The Journal
of Religion and Film

Epiphany of the Throne-Chariot: Merkabah Mysticism and the Film Contact

by Antonio D. Sison
Insititute for Pastoral Initiatives
University of Dayton

Vol. 9, No.1, April 2005

Epiphany of the Throne-Chariot: Merkabah Mysticism and the Film Contact

by
Antonio D. Sison
Insititute for Pastoral Initiatives
University of Dayton

Abstract

[1] I first review the features of Merkabah Mysticism emerging from the Jewish Hekhalot literature. I then get into an open-minded, creative exploration of what I see as cinematic allusions to Merkabah motifs in Contact through a consideration of thematic and stylistic patterns. I graft onto the scholarly efforts to bring out deeper aspects of meaning-making in film using the discursive framework provided by biblical theology.

Article

And what if film can teach me to see better, beyond all human sciences, however useful, legitimate, and important they may be? What if, as an icon, it can teach me the spiritual dimension, the mystery, of my existence and that of others? What if it can help me to discern a meaning within the contradictions of the world, and what if a light on the true life can shine for me from out of the darkened hall?1

[2] Guy Bedouelle's musings in his insightful essay "Film and the Mystery of Person" resonate with my own "what ifs" as I screened the science fiction film, Contact (Robert Zemeckis, 1997) for the seventh time. Multiple viewings called my attention to a unique religious-hermeneutic impulse that Contact, as a cinematic text, could trigger. I was drawn into seeing convincing linkages between the film and "Merkabah Mysticism," an ancient form of Jewish asceticism inspired and guided by the mystical visions of the prophet Ezekiel.2 Based on the Carl Sagan novel of the same title, the film problematizes profound existential issues as it portrays the tinderbox caused by a scientist's brush with the transcendent, an experience that could not be validated by empirical evidence. Like Merkabah Mysticism which sought to encounter greater mystery, Contact asks if there are, in fact, dimensions of our human experience that are meant to be understood on the basis of faith.

The Merkabah Mystical Tradition

[3] Hekhalot literature refers to a body of Jewish mystical writings tracing back to the period 200-700 CE.3 Literally taken to mean heavenly "halls" or "palaces," Hekhalot indicates the pathway through which the mystic traverses en route to the divine throne.4  A prominent feature of Hekhalot literature is Merkabah Mysticism, a Jewish mystical tradition "concerned with an ecstatic experience through which the mystic aims to achieve a personal and intimate communion with God."5 This spiritual experience is characteristic of various other types of mysticism. What is definitive for the Merkabah tradition is the template provided by the mystical encounter recorded in Ezekiel I. It is informative to review parts of the text of the first chapter of the prophetic book:

... the word of the Lord came to the priest Ezekiel son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar; and the hand of the Lord was on him there. As I looked a storm wind came out of the north; a great cloud with brightness around it and fire flashing forth continually, and in the middle of the fire, something like gleaming amber. In the middle of it was something like four living creatures ...As I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the earth beside the living creatures, one for each of the four of them ...When the living creatures moved, the wheels moved beside them; and when the living creatures rose from the earth, the wheels rose ...And above the dome over their heads there was something like a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was something that seemed like a human form ... Like the bow in the cloud on a rainy day, such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.

Ezekiel 1:3-5a,15,19,26,28a6

[4] The allusion to a "throne-chariot" of God in Ezekiel, in fact, is the descriptive root of the term Ma'aseh Merkabah or "work of the divine chariot."7 Scholars of the early Rabbinic Period aspired to become "Merkabah-Riders" in their quest to unveil the heavenly secrets believed to be hidden within the text of Ezekiel I.8 Kanagaraj notes that this keen interest on Ezekiel 1 was moved by the mystics' desire for closeness with God amid the backdrop of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 CE. Not only did Ezekiel I share a parallel circumstantial background, it was also a wellspring of inspiration for the experience of "seeing" the glory of God in conceivable human terms.9

