Book Serialization Part 12: Six People You Meet in Synagogue

Book Serialization Part 12:  Six People You Meet in Synagogue
For 2013. We present our book in serial format on our blog - God's Favorite Prayers...

Mystical Experience

o inquire further into the spectrum of religious experience in Judaism, let’s return now to the Har-El synagogue in Jerusalem, the mystical place I spoke about in my opening chapter above. As you may recall, that small shul was where I once found the perfect davening.
At Har-El, I meet one woman who prays there regularly, one of the biblical Hannah’s contemporary incarnations. She will be my spokesperson for the contemporary “mystical” archetype in the synagogue. I call her Hannah too. I ask her to explain more of what she believes goes on when she prays.
She tells me that there are other domains of meaning in the universe that we can become acquainted with and learn from. We must accept that there are dimensions of reality beyond this physical world that we inhabit.
Our contemporary Hannah assures me that she is a mild and basic sort of mystic. She reminds me that, after all, in spite of her yearnings and proclivities, she still attends the synagogue. She has not left to join a Kabbalah Center or some other center for spiritual practice, somewhat down the road from the synagogue at another location along the spiritual spectrum.
Our Hannah tells me that it is fair to classify her as mystical archetype and that she embraces the major mythic elements of Judaism. But she surely cautions me that I may not call her a Kabbalist.
Hannah advises me that there is no distinctive profession or status for any of the forms of our mystic archetypes. “Mystical” is more of a description of a discrete personality or mindset—a conglomeration of values as they relate to ultimate questions of the regions of heaven and Earth, the dimensions of time, past and future, and the inhabitants of those other domains.

Hannah assures me that, as a mystic archetype, she ordinarily is comfortable with the views and practices of the scribe, an ideal synagogue type whom we will discuss in the next chapter in greater detail. Both of these types find intuitive the notion that the sacred can be made more personal.
By contrast Hannah does not feel as comfortable with the values of the priest—another ideal synagogue type whom we will discuss later in detail. Previously, in looking at the biblical account, we saw that, as a self-declared independent mystic personality, the ancient Hannah acts as if she has her own entrée into a realm of the holy. That challenges the priest’s exclusive control over access to the sources of the sacred and it questions the priest’s authority over the centralized locus of ritual.
Hannah, our basic contemporary mystical archetype, professes knowledge of a vision of heaven occupied by creatures who are close to God and who recite praises. She relies on the notion that the domains in heaven, which are inhabited by celestial beings, are knowable to ordinary persons like her. Hannah explains to us what happens when she recites the texts associated with those occupants of heaven. It is not as if she comes into the proximity of an immediate experience of the divine power. Hannah holds to a more uncomplicated notion that to know how to pray effectively, to address her prayer to God, she simply must ask the angels how to talk to Him.
In my discussion of the scribe in the next chapter, I will consider a passage that is recited in the morning liturgy before the biblical verses of the Shema. I preview  it now because that selection has a vivid example of this basic mystical expression. It speaks of how the mythical heavenly beings offer praise to the Lord:
Then the Ophanim and the Holy Hayot, with a roar of noise, raise themselves toward the Seraphim and, facing them, give praise, saying: Blessed be the Lord’s glory from His place. (Ezekiel 3)
To the blessed God they offer melodies.
To the King, living and eternal God,
They say psalms and proclaim praises.
When Hannah, as an entry-level mystic, says this prayer, she is sure that it will be effective on her behalf. And how does she know that? Because Hannah is certain that no being in the universe knows better than the angels what to say when praying to God.
Hannah invites us to look next at another mystical instance of prayer, the Kedushah—the expression par excellence that the creatures of heaven recite in the proximity to God. Here is how it is formulated in the Kedushah and recited at the repetition of the Amidah:
We will sanctify your name on earth, as they sanctify it in the highest heavens, as it is written by your prophet, “And they [the angels] call to one another saying: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts the whole earth is full of His glory.’” (Isaiah 6)
Those facing them say “Blessed–” “Blessed is the Lord’s glory from his place.” (Ezekiel 3)
And in your Holy Writings it is written thus: “The Lord shall reign forever. He is your God, Zion, from generation to generation, Halleluyah!” (Koren Siddur, p. 112)
What is so special about this prayer of the angels? On the surface level, it is an involution, a prayer to the second power, a prayer about a prayer. It’s like a diary entry by a more advanced mystic who has been to heaven and back, and who has reported what she saw there. She tells us then with a certain awe that this is how the angels sing to praise God, and concludes with the glorious, Halleluyah, which actually means no more than “Praise God.”
Hannah explains to us what is remarkable about this prayer of the angels embedded inside of a prayer of the mystic. What the angels actually say is unique, mostly in style and hardly at all in substance. The angels know how to articulate the few special mystical terms such as ‘holy’ and ‘glory’ and ‘blessed.’ The special knowledge of the beginning mystic in this case is her insight into the way the angels say the praise, more than the extent of what the phrases they say actually signify. Perhaps she makes an assumption here that the right words must be said in the right order to maintain some ecstatic vision or connection between the mystic and heaven; the wrong word will end the rapture and dissipate the ecstasy of that union but the suitable phrase will maintain the mystic’s relationship with the bliss of heaven, or simply allow her to communicate properly with God.
Hannah invites us to examine next the well-known and practiced Kaddish prayer, a second case of the entry level mystic’s prayers. There are several varieties of Kaddish recited in the synagogue, enough to confuse the beginner. One of them, called the Half (chatzi) Kaddish, because a few sentences are left off of it, is recited by the leader of the services as a framing mechanism to mark the end of each major section of the liturgy. And, coincidentally, the term ‘half’ (chatzi) relates to the Hebrew word for a dividing or framing action.
The second Kaddish variety, called the complete one (shalem), marks the very end of the services proper.
The best-known Kaddish in the synagogue though is the mourner’s Kaddish (yatom), the one that is employed as a mourner’s doxology (i.e., a praise of God). The practice of associating this prayer with a mourner first appears in the thirteenth century. The synagogue authorities endorsed the custom that mourners during the first eleven months after losing a close relative ought to rise and recite a Kaddish on their own. In the case of this Kaddish Yatom, the mourner rises in his place in the synagogue and recites the doxology at a few appointed times in the daily, Sabbath, and festival services.
I ask Hannah, What is it that the prayer tells us? And, in particular, what makes the prayer an apt mystical enactment for the mourner who recites it? She explains that the substance of the prayer is not at all philosophical or deep. It is a litany, as a mystical prayer is wont to be, of the right words of praise of God in the correct order. She shows us the mystical component of the Kaddish, those lines that cite for us the adoration that is recited by the angels in heaven.
Hannah explains then that reciting the Kaddish provides an appropriate vicarious association for the mourner—to stand and recite a prayer on behalf of the departed souls of the dead:

Magnified and sanctified
may his great name be
in the world he created by his will.
May he establish his kingdom
in your lifetime and in your days,
and in the lifetime of all the house of Israel,
swiftly and soon
and say: Amen.
May his great name be blessed forever and all time.
Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted,
raised and honored, uplifted and lauded
be the name of the Holy One, blessed be he,
beyond any blessing, song, praise and consolation
uttered in the world
and say: Amen
May there be great peace from heaven,
and life for us and for all Israel
and say: Amen.
May he who makes peace in his high places,
make peace for us and for all Israel
and say: Amen.
(Koren Siddur, p. 178)

This lilting and poetic passage does have a certain unique cadence, yet it seems to us in its words to be no more than a standard glorification of God, nothing about death or dying or the deceased. I ask again, why then is this prayer especially apropos for a mourner? Hannah proposes that it is because reciting this heavenly angelic Aramaic praise is the epitome of a mystic’s liturgy. It is a stand-in enactment by the mourner on behalf of the departed loved one. The mourner stands in place in the synagogue and recites the words.
But acting in the mode of the mystic archetype, the mourner advances to the next level of mystical prayer. She is not just addressing God with the outpourings of her personal anxiety and vexation, but imagining that she is standing aloft in heaven, representing the soul of her beloved departed, knocking on heaven’s door to seek entry for that spirit into a secure, eternal place close to the divine light and near the warmth of God.
I pressed Hannah on this matter. I asked her to clarify to us what is going on when she recites the Kaddish. Is she addressing God from her pew, using the words authorized by the angels on behalf of the deceased? Or is she imagining her ascent to heaven to plead there for the soul of the departed?
Hannah did not know the origins of the Kaddish as a mystic’s prayer on behalf of the soul. Alan Mintz explained that this association began in the Middle Ages (Hurban: Responses to Catastrophe in Hebrew Literature, pp. 100-101):
In the generations immediately following the First Crusade the ceremony of remembering the dead began to be practiced not only in the case of renowned rabbinical martyrs of public persecution but also simply for all who died natural deaths, entirely irrespective of the conditions of persecution. A bereaved son would recite the Kaddish, an Aramaic doxology, for the memory of his recently departed father or mother, in the conviction that such recitation had the power to save the deceased’s soul from tortures beyond the grave. The practice gained headway in the thirteenth century and by the fifteenth a new custom emerged: the Yorzeit, the recitation of the Kaddish on the anniversary of the death of a relative. And soon there was further established the Yizkor or Hazkarat Neshamot, the Kaddish together with various supplications for the souls of the departed, recited on the Day of Atonement and the last days of the Pilgrimage Festivals. Taken together, this amounts of a kind of cult of the dead that began in medieval Ashkenaz and later spread to all of world Jewry.
Mintz commented further about the deep personal attachment that Jews have to this prayer:
The astounding tenacity of this outlook is observable in the simple sociological fact, known to all, that in the process of secularization, and especially in the acculturation of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe to America, the recitation of the mourner’s Kaddish with its attendant rites is the very last particle of tradition to be given up.
Without knowing anything about the historical development of the Kaddish, the entry-level mystic in the synagogue does engage in some prayer, emulating the angels and sending praises and petitions heavenward. She also may practice an intermediate form of mystical prayer, an imagined ascent to stand in another realm and importune her case before the angels and before God.
Judaism also does know about more advanced or full-scale mystical pursuits. In such, the practitioner learns more of the mystical codes, secrets, symbols and signs and seeks a longer and fuller mystical practice and even more vivid experiences of heavenly ascent. It happens that, over the centuries, advanced mystics did not become dominant and persistent presences in the synagogue. They mainly practiced apart, leaving the domain of the synagogue to the entry-level mystics, along with the other common archetypes that we meet and describe in this book, in our model congregation of the faithful.
I might treat those advanced mystics in another book, which I could call, The People You Meet at a Kabbalah Center. I do imagine you’d meet there numerous more extensive mystics, and also a fair number of mystically adept meditators, celebrity-monotheists and performers—our artist-poet-musicians. I do not expect you would find there that many scribes or priests. But the details of all that speculation will have to await an account in a future book about a separate visit to an altogether different Jewish religious venue.

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