Although the Kabbalah has lately become 'trendy,' there is a dearth of well-written, scholarly books which give a larger perspective on the subject of Jewish Mysticism. In addition, many of the books on the subject are by Occultists, and however valuable they are, tend to have their own agenda. Abelson puts the Kabbalah into context as the outgrowth of a long-term evolution of Jewish mystical thought, starting with the Essenes and the Merkabah (Chariot) mysticism of the Talmundic era. He explains how neo-Platonism, Gnosticism, Christianity and other currents influenced and were in turn impacted by Jewish mysticism. This is a great backgrounder if you are interested in the Kabbalah or Mysticism at any level.
The Shekhina, black and white photography by Leonard Nimoy
AN INTRODUCTION TO JEWISH MYSTICISM BY J. ABELSON
IT might strike the average reader as exceedingly odd that any attempt should be made at writing a book on Jewish mysticism. The prevailing opinion--among theologians as well as in the mind of the ordinary man--seems to be that Judaism and mysticism stand at the opposite poles of thought, and that, therefore, such a phrase as Jewish mysticism is a glaring and indefensible contradiction in terms. It is to be hoped that the contents of this little book will show the utter falsity of this view.
What is this view, in the main, based upon? It is based upon the gratuitous assumption that the Old Testament, and all the theological and religious literature produced by Jews in subsequent ages, as well as the general synagogue ritual, the public and private religious worship of the Jew--that all these are grounded on the unquestioning assumption of an exclusively transcendent God
. The Jews, it is said, never got any
higher than the notion of the old Jehovah whose abode was in the highest of the seven heavens and whose existence, although very very real to the Jew, was yet of a kind so immeasurably far away from the scenes of earth that it could not possibly have that significance for the Jew which the God of Christianity has for the Christian. The Jew, it is said, could not possibly have that inward experience of God which was made possible to the Christian by the life of Jesus and the teaching of Paul.
This is one erroneous assumption. A second is the following: The Pauline anti-thesis of law and faith has falsely stamped Judaism as a religion of unrelieved legalism; and mysticism is the irreconcileable enemy of legalism. The God of the Jew, it is said, is a lawgiver pure and simple. The loyal and conscientious Jew is he who lives in the throes of an uninterrupted obedience to a string of laws which hedge him round on all sides. Religion is thus a mere outward mechanical and burdensome routine. It is one long bondage to a Master whom no one has at any time seen or experienced. All spirituality is wanting. God is, as it were, a fixture, static. He never goes out of His impenetrable isolation. Hence He can have no bond of union with any one here below. Hence, further, He must be a stranger to the idea of Love. There can be no such thing as
a self-manifestation of a loving God, no movement of the Divine Spirit towards the human spirit and no return movement of the human spirit to the Divine Spirit. There can be no fellowship with God, no opportunity for any immediate experiences by which the human soul comes to partake of God, no incoming of God into human life. And where there is none of these, there can be no mystical element.
A third false factor in the judgment of Christian theologians upon Judaism is their insistence upon the fact that the intense and uncompromising national character of Judaism must of necessity be fatal to the mystical temperament. Mystical religion does, of course, transcend all the barriers which separate race from race and religion from religion. The mystic is a cosmopolitan, and, to him, the differences between the demands and beliefs and observances of one creed and those of another are entirely obliterated in his one all-absorbing and all-overshadowing passion for union with Reality. It is therefore quite true that if Judaism demands of its devotees that they should shut up their God in one sequestered, watertight compartment, it cannot at the same time be favourable to the quest pursued by the mystic.
But as against this, it must be urged that Judaism in its evolution through the centuries
has not been so hopelessly particularist as is customarily imagined. The message of the Old Testament on this head must be judged by the condition of things prevailing in the long epoch of its composition. The message of the Rabbinical literature and of much of the Jewish mediæval literature must similarly be judged. The Jew was the butt of the world's scorn. He was outcast, degraded, incapacitated, denied ever so many of the innocent joys and advantages which are the rightful heritage of all the children of men, no matter what their distinctive race or creed might be. He retaliated by declaring (as a result of conviction), in his literature and in his liturgy, that his God could not, by any chance, be the God of the authors of all these acts of wickedness and treachery. Idolatry, immorality, impurity, murder, persecution, hatred--the workers of all these must perforce be shut out from the Divine presence. Hence seeing that, in the sight of the Jew, the nations were the personification of these detestable vices, and seeing that the Jew, in all the pride of a long tradition, looked upon himself as invested with a spirit of especial sanctity, as entrusted with the mission of a holy and pure priesthood, one can quite easily understand how he came to regard the God of Truth and Mercy as first and foremost his God and no one else's.