[5] Alongside their devoted interest in scriptural exegesis, rabbis identified with this contemplative system and believed that the initiated are about to set themselves free from the limitations of bodily existence as being disciples of the Merkabah elevated them to the highest level of spiritual insight. The early Hekhalot text known as Hekhalot Rabbati details an account of the ascent-descent experience of such Merkabah-Riders:

Their horses of darkness, horses of shadow, horses of gloom, horses of fire, horses of blood, horses of hail, horses of iron, horses of cloud ... This is a description of the guardians at the door of the Seventh chamber, and the horses at the door of each chamber. All the masters who would descend into the Merkavah would also ascend again and not be harmed, even though they saw everything in this Chamber. They would ascend in peace and return, and would stand and bear witness to the fearsome, confounding visions of things not found in the place of any mortal king. Then they would bless, praise, sing out ...and give glory to Tutrosyay, the Lord, God of Israel, who rejoices in those who descend to the Merkavah.10

Rigid ascetic disciplines of prayer and fasting accompany this heavenly voyage which culminated in a state of ecstasy where the mystic gains access to the seven heavenly halls and enters into a visionary experience of the divine throne-chariot.

[6] In its later evolutionary turn, the cogent mystical experiences contained in Ezekiel 8-10 as well as Isaiah 6 and Daniel 7 have woven into Merkabah Mysticism. Kanagaraj is convinced that the mystical tradition existed from as far back as the pre-Christian period and that the common thread that links Merkabah mysticism across historical periods is the central notion of desiring "to see God in his glory and as a human-like figure, seated on the throne as king."11

[7] Having surveyed Merkabah Mysticism, the essay necessarily shifts gears as I set out to explore what I perceive as mystical motifs re-interpreted cinematically in Robert Zemeckis' Contact.

Contact: A "Mystical" Film

[8] Contact centers on the character of Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster), a young astronomer who works at the margins of the scientific establishment, a field of Cosmology known as SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). The film provides a glimpse of the undergirding psychology behind Ellie's interest in the great beyond that is outer space; since the childhood trauma of her father's death, she has been on an existential quest for the meaning of life:

ELLIE

For as long as I can remember, I've been searching for some reason why we're here ... what we're doing here, who are we?

[9] Burning long hours each day listening for possible radio broadcasts from alien civilizations, Ellie's research work becomes a big expensive joke to sponsors and to the scientific community until one breakthrough day when she finally picks up a signal from the star Vega. This sets her off to an intellectual journey, a paradoxical scientific-esoteric search for the key to unlock the message from her celestial alien guides. The alien message comes in the form of prime numbers transmittable in a universal mathematical code. With the help of her eccentric multi-millionaire patron, S.R. Hadden (John Hurt), Ellie discovers that the message consists of engineering blueprints for the building of a mysterious space/time craft. After an arduous selection process to determine who gets to represent planet earth in what looms to be the first human-alien contact, Ellie is disqualified on the basis of her non-belief in God. Key to her disqualification is Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), a theologian Ellie had a short love affair with in the not too distant past. An important member of the selection committee, Palmer brings forth the argument that 95 percent of the world's population believes in a divine being; it therefore doesn't make sense to send somebody, no matter how qualified, who believes that the 95 percent are wrong. Serendipitously, however, the turn of events thrusts Ellie into the role. A suicide bomber gets into the facility, blows up the craft, and kills the original representative, David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt). With the help of S.R. Hadden, Ellie finds herself boarding the craft as earth's new representative.

[10] As the machine's four imposing wheel-like structures start to whirl, the passenger capsule begins to be bathed in a prism of translucent light. Ellie is propelled into a mysterious "wormhole," a tube-like bridge between different regions of the universe that obviates the laws of time and space. She finds herself traveling through a succession of dazzling inter-stellar worlds that leave her in rapt bewilderment and awe:

ELLIE

No words to describe... poetry... they should've sent a poet...

