JEWISH MYSTICISM

JEWISH MYSTICISM

Judaism is often called the religion of reason. It is this, but it is also the religion of the soul. It recognises the value of that mystic insight, those indefinable intuitions which, taking up the task at the point where the mind impotently abandons it, carries us straight into the presence of the King. Thus it has found room both for the keen speculator on theological problems and for the mystic who, because he feels God, declines to reason about Him–for a Maimonides and a Mendelssohn, but also for a Nachmanides, a Vital, and a Luria’ (M. Joseph, _op. cit._, p. 47). Used in a vague way, mysticism stands for spiritual inwardness.

Religion without mysticism, said Amiel, is a rose without perfume. This saying is no more precise and no more informing than Matthew Arnold’s definition of religion as morality touched with emotion. Neither mysticism nor an emotional touch makes religion. They are as often as not concomitants of a pathological state which is the denial of religion. But if mysticism means a personal attitude towards God in which the heart is active as well as the mind, then religion cannot exist without mysticism.

When, however, we regard mysticism as what it very often is, as an antithesis to institutional religion and a revolt against authority and forms, then it may seem at first sight paradoxical to recognise the mystic’s claim to the hospitality of Judaism. That a religion which produced the Psalter, and not only produced it, but used it with never a break, should be a religion, with intensely spiritual possibilities, and its adherents capable of a vivid sense of the nearness of God, with an ever-felt and never-satisfied longing for communion with Him, is what we should fully expect. But this expectation would rather make us look for an expression on the lines of the 119th Psalm, in which the Law is so markedly associated with freedom and spirituality. Judaism, after all, allowed to authority and Law a supreme place. But the mystic relies on his own intuitions, depends on his personal experiences. Judaism, on the other hand, is a scheme in which personal experiences only count in so far as they are brought into the general fund of the communal experience.

But in discussing Judaism it is always imperative to discard all _a priori_ probabilities. Judaism is the great upsetter of the probable. Analyse a tendency of Judaism and predict its logical consequences, and then look in Judaism for consequences quite other than these. Over and over again things are not what they ought to be. The sacrificial system should have destroyed spirituality; in fact, it produced the Psalter, ‘the hymnbook of the second Temple.’ Pharisaism ought to have led to externalism; in fact, it did not, for somehow excessive scrupulosity in rite and pietistic exercises went hand in hand with simple faith and religious inwardness. So, too, the expression of ethics and religion as Law ought to have suppressed individuality; in fact, it sometimes gave an impulse to each individual to try to impose his own concepts, norms, and acts as a Law upon the rest. Each thought very much for himself, and desired that others should think likewise. We have already seen that in matters of dogma there never was any corporate action at all; in ancient times, as now, it is not possible to pronounce definitely on the dogmatic teachings of Judaism. Though there has been and is a certain consensus of opinion on many matters, yet neither in practice nor in beliefs have the local, the temporal, the personal elements ever been negligible. In order to expound or define a tenet or rite of Judaism it is mostly necessary to go into questions of time and place and person.

Perhaps, then, we ought to be prepared to find, as in point of fact we do find, within the main body of Judaism, and not merely as a freak of occasional eccentrics, distinct mystical tendencies. These tendencies have often been active well inside the sphere of the Law. Mysticism was, as we shall see, sometimes a revolt against Law; but it was often, in Judaism as in the Roman Catholic Church, the outcome of a sincere and even passionate devotion to authority. Jewish mysticism, in particular, starts as an interpretation of the Scriptures. Certain truths were arrived at by man either intuitively or rationally, and these were harmonised with the Bible by a process of lifting the veil from the text, and thus penetrating to the true meaning hidden beneath the letter. Allegorical and esoteric exegesis always had this aim: to find written what had been otherwise found. Honour was thus done to the Scriptures, though the latter were somewhat cavalierly treated in the process; Philo’s doctrine (at the beginning of the Christian era) and the great canonical book of the mediaeval Kabbalah, the Zohar (beginning of the fourteenth century), were alike in this, they were largely commentaries on the Pentateuch. Maimonides in the twelfth century followed the same method, and only differed from these in the nature of his deductions from Scripture. This prince of rationalists agreed with the mystics in adopting an esoteric exegesis. But he read Aristotle into the text, while the mystics read Plato into it. They were alike faithful to the Law, or rather to their own interpretations of its terms.

But further than this,–a large portion of Jewish mysticism was the work of lawyers. Some of the foremost mystics were famous Talmudists, men who were appealed to for decisions on ritual and conduct.

It is a phenomenon that constantly meets us in Jewish theology. There were antinomian mystics and legalistic opponents of mysticism, but many, like Nachmanides (1195-1270) and Joseph Caro (1488-1575), doubled the parts of Cabbalist and Talmudist. That Jewish mysticism comes to look like a revolt against the Talmud is due to the course of mediaeval scholasticism. While Aristotle was supreme, it was impossible for man to conceive as knowable anything unattainable by reason. But reason must always leave God as unknowable. Mysticism did not assert that God was knowable, but it substituted something else for this spiritual scepticism.

Mysticism started with the conviction that God was unknowable by reason, but it held that God was nevertheless realisable in the human experience.

