Jewish mysticism is pretty tough to pin down and place within easily defined criteria. In fact, it's scope is so vast that it can be difficult to determine if some ideas truly belong in the category of mysticism. Before we explore Jewish mysticism, we must at least make an attempt to define the term mysticism.
As a general rule, mysticism revolves around some element of a ‘hidden truth’ – a reality that lurks behind the revealed world but which is closer to the ultimate truth. This is not so different from the current state of affairs in modern physics in which the physical reality that we see and feel is really just an outer shell to the ‘true’ reality of subatomic particles and energy fields. It is only a veil that obscures the true world. Mysticism works the same way on a spiritual level. It claims that the world that we live within, the world of the physical, the emotional, the political, the historical, is a veil disguising the true world of souls, spirits, angels, demons, and God.
Focusing strictly on Jewish mysticism, the line between the mystical and the traditional is drawn with things that are not part of standard Biblical or rabbinic texts and/or do not fit in with some definition of what can be called rational. According to this definition, concepts such as God, angels, souls, prophecy, and afterlife are firmly part of non-mystical Judaism. However, concepts such as reincarnation, emanations of God, aspects of God that are perceivable by human beings, manipulating reality through the calling of angels, and all manner of healing not based on demonstrable methods, are firmly part of mystical Judaism.
This is all very debatable. The mystics out there have countered that all of these things are either part of standard texts and/or are quite rational. In fact, they say that the notion that the reality that we see and feel is the whole of reality and not a veil to what lies ‘beyond’, is pretty irrational itself. What is the concept of God, if not a reality that lies behind reality? What about angels, souls, prophecy, or the afterlife? Aren’t they all part of a hidden reality that is more essential than food, mud, and air? The rationalists have countered that such things have either already been ‘grandfathered in’ or are perfectly rational and demonstrable, whereas the rest is neither. There is the debate in all its glory.
When did mysticism enter Judaism? A true mystic would balk at the question since he or she genuinely believes that it has always been there. Leaving this debate for the mystics and the rationalists, the earliest clear traces of mysticism can be found in the first chapter of the book of Ezekiel. In this enigmatic chapter, which hardly fits in with the rest of the book, Ezekiel is taken on a heavenly journey accompanied by angles in various shapes and colors, until he reaches the throne of God. He then sees an image of God in some resemblance of the appearance of a man, then falls on his face and hears a voice speaking. Sometimes one gets the feeling that the rationalists would rather this chapter never made it into mainstream Judaism. But there it is, and the mystics usually hearken back to it as the Biblical source for their ideas.
By Talmudic times, Jewish mysticism had evolved through some unclear manner to include a complex system of angelic names, demons, and earthly visits by departed souls. These are interspersed within the dry legalistic framework of the Talmud as if there was no conflict whatsoever between the two. Where these ideas came from is anybody’s guess. Mystics, of course, say they are completely Jewish in origin. Rationalists say that some came from ‘outside’, meaning non-Jewish cults, some from ‘inside’, meaning equally unsavory Jewish cults, and some that are legitimately part of Jewish tradition. Relics of some of these concepts remained in Judaism as part of the daily or holiday liturgy.
Throughout the Gaonic period (500-1000) mystical concepts continued to develop, primarily around the theme of God’s appearance. God’s shape, size, and garments were major components of this path, as was God’s Throne of Glory. Probably sometime during Gaonic or Talmudic periods the first major works of Jewish mysticism emerged. The best known of these are the books of the Hechalot, dealing with the abodes of the angels, Shiur Komah, dealing with God’s appearance, and the granddaddy of them all, Sefer Yetzira, the Book of Formation (some translate it as Book of Creation)..
This last work is the only one which has had any lasting influence in Judaism. The others simply vanished out of lack of relevance or because their contents were relegated to the netherworld lying beyond the scope of acceptable Jewish beliefs. Sefer Yetzira is mentioned in the Talmud as a work that certain rabbis used to create an animal to eat. Whether this is the same as the book we now know about (it’s available online in translation) is a matter of historical debate. The oldest form of the book (it has been expanded at least once) is quite short and extremely strange. It deals with how God created the world. The opening line introduces the main theme of the book – that creation happened through ten numbers (sefirot in Hebrew) and 22 letters (the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet). Without any accompanying commentary it is almost impossible to make heads or tails out of this book. Nevertheless, it has managed to become one of the most influential books in the Jewish history.
The next stage finds mysticism firmly entrenched in both Ashkenazi and Sefaradi communities. How mysticism made it to either location is up to historical speculation. There are medieval documents that testify to mysterious eastern scholars or their teachings somehow reaching these communities and communicating their esoteric wisdom to a small number of worthy initiates. Among these is the mysterious story of a mystic named Aaron of Baghdad traveling to southern Italy and imparting his mystical knowledge to the 8th century ancestors of the Kalonymous family. According to this story, the Ashkenazi mystical tradition can also be traced to this family and to an earlier tradition from Bavel. However, it is also possible that much of their mystical knowledge arose out of their own speculation and meditation on mystical themes.