Finally deposited in an unknown planet, she meets with an alien being who has assumed the form of her father to make the contact easier to apprehend. The celestial experience proves profoundly enlightening and healing for Ellie but it ends soon. She returns to earth and struggles to retell the "epiphanous" encounter, sans hard empirical evidence, to a skeptical world.

Cinematic Allusions to Merkabah Mysticism

[11] In his noted work on hermeneutics entitled Truth and Method, Hans Georg Gadamer asserts:

Not occasionally only, but always, the meaning of a text goes beyond its author. That is why understanding is not merely a reproductive, but always a productive attitude as well.12

In a similar vein, Roland Barthes describes a text as: ... not a line of words releasing a single 'theological' meaning (the 'message' of an Author-God) but a multi dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash13

A text then is not a static concept calcified in the author's original intentions. It is dynamic and open to relevant new meanings beyond the perceptions of its author. With this touchstone, I move into an exploration of the ways in which Contact, as a filmic text, mirrors Merkabah Mysticism. As mentioned earlier, the intertextual link is meant to be a mutually enriching project carried out in an attitude of creativity, it does not in any way suggest normative interpretations of the texts in question.

[12] Thematically, Contact is built around the concept of a voyage to the mysterious "other world" akin to the heavenly pilgrimage of mystical experience. A Talmudic passage expresses this key Hekhalot mystical motif - "The distance from the earth to the firmament is a journey of five hundred years ..."14 The description of the journey in figurative terms that blur the laws of time and space - "a journey of five hundred years" - strongly connotes that this is as much a journey into mystery and wonder as much as it is a journey to a specific destination. Clearly, the mystic never really travels in the normal sense but sets out on a spiritual journey into God's presence. Ellie Arroway's journey in Contact can be described in analogous terms. The people at the control center record her journey as lasting for just a few minutes, claiming that the passenger capsule drops directly into the sea in what they perceive as a malfunction. In contrast, Ellie experiences what seemed to be an eternity of travel that not only takes her light years into space but also into the deepest recesses of her own existential longings. Nearing the film's epilogue, the government authorities reveal that the recording device in the craft had, in fact, inexplicably recorded a time lapse of 18 hours. The rules and logic of space and time have been broken. It becomes apparent that Ellie's voyage is not just the usual NASA-sponsored exploration of outer space launched at Cape Canaveral, it is as much a mystic's journey into a kind of "inner space." 

[13] Ellie's journey in Contact further illustrates the Merkabah mystical journey in a manner resonant with Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi's midrash on Ezekiel 1:

No sooner did Ezekiel speak thus than the Holy One, blessed be He, opened seven compartments down below. These are the compartments down below. Ezekiel gazed into these in order to see all that is on high.15

The rabbinic reference to "compartments down below ... in order to see all that is on high" finds parallel mapping in Ellie's paradoxical journey. For indeed, she literally drops down below in the passenger capsule in order to make the ascent to the galaxies. Additionally, the "seven compartments" that point to the seven heavenly palaces- Hekhalot- before reaching the divine presence is rendered cinematically when Ellie traverses a succession of interstellar worlds, each one, an awe-inspiring "palace," before reaching Vega where she encounters the alien presence.

[14] Stylistically, Contact mirrors Merkabah Mysticism in its mise-en-scéne, particularly in the central trope of the enigmatic space/time craft. The primer for the craft's design originates from an advanced alien intelligence, if anything, this associates the space/time craft with a superior power. Possessing four imposing wheel-like metal rings that move counter to each other and generating dazzling light energy, the image of the luminous space/time craft is closer to the description of Ezekiel's chariot vision than that of a conventional rocket-propelled space ship known to science.

To review Ezekiel 1.16-17:

As for the appearance of the wheels in their construction: their appearance was like the gleaming of beryl; and the four had the same form, their construction being something like a wheel within a wheel. When they moved, they moved in any of the four directions without veering as they moved.

