More notes from Timothy Luke Johnson’s The Great Courses lecture series, Mystical Tradition: Judaism, Christianity & Islam…
Judaism is not the same as what we read about in the Ancient Hebrew texts. Judaism formed between 350 BCE and 200 CE. This was in direct response to Rome bringing Palestine into the Roman Empire. Most Jews, however, lived in the Diaspora, not Palestine, and they were far better off than those in Palestine because they could learn Homer then go to Synagogue and learn Torah. They weren’t as confined as Palestinian Jews who would have been chastised by “Pious Jews” for learning Homer and chastised for learning Torah by the Roman authorities.
Second of all, in Jewish mysticism, the mystic is one who can read the Torah and unfold and reveal to others the deeper meanings of the texts that are not obvious to the literal mind.
Merkabah Mystics of Ancient Palestine
The Essenes were possibly the oldest Jewish mystics. They created a community far from the rest of the world and contemporized Ezekiel.
Philo of Alexandria represents the earliest mysticism in the Diaspora (15 BCE-50 CE). He read the Septuagint (Greek translation of OT) allegorically (in the style of Greek philosophers), so had a Platonic understanding of the world -phenomenal (Earth) vs. noumanal (Heaven). He read the ascent of Moses as a transition from the phenomenal to the noumanal. What we see in Philo becomes the future of Jewish mysticism – seeking in the texts deeper meanings which can reveal the realities of God.
A problem arose, especially after the destruction of the Temple in 70 ACE. What was written by Moses was written for agricultural realities, not urban realities. Plus, the temple has been destroyed so there is no way to carry out the sacrifices. How do you take the words of Moses and apply them to these new realities the Jews found themselves in?
Scribes began making interpretations through Midrash (which means “to search out or seek”). Halakic Midrash was expertise applied to law. (Halak means “walk”.) Haggadic Midrash was applied to stories and songs. (Haggad means “recite”.) This process of interpretation is what is known as “The Oral Torah”. Seeking to understand the Torah becomes the equivalent of carrying out the sacrifice/observance.
Obeying God’s law was a community responsibility. There was a strong conviction that the Shekinah (divine presence) was among humans, particularly among those studying the Torah. It was said that when 2 or 3 are gathered together to study Torah, the Shekinah is among them. (Sound familiar?) And mystics were considered to be the most learned and observant – the only people worthy to speculate on certain aspects of the Bible, like the throne chariot and heavens (Merkabah).
Merkabah mysticism is outwardly about an ascent, but it is really about a descent into interiority. The deeper you go, the more dangerous it gets. There are seven heavens. The mystics ask (Torah study), why not just one? Because it is an arduous task to reach the transcendent. The transcendent is protected. You can’t reach it just by desiring it.
Merkabah mysticism is a mysticism of the mind, not the heart.
Hasidism of Medieval Germany
The Hasidism of Medieval Germany (Hasidic Ashkenazi) is a mysticism of the heart over the mind. It maintained elements of Merkabah Mysticism, but interestingly was primarily based on the mistranslation of a rationalist philosophical text – The Book of Philosophic Doctrines and Religious Beliefs by Saadia Gaon (892-942). The book was written in Aramaic but mistranslated into Hebrew where it appeared as a mystical text rather than the rationalist text it was originally meant to be. It was read by Eleazer ben Juhudah (one of the founders of Hasidism) as a mystical text and had great influence on his ideas.
Hasidism picks up a lot of elements from Christianity. For instance, for the first time in Judaism through Hasidism, there is a huge emphasis on penitence and repentance. (Jews had always emphasized “turning away from sin”, but never feeling bad for it until now.) With Hasidic Askanazi, mysticism becomes a practice for ordinary Jews. All you had to do was be a pious member of the sect. You didn’t have to be a scholar. It introduces a popular, practical mysticism, which includes the ability to do extraordinary things. God is not understood as transcendent, but rather, imminent. And there is more emphasis on “love” than on “knowledge”. (There is a very healthy attitude toward sexuality in Hasidism.)