Among the Ashkenazim, the primary exponents were a group known as the Hasidim (not to be confused with the better known group centered in Eastern Europe that began in the mid-18th century). The founders of this group and their leaders for a few generations were the descendants of that very same Kalonymous family mentioned in the previous paragraph. Their primary focus was on personal piety, but they were unquestionably interested in mystical topics. They continued the mystical inquiry into the nature of God, but put a definite metaphorical spin on any imagery associated with the divine. A good deal of their thought went into putting popular superstitions, whether of Jewish or non-Jewish origins, on firmer mystical footing.
In Spain and southern France, mysticism took a more theoretical turn. The first influential work to appear was the mysterious book called the Bahir. It is extremely difficult to read as it makes very little sense to non-initiates. However, it did introduce certain concepts that would become fundamental in the coming centuries. The most important of these was the reoriented understanding of the Sefirot of the Sefer Yetzira. From this point onward, they would not be numbers, but ten different emanations of God’s nature, each of which is manifested in creation in some manner. This crucial idea was forever enshrined in Jewish mysticism through the book that has formed the basis for the entire field, the Zohar.
This work, of appropriately mysterious origin, first emerged in northern Spain at the end of the 13th century. Its author/revealer was Moshe de Leon of Guadalajara. The Zohar introduced almost all the major themes that would later become central to Jewish mysticism. Although it’s real origins will almost certainly remain a mystery, the Spanish mystics of this and other contemporary works took great pains to establish the basis of their writings on much older rabbinic tradition. It was around this time the Jewish mysticism began to be called by the now-familiar term Kabbala, meaning received tradition.
From here onward, almost all Jewish mysticism revolved around interpretations of the Zohar. The next major stage occurred in Tzefat. It was in Tzefat that Rav Moshe Cordovero synthesized the growing corpus of Zoharic concepts into one cohesive system. By the time of his death in 1570, Kabbala was firmly entrenched in Judaism on a theoretical level and reached a status equal to that of Halacha on a popular level.
In the year of Cordovero’s death his successor appeared in Tzefat. This was the famous Rav Yitzchak Luria, of mixed Ashkenazi and Sefaradi lineage, whose brief career in Tzefat from 1570 to 1572 changed the entire course of Judaism. While the differences between the so-called Lurianic system of Kabbala, and its predecessor, the system of Cordovero, are quite subtle to those who aren’t experts in both, there is no question that the Lurianic system was adopted by almost all subsequent Kabbalists. Luria himself wrote very little, but his teachings were written down decades later by a few independently working former students. The best known of the renderings is the Etz Chaim (Tree of Life) by Rav Chaim Vital. This work, published against the author’s wishes, became the primary source for Lurianic Kabbala. Probably more than any other work, it established Kabbala as the antithesis of Jewish philosophy due to its basis on non-rational imagery in answering fundamental questions about the nature and origin of reality.
Strangely enough, around the same time as Luria was distancing Kabbala from philosophy in Tzefat, an Ashkenazi rabbi was attempting to synthesize philosophy and mysticism in Prague. This was the equally famous Maharal, Rav Yehudah Loew. While he is most famous for his mythical creation of a Frankenstein-like creature in Prague, his true contribution lies in his voluminous writings on all aspects of Judaism. He attempted, and to a great degree, succeeded, in uniting philosophy and mysticism as one system of Jewish thought. He does such a good job of explaining deep mystical concepts in semi-rational terms that it is sometimes difficult to detect any mysticism.
Kabbala became increasingly popular among Jews (and non-Jews) during the 17th century. This popularity reached a crescendo with the traumatic messianic movement of Shabbtai Zvi in the mid-17th century. Largely inspired by taking Lurianic Kabbalistic concepts at face value and attempting to actualize them in real life, Shabbtai and his numerous followers (estimates suggest that around two thirds of the Jews accepted him as the Messiah) took Kabbala to its practical limits by changing many traditions, even going so far as to violate normative halacha. Mysticism ruled the day, and any rational or traditional restrictions on the messianic fervor were met with derision or even violence.
Lurianic Kabbala was systemized in an organized manner by the early 18th century Italian scholar, Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzato. He was extremely skilled in explaining complex concepts in simple language. Following Luzzato, Kabbala regained some of its lost popularity, becoming one of the foundations of the Hasidic movement in Eastern Europe.
At the end of the day, Jewish mysticism, however it arrived and developed, has become a pillar of Jewish tradition. Though tinged by superstition on the one hand, and swayed by philosophy on the other, it emerged with its own set of answers to the fundamental questions of life and of Judaism. Ultimately, Jewish mysticism begins and ends with the most central issues: the nature of God and God’s relationship to creation. The purpose of creation and the meaning of life are not peripheral matter to Jewish mysticism – they are the core that everything else revolves around. It is simply answering the most basic question that we all should be asking.
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