Schisms and Sects
Written by: Marc A. Krell
Yet these polemical texts actually reveal the emergence of divergent mystical schools of thought dating back to the Second Temple period. Certain pharisaic circles taught Maaseh Bereshit and Maaseh Merkavah in which they referred to the living creatures in Ezekiel's vision as a hierarchy of angels in the Celestial Court of God. The next stage of Jewish mystical development occurred during the period of the Mishnah with the hekhalot or throne mysticism based on Ezekiel's vision of the divine throne and the larger realm of the "throne world." This corresponds directly with the gnostic pleroma or "fullness" of divine light, a sphere of divinity consisting of semi-divine powers or archons in different aeons or heavenly realms.
This literature, referred to as the "Hekhalot Books," displayed the different heavenly halls or divine palaces that the mystic, like the gnostic visionary, passed through until he reached the seventh heaven, and encountered the divine throne. The hekhalot literature was attributed to a late 1st-century circle of rabbis who were disciples of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai: Eliezer ben Hyrkanus, Akiba ben Joseph, and Ishmael the "High Priest." What makes this school of thought so countercultural is that these texts did not consist of traditional midrashim or interpretations of biblical passages, but a completely unique set of religious experiences not found in the Hebrew scriptures. Ultimately, this subterranean sect of rabbinic Jews could not share its gnosis for fear of opposing the rabbinic establishment and widening the schism within Judaism. Jewish gnosticism would remain underground until the end of the 13th century when the study of Kabbalah, the secret tradition of mystical teachings, would become popularized, and the Sefer Ha-Zohar, or "Book of Enlightenment," would become part of the canon of Jewish literature.
In 10th-century Muslim-ruled Babylonia, the Karaite sect emerged in opposition to the rabbinic establishment by rejecting the Talmud as a human creation set up to deceive and alienate the individual Jew from the Torah while strengthening rabbinic power. Influenced by Greek and Arabic philosophy, the Karaites argued that each individual must rely on one's own intelligence to understand the Hebrew Bible and not depend upon any outside human authority. However, Rabbi Saadiah Gaon, one of the rabbinic sages who directed the Babylonian Talmudic academy in Sura and produced his own philosophical work, countered that while the human intellect is the most essential foundation of faith, the Written and Oral Torah are also necessary sources for understanding divine revelation and must be reconciled with human knowledge.