This Hasidism presents the first intonation of monotheism becoming pantheism. (Monotheism as pantheism preoccupies every form of mysticism in the three traditions.) “Everything is in Thee and Thou art in everything; Thou fillest everything and dost encompass it; when everything was created, Thou was in everything; before everything was created; Thou wast everything.”. Song of Unity
Early Kabbalists of Gerona
Kabbalah was first introduced by Moses Maimonides in the 12th & 13th century. The Zohar is considered to be the authoritative text. Tradition holds that it is much older because it is written in an ancient style, but it is a 13th century text. Some claim that Kabbalism is closely linked to Christianity, but it arose directly from within Jewish tradition. The Zohar had been preceded by a century of fantastic mystical developments – Merkabah, which has already been discussed, and The Book of Creation which discussed the idea of emanations from God (Sefirot) that are like rays of light – God extending God’s self into the world.
The Book of Brilliance is actually the first Kabbalah text and was written by an anonymous author in the 12th century. Obviously, this also preceded The Zohar. It introduces a female component of the divinity for the first time – the Shekinah – which creates a sort of dualism. Evil is connected to the material world, which creates a further dualism. And, there are 10 Sefirot. The Sefirot are understood in contrast to the Eyn Sof – God in God’s self. God cannot be known in God’s self, but God can be known in God’s emanations (the Sefirot.)
Adepts of the Zohar
Kabbalah comes to maturity with The Zohar, (The Book of Splendor). This is the canonical text of Jewish mysticism. It introduces innovation as though it were ancient – as though it were written by the first generation of rabbinic teachers (specifically Simeon ben Yohai 2nd Century CE). Some Kabbalists believe it came from this time period, but it was not introduced with Judaism. It came much later. The author of The Zohar was a Spanish Jew named Moses de Leon (1250-1305). He studied Maimonides and was interested in classical sources and The Book of Brilliance. In Aramaic, the text is over 2400 pages long and very little of it has been translated into English. Moderns who claim to be Kabbalists actually know very little about it. You have to be able to read Aramaic in order for the text to be valuable, spiritually.
The Zohar combines all mystical elements of Judaism up until this time. Kabbalists understand a mystic to be someone who finds mysticism wherever they happen to look. It isn’t the subject matter that makes something mystical, it is the mystic’s eyes that make it mystical. Much of The Zohar is ordinary and down to earth, but is extremely powerful mystically.
The Zohar is scholarly, not popular. It appears to be exoteric but requires initiation and intense study. It works from the exoteric to the esoteric. It is a theosophy. God is both completely other and can only be approached through negation. But God in the world is knowable and approachable through the Sefirot. God is in the Torah. God is in the world. God is in humans through the divine emanations.
At the head of the Sefirot, there is a triad. Keter (“the crown”), Binah (“womb, palace, understanding”), and Hokhmah (“wisdom”). The Sefirot are not static, but dynamic. Each Sefirot uses a Biblical term so that when you read the Bible, you are constantly encountering God’s revelation.
Marriage is highly valued in this mysticism.
Then comes Issac Luria and Safed Spirituality – which is the 17th century version of Kabbalah and becomes more of a practical, popular mysticism (like Hasidism) than a prophetic mysticism. This, to me, is where it gets really interesting because it directly addresses my my concern with those who want to popularize mysticism, today.
The Jews were exiled by Catholicism in the 17th century which caused Kabbalism to spread. Those who ended up in Egypt and Palestine found Muslim rule to be much more tolerant and welcoming of Jews than were Christians and so the Jews flourished. Safed in upper Galilee became the new center for Jewish mysticism and had a prestigious group of scholars. Gilgul, transmigration of souls, was already an idea well established in Judaism, but it began to take on a new understanding. People started to think in terms of a soul leaving one body and entering another. (This mimics history – people lose one self during exile and gain another self in restoration.) Messianism begins to arise again as a hope for the restoration of the people and it is this Messianism that creates a new Kabbalah.