But with all this, there are, in all branches of Jewish literature, gleams of a far wider, more tolerant, and universalist outlook. In-stances will be quoted later. The fact that they existed shows that the germs of the universalism implied in mysticism were there, only they were crushed by the dead-weight of a perverse worldly fate. The Jew certainly did, and could, find God in his neighbour (a non-Jew) as well as in himself. And this ability is, and always was, a strong point of the mystics. Further, even if it be granted that there are in Judaism elements of a nationalism which can hardly be made to square with a high spirituality, this is no necessary bar to its possession of abiding and deeply-ingrained mystical elements. Nationalism is an integral and vital part of the Judaism of the Old Testament and the Rabbinical literature. It is bone of its bone, spirit of its spirit. It is so interfused with religion that it is itself religion. You cannot take up the old Judaism and break it up into pieces, saying: Here are its religious elements; there are its national elements. The two are inextricably combined, warp and woof of one texture. And thus it came about that--strange as it may appear to the modern mind--a halo of religious worth and of strong spirituality was thrown over beliefs and practices which, considered in and for themselves, are nothing more than national
sentiments, national memories, and national aspirations. Such, then, being the case, the relation of Judaism to Jewish nationalism is the relation of a large circle to the smaller circle inscribed within it. The larger embraces the smaller.
To come now to mysticism; the mystic differs from the ordinary religionist in that whereas the latter knows God through an objective revelation whether in nature or as embodied in the Bible (which is really only second-hand knowledge, mediate, external, the record of other people's visions and experiences), the mystic knows God by contact of spirit with spirit; cor ad cor loquitur
. He has the immediate vision; he hears the still small voice speaking clearly to him in the silence of his soul. In this sense the mystic stands quite outside the field of all the great religions of the world. Religion for him is merely his own individual religion, his own lonely, isolated quest for truth. He is solitary--a soul alone with God.
But when we examine the lives and works of mystics, what do we usually find? We usually find that in spite of the intensely individualistic type of their religion, they are allied with some one particular religion of the world's religions. Their mystical experiences are coloured and moulded by some one dominant faith. The specific forms of their conceptions of God do not come from their
own inner light only, but from the teachings which they imbibe from the external and traditional religion of their race or country. Thus, Christian mysticism has characteristics which are sui generis
; so has Mohammedan mysticism; so has Hindu mysticism; and likewise Jewish mysticism. The method, the temperament, the spirit are very much the same in all of them. But the influence wielded over them by the nature and trend of each of the great dominant religions is a decisive one, and stamps its features on them in a degree which makes them most easily distinguishable from one another. Thus Judaism, whatever be its composition or spiritual outlook, can certainly be a religion of mysticism. Its mysticism may be of a different order from that which we commonly expect. But this we shall see into later.
I have thus far dealt with the misconstructions put upon Judaism and its mysticism by theologians outside the Jewish fold. I must now say something about the erroneous judgments passed upon the subject by some Jewish theologians. Jewish mysticism is as old as the Old Testament--nay, as old as some of the oldest parts of the Old Testament. It prevailed in varying degrees of intensity throughout the centuries comprised in the Old Testament history. The current flowed on, uninterrupted, into the era covered by the Rabbinic period. The religious and
philosophical literature, ritual, worship, of Jewish mediævalism became heirs to it, developing and ramifying its teachings and implications in ways which it is the purport of this book partially to tell.
