted myth, magic and mysticism in the book title because it brings together people who come with a specific point of interest. Thus, I end up talking to a wide variety of people, because one of the three words means something to them.”
For many Jews, the idea of Jewish myth, magic and mysticism is unsettling. We’re products of a modern age. Our point of view is rational. We think of myths simply as stories of supernatural beings.
But, if you understand myths as “master stories,” stories that articulate or describe the underlying structure or order that pervades all things, then you can understand myths as stories that invoke realities not accessible to direct human experience.
And, magic? That’s even more problematic for us moderns. Magic is dismissed as mere superstition or condemned (especially in Christianity) as satanic.
“The Talmud describes making artificial creatures and, through a ‘seed of wonder,’ creating an entire field of cucumbers,” said Rabbi Dennis. “Did those things really happen? It seems doubtful from my modern perspective. However, just as many laws in the Torah were not meant to be literally applied, these stories have heuristic value. They tell us about human potential and what is possible. What they describe is not science. What these stories are about is human empowerment and the human capacity, like G-d, to be creative and rework our world in desirable ways.”
Thus, when Rabbi Dennis speaks to university students at North Texas State or his congregants, people whose experience and orientation towards rational thinking may be opposed to myth and magic, he must first bridge a gap of understanding.
“I spend a great deal of time prepping them,” said Rabbi Dennis. “I say we’re going to read this text, and I want you come at it with an attitude of critical sympathy. Try to understand what the author wants to say. Then, you can say: This bothers me. First, give us a chance to tease out together the implications and ideas. You’d be surprised how much of mythology makes sense.
“In our culture, we are burdened by a kind of polar, two-sided argument about traditional religious literature like the Bible. People who love the Bible insist it is literally true. Those who hate the Bible also insist we read it literally. That allows one side not to think deeply about it and the other side to simply dismiss it.
“A third way, lingering over the text, dissecting and then re-assembling it, is a very Jewish way of reading. It’s also very demanding. Jews don’t read texts. We study them. It requires that you don’t leap to conclusions, which is what we all love to do. So, that’s my prep work.”
Now that you’ve been prepped, let’s go back to Uriel, Metatron and Peniel. They are all angels. In Jewish tradition, an angel is a spiritual entity in the service of G-d. These three angels, along with many others who are named, appear in the apocryphal books of III Enoch, Tobit and IV Ezra.
By referencing the extensive “Angels and Angelology” entry in Rabbi Dennis’ encyclopedia, we can see the prominent role that angels have played in Jewish thought throughout the centuries.
Now, here’s where it starts to get interesting. Eliyahu haNavi (Elijah the Prophet), celebrated as a hero in the Bible, also appears in numerous other Jewish esoteric writings as having been elevated to the status of an angel. Cross-reference “Elijah” in the encyclopedia. In one tradition, Eliyahu was the angel Sandalfon, who briefly took on human form.
“If you go to the Elijah entry, you would learn something about all these traditions about Elijah that had to be teased out of different sources. Then, you could understand the logic in the different Elijah traditions. According to Jewish mythology, he starts out as an angel, becomes transubstantiated into a man, a sort of proto-Jesus. Then, he returns to his angelic state. So, he shares an important quality of bridging a role between the mortal and the divine in some of the ways, with critical differences, that an angel usually does. If you understand what the tradition is assuming about Elijah, then the mythological stories about him make a lot more sense.”
Rabbi Dennis argues that once you start looking at the tradition through the lens of mythology or archetypal tales, much of our anxiety to force reading it as a modern text, defending it literally, misses the point.
“It’s a fabulous way of looking at the world. You can see the ancient, the medievalism and the modern, all side by side. And, it creates this beautiful mosaic.
“In doing research for this book, I learned there’s something precious in looking at the world as a mysterious place. As moderns, we de-mythologize the world. But, to borrow [Rabbi Abraham Joshua] Heschel’s phrase, ‘we must learn to see the world with eyes of wonder.‘ That is, wonder is just as precious and important as understanding how to master the world.”