Isaac Luria is the most influential of the Safed teachers. He fits the stereotypic mystic: visionary, distracted, wandering around, seeing souls everywhere and thinks he is in contact with Elijah. He had a very strong sense of the transmigration of souls. Out of Lurianic Spirituality comes these themes:
- transmigration of the souls
- emphasis on visionary
- emphasis on the individual mystic as a public figure who manifests the presence of God miraculously through mysticism
These themes made their way like wildfire throughout Northern Europe. It is a practical mysticism which often involves the manipulation of reality through the manipulation of symbols. Lurianic spirituality becomes far more mythic than what is found in The Zohar.
Sabbatianism – Messianic Mysticism
As was mentioned earlier, Lurianic spirituality is a popularization of mysticism with the focus being on the mystic. It is not prophetic, scholarly mysticism. This popularization of mysticism allowed for a dangerous move to Messianism.
There have been lots of Messianic figures over the years, but Sabbatai Zevi (1626-1676) presented something totally different. He created a crisis in the heart of Judaism. The Ghetto had been established in 1516 in Italy which required that Jews all live in a single quarter, wear identifying clothing and were allowed on the streets at certain hours. Judaism became more of a prison than the marginalism it had been previously. Meanwhile, the Christian expectaion of the end of the world was at an all time high. In England, it was thought that 1656 would be the year the Messiah wold return. Many Kabbalists were identifying 1648 as the year the Jewish Messiah would return.
In 1648, Sabbatai Zevi proclaims himself the Messiah and he basically plays out the script of Jesus’ life. He claims he is the Messiah by pronouncing the divine name – the tetragrammaton. So, like Jesus, he breaks Jewish law in order to establish himself as Messiah (Jesus openly broke Sabbath laws, hung out with “low lifes”, kept company with “loose women”, etc.). This is called the antinomian Messiah – it is a reaction to socially established morality.
Sabbatai Zevi meets Nathan of Gaza (1644-1690) who is said to be Sabbatai Zevi’s John the Baptist and Paul the Apostle combined. With Nathan of Gaza, Sabbatai Zevi gains immense fame. In 1666, Sabbatai Zevi claims he embodies Elijah and would conquer the world without bloodshed and that he would lead the 10 lost tribes back to Israel. And he claims he will do so riding on a lion with a seven headed dragon in his jaws. He gets kicked out of Jerusalem for these claims, but a large part of the Jewish population believes he is the Messiah. People were willing to leave their homes and totally change their lives to follow him.
Sabbatai Zevi begins to issue decrees about the non-observance of rules. Fasting days are turned into days of celebration. Again, he is likely following the script provided by Jesus. Jesus declared that people cannot fast when the bridegroom is with them. They can only fast when the bridegroom is absent. When the bridegroom is present, they should feast. (Mark 2:19-20)
What Sabbatai Zevi establishes is the idea that the mystic/Messianic figure can overturn Torah. He was arrested by a Muslim ruler in Instanbul and stories abound about the miracles he performs there. Prayers for Sabbatai Zevi are offered in almost every synagogue. A more serious arrest is made and he has to go before Sultan Mehmed IV. So like Jesus facing Pontius Pilate, Sabbatai Zevi is facing an imperial power. This is his chance to die as a martyr. But what does he do? He takes off his Jewish clothing, puts on a turban, and declares himself Muslim. As a reward, he is made a minor official and takes on more wives. He declares that God has made him an Ishmaelite.
Despite this, Sabbatianism continues amongst the Jews. People begin to reinterpret Apostasy in terms of Lurianic Kabbalism – as a form of self-exile. By entering into the realm of evil and the abyss, his restoration will occur in the future. Sabbatians expect the return of Sabbatai Zevi in the future. This movement was rejected by the majority of Jews, but it had 100s of 1000s of believers who practiced the ritual of the breaking of the commandments.