Now, more than one Jewish writer has categorically asserted that the origins of Jewish mysticism date back not, as is the fact, to the mists of antiquity, but to the period of European-Jewish history beginning with the 12th century. The German-Jewish historian, H. Graetz (1817-1891), one of the best-known upholders of this view, ascribes the origin of Jewish mysticism to a French Rabbi of the 12th and 13th centuries, by name Isaac ben Abraham of Posquières, more generally known as Isaac the Blind. He regards him as the father 'of the Kabbalah'--the latter term being the general name in Jewish literature for every kind or school of mystical interpretation. Isaac is the reputed author of the Hebrew mystical treatise written in dialogue form and called Bahir ('Brightness')--the book which, more than all its predecessors in this domain, anticipates the style and contents of the Zohar
('Shining'), which is par excellence
the mediæval textbook of Jewish mysticism, and belongs to the 14th century. Graetz regards the appearance of this mysticism as some sudden, unexplained importation from without, a plant of exotic origin, "a false
doctrine which, although new, styled itself a primitive inspiration; although un-Jewish, called itself a genuine teaching of Israel" (History of the Jews
, English Trans., vol. iii. p. 565).
But a perusal of the Old Testament, the New Testament (much of which is Hebraic in thought and the work of Jews), and the Rabbinic records will not, for one moment, lend countenance to such a theory. It is in these early monuments of Judaism that the origins will be found. Of course, in saying that the Old Testament holds elements of mysticism--and in saying the same thing of the New Testament--it must be understood that the mysticism is of an implicit and unconscious kind and not the type of religion historically known as 'mysticism.' It is ever so far removed from the mysticism of a Plotinus or an Eckhart or an Isaac Luria (Jewish mystic, 1533-1572). But taking mysticism in its broader connotation as meaning religion in its most acute, intense, and living stage (Rufus Jones, Studies in Mystical Religion
, p. xv.), an immediate and first-hand experience of God, then the ascription of mysticism to the Old and New Testaments is perfectly correct. And, as will be obvious from our coming pages, the most highly-elaborated mystical doctrines of Jews in all ages subsequent to the Old Testament are, after allowing for certain extraneous
additions, an offshoot of the latter's teachings.
Another type of ill-considered and unjust judgment often passed on Jewish mysticism by Jewish authorities, is to be found in the sneering and condemnatory attitude they adopt towards it in their writings. This, of course, is a phenomenon by no means confined to Jews. One need only think of the hostility of men like Ritschl, Nordau, and Harnack towards all mysticism, in-discriminately. The antagonism springs, in all cases, from an inability to appreciate the subjectivity and individualism of the mystical temperament. While rationalism attempts to solve the ultimate problems of existence by the application of the intellect and the imagination, mysticism takes account of the cravings of the heart and of the great fact of the soul. Pure philosophy will never avail to give the final answer to the questions, "what is above, what is below, what is in front, what is behind" (Mishna, Ḥaggigah
, ii. 1). The world, to man's pure intellect, consists only of that which is seen and which is temporal. But there is an-other world transcending it, a world invisible, incomprehensible, but yet both visible and comprehensible to the soul's craving for communion with the Divine. No ratiocination, no syllogism of logic, can strip off the veil from this elusive world.
[paragraph continues] The pathway to it lies through something quite other than intellectuality or sense-experience. It can be grasped only by those inward indefinable movements of feeling or emotion which, in their totality, constitute the soul.
From all this it follows that scholars who, whether congenitally or by mental training, have no sympathy with the subjectivity of the emotions, should be incapable of appreciating the paraphernalia of mysticism.
But in the case of Jewish theologians there is something more to be said. As will be seen in the course of our coming pages, mystical speculation among the Jews clustered largely round the cosmological sections of the Bible. This is true of the earlier as well as of the later mysticism. It is to be found in the Enoch literature, a product of the first pre-Christian century (see Charles, The Book of the Secrets of Enoch
, 1896, p. xxv.), as well as in the Kabbalistic works produced in France, Spain, Germany, and Poland from the 12th to the 18th century. Combined with this cosmological speculation--or rather as an outcome of it--there went an anthropomorphism which cannot be described otherwise than as being gross. And, in addition to this, a mysterious power was ascribed to the permutations and combinations of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. By some of the most extraordinary feats
of verbal jugglery these letters are made to prove all sorts of things in heaven and earth. They are purely fantastic, and no one can possibly take them seriously. The treatment of the question of the soul, too, gave rise to many curious beliefs about the transmigration of the soul and the appearance of the soul of the Messiah.