[15] I cannot overemphasize the eerie, closely equivalent description of Ezekiel's throne-chariot vision to the very conception and design of the space/time craft in Contact. In the film, the four wheels are constructed in such a way that each one is "a wheel within a wheel" moving counter to each other. And because the structure is suspended on the axis of two opposite pivot points in the manner of a revolving globe, they, in fact, do not veer as they move.

[16 There is no consistent emblematic meaning appended to spaceships in science fiction cinema, as they have been portrayed as positive, negative, or neutral. There is, however, a preferred meaning given to the space/time craft in Contact - it is associated with a higher power that is good. This positive portrayal dovetails with Vivian Sobchack's description of the optimistic representation of the spaceship in a number of Hollywood science fiction titles:

It promises positive adventure, an ecstatic release from the gravitational demands of Earth, and it can remove us from ourselves and the complexity of life on our planet, taking us to new Edens and regeneration.16

[17] Interestingly, Sobchack notes that the positive imaging of the spaceship is associated with utopian currents, the link to "new Edens" and the possibility of rebirth. Contact's configuration of the space/time craft in a design consonant with the Merkabah throne-chariot only works to affirm this. The Merkabah throne-chariot was, as earlier mentioned, an anticipation of Yahweh's eschatological coming, the promise of a better world yet to come.

[18] If it can be accepted that the space/time craft, at least, in an analogical sense, is a cinematic re-appropriation, the futuristic rendition, of the Merkabah chariot, then Ellie's character may be viewed as a modern-day incarnation of a "Merkabah-rider" on a mission to comprehend the mysteries of the universe akin to the mystic's journey. After all, "It was the aim of the mystic to be a "Merkavah-rider" so that he would be able to understand the heavenly secrets."17 Ellie's life work, as earlier established, is a quest for life's meaning, a pilgrimage of sorts, as much as it is a trip to outer space. The space/time craft as the cinematic "transfiguration" of the throne-chariot, is the vessel that enables her to "ascend" to the awe-inspiring presence and brings her back. Ellie's sojourn in the space/time craft, as such, also links readily with the ascent-descent motif of Merkabah Mysticism.

[19] Additionally, the key links between the visual treatment of Contact''s space/time craft and the design of the Merkabah throne-chariot find validation in the very portrayal of Ellie Arroway. Ellie's character analogically matches with the description of Merkabah-Riders as ascetics who had a single-hearted desire to journey into God's presence. Her yearning to fathom the mysteries of the universe is portrayed as genuine and guileless, like a child filled with awe and wonder. Her commitment and determination could be understood as a kind of "ascetism;" she pursues her journey through every imaginable obstacle- financial constraints, politics, sheer ridicule, and even risking her intimate friendship with the cleric Palmer Joss, who represents views opposing hers. The asceticism of Ellie as a modern-day Merkabah-Rider is also affirmed when David Drumlin, the original choice to be earth's representative, perishes in a bomb explosion caused by a cult leader gone mad. Earlier on, the Drumlin character is portrayed as scheming and ambitious, he is not so much interested in getting a glimpse of the transcendent as he is interested in personal gain. In a manner of speaking, he falls short of the "ascetism" necessary to be a Merkabah-Rider. It is Ellie, the one who does satisfy the ascetic requirements who eventually gets sent.