The Ba’al Shem Tov and the New Hasidism
A new Hasidism arose in Eastern Europe in the 18th century. This was, in part, a response to the enlightenment which threatened Jewish observance. Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), a Jewish thinker, was one of the first influential critics of the Bible. He regarded the Bible as “not true” but said it was still meaningful.
Spinoza’s panentheism mirrored Kabbalism – he offered a secularized version of Kabbalah. He made a distinction between thought and extension which virtually mirrored the Eyn Sof and Sefirot.
The New Hasidism began in the Ukraine where Jews were scattered in rural villages. There were no centers of great learning here, so Hasidism arises out of popular mysticism. The founder was Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1698-1760). He was a healer and had been known as a pious, poor man. Even the elite would come to hear him teach. He taught by means of stories and said that all things are filled with God and reveal God. (Panentheism)
This movement spread quickly. Soon Talmudic scholars had joined the movement which gave it even greater credibility.
Eliezer is known as a Tzaddik. A Tzaddik is at the center of a community’s life because of his personality and life of prayer. He is not at the center of the community because of his knowledge of Torah. Because personality is central, the role of Tzaddik is handed down from father to son. Sometimes Tzaddik are messianic figures, but not always. Because of how Tzaddik is handed down, different lines of Hasidism have developed. The largest group of Hasidic followers is Chabad Lubavitch.
Today, Hasidic Jews look like the most orthodox of all Jewish observers.
Mysticism in Contemporary Judaism
There has not been much development in mysticism in modern times because of the challenges to Judaism in the 19th and 20th century.
- The Jewish political emancipation was a mixed blessing. Their assimilation into the wider culture has caused many Jews to leave their religion (intermarriage, etc.)
- There was a continued and increased anti-semitism. One of the great problems of modernity is that everyone is accepted as long as they are the same. If you insist on being different, you are despised.
- Haskalah – The Enlightenment threatened the sacred text of the Torah even more than did Christianity.
- Jews responded to continuing persecution by embracing Zionism.
- The Shoah (Holocaust) took place in 1932-1945
Jews had various ways of responding the the demystification that took place during the Enlightenment. Reform Jews abandoned the Talmudic tradition altogether. Prophets, rather than Law, became the focus and the emphasis was placed on a call to social justice. Orthodox Jews insisted upon maintaining the tradition, but did so in a reactionary way. Conservative Jews sought a middle ground between Reform Jews and Orthodox Jews. They continue to observe the Talmud as the basis of their practice, but they are also free to accept elements of the current culture.
Zionism was the hope for a Jewish homeland. This began with Moses Hess (1812-1875) and became an organization under Theodore Herzl (1860-1904) with the World Zionist Organization.
Emil Fackenheim said that the Bible should be read as a history of the people rather than as mysticism, and Elie Wiesel said that the Shoah (holocaust) demanded silent witness and a very cautious recovery of meaning.
One form of mysticism is represented by the Chabad Lubavitch sect of Hasidism which is still going strong. It emphasizes ecstatic experience and the role of the mind. Rebbe Menachem Mendel Shneerson (1902-1994) served as the head of the community for 44 years. He was a messianic figure.
Another form of mysticism comes from Rabbi Abraham Issac Kook (1865-1935). He was the Chief Rabbi of Palestine from 1921-1935 and provided a restatement of Lurianic Kabbalism.
Kabbalism has taken on a totally new (and in comparison to Zohar adepts, quite shallow) understanding through the pop-spirituality realm (see Kabbalah.com).
There remain thinkers like Martin Buber and Abraham Heschel that are both deeply marked by the mystical tradition.
Johnson says it is unclear whether Jewish mysticism will be able to gather itself back together. But what is clear is that “if mysticism is to be authentically, genuinely Jewish, it must involve deep study and devotion to the Torah and the God therein.”