Ascending and Descending



Jacob's dream, as described in Genesis 28, provides us with a clear view· of all components involved in
the connection between the Divine and mortal world: a human whose place is on the ground; God who is positioned above him, in the heavens; a ladder, 'set on the ground and its top reached to the sky·, on
which immortal beings ascend and descend, a ladder that marks 'Heaven 's Gate·, through which human beings receive new information and, indeed, a Divine promise- a promise that propels them to act: to erect the House of God, to take a vow and pledge of allegiance. And, above all, the event is described as a dream, which is, itself, one of many means of connection between the two worlds.
Such occurrences of movement between the Divine and mortal realms assume many different forms in the course of Jewish cultural history. Indeed, a significant place is dedicated to the question of the
authority conferred to the contents of these expressions and from the messages hidden in them. Prophecy,
human ascension to the Heavens, the descent of Divine beings from the Heavens to the earth, dreams,
visions, mystical experiences and more-these irrational sources of authority present a multi-faceted body
for consideration, and include extraordinary expressions of such occurrences from all periods of Jewish
literature: Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and even the modem age. They have proved to command historical, cultural, religious, and social influence on all parts of Jewish society, even into our own times.
It is unnecessary to mention that most of these expressions are not limited to the Jewish world, a fact which begs the comparison between Jewish and non-Jewish culture.
Our research group proposes to examine the range of expressions that describe the phenomenon of
movement across the boundary, not to mention the dissolution of that boundary, between the human,
mortal realm, and that of immortal beings, in both directions. From this vast, complex corpus, we have
defined six sub-categories on which we will focus, and in the order presented here, each category
representing a semester:
A. The Garden of Eden. The Garden of Eden is at once a physical site from our memory of the distant
past, while also a place of metaphysical significance, a dwelling-place after life-on-earth, or the mystics
longed-for destination in his or her unbounded, limit-breaking journeys.
B. Dream: A mechanism used for passing between the worlds, a means of acquiring other-worldly
knowledge and a source for the establishment of authority. Dreams arc well-represented in biblical
literature, as well as in rabbinic, mystical, and Hassidic literature. Dreams are also accepted in our own
time as a tool for revelation and communication with the Higher World.
By focusing on the Garden of Eden and dreams in the first year, we will be better able to establish
a common language and to formulate more precisely the central questions raised by the subject of
Crossing Boundaries, as these two motifs are common in all of the corpora of literature which is
the focus of research of the members of the group.
C. 'Ascending and Descending': We will look closely at the identities of the humans who ascend to
heaven and return back to earth as we seek to clarify the nature and purpose of their ascent and descent,
the means of their journey, the message they returned with, and more.
D. Intermediary Beings: Beings from the invisible world (e.g. angels or a divine voice bat kol,
demons or ghosts of the deceased) that reveal themselves to the inhabitants of this world as sources of
knowledge and authority.
E. Institutionalized and Subversive Channels for Crossing over the Boundary: Prayer, prophecy and
study of Torah on the one hand; invocation and various practices of magic on the other, along with the
question of what is forbidden and what is allowed.
F. Crossing Boundaries -A Gender Approach: An examination of what is shared and particular
between men and women in the context of the passage between the heavenly and earthly spheres.
The group's four members come from different fields and work in distinct corpora: Bible (Zakovitch),
Second Temple period and early mystical literature, along with kabbalistic and Hassidic literature (Elior), rabbinic literature and the history of the prayerbook (Shinan), and psychological and anthropological
studies of religion in modem Israeli society (Bilu). We believe that the intellectual meeting between the
four of us and our fields will make it possible to explore thoroughly and systematically fundamental
cultural assumptions, and delve into the required conditions, means, aims, achievements and implications
of the phenomenon of crossing the boundary between the heavenly and the earthly, from the earliest
periods of Jewish history and on, into the present day. We hope that the multi-disciplinary perspective
achieved by this group in which three of its members deal with Jewish texts from diverse periods of
Jewish history - will be further enriched by the added insights offered by Prof. Bilu, from the realms of
sociology, anthropology, and psychology. This addition will enable us to bring to light certain aspects of
the six chosen topics which receive but little attention in literary sources.
Clearly, Jewish culture did not uphold the decree of the psalmist, who wrote, 'The heavens belong to the
Lord, but the earth He gave over to man' (Psalm 115: 16). In the center of our inquiry, therefore, will be
the methods and means, the personalities and periods, the aims and results of the crossing of the boundary, in both directions, between Heaven and earth. Our material will span the range of Jewish literature
and experience, beginning with the meeting between divine beings and the daughters of man in Genesis
6: 1-4, and continuing on to the visions which led to the establishment of holy places in the towns of the modern State of Israel.

Group Members


Prof. Yoram Bilu

Prof. Rachel Elior

Prof. Avigdor Shinan

Prof. Yair Zakovitch

Dr. Noach Chayut

Dr. Adam Klin-Oron

Dr. Gila Vachman

Dr. Hannah Wortzman

Group Activity


November 2006 – The group held a conference on the Garden of Eden titled "גן בעדן מקדם" at the Van Leer institute, Jerusalem.

November 2007 – The group held a conference titled "Fleeting Like a Dream: Dreams and their Interpretation in Jewish Tradition” at Beit Avi-Chai, Jerusalem.

December 2007 – The group held a Conference titled "A Hall and it's Whole" in collaboration with the "Ascending and Descending" Scholion group at Beit Avi-Chai, Jerusalem.

June 2008 – The group held a conference concluding their activity at Scholion. The conference titled "Between Two Worlds – Ghosts, Demons and Possessions in Jewish and foreign traditions” took place at th Konrad Adenauer convention center at Mishkenot Sha'ananim, Jerusalem.