[20] The light motif is another element that occurs in both Merkabah Mysticism and the film Contact. Recalling the Merkabah visions of flashing lights likened to glowing amber as the mystic nears the throne-chariot, the camera tries to capture the essence of the cosmos in celestial configurations of light as Ellie progresses deeper into the inter-stellar route to Vega. The similarity is not just in the occurrence of light per se, it is also in the equation that associates light with the self-revelatory divine presence typical of mystical imagery. Though never literally referring to the divine in the Judeao-Christian sense, Ellie's journey of light in Contact is, nonetheless, an encounter with transcendence; a re-discovery of a power bigger than humanity. The special effects cinematography in this string of sequences work to support this perspective. Bursting in a kaleidoscope of light and color, the special effects in Contact strongly evoke a sense of the infinite and unfathomable. It is the mystical rather than the logical that finds foregrounding. This recalls an earlier science fiction film that also foregrounds the esoteric dimension of space travel- Stanley Kubrick's 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the Kubrick classic, the Bowman character travels through perspectival lines of color that hyperbolize the journey as a mystical experience. In both Contact and 2001: A Space Odyssey, the journey breaks the boundaries of human comprehension and points toward infinity. The use of the light motif, as such, plays a central role in alluding to a kind of divine contact. Moreover, Contact uses the light motif as allusion to a type of "seeing" akin to the Merkabah mystical experience. Not only does she actually see the alien representative, she also gains deeper spiritual insight, a front row seat to the mysteries of the universe she otherwise would not have acquired through purely scientific conclusions. Even Ellie's empirical rhetoric, the native language of her scientific profession, is suddenly humbled and muted in her brush with the infinite.

[21] The Son of Man motif is another point of convergence between Merkabah Mysticism and Contact. Ezekiel 1.26 makes mention of an enigmatic human figure of God- a symbol  often equated with similar anthropomorphic theophanies in Isaiah 6 and Daniel 7.13 -believed to be an attempt to bring the self-revelation of God literally down to earth. A visual concept illustrative of the Son of Man motif is presented in Contact. When Ellie encounters the mysterious representative of an advanced civilization, she does not meet a spindly green man the way that Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), M. Night Shyamalan's Signs (2002) and a host of predictable B-movies have portrayed alien life forms. She comes face to face with an alien intelligence who has assumed the form of her deceased father. The alien explains that it has taken a familiar human form to make the contact easier and more accessible to Ellie. I submit that Contact readily connects with the trajectory in science fiction cinema that casts aliens as embodiments of our alienations as human beings -"They have become our familiars, our simulacra, embodied as literally alienated images of our alienated selves."18 As Ellie embraces the alien, she is coming to terms with her own alienations, most especially her alienation from her departed father.

[22] The Son of Man motif in Merkabah Mysticism symbolizes the possibility of bridging the alienation between God and humans; a type of communication between heaven and earth. As such, both the cinematic and the mystical anthropomorphic revelations proffer healing and reconciliation in the human situation of alienation.

[23] I issue the caveat that I do not take this to mean that Ellie had actually met an incarnation of God as conceptualized in orthodox religions. Rather, it is an encounter with a liberating "numinous"19 presence, which, at one and the same time, transcends and permeates the human sphere of reality. like the moon reflected on a body of water.

Concluding Reflection

[24] Merkabah Mysticism is said to have been birthed from the collective trauma of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 A.D.20 The people of Israel saw the temple as a representation of God's dwelling in their midst so in the scenario of devastation and uncertainty, there was a heartfelt longing for closeness with God. This thirst for God's presence was expressed in the mystical search for the key to unlock the celestial secrets of Ezekiel 1.

[25] The diegetic sphere of Contact represents the fragmentation of a postmodern world, the world as we know it, where various ideological clashes have resulted in the breakdown of certitude and peace. Here, the character of Ellie Arroway as synecdochic emblem of all our existential contradictions, finds profound meaning in a mystical experience:

ELLIE

... a vision of the universe that tells us undeniably how tiny and insignificant, and how rare and precious we all are; a vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater than ourselves, that none of us are alone... I wish that everyone even for one moment could feel that awe and humility and the hope...

[26] Merkabah Mysticism- whether in its earlier forms in Jewish Hekhalot literature, or even in its cinematic transfiguration in the film Contact -is indexical of the longings lodged in the deeper regions of the human spirit, which, in a pervading milieu of great uncertainty and anxiety, desires to behold a power that is "greater than ourselves."

Grouped Notes

FILM CREDITS

Close Encounters
of the Third Kind

Contact


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