Accepting and adopting various Neo-Platonic theories of emanation, elaborating thence an intricate angelology, the mystics threw a bridge over the gulf between God and man. Philo’s Logos, the Personified Wisdom of the Palestinian Midrash, the demiurge of Gnosticism, the incarnate Christ, were all but various phases of this same attempt to cross an otherwise impassable chasm. Throughout its whole history, Jewish mysticism substituted mediate creation for immediate creation out of nothing, and the mediate beings were not created but were emanations. This view was much influenced by Solomon ibn Gabirol (1021-1070). God is to Gabirol an absolute Unity, in which form and substance are identical. Hence He cannot be attributively defined, and man can know Him only by means of beings which emanate from Him. Nor was this idea confined to Jewish philosophy of the Greece-Arabic school. The German Kabbalah, too, which owed nothing directly to that school, held that God was not rationally knowable. The result must be, not merely to exalt visionary meditation over calm ratiocination, but to place reliance on inward experience instead of on external authority, which makes its appeal necessarily to the reason. Here we see elements of revolt. For, as Dr. L. Ginzberg well says, ‘while study of the Law was to Talmudists the very acme of piety, the mystics accorded the first place to prayer, which was considered as a mystical progress towards God, demanding a state of ecstasy.’ The Jewish mystic must invent means for inducing such a state, for Judaism cannot endure a passive waiting for the moving spirit. The mystic soul must learn how to mount the chariot (Merkaba) and ride into the inmost halls of Heaven. Mostly the ecstatic state was induced by fasting and other ascetic exercises, a necessary preliminary being moral purity; then there were solitary meditations and long night vigils; lastly, prescribed ritual of proved efficacy during the very act of prayer. Thus mysticism had a farther attraction for a certain class of Jews, in that it supplied the missing element of asceticism which is indispensable to men more austerely disposed than the average Jew.

In the sixteenth century a very strong impetus was given to Jewish mysticism by Isaac Luria (1534-1572). His chief contributions to the movement were practical, though he doubtless taught a theoretical Kabbalah also. But Judaism, even in its mystical phases, remains a religion of conduct. Luria was convinced that man can conquer matter; this practical conviction was the moving force of his whole life. His own manner of living was saintly; and he taught his disciples that they too could, by penitence, confession, prayer, and charity, evade bodily trammels and send their souls straight to God even during their terrestrial pilgrimage. Luria taught all this not only while submitting to Law, but under the stress of a passionate submission to it. He added in particular a new beauty to the Sabbath. Many of the most fascinatingly religious rites connected now with the Sabbath are of his devising. The white Sabbath garb, the joyous mystical hymns full of the Bride and of Love, the special Sabbath foods, the notion of the ‘over-Soul’—these and many other of the Lurian rites and fancies still hold wide sway in the Orient. The ‘over-Soul’ was a very inspiring conception, which certainly did not originate with Luria. According to a Talmudic Rabbi (Resh Lakish, third century), on Adam was bestowed a higher soul on the Sabbath, which he lost at the close of the day. Luria seized upon this mystical idea, and used it at once to spiritualise the Sabbath and attach to it an ecstatic joyousness. The ritual of the ‘over-Soul’ was an elaborate means by which a relation was established between heaven and earth. But all this symbolism had but the slightest connection with dogma. It was practical through and through. It emerged in a number of new rites, it based itself on and became the cause of a deepening devotion to morality. Luria would have looked with dismay on the moral laxity which did later on intrude, in consequence of unbridled emotionalism and mystic hysteria. There comes the point when he that interprets Law emotionally is no longer Law-abiding. The antinomian crisis thus produced meets us in the careers of many who, like Sabbatai Zebi, assumed the Messianic role.

Jewish mysticism, starting as an ascetic corrective to the conventional hedonism, lost its ascetic character and degenerated into licentiousness. This was the case with the eighteenth-century mysticism known as Chassidism, though, as its name (‘Saintliness’) implies, it was innocent enough at its initiation. Violent dances, and other emotional and sensual stimulations, led to a state of exaltation during which the line of morality was overstepped. But there was nevertheless, as Dr. Schechter has shown, considerable spiritual worth and beauty in Chassidism. It transferred the centre of gravity from thinking to feeling; it led away from the worship of Scripture to the love of God.

The fresh air of religion was breathed once more, the stars and the open sky replaced the midnight lamp and the college. But it was destined to raise a fog more murky than the confined atmosphere of the study. The man with the book was often nearer God than was the man of the earth.

The opposition of Talmudism against the neo-mysticism was thus on the whole just and salutary. This opposition, no doubt, was bitter chiefly when mysticism became revolutionary in practice, when it invaded the established customs of legalistic orthodoxy. But it was also felt that mysticism went dangerously near to a denial of the absolute Unity of God. It was more difficult to attack it on its theoretical than on its practical side, however. The Jewish mystic did sometimes adopt a most irritating policy of deliberately altering customs as though for the very pleasure of change. Now in most religious controversies discipline counts for more than belief. As Salimbene asserts of his own day: ‘It was far less dangerous to debate in the schools whether God really existed, than to wear publicly and pertinaciously a frock and cowl of any but the orthodox cut.’ But the Talmudists’ antagonism to mysticism was not exclusively of this kind in the eighteenth century. Mysticism is often mere delusion. In the last resort man has no other guide than his reason. It is his own reason that convinces him of the limitations of his reason. But those limitations are not to be overpassed by a visionary self-introspection, unless this, too, is subjected to rational criticism. Mysticism does its true part when it applies this criticism also to the current forms, conventions, and institutions. Conventions, forms, and institutions, after all, represent the corporate wisdom, the accumulated experiences of men throughout the ages. Mysticism is the experience of one. Each does right to test the corporate experience by his own experience. But he must not elevate himself into a law even for himself. That, in a sentence, would summarise the attitude of Judaism towards mysticism. It is medicine, not a food.

By: Israel Abrahams- Judaism

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