All these aspects of Jewish mysticism, tainted as they undoubtedly are by many unlovely characteristics, have been eagerly seized upon by the critics in order to show the unedifying nature of the whole teaching. But it is really an unfair criticism, seeing that it leaves totally out of account the preponderating mass of true poetry and spirituality which inhere in all parts of Jewish mystical speculation. We shall have occasion to give many illustrations of this statement in pages to follow. Nowhere in Jewish literature is the idea of prayer raised to such a pitch of sublimity as it is in the lives and writings of the Jewish mystics. If it is true to say that Judaism here and there suffers from too large an element of formalism and legalism and externalism, it is equally true to say that many of these drawbacks are corrected, toned down, by the contributions of mysticism. And although its treatment of the soul is in many ways overwrought and far-fetched, it
is good to know that there is a side of Judaism which laid stress not only on the importance of our securing happiness or reward in this earthly life but also in the life beyond. Jewish mysticism can congratulate itself in having, at one momentous epoch of Jewish history, achieved for Judaism a boon, which Christian mysticism in quite another way, but in an equally important degree, achieved for Christianity. Systematic Christian mysticism began in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. Its foremost exponent was Meister Eckhart, the Dominican monk. What Eckhart and his followers achieved may be summarised by saying that they relieved Christendom of the heavy load of arid scholasticism under which it had for long been oppressed, and, by introducing ideas of religion at once more simple, more practical, more social, and more spiritual, paved the way for the New Learning--for the new discoveries in science and philosophy which were to revolutionise the world. In other words, this Christian mysticism was the avenue through which the subtle dark speculations of an Albertus Magnus and a Thomas Aquinas had necessarily to pass in order to prepare coming ages for the light of a Newton, a Kant, and a Darwin. Hence must modern science come down from the pedestal of her pomp and glory, and bow her acknowledgments
to the services of many a humble Christian mystic.
Jewish mysticism has a similar act of homage to receive at the hands of every lover of Jewish scholarship. In the 13th century Judaism was in danger of becoming devitalised through the theology of Moses Maimonides--the great Spanish-Jewish theologian and author of the famous Guide of the Perplexed
--who looked upon reason as the final arbiter of the rightness or wrongness of any Jewish dogma. Judaism for him was a cult of the intellect and the intellect only. The sole representative of the intellect was Aristotle. Nearly everything in Judaism had by hook or by crook to be harmonised with the tenets of Aristotelianism. Thus, Jewish morality must, to have validity, be shown to be in consonance with Aristotle's four faculties of the soul and with his theories of 'the mean.' Judaism's teachings on the unity of God must be brought into line with the Aristotelian indivisible God, who is the principal of all essences, the disposer of the world. Just as intellectual perfection is, to the Greek philosopher, the highest aim of man, so must the teachings of Judaism be interpreted in such a way as to show that, according to the Torah, the life of the saint is a life of the highest intellectuality. Revelation--which is one of the cornerstones
of the Jewish faith--must be in accordance with reason. All the truths enunciated by Plato and Aristotle are anticipated in the writings of the Prophets and of some of the Talmudic sages. The prophets, according to Maimonides, were the recipients, orally, of a set of philosophical doctrines which were handed on orally from father to son, from generation to generation, until the age of the Talmud. Philosophy is an echo of them. What a fossilising, deteriorating effect the spread of these teachings must have wielded upon Judaism had they been allowed to go on without check!
The check came in the shape of mysticism. It corrected the balance. It showed that Judaism was a religion of the feelings
as well as of the intellect. It showed that the Jew's eternal quest was not to be right with Aristotle but to be right with God. It showed that Judaism has a place not only for Reason but for Love too. It showed that the ideal life of the Jew was, not a life of outward harmony with rules and prescriptions, but a life of inward attachment to a Divine Life which is immanent everywhere, and that the crown and consummation of all effort consists in finding a direct way to the actual presence of God.